Friday, July 31, 2009

Gastronomical success

Even after seven weeks, dining in Beijing still feels like a novel and somewhat bewildering experience. That said, I’m writing to report on three recent triumphs.

Last week, I met up with Wen Yu for a late-night meal in Sanlitun. We headed to Bellagio, a Taiwanese restaurant near the Workers’ Stadium famous for its late hours and epic desserts. The food was delicious, but I was paying much more attention to Wen Yu’s fascinating stories from his trip to Pyongyang(!) last week. (For you Yalies, he should be giving a talk or speaking at a Master’s Tea sometime this fall.)

This weekend, I visited Shiv and Allison at the Harvard Beijing Academy campus in Wudakou. As we began walking in the direction of Ganges, an award-winning Indian restaurant, but after a few minutes calculated that it wasn’t nearby and decided to take a taxi instead. (The restaurant was actually very close, resulting in what I believe was the shortest cab ride of my life thus far.) The dishes were hearty and authentic, complemented by our refreshing mango lassis.

Calling Quanjude a roast duck restaurant is like saying Beijing is polluted (refer to previous post). Quanjude (全聚德) is the Peking duck restaurant of China, a veritable temple of quack. The chefs bring whole roast ducks to your table and present certificates, which, in addition to reminding you that “Quanjude was established in 1864 (the third year of Tongzhi, Qing Dynasty),” presents the numbers of your ducks. The one below indicates that I had 499,152nd duck they served since 1864. If I were Chinese and a duck, I would definitely aspire to end my existence on a plate in Quanjude.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beijing pollution

Calling Beijing polluted is like saying that January in New England is chilly.

Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Factories, litter, sewage, cigarette smoke, heavy traffic, and a widespread lack of environmental awareness seem to have created a not only unpleasant but also high dangerous and unhealthy pollution situation. (If this sounds bitter, it's because most of the white clothes I brought are now closer to cream, and my lungs are not so kindly requesting that I immediately return home.) If you want to know more, below is a link to and some quotes from a BBC article published last year.

Beijing pollution: Facts and figures
Air pollution in Beijing is a problem. Figures for particulate matter (PM10) - tiny airborne particles caused by the burning of fossil fuels like petrol in motor vehicles - are regularly several times higher than the WHO air quality guideline level of 50 micrograms/cubic metre.

In fact the WHO's usual target even lower, at 20 micrograms/cubic metre.

Beijing's figures even exceed the WHO's interim target for developing countries of 150 micrograms/cubic metre. The interim or 'easy' target is intended to encourage developing countries to begin gradually cutting down emissions.

The Hood

Several of you have asked questions about my homestay, so here’s a bit more information:

My host parents, Gao mama and Tan bobo, live on the third floor of a modest apartment—their home consists of a kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms. (I’m staying in the room of their 29-year-old son, who moved out when he got married several years ago). Gao mama and Tan bobo have retired, but because they both formerly worked as administrators at Capital Normal University (首都师范大学), the location of the DSIC program, they still live in their apartment located in a residential part of the campus designated for teachers and administrators. The 20-minute walk from here to the DSIC classrooms each morning is sufficiently lengthy for me to inhale a boatload of toxic chemicals* and to forget half of the characters I memorize the night before.

*Beijing is extremely polluted. (Relevant post coming soon.)

Here are a few pictures of the apartment building and the part of campus where it’s located:

Monday, July 27, 2009

Diploma theft

Listening to:
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major (Edward Elgar) performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

I don't think any other music in the world clears my mind as completely or quickly as the first two minutes of this masterpiece.

I came across this stunning article while reading the news last night:
Files Vanished, Young Chinese Lose the Future
(Sharon LaFraniere)
[These Chinese college] graduates say they believe officials stole the files and sold them to underachievers seeking new identities and better job prospects — a claim bolstered by a string of similar cases across China.

Ironically, our textbook reading this morning extolled the virtues of China's modern, equal-opportunity education system.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


As I mentioned in an earlier post, the DSIC program students and teachers headed to Xian for our mid-term long weekend. The former capital of several Chinese dynasties and a trading center on the Silk Road, Xian remains one of China’s most important and interesting cities.

Friday evening, we took a bus to the Beijing-West train station, tickets in hand, and waited to board. I realize that it’s not tremendously original to state that China has a lot of people, but that single observation monopolized most of my thoughts for the hour we stood in line. Try to picture Grand Central Station, except not as attractive, with the entire Chinese population of the Tri-State Region crammed inside, plus one Chinese-language program’s worth of bewildered Americans.

one small corner of the station

Fortunately, we had soft bunks, as opposed to soft seats, hard bunks, or hard seats—the other options. Each compartment contained four beds, a trash can, a silk rose, and a view of Jonathan meditating on his future:

view from my bed

Ten hours and several interesting conversations later, we arrived in Xian, where we were greeted by our guide Helen (who, despite her unnerving habit of constantly referring to herself in the third person, Helen was helpful and informative). After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we walked to nearby Buddhist pagoda.

