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- As the obnoxious travel quote goes: you can’t travel happy, heavy, and cheap; pick two. I’ve done week-long trips with a light backpack. It’s the best feeling, knowing you can grab a few things and go wherever you want.
- The more absurdly inconvenienced you are, the more important it is to laugh. Beijing is full of situations like this. Also, I recently found out that the city-wide shift change for taxi drivers is in the middle of rush hour. Why change all the drivers at once? And why at that time of day?
- There’s a flip side to issues I once thought were incontrovertible. How China views Tibet. Whether people should be able to vote to elect their president. I could give you a more rounded perspective on these topics in ways I would never have thought at the beginning of the semester.
- Slightly related, but I found out the other day that only a little over 30% of Americans have a passport, which scares me more than the upcoming election, actually.
- Bring your own shower shoes.
- Bargaining! I love bargaining. I want to write a book on the psychology of it. For example, if a vendor thinks you’re going to overestimate the price of something, s/he will let you speak first. So when you ask how much, the vendor will say “how much do you want to pay?” The lesson here: take the price that you were thinking and say 1/4th of it, because it’s probably not even worth that. Actually, just saying “5 kuai” ($.75) is a better rule. BUT here’s the tricky thing. If a vendor says the price first, she holds the power of suggestion. So if she says 500, you bargain it down to 100, you think you’re getting a good deal, because you think it’s worth 500. It’s not. It’s probably worth about 5 kuai. Don’t kid yourself.
- Lychee Martinis.
- Communication isn’t based all on content. Context, gestures, tone of voice… all of these are ways I get around because, guess what…
- Chinese is really hard to learn, you guys. Even if you try to speak it for a semester and have a two hour class every morning. Two years of study, and it took me 3 tries to get the lady to undersand my pronunciation of the word “green” when I bought green tea yesterday. 很麻烦。
- Travel is for me. It’s an enormous, beautiful, gross, uncomfortable, lovely, crazy world. And I want to see more of it.
This will be my last post for this blog from China. It’s been fun to write, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. And as always, I love getting comments. Even from you, Mom.
Also, if I know where you live, I probably sent you a postcard! I paid the lady at the post office for postage, she set the stack of postcards to the side of her desk without looking at where she put them and went right back to her computer without comment. I stood there for a second to see if she’d oh I don’t know, at least stick some stamps on them, but then I remembered that I was trying to get customer service in China (in a bureaucracy no less! haha!) so yeah I just left. Behind her desk were literally hundreds of overflowing sacks of mail. I sent the postcards about four days ago, so expect to get yours… never. Good luck.
Speaking of luck, I have an hour and a half to get off the plane in San Francisco and get on my connecting flight to DC. I say this only to leave you with the image of me, sleep deprived, busting it through the airport with a clanking tote bag full of tea. You’re welcome.
P.S. I’ve been using Google Analytics on this blog. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many people from all over the word have read it. One side note. 25% of you are using Safari, and 8% are using Internet Explorer. Guys…
The other day I crossed off an entry on my to-do-before-leaving China list. I think it’s the coolest, but a ton of my friends refused to do it with me… and I expect to get some weird stares at the beach next week…
I had 拔罐 (ba guan), otherwise known as fire cupping. It’s traditional Chinese medicine with the goal of improving your circulation and qi flow. Basically, a small piece of cotton is ignited and inserted into a glass cup. The heat causes the air inside the cup to expand, and then it’s placed against your skin. As the air inside cools and contracts (physics!) it creates suction. So your skin is sucked into about 15 different cups all over your back, and you hang out with them on for about 10 minutes. It actually doesn’t hurt at all, just feels like you’re giving a piggyback to an octopus. (I’d imagine.)
The weirdest part was the sound they made when they pulled them off. Blorp.
The next weirdest part was the circular bruises. They’re pretty wicked looking. I have pictures of it being done, but don’t want to freak anyone out! Click with caution.
Apparently the marks stay for about a week, but I have a feeling mine might be hanging around longer. Either way, I feel pretty hardcore.
Here’s two on my arm three days after I had it done. Apparently the darker the bruise, the more necessary the treatment was in that spot.
