Maria Holland

Archive for June, 2015|Monthly archive page

五道口 (Wudaokou)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2015 at 10:52 am

Today, I met up with another of friend of a friend, Tang Zhuo.  We were joined by her brother, whose name I never learned.  We drove to their apartment, where they had a table of food prepared for me – some of it things I’d had before but a few that I hadn’t.  There was a hard boiled egg and a few zongzi, the traditional foods of the Dragon Boat Festival, today’s holiday.  There were also lychee, preserved egg, quince paste, Mongolian milk tablets, and a soup of white mushrooms, ginseng, dates, and lotus seeds (which, it turns out, are super bitter – the only thing I couldn’t get down!).

As we ate, I had my first chance to talk about my research in Chinese with people outside of the field.  I know the words computational, biomechanics, mechanics, and finite element analysis, but explaining the concepts is way harder.  I had to explain the applications of my work, the interdisciplinary nature, and why ferrets are used in experiments on brain folding.  I was exhausting, but really good practice.

Zongzi having been dutifully consumed, we drove to a nice hotpot place near Tsinghua for lunch.

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They were . . . . a little ambitious with their ordering.  We got thinly sliced meat, a full plate of leafy greens, a tofu variety platter, an entire frog, shrimp balls, noodles, ham, a surprising amount of congealed blood, and a platter of cow intestines, stomach, and arteries.

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I tried the intestines, stomach, and arteries, but I hate those chewy textures (I think I’d had all of them before), so I didn’t eat more than a bite of each.  I’ve also had blood before (haven’t we, Mom and Dad??) and while rationally it tasted fine, I couldn’t get over it mentally.  I probably needed the iron, too, so it’s a shame . . . Everything else was good – their selection of sauces was beyond expectations, and the green tea cakes at the end were the perfect way to cool down after a hot meal.

I had been planning on keeping count of the number of times I get asked how tall I am, or what country I’m from, or if I have a boyfriend, but they haven’t actually been common occurences.  Instead, I’m going to keep track of how many times I get told I hold my chopsticks better, or more properly, than a Chinese person.  Current count: 4.

From there we went walking around Wudaokou.  It’s the subway stop nearest where I live, and all four corners of the intersection have big buildings full of shops and restaurants.  I walk or bike past on my way to work, so I was reasonably familiar with the things on the outside, but hadn’t yet gone in.

But I’m so glad we did!!!!  There were tons of cute shops with great potential gifts for people back home, lots of restaurants at various locations along the price spectrum – Beijing hotpot, Sichuan snacks, Papa John’s Pizza, Korean barbecue, several frozen yogurt places.  I bought a pair of [fake, men’s] Birkenstocks, a sort of Chinese tradition for me.

We looked at dresses, but while I love the dresses Chinese girls wear and some of them were loose and flowy enough that I could have worn them, I didn’t buy any.  The problem is, I was wearing a dress I got from the thrift store for about $5.  That’s around 30元, and the cheapest dresses were 100元.  Thrift shopping has driven my acceptable price so low that even China can’t compete!

There were two highlights of the exploration for me: first, we found a Coco milktea place downstairs!!  There was one at the West Gate of Xiamen University, and after I discovered milktea I went there almost daily.  In a country of lukewarm or hot water, milktea with ice became my favorite indulgence.  Unfortunately, t seems like milktea is more of a southern thing – something that surely would have factored into my location preference had I known!  But now there’s a Coco on my way home from work and all is right in my world.

Secondly, we found a foosball table!  They took me into this Mexican restaurant, La Bamba, because Tang Zhuo said their mojitos are really good.  I was intrigued by the prospect of dancing, either there or in the Propaganda bar next door . . . and then I saw the foosball table.  3元 for 10 balls.  Not ideal, but I have to stay in shape while I’m abroad!

Today I learned:

My phone plan might actually be 128元 per month, not 38元 as I was told.  Small difference, right?

You’re not supposed to say “Happy Dragon Boat Festival”, just like “Happy Memorial Day” isn’t really right; it’s a holiday but one observing someone’s death, so it’s not really a happy day.)

You can buy a pet chipmunk on the street.

Group Meeting

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2015 at 10:30 am

I stayed at home a little longer than usual to practice my presentation, and apparently in doing so I missed the weekly seminar. The speaker was from Georgia Tech . . . but he’s Chinese, and the talk was in Chinese.  Probably not a huge loss.

In the afternoon, we had a group meeting. I was scheduled to talk, and was pretty nervous.  Partly because our lab meetings at Stanford are pretty informal and I wasn’t sure what to expect here, and partly because, oh, my presentation was 30-40% Chinese.

