Sarah in China 2009

Last night in Beijing + Dickinson trip

January 9, 2010 · 1 Comment

Well, its my last night in Beijing. I’m all packed, all my finals are done, I’ve bought all my gifts and I’m ready to go home (even if it WILL be freezing cold). Its really hard for me to believe that this is all coming to an end- in truth, I really have man man xiguan le (slowly gotten used to) Beijing and Chinese culture in ways I probably don’t even realize yet. Its been a difficult and long semester but my Chinese has improved a lot and I think I’ve gained a better understanding of the country, its culture and people. I’m not sure anyone could ever understand the Chinese way perfectly, especially when it the country is changing so fast you get whiplash, but even a little more understanding is a good step. I really hope to take what I’ve learned and apply it to next semester and beyond. But at the same time, I’m really really glad to be going home. As interesting as it is, China’s also been pretty stressful and I’m excited to return to my own culture and home base for a while before going off to D.C. I haven’t exactly planned the easiest year for myself as far as culture shock goes (China to D.C. to Wilderness?? to Dickinson) but if nothing else it will continue to be interesting.

But before I get too sappy, I’d like to write a little bit about the Dickinson trip to Sanya on Hainan Island and Shanghai. So after my whirlwind trip to Tokyo (just the airport) and back, I met up with the rest of the Dickinson group at 4 am on Christmas morning to fly to Hainan Island in the South China Sea. We were all extremely glad to go, especially since the weather that morning was bitterly cold and the wind whipping at ridiculously high speed. When we arrived in Haikou, on the northern end of Hainan island, which was a balmy 75 degrees, we really thought we were in paradise. We took a 3 hour bus ride across the entire island to reach Sanya, on the far southern tip of the island- the only part of China that actually qualifies as tropical. It was fun to see the countryside: rice fields and water buffalo to rainforest and coconut trees. Sanya itself is a resort town, in truth just a beach. Not a lot of American tourists go there- it is almost exclusively Chinese and Russians. I was often spoken to in Russian (by both Russians and Chinese) because they assumed. But our hotel manager was so excited to have Americans at the hotel that they had made up a banner welcoming us. It was really crazy.

{{Will write more, but must sleep now to catch my plane. For now, please enjoy the lists I’ve made up about my thoughts about leaving below}}

Things I have to remember when I get back to the U.S.:

  • Table manners: how to use a knife and fork (no,seriously), not shoveling, not slurping etc.
  • To get out of the habit of picking waiguos (other foreigners like me) out in crowds; also avoid the shock of realizing that there actually is a whole state/country full of people who look like me….
  • Not to freak out at how expensive everything is and try to bargain
  • Not to confuse money because dollars are all green and all the same size (hey where’s Chairman Mao?)
  • To tip waiters, taxi drivers etc. and not to yell at them
  • To stop using Chinglish and expecting everyone to understand; English grammar
  • NOT to drive like a Beijinger
  • To not forget Chinese and characters…

Things I will miss:

  • Street food
  • Cheap prices and being able to bargain
  • Beijing subway- not ever having to use a car
  • People I’ve met, people I’ve gotten to know from Dickinson
  • Playing “Snake” on my Chinese phone (sad, but true)
  • Experiencing the breakneck pace of development and completely different ways of looking at things
  • Talking politics and books with my language partner
  • Traveling in China and random encounters with very friendly people
  • Karaoke (Kala OK in Chinese- yes, this is definitely a “you know you’ve lived in China too long when…” kind of situation)

Things I will not miss:

  • Lack of organization, mafan bureaucracy
  • Being stared at, catcalled at, talked about, condescended to and cheated
  • Only having Chinese classes
  • Internet censorship (not being able to get on Facebook)
  • Only having McDonalds KFC and Pizza Hut as Wester food options
  • Having the heat and hot water controlled by the federal government
  • The RRRR of Beijing hua (dialect)
  • Pollution (living here has really opened my eyes to environmental problems- trust me, you never want your home to be as polluted as Beijing)
  • Baijiu (Chinese alcohol)

Things I’m looking forward to:

  • Mexican food, pecan pie, mashed potatoes… and the list goes on and on and on
  • Seeing my family and boyfriend and friends and my dog
  • Seeing SNOW at home
  • Watching all the movies on the plane!
  • Clean air, clean water
  • Starting next semester in Washington DC! Living in an apartment, getting work experience, thinking about the future (not looking forward to unpacking and packing again though).

I’ll try to make sure to update at least once with thoughts on my reentry culture shock. Thanks for reading this blog all semester!

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Merry (Consumerist) Christmas

December 23, 2009 · 1 Comment

Dear all,

Merry Christmas from China! I wanted to write this now, because apparently a lot of my Christmas Eve and day are going to spent on planes. There are two reasons, one happy and one not. First, the Dickinson group is leaving Christmas morning to go on a “cultural excursion” trip to Hainan Island in the South China Sea, south of Guangdong and Hong Kong. The Sanya area in the south of the island is a resort area, so we will be rewarded for our time in cold Beijing and not having a Christmas break by 4 days on the beach. YAY! After that we are going to Shanghai for New Year’s. Then we come back and take final tests before heading home.

The other plane trip was just planned today. I was shopping for Christmas presents when I received a call from the Beida International Students Office informing me that my visa was expiring on December 25th. I was really surprised and upset- I thought that I was covered until I leave on January 10th. However, my 120 days are nearly up and staying in the country without a visa can result in a 500 yuan fine per day and/or, as another friend experienced, not fun rides around Beijing getting yelled at by Chinese cops. Yikes. So my options were either to go give my passport to the office and get it back in ten days (therefore not being able to go on the Dickinson trip and maybe pushing it for leaving on the 10th) or to leave the country and come back, since my visa is multiple entry and 120 days each entry. Wasn’t it lovely of them to tell me TWO DAYS BEFORE? Anyway, my program director told me there wasn’t anything she could do for me- I couldn’t meet them late in Hainan with a stop in Hong Kong because I wouldn’t be able to get to the resort. So I panicked and called my dad and I’m now booked on a flight to Tokyo for Christmas Eve. Yay! I don’t mind the extra flights, if it means avoiding the huge deal of expired visas and Chinese police. So I will go to Tokyo airport and eat sushi, read, get on Facebook (its the little things) and shake my head at the utter stupidity of Chinese bureaucracy. By the way, THANK YOU DAD for answering my middle of the night call and figuring this out for me!

Anyway, now that my rant is done I want to describe a little about December in Beijing. In most Westernized places like hotels, malls and McDonald’s, Christmas trees and decor started popping up right after Thanksgiving ended. However, as one of my teachers put it, it often seems like the decor is just people trying to mimic Western countries without any real reason or understanding why or just shopkeepers trying to get people to buy more for a holiday that doesn’t really exist. The kind of Christmas cheer or spirit that I normally associate with the season is just absent. The snow from the November storms has all melted, though its still bitterly cold at times. The people are just as curt as usual, and every time I’ve tried to go to the “Christian church” near me its been closed. I’ve found myself sitting in Starbucks to do homework just to listen to the Christmas songs (of all the things I thought I wouldn’t miss!). The only real thing that has carried over has been shopping- we are doing a secret santa and starting to busily buy Christmas and travel gifts for everyone at home.

And I think a big downer, at least for us students, is that we still have class scheduled straight through Christmas and New Year’s. The Dickinson kids get to skip a week, but that’s nowhere near the 5 weeks we normally get at Christmas! It was pretty depressing, with a whole extra month of class to look forward to when normally we would have already been done.  Without a holiday since October, we are all getting pretty fatigued. I also think that living in Beijing itself is pretty wearing- its such an indescribably big city that even after 4 months living here I only feel like I know a small corner of it. And if I come back in a year it might all be different- the city is changing that fast. When I went to Berlin in high school, I remember marveling at how fast the city had changed in 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But compared to Beijing, Berlin is probably moving at a glacial pace. There is construction EVERYWHERE and the turnover is ridiculous. I can walk down a street one day and notice “Oh my god, there are three new/different shops there since last week.” Life here is hurried, crowded and noisy. You can get used to it, expect it, but I’m not sure I like it. A lot of times its unclear what the purpose of all the rushing is. Existentially, what direction is Beijing headed in? Its changing, taking on a facade of Westernization almost to a fault, but to what end? Who knows. Its an interesting dilemma from afar but living here its a bit of a headache.

