Maria Holland

Archive for July, 2015|Monthly archive page

On Beijing and Loving China

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 2:19 pm

I’ve lived in China for about 16 months now over a span of 8 years – 11 months in Xiamen, 3 months in Jilin, 2 in Beijing.  As my time in Beijing draws to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on this city and this country. 

I first came to China in 2007 as part of an Engineers Without Borders group, to work on sustainable energy project in China’s northeast.  I spent 9 days on a farm on the border of Russia and North Korea, building a wind turbine.  We lived with an American family who spoke Chinese for us, and I made exactly one Chinese friend, Zaibin, because he spoke English.  I don’t know exactly why I wanted to come back – it wasn’t the people and it wasn’t the language, yet.  Perhaps the food – Hunchun has the best lamb and beef sticks I’ve ever eaten – or the project itself, the way we “built things out of stuff”.

But for whatever reason, when I left my return was never in question.  The next summer I went back to the same place, this time for two months.  That time, it was definitely the food.  On the farm, we had the best of all worlds, it seemed like – crisp, cold water straight from the spring to the faucet; fresh milk from our cows and enough to make butter, ice cream, and cheese when we had the time; eggs from our chickens, some of which we slaughtered and ate; bread from wheat the girls ground every day.  Korean lunch prepared by Adjima, the farm cook, and generally some sort of Western dinner prepared by a rotating cast except for the one or two times a week we went into town to a Chinese, Korean, or Russian restaurant.  

But I also fell in love with the people and, through them, the language as well.  Most days, I headed a few kilometers across the farm to the shepherd’s residence where my project was based, walking or hitchhiking on the workers’ sanlunche.  I was kilometers away from the nearest English speaker, and was left to my own devices to get my design across to the workers.  From a combination of grunting and pointing, we progressed to simple sentences (你来帮我, come help me, was the first sentence I understood).  I bought a children’s picture dictionary at the supermarket and they were more patient with me, as I clumsily learned my first few hundred words, than most people are with their own children.  I thought these people were exceptional, and they were, but this patience and understanding with learners of their language seems to be a fairly common trait among Chinese, to various extents.  

Xiao Zhang, Xiao Li, Lao Liu, and Han XiaoGuang were the first Chinese people I loved.  And because Chinese was the way that I communicated with them, I think I started to love it too.  I remember Timothy expressing surprise at how quickly I learned – the fastest he’d seen, he said – because language learning seemed like a male thing, stemming from a desire to dominate.  For me, it’s a desire to communicate, to interact with the people around me.  When people ask me why I’m studying Chinese, and I don’t want to give the whole story, I jokingly respond that “I like to talk, and it gives me 1.3 billion other people to talk to.”  It’s a joke . . . kind of.

It was on this trip, and even more so on the next – a quick 10-day follow-up visit to the farm that fall that was extended by a couple snowbound days in Yanji – that I experienced and embraced the adventure of living in China.  When I travel, I “adventure” towards a destination – hoping to eventually get there, but remaining open to experimental modes of travel and possibly even alternate destinations if they come up as options or necessities.  But even outside of travel, adventuring is a way of living, really, being open to the joy and surprises that await when you allow yourself to be flexible and have “yes” as your default answer.  

When I was offered a scholarship to study in China for a year, this seemed like the ultimate adventure.  I delayed graduation, sublet my apartment, and moved to a tropical island to study something completely outside of my major.  Xiamen was a daily feast of all the things that I loved about China – wonderful people, both those native to the country and those drawn to it for various reasons; delicious food that often surprised and always seemed to be worth more than it cost; constant improvement in my language abilities and constant positive feedback on my progress; and an endless supply of adventures.  

The magical spell of Xiamen was further enhanced by my freedom in most respects.  I had no long-term commitments, no pre-existing demands on my time, no purpose other than to learn Chinese – which is to say, to live in China and experience it fully.

It was hard to leave Xiamen after that year.  I remember mostly wanting to go back to Tulsa to prove to others and myself that I still wanted to be an engineer, that Chinese wasn’t everything to me now.  But it was my first time leaving China without knowing when I would be back.  

As it turned out, nearly five years would pass before I came back again, this time to Beijing.  It’s hard to isolate variables and identify what differences I observe are due to the temporal distance, and which to the spatial, but for the moment suffice to say that there have been differences.

I haven’t loved Beijing.  I don’t tend to love big cities anyway, so it’s not too much a surprise, but even among big cities Beijing is a  tough one to love.  It was bad enough, that sometime during Week 3, I did some soul-searching, asking myself if this was it, if China had lost its charm for me.  

A month later, most of the factors that prompted that despair having changed, I’m still asking that question, although I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no’.  It’s hard for me to articulate why.  Maybe there are just enough threads connecting my experience in Beijing to happier times elsewhere – the people I’ve gotten to know are as wonderful as those I’ve known elsewhere, the food is still delicious and still cheaper than the US, and I am pleasantly surprised almost daily to discover that I can speak and understand and read Chinese – that I can recognize the good things as being Chinese, and attribute the more negative ones to the city only.

