Maria Holland

Part of My Heart

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2015 at 10:24 am

Today started early; I woke up at 6:30 to watch the US Women’s National Team play Germany in the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup.  I have a great knack for being on the wrong side of the world for these things, so watching World Cup games at awkward hours of the night/morning in China is actually pretty familiar to me.  Two EAPSI colleagues joined me, and we shared weird Chinese snacks (lime and chocolate-and-salt potato chips) while we watched.  

It was a good game.  The NYT said we were “leading 0-0” as we went into halftime, which is about how it felt.  Germany whiffed their penalty kick and Carli Lloyd nailed our [extremely questionable] penalty kick, so then we were 1-0.  I didn’t really want to win that way, so I was happy when we got a beautiful goal late in the game to clinch it.  We’re going to the final!  5am, Monday morning, can’t wait!  

The game was made just that much better by the stickers I used to update Cheng on the game.  Stickers (the love child of emoticons and gifs) are a huge deal on WeChat, and the EAPSI cohort has gotten way into them.  My favorite stickers include a vomiting llama, a toaster with bread jumping out of it happily, a little Dutch bunny who rides a bicycle and says things like “here I am” and “let’s play together”, a hot dog walking another hot dog on a leash, Einstein making the “rock on” sign or doing pushups, and a skipping egg.  You would be surprised how often these and other such stickers are the perfect addition to any conversation.  

Anyway, I downloaded two football-related sticker packs.  One has Barca players’ faces on animated bodies with speech bubbles, things like  Messi saying “I’ve got it”, Neymar with “hahaha”, and Pique with “Love you”.  The other is cartoon fans from different countries cheering on their teams – two Argentines toasting their beers and saying “thx buddy”, a Brazilian screaming “Victory” (hahaha ouch), a Dutch guy yelling “OMG”.  For this game, I sent a sticker of Mascherano running and yelling “Goooall” when we scored, and the Brazilian victory guy when the game was over.  Pretty much sums it all up.  


We went to a nicer cafeteria for all-you-can-eat lunch today.  I got date cake (枣糕, zǎogāo) and commented that it sounds like 糟糕 (zāogāo), which literally means “messy cake” but is kind of a mild ejaculation like “darn it”.  They all agreed with me, but the thought had clearly never crossed their minds.  While you can be understood with improper tones (goodness knows that’s been a crucial component of my successful communication!), they’re so fundamental to the Chinese that these two words just don’t really sound all that similar to them.

I’ve known and tried to comprehend this for a long time.  But only recently have I realized that there’s a corollary to this, perhaps even more difficult for me to understand: consonants are just not that important in Chinese.  One guy was trying to tell me the word for a person who gets lost easily (so, me).  “nùchī” he said.  He said it like it was one I knew, and these guys seem to have a pretty good grasp of what characters I know, so I racked my brain trying to think of what this “nù” was.  “The nù in nùdào!” he said, as if that made it obvious.  But while I could think of two characters that are pronounced “nu”, neither of them made any sense with any character pronounced “dao”.  After a few minutes of this, he pointed to the thing we were biking on.  Oooooohh, you mean “lùdào”, or road, in which case this new word makes perfect sense because it’s 路痴, or “road idiot”.  He laughed it off as his “southern accent”, but where I’m from, accents change vowels, not consonants.  I’ve also experienced this many times, from not knowing if vendors in Xiamen were telling me things cost 4 (sì) kuai or 10 (shí), to being asked if I have a blue friend (lánpéngyoǔ) instead of a boyfriend (nánpéngyoǔ), but for some reason it all just sunk in today: tones are more important than consonants.  Unfortunately, even 8 years on, I can hear and produce consonants much more reliably than tones.  Sigh.  


I went back up on the roof today, to take more pictures as storm clouds came rolling in.  Looking east, towards the clouds:

Wed East

and looking west, towards the mountains:

Wed West


Okay, now it’s time to talk about gender!  Being a female mechanical engineer, I have a lot of guy friends. Stanford’s graduate schools are something like 2:1 male:female, my entering class in ME was 17% female, and I was the first woman to join my lab at Stanford (with the significant exception of my advisor!). I love my labmates as brothers, I enjoy their company, and I think we get along well.

