Maria Holland

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Learn Something Interesting Every Day!

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Interesting notes from class today:

– The upcoming May 1st holiday, supposedly one of two Golden Week vacations, is actually a three-day weekend this year.  In America, a three-day weekend just means one extra day off of school and work but in China, where they work on days that end in ‘y’, a three day weekend is kind of a big deal.  (Once I read that the government sometimes declares “two-day weekends”, which in China does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Redundancy Department.)  Also, even a “Golden Week” is not as long a vacation as a week-long break would be in America.  They push the work days over to the weekends, which means your 5-7 days of vacation are bookended by 7- or 9-day workweeks. 

– The words for stay-at-home-mom and stay-at-home-dad are distinguished by a single tone difference on the last syllable.  You’re either a jiātíngzhǔfù or a jiātíngzhǔfū, and you better say it right either way.  Potential for awkwardness and embarrassment abound.

– Our lesson is about the working-at-home movement in China, as opposed to the traditional working situation.  In America, we call it “9-to-5”; in China it is called “8出8进" or “out at 8, in at 8”.  Interesting, no? 


Interesting notes from some blogs I read today:

– An article about Chinese humor and the phenomenon of post-punchline explanations. 

A list of the abrupt ways that Chinese people end phone calls.  In my experience these are more often used for ending class, meetings, announcements, press conferences, etc., while phone calls tend to end in an endless stream of “恩,恩,好的,拜拜,好的,会儿见,拜拜 . . .” (“mm, mm, okay, bye, okay, see you soon, bye-bye . . .”)

A guide to ordering food in China that is actually practical for foreigners who want to eat normal – good, cheap – Chinese food.  In addition to descriptions, characters, and pronunciation, it also includes such helpful tips as, under the heading ‘Soup’: “Most foreigners don’t order soup when out on their own.”  He also brilliantly omitted foods with too many bones like “ ‘chainsaw chicken’ –you know, where it looks like they just took a chicken and cut up the whole thing with a chainsaw and threw it in the pot”.  Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

A compilation of rhyming syllables in Mandarin.  Useful because, while Mandarin has relatively few possible endings for syllables (25), most of the ones that look like they should rhyme, actually don’t.  ‘li’, ‘si’, ‘hui’, ‘zhi’, and ‘ai’ all sound completely different. 

A list of characters that Chinese people usually can’t write.  Good for a self-esteem boost, as I am perfectly capable of writing 钥匙 (‘key’). 

– Several posts regarding the prevalence of homonyms in Chinese: numbers that have meanings because of what they kind of sound like (a.k.a., why 8 is the luckiest number), and traditional New Year’s foods and why they’re considered so auspicious (a.k.a., where the phrase “Year after year have fish” came from). 

– Examples that happen when languages are treated as a one-to-one correspondence – basically, when you speak English with Chinese words or vice versa.  The writer had a few examples of how to learn from others making this mistake, and a few examples of how he had made this mistake. 

I liked these posts because they were all directly pertinent to my everyday life here in China.  They’re things I noticed, lists I meant to make, questions I kept meaning to find answers to. 


Today’s weather was finally decent – warmish and, while not clear, at least not raining.  Maybe I’ll be able to pack the leggings away someday soon . . .

In celebration of the end of the lamest weekend ever, a few of us got together to play Catan this afternoon.  I won; if such things were possible, I would have won with 13 points by stealing Longest Road as well.

火锅 and 火山 (Hotpot and Volcanoes)

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2010 at 1:24 am

Today I 考试-ed my 汉语水平.  That’s Chinglish for: “Today, I tested my Chinese level”.  Yeah, that’s right – I just turned HSK into a verb; deal with it.

The test started at 8.  We put on headphones, they turned off the lights (??), and the recording began.  There was some music and a nice woman welcoming us to the HSK and wishing us success, and then the Listening Comprehension section started.  This was then followed by Grammatical structure, Reading Comprehension, and Comprehensive Fill-in-the-Blank.  The entire test fluctuated between the delightfully easy and the despairingly difficult.  (This is basically the entire story of learning Chinese, though, so it was a familiar roller coaster.)

Unlike every other test I’ve ever taken evAr, I never once finished a section early enough to put my pencil down.  The spare 23 seconds or so before beginning the next section were instead used to make sure all my rectangles (not circles or ovals!) were perfectly filled in.  There was no time for napping, which is okay because I didn’t need to!

When the test was over, the main emotion I felt was an overwhelming need to look at things further than 8 inches from my face.  I met up with Hu Jing, her boyfriend Handsome (well, 帅, but it means “good-looking”), and Aleid to go to a new hotpot place.  The weather was a little bit cold and a lot bit rainy, making it perfect weather for hotpot.  (I remember someone, maybe a month ago, proclaiming the end to hot-pot-eating season.  If only we knew then what we know now . . . )

The restaurant that we went to is all-you-can-eat individual hotpot for 35 kuai ($5).  We ordered our own hotpot stock and mixed our own sauces at the bar, then waited as various food items came around on a train!