I’m glad for the opportunity to experience Beijing, although I am grateful on literally a daily basis that I got to spend a year in Xiamen and two months in Beijing, instead of the other way around.  I am also glad for the opportunity to think critically about my feelings about China, to examine the reasons I’ve wanted to come back for so long and to consider whether or not they still hold.  

Beijing is definitely the third-best city that I’ve lived in, but honestly after Xiamen and Hunchun, most cities in China would be lucky to get third place.  I’m not in China for the history or the politics or the economics, so Beijing was never going to be my jam.  Most of the things it’s known for (the clear exceptions being the Great Wall and roast duck) are just not important to me, and some things I value are missing (here I guess I’m referring to breathable air and any discernible trace of beauty).

Probably my favorite thing about Beijing is that, as a big city and major hub, people are always passing through at one point or another.  This is one of my favorite things about the Bay Area, too – people just tend to end up here, for a day or a few years.  It was great to reunite with a friend from California now working at Apple in Beijing; family friends who visited with the son they adopted from China; a Stanford friend in town for a conference.  This never happened in Xiamen.  And Hunchun?  Don’t make me laugh.  

Unfortunately, this goes for me, too, though.  I’m confident that there will be plenty of opportunities to come back to China, but many of them will be to come to Beijing.  

My secondary objectives in coming to Beijing with EAPSI this summer (the primary objective being the project) were to make professional contacts and work on my technical Chinese.  My tertiary objectives were to make friends, eat well, sing, and dance.  On this basis, my trip was a great success, and it’s due mostly to my labmates.  If it hasn’t been clear from my writings, my labmates were the shining stars of my time here at Tsinghua.  Their friendliness, kindness, generosity, patience, sense of humor, and assistance in every facet of my life never failed to put a smile on my face.  

So I guess it comes down to this.  China’s greatest asset and biggest draw for me is its people.  They’re really the only thing that’s making it hard to leave Beijing, but they sure are making it hard.  

China-US Young Scientist Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But there was ice cream, and macaroons!  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Tsinghua Meal

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2015 at 12:33 pm

I went to work early today, to take advantage of the last day I can run simulations.  I was also supposed to meet with Profs. Feng and Li about the next step, but there was a miscommunication.  So instead, I met with just Prof. Feng in the afternoon.  

I had lunch with my Romanian coteacher, Tamas, to say goodbye.  As we walked outside after lunch, the loudest crack of thunder I’ve ever heard scared the crap out of me, and was immediately followed by an absolute downpour.  Ugh, 墨迹天气, my weather app, is the worst.  Of course, today was the day I only brought an umbrella.  I barely made it to a nearby building, where I waited out the rain shopping for a few more Tsinghua souvenirs – and another rain coat.  

In the evening, I had my last meal at the Tsinghua cafeteria.  The food selection seemed so fraught with importance, and then I choked and got what I thought was pork but was actually bamboo shoots, haha.  Also, two people bought watermelon, so we ate so much watermelon . . . 

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Afterwards, I realized I had to clean up my desk and transfer data, which took longer than I expected.  Then we went to play mahjong again!  Two of my EAPSI friends were interested but bailed, so it ended up being me, Zu Yan, Cheng, and her boyfriend.  I did a lot better this time.  I think the time off to process things helped – I literally dreamt of Zu Yan teaching me more rules last night, so I know my brain was working on it all night.  

We played until a little after midnight.  I still got to bed waaaay earlier than some EAPSI people . . . As tomorrow is the closing ceremony, all the non-Beijingers have to get back here by tomorrow.  Easier said than done, because apparently the noon thunderstorm in Beijing threw the air traffic situation in the entire country into complete disarray.  People sat on the tarmac for hours, were delayed or canceled multiple times, etc.  For a while, I wondered if it was just going to be the 12 of us Beijingers for the ceremony tomorrow, but I think the last flight landed around 4am.  

Learning Mahjong

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2015 at 10:51 am

There are a ton of donkey restaurants in Beijing; apparently it’s a Hebei thing.  It had been on my dwindling Beijing to-do list for a while, so this morning I went to get 驴肉火烧.  Contrary to what I was told, it turns out that donkey sandwiches are not a breakfast food, so I’ll have try again tomorrow.  

Today I brought in a bunch more things I couldn’t return or didn’t use up.  Here, have some conditioner I didn’t like, and some q-tips.  Seriously, I give the best gifts.

I also brought in the rest of the s’mores ingredients.  I just realized this morning that they have bunsen burners in the lab – we could have been eating s’mores all day err’day!  

Prof. Feng’s son came in to the lab today and ate lunch with us.  He’s a sophomore or junior in high school and is taller than me – a veritable giant.  Zhao Yan asked him if his biggest problem is that every girl likes him, haha.  He’s tall, left-handed, and was born in Germany (while Feng was doing a post-doc at Dusseldorf) . . . an eerie number of similarities with my own brother!  

