Maria Holland

Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

2009: The Year in Review

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2009 at 7:19 pm

1. What did you do in 2009 that you’d never done before?
Got in a car accident; learned to write my first Chinese character; entered a frat house; played a drinking game (Catan); roadtripped to a concert; went to Easter Vigil Mass (Roman and Greek); went to a bar; commuted by bus; took a Greyhound; had an article in a city newspaper; took summer school; owned an Apple product; had a residence permit, phone, and bank account in a foreign country; used Skype and QQ; lived within walking distance of a beach; cleaned up a mercury spill; danced ballroom; went to Mass in Chinese; bathed nude in public; experienced a typhoon, earthquake, and rockslide; attended an ordination and a First Mass; went on a date with a foreigner; ate at a real McDonald’s in China; met a Chinese person who doesn’t speak Mandarin; went to a Chinese hospital; participated in a track meet; 洗头; spent Christmas abroad; went to class on a weekend; had a ‘usual’ club; responded "Yes" when asked if I spoke Chinese; ate an oyster, hotpot, pomelo, douhua, baozi, baocai, beef tendon, and snake; ate fish and liked it

2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I don’t think I made any last year, and I don’t know yet about next year . . . still have a day!

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
My cousin Mary.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
No, thankfully.

5. What countries did you visit?
China (if this can be called a visit) and Taiwan.

6. What would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009?
Focus and balance.

7. What date from 2009 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
March 2, when I found out I was heading to China for the full year, and August 26th, when I first arrived in Xiamen. 

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Every bus ride that successfully got me where I was going; every Chinese conversation in which I successfully communicated and understood; each of the mountains I climbed; every time I ate something new or something I already knew I didn’t like

9. What was your biggest failure?
Perhaps the time I said “二个月” (instead of 两个月), or any of the other stupid mistakes I made in Chinese. 

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I got into a car accident in January but was thankfully unscathed!

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Currently I’m especially grateful for my sweatpant leggings, scarf collection, and little gel heater, but I don’t think any money I’ve spent on food here in China has been wasted, especially not on 茄子 dishes :)

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My parents, for agreeing to come to China!  My friends who have supported me when I decided to come to China and since then.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled or depressed?
Chinese when they talk during church and spit on the floor or table and open windows in the cold. 

14. Where did most of your money go?
Travel, definitely – between trips to Tulsa, Arizona, China, Taiwan, Shanghai, and Wuyishan!

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The simple pleasures and unexpected adventures of life. 

16. What songs will always remind you of 2009?
Some of my new favorites: Hot and Cold (Katy Perry), Beautiful Girls (Jojo), Fireflies (Owl City), Somos Arena y Mar (Mana), Hey Soul Sister (Train), Forever (Chris Brown), Radar (Britney), Precious Love (James Morrison).  Love Today (Mika) from the Udall orientation!  Living La Vida (Coldplay) and Vamos a la Playa from our trip to Taiwan.  I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas), Just Dance (Lady Gaga), Fire Burning (Sean Kingston), Jia Ho (Slumdog Millionaire), Disturbia (Rihanna) and Right Round (Flo Rida) from nights at The Key.  普通朋友,爱情,童话,故事里的事,大中国,北京欢迎你,爱上爱的味道,樣子,爱我别走,特别的爱给特别的你,东方之珠 and all the Chinese songs I dance to :)

17. Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder?  I think I’m a little more joyful. 

    ii. thinner or fatter?  About the same . . .

    iii. richer or poorer?  I think I made money by going to school this summer, so I may be a little bit richer. 

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Thinking of others. 

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Thinking about others.

20. How did you spend Christmas?
I went to class, baked two batches of cookies, went to Chinese Christmas Eve Mass outside on Gulangyu, got an ice cream cone at McDonald’s, walked home from 中山路, and ate grilled lamb on the side of the road at 2 a.m.  On Christmas Day, I had class again, went to see a friend of mine be Santa Claus, and cleaned my room. 

22. Did you fall in love in 2009?
Yes.  With 茄子 (eggplant) it was love at first sight, but 奶茶 (milk tea) kept working at it and won my heart over as well. 

24. What were your favorite TV shows?
I’m still a big fan of The Office, and I really enjoyed the DVDs of Psych and Big Bang Theory that I bought.

25. What was your favorite film of this year?
I can’t remember seeing any really great new movies, but I cherished some classics – Mulan, It’s A Wonderful Life, Dirty Dancing, etc.

26. What was the best book you read?
Either the Man Who Loved China or Guns, Germs, and Steel.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Google and Baidu music (free music downloads) and the Filipino band at The Key.

28. What did you want and get?
The Church in China.

29. What did you want and not get?
To go to Sichuan University (which was probably one of those blessings in disguise)

30. What was the best new trend you discovered?
Milk tea, probably.  (I’m not really up on trends.)

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 21.  There was a blizzard in Tulsa, so my friends made me dinner and cakes at Newman instead of going out; we ended the day with a game of drinking Catan in my apartment. 

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? 
The ability to bi-locate, perhaps. 

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2009?
Dresses and skirts!  Well, now I just wear what I brought to China. 

34. What kept you sane?
The internet (and, through that, my friends and family) and my iPod.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you like the most? 
Any of them that survived the year . . .

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Abortion, especially in the health care bill.

37. Who did you miss?
Always someone . . . I miss the friends and family that I’m not with in America, and I wish my SENEA buddies were here with me in China. 

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Wang Pu, Aleid, Carlos, Alice, and Pun. 

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009.
我们在中国,都可以!  (We’re in China.  You can do anything!)

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.
"Tis good, Lord, to be here, 
But we cannot remain. 
So if You bid us leave the mount, 
Come with us to the plain."

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A Lot Can Happen In a Year

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2009 at 5:30 pm

I feel weird whenever I happen to see the date and realize it’s the end of the year.  I always enjoy the jokes that are only possible on this day, though.  Aleid told me that she saw a man who had as many noses as days of the year left, and when we said goodbye to our classmates we told them 明年见 (see you next year).