We ate until we were full, then used the separate ice cream stomach compartment for dessert.  When Hu Jing told me there was ice cream, I assumed it was going to be typical buffet ice cream – soft serve with a variety of sundae toppings.  Hahahahahaha no.  There were two big tubs of ice cream, offering the two tantalizing choices of taro and canteloupe.  Yum . . .

Since doing anything fun outside was totally out of the question, I went back to my room.  I had just over three hours until my evening plans began, which was the perfect amount of time to watch Titanic!  Pun found out that I had never seen it, so he gave it to me for my birthday, and I decided that today was the day to join the rest of the developed world by watching this classic.  I feel cultured now, or something.

This evening I went over to watch a movie with the international film club thing that Paloma started on campus.  It was La Ley de Herodes, a Mexican political satire about corruption and democracy.  The movie was funny until it got gratuitously violent, but it did make me think about democracy and its limits.  I also got to practice my Spanish 听力 (which, unlike my Spanish oral skills, are not yet a lost cause).

When Aleid and I went to CaiQingJie for a late dinner – I had steak just the way Mom makes it, with spaghetti and a fried egg – we ran into Liz and her family.  Her parents, sister, and brother came over from Belguim two weeks ago to visit, and were supposed to go home from Beijing a few days ago.  But then a volcano erupted in Iceland which – like a butterfly flapping its wings in the Indian Ocean – has managed to affect airborne things all over the world.  So, faced with the prospect of staying alone in Beijing where they don’t speak the language, they opted to return to Xiamen, which has a) Liz, and b) good weather.  They’ve booked new tickets for as soon as possible, which happens to be MAY FIRST.  How would you like to spend an extra two weeks in China?!?!  Crazy stuff, man.

Back in my room, I was talking to a friend online.  He’s back in Tulsa, and mentioned wandering over to QT to grab a drink.  A wave of jealousy overtook me until I realized that West Gate is within wandering distance of my home here and has a broader selection of things, including real food, cheap scarves, and weight-lifting equipment. 

But then he went to brunch, and I don’t really have anything to compete with Belgian waffles embossed with the letters ‘TU’.  I guess we’ll call it even. 

背下来 (Learn By Heart)

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I take the HSK tomorrow.  The HSK (abbreviation for 汉语水平考试, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Level Test) is the national test for non-native speakers.  I don’t need an HSK score for anything because I’m not planning on attending college in Chinese or finding a job based solely on my Mandarin skills, so one could say I’m taking this test “for fun”.  And usually, because test-taking is one of my strengths, it might be fun.  (I once took my Calc III final even after being exempted from it – and enjoyed it.  I kid you not.) 

But I think this one is going to be less enjoyable than the tests I’m used to.  I love sitting down to a test, hot off the printer, armed with my bad-ass TI-89 and one sheet of paper carefully filled with every equation and constant that might come up.  From there it’s just logic, reasoning, and dimensional analysis.  Taking a math- or science-based test is a triumph in deduction, using a few given facts and a general knowledge of the subject matter to find the specific desired answer.  Since most teachers rationally don’t expect us to memorize easily-accessible information, they allow us a single sheet for equations and constants.  Freed from this burden, I spend the night before drawing up my equation sheet and that’s about it as far as studying goes.

Chinese, on the other hand, is like biology and chemistry – relying more on rote memorization than on reasoning.  This type of subject matter is the cause of epic late-night cram sessions, desperately trying to fit just a few more facts into your head before morning.  Yes, there are grammar rules, but at some point it just comes down to one question:

Do you know what this character means?
And if you, like me, are still around the two to three thousand character mark, the answer quite frequently is ‘no’. 

Sometimes I can get around the few pesky ones I don’t know, but sometimes they’re the crux of the question.  Example:

Question: “This is really something that makes people ___ uebalvfh!”
Answer choices: all variations on the word “not”
Result: I chose B – FAIL.

Sometimes I understand everything except one of the answer choices, which I choose because I know all the others are wrong.  Example:

Question: “During the day she worked until she was exhausted, and at night she had to take care of the kids.  ____-ly, the two of them [husband and wife] talked less and less.”
Answer choices: a) often, b) unexpected, c) once or twice, or d) puvalvkj
Result: I chose D – SUCCESS! 

Correcting my practice tests is a lesson in humiliation.  I’m a 99th-percentile sort of test taker, and my average score on a section of the HSK is somewhere between 60 and 70%.  At one point I stopped to check if I was even using the right answer key – it was that bad. 

