Maria Holland

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.  

China-US Young Scientist Forum

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 10:52 am

The China-US Young Scientist Forum was not my favorite part of the EAPSI experience.  Perhaps least fave, actually.  The whole day just left me wondering what the point was.  I was excited to hear what my colleagues had done in the far-flung parts of China that they had been in, but . . . . Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day started with us on a bus at 7:20 for the hour-long slog through Beijing traffic to a different [read: nicer] hotel.  Best part was getting to catch up with said colleagues from said far-flung parts of China.  My favorite story: one girl was in Yunnan, and during orientation week I gave her some tips on survival when you don’t know Chinese.  For instance, in a restaurant, look around and tell the waiter you want “what they’re having”, basically.  She told me it worked for her so many times, but once the family whose food she pointed to insisted on giving her that actual meal, as if she were starving instead of unable to communicate.  Haha!

There was no food at the hotel when we got there.  Come on, 8am start time?  I don’t even drink coffee and that seemed cruel.  The first activity was short research presentations given in small groups (the 40 of us divided into three groups of ~13).  Each person had about 5 minutes, which was insane, but largely resulted in us hearing the big-picture motivation and takeaways, which is more enjoyable than getting bogged down in details.  I say “largely” because one person went way over time due to a completely unecessary explanation of, among other things, eigenvalues and the meaning of every parameter in their very complicated set of equations.  The most important skill on display today seemed to be knowing your audience – what they want to hear, and what they are capable of understanding.  

After these short summaries, we all gathered together to hear a summary of the summaries.  Six students, two from each group, gave 20-minute overviews of the ~13 presentations they had heard.  It was like a public game of research telephone, and for all the valiant effort the reporters demonstrated, it was pretty painful to listen to.  Also, since this took an hour, we could have heard another twelve 5-minute presentations, which I would have much rather done . . . 

We then had a short ceremony in which we got Certificates of Completion and letters from Ambassador Baucus.  He’s proud of me!  

We had lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel.  It sounds nice, but in Beijing it’s really just a panoramic, 360-degree view of gray.  

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But there was ice cream, and macaroons!  

The afternoon was technically the US-China Young Scientists Forum.  Some of us had brought labmates (Cheng came with me) and some tech people joined for small-group discussions on cross-cultural communication.  (We were also supposed to talk about entrepreneurship, but at least none of the Americans had anything to say so we just ignored that topic.  It was an odd attempt to shove this topic into a seemingly unrelated discussion – where did entrepreneurship come from?  Was Zhongguancun a sponsor?)

This discussion was another example of the excessive summarizing that went on today.  We had a 30-minute discussion, then my fellow reporter and I had 20 minutes to discuss the discussion, then we addressed the entire body to give a 15-minute summary of our discussion.  Thirty minutes of discussion, 45 minutes of summary.  

Our discussion was actually kind of interesting, though.  My Chinese co-reporter was a Uighur man from Xinjiang – as a fellow non-native speaker of Mandarin, we had a sort of shared comraderie that I don’t usually find with Chinese people.  Our group spoke extensively about language, and I heard echoes of thoughts I’ve had over the years.  From American students: I felt like a hassle, When I was there I was forcing them to use their second language.  From Chinese students (actually, from my own labmate Cheng!): I wish we had spoken more English. 

Hearing these views expressed one after the other was very interesting to me.  I attribute my Chinese 80% to the situations I’ve been placed in where I had no choice other than to speak Chinese.  These were difficult moments.  I wasted money, I ate weird stuff that I didn’t like because I ordered wrong, I got on buses going the wrong way, I got taken advantage of, I embarrassed myself on a daily or hourly basis.  The easy times, when I had American friends around or more fluent people with me or Chinese who spoke passable English, I learned nothing.  It’s not just that knowledge comes from struggle – lots of people realize this – but (for language in particular?) if the struggle is avoidable, we will avoid it.  I am weak, and I know it.  If I had studied abroud with a group of American college students, I would not be the Mandarin speaker I am today.  I have paid for my language skills with, if not blood and sweat, definitely tears.  