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I made a complete mess of myself while eating watermelon today.  We have watermelon after lunch and dinner about 87% of the time.  I’ve easily eaten more watermelon in two months here than I have in the rest of my life combined.  Unfortunately, watermelon is not my talent – I just can’t eat it without getting soaked.  But, I have my own gifts.  My labmates here (like people everywhere, really) are fascinated by my extraordinary talents at sleeping and frowning.  Sleeping and frowning are my talents.  Today I learned how to turn pictures into stickers, so now I can send my frown in WeChat messages with one tap!  

It was supposed to rain today at noon.  Of course, my weather app has said this literally every day for the last two weeks.  Around noon, it says in the morning.  At noon, it becomes 1; at 1, rain is predicted at 2.  At some point, they give up and say, it will rain tonight.  I think we’ve had rain twice since it began this game two weeks ago – basically as accurate as a broken clock.  Today I taught my labmates the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  And they taught me a word for liar: 啃爹.  

In the afternoon, Prof. Feng asked if I would like to join the meeting with a visiting professor that Zu Yan is going to work with next month.  Oh man, that was the most awkward meeting I have ever been in.  I tried to break the ice by speaking English with him as they set up, but he didn’t seem that interested in talking to me.  Then, Prof. Du and Zu Yan presented, both in English, which I’d never heard either of them speak.  They did a good job, although their work is definitely outside my field and I couldn’t do much more than smile and nod.  But the visiting professor had arrived in China two days ago and was obviously not over jet lag.  He couldn’t stay awake, which led to long silences as they waited for him to wake up and answer a question of theirs.  There were also weird moments when he was asleep, I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I wondered, if you speak English and no one understands it, does it still make a sound?

At various points during this, Prof. Feng answered the phone, printed off a short story for me to read, and gave me a gift of tea and showed me how to steep it.  Aaah it was so awkward.

Afterwards, Prof. Feng suggested that I present.  So I also got to experience the awkwardness of speaking English at a sleeping American while a bunch of Chinese listen.  He seemed interested when he was awake, though, and we ended up speaking at length about the EAPSI program, and my experiences in China.

After me, HaoYuan and Chang Zheng talked about their research on spider silk.  It was also the first time I’d heard them speak English, although to be honest, it was about the first time either of them had talked to me except for that graduation dinner.  When I told them tomorrow is my last day, they seemed sad to see me go.  I’m not sure why, but I guess that’s cool?

Today I finally gave out the Stanford shirts I brought from home.  I probably waited too long to do this, but I was waiting for a time when all the people I wanted to give them to were there, and no one else, which never happened.  I also underestimated the number of girls that would be in my lab, and how small they would be.  Sigh.

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Zu Yan wanted to take me to get donkey to thank me for helping her with her presentation, but she took too long so I went with Zhao Yan instead.  It was good – the most similar thing to a sandwhich or taco that i’ve had here in China.  

Zu Yan joined us at the donkey place.  She was exuberant, having finished finished the English presentation, and wanted to celebrate.  She wanted to play mahjong, and I was definitely in!  We coerced Zhao Yan into joining us (Zu Yan s a social instigator like me, so he really stood no change), but that still left us 三缺一 (three, missing one).  Luckily, GuoYang was done packing and agreed to come over.

We went to a mahjong place near the south gate, a pretty seedy place, the kind where you could picture opium being smoked.  (But only cigarettes were smoked.  I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke, but when I asked about it, Zu Yan pointed to a No Smoking sign.  As if that meant anything . . . It struck me as a very Chinese response, to defer to the official word instead of conceding to reality.)

We were in a little room with a table – the coolest table I’ve ever seen.  It’s an automatic mahjong table – you press a button in the middle and a circle rises up, revealing an opening under the table.  You shove all the tiles in there, press the button again, and the circle lowers to close the table.  While the tiles are swished around underneath, shuffled and restacked for you, a new set rises up out of the table.  Within seconds of finishing a game, you’re ready to play the next one.  It’s only good for one thing, but it does that thing perfectly.

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The rules of mahjong vary across China.  Zu Yan is from Heilongjiang and GuoYang is from Chongqing, so they first had to agree on rules – the simplest, I think, for my sake.  Even so, mahjong is definitely the hardest thing I’ve done yet in China.  Part of it is that I had to learn the rules in Chinese – my brain works slower when it has to process two things at once, like language and logic.  Another reason is that mahjong does not follow the some of the basic rules that most games I’m familiar with do.  For instance – play moves counterclockwise, which never stopped confusing me; you can form series (123 or the like in the same suite) but not sets (111 from different suites), and even then only ever three in a row; and there are multiple ways to win (in our “simple” rules, either four sets of 3 and a pair, or seven pairs).  

The worst part was that, by the time I got my tiles flipped over and arranged in some logical order, a few tiles had already been played, and they inevitably included one that I needed.  They were going too fast for me, although they said they were actually playing slow!

Zu Yan, bless her heart, kept trying to help me.  She’d look at my tiles sometimes and offer advice.  Often, the advice would include assessing the tiles that other people had already played, so as to not give them what they want.  I laughed so hard at this.  I literally hadn’t looked at another players’ hand in several games.  I was barely holding it together at this point – I did not have the brain power to even consider the other players.

