Maria Holland

Archive for July, 2015|Monthly archive page

DARE Fellows in Beijing!

In Uncategorized on July 23, 2015 at 10:05 am

I biked to Beijing University today to have lunch with a Stanford student an an alumni.  We’re connected through the DARE (Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence) fellowship program.  The guy was member of the 2nd cohort and has been a postdoc here for almost four years!  The girl is in the 8th cohort with me and is here in Beijing for a conference.  We had a nice lunch, sharing China experiences and talking a bit about DARE.  

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It was a long, hot bike ride over there and back.  We met at the southwest gate, which, as I work on the northeast side of Tsinghua, is all the way across both campuses, over 5k.  

In the evening, though, it was really comfortable.  Biking to dinner was really enjoyable!  As I worked after dinner, I saw the sun setting through the window.  This is NOT a usual occurence here in Beijing.  Here the sky is usually one shade of gray during the day, and the entire sky gradually dims to a darker shade of gray in the evening.  It was strange to see pinks and oranges in the sky, and shadows on the ground.

I couldn’t keep working.  For over a week, I’d been thinking that I wasn’t going to see blue sky in Beijing anymore, and I just couldn’t miss this.  I left work really early (7pm!!) and biked home, listening to Sarah Bareilles’ “Many the Miles”, my sunset anthem.  A far cry from the evenings I used to watch the sun set on the beautiful beaches of Xiamen, but I’ll take what I can get.

I also had to stop by the tailor to pick up my clothes.  I had him fix up four articles of clothing – small things, like missing buttoms or torn seams.  He was super friendly – no clothing problem is a problem, he said! – and he makes me want to go back there for more things.  Maybe I will get another qipao?


I’m the Best at Spicy, Crossing Streets, and Catan

In Uncategorized on July 21, 2015 at 10:39 am

We had a lab meeting this afternoon, where every student gave a 5-10 presentation on what they did this semester.  I really understand a lot of the mechanics now, because I’ve learned the vocabulary.  I was really excited when 差分 (finite differences) and 谱方法 (spectral method) came up, because I’d just learned them the other day while reading The Three Body Problem!  

There were a few presentations that were quite heavy on the bio- side of biomechanics.  These presentations had the most English on their slides, but I understood them the least.  My Chinese mechanics is better than my English biology?

The air quality was pretty terrible today, somewhere around 250.  I tried to go up to the roof to get another panorama for comparison, but the door was locked!  That was to be my only consolation for such terrible air :(

After the lab meeting, we went out to eat – Cheng, JiaWen, ShaSha, GuoYang, Guo Yang, and Zhao Yan – at a hotpot place.  I fully appreciated that these people ate hotpot with me on such a warm day.  Although looking out the windows at the dreary gray outside, I could almost pretend that it was cold out there . . . 

They ordered, which always makes dining in China more adventurous.  I steered clear of the stomach, intestines, and duck feet, which I know I don’t like, but I did try some new things.  Turns out I like lotus!  

We also had these little fish, which looked like something out of my nightmares.  They’d been gutted somehow, so their mouths were open garishly wide.  It reminded me of that line from Mulan: “It’s your breakfast!  And it’s so happy to see you.”

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Cheng gave me a beautiful gift during dinner – a hairpin and earrings.  I was excited because I learned the word for hairpin a few weeks ago.  Also, it will match my qipao!

After dinner, we biked back to campus to the apartment of a lab mate who said we could play there.  We took basically my usual route to work.  One intersection was a hot mess as always (green light for us, but cross traffic parked in the intersection).  I confidently wove my way through the cars and trucks, only to get to the other side and find that my labmates were still waiting on the other side.  I can’t believe I’m the best at crossing streets!?  I think it’s due to my American conviction that green means go.  

To get onto campus, we went through the northeast gate.  It’s my usual gate, but tonight was definitely the last time I’ll go through that gate.  It’s under construction, so we had to take a detour over a stone path, up and down a few ramps, and through a small forest (only a slight exaggeration).  

Tonight I remembered to bring all the parts of Catan, and finally got to teach them how to play it.  Explaining the rules of Catan to first-timers is a bit of a marathon for everyone involved, even more so in a second language.  But, we made it through.  Cheng and ShaSha were playing together and they made a good run at the win, but I managed to win despite several stupid mistakes (trying to steal Largest Army from no one, forgetting I had a brick port).  