The [only?] nice thing about this sort of test is the way it forces you to be realistic.  The night before a Partial Differential Equations test, if I still don’t understand how to solve the wave equation, I can run through examples until the wee hours of the night.  I know that type of question will be on the test, and I know that if I understand how to solve it, that I will get that part right.  There’s a foreseeable end to the preparation, and therefore a reasonable desire to get there. 

With Chinese, on the other hand, I know that the only thing that I could possibly do right now to improve my score tomorrow is to know more characters.  And since I’ve already been maxing out, learning 100 new words a day, more just isn’t going to happen.  So . . . I plan on brushing up on the myriad ways to say “no matter what”/“even if”, doing my daily flashcard reviews, and going to bed. 

Because there is actually one more way I can help myself do better tomorrow: getting enough rest so I don’t fall asleep during the 60-minute reading section, like I have on all three practice tests.

Funny Names and Weird Art

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2010 at 3:01 am

The good news: I woke up at 8:30 feeling perfectly well-rested. 
The bad news: Class started at 8:00.

I took studied all morning before going to Friday Jiaozi Lunch.  For some reason, as I walked across campus I was thinking especially hard about my friends back home and how ridiculously long it’s been since I’ve seen them and how long we still have before we see each other, but God apparently chose that moment to point out much He has blessed me wherever I am.  I ran into four Chinese friends (plus a food delivery man that I know personally) on the way to lunch, one after the other, and afterwards happened to meet Aleid on my way back.  That, plus the sky was blue!

Today I decided to finally buy a plane ticket up north to see my friends in Jilin.  Repeatedly looking up flight schedules and prices on a number of different Chinese-language search engines is fun and all, but at some point it’s time to buy.  I went to see my friends at the travel agency and left with a one-way ticket to Changchun City, Jilin Province on the night of May 20th!  I leave Xiamen at 7:30, getting to Changchun shortly after midnight.  From there it’s just a 12-hour train , 2-hour bus, and 20-minute taxi ride away from my destination! 

I know my trip is over a month away, but just having the ticket is making me so excited.  I called my friends up there right away, to tell them the dates and just to talk to them.  It had been a long time since I had heard Timothy’s voice, but in one sense I’d never actually heard Xiao Zhang or Zai Bin’s voices, so that was even more crazy.  Zai Bin is my oldest Chinese friend, and Xiao Zhang is the foreman from whom I learned all my beginner oral Chinese.  Yes, we somehow had conversations, but it’s definitely different to talk to them when my language skills are at their current level. 

And somewhere during the conversation, as I carefully tried to communicate to my friends that I would be coming to see them in just over a month and just couldn’t wait until I got there, I realized: This is why I’m studying Chinese.  I mean, I enjoy lots of things that I can do with Chinese, and my goals have gotten broader since I started this whole journey, but this is how it all started: They were there, and I wanted to talk with them. 

Because I really couldn’t contain my excitement, I took a look at some of the written materials I have from those first trips to China.  The business cards that have “plumbing supply” or “metalwork” scrawled on them now say as much to me in Chinese.  The ‘addresses’ on them confirm my earlier belief that the streets in Hunchun have no names, as they are more descriptions (like “next to the old department store”) than actual addresses.  The magical piece of paper that Daryl gave us that enabled us to find the fireworks store reads: “near the round building next to the KeHai computer area”.  And the real name of MacGyver, the amazing machinist who could cut a square with a lathe, is not Hunchun like the city, but rather Hongchun.  It explains the confusion, even more than usual, that ensued every time we said his name . . .

[Side note: For all of you who weren’t on those first trips I made to China, get excited.  You’re about to meet a whole cast of interesting characters, with names like MacGyver, Mob Boss, and Goose Lady.  Get. Excited.]

This evening, we went to see a performance art piece.  I know, right?  It was held over at the Art College and was super classy, with wine and kumquats and everything.  The piece began with the performers coming outside, nicely dressed with pink bunny ears (not kidding).  One by one, they answered their cell phones and then began walking around among us, talking in their own languages (Chinese, Dutch, Slovenian, Danish, Spanish, French, and German). 


As far as we could tell, the texts were randomly selected, including (among other things) a potato recipe.  After quite a long time, they filed inside and, one by one, sang a song for us: there was Chinese opera, the Slovenian national anthem, a French drinking song, an traditional song from a region of Austria, a Dutch children’s song, and Las Mananitas. 

I found it interesting, but I’m not sure how it was supposed to be interesting.  For instance, I was interested to realize that, of the languages spoken, I had the best chance at understanding the Chinese.  I was also interested to see my friends wear clothes that I had somehow never seen them in, these last 7+ months.  And I was interested to know what the heck was up with the pink bunny ears.  But I liked the music :)

Life On My Tropical Glacier

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2010 at 2:14 am

I spent the majority of today cursing whoever it was who told me that Xiamen is a tropical island.  Your face is a tropical island . . . Tropical island, my butt!  More like glacial island.  Have I made my point clear?  It’s April in Xiamen and it’s cold.  It’s been cool-ish and rainy-ish since I got back from Hong Kong, but today was grab-a-scarf, put-on-another-pair-of-pants cold.  The low was 10°C which, in Fahrenheit, equals COLD: 50!! 