So on weekdays we go to class and go home and nap or watch movies online or on cheap DVDs. Only on the weekends do we really go out and do things together as a group. This mostly consists of going to dinner, then bars, then karaoke or clubs. Is it a bad sign that I’ve started to actually enjoy karaoke? When I first got here I thought it was a strange concept and was a little freaked out by the cramped hallways and small windowless rooms and the prospect of singing in front of other people. But now after a few drinks I’m all set to go and belt out the songs of my childhood (the English songs that come here are usually about 5-10 years behind). But all in all, I’m not really sure December was the best month for experiencing China or Chinese life. We all just wanted to be done.

We did have one culture class excursion that was interesting. Last Saturday we went as a class to the CCTV tower. CCTV is the main television station in China. I don’t actually know what it stands for- when I try to google it the page gets blocked (uh oh)… but maybe Central China or Chinese Communist. I’m unsure. But anyway, the tower is basically just a tall vantage point from which you can see a lot of Beijing. It is not unlike the Seattle Space Needle and it reminded me a lot of the TV tower in East Berlin. It has an outside observatory platform, an inside observatory with exhibits, a revolving restaurant and on the ground floor exhibits about old Beijing. There is also an aquarium underneath it for some reason. We went there first, and it was actually very interesting- Chinese fish are WEIRD. There were also turtles, seals and best of all, penguins! We watched the penguins for literally almost an hour- their interactions were so interesting, like they were showing off. Then we went into an aquarium tunnel almost exactly like the one at Underwater World in Mall of America. You could pay 300 kuai to scuba dive in the tank with the sharks etc, but we were rushed along to the top of the tower.

On entering the lobby, I experienced a little bit of cultural dissonance. In normal times the lobby is decorated with a huge stone mural of the Chinese countryside, but that day there was a massive and slightly disturbing paper cutout of Santa Claus that obscured most of the wall. Also, playing in an endless loop over the speakers was a very annoying Chinese version of jingle bells. This made for great earsplitting fun while waiting in line for the elevators to the top of the tower. Now, I have missed Christmas music to an extent, but not THAT much. We were all glad to get away from the crazy music to get on the elevators.

We reached the viewing platform and found out it was outside (BRRRRR) and very windy. Luckily, the day was inexplicably clear, with blue skies so we could see a long ways. But we couldn’t see all of Beijing and it hit me again just how MASSIVELY SPRAWLING HUGE Beijing is. Also crazy to think was how the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven used to be the highest buildings in the city and now there are skyscrapers everywhere. We had fun looking around and trying to find our apartment buildings. There were also notations along the side noting how far away major world cities were and a wealth of badly translated signs that were very amusing (I am collecting Chinese-English signs- sometimes they are so bad I almost think that its on purpose). Afterwards we went back down to look at the exhibits on old Beijing, which was strikingly different from the vista we just saw. A lot of the main subway stops are named for the old city gates that used to be there before Mao demolished the walls to make room for his factories. Videos described the donkey markets and hutongs in the areas where some of my friends now live amidst skyscrapers and malls. The area where I live was actually a village far outside of Beijing proper. It was very strange to think about. The amount of culture lost to industrialization and the cultural reversals of the continuing revolution is a little staggering. Shadows of it still exist, for example, the street where I live reminds me a lot of what is described in a hutong neighborhood, with the street vendors and small shops and people lingering (in summer). The courtyard houses have just been replaced by apartments grouped around courtyards! But at the same time I feel sometimes like these remnants of old culture are hanging on for dear life in the mad rush for “modernity,” whatever that is.

My time in China is winding down and overall I have mixed feelings. I’m looking forward to my Christmas trip(s) and then coming home (to the REAL cold) before heading off to an exciting new semester. And China is just tiring. I need a break. I think I’d definitely like to come back and travel- there are so many places I’d still like to visit- Nanjing, Xian, Harbin, Guilin, Yunnan, Tibet, and Xinjiang to name a few. I could even come back to live here, just maybe not in Beijing. I’d like to experience a Chinese New Year here before I die. But for now, I’m just nostalgic for home.

Hope to see some of you soon! Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Turkey day and Tour guiding

December 5, 2009 · No Comments

Again, its been a long time since I’ve posted. But a lot has happened that I can write about, so that’s good!

My parents came for a visit on the 19th, bearing gifts: more warm clothes, stovetop stuffing and several issues of the Economist. It was really fun to see them and to show them Beijing. The weather cooperated to give them a great trip with a lot of clear days. It was also really fun to stay in their hotel with them- that roll away bed was more comfortable than any mattress I’ve slept on in China (But hey, I have a mattress, so I’m not complaining over much. Some of my classmates just get boards.). Their hotel was brand new and right by the new American Embassy so we also got to see a few of the diplomatic compounds (from the outside this time). The only problem was trying to find it- I got lost on the first day walking from the subway station. For the record, the directions “its right behind the Hilton when it is actually 2 blocks east were not at all helpful. But a succession of nice Chinese people tried their best to help me (difficult when you don’t know the Chinese name for something) and eventually my dad and I met up so he could show me where it was. Of course, then I had to explain the location to the taxi drivers all week- the hotel provided a name card but the font was so small it was hard to use. One driver literally pulled out a magnifying glass!

Dad and Mom at the Forbidden City

Dad and Mom at the Forbidden City

Over the weekend we visited the Forbidden City- twice actually because it was closing the first day so we went to Wangfujing instead. I went with because I had missed the trip there with my class due to my half month flu. It was really cool- probably my favorite Beijing attraction after the Summer Palace. It really does deserve the “city” moniker- its huge! The buildings are also really ornate- it was like Chinese Versailles. We entered through the North gate and wandered through maze of buildings that were the living quarters for a long time before we saw the big impressive official buildings. We also went though exhibitions of artifacts and the different emperors and empresses. All in all, it was interesting, if a little cold. Dad didn’t have a hat, so he kept getting harassed by all the old ladies selling panda and Mao hats. Hilarious. Not so hilarious was finding a cab that didn’t want to charge 100 kuai. We struck out once at finding a place to eat, so we visited the Bookworm cafe in the Sanlitun area.

On Sunday we went and met my host family. First we exchanged gifts and looked at pictures and then my host mother went out to lunch with us. The others stayed home because my host brother was sick. My parents don’t speak Chinese and my host family very little English, so I translated for them. It wasn’t as hard as I thought, except for keeping up and not knowing all the words. We went to a fancy restaurant and had Beijing kaoya (Peking duck) as well as a lot of other dishes. It was a good meal! After we said goodbye to my host mother, we took the subway to the Silk Market.

Now, in general I don’t especially like the Silk Market. In my imagination when reading about it, I thought it would be a pleasant sprawling outdoor market where you could wander and browse at will. But the reality is much different. Its a 6 story building absolutely brimming with stalls with small isles in between, and tons of yelling salespeople trying to rip off all the foreigners who go there. To me, its a very stressful environment- especially on the floor where they sell purses and shoes and the shopkeepers do everything but try to drag you into their little booths to look at their wares, which are the exact same as everyone else’s. Also, bargaining is not exactly my strong suit. I get frustrated and impatient and not so happy when the sellers blatantly lie to me and try to rip me off big time. But my Mom and Dad jumped into this arena with both feet. Before I knew it, we’d bought a silk comforter, scarves, coin purses, wine covers, a table runner, a tea set and a hat for Dad (that may not be all-its very possible I forgot something). Sounds like a lot, but Mom can bargain like no one’s business. At first I tried to help her by speaking Chinese to the vendors, but it really wasn’t necessary because every stall has a huge calculator to facilitate bargaining with foreigners. Actually, speaking Chinese to the vendors, even though they said it was the reason they gave us “special prices,” was somewhat of a handicap because as soon as the vendors realized that my mom was not just another stupid laowai- she meant business!- they started pleading with me to make her see reason. One man commented that they never expected Americans to be so good at bargaining- he said Mom bargained like she was from India. They probably still ripped us off somewhat, but it was a lot less than if I was bargaining!