One of my labmates introduced me (in English) with some excessively flowery language, something about me being a kind lady and a strong researcher. Also both Ellen and I were referred to as “he” – a common mistake by Chinese speakers, but mainly funny because he was at dinner yesterday when another labmate asked me what mistakes Chinese people make in English, and this was one of the two I mentioned.

I think it went well. I tried to address a lot of the questions I’ve been asked by my labmates, explaining where I’d been in China before and what I was doing; what the EAPSI program is that brought me here; what my research is on and what I hope to do here. I also brought a box of See’s chocolate to pass around, which couldn’t have hurt :)

I got a few questions about my research afterwards (in English, thankfully). Then the next guy presented. He had just sent some time at Georgia Tech and he gave us a talk about “why are frog’s tongues so sticky?”. A weird and confusing moment came when he was showing a video of a frog capturing and eating a cricket in super slow motion, and he turned to me and said “cricket 怎么说?” (“How do you say cricket?”). Ummm 你是问我吗?? Are you asking me?? I did not know the answer.

There were two more presentations, less engaging than the first, during which I tried my best to stay awake in the warm and stuffy room. The first guy was doing something with dry cells? Really the only words I understood were 细胞 (cell) and HeLa (because I just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks before coming to China). The second guy was studying the mechanics of tumors, considering the role of both stress and nutrition transport on growth. This was actually interesting to me, but he faced the wall the entire time and I could barely hear him.

In the evening, 10 of the 13 EAPSI Beijingers got together for dinner to celebrate our first week of work. We went to a Xinjiang barbecue place, and it was delicious. The taste of fatty lamb roasted on a stick brings me right back to Hunchun, without fail. We also had super delicious spicy “potato chips”. It was all fairly spicy, but one guy reminded us that if we come back in two months it probably wouldn’t be. That would be an interesting barometer, to eat a place every n weeks and see how it feels.

We had the greatest conversations during dinner. About how one guy lived in a tiny village in Africa and had unlimited internet, but here in the capital of China it’s expensive, slow, and limited. About another guy’s 21st birthday, when some other Americans on coke got into a bar fight in China and he barely got them out of there, although they were bleeding heavily. About pack rat middens (not mittens, and not cute), which are piles of junk hoarded by pack rats and cemented with their urine.

And about the prevalence of street vomit in Beijing. I’m not sure if I’ve just never noticed it before in other cities, but it seems very common here. One guy had texted everyone this morning to say that there were four discrete, giant, puddles of vomit on the way to the subway station. I saw a [very drunk] man vomit between his legs while sitting on a bench on my way home from work on Tuesday (like 5pm, dude, get it together) and we saw a woman supporting another woman while she vomited on our way to dinner.

I’ve never vomited on the street. In fact, I can’t think of a time I threw up anywhere but a trash can or toilet. That was the general sentiment in our group. Yet, it seems to be a common enough occurence in China. Is this a physiological thing, a result of lower alcohol tolerance or a quicker vomit reflex in response to eating something that disagrees with you?? Or a behavioral thing, because the street is largely thought of as toilet/trashcan so why bother rushing home to do it inside your house?


In Uncategorized on June 18, 2015 at 11:47 pm

The computer situation is still dire today, but in a different way.

I got my own internet account this afternoon, and one of my major concerns from yesterday is now a non-issue.  I had been wondering how I was going to get the research files I need up on the cloud; when I checked this morning I had uploaded around 30 MB of 3 GB total.  But somehow when I got to work, the files were on the computer there.  Both computers now say that everything is up to date.  Miraculous, I tell you!

But, after those resolutions come new problems.  I’m using a beautiful new Windows 8 machine, set up for a new student named Ren Dong.  I’ve been installing programs, but have run into some problems because I have his PIN but not his password.  Today, one of my labmates called him to get his password . . . . and he doesn’t remember it.  Between that and my labmate GuoYang’s revelation that he had messed up the installation of Fortran on that machine so I can’t use the one feature of Abaqus that I need the most, we’re going to reinstall the operating system this weekend.  Sigh.

I ate both lunch and dinner in the cafeteria.  Seriously, I kind of think the best meals I’ve had on this trip so far have been in the Tsinghua cafeteria.  Certainly if you calculate some sort of “deliciousness/元” measurement.  Lunch was fried chicken (it didn’t even have bones in it!) with green peppers-and-egg, plus a surprisingly heaping serving of spicy shredded potato.  Dinner was 麻辣香锅 (malaxiangguo), a bowl of self-selected meats and vegetables cooked in lots of hot and numbing spices.  I didn’t particularly care for the chicken stomach (too chewy for my taste), but the rest of it was fantastic.  Apparently Tsinghua is known for this dish!

