Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Great Wall

After classes ended last Friday, we headed to a nearby restaurant for Chinese language tables. (Every Friday, the program provides the teachers and their students a massive lunch and an opportunity to talk about the week, weekend plans, life in China, etc.) Our table of 12 had about 15 dishes ranging from Peking duck to egg soup to the most intensely prepared fish I’ve ever seen. (I don’t have a picture of the dish, unfortunately, but think gravity-defying dredlocks, kind of.) Despite that not terribly appetizing description, if last week’s Chinese language table was an accurate preview of what’s to come every Friday, I just might have found the highlight of the DSIC program.

We then boarded a bus to Simatai (司马台), a section of the Great Wall about three hours from Beijing. There are parts of the Great Wall closer to Beijing, but Simatai is reputed to be relatively undisturbed and less touristy. After unpacking our bags at the hostel, we enjoyed a pleasant dinner and promptly headed to bed to prepare physically and mentally for Saturday’s hike. Or not…

I woke up at 3 a.m. to someone pounding on our door and yelling in Chinese. I’m not quite sure how to describe the feeling of waking up before dawn in an unfamiliar bed at a youth hostel-turned-hurricane simulation center thousands of miles away from home to the sound of a teacher’s rapid-fire commands in a still-very foreign language. Five minutes later, we were making our way up the mountainside, hoping to make it to the top by sunrise, flashlights in hand, still half-asleep. A few Great Wall conclusions/epiphanies:
  • I am not functional by 3 a.m.
Jesse + my dark circles
  • You know something’s wrong when you’re sweating profusely by the time birds start singing.
  • The Great Wall, at least at Simatou, should be renamed the Great Staircase, because that’s exactly what it is.
  • Whoever designed the Great Staircase had very small feet, or at least they hated everyone larger than size 5½. Or maybe they just screwed up the calculations with their scale model.
  • Correction: the architect team died/was executed every hundred meters, at which point all measurements were reset. Translation: the stairs fluctuate in length between S and XXS.
  • I don’t remember ever getting up to see the sunrise before last weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I love sunrises and watch them regularly, but always at the end of a late night, not after sleeping.
  • qotd: 长城很⋯⋯长。

Monday, June 29, 2009

Week 二 Recap

Week two was insanely busy. On the academic side, I’m starting to feel that I’m maxing out my hanzi-memorization capability every night. No worries—it’s not that I’m discouraged, but I’m pretty convinced that for every two new characters I learn, one previously memorized character simultaneously escapes from my brain. Then again, I never imagined last year that I could ever come close to memorizing 50 characters a day. I suppose that the tolerance for hanzi, like most others, only increases with time and (ab)use.

On Thursday, all the second-year students and teachers went to Tianyi (天意) Market, where I had the chance to practice my haggling skills, or lack thereof (in English, embarrassing; in Mandarin, unspeakable). I ended up buying a stuffed animal because I pitied it for being so ugly and it looked kind of unhappy. Without this knowledge, several classmates later agreed that its face closely resembled mine (fml).

Tianyi Market entrance

because life would not be complete had I not seen pig moobs

On Friday, the whole program went to the Great Wall (relevant post and pictures soon to follow). Saturday, I had dinner with some Andover friends doing various other things in Beijing this summer: Sayoko, Tantum, Ben, Kie, and Heroy. Being able to catch up with old friends over good food was really great. (Food-wise, the highlight for me was this crazy-looking corn-bean-sugar pancake that tasted a lot better than it sounds.) After dinner, we all headed to Houhai for a bit before deciding it was too hot to weave through the massive crowds.

Then Sunday was moving day. And by “day” I mean that the entire “uh-oh, what time is it?!”-shower-shove everything in my bag-“why am I doing this again?”-checkout-“why hello, host mother” process lasted about 20 minutes. I’ll devote an entire post to my new living situation soon, but in the meantime:
the pad

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lil' cheese on my croissant

A former violin teacher instructed me, "Rules exist for us to challenge." He was referring to a particular passage of Saint-Saëns, but I'm pretty sure Chinese drivers overheard him: I was convinced that I would make the obituary section of a local newspaper while crossing the street last week to pick up my dry cleaning last week. Being a pedestrian is Beijing is like playing a real-life game of Frogger with a "let's hit the foreigners!" modification. Traffic lane lines and street signs seem to exist solely for decoration, and I'm pretty sure it would be safer if Beijing drivers were required to chug baijiu before starting their engines. Or imagine Westheimer except with as many pedestrians and bicycles as cars and a government decree that brakes absolutely never be used. Thankfully, my newly clean shorts and I made it back unharmed, albeit emotionally scarred.

