Maria Holland

Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Meet MacGyver

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Xiao Li woke me up this morning around 6 for breakfast.  It was worth getting up for, though – rice and a delicious bowl of meat, potatoes, eggplant and garlic.  They went to work, but there’s nothing to do in town that early, so I stayed in the house until 9 or 10. 

Then I ventured out, to see how this last year-and-a-half has treated Hunchun.  The Zhangs live on the same street as Donghai (our favorite plumbing-supply store), so right away I was greeted by something familiar.  The big blue sign, shelves and shelves of PVC pipe, and that new-plastic smell that I associate so strongly with China.  They’re hiring, by the way . . .

A block further, and I was bombarded with memories.  At one intersection, there was the Xinhua bookstore where we bought our grown-up Chinese dictionaries, the tea shop where I bought tea for Will, the ATM where I lost my credit card once, and the DVD store where Xiao Li and Zhang Lei gave me a CD of Chinese Christian music.

I knew exactly where I was at that point – thanks to the amazingly accurate map that Blake drew that summer – and confidently continued on my way towards Yikelong – or, as we affectionately called it, “Crazy Mart”.  Based on my walkthrough of town, it seems that most everything is as I remember it – only Yikelong’s storefront is green now, not orange.  Other than that, it’s as if we were here yesterday – which would explain why they still haven’t restocked the delicious gummy worms or Skittles.  (Yes, of course I checked!)

My next stop was the DVD store.  The owner (more on him later) wasn’t there, but the guy working recognized me and wondered where the rest of us were.  The store seems bigger, maybe, but has almost no English titles anymore :( 

While I was over there, I walked along Ring Road until I got to Double Dragon Alley, a sketchy market from which Alli’s nickname was taken.  Being here able to read Chinese is turning out to be pretty fun . . . Apparently the actual name of that alley is “Dog-Killing Field”.  Hahahahahaha.


I returned home for lunch – warm milk and moon cakes filled with sugar.  It was delicious, surprisingly sweet for a Chinese meal.  Xiao Zhang spent the rest of his lunch break poring over my map of Hunchun together with me.  It was just like old times, me asking question and question and him patiently answering every single one.  Then they went back to work and I took my after-lunch nap.

I was woken by a call on my cell phone, the caller identified as “Mob Boss”.  I remember when I used to dread phone calls in Chinese, especially right after waking up, but it’s just cool to get woken up by a phone call from Mob Boss.  (More on him – the DVD store owner – on Monday when we have dinner!)

When I went out again, my first priority was to find an internet cafe – it’s been over 48 hours and I’m starting to get a little shaky!  But once I found an internet bar, I couldn’t get in.  They asked for a 身份证, one of those Chinese words I’ve come to loath – it means identity card, but specifically a card that only Chinese citizens have.  I offered my XiaDa student ID and my passport, but nothing but the 身份证 would do.  I went to a second place, and the situation was the same – 上不了, can’t get on.  It was around this time that I started to throw a fit and they called the manager over.  He confirmed that my passport was insufficient, and when I asked him what foreigners are supposed to do then, he just shrugged and said “You can’t get on!”

This really really makes me mad.  First of all, there’s so much hypocrisy between the travel-friendly front that China has been trying to present at the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo, and the reality that you’re faced with at any other time or in any other place.  It’s not like this rule is new, either – it started a month ago. 

But more importantly, I am a legal resident of China!  I have a valid passport, an invitation from a Chinese university, a Chinese government scholarship, and a residence permit valid for 4 more months . . . but I am still denied some basic services.  There are hotels that I can’t stay at, libraries I can’t use, and computers I can’t get on.  I guess it’s not that big of a deal to require ID (although a little creepy), but then to deny the only forms of ID that foreigners have is the same as denying foreigners outright. 

After letting them know how thoroughly displeased I was with this requirement, I took a bus out to see our machinist.  李红春 is the machinist who does a lot of work for Timothy; during our time on the farm he helped with a brick press and two wind turbines. 


He’s a happy, friendly man who always looks cleaner than a machinist would be expected to look.  He is also a ninja – he once cut a square out of sheet metal with a lathe.  He has a son of just the right age – 22 now – and there was talk of an arranged marriage to one of our travel team members so that we could bring him back to the US as her father-in-law.  That would have been so cool . . .

I caught up with him and his wife, invited them to join us for dinner, and then took a bus back to the center of town to do some shopping.  I bought a sweet pajama set, which means I’m ready to go for evening pajama strolls around Xiamen.  I also did a lot of looking in different stores, which was annoying because everyone here thinks I’m Russian.  Granted, we are mere kilometers from the border and most of the Westerners here are Russian, but . . . I see how many of them dress and can’t help but be a little bit offended!  I’ve decided that being greeted in Russian is even more annoying than the incessant “hallooow”s that I encounter everywhere else in China, and having my Chinese answered in Russian is way more frustrating than having it answered in broken English. 

I went home to meet up with Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li, then we went to DongFang to meet the others for dinner.  DongFang is Hunchun’s best barbecue restaurant, and it is where many of my happiest memories have taken place.  Unlike the barbecue places in Xiamen where someone cooks for you and you walk off with your sticks, DongFang is a sit-down, do-it-yourself barbecue place.  The 18 of us (10 adults and 8 kids) sat at one long table, punctuated by four metal grills set into the table.  Servers poured hot coals into the grills, and then brought out skewers of beef and lamb by the dozen.  When we had eaten our fill, I produced a bag of marshmallows, a stack of Hershey’s bars, and two tubes of Chinese breakfast biscuits and we enjoyed a dessert of s’mores roasted over the dying embers! 


I ask you, does it get any better than this?


Dinner was my treat (the absolute least I could do for all of these people who have been so wonderful to me) and came to a grand total of 342 kuai ($50) for the 18 of us.  *loves China*

I decided to stay another night with the Zhangs, despite the internet and shower situations growing more desperate, because I’m going to Mass in town in the morning.  Back at home, we watched Xiao Zhang’s favorite TV show, 松花江上, about the war between the Communists and Kuomintang.  Unfortunately, tonight’s was the last episode – just as I was finally starting to figure out who was who!  A friend of theirs also came over so that Xiao Li could do cupping on her back.  She was having some neck pain, so Xiao Li affixed a bunch of cups to her back using pretty powerful suction and basically gave her a beautiful set of giant hickeys.  I hope she feels better!

