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Reflections on China: Language barriers and the Great Wall

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The following is another missive from Viewpoints staff writer Arieh Smith, ’12. He’s spending his summer studying abroad with Princeton in Beijing.

On being a foreigner in China:

The Chinese still are not especially accustomed to the presence of foreigners. Or they are, but if they are, there is an odd sort of dissonance that you begin to notice – on the one hand, they are extraordinarily genial when engaged in conversation*, even if your Chinese is not so great, but on the other, they will often take a second glance at you on the street, chuckle, and nudge their friends. Sometimes, you feel completely and utterly Chinese, in lockstep with everyone around you, but sometimes you feel a little off. (But then again, I’m sure it’s partially contingent on where you are and whom you are with.)

*I love talking with Chinese people. My Chinese is good enough that I can initiate small talk and sustain it, but not good enough that I can withhold opportunities for smiles from native speakers. Fortunately, they’re usually smiling at the novelty of the experience, not at the mistakes I make; all in good taste. And most of the time, at least where I live, you’re treated as any other Chinese would be in your situation, which is a really refreshing sort of immersion – it’s very nice.

Of course, I love this country.

Great Wall:

The Great Wall is magnificent. It stretches on for miles and miles, vanishing into the misty distance. To think – a gigantic, indefatigably long wall in the middle of nowhere, with seemingly no purpose. It makes you wonder. The farther sections from the start are in disrepair and are somewhat dangerous; I almost lost my balance once or twice. But it was worth it. The Great Wall of China is a magnificent structure, and it is something you must visit while in China. You can disregard the other tourist attractions entirely for the sake of this one. (It was quite exhausting, though, and I nearly vomited at one point.)