It was a perfect day to spend inside on the couch wrapped up in blankets watching movies and, if it can’t be helped, doing homework.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a couch or blankets, and I had to leave my room much more often than I would have liked.  Fail.

Katrine and Eunice just ‘discovered’ the cafeteria downstairs recently and won’t stop raving about it, so Aleid and I joined them for lunch.  Lunch was pretty good, and got the day started off right with bowl #1 of 汤圆 – score! 

Oral class was interesting for once!  The teacher has decided to not only take attendance (which is a totally new thing this semester) but also to mark students for being late.  It’s not unusual at all for students to come in during the 休息 (break) 45 minutes into class, but maybe this will change now?  My Korean friend complained about it, asking the teacher what she was going to do if we were late too often – call our mothers?  Funny ‘cuz it’s true . . .

I took a nice nap while we went over answers in Listening class, but woke up when she put on a movie.  It was 相声, China’s version of stand-up comedy with two people.  Unfortunately, it was 80% over my head.  I could tell it was funny – they even had the most important element of humor, the combination of a tall thin man with a short fat one – but couldn’t figure out why. 

I was going to get some studying done, but XuLei called to say she was coming over with a package from home.  I quickly agreed, visions of sugar plums and other such treats dancing in my head.  When she got here, we opened the box to see . . . package after package of room-temperature packaged meat.  I know we have this in America – it’s called Spam – but in China meat that is somehow treated so as to sustain long periods of time without refrigeration has been elevated to an artform.  In fact, these vacuum-sealed bags of what in America would be considered waste meat are a “special product” of XuLei’s hometown.  (She’s from Wuhan, Hubei – another reason to love Wuhan, right Mom and Dad?)  She was so excited to get this package of her favorite foods from home, so like the good friend I am, I tried a little of each.  The duck neck and duck clavicle (??) were both not bad, actually, just a little spicier than I usually like my duck extremities. 

While we ate, I decided to ask her about yesterday’s earthquake in Qinghai (western China).  To my surprise, she hadn’t heard about it!  I filled her in as best as I could, and then we turned on CCTV to watch their coverage.  The death toll is at 617, big enough for the NYT to be running several articles a day, but for some reason the Chinese don’t seem to be too aware of it??

Between talking about earthquakes, mining disasters, and devastating plane crashes, I was feeling a little down – it also probably didn’t help that today never got brighter than an average day at dusk.  I wanted nothing more than to continue studying and have dinner delivered to my room, but Aleid had asked me over to make dinner, so out I went.

We grabbed some ingredients at the supermarket then went to her house, where we whipped up a fabulous pasta with pork, eggplant, mushrooms, and pesto sauce. 


I made green beans to go with it, and we had bread and Dutch cheese (always) on the side.  For dessert?  汤圆 of course :)  We had a wonderfully long conversation, lingering over dinner, and I felt much better by the time I went home.

I mean, I know I was supposed to spend today studying, but there were other important things to do as well – foods to try and friends to enjoy.  Anyway, it’s not like I didn’t learn anything today: Soup Nazi = 汤霸.

Ten Things I Hate About Chinese

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2010 at 12:47 am

Despite all the traveling I’ve done since coming to China (according to Carlos’ count, two out of my 7+ months here), I think I’ve also managed to stay on top of my studies.  Up until this week, though, I’ve never really not done something because of my classes.  I’m trying not to let school get in the way of my language learning, you know!

But I’m hoping that the 200 kuai I spent on the HSK will not be wasted, so I’m hitting the books this week.  I did flashcard reviews this afternoon and my first practice test this evening.  Grumble.


So, as promised . . . here’s the list of my least favorite characters:

  1. 七 (the number 7), 九 (the number 9), 尺 (ft) and 丈夫 (husband) because despite being ridiculously simple, they’re somehow just really awkward to write.
  2. 哭 (cry) and 器 (machine) because those tiny boxes are 3 strokes each and nearly impossible to make uniform and pretty – and that’s before you add in the other stuff. 
  3. 压 (to press), 厌 (to detest), and 国 (country) because I can never get those tiny tick marks in the right place. 
  4. 未 (future) and 末 (end), 入 (enter) and 人 (person), because I’m still mad about how long it took me to figure out they were different characters. 
  5. 相, 像, and 象 (xiang); 义, 议, and 忆 (yi); 据 and 居 (ju); 智 and 知 (zhi) because they sound the same and their meanings are too similar to justify their continued existence.  Just put some of them out of their misery . . .
  6. 照 (to illuminate), 鼻 (nose), 窗 (window), and 嘴 (mouth) because it’s seriously impossible to write them in the way they’re pictured.  Give me an entire sheet of paper and we’re fine, but a 1-cm-square box?  You’ve got to be kidding me. 
  7. 酸 (sour): this character and I have major issues; don’t know why.  I’m hoping we can move past them like 烧 (to burn) and I managed to make up, but we’ll just have to see about that. 
  8. 熟悉 (to be familiar with): someone do 1.4 billion people a favor and find an easier way to write this, please! 
  9. 得: really unfortunate, as this one is definitely in the top 50 most-commonly used characters, but . . . just look at it and you should understand my dislike.
  10. 圈 (circle) because it doesn’t look like a circle – it looks like a nightmare. 