On a completely unrelated note:This book lists the phone numbers available for sale at the shop I visited to purchase a temporary phone and SIM card for my stay in Beijing. I’m guessing Chinese phone numbers are longer because there are many more Chinese than Americans. Much more interesting than the extra digit is that there are different prices for different numbers. (All the numbers on these first two pages cost the same, but the following pages list numbers with different prices.) The shopkeeper was trying to explain to me, or rather, I was trying to understand, that the prices reflect superstitions about different numbers. For example, the number 4 sounds very similar to the word "death" in Mandarin, so phone numbers containing 4s are cheaper. On the other hand, 8 is considered lucky; numbers with 8s are pricier. (I’m not sure how the prices are calculated for phone numbers with 4s and 8s- maybe those mean you’ll die soon but in a fortunate manner?) And then prices can also go up depending on patterns/ease of memorization/etc. Anyway, my temporary Beijing number is 1366-139-1201. No 4s- yay!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We make history

Listening to:
Rachael Yamagata's "Duet". (Fine, I'm actually a woman.)

Iced cafe latte from the dorm lobby. Strong, delicious, much needed, and quite possibly the beginning of a two-month-long summer fling.

Recent casualties:
My bright orange "motherboard" shirt fell apart in the wash yesterday. Doing laundry here involves wrestling with a howling, bronze-age washing machine going through heroin withdrawal.

Also, I'm probably moving out of the dorm this weekend to begin my homestay. (Li laoshi asked me yesterday if I'd like to do one, and I agreed to, for better or for worse.) Second-year students at DSIC normally aren't allowed to do homestays, but apparently several higher-level students who originally applied to stay with Chinese families have decided they'd rather stay in the dorm.

Honestly, they're probably making the better decision: they'll have better rooms, private restrooms, no curfew, and the lobby cafe's coffee. Plus they'll be on campus, a definite advantage whether cramming for tests at 6 a.m. or coming back from late nights out on weekends. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to a more complete cultural immersion. I'm sure that trying to coexist with my Chinese family using my very broken Chinese will make for an interesting experience!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tiananmen and Forbidden City

The Duke Study in China (DSIC) program has planned group excursions every weekend. Last Saturday, we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Two facts significantly diminished my and, I'm quite certain, many others' enjoyment of the sightseeing:

1. We had to leave the dorm at 8:15 a.m.. Later than class, I know, but it hardly felt that way after getting back from Sanlitun (interesting neighborhood, relevant post soon to come) at an hour I probably shouldn't publish publicly.
2. Blazing 的要命 (literally: of wanting death). As you can likely deduce, this useful adverbial phrase (part of the new grammar this week) indicates excessiveness. Not the news: it can also get very hot in Houston. But weaving among hordes of tourists for 5 hours without stepping once into air conditioning is not a favorite activity of mine there either.

That said, visiting these sites was definitely a fascinating experience.

First stop:
the new National Center for the Performing Arts
(It's been criticized as an egg in boiling water,
but I thought it was pretty cool.)

Tiananmen Square:
For me, Tiananmen was the biggest surprise of the day. (Well, maybe second to the cheese-flavored ice cream I bought at the entrance to the Forbidden City.) It was simultaneously larger and less impressive than what I had imagined based on images in textbooks and news stories. In other words, its approximately 100 acres make it the largest city square in the world, but the streets and buildings that flank it, with a few exceptions, did not seem particularly grand or architecturally interesting, especially considering the size of the place. (Although I am sure that those of you more knowledgeable about Beijing than me could better appreciate the significance of nearby features.)

Another surprise was the lack of much resemblance to any kind of social center for locals. Many of the people we walked past in the square were speaking foreign languages, mostly English, and the Chinese in the square were either tour guides or snack/water/photograph vendors. I assume this social sterility is related to the vastness of the square, which lacks benches or adjacent cafes. Another culprit may have be the security check required for entry. While perhaps necessary for the maintenance of public order on the 20th anniversary of the 1989 protests (about which online information is blocked by the government), a security check would probably be an inconvenience for groups of Chinese friends looking to hang out at Tiananmen.