Alright. On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird is this…
Just got back! It was weird mix of China and the West… It’s like Beijing, but cleaner, calmer, tons of delicious desserts, people have more Western manners… so basically nothing like Beijing.
Here’s how I knew I was on the right flight back to Beijing:
1. Everyone was wearing Crocs.
2. Someone sneezed on me.
3. I got jostled in line to board.
4. My seatmate kept bumping me, took over the center armrest, and ate three pieces of fruit she brought for a three hour plane ride where they serve you a meal anyway.
It’s good to be back.
The flight back. (The world is pretty cool looking, actually.)
Side note: you can’t tell from these pictures, but it was wicked hot. I decided to travel closer to the equator… should’ve thought that one through…
In Taipei, I stayed with Debby’s aunt and grandmother. They were the sweetest hosts! They wouldn’t let me do anything to help while I was there, they drove us to the train station every day, and cooked… I could go on! And Debby’s grandmother kept trying to feed us. Here’s a typical morning.
Debby’s grandma: I’m making you breakfast, what do you two want?
Debby: No thanks, we’re going to eat when we get into the city.
Debby’s grandma: You need to eat! If you don’t eat, you might faint!
Debby: We won’t faint, Grandma.
Debby’s grandma: Okay, just eggs then.
Debby: No eggs!
Debby’s grandma: What about her?
Debby: She doesn’t want any eggs, Grandma!
Debby’s grandma: Then juice?
Debby: No thanks.
Debby’s grandma: Okay, I’ll bring you some milk.
She also told us to come back home before dark, or else we wouldn’t be able to see. I was so happy to meet them though, especially because now I know where Debby gets her sassiness! Ha!
Everything is written in traditional characters there, and since I can barely read simplified, that was a little difficult. Also, the accent is hard for me to understand! It was funny to me, because I could understand Debby’s aunt and grandmother (since they came from China and speak more like people here) than her cousins (who’ve lived in Taiwan their whole lives and have thicker accents.) In Beijing, it’s usually the opposite, where it’s easier to understand young people rather than 老北京人who have a really nasally hard “r” sounding accent.
It was nice to go to a place where the specialty foods are all amazing sweets!
Like.. 雪花冰 (shaved ice with topped with fruit, tarro, and condensed milk), 太陽餅 (flaky pastry with a sugary filling) and 凤梨酥 (pineapple tarts). Oh and of course, 奶茶 (pearl milk tea).
Since Beijing isn’t especially known for its sweets, I bought some of these to bring back home. (In fact, one of the only dishes Beijing is famous for is Peking duck, which is delicious of course, but not exactly transportable. Not to say that it isn’t a popular gift for Beijingers to bring to give to others when they travel. You can buy a vacuum-packed, hermetically sealed, entire roasted duck. It looks really nasty, but I’m certain they’ll be surviving the apocalypse.)
Lately, I’ve been shopping like crazy to buy gifts to bring home. Almost done, but I think I’m still going to make another trip to the Pearl Market soon. If you’ve ever wanted anything of ANY luxury brand, let me know! Gucci, Louie, Fendi, Prada, Longchamp… (Did you know that a lot of Chinese people go to the US to do their luxury brand shopping? I thought it was crazy when I heard that, but now I understand their desire to make sure they’re buying legitimate products). Also, I’ll take requests for any movie or TV series ever created (if you don’t mind Chinese subtitles)…
Other than souvenir shopping, things are winding down here. About half the people in the program have already gone home. My roommates and I are currently sitting on the couch blasting the AC. When I got home, they were working on this needlepoint project (?!), watching historical dramas, and snacking. I have the feeling they’d been passing the week similarly :)
Less than a week until I’m back in the U.S. Can’t believe it!
I’ve been traveling for about the last week! It’s amazing how coming back to my neighborhood feels like coming home. While traveling with just a backpack feels pretty incredible, it’s also great to be back in Beijing.