After dinner, I biked home.  Seriously, this bike has changed my life.  I barely broke a sweat in either direction, and my commute is now 20 minutes.  It also helped that yesterday’s rain meant clear skies today – not just clear as in sunny, but clear as in not polluted!   IMG_2169

This picture isn’t of anything particularly beautiful, but I was trying to capture the look of the air.  Through pollution, everything takes on a dull gray tint, like a bad picture that you fix by increasing the contrast.  Today, all the colors were vibrant and the buildings glistened in the sun!  It was like seeing pictures taken by a professional photographer after looking at the ones from your own point-and-shoot.  Or wearing glasses for the first time – everything was just sharper and more impressive.

The bike ride has exciting (read: scary) moments but I’ve actually been surprised at how not terrified I am most of the time.  I ride along two major roads for most of it, and that’s all fine.  The intersections, though, are always a circus.  Every single one reminds me of the scene in Mulan where the grandmother closes her eyes and walks across a busy street holding the “lucky cricket”, leaving a scene of destruction in her wake.  Sometimes, though, I can’t quite tell if I’m the grandmother or one of the cart drivers . . .

Today I learned:

How to say the kind of Mexican I am (ethnically, not like a citizen of Mexico): 墨西哥裔人, not 墨西哥族.

How to specify the quantity of rice I want at the cafeteria: by the liang (两), or 50g.  There are two words for the number 2 in Chinese – èr (二) and liǎng (两), and while I mastered the basics of when to use which one years ago, I have been corrected on exceptions to these rules three times in the past few days.  One of these times was when ordering 100g of rice – according to the rules, it should be liǎng liǎng (两两), but they said you should really say èr liang (二两).

Internet Rationing

In Uncategorized on June 17, 2015 at 10:12 am

Okay, so the internet situation feels a little dire right now.

I went into work today and started setting up the Windows computer.  I’d like to be able to leave my laptop at home in the future, so I was downloading the programs that I need for work – Mendeley, Texmaker, Sublime, Evernote, OneDrive (because Dropbox is blocked).

A little before lunch, I ran out of internet.  For the month of June.  The students each get 20 GB a month, and the guy whose account I’m using had already used 18.5 by the time I logged on yesterday.  I’m not sure if they have to pay for the initial 20 GB, but after that they do pay by the gigabyte.  So, another labmate signed me on to his account, and he’s only at 8.5 for the month so that could probably last me for a while.  But tomorrow I’m going to get my own account.  Because I’m not a student, it will be “expensive” – 10元 per day for 2 GB.  It’s not an expense I was counting on, and that’s like 10% of my daily stipend here, but it should be $50-100 total and I think that’s worth it – both from a convenience and security point of view.

I’m still completely bewildered by this, though.  I can’t get over the fact that the Aerospace Engineering department at Tsinghua, the MIT of China, rations internet for their students.  Wireless and wired data is something I’ve never tried or even thought about trying to restrict.  I’ve paid for internet by the hour, or been restricted to lower speeds, but I’ve never before looked at a download size as anything other than an indication of how long I should expect it to take.  

So now I’m in this wierd position where the internet at the hotel is free, but super slow, while the internet at work is fast, but limited.  All in all, I’m not sure how tenable this OneDrive idea is.  I’m trying to put all the files I use for research on the cloud so I can access them on my laptop at the hotel and on my work computer in the lab. I got the necessary files down to 2.8 GB, but I’ve been uploading for about an hour and have only transferred 7.6MB.  Maybe if I do the initial setup manually, using my external hard drive or a flash drive, then maybe it would be possible to only update things?  I don’t know.

Anyway, besides the debacle that is my internet situation right now, things are good.  I walked in to work today and it was even easier than yesterday.  The AQI was around 70 and I’m only wearing a mask when it’s over 100, so that made things more pleasant.  It is frustrating, though, that when I see my building over the wall it means I ‘only’ have one more kilometer to walk, because the two most convenient campus entrances are equally inconvenient for me.  

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I told my labmates that I can’t use my lunch card between 11:45 and 12:30 (you know, lunch time, basically), but we didn’t get there early enough so I still had to have someone buy me lunch.  We ate in a four-story cafeteria!  Lunch was 7元 (just over a dollar) and delicious.  