The low point of the night was definitely when GuoYang asked if I had won, and was right.  I hadn’t even realized!  He couldn’t even see most of my tiles, just guessed based on the ones I’d picked up and how I had them arranged.  How embarrassing.  

The high point of the night was when I won the last hand on my own!!

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Other notes:

if I never hear 国洋还是郭洋 (guōyáng or guóyáng?) again in my life, I will be happy.  

Once they asked me if recognized the characters on the tiles 發 and 萬.  They’re traditional, but also really common (the simplified forms are 发 and 万 – much easier!!).  I introduced them to the phrase, “bitch, please”.

Also GuoYang is really good at mahjong, which was annoying, so I taught them “Who invited him?”  He was really really good, and I was terrible, so I almost taught them “rage quit” as well . . . 

GuoYang called the direction of play “inverse clockwise”.  I laughed.  Counter clockwise, I said.  Would people understand me? he asked.  Yes, they’ll understand, but they’ll laugh.

I made a joke about us being 赌博的读博的人 (gambling PhD students).  It’s funny because the two words, “gamble” and “PhD student”, are identical except for one tone.  See, this is the humor only foreigners like me can come up with, because we play fast and loose with tones.  

 

We stopped playing around midnight or one – that table makes it so easy to play without noticing the passing of time!  I still had to pack after getting home – I’d been hoping to be able to take my extra luggage to the lab tomorrow, but I’m going to have to make an extra trip.  As it was, I didn’t get to sleep until 3am.  

S’mores

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2015 at 9:07 pm

The rough morning kind of continued into a rough afternoon.  At lunch, we were talking about sleep and Zhao Yan told us when he went to bed and woke up.  You only slept three hours?, I asked.  No, he said, 6.  Didn’t you go to bed at 2 and wake up at 5?  Not a single number was right.  I still have no idea how much sleep he got last night.  

Then he started asking me which was more round, the moon in the US or the moon in China.  I thought they were baiting me, kicking me when I was down as it were, so I was kind of annoyed.  Turned out that he was really just trying to make a point to Guo Yang, who kept talking about how much better American computers are.  This is a phrase that means, some things are the same everywhere.  

The only moment during this conversation where I felt like I knew what was going on was when Zhao Yan said 在中国,月亮代表 (“In China, the moon represents”) and I cut him off with 我的心 (“my heart”, which is the title of one of the most famous songs in China) .  But then I had that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day.  

Somehow we got to talking about humor, and how American and Chinese humor differs.  I honestly don’t think it does that much, if something fails to translate it seems to be a language issue or perhaps a cultural reference, not a difference in sense of humor.  To prove this, I told my favorite joke – one that luckily translates perfectly:  “What did the zero say to the eight?  Nice belt!”  

Two people bought watermelon today, so we all had to pull double or even triple watermelon-eating duty.  This seemed like an appropriate time to teach them ‘food baby’ and ‘food coma’.

I spent my lunch card down to the last 4毛 (40 Chinese cents).  Pretty good timing; I just have to rely on my labmates for the last three or so meals.  I asked them how to return the card, and they said I should give to Li Bo.  He’s faculty, so his card can’t be used in the student cafeteria and when he eats with the students I guess he has to pay them back.  I understand how it could be useful, but I feel really weird giving it to him because the foreign students have to pay a 20% fee every time we put money on our cards.  Here, have a card that makes everything cost 25% more!  I give the best gifts. 

 

After lunch, I finally watched the escalator video.  This story has quickly overtaken the Uniqlo sex-tape (which I didn’t watch) as the most-talked about video here in China.  The video is difficult to watch, so if you’d rather not I’ll summarize.  A woman and her child are taking the elevator up a flight in a mall in Hubei.  After they step off onto the metal panels at the top, one of the panels gives way and she falls down into the hole.  With her only her upper body free, she pushes her son to safety before getting dragged all the way in.  

It was not what I had expected at all.  When I first heard about it, I didn’t realize the woman had died. It also seemed like a lot of the comments were to the effect of “watch this so you’ll be careful when you ride an escalator”, so I actually asked one of my labmates which part of her clothing or body got stuck in the machinery.  Like, check your shoelaces before you get on and you won’t die?  But after finally watching it, I don’t know what there is to take away from it, what I should do differently next time I get on an escalator in China.  What happened was a tragedy of faulty machinery, a lack of safety standards and inspections, nothing that 站稳扶好 (“stand firm and hold the hand rail”, the constant message broadcast on every escalator in China) would prevent.  I feel so sad.

It’s also sad because I see accidents waiting to happen everywhere I look in China, accidents that we’ve had in America and we’ve learned from.  A lot of, perhaps even most, doors have some mechanical or electrical device preventing  you from opening the door from the inside; sometimes you have to have the key to leave your room or house.  Most taxis have seat covers, and in the back they cover the seatbelt latches so you can’t wear the seatbelt.  No one moves aside for ambulances, and apparently the paramedics are not really trained, so they’re basically unreliable taxis.  