On Monday Tuesday and Wednesday I had tests in my morning classes, so Mom and Dad went sightseeing in the morning and I met them in the afternoon. We toured my college and stopped in the Zhongguancun electronics markets- Dad looking for a camera and me for cheap DVDs. Another day we wandered around the Pearl Market and the next we tried to explore the hutong area near Houhai Lake. We also went out to dinner a lot- not Chinese every night either. Ok, so we did eat hot pot (huo guo), which is like Chinese fondue in boiling water. But we also sought out an Italian restaurant one night near a diplomatic compound, which was a lot of fun.

Badaling Great Wall

Badaling Great Wall

On Thursday (Thanksgiving) we had the hotel hire a driver for us so we could go to the Badaling Great Wall. When I went before with culture class I went to a different, much less impressive section on a foggy day. Badaling is the most visited section, especially in summer when tourists pack it from end to end. But since it was winter there weren’t too many people there. And, even better, the weather cleared up while we were there so that you could see more of the wall and take pictures. We rode the chairlift to the highest point, walked around for a while and then went to the Great Wall museum, which unlike the exhibits at the Forbidden City, did not disappoint. It was a really nice thing to do to end my parents’ stay in Beijing- they left the next morning for home so they could see Doug before he went back to school.

After we’d had our fill of the Great Wall and the museum, we made arrangements to meet the rest of the Dickinson group for Thanksgiving dinner at the Hyatt downtown. It was really fun to introduce all my classmates to my parents and celebrate turkey day all together. The buffet was not exactly like a normal Thanksgiving- alongside turkey and mashed potatoes there was sushi, Italian food, paella, and chinese food like kaoya. Clearly they were aiming for a broad range of tastes! But the food was excellent overall. The deserts were also good- very important- but alas there was no pecan or even pumpkin pie. Sigh. I guess a trip to Perkins is in order when I get home in January.

Mom and Dad left early morning on Friday and I got up and went back to class. It was a good thing, too because I found out that we had a culture class trip that afternoon that I hadn’t known about! First we went to a Taoist temple (the appeal was somewhat lessened by the fact that they were redoing all the stone in the courtyards) and then we went back to the spa that we had been turned away from in September to get massages. It was sort of a strange experience. We’d all brought swimsuits, but we weren’t allowed to wear them in the locker room. Actually, we weren’t allowed to wear anything. Thank god it was segregated by genders, because seeing all of my Dickinson classmates naked was awkward enough. After we showered and got the dead skin rubbed off of us (fun…) we were given identical yellow shirt and short sets that we were to wear around outside the locker room. So we went up two more floors to get massages- our program paid for one of the most expensive ones there. It was much nicer overall, although a little awkward at points. We were in little curtained rooms but we could all hear each other and talk. We couldn’t really communicate well with the women massaging us, though, because their accents were hard to understand. It led to a few interesting situations, including several of the guys being offered quote “something that guys can get but girls can’t”. Awkward… After massages, we went to go to the buffet for dinner. We were the only foreigners in a whole sea of yellow suited Chinese people. After dinner most of us decided to leave- technically we could have stayed until 9 am the next morning and taken part in a whole variety of other activities, like swimming, playing mahjong, watching TV and sleeping, but the place was slightly bizarre and unsettling overall, and I personally wanted to put my own clothes back on again. So we got out of there and went to the bars instead.

This week afternoon classes were cancelled on Wednesday Thursday and Friday because all foreign students were required to attend the annual speech contest. Every student studying Chinese wrote a speech, then one or two students from every class was selected to go the speech competition. I was very glad not to be picked, but two of my friends from Dickinson and my partner from speaking class competed. There were three different levels- my class was in the upper end of the beginners level. Some of the speeches were actually very funny and after the speeches there were a few musical performances by students. Afterwards, my speaking class went out to dinner at a Hakka (a Chinese minority) restaurant overlooking the lake at Houhai. It was really fun to see each other socially, although its slightly awkward to ask someone you’ve been sitting next to for three months, “Actually, I don’t know your real name- just your Chinese name.” Our teacher, always animated, was really entertaining. I hope we do more things together.

Lastly, in the last couple weeks I’ve been preparing for next semester when I will be in Washington D.C. doing an internship program consisting of an internship, seminar, class and independent study. The program sent out my application to a bunch of organizations starting in October and they contact students for telephone interviews. Which is a little problematic when you are halfway around the world with a 13 hour time difference. At first I was worried about not getting contacted by many organizations, but then 5 contacted me all at once around Thanksgiving. I did the phone interviews at night and on Monday I got an offer from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ global economy program to be a research intern and accepted it. I’m really happy with the choice- its a pretty well reputed think tank and it sounded by far like the best opportunity. Two other pluses: getting to use the Library of Congress and the fact that the internship site is 3 BLOCKS from the White House. Maybe I’ve been watching too much West Wing, but that makes me pretty ecstatic. I also signed up for classes and looked at housing- really nice! Overall I’m really excited for next semester!

That’s all for now, folks. Here’s my fourth abroad article:

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Getting back in the swing of things

November 12, 2009 · 1 Comment

Now that I am finally starting to crawl out of the shell/ prison that was my host family’s apartment while I was sick, I guess it is time for an update. And I was sick for a ridiculously long time- one week feeling awful and then a week and a half of feeling just short of healthy. Every day I didn’t feel well was like torture, because I am starting to feel my time here slip away like sand through my fingers. Although right now I’m not entirely sure why I am here/what my purpose is/what I will get out of coming to China, I do know that I did NOT come halfway across the world to sit in my apartment sick. About a week after I first got sick, as the flu went away, I developed a cough and a headcold that is just NOW almost gone- though I’m sure that Beijing pollution and the weather taking a plunge into winter did not help in the slightest (more on this a little later). Last Thursday I was so stir crazy that I went back to class and then got all my paperwork in order (or so I thought) in order to go through the inanely bureaucratic process necessary to apply to make up exams. However, apparently the note that I was given in the Beida clinic- I hadn’t read it at the time; Chinese characters are dizzying in normal times and just do not compute when I have a fever- basically said that I had swine flu, so I was told that I had to go back to the Beida fever clinic (where I went on a crazy tour of Haidian to AVOID going before) to get another note to confirm that I was able to go back to class. Which I had already done, by the way. I was so upset. The other hospital (the clean one) had told me that I DIDN’T have swine flu (with no basis but whatever), so why was this horrible label now attached to my forehead? Why, God why did I have to go back to the fever clinic that reminded me of a corridor by my middle school pool to wait in a line of sick Chinese people just so they can verify that I no longer had a fever? And then go to two other offices besides, in order to get their permission to go back to class and make up tests. Completely incomprehensible and frustrating beyond belief. Especially because I knew that it was likely that my traitorous immune system had most likely popped a fever. So I went back the next day instead, hoping to find a less crowded waiting room, then spent the morning jumping through hoops. On the bright side, I eventually did get everything squared away, made up my tests and slowly caught up on homework. I just felt it was MUCH more complicated than it needed to be.

Thank God I am taking these classes pass/fail, because I am doing worse that I have done in classes EVER. It is depressing because grades have always been something I’ve felt I can control, but I am realizing that success/grades is as much about working the system as anything. And the system here is different, to the point that it is unrecognizable- we Westerners sometimes wonder if one even exists… Anyway, classes and grades are not the only thing that my being sick for two weeks affected- my language skills (like I said, I was not really able or willing to concentrate on Chinese while sick) and social options took a hit as well. I dropped off the planet for a couple weeks- I went out for Halloween (which, being a made up holiday, doesn’t exist here outside of bars trying to cater to Western international students) but was only able to stay out for two hours because I was so exhausted.