The Service in China is Great, Said No One Ever

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2015 at 10:45 am

Today I had to deal with a new obstacle in my path at work.  Literally.  They’re doing construction on the northeast gate, which is the one I use, and they’re building a brick wall in front of it.  Today I managed to get through, but I might have to plot a new route.

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Cheng had promised to take me to get really good 地三鲜, one of my favorite dishes, and we finally went today.  It was the third floor of a different cafeteria and featured actual sit-down service.  Well, at least the sit-down part.  We waited about an hour for our food.  You know the service is bad when even your Chinese friends are frustrated.  The waiters were straight-up ignoring us!  Once Cheng managed to get a hold of one of them, she asked if fried egg and tomato was really that hard to make.  I’m pretty sure he snapped at her; it was not very enjoyable.  The food was okay, but not worth the wait.  

When we got back to the office, my first Amazon package was there!  I went up to the guard and said, I have a package!  He wordlessly grabbed something off the shelf and gave it to me.  Haha.  They had no way of knowing my name but I’m probably one of two foreign women in the building and the other definitely can’t use Amazon, so it was pretty easy guess.  

When it came time for dinner, my usual dinner buddies GuoYang and Zhao Yan were doing experiments, so Guo Yang (#2) came for me.  I’m pretty sure a week ago no one would have had dinner with me, but he’s gotten really into my English lessons.  He’s mastered “go home you’re drunk” and “you had one job” but he had questions about “nice try”.  I showed him the xkcd comic that brought it all about, and then another one.  


We had to talk through both of them, but eventually he realized they were funny.  We also did “said no one ever”; at first I had a hard time thinking of examples, but then I came up with a good one.  We all like math, I said, so we might say “Math is so fun!”, but then other people probably disagree, so then they would say “. . . said no one ever.”

I stayed until almost 9 again tonight.  I would be sadder about working so late if there were anything to miss about the daytime.  It’s actually nicer once the sun goes down – the gray is less noticeable.  Today was a particularly ugly day; it’s been threatening rain (but rarely following through) for over a week so the sky has been gray forever, but today was a different kind of gray.  The kind of gray that makes me clean my glasses, only to realize the reason I can’t see clearly is not dirty lenses.  

Also today my VPN kept routing me through Saudi Arabia.  Not exactly a bastion of freedom, is it?  

Bad China Day

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2015 at 10:11 am

Today was a Bad China Day.  I woke up and tried to take a shower before going to Mass, but we had only cold water.  At the desk, they said a pipe had broken and they didn’t know when it would be fixed.  What do I do then?I asked, and they shrugged.  

The subway seemed extra uncomfortable today.  I hadn’t taken a shower because of the water situation, but what was everyone else’s excuse?  It felt like it had been weeks since I had last breathed fresh air.  

I left at 8:40 and somehow got to the church at 9:30.  Last week I left at 8:40 and had to take a taxi halfway to arrive on time.  They say that doing the same thing twice and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, but in my experience, that’s just China.

On the way back to the subway after Mass, a guy tried to sell me a turtle.  This guy is always there on my way to and from Mass, carrying a giant turtle by a few strings.  I asked him if it was a pet, and he said he was trying to sell it.  Where did you get it, I asked.  From the water.  What would I do with it?  Put it back in the water, he said.  This sounds like a super easy way to make 3,000元, if you ask me.  He also told me I could release it into the pool at my house, which I obviously have . . . I would have loved to buy the turtle, just to take it away from him.  He stepped on it to show me, I don’t know, how strong it was?  It looked very sad, half-dead really.  

I have to change subway lines at 西直门, where the Beijing North train station is.  I also have to get the physical tickets for all the train tickets I’ve bought online, so I thought it would be convenient to do that today.  Unfortunately, as soon as I swiped my card to leave the subway, I realized that I hadn’t brought my passport, and therefore wouldn’t be able to get my tickets. 

I immediately knew that I had Made a Terrible Mistake.  As this is the train station subway stop, it was absolutely mobbed with people.  The line to get back into the subway was absolutely ridiculous.  I ended up waiting in line for half an hour, which was exceptionally irritating because the cause for delay was the security checkpoint, which is a textbook example of security theater.  (I usually just carry all my metal objects in my hands as I put my bag on the conveyer belt.)  