After the last class for the whole year, I went to lunch with some friends.  What a lunch!  It was totally worthy of being the last lunch of the year.  We went to my favorite restaurant – School Friends Cafeteria – and, expecting to be joined by a few others, we ordered a lot of food.  The other friends never materialized, so we ended up with 6 dishes for 4 people (when the standard rule of thumb is one dish per person).  It was epic!  We had 地三鲜,宫保鸡丁,干锅包菜,土豆肉片,铁板牛肉,and 咖哩鸡丁, plus 3 bowls of rice.  It was like Thanksgiving; I ate until I was full, ate some more, and then helped finish off the last of the food.  Like I said – epic.

Aleid - 1146

I spent the afternoon digesting and watching TV online.  I started watching Glee last night and kind of loved it, so I’ve watched all the episodes I could find online.  I also bought the first two seasons of Big Bang Theory on DVD yesterday, and am watching them again.  They’re even funnier than the first time!

Before attempting to review this year (the next post), I read through the journal posts I’ve written since January.  It’s kind of an intense experience, to go through the an entire year in one night.  It made me remember, though, why I like journaling.  Yes, it was really hard to remember just how it felt to go through that breakup, but it was also amazing to rediscover some really great moments that I’d forgotten, like a particularly epic Mexican dinner that I prepared one night with Juan and the Guernsey brothers.

It was also most amusing to follow the chain of events that brought me here, to this year in Xiamen China.  It all started with just one sentence, nearly a year ago on January 29th:

I also went to the CGE and am seriously thinking about various programs or non-programs in China or Korea this summer.

Oh, how things change.  And quickly, too – on February 17th:

Nona told me about a new scholarship program that we have with the Chinese government: one full year of study in China, completely paid for.  TU gets to nominate one person, and I’m not sure if they are automatically chosen, or if they compete against others.  But my odds of being selected from TU are probably pretty good . . . my brain can’t even get around this.  What if I deferred my Presidential scholarship and did this??  Miss my senior year . . . and all that implies.  I don’t know if I could even do it, but how could I not want to??

Two days later:

I didn’t feel like studying Heat Transfer anymore after Mass, so I started working on my personal statement for the Chinese scholarship.  It was a very interesting process.  Maybe it will help me clarify my thoughts, like the Goldwater and Udall applications did.  It actually already has.  I was able to articulate why I want to study in China and what I envision the studying process to be like. . . It was a little scary, though, writing the application.  It was about China – not SENEA, not the project, not Chinese, but CHINA.  Somehow, my involvement in the project transformed into an attachment to the people, which led to a desire to learn the language and culture, which has become . . . an attachment to China.  That’s scary!

And then on March 2nd:

Oh.

My.

Gosh.

At 6:40 p.m. today, Dr. Matherly sent an email notifying me that I was selected for the Chinese scholarship.

AND EVERYTHING – EVERYTHING – CHANGED.

The next day I thankfully wrote some more:

It wasn’t until I got home that I saw the email from Dr. Matherly.  It almost took my breath away.  I took a few seconds to compose myself and then got my mom, saying I needed to talk to her.  I felt really scattered and incoherent when I tried to tell her what had happened.  She was really happy for me and said that a lot of things made sense now – she thought I’d been really distracted and quiet, first of all.  Also she understood why I had stopped looking for a car and why I wanted them to think about coming to visit me. . . [Then] I called my dad.  He also laughed.  Really hard.  Starting as soon I said the words “scholarship” and “China”.  He said they’ll definitely come visit me now.

And the rest is history.

[Speaking of history, amidst all the year-end retrospection, there was a particular memorable top 10 list: The Onion’s Top 10 Stories of the Last 4.5 Billion Years.  Particularly memorable were Four of Five Guys Pretty Much Carry Whole Renaissance, Industrial Revolution Provides Millions of Out-Of-Work Children With Jobs, and Obsessive Freak Abner Doubleday Forces Locals to Play Nonsensical Game.]

So, that wraps up this year for this blog.  Enjoy the last little bit of 2009, and I send you my best wishes for 2010!

Party in the USA . . . Class in China

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2009 at 8:54 pm

What am I doing, on the penultimate day of the year, in class?  (It’s interesting to consider Chinese students in America on February 12th, asking themselves the exact same question.)  There’s a sense of entitlement knowing that everyone who was sane enough to stay in their home country is currently enjoying a hiatus from school – I feel like I have the right to slack off a little bit.  Unfortunately this sentiment is in direct opposition to the desire of my teachers to prepare me for upcoming finals, as well as the little angel on my shoulder who keeps reminding me that I wanted to study this language.

By the grace of God, I got up this morning and went to class – BOTH of them.  Seeing as I was one of 6 people (out of a 20+ member class), I feel like this is significant.  Unfortunately, it was also a significant waste of time.  While I had heard a lot about the rote-style of Chinese teaching, I’m just know experiencing it.  It turns Oral class into a tedious awkward endeavor – we’re given a grammar structure and a topic and several vocabulary words, and told to make a sentence.  Reduced to basically 0 degrees of freedom, everyone in the class basically repeats the sentence from the text.  Today my partner and I managed to change our dialogue a little bit – instead of encouraging him to keep records of his finances like the characters in the text did, I asked him how he was going to buy a house if he didn’t save money?  We used all the suggested vocabulary words, but the teacher came over and told us that we were doing it wrong, that I was supposed to tell him to keep records of his finances – exactly like the text.  Okay, if you want me to memorize a simple text word-for-word, I am perfectly capable of that; please just inform me of your wishes. 

I thought Grammar class would be better, but it was only moderately so.  The teacher began class by telling us that the new words in this chapter were 比较麻烦 (relatively hard) . . . awesome.