Forbidden City:
Massive. According to Wikipedia, the complex covers 7,800,000 square feet. The buildings range from private residences for separate wives to an ornate palace the emperor entered for only a few minutes to clear his mind before important meetings to imperial gardens. First thought: it must have been pretty sweet to rule as emperor of China. Then, when our tour guide informed us that the emperor had to rise at 5:00 for meetings, I started to pity the old guy.

In general, gigantic. Huge. I was exhausted just from walking through once, one way. The buildings themselves were very institutional and monolithic, not as charming or varied or elegant as I would imagine the emperor of China would want his private residence to be. On the other hand, I'm sure the place would still fetch a hefty sum on the market, especially at Beijing's rapidly rising real estate prices.

with Madison and Dahlia

the complex from a nearby hill
(Performing Arts Center near horizon on the right)

who needs security cameras when you have 15 layers of bricks
to prevent would-be assassins from tunneling in?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Week 一 recap

Week one passed by very quickly, but it already feels as if my arrival in Beijing last Friday was a long time ago. (That actually made no sense.)

For those of you wondering how I'm spending my time aside from trying weird foods and getting lost in random alleys: We have about four hours of class a day starting at 8:00 a.m.- an hour-long lecture (8 students/class), two hours of vocabulary review and grammar drills (4 students), and then one-on-one conversation practice with assistant teachers. We’ve also been assigned individual language partners, Chinese college students with whom we’re instructed to spend an hour every weekday doing anything we want, as long as we speak Chinese. My language partner’s name is Han Weiwei (韩伟伟), rising sophomore majoring in biology at 首师大.

Also, homework = a page or two of homework based on the morning classes' material + about 40 new characters every night + a couple pages of reading + grammar notes. Oral and written tests on Fridays and a short essay every weekend.

Totally random:
Go Rockets!

To celebrate the end of week one, Jared, Dahlia, Bowon, Jonathan and I ordered McDonald’s at 4 a.m.. Not that I ever eat it in the U.S., but for some reason the fact that they delivered to my room on the 11th floor within half an hour made the gray meat and rubbery McNuggets amazing. Also, McDonald’s has a really clever number in China- the area code followed by 517-517. In Mandarin, this is pronounced wu yao qi, wu yao qi, which sounds very similar to wo yao chi, wo yao chi (I want to eat, I want to eat).
the goods arrive

Cheese, ketchup, sweet and sour sauce on my sheets.
Laundry time.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

a.k.a. Please do not touch!


Dream: WWIII

I opened up the New York Times homepage on my computer and read: "100,000,000 Killed." I calmly walked into Michael's room to tell him that World War III had begun. "I just wanted you to be awake when we die," I said as I woke him up. We both sat quietly in the dark on his bed, and I couldn't stop wondering who was writing and updating the headline story on the NYT website while waiting for the world to end.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dietary conditions

Before I came to China, many people informed me, with widely varying degrees of glee/melancholy, that food here would be very different from what we Americans call Chinese food back in the States.

On the one hand, a fair share of my meals here have not been that exotic- dumplings, steamed buns, and lots of noodles. And holy cow(!), lots of pork. It actually kind of blows my mind to think about how many pigs the PRC consumes every hour.* My family does not eat pork at home, so this is requiring some adjustment. All these foods are generally a bit saltier, greasier, and MSG-ier than Chinese food in America.** For those of you who know/have ever eaten with the tofu-brownrice-organic-granolamunching-lowsodium members of my family, you can probably imagine the trauma my stomach is currently experiencing.

This is probably exacerbated by the fact that I don't really know how to order food in Chinese. I can only express fairly simple ideas with basic vocabulary, such as "I want your best-tasting noodles" or "No pork, please." Not that complicated, right? But (I think) the fact that I'm not non-Asian = no mercy: most waiters at this point launch a high-speed barrage of questions with a thick Beijing accent I am woefully unprepared to decipher. At this point:

1. Point at something and say "这个 (This one)." One order of mystery, coming right up.
2. Even better: "你有什么我就吃什么 (roughly translated- I'll eat whatever you give me)." Then I smile and try to look like a pitiful foreigner. (I probably just appear somewhat constipated.) Unfortunately:

yesterday's disastrous results of method 2

I'm still not quite sure what this was. Some kind of noodle in a dark brown broth generously saturated by MSG. It also had some bone chips and these herbs that vaguely reminded me of a family vacation in Morocco...