By the time I got back to Wudaokou, I needed to eat my feelings.  A trip to Coco and Paris Baguette fixed that, and I went back to the hotel for the rest of the day.  A nap, finally getting caught up on my Chinese book, and a little bit of work was just what I needed. 

In the evening, we had an EAPSI pizza party atthe hotel.  We sat outside at the gazebo and just chatted for a few hours.  I love these conversations, sharing funny stories and comparing observations and musing on cultural differences.  We all talked about how different our experience has been from the guy who spoke to us at orientation.  None of us have given talks at other universities, the only times people have left Beijing besides for research trips was one guy who spent the night somewhere while climbing.  We all spent the first week preparing presentations for group meeting that we could have done ahead of time had we known.  Sigh.

Bayern at the Bird’s Nest!

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2015 at 10:51 am

I made my first purchase on 亚马孙 ( by myself today!  I’m buying some gifts for the labmates I’ve become the closest to, and was able to find what I was looking for at reasonable prices on 亚马孙.  They allow you to pay with a [foreign] credit card, and I copied the address of our lab from the invoice that came with the book GuoYang ordered for me, so the two biggest hurdles in online ordering were easily overcome.

The main event of today, though, was definitely the football match at the Bird’s Nest.  I first saw an ad on the subway at the beginning of the month – the poster caught my eye because of the faces of Neuer, Robben, and Müller (stars of the German and Dutch national teams).  As soon as I deciphered the phonetic Chinese names for the teams (拜仁 = Bayern, 瓦伦西亚 = Valencia) and realized that the date fell during my stay in Beijing, I was set on going.  I mean, seeing Luckily, I found a few friends to go with me, and Cheng helped us buy tickets on a second-hand site after the cheapest ones were sold out.  

A slight blemish on my day was the announcement that the Olympic Center subway stop was closed.  Honestly, I had expected it; remember that time I tried to go to Yanji to watch the Olympic torch and all the buses to Yanji that day were canceled?  For some reason, China responds to massive amounts of people trying to go someplace by reducing the availability of public transportation.  

I met Cheng and her boyfriend at Tsinghua and we took a taxi over to a restaurant near the Olympic park for dinner.  We were joined by a friend from California who I hadn’t seen in probably close to a year.  He works for Apple in Beijing and speaks Chinese about as well as me, so we had a nice dinner with a comfortable mix of Chinese and English conversation.

The most memorable conversation topic was, as it often tends to be, “what are we eating?”  For instance, we got a bowl of delicious fried shrimp, which came with a bunch of fried balls.  I tried one, and it was strange – a cube of fruit, breaded and fried, then covered in crispy sugar shell, plus somehow spicy.  I couldn’t identify the fruit inside, but Cheng told me it was “li”.  Pear, I thought, and it seemed about right.  It’s the same fruit as in the tea we’re drinking, she added – “li”.  Plum, I thought; and it made sense because the drink tasted like prune juice.  But wait, these are the same thing!?  Neither Michael nor I believed her, so this led to a 10-minute conversation of plums, pears, 李, 梨, lǐ, and lí.  Supposedly everything was pear.  I guess I’ve just never had pear juice before?  

As we made our way from the restaurant to the stadium, we passed a lot of people selling Bayern merchandise.  (The entire night, there was literally no sign of Valencia other than 11 people on the field.)  I bought a Müller shirt for 80元.  I love that I probably got ripped off and it was still only $12.

When I got the shirt, Cheng told me to check the size.  When I read XL, she said: good, just right for you.  What every woman loves to hear, right?  But it’s true, she knows; here in China I’m a solid XL.  

I was more okay with my body when we came upon a bunch of cutouts of Bayern players, including one where you could put your face.  As I went up to take a picture, the girl before me was posing – well, trying to.  Even on tiptoes, she couldn’t get more than her forehead in the opening.  I started laughing, realized it was mean, and still couldn’t stop.

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We had bought the cheapest tickets – originally 180元 ($30) but resold for 250元.  They were in the upper level, but I thought we had a great view of the field.  