My labmates at Tsinghua include four women and about 10 guys. One of the women, Cheng, sits next to me and thus is the unfortunate recipient of most of my questions; she’s really great about it, though! But sometime around 11 every day, the women all disappear, so by the time I start thinking about lunch, I end up going with a big group of guys. I think we’ve had another woman join us three times, out of at least a dozen. The guys are great, though – they pay for me when we get to the cafeteria too late for me to use my card (which is restricted between 11:45 and 12:30), and include me in the daily dessert order of watermelon slices.

But despite sharing meals together sometimes twice a day, we were not friends. Not officially, that is. None of the guys had added me on WeChat (which is the gold standard of these things in China as facebook is in the US). Maybe it’s nothing, you think? All four of the women added me after our first interaction of any significance, while zero of the men I interact with daily added me . . . Also, reports were coming in from my EAPSI colleagues of gender segregation at their workplaces – lots of guys eating lunch with guys, and girls only talking to girls – so I definitely wouldn’t be the only one to see some effect like this.  

Yesterday at lunch, one of the guys asked me if I use English or Chinese on WeChat, so I thought maybe they hadn’t added me because they were afraid they’d have to use English. No, I told them, I use Chinese with Chinese people and English with Americans. Then I jokingly reminded them that they hadn’t added me, so two of them pulled out their phones to scan my QR code (an easy way to find someone as a contact) . . . and then neither followed through by adding me. This is also after I listed my WeChat name in the presentation I gave my first week; I saw a bunch of people pull out their phones and not add me.

What’s up with that? I remember being told in our EAPSI orientation if a request is ignored it’s a way of refusing without having to say no. But why are they refusing to be my friend??

I know that rules governing interactions between people of different genders vary around the world. I thought that could be it, maybe adding someone on WeChat is fraught with implications of flirting or even something more serious? I texted XuLei, my Chinese best friend, and asked her if a guy adding you on WeChat was a big deal. No, she said, not if you know him. About the same as asking for someone’s phone number in the States.

From there, I escalated the situation by texting Cheng, my office neighbor and frequest question recipient. She seemed surprised that none of the guys had added me, and especially that they hadn’t done so even after scanning the QR code. But she said that it wouldn’t be just because I’m a girl. Haha, awkward . . . I thought there was a logical reason I had no friends, but no, it must just be me :-/

Anyway, the reason this is anything close to a big deal (besides cultural curiosity and, okay, maybe a little bit of pride) is that we’re making plans to do something on Saturday and I have no way of contacting them! Cheng offered to help out by making a group chat and inviting us all. And today, one of the guys added me from the group! Somehow, the group thing made it okay and I’m no longer a complete WeChat pariah.

And more importantly, we have karaoke plans for 10am on Saturday! I’ve already been practicing :)

A friend posted a quote about home on facebook the other day, and it rang so true for me.

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I’ve left parts of my heart in Coon Rapids, Tulsa, Stanford, Hunchun, and Xiamen.  This last week in Beijing, with continuously “unhealthy” air, was difficult. When they sky looks like that, it’s like being surrounded by concrete in all directions, even above. Considering also the length of my stay, it’s obviously more difficult to make friends in 7 weeks than over 11 months, and that situation had not looked promising recently. So, I had wondered: would I leave a piece of my heart in Beijing?

On Monday, I would have said no. Today, I think it’s a very real possibility.

  1. Loved today’s post! Dad caught the game in replay and we talked about it and I enjoyed your take. The pictures from the roof are great! Enjoy the 4th!

  2. Great post, Maria, but I almost cried reading it. Don’t worry – wherever I am, you will have left a piece of your heart with me!

  3. Maria, I am just now catching up on your posts :( But they are awesome! You have so many gifts: you write beautifully, you have a fabulous sense of humor, and you are brilliant and sweet! Can’t wait to read the rest!! Love, Aunt Mary

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