After lunch (where I introduced Aleid to the delicious fajita-like meat sandwiches at West Gate), I came back and resumed studying.  I currently have 21 more flashcards due which is probably deceptively few, seeing as they’re the ones I’ve already failed multiple times.  By the way, it is quite demoralizing to fail the word ‘fail’, which I did today – multiple times. 

There were a few rays of sunshine in my day, though.  The first was sent my way by some friends from back home.  The other day while catching up with a friend, she casually mentioned a song that she is obsessed with.  Thanks to the combination of Google and utter disregard for copyright laws, I was able to download it.  It was cool to walk around listening to the song later, because I felt a little bit more in touch with both that particular friend and with American culture right now. 

So, I had the great idea (if I may say so myself) to ask my other friends to do the same – send a music recommendation or two, along with an update if they could.  I’ve gotten several responses already, all of them 100% wonderful.  There was some good music (Party in the USA is especially perfect for walking around in China), updates from friends (who have finished a whole semester since I left), and news from campus (construction on the performing arts center by my apartment is coming along).  One friend even wrote up a list of what’s hot (Glee, sweater dresses, Twilight, study abroad) and what’s not (Fergie, Crocs). 

Another high point was dinner with Alice, including the sumptuous candied sweet potatoes, which are probably too good (and too sweet) to be legitimately justified as dinner.  We talked about New Year’s Eve plans (or rather our complete lack of any) and I’ve basically decided I want to go to Austria for New Year’s.  At midnight, all other music and partying stops and everyone dances a waltz to the Vienna Philharmonic.  Um, how cool is that?  I’ll probably end up at a karaoke bar or something . . .

Why Bother?

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2009 at 12:31 am

My alarm didn’t go off this morning.  My roommate claims to have seen me shut off my alarm, but I question her testimony.  The alarm didn’t go off; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I managed to get up in time for Listening class, though.  Seeking relief from the cold, some friends and I went to the malatang place that we love.  The logical step after that was, of course, to proceed to McDonald’s for ice cream.

Seriously, though, it’s cold here.  It’s about 55°C now but we got down to 46 at some point today.  It’s not bad at all when you’re walking around, but it makes class (which is the same temperature as outside) unpleasant.  When I got back to my room, I was cold so I added a few layers of clothing until my body temperature reentered the realm of the living.  I have these wonderful leggings that I bought here for $1.50 – think sweatpants + leggings! – and I put on a pair of those.  Then I added sweatpants on over that and, with my little heated gel pack on my lap, I can focus on studying.

After lunch I went to the travel agency and bought the plane tickets for my parents’ visit!  It’s kind of like a game of Ticket to Ride, where I’m making connections between certain cities and hoping the rest of the necessary connections fall into place when the time comes.  So far we have the Minnesota-to-Xiamen and Beijing-to-Minnesota routes (perhaps the most important), as well as Xiamen-to-Guangzhou and Wuhan-to-Chengdu.

On my way back to my room, I picked up a letter from home.  It was quite exciting, after I got over the fact that the letter was addressed to me in China (realizations like this happen every now and then).  There were some pictures from home, a letter from my dad, and a card that they were forwarding me from the Newman Center.  I cried; they were good tears, though.

With the exception of some short breaks, I’ve been studying all afternoon.  I feel like I haven’t complained about how hard Chinese is recently (probably because I haven’t been studying recently…) so maybe it’s about time for another whine.  I’ve been working my way through like 1,000 vocabulary reviews and am currently in one of those phases where I wonder why I’m studying this language.  I don’t mean that I want to give up – I literally mean I’m trying to figure out why I’m studying this language.  My Chinese is good enough right now to ‘get by’ (although I said that last summer, too), which means it’s very tempting to be lulled into complacency.  I’m a very well-qualified tourist but it seems like it will be forever before I’m passable in really any other capacity.  I really want to work towards a specific capacity (i.e., engineering) but I really don’t have the time to do that if I want to enjoy my time here at all.  My new class is the perfect level – not hard enough to really cramp my style, but it’s a little bit challenging and requires more of my time.

We just learned the word for “Why bother?” – 何苦 – and that kind of sums up my attitude right now.  For instance, I’ve been working so hard since I started my Chinese class this summer, reviewing vocabulary and practicing handwriting characters every night.  But there’s this nagging feeling that learning Chinese handwriting is worthless, that I’m wasting my time.  Typing is so much easier in so many ways.  Google’s Pinyin input method is so good that I never even look at the characters while I’m typing; they’re almost always right.  And, if I do want to cultivate my handwriting skills, how perfect do I want to be?  After discovering the difference between 末 and 未, I’m seeing more and more subtle differences like that.  见 and 贝 are in SO MANY characters and I have no idea which is which.  I also indiscriminately use 力 and 刀.  Close enough, right?  Do I want to go back and sort through these characters I’ve already pretty-much learned, or do I just call it good?

The thing is, even with finals coming up, I’m not really worried.  It’s not a matter of the grade; despite what some observers may think it almost never is with me.  I do want to learn Chinese, I’m just trying to figure out how much, and how.

One of the good things about my friends back in the States being on break is that I’ve gotten to talk with some people a little bit more.  I’ve been talking with Wang, a Chinese friend of mine studying at TU, almost every day.  His practically perfect English can beat my Chinese into the dust without any contest, but in other ways we sometimes go through the same things.  He reads this journal (你好!) and sometimes we talk about it – like last night’s discussion of the One Child Policy and the housing situation in China.  I always feel better after talking to him.  Sometimes it’s because I get to talk to someone who understands my frustrations with a ridiculous language.  Sometimes it’s because he talks me through getting asked to a movie by a Chinese guy on QQ (which also happened last night).  And sometimes it’s because I manage to come up with a coherent sentence in Chinese and he tells me that it was good (tonight):

我觉得汉字太难,何苦继续学习?

(I think Chinese characters are too hard, why bother to continue study?)

Okay, enough studying for the day.  Bedtime!