Annie, Phil and I took the fast train to Shanghai on Thursday. Phil had a friend he had met while traveling in Kashgar earlier in the semester, so we met up with him. Turns out, he owns a factory that makes “rapid prototypes” for companies like Ford and GE. Who knew… so he picks us up from our hostel, drives us to this bar that overlooks the Shanghai skyline, bought us drinks, and we all hung out on the rooftop. There was a hottub up there. The view was insane:
The next day, we drove to Xintiandi, which is an upscale outdoor shopping area. I was amazed how Western it felt. It kind of felt like walking around Old Town in Alexandria…. such a strange feeling. There were upscale Western restaurants and Starbucks. It was especially strange because this is the place where the first congress of the Communist Party of China was held. There’s a crazy little museum. Apparently the first meeting was busted by the police, so it was continued later on a boat. Interesting history, very intense museum. Here’s a picture that will prevent me from ever being elected as president of the United States:
Next, we headed to Tianzifang, which is an area with a lot of small shops and galleries. The area was built around the 1930s. The district was artsy and fun to walk around on a rainy afternoon.
After that, we headed to our friend’s factory. Now I feel like I have a much better idea of what it means when something is “made in China.” The factory was small, only about twenty employees. They can make almost anything though… from a car to a soymilk machine. Basically, the companies send a design, the programer codes instructions to the machines, the prototype is produced. If the parts are complex enough, they are assembled elsewhere. It was so interesting to hear Xiaoyi talk about how he grew his business. When he first bought it, it was failing. He started procuring business through cold calls, cultivating relationships, and gradually built a network through positive relationships with different companies.
The next day we took a bus out to Hangzhou. IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL! There were moments during the day that I was just in awe. We went to West Lake and then to Longjing tea fields. It made me really happy that green tea actually comes from such a gorgeous place. Earlier in the semester, I asked my Chinese friends where I should buy good tea, and they told me “Hangzhou.” I kind of meant more like which store in Beijing, and not a city five hours away, but now I get it! We got some dinner (and drank tea of course) and inadvertently ordered an entire chicken (head, feet, and all). Yum.
The next day, we did Zhouzhuang, otherwise know as “the Venice of the East,” which at first made me a little skeptical…don’t get me wrong, it was gorgeous, but not particularly anything like Venice! (How insane is it that I’ve been to both places within 6 months?) We took a gondola ride and wandered around the alleys all day.
Then we got on another 高铁 (fast train) to Nanjing. After missing our first train by a few minutes (oops) and doing the classic running through the train station, we wandered until we found our hostel.
We went to the Presidential Palace that afternoon, which has a ton of history from Sun Yat-sen to Chiang Kai-shek. The next morning we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum, which was incredibly sobering. 30,000 people were killed in about a two week period when Japan invaded in 1937. I felt like I have a little bit of a better sense of the complicated relationship between Japan and China, and the impact of the invasion on the city.
Next, we headed to Purple Mountain to hike up to Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum (we had kind of a morbid day). Sun Yat-sen is considered to be the father of China, similar to how we view George Washington. The view was stunning.
Before we left, we headed to Xuanwu lake to see even more beautiful scenery (if that’s possible).
Such a great trip.
Next up is Taipei! I’ll be leaving on Monday to see Debby.
My time in China is almost over. Last week is my final week of classes, and this week I’ll take finals. The time has flown by faster than I imagined possible.
On the plane here, I remember freaking out about how long I was going to be in Beijing. I remember thinking that I would feel less overwhelmed once I settled into a routine. Now that I’m comfortable with my routine here, I’ve realized that I was much happier and challenged at the beginning of the semester before I had one! Absolutely everything was completely different than I was used to, and adjusting and learning made me feel capable.
I don’t mean to say that I’ve seen it all in Beijing, or that I’m bored or unchallenged now. But I’m looking forward to new places and new travels.
I’ll have a few weeks between the end of finals and plane ticket back on July 15th. I’ve been trying to decide where to travel, which is hard decision because there are so many places I want to go! At first, I wanted to go to Tibet, but it turns out that won’t exactly be happening. I’ve heard the south of China is so beautiful, and I really want to see Guilin, but I know it’s going to be really hot! Of course, I also want to see Harbin, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Taiwan, and Japan, and South Korea…. The list goes on. I’ll decide somehow.