After lunch, we drove about an hour to the site of the Terracotta Army. Incidentally, my family and I went to the “Guardians of China’s First Emperor” exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science earlier this summer to view the largest display of Terracotta Army artifacts ever to travel to the United States. In some ways, seeing this temporary exhibit, although much abridged, was a more pleasant experience compared to visiting the museum in Xian; at HMNS, the warriors, horses, and artifacts were arranged to heighten aesthetic appeal, complete with customized stands and lighting against ink-colored walls, and strategically interspersed by text that helped establish the historical context. On the other hand, to see rows upon rows of terracotta warriors, weapons, and horses at the original excavation site was awe-inspiring. I was simultaneously reminded of the Beijing-West train station and my favorite “demotivational” poster quote, originally referring to the Pyramids:

“Achievement- you can do anything you set your mind to when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor.”

Sunday morning, we rented bikes at the main southern gate of Xian’s city wall, which forms a complete 11.9 km ring around the city center. It took us about an hour to bike clockwise on the wall back to the southern gate.

Jared and me with our tandem

Xu laoshi and some second-year students

After returning our bikes, we headed to the Muslim Quarter, where we visited the Great Mosque of Xian. The mosque is a well-preserved architectural gem, an elegant combination of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Chinese influences. The surrounding Muslim Quarter, however, has become a rather gaudy showcase cramped with shopkeepers peddling Chairman Mao t-shirts and fake Gucci wallets, a shame when considering the rich history of Xian and its Muslim population.

After a delicious hot pot/shabu-shabu dinner, we said goodbye to Helen and boarded a train back to Beijing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mir bleibt nur Telepatie

I can't believe it's already been six weeks.

Listening to:
"Wenn Du Nur Wüsstest" by Anajo. It brings back good memories of road trips and Frau Svec's class.

Life has been busy lately. The DSIC course is the first class I've ever taken in which the workload grows exponentially during the course. We still have about the same amount of reading and number of new characters every day, but the written homework has approximately tripled since the midterm. In addition, I spent a fair amount of time the past two weeks working as an intern for Indego Africa, an interesting and highly promising non-profit organization. Those of you interested in social enterprise or non-profit work in general should check out their website.

wotd: 狗拿耗子: to meddle with others' business (lit. dog-catch-mouse)

Speaking of dogs, China has the world's most adorable dogs. I'm convinced that it must be illegal here to own a pet that's either ugly or larger than a chihuahua. (Tyler and I also came up with a different, much more tragic theory, but I'd rather not that think about that too much.)

exhibit A

I'll post a more complete update very soon!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Weeks 三, 四 recap

Listening to:
Regina Spektor’s “Music Box”—somehow, I find it simultaneously a bit sad and funny enough to make me laugh out loud, every time.

We took our midterms on Friday, marking the end of the program’s first half (equivalent to a semester of college language study). Preparing for the midterms made it very clear that the DSIC instructors aren’t kidding around when they call the program “intensive.” That said, I’ve settled into a regular, albeit fairly busy, schedule:

Typical weekday*
6:30-7:00- tea; review for the morning’s mini-quiz
7:00-7:30- write vocab characters in the air while showering; get dressed
7:30-8:00- walk to class with bread in one hand, boxed milk in the other
8:00-11:00- class
11:00-12:00- one-on-one conversation time with a teacher
12:30-1:30- lunch at a nearby restaurant
1:30-3:00- meet with Weiwei, my language partner
3:00-5:00- start homework; hang out in the dorm lobby café
5:00-5:45- head home, often getting distracted and taking detours
6:00-7:00- dinner with Mama and Bobo
7:00-9:00- complete written assignments; abuse the dictionary while reading the new text
9:00-10:00- eat watermelon**/drink chrysanthemum tea/chat with Mama and Bobo
10:00-11:00- study new characters
11:00-12:00- read news; prepare for bed

*“Typical” is a bit misleading, because this schedule more often than not needs to be adjusted to account for explorations/extended conversations with Bobo and Mama/seeing non-DSIC friends in Beijing/Skype/particularly difficult assignments/bubble tea/foot massages/other distractions.

**I finally understand the ubiquity of watermelon at Chinese buffets in the U.S. (Bobo and Mama eat watermelon like nobody’s business, and I’m slowly catching on.)