T-Minus Two Weeks and Counting

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2009 at 1:20 am

I’m glad I have morning class most days of the week so that I get at a decent time, but I’m even more glad that my one day off is Monday.  I slept in til 11:30 today because I didn’t have class until 2:40 – how decadent is that??

I realized today that it is just over two weeks until my parents get here!  I was planning on buying the plane tickets today, but at the last minute my dad told me about a new railroad, the world’s fastest, that just opened between Guangzhou (Canton) and Wuhan.  I’ve mapped out an alternate itinerary for us that would include a ride on this train, and am hoping to buy the tickets tomorrow.  I want to get it done already because, with credit cards not widely accepted in China, I had to withdraw a ton of cash to make the purchase.  I feel like a drug dealer, carrying forty 100-kuai bills on my person. 

I also realized today that we only have two more weeks of class before finals.  While I have been attending class recently, I haven’t studied on my own since coming back from Wuyishan.  I guess I haven’t fully realized that I’m not on vacation still; there’s just something strange about doing homework during Christmas.  Anyway, I’m cracking down on myself and spent the entire evening doing vocabulary and character reviews.  So lame.

Every 30 minutes I take a break and do something else.  I went back and updated the last post from Wuyishan.  There are some more pictures up now (so you can meet our adorable honeymoon couple) as well as translations of several ways to congratulate married couples in Chinese.

This evening, I went out with some friends to The Key.  We had heard it was Ladies’ Night, where women drink free, but it turned out to be Latin night.  Still, the music was good and I danced a bit. 

Before heading home, we stopped at the street food places nearby and I bought some delicious soup to bring home.  I love the availability of good street food, even late at night.  (Actually, it’s almost like only late at night.  When we were there at 11:30, the women were just arriving and setting up)

Digging Our Own Graves

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2009 at 12:49 am

Today, we finally made it to Xiamen’s hot springs.  Aleid and I had been talking about it but then Bianca is hosting a friend visiting from Sweden, which made the visit a little bit more imminent.  Thus, at 12:30 we were at Lun Du trying to figure out to how to get to Riyuegu, Xiamen’s famous hot spring resort.

We paid 148 kuai for the entrance, including a bus there and back (about a half hour away).  Once we got there, we also decided to spring for the 78 package including the fish pool, hot sand, and hot stone massage.  That brought our total to 226 kuai, or $33. 

The resort is quite amazing.  It’s almost like you’re not in China!  It’s clean, beautiful, and remarkably convenient.  A bracelet opens your locker and is used to pay for everything; towels are free and readily available; sandals are turned around for you after you enter a spring; we were offered umbrellas as we went out into the rain. 

We first 泡-ed the hot springs.  (Interesting Chinese note for today – the verb for going into hot springs is the same as the verb for making tea.  You 泡 a hot spring, and you 泡 tea bags in hot water.)  They had springs of every temperature between air temp (around 14 C) up to 40C and even higher.  They also came in every flavor imaginable: cucumber, lemongrass, aloe vera, peppermint, coffee, ginger, ginseng, wine, baijiu, and beer were among those we visited.  The weather – cold and rainy – made it a perfect day for lounging lazily in hot water.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been a glass of wine to drink while we were soaking in it :)

When we finally got around to using our package, things got interesting.  Our first stop was the hot sand, which looked like a big sand box with people lying buried up to their necks.  “Awesome!” we thought . . . and then, as the worker handed us each a shovel, we figured out that it was “self service” – we dig the holes and the workers cover us up.  It was such a ridiculous situation, digging our own graves at a luxury spa, that I didn’t stop laughing the entire time.  It was pretty nice with the weight of sand on top of my body, but the sand wasn’t as warm as I hoped.

We stopped by the fish pond, but it was the end of the day and the fish were full.  I think I got two nibbles; it was nothing compared to my first time in Taiwan.  We also got the hot stone massage, but the stones weren’t hot enough to combat the coolness of the evening.  We followed that up with a trip to the saunas, which fixed the problem quite nicely.  They had one that was 35C and 100% humidity – so basically Xiamen in the summer – but we preferred the 57 and 72C dry saunas, which also smelled really good . . .

On the bus ride, I had an interesting conversation with Aleid about the One-Child Policy.  This is one of those things that I thought I knew about before coming to China.  I knew about the Little Emperor Syndrome, the gender imbalance, etc.  I figured I would never need to ask Chinese friends if they have siblings – of course not, what a stupid question.  But my experiences on this trip have not matched up with this at all.  Almost all of my Chinese friends have siblings; Yong Zhi is one of 4! 

I think that money has a lot to do with it.  According to the policy, each couple is allowed one child unless they’re a rural family and their first child is a girl.  (Or if they’re a minority, which I think is very interesting.)  After the first child, there are heavy fines and penalties to discourage further children.  Xiamen, being a Special Economic Zone; and XiaDa, being such a prominent school, is probably disproportionately rich. 

This would also explain why, on previous trips to China’s more rural Jilin province, I experienced the effects of the One Child Policy more personally.  I remember a conversation with a Korean woman who was reveling in her freedom to have a second child.  I remember hearing that my dear friends Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li were considering having a second but needed to make sure they could take the hit financially.  And I remember how devastated I was when I learned that our taxi driver and housekeeper had conceived a second child but, unable to afford it, had an abortion. 

I hate abortion.  As evil as it is, though, there’s even more wrong with this policy.  There are all the unintended consequences that we hear about in America (Little Emperor Syndrome, gender imbalance, aging population), but the most horrifying to me is the mindset that it has created in the Chinese people.  Based on conversations that I’ve had with various Chinese friends, they think that there are simply too many of them.  They think of themselves as a blight on the earth almost, which makes my heart ache for them.  It also sometimes seems to me as an easy out (especially when people suggest a similar policy in other countries), the ultimate example of passing our problems on to our children . . . or, as it were, not.  The law combined with this mindset make my heart ache more than I can say.  It’s the Culture of Death engraved in law, encouraged by the government, guiltily accepted by the people. 

