Maria Holland


In Uncategorized on September 6, 2015 at 12:02 am

This morning, I had my closest call yet with missing a flight.  I had been running on about three hours of sleep a night the last few nights (a combination of trying to get work done during the day, and late nights of majiang and karaoke), so I was just exhausted.  I counted on one alarm and my natural anxiety about an early morning flight to wake me up in time – 4:30am, ideally – but neither worked.  I must have solved math problems while sleeping to turn off the alarm, and I even slept through answering the phone (in Chinese) when my taxi partner called me.  I randomly woke up at 5:22, about two minutes before she knocked on the door.  Luckily, I was packed, and just had to stuff a few things into my bags and zip them shut.  We were downstairs on time at 5:30.  I don’t want to think what could have happened . . . . .

We got to the airport in plenty of time, so I took the opportunity to do a little bit of repacking.  Then more repacking, because apparently China has a thing about lithium batteries in checked luggage.  

I was anxious at the airport.  Part of it was residual adrenaline from the morning’s near miss, but it was also about Xiamen.  It seemed impossible that Xiamen could stand up under the weighty expectations I’d placed on it – I remember my year there as perhaps the best year of my life, and the picture has only grown more rosy in the last five years.  Add in my excitement to see something beautiful after 8 weeks of Beijing Gray, and what paradise on earth wouldn’t disappoint?  A secondary concern was: if Beijing was hot, how will I handle 130-degree heat indexes again??

The flight was slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful.  When I came out of the gate after baggage claim, I saw XuLei – impossibly, she seemed smaller than I remembered.  I hugged her, grabbing my own shoulders after wrapping my arms around her.  I also got to meet NianYu, her boyfriend/fiance that I had heard so much about.  They have a car!  And XuLei drove!  These were the first of many surprises for me in Xiamen, little indications of how everyone has grown up in five years . . .

I felt a little foolish, but I basically had a list ready when they asked where I wanted to eat.  I was devastated to learn that Green Chairs Restaurant is closed (we never learned the real names of most of our favorite restaurants, just came to a sort of group consensus on what to call them), but our malatang place is still there.  Some people in Beijing scoffed, but Xiamen’s malatang (specifically this place) is just the best.  Malatang, literally “numbing-spicy soup”, is a sort of buffet of fresh ingredients that they cook in a spicy broth for you.  I got meat, tomatoes, bok choy, potatoes, three kinds of eggs, and a piece of fried dough for the top.  I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours, and it was everything I wanted and needed.  Plus we had 烧仙草, better known by its [Ch]English name “fubu burns the fairy grass”.

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We bought fruit at a nearby market – oh Xiamen mangos, how I’ve missed you!!!! – and then went home.  NianYu is a professor of materials science at Xiamen University, so they live in faculty housing on campus.  It’s great for me, because campus is where I’m most familiar with :)  They have a nice two-bedroom apartment that they share with a roommate.  In my first taste of Chinese hospitality, NianYu slept in the living room (without an air-conditioner!) so that I could sleep in the air-conditioned bedroom with XuLei.  (Interestingly, the temporary bed he’s sleeping on would pass for a folding table in America.  It’s funny, we put mattresses on the floor, because the most important feature of American beds is that they’re soft, while in China the off-the-floor aspect of a bed seems to be more important.)

I took a much-needed nap before my big evening plans.  Basically my entire return to Xiamen was scheduled around my need to be here for a Saturday evening – I wanted to go to Chinese Mass and then dancing.  I’m so glad I insisted on that . . . 

XuLei drove me to church.  It was a little after 6 as we started driving, first down Huandao Road along the coast, past my old beach, before getting on one of the bridges over the ocean.  The sun was just setting behind the two giant new buildings dominating the horizon, and I was just overwhelmed.  