Meet Xiao Zhang, The Ninja

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Allow me to introduce my good friends, the Zhang’s. 

Xiao Zhang (Little Zhang) was my second Chinese friend and my first Chinese teacher.  In the summer of 2008, when I lived two months on the farm up here, he was the foreman, Timothy’s right-hand man.  When we began construction of my biogas digester, he was in charge of the workers and thus it was to him that I [attempted to] communicate my design.  At first, it mainly consisted of pointing to drawings and grunting, but as time went on, I learned enough Chinese to communicate a little bit verbally.  The more I learn now, the more I realize I know nothing now and even less then, so I’ve developed a deep appreciation for his ability to deal with stupid foreigners like me. 

But even before I realized that he has superhuman powers of communication, I knew he was special.  He’s a ninja.  He can make anything out of concrete or, if you would prefer it, wood.  He can weld absolutely anything; I remember one time we cut some rebar for stakes but didn’t have anything with which to grind them to a point so he welded a point on to them.  He’s sensible and practical, like my dad only not anal retentive as well.  Also, he cooks.  I know, right?

Xiao Li (Little Li) is his wife.  She also worked on the farm, sometimes with our crew and sometimes helping out around the house.  She is a dumpling-making machine and I am hoping to learn from her on this trip.  She’s very nearly as good as Xiao Zhang when it comes to communicating – actually, the first sentence of Chinese I remember learning was from her: 你来,帮我 (You come, help me). 


Xiao Zhang wanted to meet me at the bus stop but he was working, so I took a taxi over to their apartment.  I was so happy to see them that I jumped out of the taxi and hugged them both before the word “awkward” even made it into my mind. 

We took my stuff up to their apartment, then Xiao Zhang returned to work.  I’d only been to their home once, on my very last day in China that summer, but it feels comfortable and familiar to me – I think I adopt homes and families as my own quite easily!  Their apartment consists of a bathroom, kitchen, and two rooms with heated floors that serve any number of purposes.  Xiao Li and I chilled out on one of them, enjoying the warmth underneath us as we caught up.  It was effortless to converse with her, and totally natural to be able to talk this way even though last time we met I had the verbal skills of a slow Chinese first-grader.  I learned the proper names, with characters, of a bunch of things that I’ve been wanting to know since I started studying Chinese.  The street with Donghai and the pump store and the sheet metal bender and the generator shop – basically Home Depot in the shape of a street – is called 建材街, literally Building Materials Street.  Go figure!  Xiao Zhang’s full name is 张广新 and Xiao Li is 李春影; I also learned the names of all the other workers even though I won’t be able to see them on this trip as they’re all back home in Harbin. 

Xiao Zhang came back around 6 and we went to dinner.  They took me to a place I hadn’t been before (because we’re saving DongFang, best restaurant in the world EVER for tomorrow) for barbecue.  One of the interesting parts of this trip is finally figuring out what things are Chinese, and what things are northeastern or Fujian.  I’ve lived in Xiamen for nearly 9 months now, and have yet to see this style of do-it-yourself barbecue – and believe me, I’ve looked.  Apparently it’s something special to this area, and Hunchun is perhaps the best place for it. 

The dinner was a buffet – the waitress brought over all sorts of food, mainly meat, and we grilled it ourselves on a big stone slab. 


The meat was delicious, just what I expected in Hunchun.  There was lettuce to wrap around the meat, plus grilled mushrooms, bread, garlic, and quail eggs (which, by the way, you can eat without peeling.  And it tastes fine!).  We ate our fill, then went for a walk.

It was quite cool after the sun set, but fine weather for a walk.  We strolled down the streets, mostly dark because stores close very early here.  I entertained myself by reading the street signs – it it SO exciting to be literate in this town finally!

We walked by a night market and went in to look around.  I remember this market so vividly, and my stomach remembers how it reacted when I saw some of the food available for consumption.  I’ve gotten a little cocky after getting used to Xiamen’s worm jelly treat, but that walk reminded me just how many things are left that I haven’t tried – and perhaps wouldn’t dare.  Live scorpions, fetuses of unknown animals, cockroaches, or pig feet – anyone?

There was a nice town square directly next to the night market, of which I have no memory.  How is it possible that we never went there?  It is the place to be in the evening, I think – there was roller-blading, massages, crafts, and a blow-up bouncy castle.  Dude!

We watched some TV when we got back, then they went to bed.  They work at 7 in the morning, which makes me hurt a little bit to think about . . .

Adventuring Towards Hunchun

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Made it from my dorm to the gate in under 40 minutes!  This left me time for a dinner of overpriced airport food!  I paid 68 kuai ($10!!!) for a plate of spaghetti; it came with a plastic fork so I ate with chopsticks instead.  Anyway, that way it’s acceptable to slurp.  I also ordered 开水 (boiled water) because it’s the Chinese equivalent of chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant – a.k.a. free.  Also, the monoculture in China can be a bit overpowering and sometimes it’s more refreshing to drink boiled water with everyone else than to drink ice water by yourself.  Holy crap, I really am becoming Chinese . . .

Once on the plane, I pull out a little duct-tape-bound notebook and start paging through it.  This is the Chinese ‘dictionary’ I created during my summer on the farm, and it contains every Chinese word I knew at the end of July 2008.  It’s a still-frame of that phase in my Chinese language learning.  It’s also hilarious.  A lot of simple words (mainly nouns) are right, and a blessed few even have pinyin (although at that time I didn’t know a single character).  I knew a lot of really basic words, but also quite a bit of specialized vocabulary – words that I still don’t know in character form because I have no use for them off the farm, like cone, trailer, rivet, hammer, and shovel (both kinds).  A few things in there, I have really no idea where they came from: both = erzhe? after = zaihou? accident =  buxing? follow = yanzhe? or = yihou? scholarship = xuewen?  But the really funny entries are the ones that I now see are wrong, and in retrospect, can figure out what happened.  “Weiyingle” doesn’t mean “lose”, it means “didn’t win”.  “You yi” kind of means “another”, but not in the sense I was looking for.  “shiguding” means “fixed” as in “immovable”, not as in “repaired”.