I sat with three guys and started learning their names by trying to write them.  I did alright, actually – 5 out of 8 characters.  In Chinese, there are a lot of characters that sound the same, so you “spell” by giving an example word that contains the character.  My name, 马利亚, is 马 from “one horse”, 利 from “fluent”, and 亚 from “Asia”.  (They’re phonetic in this case, not so much chosen for their meaning).  Anyway, one of the guys’ names was 林绍珍 – 林 from “forest”, 绍 from “introduce”, and 珍 from 珍珠.  I didn’t immediately recognize the last character or example word, until I realized where I’d seen it before – 珍珠 means pearl, and milk tea with tapioca bubbles (“boba” in the US) is called 珍珠奶茶, or pearl milk tea.  So then I got really excited and said I knew the character because I love milk tea.  He laughed about it, but I felt kind of bad.  The character apparently means “treasured”, and I associate it with milk tea.  He’s a nice guy, though, and now I have an even more positive association with him!  

We had a crazy thunderstorm in the afternoon.  Finally, a new shade of gray!

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It ended very suddenly, and before it could start again I made a break for it.  My labmate 程 lent me her bicycle (she rides a motor scooter), so I rode that home for the first time.  It’s small for me, but I’m actually more comfortable maneuvering that in the traffic because it’s so easy to put my feet down.  The brakes are more of a comfort object than a functional component but then, that’s what my feet are for.  My favorite part is that there’s a basket and it’s slightly bent out of shape in almost the exact same way as the one on my bike back home.  The ride home was awesome – the air was cool and clean after the rain, and the bike made the distance feel way shorter.

One Shade of Gray

In Uncategorized on June 16, 2015 at 10:13 am

The air today was “heavily polluted” (AQI of 233) with 139 µg/m3 of PM2.5, the smallest and most harmful particles.  (For context, the daily limit allowable in the US is 35µg/m3.)  Some of the other EAPSI students didn’t even bring face masks to China (I guess they like to live dangerously?) but I brought several and am wearing them on my walk to Tsinghua.  My lungs don’t need another reason to act up.  

The walk today was more pleasant in the cooler morning weather, wearing more comfortable shoes, and going directly to my office.  But a 3.5km walk is still a 3.5km walk.  And by cooler weather, I mean that it was still 80.  

I was shown my desk and spent the morning settling in and working on my introduction presentation.  Mostly settling in, though.  They’ve given me a Windows 8 computer, and it’s mostly in Chinese.  The internet situation is also extremely interesting at work.  On the one hand, Google is somehow unblocked!  And it’s all quite fast!  

On the other hand, I have to sign into Tsinghua’s internal network, and we’re limited to 20GB per month.  I’ve never seen wireless internet rationed like this – dialup used to be priced by the minute back in the day, and I know some hotels charge different prices for different speeds, but never by the GB.  I work entirely on a computer and, back at Stanford, on a remote server, so the idea of rationing data is unthinkable to me.  Here, the main program I use is installed on the Windows machine that I’ll be using, so it might be okay.  Well, except I’m using someone else’s account and when I first logged on today, halfway through the month, they’d already used 18.5 of the allotted 20GB.  So, this could get interesting.

While preparing my intro presentation, I wanted to introduce EAPSI, the program that brought me here.  I started to list the 7 host countries where students are working this summer . . . then deleted a few words and changed it to “7 host locations”.  At the pre-departure orientation they told us that NSF refers to host locations instead of countries because both China and Taiwan are included in the seven.  I laughed at the time and rolled my eyes, but I know from experience how touchy the topic is, and I do not want to get into an extended discussion of Taiwan Province at lab meeting on Friday.  So, host locations it is.  Thanks, NSF, for preparing me for this!

My new labmates seem nice.  I guess word spread through the group from the one girl (WeiHua) who took me to the gate yesterday, because a few of them kind of knew my name and at least one knew that I had studied at XiaDa.  We all went to lunch together and they all walked with me because I didn’t have a bike and paid for my lunch because I didn’t have my lunch card yet.  They all spoke a bit of English with me, but once I said a few full sentences they seemed to just throw in the towel and fall back to Chinese.  

Even after they got done freaking out about how good my Chinese is (reminder: the bar is set very low), I surprised one guy again by asking if he was a southerner.  Yes, accents are generally a slightly advanced skill (I remember a time when I couldn’t tell Chinese from Korean, much less distinguish accents) but this one is not that hard.  Southerners speak very sibilantly, turning ‘sh’ into ’s’, and I did live in the south for a year.  It’s also a big region, not like I picked out his exact province or anything.  But he was amazed!  