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The game was pretty great – three beautiful goals in the net closest to us (2 Bayern, 1 Valencia) and then Bayern scored again twice after the half.  I got to see Müller score live!  I’d only watched one football game live before, and it was Feyenoord vs. Zwolle, and we were behind one goal and the only goals were in the other one.  So yeah, this one was a bit better :)

The crowd was definitely Bayern friendly (with giant Bavarian flags being passed around the stands and constant cries of “Super Bayern!”), but I was excited to see Valencia score just to keep things interesting.  

It was such a cool night – watching such a great game in such a beautiful stadium with such good people.  

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It’s things like this that really make me appreciate my Chinese language abilities.  This is why it’s so fun for me to travel and live in China, because I can hear about opportunities like this and make them happen.  So glad I noticed that poster in the subway and took a picture!  Although huge credit also goes to GuoYang, who helped me extract the QR code, and Cheng, who actually bought the tickets.  

The air looked terrible as we left the stadium.  The official numbers said it was around ~50 but after a month and a half my eyes know >100 when they see it.  I wonder what sort of clauses the players had for air quality – would they get more money if it was worse, or is there a point at which it would have been canceled?  It’s sad, these athletes’ bodies are like finely tuned sports cars, and breathing the air in Beijing is like filling them with sewer oil.  

I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2015 at 10:24 am

I got my first shipment from 亚马孙 ( today! I asked GuoYang to help me buy this book that one of my students recommended the other day, 藏在这个世界的优美. I looked it up online and saw that it was only 28元 in China, so I decided to just buy it – there’s no way I’d be able to get it for $5 once I left China! I’ve been reading a book in another language every year for the past four years, and I think this might be next year’s book. I still have the second and third parts of the Three Body trilogy left, but I’m not sure if I want to spend 3 years of my life reading them (also they’re bigger than the first one, which is already a challenge for me). This could be a nice change of pace. It’s 330 pages, with lots of spaces and pictures!, so it’s totally doable in a year.

I gave GuoYang 30元 for the book, and he insisted on giving me change. He eventually scrounged up 4元, but then I looked at the bill and saw that it was actually 28.5元, so I gave him back three of the bills. When I use them for my banking purposes, I’m fine with rounding up, but they don’t like it. I tell them it’s a tip, but they protest. I guess they don’t want to come across as greedy, but in the same way I don’t want to come across as stingy, which is how I would feel if I counted out exactly 28元 and 5角. So, I guess we’re stuck doing this song and dance every time I pay them for things.

I worked hard all afternoon on these wrinkling instability derivations. Ugh, so tedious. I’m trying to get from this:


to something like this:


By the end of the day, I was close, except for I have an extra k and n, and My value for A is off by an order of magnitude. I could so use a foosball break right now . . .

After dinner, I convinced a few of the guys to play board games. Then, as I set up the island of Catan, I realized that I had made A Terrible Mistake – I’d brought the plastic bag with the hexes, number tiles, and dice, but forgot the box with the cards in it. Turns out the Chinese also have a way to say “eat your feelings” . . .

We played poker instead. Texas Hold’m (德州扑克), to be specific. They had to teach me, actually – the rules and the terminology. There were a few rough patches – my first time dealing, I turned over the wrong number of cards (and ended up teaching them “you had one job”) and I didn’t know a flush was a thing, so I folded once when I would have won a lot of money (and they learned “fml”). But, somehow I ended up doing alright and winning!

Mabe it was after that time with the flush, when Zhao Yan imitated me saying 哎呀,太麻烦了(ugh, so annoying). I guess this is kind of my thing. I’m really good at picking up on people’s verbal tics, although it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because I often end up adopting them myself. I wonder if people develop these things easier in a foreign language, these phrases becoming a sort of life-preserver to count on when swimming in the sea of another language. My labmates, mostly international students, are just too easy to call out. Anyway, my time has come here. It’s hilarious, though, as soon as he said it, we all knew he was mimicking me. And pretty well, too . . .

We had snacks – warm beer and grape juice, potato chips (which I learned today use a different word for potato, just to confuse me), 辣条 (spicy sticks? a pretty accurate description, actually), and milk-flavored sunflower seeds. The last smelled like something was baking, so I kept getting distracted by the prospect of an oven somewhere nearby.