I don’t want to end on a bad note, so I’ll share the small highlights of my day:

  • taking a pre-midterm practice test in Grammar class and getting a 90%
  • eating at Caiqingjie with friends, trying something new (炭烤肉, a kind of meat dish), and having it be delicious.
  • seeing Sietze’s new cell phone – a fake iPhone that just says ‘Phone’ on the back.  The silver apple-shaped sticker is falling off, too, but what do you expect for $70? 
  • eating spicy barbecue for dinner, followed by ice cream to soothe the tingling mouth.
  • watching Big Bang Theory, Season 1, Episode 17 (the one where Sheldon learns Chinese) for like the 5th time. 

A Few of My Favorite Things

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2010 at 1:07 am

I had lunch with Lester and XuLei today – it was so good to see them.  A week feels like forever; how great will it be to see people back home after 11 months?!?  I was relieved to see that I could still converse normally in Mandarin even after my weekend all-English-all-the-time vacation in Hong Kong.  XuLei thought it hilarious that I’d missed Mandarin while I was gone, but I’d like to see her try to get by in Hong Kong!

We had class this afternoon, which I was only happy about because I got to see Katrine.  She had been traveling with her parents before I left, so it had been even longer since I’d seen her.  In Listening class, we had one exercise in which 8 out of the 10 answers were C.  Apparently this level of predictability is not unusual in Chinese tests; the teacher even went so far as to tell us never to guess A, because it’s always the most rare answer.  That’s weird, right?

I figured out today that the HKS is actually this Sunday, not this Saturday as I had been thinking.  I’m quite annoyed by this.  The benefit of an extra day of studying is far outweighed by the loss of my planned weekend of post-HSK fun.  I was just thinking about the long line of amazing weekends I’ve had (my birthday, Easter, and Hong Kong) and was looking forward to karaoke and dancing after finishing this test, but Sunday night partying prospects are rather dismal.  Argh. 

I spent the afternoon studying for the test until I finally surrendered to the allure of my bed.  The night bus back from HK kind of messed up the already-pathetic sleep schedule I had, so this was the second day in a row I took a desperate power nap in the early evening.  I have to schedule them right before concrete dinner plans or there’s no way I’ll get up – the promise of food and the shame of standing someone up are the only things powerful enough to rouse me. 

Carlos and I ate in Furong, my second meal of the day in the cafeteria.  I had noodles with chicken bones (basically) and my second bowl of 汤圆 today.  汤圆 are the latest in the long list of foods I’ve become obsessed with here in China.  They’re gelatinous rice balls filled with sweet sesame paste, served in a ‘soup’ of hot water.  No, seriously, they’re delicious. 


As a way to encourage myself about the upcoming HSK and remind myself why I like studying Chinese (because I do . . . right?!?), I’m going to share a list I’ve been working on: my favorite Chinese characters. 

Some are just fun to write, like 之, 弟, 也, 无, 我, and 风.  (Proper stroke order probably plays a part, but go ahead and try!) 

Some look cool because of really awesome symmetry: 亚, 兼, 出, 事, 常, 普, and 互 (which means ‘mutual’, making the symmetry even cooler). 

Others look cool but I don’t know why: 永, 危, 尔, 世, and 吧 (doesn’t it look like it’s smiling at you?!?). 

There are a bunch that look (to me, at least) just like they mean:

  • 门 (door)
  • 凸 (convex)
  • 凹 (concave)
  • 大 (big)
  • 小 (little)
  • 杀 (to kill – a body with an X where the head should be)
  • 酒 (alcohol, with the water radical on the left and what looks like a bottle on the right)
  • 明 (bright, because 日=sun and 月=moon)
  • 岛 (island – made up of a bird [鸟] sitting on a mountain [山])

Lastly, there are the really special ones – the ones I should hate, but don’t.  They’re ridiculous, too complicated, and have more strokes than most English words have letters (respectively 13, 15, and 18).  But I like them anyway.  I like how they look, I like their meaning, and they’re even somehow fun to write:

微, part of the words “smile” and “calculus”.  What’s not to like?