Over lunch, we talked a bit about grad student life in China and America.  I asked what their plans are for this weekend, which is a there-day for the Dragon Boat Festival.  They confirmed that we get the day off, but basically told me they’ll all go in to work yesterday.  One of the students told me he usually works 9am to 11:30pm, to which I did one of those “I’m sorry, I must have forgotten basic Chinese numbers and time-telling, could you try that again?” things.  The schedule sounds similar on the weekends, too.  My Chinese residents back at Stanford make a whole lot more sense now.  

In the afternoon, WeiHua took me to get my cafeteria card.  Doing things like this (办事) is like a scavenger hunt, where you go to many different locations and they give you a red stamp and tell you the next place to go.  We first printed a letter, then got Prof. Feng to sign it, then 谢伟华 converted that into a letter of invitation.  Then we went to some building to get a red stamp and be told that I can’t use my card between 11:45am and 12:30 because I don’t live on campus.  And then we went to the cafeteria card building, where we got the card.  And then we went to another desk in the same building to put money on the card.  

Tomorrow I still have to get my student card, my building card, and an internet account of my own.  More scavenger hunts!  

Before I left for China, a friend told me to listen to the most recent This American Life episode, about Americans living in China.  My favorite part was when one of the speakers said that the measure word for foreigners is a “hassle”.  It’s very true, and although I’m probably only conscious of about half of the inconvenience I strew about me, even that’s a lot.  I asked Cheng a question about getting my own internet account, and she picked up her phone to make some phone calls.  Five minutes later, I overheard, “but before I called here, I called there. . . “.  Some of that is general Chinese bureacratic inconvenience, but a lot of it is probably me, this foreign visitor who is not a Tsinghua student.  A hassle of foreigners, indeed.

I walked home the long way again, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  I got some pictures of the “main building” (literally its name) and the east entrance.

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On the way home, it started to rain.  It’s wierd, though, because you really can’t see the rain against the solid gray backdrop.  This was the view out of my office when it was sunny:

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and this was on the walk home as it rained:

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It’s so monotonous.  This is the only context in which I would say that I would love to see fifty shades of gray.  

First Day at Tsinghua

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2015 at 10:06 am

I had breakfast with some EAPSI students, and one of them told us the story of his extreme Traveler’s Diarrhea, which was probably actually food poisoning.  He went to the hospital and nearly passed out; they couldn’t even measure his blood pressure.  The most interesting thing was that he said he got it from “street food”, and then corrected himself, saying that they went in off the street but it was kind of a shithole.  Then he described it . . . and it was the place with the big red picture menus, the place where we got the delicious wood ear mushrooms.  To me, that was a nice restaurant . . . I guess everything is relative!  Also, my two favorite restaurants so far are where one guy got food poisoning and where we got slipped a fake 100 :(

My advisor didn’t want to meet until 4, but the other Tsinghua Maria was supposed to be at work at 2:30.  We set off together around noon, rehearsing the walk to her lab.  We went through the main gate of Tsinghua University and then took an unexpectedly scenic tour of part of campus, looking for her building.  We parted ways there, and I set off on my lonely trek to 蒙民伟科技楼 where I’ll be working.  It’s kind of on the outskirts of campus.  By the time I got there, I was exhausted.  I’d walked about five miles in 90+ weather, most of it wearing a face mask (which makes drinking prohibitively difficult), and my shoes were apparently not broken in properly so I had blisters :(  I need to get bike . . . 

At 4, I met Prof. Feng and Prof. Li in Feng’s office.  It was a short meeting, mostly figuring out all the things they have to help me apply for (building card, cafeteria card, student card, internet access).  Then they  took me on a tour of the department.  We saw two student offices, where he introduced me, and several labs.  It was all quite impressive, with things ranging from a decent-sized tensile machine to an AFM setup, plus cell culture capabilities.  My favorite part was the machine doing tensile testing on spider silk.  I didn’t realize they even did their own experiments, honestly; we usually collaborate with experimentalists and do the simulations ourselves.

When we were done, they had a student take me to the nearest gate.  As we walked out of the building, I asked her her name, in Chinese.  你叫什么名字? This is first-day-of-Chinese-1 stuff, people, the sentence you learn after “Hello, my name is __”.  But she jumped and looked like she’d seen a ghost.  

This sort of story is where the term “talking muffin” comes from.  There’s a joke: Two muffins are in the oven.  One muffin says to the other, “Man, it’s hot in here!” and the oher muffin goes, “Whoa!  It’s a talking muffin!”.  That’s how I feel sometimes.  I’m just making conversation, and they’re freaking out because they didn’t think I could talk.  Anyway, it turns out not everyone in Beijing is so over Chinese-speaking foreigners.  