I will say, there are a lot of things that I took for granted when I was home that living in Beijing has made me appreciate; our health care system, for all that is expensive and sometimes annoying, is most definitely one of them. There are others, too: Clean air, clean water. A friend of mine had a conversation with his host father where he said, “I smoke, so my lungs are black.” And the host father replied, “Mine are blacker because I live in Beijing.” It was really strange to realize that I’ve been in Beijing long enough that I’ve started to regard the heavy, unnatural haze that descends over the city on certain days as simply a part of the weather. You can get used to anything I guess. But then I am reminded by how my lungs gasp with joy when I am anywhere but here. In the last couple of days, the weather has become more clear, but I know enough to suspect that this change isn’t natural. It has to do with the snow- the smog clears with precipitation. It snowed on Halloween and about once a week since, but I know that at least the snow on Halloween was made with cloud seeding technology. The government doesn’t like the impression that the city is smoggy and gross, so they try to do away with it. I imagine their zeal might also have to do with the fact that certain international people are coming sometime in the next week. Maybe after that they will stop. I hope so, actually. Wanting to clear the air is nice and everything, but the fact is that is a temporary solution to a very real problem. And snow in Beijing is not very happy- its not really supposed to snow here this much, so they don’t really know how to deal with it. I see people using umbrellas to keep snow off and trying to sweep the streets clean with homemade brooms or makeshift shovels made of plywood sheets. And then there is the slush and the puddles- inevitable because unnatural snow naturally doesn’t stay around very long. The 10 minute bike commute to school has gotten a lot worse, trying to avoid being sprayed by cars. But biking is actually a lot better than walking- my feet would be soaked by the end of the first block. At least when I’m on a bike my feet are relatively dry.

On the other hand, it is fun to see how excited the Beida students are about the snow. The first night it snowed my friends on campus were kept awake late into the night by squeals of joy- everywhere on campus people are throwing snowballs at each other. Snowmen turned up in every free courtyard- and these weren’t just regular snowmen, they were actually more like sculptures, decorated with leaves, sticks or anything else they could find- definitely not constrained by the Western ideal of “a corn cob pipe and a button nose and eyes made out of coal.” But unfortunately, I think my dislike for the slushy grossness everywhere prevents me from sharing in this glee. Fellow Minnesotans: it already feels like February snow instead of happy November/December snow. I suppose it doesn’t really help that there is no Christmas season to look forward to… or at least only the most commercial and superficial aspects will filter over, if anything. Sigh.

But, on a happier note, this week has been much better overall. There are several reasons for this. One, I’ve started hanging out with people again- in coffee shops and other warm places. Last night after a trip to the Silk Market to help friends buy warmer coats (knock off Colombia and North Face anyone?) I went out to an “international” cafe and sat with some friends eating burgers, onion rings and nachos. It was really chill and a lot of fun, even though on a philosophical level it makes me worry. We, as a group of Dickinson people, have started gravitating towards the Western themed things more and more and I wonder if we are really experiencing Beijing or just the foreigner culture. I worry that I might be wasting my time here by hanging out with international students and going to places (Starbucks, Papa Johns, bars and cafes) geared toward Westerners. At the same time, these places really are an unspeakable comfort to me at times and I don’t necessarily want to seek out what my own idea of “authentic” is because I feel that that is a dishonest way of doing things. After all, Beijing is a large city that is becoming more and more Westernized- something they are proud of. And there is really no doubt that I am in a different country- maybe its just because I gravitate towards the recognizable that I notice the similarities sometimes more than the differences.

Some of the tea in China

Some of the tea in China

Also cool was last Friday’s culture trip- this time to “Tea City” which is basically a shopping mall devoted to everything having to do with Chinese tea. Our class sat in one of the stalls and had a mini tea ceremony where we tried several different kinds of teas and buying the ones we liked. Then we wandered around and looked at the different kinds of tea in all different packages, tea sets ranging from very cheap to very expensive, tea tables (intricately carved stone with a drain so you can pour out some of the tea each time) and anything else you could think of. It was a good time. Afterwards, we went out to dinner with class and had Beijing kaoya (roast duck) among many other things. Then we all headed to the National Concert Hall on Tiananmen to see a Chinese minzu (traditional/national music) concert. It was very interesting. There was an orchestra, but it was totally different than a Western orchestra. Instead of violins, there was a section of people playing the erhu, a Chinese one stringed instrument. Then there was a section of different sized guitar/lute-like instruments called liuqin playing pizzicato or strumming. There was a small section containing Western cellos and basses, then several dulcimer/harps. For winds, there was a large section of all different kinds of bamboo flutes. Next to them were a range of instruments that I can best describe as bundles of organ pipes played as a wind instrument called the sheng. There were several sizes, from a handheld solo one to a 5 foot tall bass version. Then there was a section of double reed instruments called suona that were like a cross between a trumpet and an oboe as far as sound and role in the pieces. They played with a rather crass sound at times. Last but not least were the percussion, which included a range of 12 pitched drums played by a soloist and huge sets of bronze bells. Overall it was really fun to hear the different tambres and compare it to a Western concert.

Woman playing erhu

Woman playing erhu

Man playing sheng

Man playing sheng

Lastly, I finally figured out a way to access blocked sites- including Blogspot, western news sites and FACEBOOK. I am so excited that I will finally be able to easily contact people back at home and read my friends’ blogs! (Don’t worry, I’m not switching blogs back- I like the Dickinson site). YAY for censor-free internet!

More to look forward to: Tommorrow we have a culture class trip to the Temple of Heaven, which should be fun if its not freezing. And next week my parents are coming to visit. I’m really excited to show them Beijing and go to some of the more touristy places that I haven’t been. I just hope its not too cold!

Also, I’ll be posting more pictures on Flickr shortly and here is a link to my recent Dickinsonian abroad article:

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My birthday week and not-swine-flu week

October 27, 2009 · 1 Comment

Well, its seems that its been a very long time since I’ve updated this blog though I guess its only about two weeks. It just feels a lot longer, I think, because for the last week I have currently been sick and in bed with a fever, aches and a cough. Currently I feel better (Only time will tell if this actually means better or if this is just, yet again, a calm between two storms. Sometimes I really hate my immune system. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, its a drama queen. It jerks me around a lot- this morning I had a 102 degree fever and now I have none- and I don’t really appreciate it at this point.) so I’ve decided to get some things done, since otherwise I might die of boredom.

But let’s get back to that in a bit. The other week that I have to write about was infinitely more pleasant. Of course, it didn’t seem that way at the time, being the first week back from a very long and nice vacation. Our brains were all in the state of- “Wait… we have class?? Oh, well, that’s a bummer…” (Now, after a week cooped up sick in my homestay, I am positively dying to go back- funny how things change huh?) On the other hand, it was actually really nice to see everyone again from the Dickinson group and hear about everyone’s break adventures. Some people headed north to Inner Mongolia and saw the Mongolian grasslands and yurts, others went to Kunming, Yunnan in Southwest China to see the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the surrounding area and others went to Hong Kong and Shanghai. The people I feel bad for are those that didn’t get to travel, either because they didn’t have their passports back yet or because they were recovering from surgery. But all in all it was nice to have the company again. The weather was also really nice- I spent quite a few days reading by the Weiming Lake on campus because its obvious that the warmth won’t last much longer.

On Monday I also started a new class- Chinese taijichuan, better known as tai chi with 5 other Dickinson classmates. Dickinson pays for it and I may be able to get a gym credit for it if I’m lucky. I got the last spot in the 20 person class. Basically, the class consists of our teacher, a venerable old man demonstrating us taiji routines and practicing them over and over. Occasionally we break off into smaller groups to practice self defense techniques that are supposed to utilize the same movements we use in class. We meet on the plaza in front of the Russian building, where most foreign students have classes. Often we aren’t the only ones practicing taichi or wushu (martial arts) there. For example, for several days in a row there was a man who, inexplicably, paced endlessly around a tree for an hour doing taichi movements with his hands. Other times there will be people doing more complicated routines in tandem. But overall, the 20 or so of us must look the most hilarious, sweeping our hands this way and that, because we often gather small crowds of spectators. And Chinese people love to take pictures of the laowai doing taiji. But overall, it is very cool in an amusing sort of way.

Wednesday was a very important day, of course. It was October 14th, my 21st birthday. Of course, 21 carries a lot less importance here, where there is no milestone of a drinking age to contend with. As my kouyu teacher said, her 5 year old could probably buy alcohol here. And then there’s the lack of good Chinese alcohol in general- apart from baijiu, which is disgustingly strong, and watered down Qingdao or Yanjing beers, you either have to go for the wine (which I have yet to try, but I’ve heard is generally not good) or expensive imported stuff. But nonetheless, it was still my 21st birthday, so I went out with several people after taichi class to a local pizza place called the Kro’s Nest. We had pizza and beers and played foosball. It was very enjoyable on the whole.