I’ve spent the entire flight thus far and the hour before boarding trading glances with a young man seated in front of me.  This would be way more exciting if he were a) cute, b) not obviously with his girlfriend/wife, and c) looking at me for a reason other than that I’m a foreigner.  I can’t wait to go back to America and catch a guy staring at me because he’s interested, not curious!

Apparently my flight passes through Nanjing.  This explains why the trip is scheduled to take so long!  I’ve never been to Nanjing before, and my first impression isn’t that great, as the airport is kind of a dump.  I spent the hour there eating the Mentos that I bought – Fresh Cola flavored, and disturbingly accurate.

We just landed in Changchun – I am finally in 东北 (the northeast of China)!  The bathroom here is good – there’s toilet paper, although you have to grab it on your way in, and even soap!?!

I’m in a taxi with my new friends, Staring Man from the plane and his significant other.  This situation – midnight taxi ride with strangers – doesn’t sound good on paper, but it feels okay.  At one point, we pull over to the side of the dark highway in the middle of nowhere; it turns out the taxi behind us had a flat and needed our spare.  Ah 东北, I’ve missed you!  Taxi rides in Xiamen are too uneventful.

My train to Tumen doesn’t leave til 8 but I discovered a 4 o’clock one to Yanji.  I lose 4 kuai by returning my original ticket and buying the other one.  Sweet!  This should shave 6 hours off my travel time!

I worked on my computer for awhile, and when I look up I see the sun has already risen.  My alarm just went off at 4, a reminder that my train leaves in 15 minutes.  My train, K7333, is on the master timetable, but we should be lining up and I don’t see it on any of the ticket counters, so I ask an employee.  Turns out my train leaves from the Changbaishan station; I was apparently somehow supposed to know this although it was not on my ticket and was not mentioned at the time of purchase.  BTW, the Changbaishan station half a kilometer away, good luck! 

Despite it being 4 in the morning, despite only having gotten a few restless hours of sleep on the plane, and despite my three pieces of luggage, I speed-walk/run the entire way to the other station.  Panting, I look up and see: K7333, 晚点23分 – my train is 23 minutes late.  My emotions fluctuate between grateful (I don’t have to run to the train yet) and really pissed off (because I didn’t even have to run here).  I comfort myself by remembering that I totally would have made it if the train had been on time.

Twenty-three minutes turned into forty before we finally got on.  This train runs from Dalian to Yanji, which means we’re getting on about halfway.  This is my first time doing this (as Tumen and Xiamen are terminal stops by necessity), and I probably won’t do it again if I can help it.  First of all, trains usually depart on time; the delays happen en route.  Secondly, it turns out they only change the sheets in the sleeper berths at the final destination.  I really want to sleep, but not in the same linens that some other person slept in all the way from Dalian!

I awake to the sight of a train worker standing by feet.  I’m pretty sure that he’s just been staring at me, waiting for me to wake up – and he takes my consciousness as an invitation to start a conversation.  He’s asked where I’m from before I’ve even got my glasses on, and totally ignores my hints (repeated yawning) and outright declarations (我还是想睡觉) that I want to sleep.  He finally leaves me alone after I’ve showed him every picture I have on me.

We stop in 朝阳川, and there’s Korean on the sign.  We must be in Yanbian!  (Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is a region with a high density of Korean residents; Yanji is the capital and Hunchun and Tumen are also a part of it.)  I start looking out the window with earnest, and what I see is exactly what I remember of this part of China – greenhouses and that semi-neon China Blue, everywhere.  Have they been everywhere, and I’m only noticing them now when I expect to see them?

We’re in Yanji!  I take a taxi to the bus station.  Rather, I get in the taxi and watch as my taxi driver gets in a fight (literally) with another taxi driver over more passengers.  I alternate yelling in Chinese (师傅,怎么了?快点,快点!) and English (“Seriously?!  Are you a 14-year-old boy?  What on earth are you doing??”).

With 20 minutes before my bus to Hunchun, I walk next door to get something to eat.  (While the 24-hour fast en route to the farm is a celebrated tradition of mine – the better to stuff yourself with sticks upon arrival! – I’m in danger of passing out before I make it there.)  I buy 拉面 (noodles) to-go and they bring it to me . . . in a bag.  A little plastic bag, tied in a knot.  Ummmmmmmmmmmm ‘kay.  I ask how I’m supposed to eat it, and they grudgingly offer me a plastic bowl to go with it.  I feel like such a nube, but this isn’t how we eat 拉面 in Xiamen!!

We’re on the highway, driving along the river.  On the other bank, there’s a wall of mountains – I think that’s NK.

We just crossed the river, so I’m hoping I was wrong about the river being the border!  Haha, this reminds me of the jokes we made every time we crossed a river during our summer on the farm – either we would make fun of Michelle for getting dysentery while fording the river, or we would pretend that we had accidentally crossed into NK. 

Now the other side of the river looks dead.  I think this is NK.

I see a man in a camo jacket driving a tractor, and I feel like I know him. 

I see greenhouses everywhere, and remember why we first came to Hunchun. 

I see that all the trees have submitted to the constant wind and point west permanently, and remember why we first came to Hunchun. 

I see the Hunchun power plant, and have never been more excited to see a power plant in my life.  It is the first thing that I actually recognize, and was right where I expected it to be, around 8 or 9 kilometers outside of town.  I’m excited, it means we’re almost there – but as I search for Goose Lady’s tiny wind turbine in the shadow of the huge coal-burning power plant, I remember why we first came to Hunchun. 

I see the first sign with Russian: Michelin Tires.  This means Hunchun is near! 

The bus stops at the Seoul Fashion Plaza (least fashionable building EVER, but I remember it fondly), and I get off.  Hunchun, 我回来了!