I’ve had three friends fall through manhole covers, so we all avoid them as much as possible.  It’s hard, too, when you realize how many manhole covers there are.  It’s like anytime someone needs to get at something underground they just dig another hole.  Here’s a great example, a fairly typical street in Xiamen:

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Anyway, in the last few days, I’ve noticed people’s behavior around escalators changing like I have around manhole covers.  Another friend said he’s noticed people stepping over that metal plate, unconscious about this adaptation already.  Like I said before, while the human body (and mind, and spirit) can accomodate any number of terrible situations, it would be better if it did not have to.  

This all seems to point to larger issues, too.  The dichotomies that exist within China are incredible.  In different situations, I would describe it either as a place where you can do anything that you want to, or as a place where most things are restricted.  It’s a suprisingly libertarian culture for a communist country.  So the government can’t prevent deadly escalators from being sold, but heaven forbid a foreigner use an internet cafe.  It’s like the worst of the far right and the far left at the same time – no personal freedom, and no public responsibility.  

Next week we’re supposed to be talking about innovation and entrepreneurship, but I think of the risks I see being taken in Silicon Valley and I don’t know what kind of person would take them out here in the Wild Wild East.  The rule of law just doesn’t seem to hold, or doesn’t seem to mean much.  It makes it hard to invest one’s money, or one’s time, or one’s life.

In the afternoon, Dad wanted to talk so I went down and Skyped with him for a half hour.  It was really nice to talk to him, but I still felt down.  And it took 1GB of data.  

 

I finally found a DIY barbecue place place, so I made a reservation there in the evening.  When they called, though, they said they don’t allow DIY barbecue when the AC is on.  And then it ended up being way out on the other end of CUMTB and we were biking forever in the middle of nowhere and we had trouble finding it and I was convinced this disappointment of a day was just going to continue.  

But everything turned out better than expected!  Their chicken wings were super good.  We couldn’t grill ourselves, but they agreed to roast the marshmallows for us (seriously, how is it of all the things I tried to do today, the one that worked was asking a restaurant to roast 20 marshmallows for me?).  

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They seemed to like the s’mores alright, although everyone said they were too sweet and started talking about calories.  What, am I back in California?

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We also had honey whiskey, my gift to 赵岩 that really became communal.  I was really amused to watch their faces as they took their first sips.  These people drink baijiu, which tastes like jet fuel, with no discernible reaction, but they all made ridiculous faces when drinking American Honey, the smoothest thing I’ve ever drunk.  

The girls left after dinner, but the guys wanted to play Catan again, so we relocated to a KFC.  I can’t believe we didn’t think of this before!  KFC is really the perfect environment for board games – AC, free Wifi, big tables, food and drinks available.  I treated everyone to a round, and was really amused to see almost all of them get sundaes.  I thought the s’mores were too sweet?

This time was more fun than before, because I didn’t have to explain the rules.  There were two new players, but they played on teams with the GuoYangs and they explained the rules to each other.  It’s also a great language environment, because they’re speaking to each other more than they are to me, so the language is more authentic, but I’m very familiar with the context and vocabulary, so I can follow it.  I loved listening to them haggle over trades or berate each other for bad moves.  

The KFC we were at unfortunately closed at 11, so we couldn’t finish our game.  I basically built the Great Wall of Catan (When in China, I said . .. ) and had 8 points when we stopped.  GuoYang also had 8 points, but my wall blocked him in and he had really no way to get more points.  Guo Yang and Zhao Yan had 7 points each.  The score was close enough that everyone felt that they 差一点赢了 (almost won); they argued about this the whole bike ride home!

Privilege and Discrimination in China

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2015 at 2:10 am

It’s been a rough day so far.  First, I went to the supermarket to return some laundry detergent.  The hotel staff had told me I needed my own laundry detergent to do laundry, which is not even remotely the case.  So I had never opened it or used it, always intending (hoping is really the more accurate word) to return it.  I finally went today and was not successful.  The woman asked why I was returning it when I said I didn’t need it, she scoffed as if to say, What kind of reason is that?  I also had the audacity to try to return it several weeks after buying it, and when she realized this she just walked away.  Foreigners be crazy.

Then I went to the train ticket, in the continued quest to replace the ticket I lost.  At the train station, they couldn’t find it because they needed the exact train number, and I think the guy sold me an alternate train because the one I wanted was sold out.  So I went back to the original place I bought the ticket, to ask him if he could look up exactly what I had bought.  I had my passport, which I had also presented when I bought the ticket – train tickets are registered to individuals as much as plane tickets are in the US, which is a little bit of a hassle but also my only hope of getting that ticket back.  The man behind the counter immediately told me he couldn’t help me.  We don’t have any records, he said – with a straight face – as he sat behind the computer into which he had typed my passport number, from which he had printed my ticket.

There is just no way I believe that.  No way.  I’m pretty sure that 没办法 (there’s no way) is just shorthand for 太麻烦了,我不愿意 (too much hassle, I don’t want to).  I think this because, in the past, I’ve cried in offices and gotten what I needed; a foreign woman crying in public is apparently more hassle than helping said foreign woman.

This is exactly why we foreigners need a class on 生气 (getting mad) in Chinese.  What can I say that is effective in convincing this person to help me?  How can I make it clear that, contrary to his desires, not helping me will be more of a hassle than helping me?