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I started crying.  It had been a few weeks, generously, since I saw anything that could be considered beautiful in Beijing, and going from that concrete world to a Xiamen sunset was almost too much to handle.  I was immediately certain that my wonderful memories were not airbrushed and my high expectations were not too high.  The dominant emotion, though, was gratitude.  For this sunset, but not just for that.  The phrase that kept running through my mind was, How was I so lucky to live here for a year?  China can be a difficult place, and Chinese can be a nightmare, and I am continually realizing the perfect path I have been led along in both, to fall gradually in love with them without being scared away.  Stronger people could perhaps fall in love with Beijing, but I needed the charm of Hunchun and the beauty of Xiamen.

XuLei let me off at the bus stop where I used to get off the bus to go to church.  I navigated with my phone, because I didn’t trust my memory, but the route was so familiar.  Other than the construction scaffolding I used to walk under, now a completed building, it was all just as I remembered it.  I got more and more excited as I got closer, literally exclaiming out loud when I saw people rinsing fish in the street because that meant I was close!  

When I walked in to the church, the first person I saw was Joseph Chen, one of the men who is always helping around the parish.  He smiled at me and greeted me by name, as if no more than six days had passed since we had seen each other last.  But there were changes . . . as I knelt to pray, the rhythmic sounds of Chinese chant surrounded me – they were praying the rosary in Mandarin, I quickly realized, but it was unfamiliar and strange to me.  Xiamen has a local dialect, Minnanhua, which was quite common among the older parishioners.  Daily Masses were offered in Minnanhua when I was here last, and it was the dominant language for personal devotions as well – to the point that I don’t think I ever heard the Hail Mary in Mandarin and still can’t recite it fluently.  

Everything is in Mandarin now, though.  Bishop Cai was appointed near the end of my time in Xiamen (after 20 years of the diocese without a bishop), and could see his influence all over.  They recited selections from the catechism after Mass, and reception of communion was orderly and more reverent than I remembered it.  

After Mass, Bishop Cai came over to greet me and “welcome me home”.  Sister Mangu came as well, grabbing my arm affectionately in the way of Chinese women.  As other parishioners and older friends gathered round, I took the opportunity to introduce Alba to them.

So, Alba is kind of a crazy story.  I had made it to church just a few minutes before Mass started, and there weren’t that many open seats.  I spotted one on the aisle and asked the woman next to it if anyone was sitting there.  She responded no, and I sat down.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized I had found the only other foreigner in the church. We whispered a quick introduction – her name is Alba, she’s from Mexico, and she arrived in Xiamen on Wednesday.  She came by this afternoon to scope out the location of the church and, when she heard that Mass was in a few hours, just hung around.  She was sweet and enthusiastic and joyful and on this day of extreme gratitude I was determined to do whatever I could to make her time in Xiamen as wonderful as mine had been.  

So I introduced her to the bishop, and BinBin, and Little Brother.  And when Mangu whisked us off to drink tea (it was inevitable), I made sure she came along.  And when I said I was going dancing afterwards, and her face lit up, I told XuLei we were going to be joined by a friend.  I felt like her fairy godmother, swooping into her life bringing only the best things.  

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XuLei picked us up outside the church and we drove to the Nanputuo gate of Xiamen University.  This was where, on one fateful Saturday night – my first in Xiamen, actually – I got off the bus on my way back from Mass and heard music . . . The gate is under construction now, so we only found the place because we knew where to look for it.  This was one of those moments where I felt very profoundly the immense consequences of the most trivial-seeming events.  My time in China on this trip felt like one long chorus of “There, for the grace of God went I”, to paraphrase John Bradford.  What if I had been sent to my first-choice university, Sichuan University in Chengdu, instead of Xiamen?  What if I had discovered the closer bus stop a few weeks earlier, and never got off at the Nanputuo gate?  Or if I had been too shy to ask what they were doing?  People that know me know associate me with dancing, as if it’s this deeply ingrained personality trait, and it even feels a little bit inevitable to me, but upon closer inspection it seems a very precarious outcome indeed.  