Tomorrow (December 28th) is the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the Catholic liturgical calendar.  According to the biblical Nativity story, Herod ordered the slaughter of all young boy children in Bethlehem  because he feared the rise of one of them as King of the Jews.  They became the first martyrs of the early church, and are honored on this day shortly after Christmas.  I’m going to pray to them tomorrow, lifting up the people of China, and the millions of my peers across the world who didn’t survive the slaughter either.

All I Want For Christmas

In Uncategorized on December 27, 2009 at 12:35 am

My Christmas presents all arrived a day late this year.

I mean, it’s understandable – Santa probably got confused with the time difference and all. 

I was woken up by a phone call in Chinese, which is usually not a good way to start the day.  But!  It was Fr. Cai (#1) on the other end – he remembered that when we were in Shanghai I had mentioned wanting a seal with my name on it.  He had said he knew a place and would help me get it.  Anyway, he was calling to ask what my name was!  (Only in China would this happen, I feel.  They all know my name is mǎlìyà but that doesn’t help them figure out the accompanying characters.  My name (马利亚) is close to the Blessed Mother’s (玛利亚) so I get that a lot.  I have also, at various times, gotten 玛丽亚, 玛丽亚, 玛莉亚, 马力亚, etc.  It would be a bummer to get my name wrong on my seal, so I’m glad he asked.)  He also remembered that I had asked for a Chinese Bible and said I would get it next time I saw Ms. Yan.  Yay!  Just what I wanted for Christmas. 

So then I got on my computer, logged on to facebook to hear more about the crazy weather, and saw the news – one of my very good friends is engaged to his girlfriend!  (Even better, I heard they’re waiting ‘til next winter, when I should be back in the States.)  I knew he was going to ask her and I’m certainly not surprised to hear she accepted, but it was no less special to hear the news. 

Another pleasant surprise was that the Onion was randomly unblocked (although it’s probably temporary).  I’ve heard that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing uses Twitter to share news about the current air quality in the city, and I would like to see a similar project for the internet.  It could be like a weather forecast: “Tomorrow should be a pretty good day, with both the Onion and WordPress unblocked, but the weekend’s going to get a little nasty as the government cracks down on Flickr and Twitter.  Bring your proxy if you’re planning on social networking over the holidays!” 

I spent a lot of the day cleaning my room still, catching up on news, and things like that.  Before I knew it, it was time for Mass.  As I scouted out a spot in the church, an old woman beckoned me over, pointing to a vacancy next to her.  Even better, she had a stack of books there – the missal, song book, and hymnal – waiting for me.  Even several months in, I usually have a hard time tracking down the whole trifecta, so I really appreciated the effort and thoughtfulness.  I didn’t recognize the woman, which made it even more surprisingly pleasant.  (I think I gave them cookies though; they must have been standing next to someone I knew.  Forget ping-pong diplomacy – the way to make friends is obviously with cookies!) 

Like most Saturdays, I went dancing after Mass.  One of the women brought me some Xiamen snacks in return for the cookies I brought last time, which was a nice gesture.  But more than the physical gift, I really appreciated the gift of friendship that these people have given me.  We don’t really talk much; they don’t know much about me and I know even less about them (sometimes not even their names), so it’s easy to underestimate our relationship.  But really, it’s kind of incredible that they’ve put up with me this long, with my mediocre language skills and extremely limited dancing skills.  Anyway, today a crazy guy came in and started talking to me.  Within a minute, one of the men asked me to dance and, as we twirled around the floor, he took me the man was 不清楚 (unclear, which, based on body language as well, I guess meant crazy).  Since he tried to talk to me each time I sat down, a stream of men asked me to dance successively, keeping me away from him.  I felt so protected – and it didn’t stop there; when the music stopped at 10, one of the men walked me home.

Today is my 4-month anniversary here in Xiamen (if you believe the calendar).  New Year’s is coming up, which is a big time of retrospection for me, so I would like to just write a little about my some feelings and thoughts I’ve been having over these last few months – since usually I write more about events and occurrences. 

I’m having a great time here – that should be obvious from reading this journal.  I love the sense of adventure that saturates everything when living in China – from traveling to going to the bathroom, everything is ‘an experience’.  I love my new friends and the camaraderie born from ‘being in the same boat’.  I love the simple pleasures of my life here, especially since they’re also cheap.  I love the excitement of learning a language, where every word and grammar structure is a tool that can immediately be put to use. 

But obviously there are downsides.  I miss my friends and family back home.  Actually, to be honest, the family part isn’t so bad.  I’ve been talking to my parents and some relatives a lot more than I do when I’m in Tulsa, and those who are reading this journal know far more about my life than they usually do.  But the friends are rough.  I miss the effortlessness of seeing them everyday, everywhere when we were living so close to each other.  I miss knowing the details of their lives, even being there for a lot of them.  I miss the memories, inside jokes, traditions, and habits. 

Also, because my life here so closely resembles a vacation at times, sometimes I feel like I’m wasting time.  I’m a Goldwater and Udall Scholar, which means that some people think I’m among the nation’s most promising young research scientists and environmental leaders . . . and here I am, doing neither of those things.  I feel a lot of pressure to do something worthy of all the gifts I’ve been given and, while I think Chinese might play into that somehow, I’m not sure how, say, ballroom dancing will.  I have pretty varied interests and this sometimes feels like another case of me going for breadth instead of depth.  I find it interesting, and some of my side interests may figure into my broader life plans, but I don’t want to be a jack of many trades and master of none for the rest of my life.  It’s just a question of which one to master, and if I have it in me to do so. 