I don’t know.  So I walked away.  He won, and I lost.  I lost 270元, as I’ll have to buy a new ticket, but it’s about more than the money.  It’s the certainty that I’m getting screwed over, that I have no means of recourse, that if I were a different person the result would have been different.

This leads into something that has been on my mind a lot on this trip to China.  Foreigners in China occupy a very special position, often the beneficiaries of truly ridiculous preferential treatment, like my friends in Xiamen getting paid to literally sit in a bar and drink with people, presumably so that the bar became known as a place where foreigners went to hang out?  Or the way many Americans get jobs “teaching English” with no credential other than a passport and big eyes.  I definitely have more friends in China than I would if I had to win them on my own merits.  In many situations, I’m given the benefit of the doubt – assumed smart, rich, beautiful, interesting, and influential until proven otherwise.

The flip side is, we’re outsiders in an insular country.  While sometimes this is an advantageous position (we’re exotic, that’s for sure), it can be a place from which certain things are practically or actually impossible.  There are certain hotels foreigners can’t stay at, certain provinces we sometimes can’t travel to.  I was told I couldn’t go on a church trip because I was a foreigner, couldn’t get a library card that allowed me to actually check out books because I was a foreigner, couldn’t use any internet bar in Jilin because I was a foreigner – on a legal visa, and for most of the time, as an invited guest of the Chinese government.  We lived in separate accomodations, theoretically for our comfort but we also paid maybe 100 times what the students paid, and I’m not convinced the separation was not to protect Chinese students from our influence.

The preferential treatment I sometimes receive in China has made me conscious of white privilege in a way that I’m not in the US.  Because that’s what this is, basically.  (I’ve read about African-Americans having English-teaching job offers rescinded after the schools learned that they were black; this despite the fact that no one had a problem with the other five teachers for the English Aerospace Summer Camp coming from France, Romania, and Iran.  I don’t begrudge anyone’s desire to learn ‘unaccented’ or ‘standard’ English, but to pretend that that is somehow correlated with complexion is absurd.)  This is not to say that I don’t experience white privilege in the US, but it’s harder to see because I can believe it’s something I deserve, something that I’ve earned.  I am smart, beautiful, and interesting, right??

And the obstacles I have sometimes faced while living here have helped me to understand the barriers that exist for others back home.  Yes, some of these are laws, which were a vivid reality in the US 50 years ago but not so much anymore; but some of them are just people taking advantage of me because they think I don’t know better or know I can’t do anything about it.  Some of them are people just not giving a shit about me, not being understanding about the difficulties that I face in my daily life, writing me off because I sound “different” and they interpret that as “stupid”.

Now take the conversation I had with my labmates after the train ticket failure.  I told them that the guy told me he couldn’t look up my ticket, and they said he should be able to.  I agree, but the fact remains that he didn’t.  They act like it doesn’t make sense, when it makes sense to me – he knew he could refuse to help me and eventually I, reaching the limits of my language and guanxi, would slink off and leave him alone.  Their takeaway is that service is bad in China, which is a valid point, but beside mine – that service in China is different, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, for foreigners than for Chinese.

After a few minutes of the conversation, a niggling fear surfaces – maybe I’m overreacting, maybe he didn’t understand me.  But no, I reassure myself, we had a perfectly intelligible conversation; he repeated my request back to me and clearly said he couldn’t do it.  Or maybe he really couldn’t help me?  My labmates were unanimously of the opinion, both before and after the fact, that this was a thing that he should be able to do.

I read a lot of news and essays online, and after reading article after article written as part of our “national conversation” about race, how can I not hear echoes of those writers in my private complaints?  “It’s the certainty that I’m getting screwed over, that I have no means of recourse, that if I were a different person the result would have been different.”  That’s like, my understanding of racism in a nutshell.  How many other sentences above could work, with a word of two changed, in an article about the experience of black people in America?  It all reminds me very much of an essay I just read.

This is not an attempt to complain about my life in China.  This morning was kind of crappy, but on the whole, the privileged moments outweigh the discriminatory, and (this is probably true of the whole world) many of the obstacles can be surmounted, one way or another, with money – which, as I earn dollars and spend yuan, is just not as big of a deal to me as to the Chinese.  I just think it’s important to acknowledge the influence this treatment has on foreigners’ perceptions of China (including mine), and, as I try with other aspects of culture, to use my experiences in China to better understand my own country.

Gifts

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2015 at 7:50 am

We haven’t had internet in the hotel for several days now; the person who borrowed the router apparently has not seen fit to return it.  So, had to do my interneting this morning.  

The day was fairly nondescript; I worked and made some progress, but never enough :)  I listened to country music while I worked, and between that and showing my labmates pictures of my dogs at home, I missed the US . . . 

At dinner, I sat across from the undergrad, which is trying for both of us.  He is like the voice in my ear that keeps me from getting too proud by constantly whispering “your Chinese isn’t that good”.  It’s a blessing and a curse, you know, having understanding friends in a foreign language.  I experienced it first among the construction workers I worked with on the farm; for years afterwards I would realize things that I had learned wrong.  Friends just let you get away with too much stuff – that’s why we have teachers.  