1. I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, but plastic bag slowly releasing chemicals into boiling-hot soup was not on my list. (Yes, that plastic bag is between the soup and the bowl...)

2. Eomma/Appa, please don't freak out. I've found that food in China, even more so than back home, improves exponentially as price increases. Last night, for example, Tyler and I had a great meal at a nearby hotel = therapy.

3. I apologize for the whininess of this post. Plan 3: I will study the crap out of Chinese menu terms this week. In the meantime, I plan to survive on a newly-acquired bag of delicious goji berries and on daily purchases from a nearby baozi (steamed buns) stand.

* I just read a report that the Chinese consumed 621,951,219 pigs in 2006, (that's about 70,999 pigs per hour). And trust me, they eat the entire pig.

** This might not be the case for Golden Chopsticks, Andover's most beloved late-night institution. (Secret deliveries at 3 a.m.? What?)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


The language pledge starts today. No spoken English for two months except for during emergencies and contact with people at home.

Update: In the interest of full disclosure, I hereby admit to having used English already. In the classroom and with other students in the hallway, we all speak Chinese, but with the roomie and friends from Yale, the lingua franca is essentially Chinglish. To be fair, it's more like 中中中中中(英)文- here's the secret breakdown of time spent speaking in Chinese(中)/English(英):

- during class (中): 30%
- conversation with locals (中): 15%
- in the hallway (中): 5%
- general conversation with other students (中): 28%
- difficult words/concepts (英): 2%
- cursing out of frustration (英): 10%
- blogging/Facebook/Skype (英): 5%
- avoiding a mental breakdown (英): 5%

-78% Chinese/22% English

1. That was the most math I've done since the 11th grade.
2. I need to learn how to express frustration in Chinese. (The worst thing I know how to say at the moment is: "You are a bad person.") Expanding on this in Chinese could move 10% to the 中 side, resulting in 88% Chinese/22% English.
That's right. 110% badass.

View from the dorm

view from the hallway

Beijing's 3rd ring road- think Beltway 8, except with
more people, cheaper cars, and better landscaping

if you think Amsterdam has a lot of bikes,
you haven't been to China
(I'll write more about this soon.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Houston > Beijing

Beijing Capital International Airport:

Swine flu checks
1. As soon as the plane landed, Chinese health workers boarded to check everyone's temperature.
2. At a checkpoint on the way to Immigration, government officials used heat sensors to monitor the body temperature of passengers.
3. Before we could get off the bus, representatives from Capital Normal University came and recorded everybody's temperature. (They are continuing this every morning before class for a week.)

The dorm is fairly clean and modern, albeit a bit institutional. According to the property file on my desk, the room is actually called an "aparthotel room property." Two desks, beds, a television, fridge, and computer. The only things different from what you'd find in a typical dorm room in the U.S. is a large, metal water boiler next to the fridge. We're supposed to use it to boil tap water before drinking it to avoid diarrhea and other unfortunate conditions.

the dorm building

Jared, the roomie

Another difference: every other morning, a friendly, uniformed woman comes to take out the trash, sweep, mop, and ask us how we're doing. Dear Yale, please take note.


1. Dear Joobie, why are you in China?
I began studying Mandarin at school last fall and am now enrolled in an intensive second-year summer course here.

2. Where in China?
I'm studying with the Duke Summer in China program, located at Capital Normal University (首都师范大学) in Beijing.

3. Why this blog?
Many thanks to the generous funding of the Richard U. Light Fellowship at Yale University! One of the requirements is a blog: minimum two paragraphs and two photos per week.

4. Isn't Blogger blocked by the Chinese government?
Yes, which is why I was not able to start this blog until I found out about Hotspot Shield. Dear reader, if you are a Communist informant, please do not tell the Chinese government about this wonderful program.

5. Do you miss me?
As a tribute to good friends, good times, and wannabe-kindergarteners, the following photo is of the masterpiece still drying in my room at home:

Boom. Epic fingerpaint.