Anyway, construction be damned, it was Saturday night between 8 and 10 pm and my dancing friends were there.  I often found life in China confusing and unpredictable, but this group of older men and women were a rock for me.  Every single Wednesday and Saturday, with the single exception of a national day of mourning, they met to dance for two hours.  Even more incredibly, they welcomed a complete beginner with childlike Chinese to join them.  They taught me almost everything I know about dance – they certainly gave me intensive instruction on following without communicating verbally, which is the basis of social dance.

Tonight I walked in about 20 minutes to 10, to lots of smiles and waves and “what has it been, two years?”  Try five!  I got one dance in before they closed up.  Luckily, I’m not leaving Xiamen until Thursday, so I told them I’ll be back on Wedesday.  

We went back to XuLei’s apartment for some fruit (no one had really eaten dinner), then walked back down to the road to catch a taxi.  There were no legitimate taxis, but I wowed XuLei by haggling with a black taxi driver to take us to Haiwan Park for 25元.  (I didn’t think it was that impressive, because I think he started at 30元, but XuLei talked about it for days afterwards . . .) 

KK, the Chinese bar next door that we always used to navigate taxi drivers, is closed now, but “our” club, The Key, is still open.  They’ve rearranged the inside, and when we walked in, everyone was sitting at tables listening to the band sing “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran.  Not the atmosphere I remembered . . . but when they started the next song, I realized that it was the same band!  I talked to the lead singer a few minutes later when they took a break and she said it would get more dance-y later, so we decided to hang around.

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We first snuck outside to get some food – there are always street vendors that set up along this street of bars.  This was the precursor to my habit of In-N-Out after late nights dancing at Saddlerack!  I got a 肉夹馍 (Xian meat sandwich) and a mango smoothie while the girls got 烧烤 (barbecue).  When we got back inside, the music was more upbeat and everyone was dancing.  Alba is a great dancer, and a lot of fun to be around, especially when they played streaks of Spanish and Portuguese music.  There were also new pop songs – Roar, Up All Night, I Don’t Care, Bulletproof, Chandelier.  This band introduced me to all sorts of music – I heard Your Love is My Drug and Empire State of Mind from them first – so in the years since, I’ve occasionally wondered what it would be like to hear them play this or that song.  It was neat to hear all the new stuff, but I was also thrilled to hear I Gotta Feeling.  It was a new song back in 2009 and basically became my theme song for that year . . . And anyway, I did have a feeling that it was going to be a good night . . .  

We left at 2:30 and taxied home.  I Skyped with my parents (haha, the internet in my friends’ apartment in Xiamen is way better than the internet at the hotel in Beijing), then went to sleep!  First day in Xiamen has assuaged all of my fears, only to stoke new ones that the next few days won’t be as wonderful . . . 

Coming Home to Xiamen

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2015 at 1:22 am

Nothing makes a place feel more like home than returning to it.  I think I first said this, about Xiamen, after a 10 day trip to Taiwan in 2009.  Returning to the Xiamen, seeing simplified characters, getting on my usual bus, knowing where my next meal was coming from – it was the first time this island felt like home.

When I landed at Xiamen Gaoqi airport on Saturday, I thought of all the times I’ve returned to Xiamen.  By my count, it’s something like three times in that airport, twice by train, once by bus, once by boat.  

Unlike the other times, I didn’t really know what to expect.  Five years is a long time, especially in China.  When I went to Taiwan for 10 days, I remember they remodeled Coco, my favorite milk tea place, and I almost didn’t recognize it.  

Especially after my time in Beijing was less than lovely, I had a lot of anxiety about coming back to Xiamen.  Part of my post On Beijing and Loving China was an attempt to understand why I’ve loved China, remember why I loved Xiamen, and predict whether or not I would still love it.  