This undergrad keeps me honest, though.  Let’s not beat around the bush here – my tones are pretty terrible.  Today, I found out that 赵, the last name of both my priest in Xiamen and one of my closest friends here, is fourth tone instead of second tone.  If this undergrad were my only friend here, I would have much less fun but my tones would be perfect by now.  

We also had an extremely painful convesation about how to make 小笼包, or soup dumplings.  At one point, GuoYang offered to translate – from Chinese to Chinese.  Sigh.

After dinner, I decided it was time to give them their gifts.  I couldn’t wait any longer, haha.  In addition to notes hand-written in my childish Chinese characters, I gave Zhao Yan, the only guy who really drinks, a bottle of American Honey (honey whiskey); GuoYang got a copy of River of Doubt, a book I recommended to him because he said he was interested in history and culture; and for Cheng, who is going to MIT this fall, I’m buying her first meal (20 dollars, cash) and I gave her a bunch of music I thought she would like.  

So now, I’ve introduced my labmates to xkcd, PHD comics, phrases like “you had one job”, Catan, country music, and honey whiskey.  They’ve really gotten the full Maria experience – I think I could only share more of my favorite things with them if we could go to Saddlerack and I could bake them something with pumpkin in it.  

Things I Luckily Didn’t Leave at Home, and Things I Should Have

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2015 at 10:12 am

I went to Mass today at the North Cathedral – last Mass in Beijing.  There was some activity going on, ton of young people in matching blue shirts, so I couldn’t sit where I usually do.  But it’s always nice to see full churches.  

I think every time I’ve gone to Mass in Beijing, I see someone instructing someone else how to put their arms over the chest in order to receive a blessing at Communion.  I wonder if Chinese Catholics bring a lot of non-Catholic friends to Mass?

Afterwards, I went to a nice Xinjian restaurant at Xizhimen to have lunch with the two friends of a friend who took me to lunch when I first got here.  

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Every single time I offer treat, I fret about not having enough money.  Every single time.  This time I had 450元.  A lot of the dishes were around 150元, so I was legitimately worried.  I even asked if they took credit cards, but they said only domestic cards worked.  I tried to stay calm as we ordered, but they said what I suggested was too much and reduced it.  We ended up getting a “big plate of chicken”, a plate of noodles, a few lamb sticks, some bread, eggplant and green beans, and Xinjiang [salty?!] milk tea.  It was still a ton of food, and delicious, and cost 130元 (around $20).  This also happens every single time I offer to treat – I can’t believe how cheap it was, and that I was ever worried.

I got a ride back to the train station, which was great because it was HOT today.  Only 35C, apparently, but it felt like the hottest day yet.  I’m not sure if it was the humidity (only 50%!  Xiamen will be 90+%!!) or the fact that the pollution was pretty bad and I wore a mask all day, but I could not handle it.  

At the train station, one of the girls helped me get my train tickets.  I had bought three of them online, and had the confirmation numbers, so those were easy enough to get.  (Side note: I had a mild panic attack when, at the front of the line with the grumpy teller and a long line of people behind me, I thought all the information was in my Gmail account.  That’s like three layers of inaccessible, as I’d have to have internet, get on my VPN, and download PDFs.  Thankfully, I had put the numbers in Evernote.  But it was just one of those situations where I realize how smoothly my life runs in the US and how . . . different that all is in China.)

The fourth ticket was the one I bought at Tsinghua and then lost.  Unfortunately, they had no record of my ticket on the train number I had written down.  I vaguely remember him saying that that train was sold out and offering me another one, but I don’t really know which one.  We tried several others, all the fastest trains on that day (which better be what I bought!) but found nothing.  I’ll probably make a trip back to the place where I bought the ticket, then, worst-case scenario, buy it again.  It was 270元, or $45 – not nothing, but I’ve definitely made worse mistakes.

After being on the go all morning in the crazy heat, I was ready to go back to the hotel for the rest of the day.  I showered, cleaned up, took a nap, read The Three Body Problem, and kind of started packing.  I’m trying to figure out what I can/should bring on my two weeks of travels, and what should stay in Beijing.  Opening up my suitcases and going through my drawers, I got a look at the things I’d brought and never used.  The award for Most Worthless Thing I Lugged Across the Pacific definitely goes to the big box of business cards I’d been told were ‘essential’.  I think since I came to China, I’ve legimitately used one, and gave another two to labmates as basically a souvenir.  The award for Thing I Almost Left Behind That I’m Glad I Didn’t is a tie between my Time Capsule (oh, the glories of wireless internet in my hotel room, at least when we have internet in the hotel) and my 3D printed brain (best. show-and-tell. ever.).  All in all, I did a decent job packing.  

Saturday at Work

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2015 at 10:49 am

I went to work today.  On a weekend.  Everyone commented on it.  I thought you don’t work on weekends back in America?  Well, sometimes I do, but not 9-to-5-as-a-rule, more like as-needed.  