After the game ended, we sat around and talked a bit longer. GuoYang has been talking about going to America sometime, but today (after he learned we have to pay to download music) he thinks maybe he won’t. It would be too hard to adjust to the US, he said, harder than it was for me to adjust to China. I took issue with this! If, by any miracle, I come across as totally adjusted to life in China it’s because they’re seeing me at the end of over a year in China, during five different trips in three different parts of the country. This knowledge and comfort was hard-won, I assured them. They asked for examples. Without even plumbing the depths of the bathroom situation, I talked about food (hadn’t said the word ‘cheese’ in like a month) and drink (as I sipped on a beer that hadn’t been cold even when I’d opened it), the internet (VPNs are an essential of life here), and customs (the heirarchy! the Chinese way of declining by ignoring!). For the last, I gave examples – the way that people will tell me where to go when I ask for directions, even when they have no idea what I’m looking for or where it is. And the email I sent Prof. Feng, asking for introductions at other universities, which he never responded to. They all nodded; this made sense to them.

I find these meta-cultural conversations very interesting. Tipping is very external and obvious and easy to talk about. Talking about how we talk is difficult. But I took the opportunity to muse out loud . . . I’ve learned some of these customs and do my best to follow sometimes, but my heart and mind are still American. I’m not sure how I come across in Chinese, I told them – too forward or direct, too loud, disrespectful? They said I feel very comfortable to them, but who really knows.

On the way home, I mused further on GuoYang’s waning desire to go to the US because of the adjustment. The adjustment is half of the fun, isn’t it? I’ve discovered things that I like about America, that I didn’t even realize were “American” (ice in drinks!, credit cards all day e’rrday), that I didn’t even realize had alternatives. I’ve also discovered things that I love about other countries, that I didn’t even know were options (German windows, no tipping anywhere else, hair washing in China). I’ve reflected upon myself, learned more about myself, become more myself (the “I will talk to anyone” thing is really a product of China, I think). As my comfort zone has expanded, I’ve realized that fewer and fewer things are actually necessary for me to take with me when I leave home – a towel big enough for my body and hair, prescription medication, a favorite book – and more and more things that my home doesn’t feel complete without – a full set of chopsticks, my Chinese mink blanket. The adjustments I’ve gone through give me confidence that I can cope with future adjustments, which is source of comfort when going through those adjustment periods, even in strange and alien lands like California (true story).

Also on the way home, I made another Terrible Mistake. It was barely drizzling, so I took my awesome rain coat off (seriously, this thing is a biker’s dream! Check it out:)

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A few minutes later, the rain started getting heavier. Of course, I kept getting closer to home so I decided to tough it out. By the time I was in the alley (the last few blocks before the hotel), it was a straight downpour and I had to take my glasses off to have any hope of seeing where I was going. The good news is, I finally got a chance to use the phrase 落汤鸡 (soaked like a chicken in a soup pot).

I spent a few minutes on looking for presents for my three closest friends here – GuoYang, Zhao Yan, and Cheng. GuoYang is easy; I recommended the book “River of Doubt” to him but it’s 100元 here in China – a lot for him but a $15 gift is within my price range. Zhao Yan is the only one who drinks besides me, so I’m thinking a bottle of Fireball or American Honey. Cheng is the hardest – she’s coming to the US in October to do something similar to what I’m doing here, at MIT. What’s something that she should definitely have when she gets to the US? I’m thinking about a baking cookbook . . .

Haha, then I realize: a book, liquor, and baking? Basically my favorite things.

Belated Understanding

In Uncategorized on July 16, 2015 at 9:15 pm

This morning, Cheng helped me buy my Beijing-Xiamen and Wuhan-Changchun plane tickets.  These were the last pieces I needed to complete my Beijing-Xiamen-Wuhan-Changchun-Tumen-Changchun-Beijing route, and just like in the game Ticket to Ride, you don’t get any points if the route isn’t complete . . . so, I’m relieved to have that done.  I don’t have an online bank account in China, but Cheng makes an excellent banker – she pays for things online, and I pay her in cash.  Much better customer service than any Chinese bank I’ve used before, too!

At lunch, the guys tried to teach me Cantonese.  And Chongqing dialect.  I learned one Cantonese phrase (where are you?), and then forgot it.

At dinner, I asked the guys I was with for the name of the guy I had been talking about board games with.  GuoYang, they answered.  I looked at one of them, questioningly.  Isn’t he GuoYang, I asked?  GuoYang, GuoYang, they said.  Clearly there is some difference, but I was not hearing it.  Once we sat down, I handed one guy my phone and asked him to type this second name.  The one I know well is 国洋, and this other one is 郭洋.  GuóYáng and GuōYáng, respectively.