Going Back To The Beginning

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm

It’s the end of May, and you know what that means.  It’s time for me to head to China’s northeast – where it all began.  May 2007, when I first tasted meat sticks and knew I would be back.  May 2008, when I had my first conversation in Chinese (“Do you like it?  Yes, I like it”), and knew that there was more to talk about.  Now it’s May 2010, and I’m going back to my first Chinese home, going back to that first meat stick restaurant, and going back to talk to that first Chinese friend. 

Stay tuned for long walks – nay, marathons – down memory lane in the upcoming days.  But I’ll be seeing everything with new eyes and hearing everything with new ears, because “I was once was blind, but now I see”.  I foresee a lot of “ah-HA!” moments, as I finally understand what the heck went on around me on those first few trips to China.

I’ll be traveling for the next 24 hours or so – about as long as it takes to get there from America, surprisingly.  My current itinerary is:

  • Flight from Xiamen to Changchun (19:30 to 00:30)
  • Train from Changchun to Yanji (04:00 to 12:30)
  • Bus from Yanji to Hunchun (2-ish hours?)
  • Taxi from Hunchun to the farm

But, let’s admit it – I’m in China, and I’ll get there when I get there.  And my computer will be there (wherever that is) with me, so I’ll be sharing my adventures as they happen.


Today is maybe a big day in the history of my blog (all 9 months of it), as Frank from YIM Catholic asked if he could run my recent post, We Are One Body, as a guest entry on their blog.  I’m hoping that this will help me reach more people! 

When I first decided to keep a public journal on my year in China, I saw it more as a way to keep in contact with loved ones at home, but as the year has progressed I’ve come to see another important use.  Looking at the bottom of the homepage, it’s pretty obvious that I write a lot about my experiences with Catholicism here in China.  My experiences aren’t authoritative – most aren’t even theological in any way – but the personal connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ here has become very precious to me, and I want to share it with the world.  While there are temporal divisions between the Catholic Church here and the Catholic Church in the rest of the world, there’s no reason why we can’t be united in prayer and mutual love. 

Another reason why sharing this news is so important to me is that, while I’ve enjoyed almost 9 months with the Church here in China, I missed out on it for my first 3 months in China.  There was so little information, and so much misinformation, that I never bothered to look for a Catholic Church until I literally ran into one.  While the open church here isn’t in full communion with Rome, there’s no reason to forego the sacraments in China. 

So now I 出发, heading up to Hunchun.  I should be there on Sunday, where I plan to attend Mass at that church, the place where I first discovered that the Church was in China.

The Plan Seems To Be Working!

In Uncategorized on May 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm

I woke up early this morning to return to the main island for Mass.  Yes, we were already next door to a church, but weekday Masses are on Xiamen so I took the ferry back with Fr. Zhao.  It was a hazy morning, which felt about right as mornings in Xiamen usually are hazy, but it felt strange to be seeing Xiamen’s skyline through the haze instead of the familiar green contours of Gulangyu, punctuated by European-style architecture.

After Mass I went looking for Sister to ask about paying for the room last night.  She didn’t understand the question for quite some time – she couldn’t understand why I was asking her how much money she wanted.  Apparently the question was really ridiculous, because once she understood she called the bishop over to tell him the joke.  He invited me to join them for a breakfast of porridge – joking that it would cost 15 kuai.  This is the Bishop Cai I know and love! 

I’m beginning to like 稀饭 – porridge that basically looks like rice being slowly drowned in its own juices.  Throw a couple peanuts in there, some tofu or veggies, and (if you’re unlucky) some pickled radish, and you’re good to go.  I’m seriously becoming Chinese . . . I felt especially native today, as I got off the ferry from Gulangyu carrying one of the trademark small duffle bags containing Gulangyu 特产, some dried meat products that especially come from this island.  The general rule for foreigners is that 特产 are nasty, but I’m going to visit Chinese friends in Jilin and, as it’s practically required that every Chinese visitor leave with bags full of this stuff, I figured they might enjoy some. 

When I left after breakfast, I said goodbye to Fr. Zhao.  He’ll probably be gone by the time I get back from Jilin, and I don’t know when or where I will see him next.  I never really like goodbyes, but this one was particularly hard.  In my culture, a goodbye like this calls for a hug, but between the discomfort that Chinese people generally display when I hug them, and the fact most American priests don’t even hug, I didn’t dare.  So sad. 

I made it back to campus in plenty of time to get to class.  We started a new text in Grammar class, representing a new pinnacle of achievement as far as most boring 课文’s EVER go.  I’m quite pleased to be missing the next four classes, in which the rest of the class will hopefully finish discussing the harmful effects of playing too many video games. 

As class ended I heard that the HSK scores were out, so I ran back to my room to check.  I put in my information and clicked 查询, expecting to see a big number in the range of 3-8, hopefully a 4 or 5, but whatever, no pressure . . . Instead, I see this:

Fullscreen capture 5192010 35941 PM.bmp

A bunch of numbers, none within the range of 3-8, the possible scores on the beginner/intermediate test that I took.  Hmm.  So I dig out my HSK handbook and started paging through it, looking for something to help me interpret these numbers!  I finally find it, but I must have looked wrong, because this couldn’t possibly be right. 

Because there’s NO WAY I got a 7 on the HSK.  6 is the grade you need to go to college in Chinese, and 6 is the grade that I hoped for in my heart of hearts.  5 was my personal challenge and I would have been okay with a 4 I guess, but 6 was as high as I dared to even consider. 

Yes, 321 points is in the 7 range, but they must be talking about a different number.  Yes, 中等B级 is a 7 but that’s impossible, so I look again.  This stupid booklet is entirely in Chinese – if I had gotten a 7 on the HSK (which I couldn’t have!), I should be able to figure it out.  As Sheldon would say, “Catch 22, thou art a heartless bitch.”  I call XuLei and beg her to come up and check this; she reads all the scoring rules and details and confirms it – I got a SEVEN on the HSK!  I got a 6 on Listening, 8’s on Reading and Grammar, and a 7 on the Comprehensive section, which adds up to a 7.

Sweet.  Ridiculous, but freakin’ sweet. 