I am really happy to have found a church, the Church, in China.  I’ve had some pretty amazing experiences so far and I’m sure that more are to come.  I’m so fascinated by the presence of the Church that I’ve found where I despaired of finding it.  On my first three trips, I never even looked, but here it is!  I know all that I’ve heard about the Church in China and I recognize there are problems but at the same time, Mass here is the most familiar thing I’ve seen since I arrived.  It’s closer to what I’m used to in America than McDonald’s is!  I’m torn between the knowledge I have of the problems at the top and the Love I’ve experienced at the ground level.  I want even fuller unity, but I can feel myself lulled into complacency because what we have right now is ‘not bad’, as the Chinese would probably say.  (If that is the purpose of the CCPA, as I think it is, they’re doing a good job with it.)  I want to know more, but right now the only thing I’m sure of is that it’s here and I want people to know that.  I wonder how many other foreigners visit China without ever looking for a church (like I did), because they don’t expect to find the Church here.  That saddens me, and I would like to change it – there’s no reason to forego the sacrament when you’re in the PRC. 

I hang out with a lot of foreigners here, which is weird because one of the main tendencies I notice among foreigners in China is self-hatred.  I hate it, but I know it affects me sometimes – I feel guilty when I speak English and look for Chinese friends harder than I look for foreign friends.  It’s born out of the desire to get the “true China” experience and to learn “real Chinese”.  According to the commonly-held view, these two things only exist in a vacuum of foreigners.  What a Catch-22, though – any place that is perceived as offering these things is immediately coveted by every foreigner, but once they enter they ruin the pristine Chinese environment and it’s no longer what they wanted.  It’s a vicious circle – I hate myself, and then I hate myself for hating myself. 

Anyway, it’s hard to experience “the real China”.  China’s big, in case you didn’t know, and ‘your China’ may be very different from ‘my China’.  ‘My China’ is in fact not the same as it was last year.  I’m trying to find balance in my life here between knowing ‘China’ (which might be a mythical construct), and knowing ‘my China’.  There’s certainly a pressure, from Chinese as well as foreigners, to get to every part of China – to climb every mountain, tour every museum, eat the food of every province, etc.  I have to constantly remind myself that I am living in China, not visiting.  After all, I consider myself a well-traveled American without having ever been to New York City, L.A., or Florida (which, to some people, constitute all of America), so why should the validity of my year in China be dependent on getting to Beijing or Suzhou or Xinjiang? 

Reading over what I just wrote, it seems like all these things are just issues about finding balance, which is something that I’m always looking for in my life.  I realize this post went from really joyful to a little bit discontent, but none of these things are huge deals, certainly not joy-breaking.  I guess I’m just trying to think through some of the things that have been on my mind. 

Finally, a few people have asked for my address here and, even though Christmas is passed, I thought I might as well just post it.  They write things from largest to smallest unit here so the address is a bit odd, but just be grateful you don’t have to write in 汉字 (Chinese characters)!  The Latin alphabet will work just fine, and throw line breaks in as needed:

Maria Holland
China, Fujian Province, Xiamen City 361005
XiaDa, NanGuangWu, 406

As Lately We Watched

In Uncategorized on December 26, 2009 at 2:52 am

Merry Christmas!  I hope your day started off better than mine, with 10 a.m. Listening Class.  I actually wasn’t sure which was more sad – the fact that I had class on Christmas morning, or the fact that I had nothing better to do than go to class on Christmas morning.  All the other students were whiny about being there, so it was even less enjoyable than it theoretically could have been.

Afterwards Aleid, Jimmy, and I enjoyed a traditional Christmas feast of fried 饺子 (dumplings).  The place is under new [incompetent] management but we still love it.  It’s on the perfect street and since all the seats are outside you have no choice but to enjoy the view.  It’s close enough to campus that you see people you know (today, a dancing friend and former classmate) but far enough that there’s always something to surprise you.  Today, the surprise was the two men riding by with enormous cakes on their bikes (sorry, no picture).  We followed them after lunch to buy the Chinese version of fruitcake – dense, chewy, peanut-y and fruity something. 

My afternoon was consumed by cleaning up my room, devastated by the aftermath of baking 300 cookies.  I had turned my entire room into a kitchen, which had left me with flour all over my bed, chocolate smeared all over the floor, and dirty dishes in the bathroom.  Ugh . . .

I took a break in the middle of this to go see my friend Carlos, who was being paid to be Santa Claus on ZhongShan Lu.  It was a pretty funny sight – Carlos in this huge Santa Suit; white beard hanging low enough to show his dark Spanish facial hair; and on his feet, the same blue shoes that he wears every single day.

After finishing up my chores, I went out for a nice Christmas Dinner. 

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The International Friend Association had a big party at a new Italian restaurant nearby – 45 kuai for an all-you-can-eat buffet.  The food was not bad (although after four months my standards for Italian food have dropped, probably to dangerous levels), but I purposefully left as karaoke was getting started. 

Christmas day actually ended on a high note, as Carlos came up to have some more cookies.  We just sat and talked for about an hour, and it was good to catch up.  It feels like I’ve just been baking these past few days, but that brought about a lot of opportunities to connect with friends so it was certainly not wasted time. 

So now, with Christmas behind me (well, to my west at least), I want to reflect on my first celebration of the holiday in China.  I guess I thought it might be easier to remember the “true meaning of Christmas” in China where none of the “other stuff” would serve as distractions.  But I ended up realizing that a lot of the other stuff is important to me, too, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to recreate that.  It was things that, in America, take place without any special effort on my part – listening to Christmas music, watching Christmas movies, eating fancy meals and fresh baked goods, sending Christmas greetings.  It ended up being even more distracting than usual from my attempts to observe the season of Advent, preparing for the birth of Christ.  Going to Mass here is kind of an ordeal (for lack of a better word) on any given Sunday, and Christmas was just more so.  When I spend so much of my effort just trying to figure out which Bible story to match up with the readings, there’s not a whole lot of time left over for spiritual preparation.  (This is why I chose the song “As Lately We Watched” for today’s title: I feel like I’ve been watching my sheep [or cookies] while Jesus was born . . . but if the shepherds didn’t catch on until afterwards I can only hope there’s still time for me.)