UUUUGGGGH I couldn’t believe it.  (It was right around this time that I taught them “wtf”.)  After a little more thought, though, I realized that this explains SO MUCH.  The second GuoYang isn’t in the circle I socialize with the most, but he’s still around a lot.  I’ve slowly been learning the names of more peripheral people, but his continued to elude me.  Turns out it wasn’t just that no one ever talked about him, it was just that when I heard his name I figured they were talking about the first GuoYang.  

We continued speaking of names.  They are fascinated by the fact that I call my advisor by her first name, Ellen.  They like to repeat their advisor’s names, as just the idea of calling Prof. Cao “Yan-Ping” is hilarious to them.  I knew that the professor-student heirarchy can be pretty strict, but until today I have no idea that the heirarchy among students is so important.  I thought everyone called everyone else 师兄弟姐妹 (lab brother or sister), but actually they use it to address older students.  The very idea of this made me laugh for several straight minutes, it’s just so far from the American way of thinking.  As fourth-year PhD students, Zhao Yan and I are the oldest – the others told me that calling me by my name (马利亚) is actually uncomfortable for them!  I told them that they’re free to call me 师姐 (lab sister) or 马姐 (sister Ma, because “Ma” is my “last name”), but there’s absolutely no guarantee that I’ll respond.  

As I was writing this, I came to another realization, about why I had such a hard time learning Zhao Yan’s name.  He always ate lunch with me, but I only tried to learn two names each meal and somehow never got to him until it was waaay past the point when I felt awkward asking.  Eventually I looked at the names on the door of his office and, by process of elimination, guessed that he was Zhao Yan.  I tried it out one day with 程 and it worked, so that’s how I learned his name.  It was hard, though, because I’d never heard anyone say this name before!  I didn’t know how this was possible, but now I do.  As he’s the oldest student, only the postdocs or the people who just graduated would have called him by his name, and I guess I never witnessed that.  Everyone else calls him 师兄 (lab brother), which never registered to me as a name.  

Before dinner, when GuoYang (the first!) was helping me with [another] computer problem, he saw the 24 pages of LaTeX derivations I’ve been working on.  They all use Microsoft Equation Editor (just threw up a little bit in my mouth) so they were in awe of how nice the LaTeX looks.  They kept repeating, You’re so great at this!, although if I were really that great I would have these derivations done . . .

On the way too and from dinner, GuoYang peppered me with questions – is it free?  How did I learn?  Can you write papers in it?  I love LaTeX – I basically see LaTeX code when I think about math – so I was advocating pretty hard.  After dinner, he asked me to help him get started.  I helped him download MiKTeX and TeXmaker, install them, and create his first document (“hello world”, naturally).  Then I helped Cheng, too.  It took about an hour, but I was really happy to be able to help them with something for once.  I can’t help be needy in most situations here, but it’s nice to have something to give back to them.

Today I learned: So much.  Seriously.  Belated epiphanies, but better late than never, right?

Day Day Down

In Uncategorized on July 15, 2015 at 10:13 am

I had a Skype meeting this morning, so I had a late start to my morning.  I left the hotel around 10 and went on a train-ticket-buying adventure.  Huang Chong told me yesterday where the campus train ticket booth was, so I headed that way.  I wanted to buy three tickets (Changchun-Tumen, Tumen-Changchun, and Changchun-Beijing) but the first two were sold out he told me.  (Sold out!?!  Who the hell is going from Changchun to basically North Korea and has already bought their tickets 3 weeks early??)  I bought the Changchun-Beijing leg easily, though – it’s a 动车 line, the fastest, that just opened within the last year.  

There was another Tsinghua souvenir shop next door, so I stopped by there and ended up getting some gifts, including something nice for Ellen, and 20 more postcards.  I couldn’t help myself, they were so pretty!!  (I later used this story to teach my labmates “Shut up and take my money”.)

I was in a great mood when I got to the office . . . until I discovered I’d lost the train ticket I just bought.  I put it in my passport, and thankfully that wasn’t lost, but it no longer contained a ticket.  Ugh.  (I later used this story to teach my labmates “This is why we can’t have nice things.”)  Anyway, it turns out I should be able to get a replacement ticket at the train station.  I have to go anyway, to get the actual tickets for the other legs (which I ended up successfully buying online), but that adventure will be for another day.