On Friday I went back to the Silk Market with several people, looking at jackets and winter-ish clothes. But as before, the experience of people yelling at you from all sides to buy things was really stressful. We all only got a few things and left. Once outside we wandered down the street to try to find somewhere to eat- all really expensive of course. We bypassed a steakhouse with the odd declaration “probably the best steaks in Beijing” (who says “probably” on an tagline anyway?) and several bars until we came to what looked to be a relatively authentic Mexican restaurant. Immediately our long deprived stomachs started dreaming of nachos and burritos and there was no help for it. So we went in (we were the only people in the place, which was odd for a Friday I thought) and ordered mounds of food that was quite expensive, but it was unquestionably worth every penny to be eating food that wasn’t Chinese or American fast food. After our Mexican feast, we traveled to PJ’s house where I learned how to play mahjong. All in all a very good night.

A sampling of Beijing Opera costumes- not the show we saw, also not my picture

A sampling of Beijing Opera costumes- not the show we saw, also not my picture

On Saturday we had yet another culture class field trip. This time the outing was all centered around Jingju, or Beijing opera, famous for its elaborate costumes and makeup and earsplitting singing. I find jingju fascinating from a cultural perspective and horrifying from a listening perspective. First we visited the hutong home of China’s most famous opera singer, a man who as far as I could tell spent his life playing every female role there was in Beijing opera. After this we went to the National opera theater, where we looked at an exhibition of famous costumes from famous plays and learning about the makeup and martial arts used in the operas. We got to paint little mini faces with our own makeup schemes and try out the different stage combat techniques. A few people, including me, also got to try on the training headdresses/ beards. After a break for lunch, we got to go backstage to watch the actors getting ready by putting on their makeup and then we finally got to watch a show, or rather three short, unconnected acts. After learning about the opera all day, honestly the performance was a little disappointing. I think this was partially because the singing was truly unintelligible (it is even to most modern Chinese speakers, so doubly so to foreigners) and really really shrill. Also, the operas we saw were honestly, sort of closet dramas, with only one to three actors in them. I guess I wanted to see a huge drama, with lots of heros, lovers, villains, gods. The first was literally just one young woman with a fishing rod singing about fishing. The second was a husband and wife arguing about something I didn’t understand. The third, undoubtedly my favorite of the day (mostly because it had the most acting and least singing), was a comedy about a boy and a girl awkwardly meeting for the first time and liking each other, him giving her a jade bracelet and the town matchmaker secretly seeing it all.

After the field trip ended, several of us thought, What better way to top off a day of jingju than to go to a karaoke place and sing pop songs all night? So after dinner eight of us went to the KTV near the subway station (they are pretty ubiquitous here), got a private room and belted out the songs from our childhood- for the most part the popular songs here were hits at least 5 years ago at home- watching, perplexed, the odd videos put with many of the English songs. We’d been wanting to do KTV for a while, just to get the experience, even though most foreigners avoid it like the plague. But it was actually really fun- not what I want to do with every weekend, but fun for at least one time.

Well, now we’re coming to the end of the good part of the blog post. On Tuesday this week I got sick with what seemed to be the flu. Very bad timing, considering I had two exams at the end of the week.

I’ve been reading a book about Nixon’s visit to China in the 1970’s and some of the stages that led up to the visit, including “ping pong” diplomacy between China and the US. Its great and full of diplomatic history, which I love, but one passage in particular stuck out to me for a completely unrelated reason. When the US ping pong team visited China describing a young man who visited China who briefly became very enamored with everything Chinese (like how Chinese cultural revolution society was less conformist than America? hmm) and talked about how he wanted to extend his stay in China. But the line after says, “A stay in a Chinese hospital cured him of this desire.” I laughed out loud when I read this. Because it is the sad and honest truth. Its no surprise to me that a bad experience with Chinese hospitals (and I haven’t heard one that isn’t bad) could have that effect on someone.

My own Chinese hospital fiasco started on Thursday, when, after a day and half in bed with a fever, I needed to go to a hospital/clinic to get a doctor’s note in order to make up tests that I was going to miss. My friend said she’d go with me to find the campus clinic. After finding the campus “hospital” (the appearance of the buildings not inspiring much confidence) we were told to find the “fever door.” After a long search we walked in to a room where a woman in what looked like a hazmat suit gave me a thermometer and then studiously ignored us for 20 minutes while she talked on the phone. Then she started taking blood from the girl in line before me. I freaked out at this point, not wanting to get blood drawn in this place of questionable cleanliness. So we just got a doctor’s note certifying that I did indeed have a fever. In retrospect, that probably would have sufficed, but I did want to get checked out by an actual doctor, so my friend and I, at the direction of our program director, tried to go to a foreigner hospital. But no cabs would take us/ didn’t know where it was. After 10 or so cabs, an old woman came up to us and said she was a teacher and would help us find a hospital. So we got in a cab, finally, and ended up being dropped off near Qinghua University (Beida’s rival) and directed to their campus hospital. Not exactly what we wanted but  it looked a lot cleaner than the Beida one so we decided to try it. They took my temp again, then sent me for a doctor consult and a finger prick. Five minutes after the finger prick, they informed me that I didn’t have the swine flu, just a different kind of flu, so I should go home for 3 days and rest. (Apparently, according to a nurse friend of the family at home, you can’t actually test for swine flu this way, but I wasn’t arguing.) They prescribed me some gross Chinese medicine packets that claim to cure SARS and regular Tylenol Cold. So I went home, exhausted, and my friend Jon stocked me up with crackers and LOTR movies (“Fimited edition”- their typo not mine).

And I laid in bed all weekend and am still not better. Grr arg. I really hope that I recover in the next few days and don’t have more bad news to add. But other than whining about being sick- I am so sick of being sick- I don’t have any more to say at the moment.

If you want to check Flickr, I have finally started to post more pictures of my trip etc.

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The mountain and the megalopolis

October 11, 2009 · 3 Comments

Huangshan view- one of many

Huangshan view- one of many

So, here I am back in Beijing, watching the last of my vacation ebb away. Classes start again tomorrow and homework calls. So, naturally, I feel the overwhelming need to get back on my blog and report on the second half of my trip. Isn’t procrastination wonderful?

Melissa and I left Hangzhou early Wednesday morning to check out and catch a bus to Huangshan (which means Yellow Mountain in Chinese). Huangshan is one of the most famous mountains in China. But unlike Taishan or Mt. Qomolangma (Everest, from Tibetan), Huangshan isn’t famous for being a sacred religious site for Buddhists or Taoists or even for its height (thank GOD) – its just famed for being one of the most scenic places in China. Instead of inspiring religion, it inspired generations of Chinese poets, painters and photographers. Ever see a Chinese painting with strange craggy peaks covered in small delicate pines and surrounded by a sea of clouds? I used to think those kinds of works were just pretty fantasy, but now I can vouch that they are firmly rooted in a reality of otherworldly beauty.

Of course, to experience all this, we first had to get there. We had a little difficulty because the bus from Hangzhou doesn’t go directly to the mountain itself- instead it goes to the town of Tunxi, recently renamed Huangshan City. Tunxi is a small, unimpressive and dirty city. As soon as we got off the bus I knew we’d managed leave all our previous experiences of China behind. “Toto, we’re not in Hangzhou anymore.”  No more were the helpful English signs or the relative ease of being among other tourists. I felt pretty stranded at first, but after a few unhelpful tries, we got directions to the bank. I have no idea what we would have done if we didn’t know Chinese. But in any case, we took a bus to the bank in the center of town, where Tunxi started to look less scary with familiar trappings like clothing stores and fast food- even two other foreigners who looked as shocked to see us as we were to see them. We ate at the KFC next to the bank for expedience, went back to the bus station and got waved onto a bus heading to Tangkou, the town that is actually at the base of the mountain.