I keep getting the same piece of advice from my coworkers, Chinese friends, and even my psych professor: cancel your plane ticket home. So tempting, but I’m going to have to come back eventually! (Plus I know I’d be missing out on family fun times at the beach.) My professor told me that when he studied abroad in Korea, he faced a similar situation of coming back halfway through the summer, so instead he traveled his way through China, took a train to Moscow, then Finland, then all over Europe. I told him that sounded amazing, but I would run out of money very quickly. He told me oh, of course I ran out of money! Apparently he ended up singing in a Paris subway for money for a few days (guess they didn’t like his singing too much) and eventually got himself to an American travel agent who helped him get a plane home… this is a man who now has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D from the University of Chicago. While I guess he meant to convince me of the adventure, I think he convinced me with absolute certainty not to attempt anything quite as risky (ironic; one of those master’s degrees is in statistics).
One of the saddest parts of getting ready to leave, and the thing that started to make it feel real, was quitting my teaching job. Even though at times, I didn’t feel like the best teacher, I had learned a lot from my students and had a lot of fun.
I realize I haven’t taken any pictures lately, so here’s what’s on my coffee table:
(we like snacks).
- In my English classes, I love learning the random bits of English my students pick up and use in their own ways. Last class, I was reading them a picture book they picked out called Boogie Bones, which is a ghost story about skeleton who liked to dance but was too shy (I know. So cute.) One of my students stopped me and said “Teacher, can I speak Chinese?” Because the school encourages an English-only environment, everyone must ask before they switch languages (including teachers! They’re sticklers if I accidentally slip up with a “很好” (very good!) when they do something well.) I hesitate to allow them to speak Chinese, not only because I want them to try to use English, but also because I have this fear that they’ll learn how terrible my Chinese actually is! Anyway, the student looked so confused that I said okay. He asked me if the skeleton characters in the story were all dead (which thankfully I understood the Chinese), and after I said yes, he said switched back to English and said, “Teacher! They are game over!” The students play so many computer and video games that “game over” now means dead. Tell your friends; it’s going to be catchy slang soon.
- 关系 (guanxi). Something I’ve mentioned before, but I’m learning more and more of its implications. This is the idea of networking, or maybe the concepts of “relationships.” If a person has good guanxi, he or she is well respected and popular amongst his or her peers. If all your friends have a lot of guanxi, you have it too. With guanxi, you can get jobs, apartments, favors, television appearances, anything. I take business cards very seriously here. The other day, I was sitting in a park on campus and this guy and his friend came up to me and asked me if I can speak English (whenever people ask me this, I respond in Chinese, so I can practice my Chinese!). They were visiting campus and wanted to know where they could eat without a dining card. We started chatting in Chinese, and at the end of our five minute conversation, he gave me his card and I gave him my email address. In the U.S. I’d be more freaked out by strangers approaching in a park, but I think it’s less of a big deal here in part because of the concept of public space is so much more “public” than I ever thought possible. Considering I body slam into hundreds of strangers every day on the subway, a conversation is actually quite nice in comparison. Anyway, it turns out he’s the director of sales for a company in Xi’an (it took me like two days to read his card because it was all in Chinese haha). While right now we’re just exchanging emails to practice Chinese and English respectively, he mentioned that his company looks to hire English speakers, so now we each have the chance to access each others’ networks, although I don’t know anyone looking for a job in Xi’an (yet!). This concept is definitely something that’s going to stay with me… you never know who’s in your network. The self help book that my mom brought for me when she came to visit (that is the saddest start to a sentence I have ever typed, but there’s something to be said for honesty, no?) calls these connections “weak ties” and says they’re super duper important.
- On a related note, if you’re in your twenties, please buy this book if you’d like to give yourself a panic attack. If you’re not in your twenties, but you’d still like to give someone in their twenties a panic attack, you know what to do.
- I’m just kidding, Mom. It’s a pretty good book.
- Anyways, guess what language I’m starting to get frustrated with? English. English grammer is the worst, ever! I feel so bad for my kids, trying to explain irregular verbs, when Chinese doesn’t even change verbs for past tense! They asked me why “go” changed to “went” and I was like “because?” Haha horrible teacher moment. I feel like my own English skills are actually declining! I’ve probably missed a few of these mistakes in this blog post, but I’m constantly catching myself typing the wrong homophone (higher/hire, here/hear) more than before. And the other day, I was teaching “last” as in “last Tuesday” or “last year” and “this” as in “this morning.” As my students were making sentences, I realized that while you can say “last night,” it’s improper to say “last morning,” and I couldn’t explain why! Unnecessarily confusing!