In the afternoon, I met with Li Bo to go over some derivations.  I was simultaneously comforted and disappointed that he had some of the same questions as I have.  It was really helpful to talk through things, though, and we made progress.

One funny thing – we were talking about one equation, and I muttered to myself, 这个我不太懂 (I don’t really understand this).  We speak English when we’re talking math (probably easier for both of us, and definitely easier for me), but this just came out in Chinese.  Bo laughed, and I did too.  I think I have so many ways to say “I don’t understand” in Chinese, and I use them so often, that it just came out.  I don’t understand in Chinese a lot more than I don’t understand in English!  I’ve also caught myself saying 怎么说呢?(How do you say this?) to myself in Chinese even when I’m searching for an English word, because this is also something I just say more in Chinese.  

I went back to work after our meeting with renewed enthusiasm, and ended up staying past 9.  I feel like I got something done today, but all of my labmates kept making comments like, I’ve been working all day and have gotten nothing done.  I was happy to not share those feelings for once . . . During dinner, the guys brought up the English phrase “good good study, day day up”, which is a common, albeit terrible, translation of 好好学习天天向上 (study well, and improve everyday).  We started joking that sometimes it felt like “good good study, day day down”.  I said that the worst are those days where you end up back where you started – 好好学习天天一样 (study hard, every day the same).  We all laughed – this is the life of a grad student . . . 

Today I learned: 

My dining card doesn’t actually have restrictions.  (I was told I couldn’t swipe it from 11:45-12:30).  I accidentally tried to use it within the forbidden time, and nothing happened, other than me successfully paying for my food.  The cards just aren’t that hi-tech, Cheng said, which I should have known.  Apparently it’s more along the lines of, the servers might see my card and tell me that they won’t serve me, which of course has never happened.  Oh well, often I’m ready for lunch by 11:15, so I guess it’s okay.  

The Beauty Hidden in This World

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2015 at 10:12 am

Today was the last day I had volunteered to help at the Aerospace English Summer Camp.  As luck would have it (well, not for her) one of the other teachers called in sick, so I was able to help out with her class.  Her class seemed more talkative, I think.  Also, I have to commend their English naming; one guy said his Chinese name meant “tree”, and my heart sank . . . but then he said, so I chose the name Troy.  Right on!

They started off presenting their ideas for their final presentation on Friday – holographic projection and virtual reality.  To my surprise, neither Obi Wan Kenobi nor the Oculus Rift were mentioned in the presentations.  But there were videos of Stephen Hawking talking about One Direction and of some pretty incredible special effects from the Spring Festival gala, so it worked out.  They were pretty passionate about their choices, but in the end I helped them see that they could combine the two topics into one, something like visualizations of the future.  And everyone was happy :)

I brought my 3D printed brain in today as a fun topic for discussion.  I asked them what it was, how it was made, why it looks like a walnut, etc.  They seemed to think it was pretty cool, although they hadn’t prepared anything about the brain so they didn’t really have the vocabulary for the discussion.

To fill the rest of the time in that period, I asked them about a news article I saw on Baidu the other day.  I often look at the stories on the Baidu homepage, and sometimes understand what’s going, but I rarely see things that relate to me at all.  So when I saw the very distinctive main gate of Tsinghua in one article, I had to read it.  Apparently a guy had put a ring on a drone and was flying it over to the women who were taking pictures in front of the gate, until the guards shut it down and took away his drone.  I thought this would be an interesting topic to talk about (it has it all – science, love, action and adventure!), but the students told me it was all staged – even the guard was fake, they said.  They were trying to go viral, and it worked . . .

We’re allowed to talk about non-science and technology things some of the time, so for the last period I asked them for book and movie recommendations.  The most intriguing book (besides Sophie’s World, which is on my bookshelf at home but I haven’t read yet) was 藏在这个世界的优美 (The Beauty Hidden in This World), written by a Chinese woman who traveled to 80 different countries.    There was only one girl in the class, and she recommended Twilight.  I tried to be encouraging, and to get her to speak more English asked her if she was Team Edward or Team Jacob (Edward, she answered, without hesitation).  So there you have it.