The ride to Tangkou was a very interesting one. Along windy roads in mountain valleys, the small bus drove for long periods on the left side of the road to avoid pedestrians or horse carts, only ever seeming to follow traffic laws when a big coach tour bus was approaching. But despite the recklessness, the trip was very enjoyable for the scenery alone. We passed countless green rising hills. Their sharply inclined peaks often had tea fields all the way up, alternating with stands of pine or yellow green fern-like trees that I realized later were bamboo. I can’t even imagine how you would get up there or deal with erosion. There seemed to be two varieties of tea- on that was simply green like the Longjin bushes we’d seen in Hangzhou and some with small delicate white flowers. The road followed a small creek that unfortunately had a lot of trash in it at certain points. At one point I saw a group of brightly arrayed rafts with people in lifejackets in them, which made me wonder if there were rapids etc somewhere around, as it seemed a little strange to take a raft on a small polluted stream in the middle of nowhere. Interspersed in the fields and next to the road were small clusters of houses and other buildings. It reminded me a little of the countryside of Germany, except that the villages were decidedly less picturesque. The buildings were a dirty gray streaked white with uniform black roofs with what looked like wood tiles. Many seemed either half constructed or in permanent disrepair. I didn’t see many people, besides those who flagged down our bus, but I couldn’t help wondering what their life was like. Then, suddenly over the many green hills we caught a glimpse of several taller, granite peaks naked of trees and before we knew it we were in Tangkou. Only one problem: we weren’t sure where to get off.

Luckily for us at this point the bus stopped and an energetic Chinese man hopped on and spoke to us in perfect English. “Are you going to Yellow Mountain? You need to get off here, because this bus goes to the next county.” He led us into his restaurant- Mr. Cheng’s- and proceed to give us travel advice, stock us up with a map, a flashlight and water and even helped us book bus tickets for the next afternoon to Shanghai. (At this point, we had given up on going to Suzhou because the only bus to there was at 6 am and our flights were out of Shanghai anyway). It seems he does a very good business plucking lost looking Westerners off buses and the main street and helping them book travel on the mountain, using connections with everyone in town. He gave good prices and there were already several happy customers at the restaurant when we arrived. So we took his advice and he called a cab driver to take us to the foot of the waterfall area, where we planned to hike before walking up the eastern steps to the summit.

So we started our ascent. Over the past few days we had been joking that walking all over Hangzhou to catch buses and see temples was like “training” for Huangshan. We were dead wrong. Hiking up Huangshan consists of hiking up thousands upon thousands of carved stone steps- like The Great Wall times 50 million. We hiked 5 km (all uphill, mind) through the forests to see the Nine Dragons Waterfall, which was admittedly really cool, but was overshadowed by the knowledge that we were losing daylight and needed to still climb all the way to the top. The physical exertion was immense, and I felt as though I was back in the Boundary Waters on a long portage that just wouldn’t stop.

Once we reached the eastern steps, however, we decided that taking a cable car to the summit made a lot more sense, even though it was expensive. We were already really tired and the prospect of more stairs was not very welcome. So we bought our tickets and waited for the next car. It turned out to be a great decision, not just because it saved time and energy but also because of who we met while waiting- a group of four Chinese people including an English teacher. They were very nice and we chatted with them for a while. When we got to the top, it turned out they were staying at the same hotel as us, so we agreed to try to find it together as it was already dark. After a while walking around (and up and down more steps, alas) we found the hotel and our new friends very generously invited us to dinner. We accepted and had a great time talking to them in both English and Chinese. What’s more, they paid for our bill (which is customary, but was still really nice as the summit prices are EXPENSIVE).  We parted, agreeing to try to find them the next morning when we all got up to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately this didn’t happen, but I’m really glad to have met them all the same.

The next morning we dragged our sore bodies out of bed at 5 am to experience the essential part of the Huangshan experience- seeing the sunrise. However, the serenity and natural beauty I normally associate with sunrises was somewhat marred by the fact that there was already massive crowds of Chinese people packed like lemmings on all the major viewing sites. After jostling for a bit, we were able to hold our cameras over people’s heads and see it somewhat. After the sun had risen, however, people were starting to get cold and most of them left en mass. We were finally able to see (and experience the wind- whew) and it was still beautiful, especially without all the human presence.

After the sunrise, we checked out and decided to hike around on the mountain a little before hiking down the longer and more challenging Western steps. We hiked along a path called “Walking Fairy Bridge” to breathtaking scenery. I wish we’d had time to hike the “Grand Canyon” which is supposed to be the absolutely most beautiful part, but frankly we weren’t up for it. So after a while we turned back and started to walk down the western steps. Of course, “down” was a very relative term in the beginning. The path still passed by some of the highest peaks in the area- Lotus and Tiger- and also included an area called “The One Hundred Ladders.” But eventually, the path turned downward for real. We passed by the famous Guest Welcoming Pine, where there were a ton of tourists, including some soldiers from the Chinese military who were obviously on holiday. Then we continued our descent- all 8 miles of it- until we finally reached the Mercy Light temple and took a taxi back to Mr. Cheng’s with relief. An overall beautiful and rewarding experience, but my legs have yet to forgive me for all the climbing…

Yingkesong- "Guest Welcoming Pine"

Yingkesong- "Guest Welcoming Pine"

A little later we were on a bus to Shanghai. We didn’t do much once we got there- too tired- except find our hostel, shower and sleep. The next morning we slept in and despite our aching and exhausted bodies, we decided that we’d try to see some of Shanghai before our plane flight that night back to Beijing.

Going from a place of such rural natural beauty to a huge city like Shanghai was a little bit of a shock. Maybe it was because I was too tired from hiking to really appreciate it, but I started comparing nearly everything in the city to things in Beijing and I got very homesick. The fact that the areas of Shanghai we wanted to visit are mainly under construction didn’t really help either. Shanghai right now is preparing for the 2010 World Expo and so they are in the midst of restoring buildings and making brand new attractions, among them a huge walkway along the Bund. I’m sure it will be very nice when its finished, but right now its as if we tried to visit Beijing in 2007 while they were preparing for the Olympics. We did have some fun browsing clothing and souvenir shops along Nanjing Road and in Old Town, but for the most part I think the jury’s still out on Shanghai for me. I was glad when we got on the plane back to Beijing- home, at least for now.

Blue Gumbi

Blue Gumbi

So that was my trip, with all its ups and downs and in betweens. Again, I’ll try to load pictures as soon as possible, but I have to get most of them from Melissa because I accidentally erased my memory card halfway through the trip. Talk about a blond moment… But it will be ok- luckily we took 90% of the same photos.

P.S. Here is a link to my second abroad article on Beijing traffic:

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Hangzhou- City of the Lake

October 6, 2009 · 6 Comments

West Lake scenery

West Lake scenery

Dear Mom, Dad, Dan and anyone else who I’ve been out of contact with for a while, this post is to let you know I’m alive and well and having a lot of fun on my vacation.

So right now I’m sitting in the common area of my hostel in Hangzhou. Melissa and I have had a great time here. Tommorrow we leave early in the morning to catch a bus to Huangshan- Yellow Mountain- one of the most beautiful and famous mountains in China.

Hangzhou is a beautiful city and also one of the most popular tourist destinations in China- for both foreigners and Chinese people! And its not hard to see why. The city is built around a huge lake called the West Lake- its breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is bounded on two sides by mountains, which are full of temples, tea plantations and silk factories. Around the lake are a plethora or small cafes, tea houses and souvenier shops.  (I promise to add pictures to Flickr when I get back to Beijing). But I’ll tell more about that later. I want to back up a bit to the first part of our trip- the train.

On Saturday afternoon Melissa and I met to go to the train station.  We were not so excited- we were in the hard seat class of a 15 hour overnight train. But it turned out to be much better than we expected in most respects. The “hard” seats are slightly padded, although they don’t recline at all, which made sleeping rather difficult. The other difficult part about travelling in this class, according to many sources, is that it is hard on your sanity- too loud and crowded and hot. This is true, but we got especially lucky in the people that sat next to us. They were all young students-  from high school to PHD- going on holiday. Two spoke English so we sometimes talked with them, but mostly we just listened to our new friends chatting in Chinese, only getting English explanations when neccessary. They played cards, played music on their cellphones and chatted about a lot of interesting things. One even brought a tiny turtle (I think it was a gift for someone). After a while, especially in the second half of the train ride all the activity was wearing, but for the most part it was an enjoyable experience. Just maybe not one that we’ll repeat if we can help it, mostly because of our neck and leg cramps.