The two easiest changes to identify are the absence of my international friends, and the inevitable changes in myself over five years.  During my time at XiaDa, I had very few (like 3?) American friends, but as my classmates were also studying Chinese, they were all international students.  My best friends were Dutch, Spanish, Cape Verdean, Russian, Slovenian, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Mexican, etc., and it was hard to imagine Xiamen without them.  I ate most meals with them, went dancing with them, debriefed with them after strange or frustrating experiences.  Our knowledge of the city was communal.  I’ve since seen several of them, in their countries or in mine, and they were as delightful as I remembered, so it seems natural to question if they were what made Xiamen delightful.  Then, in their absence?

As for myself, the unhappiness I felt in Beijing worried me.  Maybe I had lost my adventuring spirit, or my patience, or my sense of humor.  China requires hefty supplies of all three.  Was this Beijing that I didn’t like basically Xiamen, seen through loveless eyes?  

But now, five days later, I’m once again devastated to leave Xiamen, pained at the knowledge that I don’t know when I’ll be back, and struggling to express my feelings.  

There have been changes – There are two giant new buildings on the horizon, visible from any part of the island I go to.  The air is worse, although the worst day I saw here would still be in the top 10% of my days in Beijing.  There are a ton of tourists now – I think the opening of the new high-speed rail routes since I left has been huge for tourism here.  This translates into crowded beaches, once the domain of us foreigners only, and significant traffic, of the kind I had only seen before on national holidays.  There’s a Walmart on Zhongshan Lu, now, and a Carrefour, too, so you can buy Western goods without having to travel all the way to SM.  

Distances changed, too – not in reality, obviously, but in my memory.  I went walking around 西村 and found our old malatang place and our old jiaozi place, but they were at least three times further than I remembered, and I almost gave up before we got to them.  It was amazing that I was able to find so many things that I remembered, between the pace of development in China and my notoriously bad spatial memory.  But for everything that was gone (Green Chairs Restaurant!!), there were two that were still there (the malatang soup place, the hand pancake stand).  I’m honestly not sure what surprised me more, when I found something exactly where I expected it, or when it wasn’t there.  Both astonished me, every single time.  

But these changes are fairly superficial.  The island is the same island I loved.  Xiamen just can’t help being beautiful.  People are always surprised when I say that Stanford is not the most beautiful campus I’ve lived on, but it’s true.  Minutes from the beach at Baicheng, surrounded by mountains – In comparison with XiaDa, Stanford might as well be in the middle of Iowa.  The most ridiculous thing is, Xiamen doesn’t seem to know it’s beautiful.  Everyone always talks about Gulangyu, this smaller island nearby, but it’s so full of tourists I find it anything but peaceful.  It’s okay, you can have Gulangyu, I’ll take Xiamen any day.  

Xiamen is a very clean city, and it seems like aesthetics were considered when building and developing it.  I always feel stupid saying this, but one of my favorite things about the city are the highways – sleek and white instead of the usual dull gray concrete, and they light up at night along their edges.  I could sit all evening on the beach at Baichang, watching the sunset first and then enjoying the winding illumination of the highways.  

Coming to Xiamen was good for my soul.  The last few days in Beijing was honestly less a countdown to Xiamen and more a countdown to the next time I would see something beautiful.  Counting generously, I would say the last time I saw something beautiful was at the Bird’s Nest, on July 18th – two weeks ago.  Then there were those few clear days at the beginning of the month . . . and then orientation, when we went to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.  Hmm, still have a few fingers left on this hand.  

So that first evening in Xiamen, as XuLei drove me along one of the bridges over Baicheng, I saw the sunset and cried.  How was I so blessed to live here for a year?  Questions like that ran through my head for most of my visit.  What could I possibly have done to deserve this?  

Because it’s not just the island – it’s also the people.  Oh, 厦门人,你们真的了不起.  For all the time I spent with my international classmates, I was also pretty involved at church and did a lot of dancing, and in these circles my friends were mostly Chinese.  To a person, everyone seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, and they were so good to me.  Chinese hospitality manifests itself in large part in “treating” (paying for things), which sometimes makes me uncomfortable because I don’t know how to respond, but I also appreciated the time people took (away from work, away from their families) to spend with me, and the way they welcomed me back into their lives for a few days after, for some of them, five years without contact.  