So, there’s this uncomfortable truth of language learning – it’s a hassle, almost necessarily.  To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “A language-learning opportunity is only a hassle rightly considered. A hassle is only a language-learning opportunity wrongly considered.”  It depends completely on mindset.  When I speak Chinese with my labmates, am I being considerate of them and saving them the hassle of using their second language?  Or am I being selfish, robbing them of the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker?  Cheng surprised me today by saying that she wished we had spoken more English.  I didn’t know quite how to feel about that.  They could – and did – speak English with me any time, and I generally responded in English.  But, it’s a hassle, and unless compelled to do so by outside forces or propelled by habit, people generally avoid hassle.  

It’s all part of the “language tug of war”, which occasionally becomes a “language game of push and shove”.  There’s great potential for arbitrage, here, of course, in which determined language learners seek out native speakers of the target language who prize convenience over fluency, but this is somehow underexploited.  

The other topic of conversation was somewhat related.  One Chinese participant echoed the confusion and perhaps resentment that I’d heard before, about this being an “exchange” program . . . in which no Chinese went to US institutions.  To the American students, this reaction is logical but also slightly ignorant of the reality.  One of my colleagues here said that sometimes he forgets he’s in China, because his average day in Beijing is just like his average day in grad school in Tennessee – get up, go to work, put on headphones to drown out everyone else speaking Chinese.  There are whole labs in the US that are Chinese, from PI to grad students.  Most of us were the first international visitor in our labs.  

We also discussed the topic of self-segregatation, because my co-reporter pointed out that most Chinese students, when they go to the US, hang out with other Chinese students.  (It’s a generalization, but as true as they ever are.  My roommate is Chinese and if she didn’t live with me, I sometimes wonder if she would have a single non-Chinese friend.  There are enough students here from her undergrad alone that she doesn’t need to meet new people and, as I said above, doing so is a hassle that is gratefully avoided when possible.  The number of Chinese students in the US makes it possible.  Blessing or curse?  It’s in the attitude.)  I pointed out that foreigners do it in China; how many nights did my Beijing colleagues spend in American bars with each other?  I love the option of American/Western companionship after a “Bad China Day”, but due to a combination of stubbornness and habit I generally don’t seek it out.  It’s human nature, to seek out the familiar.  Unfortunately.  

Cheng left in the afternoon, and we said goodbye until we meet in the US soon!

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Then the worst part of the day – a random tour of the Zhongguancun technology park, basically China’s Silicon Valley.  We visited a Maker Lab, and some company that makes cell phone games and I just stood in the back and wondered why we there.  It had been a long day for everyone, made longer when the tour went over schedule.  And more importantly, it had been a long 8 weeks without a single mention of entrepreneurship until today . . . . . . 

Then a long bus ride back to the hotel.  There was a bit of nostalgia when our bus did a U-turn in the middle of the busy intersection by our hotel.  Probably the last time for that!

We got home at 7.  Ugh.  I had major packing to do.  The other EAPSI girl who was at Tsinghua came over to chat while I packed.  After seven weeks of being politely ignored, she became really popular her last week in the lab.  It was a little sad, because she really didn’t have a lot of great interactions with her labmates.  Her stories were like, “One time we talked about the weather.”  It reminded me of the Mean Girls quote – “She punched me in the face once.  It was awesome.”

I finished packing at 10 and took my two larger suitcases over to Tsinghua to drop them off in the lab.  I ran into Zhao Yan and, when I expressed surprise at finding him there on a Friday night, he said that 10 was still quite early.  #chinesegradstudentlife

I walked across campus to get a taxi, and went straight to Liudaokou to join some other EAPSIers for karaoke.  It was a very different karaoke experience than my others – all Americans except for one Chinese guy, and almost exclusively English songs.  All upbeat ones, too, none of these people-crying-and-rain-pouring-down-windows music videos.  I ended with I’m on a Boat :)

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