- The news! The other day, I checked WashingtonPost.com and the top story was about foreigners in China… I thought to myself well, that’s me I guess. The article has an interesting spin… not sure if I’d agree with the first sentence (of course, all news is spin!). I was surprised at how low the number of foreigners living in Beijing was… the article says only about 120,000 (I’ve heard closer to 200,000 though, so maybe the first figure doesn’t include students). Anyways, that’s NOTHING in a city of 20 million (20 MILLION PEOPLE).
- Also, I totally felt this in my 12th floor apartment yesterday morning! Didn’t realize what it was though (当然). Thought maybe they were attempting some crazy building project in my apartment complex like usual. Things are built so quickly here. One day they decided to build a huge bike garage in the parking lot. Two days later, it looks like it’s been there for years. One day I walked by an empty storefront and 24 hours later it was a little convenience store. It’s awesome because construction practices in China are so safe.
Interesting news today. My friends and I have been nervously joking about it. (“Do you want to grab food, oh wait, can’t really afford to be seen with any other foreigners right now.”) We’ll see how it plays out. I’ll keep you updated if CENSORED. Just kidding ha ha ha?
Not a whole lot is new with me. I’ve been constantly coming up with new games to play with my students. My latest is to bring in my alarm clock, and set the alarm one minute ahead. Then we play hot potato while saying the days of the week, months of the year, seasons, etc. The game was up when they figured out how to disable the alarm really subtly, without me noticing. (I’m telling you! They’re clever! Not that my classroom is anything like Jurassic Park.)
Right now, I’m procrastinating on doing some writing homework. Our teacher emailed us a PDF and we have to describe the pictures in Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re cartoons, and I have no idea what the jokes are. Take a look. I’ll be accepting assistance in the comments section below, thanks.
Sad to say my 父母 have left Beijing. I hope their trip wasn’t too overwhelming! I had a lot of fun showing them around, and I was reminded that traveling and living in China sometimes isn’t the most convenient, but is always an adventure. Also, I learned that I literally have no table manners left. It’s not really a thing here to NOT reach all the way across the table. (Not to mention slurping noodles!)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “common courtesy” and how it relates to Chinese culture. My Chinese American friend was telling me how frustrated she gets sometimes with Chinese people here who, she feels, don’t express any courtesy. And I can see what she means. Shoving, reaching, spitting, smoking, talking loudly…. they’re all common and nobody bats an eye. If you say hi to a stranger, even in a situation like an elevator, they’re going to think “crap, am I supposed to know that person!?” (And that’s the best case; usually they’ll just think you’re bonkers). I was reading a blog post where the writer was complaining about how in China, people think you’re stupid for showing what we would call politeness. Even the language itself can be harsh sounding, and brutally blunt. In America, in situations where I would normally say “oh, no thanks, I’d rather not,” in China I would say “不要” which is simply, “don’t want.”
I think there’s a much more subtle force at work than our version of common courtesy. I think overall, people are much more open to others (umm, not talking politics here). I once helped a grandfather carry a baby carriage up some stairs while grandma carried the baby. They thanked me and I cooed at the baby for a minute. Maybe not the best example, but the whole situation struck me as so routine for them, like they thought it was really unremarkable. To them, it was so natural that I would offer help and smile at their grandson. I think a similar situation in the U.S. while of course it could happen, would be regarded with much more… suspicion? In the U.S. accepting help like that would be seen as a sign of weakness much more than it does here. And instead of getting huffy or angry at others, everyone accepts that the public space is for everyone, and so anyone can bump into you, spit on the ground, play a loud game of cards, and it’s okay. In the U.S., someone bumping into you the wrong way can start a fight.
Anyway, obviously not fully developed in these ideas and I’m just kind of running a rambling comparison. Just something to think about.
I always put off blogging thinking that I’ll wait until I have something big to blog about. Then I realize that when I have major stuff to blog about, I’m out doing that major stuff, and not sitting around on my sofa typing about it.