And with that, I wish you all a very blessed Christmas, filled with the presence of friends and family near and the love of friends and family far. 

O Holy Night?

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 1:33 am

Well, this was certainly the strangest Christmas Eve I’ve ever celebrated.  But in an earlier conversation with Aleid, we decided that if every holiday here isn’t the weirdest you’ve had, then you’re doing something wrong.  In that case, I must be doing everything JUST RIGHT.

I began the day by getting up early to bake.  I wanted to bring cookies to class fresh-from-the-oven, so I had pre-made some batter the day before.  I baked frantically while getting dressed and made it to class a few minutes late.  The teacher forgave me, though, when he tasted the cookies; they were generally a pretty big hit.  Showing up to class already dressed for Christmas Mass and bearing a platter of fresh cookies made me feel like such a trophy wife . . . I think my baking skills are earning me major points with the men; I even had one guy “approve me as a wife”.  Sweet?

After class, I had a wonderful lunch – some of my favorite dishes (红烧茄子,地三鲜,西红柿炒蛋,辣子鸡丁,干锅白菜,米饭) with some of my favorite friends (Aleid, Kristina, Carlos, Katrine, Bianca, Talia, Vikki). 

In the afternoon, I took another student – my Chinese friend, Vikki – under my wing to teach her the art of baking cookies.  We made one batch of batter together and she stayed to proudly take the first few trays out of the oven:

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I continued on my own, baking all those as well as another batch.  Some friends passed through and one of my Chinese friends, Yong Zhi, even stayed for the rest of the day.  We had interesting conversations while I baked – I showed him my photo album and we somehow ended up discussing the 2nd Amendment and why it’s in our Constitution.  

All in all, I baked over 300 cookies – 6 batches.  That was probably a bit much, but I will definitely bake again.  I really like feeding others, and making a single batch isn’t really that hard.  It’s also quite cheap – 35 kuai, or just over $5, per batch using all Chinese ingredients.  But obviously, you can’t put a price on joy, which is how I felt when I watched people eat my cookies.  For most people, it was either their first cookie ever or their first cookie in a long time – different kinds of happiness, but happiness all the same.

But it turns out that baking 100+ cookies 5 at a time takes a little while, and I didn’t start until after 2:00.  Before I knew it, it was past 5 and I was still baking.  I called someone at church and they told me that things started at 7, so I finished baking then quickly made my way over to the church on Gulangyu.  Arriving at a quarter to 7, I discovered that dinner was already over and the pre-Mass performance had already started.  I still haven’t figured out exactly what started at 7 . . .

Christmas Mass here had only the vaguest resemblance to home.  There were a thousand million gazillion people and Mass was held outside in front of the shrine instead of in the church.  Some of my church friends thankfully found us a spot behind the choir where we, like the rest of the congregation, half-squatted on small plastic stools.  There were more people than usual, but I didn’t mind the crowd that much actually – it’s hard to be upset when there are ‘too many’ people at Mass.  The thing that bothered me, though, was that a Chinese Catholic Christmas celebration proved to be a tremendous draw for every photographer in the province.  There was the man who, for some reason, likes to record Chinese Mass from start to finish, getting up close and personal with lectors, celebrating priests, and participating foreigners.  There were the guys with full hitchhiking backpacks wandering around the alter snapping photos, occasionally taking phone calls on their cells if the need arose. 

It was all a bit too much for me and I found it really frustrating.  The good thing is, the part of Mass that resembled home was the important part – the actual substance, the Eucharist.  I took a few deep breaths, reminded myself that nothing else mattered, and made it through without crying or yelling (despite thinking, at various points, that self-control was not possible). 

After Mass, I wandered around trying to find people I recognized in the crowd so that I could give them cookies.  I also got a picture taken with a friend who was playing Santa Claus.

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As we waited for my Santa Claus friend to get done, we walked around the shopping area of Gulangyu a little bit, which was crazy crowded.  I also caught some of English Mass, and what I saw made me wish I had chosen to go to that one.  There were less people for one, but even more important was the belief, widely-held among foreigners, that it’s not acceptable to talk or answer phones during the service.  Crazy talk!

By the way, here’s me and my friend Yong Zhi after Mass. 

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Word has it he’s a member of the Party.  I find it a little hard to believe but, at the same time, it shouldn’t surprise me because it just sounds like one of those situations I find myself in – taking a Communist to Mass. 

We caught the last ferry back to the mainland – midnight.  Chuan Lu (Santa Claus) took us to meet some of his friends, who were waiting for us at ZhongShan Lu.  Specifically, they were waiting for us at McDonald’s . . . so yes, slightly after Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day, I found myself entering McDonald’s.  (And, since Chuan Lu was paying, I ordered an ice cream cone.) 

From about 3 in the afternoon until the day was over at 3 in the morning, I pretty much spoke only Chinese with my friends.  There were three particularly memorable exchanges – little gifts of encouragement in my Chinese studies:

  1. During Mass, one of my friends showed me which page we were singing from.  I, in turn, told Yong Zhi “一百零二”(one hundred [zero] and two).  You have to say ‘zero’ in there because if you say 一百二 (literally, one hundred two), it means 120.  Anyway, he noticed that I said it correctly and later told me that I sounded like an actual Chinese because this is something foreigners so often mix up.
  2. As we were getting off the ferry, the ramp up to land was particularly steep.  While in Wuyishan, Aleid and I spent about 20 minutes describing the concept of “steep” to our Taiwanese friend, trying to learn the word before he told us 陡.  So, just to test out my new word, I commented that the ramp was very 陡 and my Chinese friends, without a second thought, agreed with me and remarked that it was because the tide was low.  I literally leaped with joy.  That was a hard-won word but is now MINE.
  3. After Chuan Lu introduced us to his friends as “my American friend, Maria, and her Chinese friend”, one of them asked him (in Chinese) if he was my translator.  Without even thinking, I responded myself: “I don’t need a translator!”  All of his friends were shocked that I could speak Chinese – not just 你好 and 谢谢, but a slightly harder word like 翻译 (translator).  The look on their faces (surprised and a little bit embarrassed) was priceless. 