德, meaning ‘virtue’.  Also featured in the name of Germany (land of the virtuous, apparently) and many transliterations (including Metro and KFC)

翻, meaning ‘to turn’.  Waaaaaaaaaay fun to write.  I think it’s the stuff on the right, because I feel nearly as strongly about 扇.


The studying will continue tomorrow.  If my mood sours, you’ll be looking at a list of my least favorite characters, accompanied by hateful descriptions of exactly why they offend me so. 

Thoughts on Hong Kong

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2010 at 1:27 am

My bus arrived in Xiamen this morning at 6, coming back to the island in the soft pre-dawn glow.  I grabbed a taxi home and had just enough time to clean out my backpack and shower before class.  I skipped three days of class last week, but was relieved/disappointed to find out that we were still on the same lesson, so I didn’t miss much.

My name was in the notebook on the front desk downstairs – twice! – which meant I had mail.  What a wonderful welcome-back gift – a postcard from France and a birthday card from Tulsa, signed by so many good friends! 

I spent the morning and afternoon (except for a quick jaunt over to Lianxing for class that turned out to be cancelled) unpacking and catching up on things. 


While I worked, I pondered my weekend in Hong Kong and the observations I made there.  Here are some thoughts:

I’ve said before that a big city is a big city.  This is not true – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou are Chinese big cities.  Hong Kong, on the other hand, seems actually international.  Once I got over the shock of all the Indian men, the most striking thing about the people in Hong Kong was that they looked like Americans.  Every ethnicity, every color, every shape, every style of fashion was represented. 

Living in China and speaking Mandarin has become a source of pride for me.  I love knowing that I can handle most any basic situation that would arise, whether or not anyone else involved can speak English.  It’s comforting, certainly, and a source of confidence to try new things and go new places, but it’s also at least part pride – straight up, seven-deadly-sins pride.  When I’m in China, I’m not ‘one of those Americans’, and I like living above reproach from any other potentially condescending foreigners.  Going to Hong Kong not speaking Cantonese was a lesson in humility.  No one cared that I spoke Mandarin; my one attempt with a taxi driver yielded more confusion than the English I was trying to explain, and when I ordered 珍珠奶茶 instead of “milk tea with pearls”, the worker laughed at me much like I would be amused at an obvious non-native speaker speaking Spanish to me in America. 

I feel obligated to like Hong Kong more than mainland China, but I don’t think I do.  Hong Kong is free, modern, clean, and courteous; China only occasionally exhibits these characteristics.  China, however, is both familiar and exciting.  The familiarity is the product of months and months of immersion, while the excitement has managed to stick around despite the length of time I’ve been here.  China’s quirks make every day an adventure and – 85% of the time – a joy, while Hong Kong is predictably free, modern, clean, and courteous.  Where’s the fun in that?  I still think back on Taiwan with great fondness; I think Taiwan is a great combination of the excitement and adventure of the mainland plus the convenience, efficiency, and courtesy of Hong Kong. 

I first met Alex in the fall of my sophomore year at TU.  I had been to China for the first time that summer, on a one-week Engineers Without Borders assessment trip, and Alex had just returned from a semester studying abroad in Chengdu (the first TU student to study in China).  The next year, I returned to China with the SENEA project, and Alex returned to Chengdu to study.  Sometime during the fall of my junior year, when I began toying with the idea of studying Chinese in China, I sent Alex an email and we met up at the Center for Global Education to talk.  I remember being so impressed with how much he knew about China and Chinese.  As far as I know, he spoke more Chinese than any non-Chinese student at TU – he was the master. 

He applied for this scholarship too, but he was graduating so I was chosen :)  Fast forward to now, me quickly approaching a year total in China and nearly as long of intense language study.  With his job of teaching English in a Cantonese-speaking area, he has to work hard to even keep his Mandarin at the level it once was, much less improve.  What I’m getting at here is – undoubtedly due more to our different circumstances than any differences between us personally – I may have surpassed ‘the master’.  We didn’t have a speak-off or anything, but I’m sure we’re at least pretty close in language ability and other practical China skills.  I just remember how far ahead he once seemed – how unattainable his language level seemed, and how enviable his familiarity with the country and its people.  I’m simultaneously tickled and disconcerted at the idea of having reached this goal I never set for myself. 


Aleid and I had dinner plans, which is probably good because otherwise I would not have left my room.  The weather is wet – not precipitating, just wet.  Humidity is well up in the 90’s and everything is sweating, even the air.  Visibility is perhaps at an all-time low, with even the top of Caiqingjie and the tallest tower of DaXueCheng (18 stories?) obscured by fog. 