We arrived in Hangzhou at 6:30 in the morning on Sunday tired, hungry and weary. We took a taxi to the bus stop nearest to our hostel, bought some bread and ate it in a park nearby- a part of the West Lake Scenic area called “Orioles Singing in the Willows”. Then we went and found the hostel- made much easier by the huge IYH signs. The hostel is secluded but still only a little bit of a walk from the West Lake. It has a very chill atmosphere, is clean and has several pet dogs and cats wandering around. We checked in, but our room wasn’t ready yet so we went back to the West Lake to see what there was to see. It was beautiful, but I find we enjoyed it more on subsequent days when we were more awake. At noon we had lunch and went back to the hostel to find our room- it was a private room so it was very nice. After a little rest we decided to take on of the public boats across the lake to the islands in the middle. However, once we got there we found they were so crowded we couldn’t really enjoy them very much. So we took another boat to the other side of the lake and wandered for a while among the “Breeze Ruffled Lotus” Garden (all the sights around the lake have colorful, poetic names like this). But we were really too tired to appreciate it fully, so we took a jerky bus (driven by someone who should be banned from ever using a stickshift again…) back to our bus station. After a little rest in our hostel room, we decided that we would try to do some more wandering before turning in for the night. I’m so glad we did. We turned right outside the street of our hostel and walked into Qinghefang Old Street, a night market selling well, everything. Statues, umbrellas, tea, charms, fans, swords, bronze, jade, Chinese medicine, pastries and Hangzhou’s famous (aparently) scissors. It should have been touristy, but it didn’t feel like it too much. We had a lot of fun looking around and shopping for gifts. We returned to our hostel much happier than before.

On Monday we woke up early and spent the morning figuring out travel plans for the rest of the week. With the help of our hostel, we booked a bus ticket, a hostel at the top of Huangshan and a hostel in Suzhou. We also tried to book train tickets but there didn’t end up being any so we had to book a flight out of Shanghai. Interestingly, it wasn’t really that much more than the train. After all the arrangements were made, reeling slightly from the expense we set out for Lingyin Temple- a Zen Buddhist temple. We checked out the huge amounts stone carvings of Buddhas etc. on the cliffs and in the caves of “The Mountain that Flew Here”- in the legend it flew from India. Then we went into the temple itself- beautiful and colorful with so many Buddhas, including the largest sitting Buddha in China. After the temple we went to the nearby monastary, which was also gorgeous. I would live there- it would be easy to be zen in such a place I think (if it weren’t for all the annoying hordes of tourists, that is).

Buddhas on The-Mountain-That-Flew-Here

Buddhas on The-Mountain-That-Flew-Here

We had quite a bit of trouble finding a bus back from the temple, however. By the time we left, the main tourist busses had already stopped running. Zao gao! So we hopped on the only bus available, and luckily a nice man told us which stop was closest to our hostel. Closest is a very relative term- he still told us we’d have to take a taxi. But when we saw where we were dropped off- at the north end of the West Lake, we decided to walk a bit to enjoy the lake in the evening. It was a really good decision that made us think that getting the wrong bus was actually a serendipitous mistake. We were dying of hunger at this point, and what should we see lit up on a lake pavillion on the horizon? A Starbucks, of course. Not ones to argue with fate, we went and got a coffee and sandwiches and sat on the terrace. It was really nice actually- the night was clear and cool and people watching was excellent. After we left Starbucks we kept walking, passing groups of people dancing in squares, live musicians, karaoke. There was also a musical fountain that was really fun to watch. Everything on the lake was lit up and beautiful and we were home before we knew it.

This morning we finished confirming our travel plans, changed rooms to a dorm for the night (much cheaper). Then we caught the bus to the China Tea Museum where we learned about tea history in Southern China. It was actually pretty fascinating. Afterward we also got to try several different varieties of tea including the local kind, Longjin or Dragon Well tea that was being grown in fields all the way up the mountains on either side of us. We left the museum and walked for a while, trying to find the official tea village and a teahouse. We did find one, though it wasn’t official- we went to crowded outdoor restaurant in a village off the road. It was a good choice. Because they didn’t have English menus (we got the impression that Westerners weren’t very common there, especially without tour groups) the owner led us back into the kitchen to show us the different options and made suggestions. We finally ordered the Hangzhou speciality Beggar’s Chicken (I’m pretty sure anyway) some vegetables and some Longjin tea. It was delicious. Then we set off down the road again and found an area called “The Eight Views of Longjin.” We wandered around, touring a cottage with lots of bonsai trees and gardens and the old scenic village next to the tea fields and the Dragon stream from which the tea gets its name. Then a Chinese girl came up to us and asked to speak English with us. She spoke very well- in fact was studying to be an English teacher. We talked for a while and then at some point asked her where the best place to buy tea in the area was. Which, unexpectedly, resulted in an invitation from her mother to join them and their friends in a nearby teahouse (Note: yes we were very careful and it was perfectly safe. We were not led anywhere bad or ripped off or anything). We sipped more Longjin tea, at some fruit and watched them play mahjong. It was very interesting. At the end we bought some tea from the teahouse and took our leave back to the bus. It was fun to experience a little of the local culture.

After the bus ride back we climbed Wushan hill to the Chenghuang Pavillion (or “Heavenly Wind at Wushan Hill”) we had been seeing the entire time we were here (its right near our hostel). It was completely worth it- the view of the lake and the city at night was gorgeous and the wind was indeed heavenly. It was a great ending to our time here.

So that’s all for now- I’ll probably try to write more in Suzhou, or maybe when I get back to Beijing!

Heavenly Wind on Wushan Hill

Heavenly Wind on Wushan Hill

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National Day parade

October 1, 2009 · 2 Comments

Today is Chinese National Day and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. I got up early to watch the parade and celebration on TV with my host family. They were very excited- I was very interested to see what it was going to be like. Its affected my life in the last couple weeks in more ways than one. Some ways are good, like the opening of a new subway line that goes right to Beida. Others not so much, like not being able to go anywhere near the area of Tiananmen and having trouble visiting my friends because they live too close and have curfews.


The air show- below is some of Tiananmen Square with thousands of people holding colorful flowers/wreaths/placards

My first thought about the parade, was “Wow.” The sheer size of the parade was incomparable. Its no wonder that no one was allowed to come to see it, as Tiananmen Square was already full to bursting with 80,000 (according to some reports) students holding up different colored placards/flowers to spell different characters out to the TV viewing audience- the only ones who could see it from the air presumably. That’s not even counting the leaders, the thousands of dancers and performers and military marchers.

My other thoughts were about how different and yet similar this celebration was to parades and celebrations back home- or at least the ones I’ve watched on TV (I feel as though being there is a different experience entirely). Listening (but not understanding very much, sadly) to Hu Jintao’s speech I remembered the excitement at Dickinson during Obama’s inauguration last winter. Looking at the flowers and colors, I immediately thought of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which of course is the only parade I’ve ever watched on television.


Chinese military regiments parade in front of leaders in the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City

Comparisons fell away, however, once the first of two parades started: the military parade. It was the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, but instead of floats and balloons there were regiments of soldiers, tanks and fighter jets. But by far the most unsettling was watching the missiles come down the street. I felt very odd during this part. I have never really seen a military parade before- in my mind that kind of thing was confined to Cold War history, which I (being born right before the Berlin Wall fell) have never experienced. How could my US public school brain not see this and immediately conjure images of newsreels from history class: Nazis goose stepping, ICBMs in Moscow? America just doesn’t do huge military parades- our military’s too unpopular for the last several years and too secretive, and besides, we already know we have the best in the world. But it seems perfect natural to Chinese people that their newfound power should be exhibited. While I was uneasy, my family was very excited, telling me how every plane and tank and missile in the parade was made completely in China, instead of being imported from Russia or elsewhere. While I can see the strategic significance of this, dread was more prominent than amazement at that point.