While this is probably more attributable to my test-taking superpower than to any mastery of the Chinese language, I choose to interpret this score as complete vindication.  I am assuaged of any guilt over my impromptu trip to Guangzhou and Hong Kong the week before the HSK, and get to totally preempt any guilt over my impending 10-day trip to Jilin and the quick visit I’m planning to Hangzhou/Suzhou during the final week of classes.  Dance classes, eating my weight in eggplant each week, going to every single event offered by my church, and personally getting to know every employee of Coco – this is all part of my master plan to learn Chinese, a master plan that only includes attending class when no better language-learning opportunity presents itself.  Apparently it’s working! 

I’m still busy today trying to get things done before leaving for Jilin tomorrow.  Pretty much the only thing I have time for, besides getting ready, is getting excited.  Really, really excited.

O Death, Where Is Your Victory?

In Uncategorized on May 18, 2010 at 9:32 pm

I started the day with Mass.  I haven’t made it over to church on weekday mornings much this year, but today I really had to.  My uncle, Lt. Col. Daniel Holland, was killed in Iraq four years ago today, and while I’ve since observed this anniversary in very different places, they have all had one thing in common – prayer for the repose of his soul.  In 2007 I was in Rome, where we offered Mass for them at the Pantheon and said the Stations of the Cross on the Santa Scala; in 2008 I was in Poland, where we offered Mass for them in Krakow and visited Auschwitz; and in 2009 I was at my grandparents’ cabin in the mountains of New Mexico. 

At noon, I met some friends for lunch on campus; it was an opportunity to catch up with Vikki, who I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I had two classes afterwards but skipped the second one because of a headache.  I felt much better after sleeping for a few hours so I got up, threw some things into my backpack and 赶快ed over to Gulangyu. 

I have said before, and I’ll say it again, that I’m not the biggest fan of Gulangyu (the small island off my island).  I contest its status as an idyllic serene paradise; the droves of paradise-seeking tourists tend to ruin the idyll and serenity.  But I wanted to see it in another light – namely, no light.  I figured that it would be a much more peaceful place at night, and decided that today was the perfect day to make a small retreat to the small island. 

The island has an international youth hostel and several other places to stay, but a guy from church said that if I just talked to Sister, they would let me stay at the church.  One of Xiamen’s two churches is on Gulangyu, and the priests and sister live in the adjacent building.  I just mentioned it to Sister on Sunday, but apparently that was all it took because Bishop Cai asked me this morning if I was still coming.

So I made my way over to the church, where Fr. Zhao let me in and showed me to a simple room with two beds.  I dropped my stuff off there and went down the street to the concert hall, where I met up with some friends for a violin concert.  I know, right?  So classy!  It was the senior recital of a XiaDa student, and quite a nice way to begin my night on Gulangyu, which is alternately known as Piano Island and Music Island.  I wasn’t incredibly impressed with her playing because (is it cliche to say this about a Chinese musician?) it lacked emotion.  Her teacher was quite good, though, and the duet they ended with was really enjoyable.  In addition to that, it was worth going just to hear the super-enthusiastic announcer (seriously, he made my day), and to watch the poor girl get inundated with approximately 200 flowers and – no joke – two life-sized stuffed animals at the end of the recital. 

Aleid, Jelle, Yerkin and I shared a drink (Dan would approve, right?) on a balcony with a view of Xiamen’s skyline, then they went home and I returned to the church for the night. 


Even more than the free room on the island, I appreciated the proximity of said room to the church.  Specifically, if I exited my room, walked down the hallway past three doors, turned a corner, and went up about five steps – I found myself in the choir loft of our quaint century-old church.  It was perfect, just where I wanted to be this night.  I stayed there for about an hour before going to bed, just spending some time in quiet prayer. 

I was really happy with how everything worked out.  I leave for Jilin in two days and there’s a lot to get done before I go; I knew that if I stayed in the dorm I would end up saying a few quick prayers but anything more would get lost in the shuffle.  I was feeling pressured and a little bit stressed out, but as soon as I left the room (and my computer, and my textbooks, and my to-do list) behind, I felt light and free. 

Also, I know that if I had stayed in my room my main way of remembering Daniel would be to read through the journal entries I wrote immediately after his death and in the months following.  May 2006 was a really difficult period in my life.  Uncle Dan’s death was obviously the worst thing that happened, but the fact that it came just days before my graduation from high school and days before me breaking up with my boyfriend of nearly two years certainly didn’t help things.  Needless to say, going back to read those entries is like walking down memory lane, but it’s a lane that’s haunted and reeks of despair.

But tonight I didn’t allow myself to brood over those entries and to relive those feelings.  Instead, I prayed the Office of the Dead, featuring this reading from 1 Cor 15:55-57 – “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?  But thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Instead, I said a rosary and meditated on the Glorious Mysteries – including the Resurrection.  Instead, I found myself reminded not of the pain of his death, but of our faith in Christ’s resurrection and our hope in eternal life.  It helped . . .

LTC Holland - Composite

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share a little bit about my uncle.  He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, the spoiled baby of the family.  He was also the fun young uncle, the one who either willfully broke rules or believed they didn’t apply to him.  He lived all over the world as an Army brat and then an officer himself, but never lost his Texas drawl. 

I spent most of my life living far away from my extended family, but we lived in the same state as his family for a while when I was young, visited them often when they lived farther away, and once even went to Germany to see them.  We played a lot of games together, especially group Solitaire (the Holland family tradition, of which he was the undisputed champion).  I also remember being unusually outdoorsy with him – going swimming and tubing, playing (okay, watching) basketball, and shooting guns. 

He went to OSU (no bio, however short, would be complete without mentioning that) through the ROTC program and went straight into the Army as a member of the Veterinary Corps.  Yes, the Army has veterinarians; they take care of military working dogs and horses, oversee food supply to bases, and do humanitarian missions.  Daniel went to Iraq with a civil affairs unit in April of 2006; in one of the few emails we received from him he told us that they went out to:

evaluate Iraqi sites that pertain to public health, vet med, animals, or agriculture.  The idea being to encourage civil participation, collect civil information, and to positively impact the average Iraqi citizen by helping them with their subsistence style of ag/animal husbandry.  Frankly, we can make more progress helping
here than working on huge national problems that take forever to impact and don’t resonate with the average Haji. 