I made a few new friends, too.  My host and good friend Xu Lei’s boyfriend/fiance; the labmate of a church friend who climbed Nanputuo with me; a Mexican woman I happened to sit next to at Chinese Mass who happened to be, like, my soul sister.  And there were a few people I didn’t really remember from church, but they were really excited to see me (I made chocolate chip cookies that Christmas and handed them out at church, which I think did a lot to foster feelings of good will) and we talked more in these few days than in the whole year I was here.  

I saw Bishop Cai at Mass on my first day here, and talked to him afterwards.  How have you been? he asked, Everyone is happy to see you.  Thank you! I replied, it feels like coming home, I told him.  Welcome home, he said.

On Beijing and Loving China

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 2:19 pm

I’ve lived in China for about 16 months now over a span of 8 years – 11 months in Xiamen, 3 months in Jilin, 2 in Beijing.  As my time in Beijing draws to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on this city and this country. 

I first came to China in 2007 as part of an Engineers Without Borders group, to work on sustainable energy project in China’s northeast.  I spent 9 days on a farm on the border of Russia and North Korea, building a wind turbine.  We lived with an American family who spoke Chinese for us, and I made exactly one Chinese friend, Zaibin, because he spoke English.  I don’t know exactly why I wanted to come back – it wasn’t the people and it wasn’t the language, yet.  Perhaps the food – Hunchun has the best lamb and beef sticks I’ve ever eaten – or the project itself, the way we “built things out of stuff”.

But for whatever reason, when I left my return was never in question.  The next summer I went back to the same place, this time for two months.  That time, it was definitely the food.  On the farm, we had the best of all worlds, it seemed like – crisp, cold water straight from the spring to the faucet; fresh milk from our cows and enough to make butter, ice cream, and cheese when we had the time; eggs from our chickens, some of which we slaughtered and ate; bread from wheat the girls ground every day.  Korean lunch prepared by Adjima, the farm cook, and generally some sort of Western dinner prepared by a rotating cast except for the one or two times a week we went into town to a Chinese, Korean, or Russian restaurant.  

But I also fell in love with the people and, through them, the language as well.  Most days, I headed a few kilometers across the farm to the shepherd’s residence where my project was based, walking or hitchhiking on the workers’ sanlunche.  I was kilometers away from the nearest English speaker, and was left to my own devices to get my design across to the workers.  From a combination of grunting and pointing, we progressed to simple sentences (你来帮我, come help me, was the first sentence I understood).  I bought a children’s picture dictionary at the supermarket and they were more patient with me, as I clumsily learned my first few hundred words, than most people are with their own children.  I thought these people were exceptional, and they were, but this patience and understanding with learners of their language seems to be a fairly common trait among Chinese, to various extents.  

Xiao Zhang, Xiao Li, Lao Liu, and Han XiaoGuang were the first Chinese people I loved.  And because Chinese was the way that I communicated with them, I think I started to love it too.  I remember Timothy expressing surprise at how quickly I learned – the fastest he’d seen, he said – because language learning seemed like a male thing, stemming from a desire to dominate.  For me, it’s a desire to communicate, to interact with the people around me.  When people ask me why I’m studying Chinese, and I don’t want to give the whole story, I jokingly respond that “I like to talk, and it gives me 1.3 billion other people to talk to.”  It’s a joke . . . kind of.

It was on this trip, and even more so on the next – a quick 10-day follow-up visit to the farm that fall that was extended by a couple snowbound days in Yanji – that I experienced and embraced the adventure of living in China.  When I travel, I “adventure” towards a destination – hoping to eventually get there, but remaining open to experimental modes of travel and possibly even alternate destinations if they come up as options or necessities.  But even outside of travel, adventuring is a way of living, really, being open to the joy and surprises that await when you allow yourself to be flexible and have “yes” as your default answer.  

