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Conquering Chinese: Vaselaar seizes opportunity to study language in Beijing

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To most of the people reading this, the characters printed above are just a series of lines, recognizable as Chinese characters, perhaps, but otherwise undecipherable.

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But after spending the summer immersed in the culture and language of Beijing, China, Rona Vaselaar can easily translate the Chinese saying — and relate it to her time there.

“Quite literally, this says, ‘early sleep early rise healthy body,’” she explains in an online blog about her China experiences, referring to the similar American adage by Benjamin Franklin. “However, unlike in America, where this habit is somewhat overlooked in our busy lives, China takes it very seriously. For me, it is hard to sleep and rise early, as my brain is clearest at night (interestingly, Chinese people also believe the mind is clearest in the morning, and it is the best time to study).”

Rona, the daughter of Eric and Meredith Vaselaar of Adrian and a 2012 graduate of Luverne High School, is about to begin her sophomore year at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind., where she is majoring in Chinese. While it’s unusual for a soon-to-be sophomore to have the opportunity to study abroad, Rona applied for the Duke Study in China program and was accepted, along with her boyfriend, Andy Cheung. They spent two months at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing in intensive language study.

“I’ve always liked languages,” said Rona. “I was fluent in Spanish in high school, and I wanted to try something else, wanted to do something with languages as a career. My dad mentioned Chinese as a big one (in terms of importance in the international business community), so I took one class.”

Despite the difficulty of the Chinese language, Rona was hooked.

“There are actually 11 branches of Chinese language — Mandarin is what’s common for business,” she explained. “There are four sets of tones in Mandarin, so you can make the same sound, but because of the different tones, they have different meanings. Cantonese has 11 tones; four is hard enough.”

Boyfriend Andy, a finance major from New Jersey, is of Chinese descent and had been to China as a young child. For Rona, this was a first international travel experience, and she relished every moment of it — although they both had some initial trepidations.

“The first week was definitely very stressful,” she said. “It was very difficult, because people in China, particularly in a big place like Beijing, learn English when they are very young. But the areas around the school were more on the poor side, so there they don’t speak any English. When we first got there, our Chinese was terrible, and they thought it was funny. We’d have to point to the menu to order what we wanted. But as our Chinese got better, we were able to have conversations with the people.”

In the program, the students are not allowed to speak English, so they are forced to learn to communicate in Chinese very quickly. Each student was paired with a Chinese student, with whom they met four times a week to improve their Chinese skills.

“Her name was Zou Tong, which is hard to say,” related Rona. “Wu Rui Ning is my Chinese name.”

Rona and Andy further practiced their language skills on forays to restaurants and places around the city. They quickly learned which restaurants were safe to eat at, while others were questionable as far as sanitation.

“I’m a very picky eater,” admitted Rona, “but I did OK. Some of (the food) was really horrifying. Some of it I refused to eat. But there were lots of things I did eat, that I did try. Beijing duck was my favorite. Food in China is actually quite cheap. They tell you to set aside $10 a day for food, and you can eat at a restaurant twice a day on that, and if you go to the right places, it’s very safe.”

Following that “early rise” philosophy, classes started each day at 8 a.m. On Monday through Thursday, the day would begin with a big group lecture, followed by smaller classes during which vocabulary was practiced. Each morning ended with a one-on-one session with the teacher. Testing was done every Friday, first a written test followed by an oral exam. Afternoons were mainly reserved for studying.

“It’s very politically and economically focused,” Rona said. “You are supposed to spend one hour, maybe two, for every hour in class. I did not do that necessarily, but then I pick up languages very easily, and what people told us before we left is, ‘the reason we’re sending you to a different country to learn the language is so you go out and use it.’ So the first thing I would do is take a nap, since I’m a night person, and then Andy and I and occasionally my roommate would go out to eat. Then we would come back and start studying. Between 6 and 8, I would go and meet my language partner, then we would go to eat again and I would study until 1 in the morning.”