He was killed when the Humvee he was traveling in hit an IED.  Nick Cournoyer, Robert Siedel, Lonnie Allen, and an Iraqi interpreter were also with him in the vehicle that day; they died together and today I remember them together in my prayers.

I’ll never forget the way he would say hello to me (a rib-crushing hug and a lilting “Hey, Li’l Cissy!”), but his trademark was the way he said goodbye.  Without fail, he would say “Glad you got to see me!” with a grin on his face that showed how inordinately pleased he was with his clever farewell.  Now it’s engraved on his tombstone, but I find it no less fitting since he passed away – because we are glad that we got to see you, Uncle Daniel.

Today’s Menu: Cookies, Mushu Pork, and Rape

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Monday – back to the daily grind.  And by “daily grind”, I mean one class in the morning followed by whatever I want to do for the rest of the day.  Basically, a weekend with a reason to get up.

After class, Aleid and I went to the tailor.  I picked up my white dress and shorts, and ordered my qipao top – $14, super excited!  Then we met up with Eunice and Katrine for lunch at 小肥羊 (Little Fat Sheep) for lunch.  It’s an a la cart hotpot place with quite good meat and some other interesting menu items:


The “selected sheep tail” and “duck blood” (not typos) looked interesting, and we all wondered what “kiss chitlins” are, but the thing that really caught our attention was “rape” – only 5 kuai!  We passed though, and still enjoyed our meal.  It was nice to get off campus and away from West Gate on a weekday for lunch, something we almost never do.

From lunch, I went to my friend Carmen’s house for baking.  It’s a little weird to have to schedule baking and travel halfway across the island to get to an oven, but this is my life in China.  I made one batch of chocolate chip cookies and one of chocolate chip banana bread, mostly destined as birthday presents.  It was good to bake again, and the fact that Carmen has an actual kitchen with actual baking supplies and materials made it so easy.  Can’t wait to get home to my kitchen . . .

It was nice to see their place, to visit a home even if it wasn’t mine.  They have an amazing view, too:


I also enjoyed talking to Carmen, who is one of the nicest people I know.  During the few hours that I was using her kitchen, she took two phone calls from people who needed help and made a soup for the woman next door.  She’s such a good model of a kindness, generosity, and all-around selflessness.

This evening, I went to dinner with Aleid.  We went to one of our usual restaurants, but ordered something new and totally struck gold.  We tried the 木须肉 (mushu pork) because it sounded familiar to me, but I’m pretty sure this was 10,000 times better than any Chinese food I’ve ever eaten in America.  It has pork, egg, carrot, cucumber, mushrooms, ginger, and amazingness.  New favorite!


PS – I added more pictures to yesterday’s post: group photos on the mountain and pictures of my new glasses!

BTW, We’re Going Mountain Climbing

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2010 at 12:48 am

These last few weeks have been really busy with church.  I know most of what’s going on, but when I don’t it just boils down to this: if someone asks me if I’m going to be at XXXX on the XXth at XX o’clock, I say yes.  Then I just pick up the rest of the details as we go.  It’s usually pretty easy, almost always consisting of Mass at various places throughout our diocese, more often than not preceded by snacks or followed by meals. 

So when I showed up at the ferry in a skirt and dress flats, and saw everyone else wearing athletic pants and sneakers, I didn’t think much of it.  I mean, I noticed, but I certainly didn’t think “Huh, I bet we’re going to climb a mountain after Mass.”  Because that would be ridiculous, right?

[Side note: I was also wearing my new glasses, which I bought for $110 – without insurance!]


Today’s Mass was in honor of the Virgin of Fatima, who first appeared to three children in Portugal in May of 1917, so we took a bus out to Changtai, site of a church dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.  Much to my dismay, they did the readings in Minnanhua instead of Mandarin, so I have no idea what was said.  Thus, I was especially grateful for the music today, which had especially meaningful lyrics (that I understood!). 

Random anecdote from Mass: When they brought the gifts forward (usually just bread, wine, and water to be consecrated), they also brought a few baskets of fruit as an offering.  We do this in America sometimes, too – but these baskets contained pineapple, wax apples, lychee, and dragonfruit.  It was just so quintessentially Xiamen! 


After Mass, then I set about trying to get to Zhangzhou.  Some of my friends were participating in a dance competition at our Zhangzhou campus, and I had talked to someone already about getting there straight from Changtai.  I’m basically a master of all forms of transportation in China, so I didn’t think it would be a problem.

Sister Mangu found someone driving to Zhangzhou and they said I could go with them, but then everything fell apart when I mentioned that I was going to XiaDa’s campus in Zhangzhou.  All of a sudden everything was 没办法 and 算了吧 and 不可能的 (in a nutshell, “no way, Jose”) because – get this – the Zhangzhou campus isn’t in Zhangzhou.  Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that! 

Everyone counseled me to just go tomorrow, which was a nonsensical argument as the competition was a one-day only thing, but I basically had no option.  So I joined the rest of the youth from my parish over bowls of noodles and fixin’s.  It was around this time that I began to hear the words 爬山, which mean “mountain climbing”, and about this time that I began cursing the language barrier between me and everyone who had told me about today’s event. 

I mean, I suppose there might be outfits that lie at the intersection of the sets “Clothes that are appropriate for Mass” and “Clothes that are appropriate for climbing mountains”, but when I have no particular reason to be mountain-climbing-ready, I tend not to be.  Case in point today, when my outfit consisted of a pair of peep-toes, a skirt, and thick leggings (which turned out to not be necessary on this 90-degree day).  After nearly a year of making fun of the tendency of Chinese women to climb mountains in ridiculous outfits (the woman at Wuyishan in high heels and a fur coat is particularly memorable), I can’t say how horrified/amused I was to see that everyone except for one person was dressed more sensibly than me.  