I had a weird feeling on the walk over to West Gate – I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to eat.  Even allowing myself to consider food that is unavailable in China, nothing sounded right.  We went to Green Chairs and had Kung Pao chicken, which of course ended up being exactly what I wanted.  We also tried something new – shrimp cooked in tea leaves!  It tasted exactly like you would expect shrimp cooked in tea leaves to taste, which is what I discovered when trying Orange M&M’s and Sprite Iced Tea in Hong Kong.  Go figure!


Journal note: There are three new posts today – this one, one about the trip back from Shenzhen last night, and an extra one about Tomb-Sweeping Day.

Mandarin: Not So Sweet After All

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2010 at 1:01 am

Emotions are fickle things. 

I reentered China at approximately 6 p.m. on Sunday evening, and spent a good half hour relishing the wave of Mandarin washing over me.

By 7 or so, I was beginning to remember some things that I’m not so terribly fond of about China. 

The conversation partners I had so easily found were asking me for the 6th time why I don’t have a Chinese boyfriend because I’m “so pretty”.  I was most certainly not pretty, after changing into pajamas for the long bus ride and feeling grimy despite doing my best to wash my face in the miniscule sink at Chungking Mansions.  It’s usually nice to get compliments anyway, but their implications were overpowered by the cigarette smoke (which I don’t remember smelling even once in Hong Kong) that they blew directly in my face with each leer.

I had some good conversations with a few of the nicer men, but had real difficulty communicating with some of them.  While they were all technically speaking Mandarin, some of their accents were quite heavy.  In addition to the lovely Southern habit of dropping the ‘h’ from ‘sh’, these guys also said ‘f’ instead of ‘h’ and ‘l’ instead of ‘n’ and ‘r’.  And then there was the guy who asked me if I’d been to “Baizhang” and had to explain that it was China’s capital before I understood what he was talking about . . . Accents are the bane of any language-learner’s existence, but there is definitely a simple pleasure to hear one Chinese person berate another for saying something wrong.  Ha!  I didn’t understand, but it was your fault. 

The cast of characters in the bus office was continually changing, men coming and men (always men) going.  One guy got into a [rather one-sided] conversation with me about Christianity.  As best as I could understand, he was comparing Christianity in China with Christianity in the rest of the world, and as far as I could understand he was saying that Christians in other countries identify themselves primarily with their nation instead of Christianity.  I was certainly not going to agree with his assertion, but – not wanting to mistake his meaning – instead claimed I didn’t understand.  (I didn’t; whether it was an issue of language or logic was unclear.)  But after watching my adeptly handle such challenging questions as “How old are you?” and “Which is better, China or America?”, this guy was not going to let me get off claiming anything less than complete fluency.  He looked at me with contempt and said, “I know  you understand.”  It wasn’t that hard to deal with his disappointment, especially because he shut up afterwards. 

Then a new guy came in, sat down, and asked where I was from.  My answer prompted an immediate response from him: “America sucks.  England too.”  I actually don’t hear (/understand) a lot of America-bashing over here, so I was a little taken aback.  But what came next was even more surprising – he brought up the president and, after some prompting, clarified that he meant Obama.  This was the first time I’d heard anything bad about Obama, so I was interested to hear his reasons.  (I thought it would have something to do with his race, as many Chinese are racist to some extent and invariably remark on his color.)  Unfortunately, this guy’s Mandarin was heavily accented, breakneck fast, and mumbled almost beyond comprehension.  I kept asking him to repeat himself and looking at the others for help deciphering his rant, but everyone in the room just looked visibly uncomfortable and tried to avoid my gaze.  The only word I picked up is “bin Laden”, but there was no mention or Iraq or war as far as I could tell, so I really don’t know what he was saying.  It really irritated me that he spoke for so long when I obviously didn’t understand.  If you have a problem with my country, that’s fine, but please speak proper 普通话 so I can understand you.  Instead, he just took the opportunity to soapbox in front of a Chinese audience and an American who can’t even say anything in response. 

Thus the hours passed.  Finally it was 8:30 (the scheduled departure time of our bus), and I began to gather my things.  I asked the men when we were heading out, and they asked me what the rush was?  They sat there, tea cups in hand and cigarettes between lips, in absolutely no hurry to be anywhere or do anything, and told me that I was too pretty to head back to Xiamen yet.  I laughed and said I would just walk home, but inside I was wondering if the time for joking had passed and the time for figuring out another way home had arrived.  Luckily, a woman came in around this time, and she too seemed vaguely concerned about returning to Xiamen sometime in the near future.

More hours passed.  Someone turned on the TV and we started watching the news.  The countdown to the Shanghai World Expo is at 20 days.  Protests continue in Thailand.  Opposition forces have taken control of Kyrgyzstan (another ridiculous country name I’ve learned in Chinese – 吉尔吉斯斯坦).  The president of Poland died in a plane crash over Russia.  (Only upon my return home did I find out that many top government officials died as well; now my heart is sad for that beautiful country.) 