We rode on her moped, which was slightly terrifying as I am about a foot taller and waaay heavier than her.  I was quite impressed by her ability to handle that, as evidenced by us not dying.  Once at the gate, I took a taxi.  Yeah, this can’t be an everyday thing but today was exhausting.  It was totally worth the 17元; no regrets.

I showered and a bit later went to dinner with a few other EAPSI students (at the fake 100 place).  We had the things we’d had before, plus a few new dishes.  One of them was . . . twigs?  I don’t know else to describe them.

Dinner conversation was interesting, because someone pointed out that the three people in our group with Chinese experience (including me) are religious.  One guy is Mormon and the other apparently trained to be a Lutheran minister.  So we had a discussion about religion in China; I was interested to hear about their experiences because I go to the patriotic church, but there isn’t a state-sanctioned Mormon church.  The five recognized religions in China are Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam; with that recognition comes simultaneously more restrictions (a lot of watching, I think, with repercussions, plus the whole appointing-bishops thing) and more freedom (Chinese and foreigners can worship together).  The Mormon said he has to present a passport to go to his church, and they have to clear out before the Chinese nationals go in.

Back at the hotel, I spent a while helping some of the other EAPSI students with tasks that required some Chinese language skills.  The biggest challenge was calling a taxi for 4:30am.  This required a phone call in Chinese, which is always intimidating to me.  (First I pressed the button for English service, figuring I’d take the easy way out, but when I actually spoke English with the woman who answered, she just hung up on me.)  A half hour later, when I was supposed to get a confirmation phone call, I instead got a text saying that no one wanted to accept the ride, sorry.  So I guess he’s walking . . . 

Final note for today: I took another EAPSI girl to get our hair washed a few days ago, and the guy tried to hard sell me into doing this treatment for dry hair.  When I refused, he got all passive-agressive about it with me.  He asked if my hair was easy to comb after the shower, and I said yes.  “No, it’s not,” he responded.  Later, she and I were talking and we realized they hadn’t used conditioner.  No wonder it was hard to comb – there’s a product out there that is literally designed to fix this problem, and they didn’t use it.  But for a few days afterwards, I found myself struggling with my hair and wondering if it had, indeed, always been hard to comb?  So yesterday I bought Pantene conditioner, not the Chinese brand that the woman at the supermarket pressured me into buying, and today my hair feels great again.  I don’t know if Chinese hair is different or if Chinese conditioner is just terrible?  It’s still not as bad as that lotion I bought here once that made my skin feel like it was burning, but what good is conditioner that doesn’t condition?

Adventuring Towards Mass

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2015 at 4:24 am

I ddin’t realize this because I usually went to Saturday evening Mass in Xiamen, but apparently Chinese Catholics are early risers.  I say this because at many Beijing churches, 8am (the earliest Mass at Nativity in Menlo Park) is the “last chance Mass”.

So, today started a bit early; I went to 西直门, or the West Church, for 8:30am Mass.  It’s the closest church to me – that still means a 20 minute walk and 40 minutes on the bus, but it’s better than the alternatives.  It’s a beautiful church

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and was nearly full when I arrived at 8:20.  Actually, I had a hard time finding a seat until one of the women that had been on the bus with me indicated that I should take her spot, and she went to the back.  It was one of those small but incredibly meaningful moments that epitomize the Church in China for me.  

It felt comfortable to go to Mass in Chinese again.  We sang the sprinkling rite using the exact same song as we used to sing in Xiamen, and I still remembered a lot of the words.  (Next time, though, I need to get there earlier and sit up closer to the TV screens with the words and music.)  Lectors speak very clearly and slowly in whatever language they’re reading in, so it’s always very easy for me to understand the readings.  The homily is always the most difficult part, and this priest was especially long-winded.  The homily was perhaps 20+ minutes, and he spoke for another 20 at the end of Mass.  I catch about 20% of that extemporaneous speaking, max.  

I had planned to get off the bus at some interesting location to get lunch, but wasn’t able to react quickly enough.  Instead, I got lunch at a Western (as in, western China) restaurant.  That turned out well, even the part where I didn’t realize I had to give my order to the kitchen myself.  I sat down to wait for my food and ended up catching the end of overtime and penalty kicks for Brazil vs. Portugal in the quarterfinals of the under-20 World Cup.  Portugal totally whiffed a few shots and lost.