Now’s the part where I’m loafing it on my sofa. Last week, we had a week off from classes for the May day holiday. My friends and I went to Xi’an!
As you can see, it’s not particularly close to Beijing. Here are some things you should know about traveling long distances within China:
1. Holidays are an insanely busy time to travel. By “insanely busy,” I’m not talking rush-hour on the Belt Way. I’m not even talking the National Mall on the 4th of July. I’m talking so many people so close to you that you idly wonder if the idea of personal boundaries was something you imagined in a past life.
2. Because traveling during holidays is insanely busy, the good train tickets tend to sell out quickly.
3. By “good” train tickets, I mean tickets that aren’t for hard seats.
4. The train ride to Xi’an is 14 hours.
5. We had hard seat train tickets both ways.
Check out my pictures! They’re kind of out of order because apparently being tired transforms me into a luddite.
Also, GUESS WHO CAME TO VISIT ME?
I’ve been teaching! I tried out a couple of different schools and ended up with a part time job at a program I really love. It’s a training center, so kids come on weekends and in the evenings to supplement their English classes in school. (This is really typical for Chinese children to take many additional classes and lessons in their free time.) The classes are a lot of fun. I’ll have a regular class on Saturday of 6 kids around 10 years old, and then a one-on-one tutoring session for a 13 year old girl. The girl is so sweet and really smart, so the tutoring session is more of a conversation, and then we read Babysitters Club books. No joke. It’s so much fun. The kids have crazy amounts of energy, and they’re so clever! I’m always amazed how quickly they absorb information. But the other day, I realized that while they were reading the examples in the textbook flawlessly and with correct grammer, they didn’t understand the content! For example, the lesson was on the sentence structure “wasn’t able to/weren’t able to.” The prompt was “go camping” and “windy.” All the kids could correctly make a sentence “No, they weren’t able to go camping because it was too windy!” But then I realized… they didn’t know what camping was! And only about half of them knew “windy!” So we spent a while drawing camping on the board and all the things that can go wrong when you go camping, and so on. My other big hit with them is a game I found while researching ESL tips online. One student stands in the front of the class and all the other students ask him/her questions. The student can only reply with one word: banana. To win, you can’t laugh. I wasn’t sure they’d like it, but the kids started shouting out really silly questions and dying with laughter! It was a great way to break the ice on my first class and get them shouting things in English. Their favorite question to ask me? “What’s your boyfriend’s name?” Banana.
Also, I’ve been studying! Last week was midterms. I didn’t have it too badly… my classes are so much more relaxed than actual Tsinghua students’. I found out the other day, that in the Chinese student dorms (different from the international student dorms, and way different than my awesome off-campus apartment), they actually have kind of strict regulations. The electricity shuts off at 11pm. (Can you imagine that in an American dorm?!) There are limited hours for hot water, and communal showers. There are also way more people in a room than you would think possible (sometimes I wonder if this country has fire codes and then I wonder why I bother wondering). The word that I hear a lot regarding student life is “pressure.” When I tell people I study at Tsinghua they ask me, “do you feel pressure?” And that’s also how my Chinese friend described studying over breaks… he says it’s not mandated by the teacher, but he knows all the other students will do it, so he feels the pressure to keep up with his classmates. It’s incredibly motivating, but also so stressful…. I can imagine. As I said, not feeling a ton of pressure. But I did have a writing and speaking midterm. The speaking one went pretty well… basically a conversation with my teacher. The writing one was absolutely terrible, but I feel like I was well on-par with the rest of the class. The teacher had been showing us a typical Chinese poem at the start of every class, which we thought was just a nice way to open class, learn a little culture, etc. Um, guess he actually expected us to learn them!? On the test, he wrote excerpts from the poems (using the characters! when the words in them are usually uncommon!) and asked us to explain the meaning in Chinese! Gah! I could write it in English, no problem (representin’ that English degree!) but my Chinese is pretty limited to more concrete phrases, for example, “one beer please” and “where am I?” and not really abstract things about the meaning of sorrow or the importance of perseverance. It was a rough test.
P.S. For a taste of how the Chinese media is covering the Bo scandal…. Such an interesting perspective.