Around 10, we walked across the station in the first leg of our journey.  We had been joined by some new passengers, including one young man who carried a woman’s bag the entire way for her.  The fact that this deserves mention in the journal indicates how uncommon common courtesy is in China . . . I remember thinking to myself how he had just earned 1,000 Potential Chinese Boyfriend points, as opposed to the stupid flattery and cigarette smoke of the men in the bus office (worth 0 points). 

After a van ride to take us to our bus, we were finally able to board.  Apparently we had a sleeper bus – my first time!  You may think you can’t fit many beds into a single bus, but that’s just because you’re not thinking like a Chinese.  There are three rows of beds along the length of the bus, and each one is stacked two high.  Each bed is exactly the width of me, with my arms by my side, and the aisles between are significantly narrower.  I think the lengths vary, because I was continually motioned towards different berths as the driver realized how ridiculously tall I am.  The head of each bed is raised, creating extra foot room for the passenger behind you.  I actually found it quite comfortable, especially considering I was expecting a seat.  The bed was probably more comfortable than a hard sleeper in a train, but train compartments offer space to sit up, eat, walk around, etc. while sleeper buses are exclusively for sleeping. 

And, of course, that is fine with me. 

Mandarin: No Sweeter Sound

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2010 at 6:45 am

This morning I had plans with Alex, a friend of mine from TU, to meet for Mass at his usual place, Rosary Church Kowloon.  The church was a beautiful building, and the Mass was just as beautiful.  The priest (Irish, I’m pretty sure) was the first native English-speaker I’d heard celebrate Mass in over 7 months, and the Gloria was the first one I’d recognized from home in just as long.  Those weren’t the only differences – the congregation didn’t talk during the service, the priest commented on the one cell phone that rang, and there were extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.  The main similarity to my church in Xiamen was that Communion was still confusing. 

At the end of Mass, Father made a special announcement concerning the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.  This was another first for me.  He shared some of Pope Benedict’s words, which I had already read, but it was still the first time I heard anyone mention the issue in person.  (I think this is completely a function of me living in China, and not characteristic of the international church – is that true?)  I wonder what they know about it [mainland] China . . . are they talking and I just don’t understand? 

After Mass, Alex suggested that we go to his town, “out in the boonies of Hong Kong” and on the way to Shenzhen.  We took the Metro over there, where we had a delicious Indian meal.  (Alex confirmed my hunch that he eats a lot more foreign food in Hong Kong than he did when he used to live in Chengdu, simply because most Chinese food is as expensive as the foreign food.) 


From there, we walked to the river, where we hung out and talked for awhile.  We spent a lot of time comparing China with the non-China places we’ve been.  Here’s a general summary: Chinese people are friendly, people from Hong Kong are courteous, and Taiwanese are both. 

Alex and I have had different paths to China so it’s interesting to compare our past experiences and our hopes for the future.  We discussed the prospect of returning to work in China; it sounds good but the more I think about it, maybe it wouldn’t be the same.  We both like China and think it’s fun, but perhaps less so when you actually have to get something done . . .

Alex’s town has a nice ‘town square’, lots of sitting areas surrounded by food vendors.  We got big glasses of milk tea (for the ridiculous price of $1.80, compared to 60 cents back in Xiamen) and I got a Belgian waffle doused in butter and condensed milk.  I have pretty good self control when it comes to food, but all my restraint goes out the window when traveling.  Especially in China, if I see good food in another city and don’t eat it, I may not ever get the chance again!  And thus, my Easter sugar high has stayed around through the entirety of the Octave.

I managed to work the money situation just right, changing 1,000 renminbi (about $130) to Hong Kong dollars when I arrived and leaving with about $10 US of loose bills in my wallet and an Octopus Card with a negative balance.  Basically what I’m getting at here is – I am a ninja.

He walked me to the subway, which I took back to the border crossing.  As I approached passport control, my phone vibrated, delivering a text message from back home in Xiamen – now I have dinner plans to look forward to tomorrow!  Reentering China was – surprisingly – quite easy and I was through in a matter of minutes.  From the moment 請 became 请, I felt myself relax into the familiarity of China.  The Chinese characters before me were all wondrously simplified, and the only language that my ears detected was good ol’ Mandarin.  After a few days of English and Cantonese, it soothes my soul.

I bought a ticket for the 8:30 bus to Xiamen and sat down to wait for a few hours.  The couple Chinese guys nearby were drawn in like moths to a flame, and after complimenting me on my Mandarin, the usual battery of questions began:

  • How long have you been here?
  • Where do you work?
  • Where are you from?
  • Which is better, China or America?
  • Are you used to it here?
  • Do you eat Chinese food?
  • What brand is your computer?
  • How much did it cost?
  • Do you have a Chinese boyfriend?
  • Have you been to ___ place in China?

It’s good to be back, China – I’ve missed you, and I think you missed me too.