I went back to my room, where I took a delicious nap and did some internet struggling.  In the evening, a few of us went out to forage for food in the area I “discovered” yesterday.  We ended up getting [more] Xinjiang noodles, but no complaints here.  I treated myself to a Magnum bar (maybe a weekly thing?) and then went back to the room where I finally got caught up on these journals!

Summer Palace

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2015 at 4:07 pm

I have a good friend in the Bay Area who is from Beijing; she introduced me to some friends of hers here, and today I got to meet up with one.  We met for lunch at the U-Center, where we had a fantastic lunch.  She’s a native Beijinger, but clearly has the heart (and stomach) of a person from Sichuan.  She asked the waiter what the spiciest things were, and the crayfish that we got were not spicy enough for her :)  

We nearly ordered this:

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 but I convinced her to go for the bullfrog instead (which was delicious, although whole enough that you could not forget that you were eating a frog).  My parents’ least favorite experience in China was eating pig’s blood soup and trip with bell peppers, which remains a running joke in my family.  When I texted the above picture to my mom, she said it sounded like a good day to start a diet :)  

The restaurant was quite nice, and the service impeccable.  We were practically given PPE (personal protective equipment) in preparation for the experience of eating these crayfish – several pairs of disposable gloves, multiple packets of wet wipes, and even a clear plastic cover for our phones.  Our bowls, which quickly filled up with miscellaneous crayfish parts, were emptied several times.

After a delicious and filling meal, we were joined by her classmate Cedric, and a woman that I believe he had just met on a blind date?  We got into an Uber and headed towards the Summer Palace. (We stopped several times along the way, to end the trip and to start a new one, because apparently the driver gets a bonus for more trips?)

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I had also been to the Summer Palace with my parents, but it was pretty miserable in February and I wanted to see it in, you know, summer.  We walked around for a while, and honestly at this point the old buildings just can’t hold my attention.  But eventually we found the water!

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Definitely much better in the summer :)  We also climbed up to the top of the Temple of Fragrant Incense

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which was, thankfully, not that difficult the day after the Great Wall.  There was a nice breeze up there, too, and a beautiful view of the lake and the city.

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After the Summer Palace, we took the subway (my first time on this trip) and walked through a giant mall at Zhongguancun, where I got my first [disappointing] milktea.  Then we sat outside for a while, talking.  I tried out my new phrase, 不明觉厉 (I don’t quite understand, but I think you’re great!), on them, and they laughed and said it was good – apparently it’s popular on the internet.  Then I told them about my research . . . and they said 不明觉厉.  Haha.

They helped me buy discounted movie tickets (33元) for me and a bunch of EAPSI people to see Jurassic World.  We have two paleontologists among us, so I thought it would be really cool to see it with them.

The movie was pretty ridiculous.  So formulaic – earnest young child, aloof older sibling, type-A straight-laced adult (an aunt this time, though, not mother or father), a hawkish asshole we couldn’t wait to see die, a mad scientist, and a good-hearted dinosaur trainer who sees them as the animals they are.  Also, the dinosaurs had lips, which is apparently hugely controversial.  But, it was enjoyable.

Orientation Day 4 – Great Wall

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Today started early – 7:30 – but I think I’m still between time zones enough that it was no problem.  After an hour or so on the bus, we had two hours to climb.

When my parents visited me in China in January/February of 2010, I took them to basically all of the things that we’re doing this week, but we went to a different section of the wall, Badaling.  Also it was winter.

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This time we went to Juyong Pass.  I never thought I would say that the Badaling section was flat (we slid down on our butts at the end because we couldn’t get down without holding on the handrail), but Juyongguan is much much steeper.

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We went past the tower in the picture above, to the platform about halway up the picture below.

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Some of our cohort went much higher, but one of the other Maria’s and I (both asthmatics) took it a little easier :)  Even so, Fitbit said we climbed “42 flights of stairs”.  

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We had another gorgeous day; I’m so glad we spent the two terrible air quality days at the embassy and Temple of Heaven.  

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After climbing, we were rewarded with a fantastic lunch of Peking duck at one of the most famous restaurants in Beijing, 全聚德.  We had lots of different dishes, some of which I liked (there is really nothing in this world like duck fat and crispy duck skin) and some of which . . . not so much (I’m looking at you, duck feet in horseradish sauce).  

We had the afternoon free to rest; I showered and did some journaling and struggling with apps on my phone.  In the evening there was a basketball game between EAPSI and CSTEC.  I wanted to grab food before, so I went left in search of “a bunch of noodle places” that someone had told me about.  I turned the corner into the alley before the intersection and felt like I had stumbled into a city of gold.  I stopped at the first place and got two Xi’An pork sandwiches (one of my favorite quick foods) to go for 14元, but there were also hand-pulled noodles, dumplings, malting and about 10 other places.  It looks like simple, cheap food, which was exactly what I felt like this area was missing.  I rescind all previous complaints about living in a food desert!