Every time I cooed worriedly over a small scratch on my shoes (precious beyond words because I bought them in Hong Kong and they actually fit), someone would make a comment about how I had worn the wrong shoes.  I kept my mouth shut, but apparently I climb better when I’m angry because, despite my attire, I kept up with the group just fine.  I know my Chinese isn’t perfect (and was even more vehement than usual in protesting such compliments today), but I SWEAR that the words 爬山 were never once mentioned in any of the several conversations I had about today’s trip.  It seems like kind of an important thing to mention, though, right?  By the way, we’re going mountain climbing! 

Isidore - 0937

The mountain was nice, and we took a lot of pictures.

Isidore - 0968

Once I had walked off my frustration, I really enjoyed the time.  I finally talked to a couple of people that I see at church every week, learning their names and a little bit about them.  After recently despairing about BinBin, the one person at church who doesn’t seem at all interested in being my friend, I think that maybe I wrote him off too early.  We totally bonded over music today, singing the 天主经 (Our Father) in a round as we came down the mountain. 


We ran into some strangers at the top and I got to hear Fr. Zhao explain Catholicism and Christianity in Chinese, which I guess I’ve been doing alright. 

Isidore - 1023

When we had conquered the mountain, we took the bus to a restaurant where the parents of one of my new-old friends treated us to lunch.  It was a delicious lunch with about 13 dishes, that apparently all consisted at least half of ginger.  Amazing.

I really felt Chinese during lunch.  I dug around the fish skeleton for the good flesh, expertly avoided most of the bones, and expertly removed the remaining bones from my mouth without too much grimacing.  I put said bones on the table without any hesitation, confident that the table-top was where my refuse belonged.  I downed at least a bottle of 雪花 beer, tiny glass by tiny glass and 敬 by 敬, as people went around to other tables to toast.  I even pointed to my nose (instead of my chest) when talking about myself.

Maybe I’m at a tipping point in my cultural immersion here in China.  A week ago, I didn’t know what the term 中国通 (old China hand) meant, but since then I’ve had four separate people call me one.  I eat rice porridge, I book tickets on, I can converse freely with Chinese, and I sing in a Chinese choir.

And I point to my nose when I talk about myself.  I’m basically Chinese.

We Are One Body

In Uncategorized on May 16, 2010 at 1:58 am

This morning, I went to Zhangzhou for Bishop Cai’s first Mass in his hometown.  We lined up outside the church in the rain to greet him as he stepped out of the car, all dressed up in his new bishop duds.


Mrs. Zhang (my Chinese mom) and I found a place, a small vacancy on a kneeler, and stationed ourselves there to wait for Mass to begin.  The sanctuary was loud but I was trying to ignore the noise (and the stares) and pray.  Out of nowhere, a woman came up to us, pushed Mama out of the way, handed her a camera, put her arm around my waist, and posed for a picture.  Picture taken, she faded into the crowd without so much as a thank you.  I hope she treasures that picture of her and I, thin-lipped smile on my face, for ever. 

Today was perhaps worse than usual, especially for church.  This is difficult for me, because I try to be forbearing and understanding of Chinese people’s behavior towards me but . . . I’m just not that good of a person, not good enough to smile for every picture and respond to every “hallow?!?”.  At church, I’m even more conscious of a duty to those around me.

I have many reasons for going to Chinese Mass here in Xiamen – more convenient time and location, Chinese language practice, making friends, experiencing the Catholic Church in China.  I get a lot out of it, but deep down I hope that I give something back.  Here in China, where the church is separated from the Roman Catholic Church by political disagreements, language barriers, and relative isolation, I hope that it some small way I can be the face of the Universal Church.  I hope I can remind them that the creed we confess is the same regardless of language, and let them see the solidarity that we share in this faith, in which their sadness is my sadness and their joy is my joy. 

But on days like today, I’m pretty sure that none of that message is getting through.  On days like today, I feel like the only purpose I serve is distracting those around me from the real reason we’re both in church.  I’m the sore thumb, the squeaky wheel, the elephant in the room. 

This is sad for me.  Honestly, I don’t really mind the kids pointing; kids will be kids everywhere.  They nudge their parents, indicate me sitting behind them, and I force myself to smile for them.  But I wish the parents would take advantage of this opportunity to teach their children a lesson, to tell them that I’m not a foreigner, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  There is no us and them in the Church; we’re all members of the Body of Christ, and “there should be no divisions in the body”. 

Thankfully, there are some who seem to understand this, for which I am eternally grateful.  I vividly remember one conversation with LiuQin (the woman who drives me crazy) and Fr. Cai (#2); she told him to greet me by saying “Hello, foreigner!”, and he corrected her, saying that there we were all just brothers and sisters in Christ.  Many of the priests, when giving me communion, will say “The Body of Christ” instead of “基督的身体”, which is a small gesture that acknowledges both our shared faith and our different languages.  My heart basically melted today when, during the Sign of Peace, Mama awkwardly extended her hand towards me; she had apparently figured out how we do things in America and wanted to shake my hand as she wished me peace.  (Here in China, the Sign of Peace consists of shaking your hands, palms together, towards others while bowing.)

After Mass, firecrackers, and food, we went back home.  I spent the majority of the day in my room, avoiding the monsoon outside and all.  Some things:

  • Apparently the Shanghai pavilion at the Expo has a 6-D show.  I was already impressed by the 4-D (??) movie we watched at Hulishan, so I can’t even imagine what kind of crazy stuff goes on in a 6-D exhibit!  Maybe I’ll go see the Expo after all . . .
  • And if you believe that, then North Korea has successfully carried out nuclear fusion, “the holy grail of cheap, clean energy that has heretofore eluded every other scientist ever.”
  • Most of my friends who were studying abroad this semester are done and headed home; they left America after me and returned before me.  I have been gone a long time, but as I’ve learned on previous trips to China: no matter how long you’re here, you always feel like you’re leaving just as you’re getting the hang of it. 

This evening, I went out with Aleid for a late dinner of barbecue and a dessert of 豆花 (sweet tofu soup).  We went from there to Dreamer’s House, a bar/coffee shop/hostel located in an awesome building that climbs up and clings to a hill.  A band was having their farewell concert downstairs, but we met up with some friends and found a nice spot near the very top just to talk.  Good night after a long day! 