After midterms, we left for a three-day trip to Xian. Pictures to come soon!

wotd (only in China…): 人山人海 (renshan renhai): crowds of people (lit. people-mountain people-sea)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


1. Why have you been posting at such odd times during the day?
I recently realized that my post dates/times were still in Central Standard Time. I just figured out how to change it the other CST, China Standard Time, so there shouldn't be any more 4:00 a.m. posts.

2. Why are your pictures of such bad quality?
I'm using the measly 2.0 megapixel camera on my iPhone, which also can't zoom. Sorry for the fuzziness!

3. How's the homestay?
Overall, excellent. Tan bobo and Gao mama are wonderful hosts, and their home is fairly comfortable. One drawback is that I have to wake up around 6:15 a.m. to start boiling water if I want a hot shower. (Then again, Jared's host family doesn't have a shower, hot or cold, so I'm grateful that boiling water is even an option.) I do have air conditioning but feel a bit guilty using it because neither the kitchen/dining area nor the other bedroom also has AC.

Two recent developments, however, have significantly improved (and somewhat imperiled) my homestay experience.
a) I now have internet at home. It's slow and unreliable, but still functional enough to significantly impair my productivity. (Thanks, Li laoshi!)
my sweet ride with his many local friends

In an earlier post, I compared being a pedestrian in Beijing to playing Frogger. Thanks to the bike lent to be my language partner Weiwei, Frogger is now in high-speed/extra difficult mode. But the quicker commute also translates to ten extra much appreciated minutes of sleep every morning.

wotd: 抱歉 (baoqian): sorry; apologetic (lit. embrace-lacking)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The good, the bad, the weird, and the really weird

This entire post, like much of my life, will be dedicated to food.

Latest grocery store purchases:
Thankfully, I'm getting better at supplementing my diet with local snacks. Clockwise from left: fruit chips, sesame rolls, almonds, dried peaches, dried waxberries (better than they sound), wasabi crackers, spicy crackers. In order of tastiness: sesame rolls, spicy crackers, dried waxberries, almonds, dried peaches, wasabi crackers, fruit chips. The peaches would be higher on the list if someone hadn't decided it'd be a wonderful idea to add salt while drying them. And the almonds would also be higher if I hadn't spotted MSG in the ingredients list.

The bad:

happiness comes cheap

The weird:
And then a few days ago, Jonathan, Tyler and I heard that this street in Wangfujing is famous for selling strange foods- naturally we had to visit.
And we saw:

For dinner, I decided to go with the following:
The seahorses were definitely a disappointment. Brittle, mostly hollow, and basically flavorless apart from the oil and hot sauce slathered on by the street vendor. I can't imagine many locals eating these with so many tastier and less expensive options nearby; the seahorses are probably there just for clueless tourists like me.

On the other hand:
There's nothing that screams "Fresh!" quite like your appetizer scurrying off to battle with other scorpions. Creepiness aside (or maybe not), these fellows were actually delicious. I don't think it would be accurate to compare scorpion to any other food I've tried, but I imagine some kinds of bugs would taste similar. The shell wasn't terribly hard, and there was more meat than I expected.

Somewhat miraculously, we're both still alive.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


On Sunday, I brought my bags down to the lobby to meet Li laoshi, who introduced me to Mrs. Gao, my host mother. She and her husband, whom I am instructed to call Gao mama and Tan bobo, live in an apartment about a 20-minute walk from campus.

- no dorm = no English
- single room (picture at the end of a recent post)
- missing out on general tomfoolery
- interesting experiences/conversations
- amazing food

The food here is actually delicious. Food epiphany #1 in China was realizing how different real Chinese food is from Americanized Chinese food. #2: Home-cooked meals are much better than restaurant food—generally, the dishes are simpler, but seem to contain far less salt, grease, and MSG, and Gao mama is a great cook. She and I have agreed that I’ll be out for lunch with friends but will have dinner with her and Tan bobo four weekdays a week.

- no dorm = no English
- single room = no Jared
- missing out on general tomfoolery
- distance from campus
- lighting a fire every morning to heat water for the shower
- more mosquitoes
- curfew (maybe?)
- no internet

Happy to report that I am winning the Great Chinese Mosquito War (GCMW) of Summer 2009, me: 5, mosquitoes: 3 (translation: 5 suckers slayed last night, 3 bites on my left forearm this morning). I’ll try to remember to continue tracking my progress. Unfortunately, the man vs. internet battle isn’t going so well. I apologize in advance for delinquent facebooking/emailing. As for blogging, these last two posts were written in the evening in the apartment and uploaded the next morning in the classroom.