I took my [delicious] sandwiches back to campus to watch the game.  

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It was a really fun evening, actually.  We got really into the cheering (and, eventually, singing) and between that and the basketball, we attracted a pretty good-sized crowd.  

The EAPSI team was perhaps a bit outmatched.  As far as I know, none of us had heard anything about any basketball game until Tuesday or Wednesday, and we had climbed the Great Wall that morning.  Our CSTEC opponents on the other hand . . . as one of the EAPSI players said, “The number on that guy’s basketball shorts matches the number on his shirt.  He’s fast.”  It was a little bit of a “knives to a gun fight” situation, but after a difficult first half we rallied in the second.  We lost 45 to 31, but I really think that you have to convert their score to dollars by dividing by 6.  That’s how it works, right??

Orientation Day 3 – Forbidden City

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2015 at 4:43 pm

We had another lecture this morning by another PKU professor.  This one was supposed to be about society and culture, but it was really more of the history and politics.  The most interesting thing from this lecture (besides the truly impressive number of s’s he managed to put at the end of nearly every word) was that he, like the speaker from the day before, talked about backwardness and poverty as an “invitation for aggression”.  The man yesterday shared the story of Confucius and his followers walking along the Canglang river and hearing a man singing a song.

Confucius said, “Hear what he sings, my children.  When clear, he will wash his cap-strings, and when muddy, he will wash his feet with it.  This different application is brought by the water on itself.

It was interesting to me to learn that this is at least a somewhat common belief among Chinese.

During the lunch break today, I went back to Bank of China to see about reopening my old bank account.  I confidently handed over my account book, card, and passport and said that I had just forgotten the password.  (Why mention the five years thing if they don’t bring it up?)  She asked if this was the passport I used to open it and I said yes . . . then realized it wasn’t.  I renewed my passport a few months ago.  Apparently the account has been frozen and I need the old passport (or a certified letter from the embassy) to reopen it.  It’s almost not worth it for the 71元 that my accounts say I left in the account . . . but the woman casually mentioned that there was over 1000元 in there!  Apparently we got one last scholarship payment a few weeks after I left Xiamen.  I guess for $300 I’ll try to figure out how to get my old passport here . . . 

Today’s afternoon activity was a visit to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.  The buldings were beautiful, but the weather was clear and sunny and the air quality was great, so I spent most of the time looking at the clouds. 

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I did get one nice picture of the three Maria’s, though.  We’re nearly 10% of the EAPSI China 2015 cohort – and the similarities go even further!  Two of us are from Minnesota, two of us are the only two working at Tsinghua here in Beijing, they both go to Notre Dame, and their last names both start with G.

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One other fun note from our time at the Forbidden City.  Victoria, our language teacher, had mentioned that she speaks four languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Spanish).  (There was a hilarious moment in our second language class when she was switching between Chinese and English, and accidentally started a sentence with “tambien”.)  Today I finally took the opportunity to speak Spanish with her.  To my surprise, it felt okay to speak Spanish and I didn’t once slip into Mandarin.  Switching back into Chinese and English later really messed with my brain, though.  Now that I am reasonably proficient in another language (especially one that many people consider difficult) I am less impressed when people speak a second language – but man, am I impressed when they have a third or a fourth, simultaneously held at a decent level.  Code switching is not easy!

For dinner, I ended up at a 土家 restaurant with a few other EAPSI people.  We had a great meal; except for the server switching out our money for a fake 100元 bill, it was the best experience I’ve had yet.  We got some delicious beef, frog, spicy wood ear mushroom, and basically spicy potato chips.

Places like we ate tonight are nice for dinner with friends, but you almost can’t eat there alone and it quickly becomes a two-hour, 40元 affair – not really suitable for a quick lunch.  I guess we’ve done alright for ourselves, but I’m surprised at how tiring eating out is.  I guess I was coming from a very different place when I lived in Xiamen, which was a similar situation food-wise.  But now at Stanford I cook or eat free food all the time, eating out maybe once or twice a month.  The exhausting thing about eating out is that you have to get each meal as you need it – there’s no freezer food, no leftovers to microwave.  We call it foraging, and we really don’t know where the next meal is going to come from.  If it’s stressful for me, I can only imagine how it feels for those who don’t speak Chinese and/or are picker eaters than me.