After talking with them for a few minutes, Yong Zhi and I decided to head home.  After waiting for a taxi unsuccessfully, we figured it wasn’t too far to walk (although it was then almost 2 in the morning).  It was a nice walk, though.  There were very few people out, which is something you almost never see in China.  We had an interesting conversation, too, asking about parts of each other’s culture that we don’t understand.  I asked about keeping windows open when it’s cold outside and talking through concerts; he asked about drinking out of the same bottle or cup. 

When we passed a barbecue stand on the side of the road and Yong Zhi offered to treat me, I figured that this was exactly what my Christmas Eve was missing.  I said yes and we sat down on tiny plastic stools to eat skewered lamb meat – just like we do at home every hear.  The air was filled with the familiar sounds of Christmas, like the young people next to us loudly playing drinking games.  And of course, I was sharing it with just the people I would have wanted to be with on Christmas Eve – my friend Yong Zhi and the half-drunk Chinese man next to us.  Actually, the last part was kind of nice because the man quickly became a friend.  After quite the argument between the two of them, he ended up paying for our food.  (And when I asked his name so I could thank him, it turned out that his last name is actually the word for ‘thank you’ . . . “Thank you, Mr. Thank You!”)

I got back to my room around 3.  I talked to my parents for a few minutes and also got to hear from some relatives who are snowed in in Oklahoma (which actually is a December tradition for me), then went to bed.  Pretty standard, actually, except for instead of looking forward to opening presents with the family I was dreading the arrival of Christmas class . . .

Joy to the World!

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2009 at 12:21 am

I skipped class for the first time since coming to China today.  Well, that’s not entirely true, but this was the first time I skipped to sleep.  The other times were all for travel, which is practically the same as attending class anyway (in terms of progress in my Chinese skills).  It was Oral class and it was at 8 a.m. and it just wasn’t happening.  I approved of 10 o’clock Grammar class, though, and went to that.

Afterwards, Aleid and I shared an odd but good lunch.  She took me to the 东北 (northeastern) restaurant by West Gate where she had had caramelized sweet potatoes.  We ordered those, a plate of dumplings, and fried egg-and-tomato with rice.  None of the dishes really go together but they’re delicious individually and were still quite good together.

Then I had a dessert of paste.  I went to the post office to mail my 29 postcards, and ended up licking 29×3 stamps.  To those of you who are about to receive postcards with as much area taken up by stamps as by writing, I would like to say: “Blame China Post.”

I keep adding to my list of who I want to give cookies for, so this afternoon I had to go buy more ingredients.  I don’t want to use my precious American chocolate chips quite yet, so I went looking for cheap Chinese chocolate.  While I wouldn’t voluntarily eat it, it’s fine for baking and much cheaper than Dove.  When I was in Jilin, we had all sorts of waxy disgusting chocolate bars for 1 kuai each – Chum, for example, or Yong Fen (pictured below) which, despite looking remarkably similar to Rittersport, has only its brown color in common.

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Anyway, I realized as I looked in vain that I hadn’t seen any of these brands in Xiamen.  Figures, just around the time I want crappy Chinese chocolate, I can’t find any.  I finally found some suitably cheap stuff at the 3rd supermarket, but it was hard enough to be painfully ironic.

This afternoon I was joined by another Thai friend, Doi, who wanted to learn to bake cookies.  As the first ones came out of the oven, my Japanese friend Keiko came over to help too.

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We made another batch of chocolate chip cookies and one of Anna’s wonderful snickerdoodles.  What a wonderful afternoon – tantalizing smells, delicious cookies, the heat of the oven and the warmth of the sun on the balcony.  After the cookies were done, I again receiving visitors again – Chinese, Cape Verdean, German, and Austrian.  (It was good to see my Chinese friend, Hu Jing.  She’s the ME student I befriended, but she’s been too busy to meet with me recently.  I now understand why she hasn’t had time – between her classes for her major and minor, she has 15 finals coming up!  AND one of them is on New Year’s Day!!!)

I also gave cookies to the desk guards, the woman who sells candy downstairs, and the guy who delivered my takeout.  This seems really normal to me (my mom usually gives something to the mailman and people like that when she bakes for friends) but everyone here seems to think it’s odd.  Whatever.  When I’m in China I pretty much live to rock boats . . .

The highlight of the evening was dancing.  Yeah, I know I say that a lot but tonight really was special.  I packed up what was left of today’s batch of chocolate chip cookies and brought them with me.  Before sitting down, I made the rounds of the room, offering them to everyone – and, when they refused, insisting because they were 自己做的 (made by me)!  Everyone seemed to like them and I ended up in a conversation with some of the women about how to make them.  IT TURNS OUT that she just happens to have a full-sized oven in her home and doesn’t know how to use it!  (I really thought that there were no ovens in China but this is apparently not entirely true.  The average house does not have an oven, just like the average American house doesn’t have the equipment to have hotpot, which we don’t eat.  But this woman is rich – driving-a-BMW rich, to be exact – so I shouldn’t have been that surprised.)  Enter Maria, foreigner with cooking experience who hasn’t seen an oven larger than a shoebox in 4 months, and a beautiful partnership formed.  We’re going to go shopping together and I’m going to teach her to bake cookies and cakes and pizza and stuff!

Also, I danced a lot, which is great too.  Tonight was the first time I danced an entire song of the samba and the Viennese waltz, and I learned some cool stuff in the 慢四 as well.  Sweet.  I can’t stop dancing tonight, even as I’m typing right now!