Talking Chairman Mao picture surrounded by hundreds of marchers

After every branch of the Chinese military had marched past the square, a much more enjoyable parade began. First, pictures of the four Chinese leaders since 1949 (yes only four) Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were paraded down the street with letters advertising their greatest achievements. As they passed the square, a fragment of a recorded speech of their was played, even for the last two although they were awkwardly also present in person. Then came floats depicting China’s achievements in all different departments: energy, transportation, the space program, education (hundreds of college students waving university flags), sports (with Olympic athletes) and environmental protection. There was even a float with a bunch of foreigners on it (see, we ARE a circus act!) All the floats were surrounded by blocks of people waving different colored pom poms, scarves, wreathes, or flowers. The floats were also interspersed with dancers and marching bands. Then came the floats for each region in China, including Taiwan and Tibet of course. Lastly was a huge parade of children (China’s future) wearing various forms of traditional dress. There was a huge block of kids who released hundreds of balloons into the air, marking the end of the parade.


Parade between Forbidden city and Tiananmen. The colors around the float and in the square on the left are actually people. Also, note the beautiful clear weather- not normal for Beijing and created by "cloud seeding" the week before

Needless to say, it was a breathtaking spectacle and interesting event to behold. Was it propaganda? Oh, hell yes. That didn’t surprise me as much as how well it was done. Whoever does China’s event planning ought to get a prize- lots of them. I was impressed, and its not even my country. It sent a lot of messages very clearly: China is powerful, unified and stable. The PRC is here to stay and the possibilities for China’s future are endless.

Of course, no one mentioned anything about the cultural revolution or any other bad things- all was calculated to give a good impression. Everything went off without a hitch. But that actually highlights the PRC’s iron grip more than anything else- why would you need to forbid anyone from coming and forbid people from doing things like flying kites if everything in your country is fine? But it remains to be seen whether the Chinese people agree. That is what really matters, after all.

Note: None of these are my pictures. See the gallery at:

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Rollercoaster part 2

September 29, 2009 · No Comments

I thought I should update again before I go travelling later this week. There’s also a lot to update. The roller coaster of emotions and events continues.

I had a nice day on Saturday- I met with my new language partner, Athena. We sat at the campus coffee shop and talked for an hour  in both Chinese and English. I learned that she is a freshman journalism major who lived in Illinois (not Chicago) for a year when she was a kid and applied for several colleges in the Midwest (including Carlton) . So her English is very good. And we have a lot to talk about- we spent the hour discussing the differences between America and China and whether or not the environmental summits at the UN would reach any conclusion and the G20 conference. And over half of this was in Chinese. I’m so happy that my teacher randomly picked out of line somebody that’s nice and politically conscious. I could ask for no more.

Then I met my Beijinger friend Cecilia for lunch. We went a restaurant where we had a traditional Sichuan fish dish. It was really tasty, and she ordered the not-so-spicy flavor so I could handle it. It was a really fun time and I was in a great mood at the end of it.

Then of course I got news that one of my friends on the Dickinson program was in the hospital with appendicitis.  He had to have surgery (a scary thing anywhere- but in China especially) on Sunday night and is staying in the hospital for the rest of the week. We’ve all been to visit him several times to keep him company and talk to the doctors for him. He’s actually being really well taken care of- he’s staying in one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever seen in China, with two big screen tvs, couches, a visitor bed, a fridge and a private bathroom. But of course that doesn’t make it suck any less that he has to be there and can’t travel over break.

So, up and down seems to be my status quo for now. I can’t wait till break- in two days! Of course, the “constant state of discomfort” that is textbook culture shock will probably increase when dealing with trains, buses and hostels. At the same time, I *think* I’m ready for it.

P.S. I’m hoping at some point to make this blog less of a diary and more of a place to dissect cultural differences/impressions- or maybe just a better mix of the two. If there’s anything anyone is curious about, let me know through comments. I’m almost at the point where certain things are becoming habit and no longer seem completely off the wall. On top of this blog, I’m writing a bi-weekly column for my school’s newspaper, so if anyone wants to check it out they’re welcome to. Here’s a link to my first column, about China’s National Day preparations:

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Culture shock and travel plans

September 25, 2009 · 1 Comment

Tower of Buddhist Incense

The Tower of Buddhist Incense at the Summer Palace

This week so far has been a complete roller coaster, both because of what I’ve been doing day to day (something exciting one day, nothing the next) and also because of my emotions. I got hit hard this week by culture shock- for lack of a better word. It wasn’t what I expected culture shock to be, anyway. I always thought culture shock meant not liking the food or being weirded out by squat toilets. But although I definitely feel those things sometimes, I think my culture shock was something more. Maybe it was just a lot of things building up- frustration from classes combined with the immense language and cultural barrier combined with having to make all new friends combined with an overwhelming worry that things won’t get better any time soon.

And then add on the stress of having to plan and book a trip for October vacation 11 days for Chinese National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. Nearly all Chinese people who have the opportunity travel during this holiday, so train tickets  and hotels need to be booked early if you want good seats/rooms. But of course, we’ve been so busy the last two weeks that we’ve been scrambling to plan trips last minute. All of my classmates had different ideas about where to go, and there are at least four groups just among Dickinson students going to very different places and not really communicating very well about where and when. Several of my classmates are going to Inner Mongolia to live in yurts and ride camels and then traveling all over northwest/ north central China. Some are going to Shanghai or Hong Kong. A group is also going to Yunnan in the far south of China. I want to go to Hangzhou and Suzhou- garden/lake cities around Shanghai, but its such a popular destination that I thought the train tickets and hotels would be all sold out.

With all this stuff stressing me out, I was under the weather for a few days. But, I’m happy to report that just one day after feeling completely horrible, I stayed awake in/understood my classes, went to lunch with new friends, booked tickets and made hostel reservations in Hangzhou for my friend Melissa and I, and found a language partner to help me practice spoken Chinese. The cultural things will come, but I think I’ll be a lot less susceptible to culture shock without everything else too! Its so nice when things just start to work out.

In other news this week- On Monday it was a BEAUTIFUL, clear, bright sunny day (you have no idea how much of a blessing this is until you’ve been in Beijing trying to see through foggy haze) Melissa and I went on a trip to the Summer Palace (the real one, not just the ruins). It was magnificent. The Summer Palace is a huge complex of imperial buildings mostly rebuilt in the 19th century as a pleasure garden for the imperial family. Richly painted and decorated with gilt, endless picturesque shrines, temples, stages, living quarters, pavilions, and bridges cover a huge area around a lake and the hill made from the dirt dug up to make the lake. It was really pretty and really enjoyable. Look for pictures soon. (My camera died halfway through, so I have to get pictures from Melissa).

Now for the less happy part of the trip. We walked around the less crowded west side of the lake, but misjudged the distance and the time. So when we tried to exit the grounds on the south end instead of the north end. Then we tried to find a taxi or a bus we knew, but we were in the wrong place. We walked north until we found a lot of taxi drivers milling around, but they refused to take us back to Peking University because it was too close. The only ones willing to take us were rickshaw drivers, but it was getting dark, so we declined. We kept walking and finally found a bus stop with a bus number we knew. Unfortunately, we had to wait at least 40 minutes for the bus to come since it was the end of the line stop. By this point, we were so hungry that we had to resort to eating McDonalds before getting Melissa on a bus back to her house. It was an adventure, surely, but I liked the first part better!

In small world news: Today during my class break I met a guy who used to live in Bloomington and whose cousin goes to Armstrong High School (to anyone who doesn’t know, my high school’s rival). And, more surprising, I also heard from my friend Bethany who is studying in India, that she is meeting up with some of my old friends from Wilderness Canoe Base in the Himalayas. Apparently I can run from the Minnesotan bubble (where everyone knows everybody and their mother in the Midwest)- go to Pennsylvania and even China, but I can’t hide forever. It can find you ANYWHERE. But, you know, as much as I used to dislike the bubble, it is comforting in a way to know that I still have connections to home even halfway across the world.

Next on the agenda: enjoy this weekend, explore more parts of Beijing, find a bookstore/swing dancing venue, eat mooncakes, buy tea. And, of yeah, do homework. Blogs are such wonderful procrastination, aren’t they? As are 5 kuai DVDs….sigh.

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