Does It Count If I Hear Voices In My Sleep?

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2010 at 12:49 am

I had a dream – a nightmare, basically – in which various Chinese friends repeatedly told me to wear more clothes, drink hot water, and go to sleep earlier.  Every problem I had – worries about not getting into grad school, missing stuff back in America, not understanding usage of the particle 了 – would go away if I would just dress warmer, drink 开水, and rest more.  Then I woke up and realized that I live this nightmare every day.  Bummer.  But more importantly, does this count as dreaming in Chinese?

Class was cancelled today, so I made plans with a friend to go to Gulangyu.  ZheMing is a guy from church that I met a few weeks ago during preparations for the ordination; he worked at the Gulangyu hospital for two years and wanted to show me some places he knew. 

On the ferry ride over, we spotted a man in a Roman collar and tried to decide if he was a priest and if we should talk to him.  It turned out that he was with a group from Zhejiang, the province north of us along the coast, who had come to Xiamen on a pilgrimage.  (By the way, I was the one who figured this out, by reading their nametags.  It still amazes me sometimes, that I can read Chinese!)  We welcomed them to Xiamen, and then we turned around and there was YuanHong, a woman from church!  I love the coziness of a small community, even more so when I unexpectedly find that coziness in a city of 2+ million people. 

We first went to a small bar/coffee shop where where we had a breakfast of milktea and cake.  From there we went to 逛逛 around the island, making stops to visit his former coworkers at the hospital, grab barbecue and sesame treats, etc.  At one point my sandal broke; we walked about 5 minutes to a small alley where there were no less than four people with specialized sewing machines awaiting our business.  This is one of the things I love about China! 

We talked a lot while walking.  One interesting conversation concerned his description of the perfect life.  You’ve heard the joke:

In Heaven, the police are British, the cooks are French, the engineers are German, the administrators are Swiss, and the lovers are Italian.  In Hell, the police are German, the cooks are British, the engineers are Italian, the administrators are French, and the lovers are Swiss.

Well, the Chinese version is:

  • British salary
  • American house
  • Chinese food
  • Russian wife

We had lunch in a tiny restaurant on a cool antique/food street.  The menu included 五香肉 (a special Xiamen meat dish), an omelet with oysters, and – of course – gelatinized worms.  I’m really making progress on the worm front; I ate two or three pieces just fine!  Teacher said it takes three times before you like it, which means I’m only one more meal away from becoming a tried-and-true Fujianren.

We went back to the bar after a while so ZheMing could take a nap (seriously; 午睡, basically ‘siesta’, is a big deal deal here).  I forsook the nap in favor of a conversation with 老班, the owner of the bar.  We started out talking about marriage and divorce, then moved on to politics and government.  He had only good things to say about his government, praising the way Hu Jintao (personally) keeps all 1.3 billion Chinese clothed and fed – as opposed to the American government, which only has to take care of 300 million.  He also drew unfavorable comparisons between the handling of the Wenchuan earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

I found the conversation very interesting.  It’s one thing to hear about how the average Chinese is willing to sacrifice freedom and autonomy for economic growth and security, and another to converse with someone who dismisses your concerns about holding the government responsible as irrelevant because everyone has a job and food to eat.  It’s one thing to hear people complain about there being “too many of them”, but another – quite shocking – thing to watch someone justify the controlled society they live in because “there’s too many of us, and things would get crazy if we had too much freedom”.  Is there any sadder phrase than “necessary evil”?

The overwhelming impression I was left with was the total complacency of this man, and my feeling of fear and horror in reaction.  Sometimes Americans can be polarized, overly aggressive and outspoken, and unwilling to compromise.  But, given a choice between this extreme passion and the complacency I often witness here in China, I realize that I would take the passion.  Complacency is a compromise, an acceptance of 还可以 (fine) right now instead of striving for 棒 (amazing) in the future.  Is it ever acceptable?  Even when we’re satisfied with our own lot in life, we should still strive for the betterment of others’! 

As we continued walking, I asked ZheMing about his family and his childhood.  He grew up Catholic; his mother and her parents are Catholic but his father converted some years ago from Buddhism.  Here’s how he explained his father’s conversion: “I just reasoned with him.  I told him that I’m Catholic and won’t be able to burn incense and scatter ashes on his grave after he dies, so it would just be better if he entered into the Church; then I could pray for him and offer Masses for him.”  His father now goes to church more than his mother does.

In addition to his family, he seems to have a very definite sense of belonging to this church community.  He referred several times to “Fr. Jiang and the sisters, who watched me grow up”.  He had such wonderful things to say about Fr. Jiang, whose “homilies always have so much truth in them”, and which he apparently never reuses.  I’ve definitely always had a sense of missing something when I don’t understand the homily, and I figured that he had something better to offer in Chinese than the rather generic English homilies he reads, but hearing his positive testimony made me aware of just what I’m losing out on. 

Our last stop on the island was the church.  He called Fr. Jiang, who let us in and invited us up for tea.  I usually find Fr. Jiang nearly impossible to hear clearly (and thus to understand) in both English and Chinese, but I guess the environment was just right today because I had no problems.  I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to him, especially after the conversation I had just had with ZheMing.  I got clear answers about his life – 73 years old, spent 20 years in a labor camp before being declared innocent and released, not ordained until 1994, learned English mainly by himself (and even worked for 13 years as an English teacher) and Latin at seminary – which made me even more appreciative of him and more sad at what I’ve been missing out on.  I’ve resolved to go visit him a few more times before I leave, both as an opportunity to help him with his English and to learn from him whatever I can. 

There was a party tonight at some friends’ place.  It was my kind of party, the one that starts with guacamole, rolls on over into the refried beans and tortillas, and finishes up with sangria and maybe some tequila.  Chatting with everyone along the way, of course.  I was devastated to learn of more goodbyes approaching so rapidly, but it’s not like it’s a surprise that we’re all going to part ways at some point this summer.  没办法, all we can do is enjoy what we have while we have it! 

Peace out, all.