I feel like there’s so much left that I want to do at work . . . and so little that I want to do in the rest of Beijing.  Yes, Beijing is a huge city with a lot going on, but some of it doesn’t interest me much and anything outside is just not appealing at all right now.  There are several parks I’d like to go to, if it were under 90 degrees and I didn’t have to wear a mask, but neither or those are true so I might as well be in the lab if the alternative is the hotel.

On the way to lunch, I told Zhao Yan something like 我刚刚到了 (I just got to the office).  He said that I use this 了 too much, and I don’t need it in this case.  了, a particle used to indicate tense, is the hardest part of Chinese grammar, in my opinion, and I freely admit that 80% of the time I have no idea what I’m doing and I just put it where it feels right.  Apparently my intuition is not so good, because he gave like five examples of when I’ve used it wrong (generally, where I’ve used it when not necessary).  国洋 joined the conversation as we ate, and tried to argue against my assertion that 了 is confusing.  It’s used for things that are completed, he said.  Only, one of their examples of when to use it was 我马上毕业了, or I’m about to graduate.  That hasn’t been completed yet, I said.  Yes, GuoYang responded, but it will be completed in the future.  Haha.  I think pretty much every action in the world falls into either the category of ‘already completed’, or the category of ‘will be completed’, right??  I’ve had this conversation with Chinese people before.  It’s easy, they say, 了 means something has happened . . . or is happening right now . . . or will happen . . . Yes, I nod, very easy.  It’s not like tenses are a cake walk in English or other languages, but they’re hard in a different way.  In Spanish, I might not know how to conjugate the specific verb I want to use in the tense I need, but I know which tense it is that I need.  In Chinese, the ‘how’ is exceedingly easy, but the ‘when/where’ part still eludes me.

No one was in my office when I got there.  So today I learned that we do have an air conditioner that usually makes the temperature just bearable, because in its absence the temperature was not.  I didn’t know how to turn it on, so I was happy when Huang Chong came in the afternoon, commented on how hot it was, and pressed the magic button to make it cool.  

Li Bo came by the office in the afternoon and asked me if I was free for dinner.  We were joined by his wife for dinner, and I was reminded of the extent of Chinese generosity, which always seems to me to be more generous than American generosity, but hopefully is just different.  We ordered roast duck, chicken, shrimp, eggplant, cabbage, and mushroom dishes, plus a sort of jelly crepe thing (that I saw and inquired about, and next thing I knew was on our table).  I’m pretty sure we got about the same amount of food for the three of us that we had ordered last night for 8 or 9 Americans.  There was food left on the table, which is a necessity in Chinese custom but always bothers me a little bit.  

I’m taking some friends to lunch tomorrow, friends who treated me to lunch the first few weeks I was here, so I was studying my hosts’ actions tonight.  Anything the guest expresses interest in, should be ordered.  My usual rule of thumb is one dish per person, but when treating perhaps double that.  Definitely get drinks.  Offer to order more at the end of the meal, even though there is still plenty of food left and everyone is clearly stuffed.

The most interesting part of the dinner conversation tonight (other than when I asked his wife if she was also from Hunan, and she said, Yes, I am also from Hulan) was when I tried to describe duck syndrome.  Things like that or work-life balance just seem to be impossible to translate; the combined language and cultural barriers are just too much.  I don’t think there are ducks at Tsinghua.  More like horses.  

Some of my labmates had talked about playing Catan again tonight, but they bailed.  (Lame, I said, and then had to try to explain what I meant.  You’re no fun, I’m disappointed in you?)  So I went home, on the way stopping to play with some puppies and talk to their owners.  

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This guy’s name was David.  I think he’s American.  The other one (I think his name was Twelve?) was not so into me; he mostly stood at a distance and yipped.  Fun Saturday night!

Smoked Sichuan Duck

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2015 at 10:34 am

After a day of working on Abaqus simulations, I took off around 5 to meet the other Beijingers at the subway station.  From there we headed to Olympic Park, to a restaurant called 湄洲东坡 for dinner.   An EAPSI alum from 2004 (the first EAPSI in China!) who is still working in China, treated us to dinner.  The food was great, honestly probably the best meal I’ve had in Beijing.  The sweet and sour fish was ridiculous and delicious, the smoked Sichuan duck might even beat Beijing duck for me, and the eggplant was on point.  

We also got a chance to talk about our EAPSI experience and the upcoming Young Scientists Forum after the closing ceremony next Friday.  It seems a little bit ridiculous – 5 minute talks, followed by 1-minute summaries of the talks – but, thus is China sometimes.

I got home around 8:30 and spent the evening planning out my remaining week.  We still have no internet at the hotel (apparently someone “borrowed” the router yesterday, with no indication of when we’ll get it back) so I had to do this all on my phone.  But, I found a place near the train station to have lunch on Sunday (treating the friends who treated me the first few weeks) so I can get my train tickets afterwards.  And found a couple potential places to take my labmates on Monday or Tuesday.  I also sorted out the gifts I brought.  How does 2 pounds of chocolate, 8 shirts, and 3 bottles of wine suddenly seem insufficient?  

Today I learned: On 点评, the Chinese equivalent of Yelp, Burger King has 5 stars.