When I was offered a scholarship to study in China for a year, this seemed like the ultimate adventure.  I delayed graduation, sublet my apartment, and moved to a tropical island to study something completely outside of my major.  Xiamen was a daily feast of all the things that I loved about China – wonderful people, both those native to the country and those drawn to it for various reasons; delicious food that often surprised and always seemed to be worth more than it cost; constant improvement in my language abilities and constant positive feedback on my progress; and an endless supply of adventures.  

The magical spell of Xiamen was further enhanced by my freedom in most respects.  I had no long-term commitments, no pre-existing demands on my time, no purpose other than to learn Chinese – which is to say, to live in China and experience it fully.

It was hard to leave Xiamen after that year.  I remember mostly wanting to go back to Tulsa to prove to others and myself that I still wanted to be an engineer, that Chinese wasn’t everything to me now.  But it was my first time leaving China without knowing when I would be back.  

As it turned out, nearly five years would pass before I came back again, this time to Beijing.  It’s hard to isolate variables and identify what differences I observe are due to the temporal distance, and which to the spatial, but for the moment suffice to say that there have been differences.

I haven’t loved Beijing.  I don’t tend to love big cities anyway, so it’s not too much a surprise, but even among big cities Beijing is a  tough one to love.  It was bad enough, that sometime during Week 3, I did some soul-searching, asking myself if this was it, if China had lost its charm for me.  

A month later, most of the factors that prompted that despair having changed, I’m still asking that question, although I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no’.  It’s hard for me to articulate why.  Maybe there are just enough threads connecting my experience in Beijing to happier times elsewhere – the people I’ve gotten to know are as wonderful as those I’ve known elsewhere, the food is still delicious and still cheaper than the US, and I am pleasantly surprised almost daily to discover that I can speak and understand and read Chinese – that I can recognize the good things as being Chinese, and attribute the more negative ones to the city only.

I’m glad for the opportunity to experience Beijing, although I am grateful on literally a daily basis that I got to spend a year in Xiamen and two months in Beijing, instead of the other way around.  I am also glad for the opportunity to think critically about my feelings about China, to examine the reasons I’ve wanted to come back for so long and to consider whether or not they still hold.  

Beijing is definitely the third-best city that I’ve lived in, but honestly after Xiamen and Hunchun, most cities in China would be lucky to get third place.  I’m not in China for the history or the politics or the economics, so Beijing was never going to be my jam.  Most of the things it’s known for (the clear exceptions being the Great Wall and roast duck) are just not important to me, and some things I value are missing (here I guess I’m referring to breathable air and any discernible trace of beauty).

Probably my favorite thing about Beijing is that, as a big city and major hub, people are always passing through at one point or another.  This is one of my favorite things about the Bay Area, too – people just tend to end up here, for a day or a few years.  It was great to reunite with a friend from California now working at Apple in Beijing; family friends who visited with the son they adopted from China; a Stanford friend in town for a conference.  This never happened in Xiamen.  And Hunchun?  Don’t make me laugh.  

Unfortunately, this goes for me, too, though.  I’m confident that there will be plenty of opportunities to come back to China, but many of them will be to come to Beijing.  

My secondary objectives in coming to Beijing with EAPSI this summer (the primary objective being the project) were to make professional contacts and work on my technical Chinese.  My tertiary objectives were to make friends, eat well, sing, and dance.  On this basis, my trip was a great success, and it’s due mostly to my labmates.  If it hasn’t been clear from my writings, my labmates were the shining stars of my time here at Tsinghua.  Their friendliness, kindness, generosity, patience, sense of humor, and assistance in every facet of my life never failed to put a smile on my face.  

So I guess it comes down to this.  China’s greatest asset and biggest draw for me is its people.  They’re really the only thing that’s making it hard to leave Beijing, but they sure are making it hard.  


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