On Saturdays, the teachers would take the students on a field trip to sights such as the Great Wall of China, Yinshan Pagoda Forest or the Silk Street Market.

“I loved the Great Wall, but my favorite was the Yinshan Pagoda Forest,” Rona said. “It’s kind of creepy, because there are these ruins, and you go up into the forest and it’s very easy to get lost.”

Rona elaborated further in her blog: “We twisted and wound our way up the mountain, stopping to look inside caves and little huts hewn out of the rock. We climbed up rocks, took tons of pictures, and had a blast. Eventually, we found ourselves at a high point, having reached the Bell Pavilion.

“The Bell Pavilion is a plateau with a bell in the center. Sounds pretty anticlimactic, I know, but it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. It overlooks the mountains and the temple ruins. The bell still has the log set up so that tourists can ring it. The plaque told us that Buddhists used to ring the bell and sing a bell song so that they could have health and wealth, and their problems would disappear. ...The Bell Pavilion was definitely my favorite place on the mountain. We were so high up that we had become a part of the mist that surrounded Beijing. It was incredibly peaceful and beautiful.”

Other memorable experiences included visiting the Olympic stadium, attending a Tang Dynasty dance show and riding the subway, where Rona and Andy were the only Americans packed into a standing-room-only car.

“I paid $20 to go bungee jumping,” added Rona. “But when I got up there, I knew I didn’t want to do it. I cried and screamed, and they finally picked me up and carried me out. I paid $20 to find out I didn’t want to die.”

As an American, Rona attracted attention wherever she went, and the Chinese were not shy about making their curiosity known — sometimes even touching her hair without first asking permission.

“I quite often would get stopped for pictures,” she said. “The Chinese people are very friendly, and they like to talk to foreigners. People would let me hold their kids so they could take a picture. ... I liked to go out on the campus to what would be like the quad and study there. People would always come up and talk to me there. I met one little boy and little girl who were taking English, and they would sit and talk to me for two hours. They asked for English names, so they chose Molly and David.”

Such interactions gave Rona a focus for a possible future career.

“Right now, what I’m considering is teaching English in China, if not in Beijing, than in the country, although foreigners are not always as welcome there,” she said. “But that’s where they need the teachers. I just really enjoyed working with the little kids.”

As of today, Rona is back at Notre Dame, preparing for her studies to begin again and fine-tuning a paper on Chinese cinema that has been accepted for publication in Film Matters. After her return to the U.S., she spent some time in Adrian with her family, getting accustomed again to life here — and to speaking English. But Rona anticipates that her Chinese skills will continue to improve, even though she won’t be practicing them so intensely as in Beijing.

“My Chinese is so much better,” she enthused about her experience in the Duke program. “It really helps your pronunciation. But the end of this year, I should pretty much be fluent. The problem is the dialects, but in a year or two, I should be fine.”

In addition to her improved language skills, Rona returned home with a few souvenirs for friends and family. But her favorite personal acquisition is a traditional dress bargained for in the Silk Street market.

“This probably sounds dumb, but I’ve never felt so happy in a piece of clothing before,” she wrote in her blog after donning it for the first time. “I felt more beautiful than when I wore my prom dresses. Now, I know what you’re all thinking, there’s no way a short Chinese dress can in any way compare to a prom dress. And you’re right. The Chinese dress is so far above my prom dresses that it would be unfair to compare my prom dresses to it.

“I think I felt that way because I finally found the place where I fit in. Yes, looks-wise I will never fit in in China. I’m clearly not of Chinese descent, I know. But, when I’m in China, everything is perfect. The food, the clothing, the weather, the people — everything fits me perfectly. I love it here, and I wouldn’t trade this trip for the world. I know that August will come much too soon, so I have to enjoy myself while I still have time.

“...In the end, it’s easy to fall in love with Beijing,” she reflected in a later post. “I knew this was where I belonged the minute I stepped off of the plane. Some people find their happiness in small-town Minnesota. Others find it on the bustling streets of New York. For me, the source of my happiness lies in China. Although I love Notre Dame and my home, I will always belong in China.”

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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