Sarcastic English

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2015 at 10:07 am

Summer has finally started at Tsinghua.  Not just the ridiculous heat (over 100F these few days), but graduation was last weekend and people are moving on.  The graduated students came in today to clean their desks out, and there was a new guy at dinner – an undergrad working in the lab for the summer.

(Undergrad is taking the TOEFL in August.  I asked if he wants to go abroad, and he said America.  Where in America?  MIT, Harvard, Yale . . . . . [long pause] . . . Stanford, of course.  I think one of my other labmates whispered something about it being my school.  He caught on, though, and next said that Stanford was his dream school.  Good choice, kid!)

At lunch, GuoYang was talking about Bruce Lee and made a high pitched noise in an attempt to mimic the sounds he makes when fighting.  I took this opportunity to teach them “go home you’re drunk”.  Between that and “nice try”, eating with GuoYang and ZhaoYan is like eating with two Chinese Martin’s.  This is a great exchange; they’re teaching me technical Chinese and I’ll teach them sarcastic English.

Somehow we got on the subject of driving at dinner.  GuoYang was asking about the driver’s test, which I honestly don’t remember too clearly because I took it 10 years ago.  He then asked how I am at driving.  How does one answer that?  I’ve been driving for 10 years, so I guess I’m alright. In return, I asked him how he is at driving.  

It was another one of those days, those days when instead of eating I mostly pick up food with my chopsticks and fling it all over my clothes.  GuoYang was making fun of me and said, I drive like you use chopsticks – sometimes there are accidents.  Hahaha!

I am always the last to finish my food, probably due to some combination of me talking a lot and the accidents I sometimes have with my chopsticks :)  Today GuoYang commented on how our table was like four simulations, but although the initial conditions were all the same (we got our food at the same time) the results are not the same.  Then we got into a discussion of why the water at the bottom of the watermelon bowl had a striped pattern.  It’s wonderful to realize that nerdiness crosses language barriers.  

As much as I love these meals with the guys, I have lingering questions about why no women eat with us?  Today I invited ShaSha to eat with us, and she seemed to agree . . . then rode over on her scooter and ate by herself.  And I still can’t get over this new information that ZhaoYan’s girlfriend works in the same building (it’s confirmed – I ran into her in the bathroom today) and she has never once eaten with us.  What am I missing here??

After Xu Lei and I set our travel dates yesterday, I spent some time looking at tickets while my simulations ran.  Hunchun is soooooo far away.  It’s an hour and a half beyond the last train stop.  But, looking at tickets makes it feel more real and I am undeniably excited.  Hunchun is the site of my Chinese childhood, where I learned my first words and clumsily learned my way around.  Returning in 2010, I got to see the city with the fresh eyes of literacy, and I’m excited to see what new perspectives I will have this time.  

In Xiamen, my friends were mostly from the university or church, and most of them are young.  It’s been pretty easy to keep in touch with them over the last few years, using some combination of QQ and WeChat.  Hunchun, though, is a different story.  The only young friend I have there is really the son of two of my friends.  We’ve kept in touch online although I think his parents can barely type.  The other people I want to see when I go up there are our DVD salesman, our machinist, our taxi driver, the man who worked on the horse farm, and the old woman who lives by the power plant.  The DVD salesman has QQ and WeChat, but the others . . . I have five-year-old phone numbers for some of them (and in the case of the old woman, only a rough idea of where her house is).  I think the people I’m in touch with can help me get in touch with the machinist and taxi driver, but I have no mutual friends with the man from the horse farm.  

So I think I’m going to have to call this old phone number and say, Hi, it’s Maria, the American, and just see what happens.  I’ve done this before, never after a five-year absence, but after a few months or a few years.  I called up the DVD salesman to say I was in town once and he insisted on having me over for dinner.  Another time, I called some other workers from the farm to wish them a happy new year, and I think I just said 你好 before they said they knew it was me.  

I’m never really sure how memorable I am.  Our interactions were very special to me, and the times I spent in Hunchun have been defining in both my China journey and the rest of my life, but what was it from their end?  Do they think of me often and fondly, or is it more that I’m “the” American to them, easily identified and remembered although not particularly missed?  Does it seem strange, unnecessary to them that I want to look them up every time I make it back up there?  Like, okay, we had a moment but the moment has passed?  Maybe everyone’s just being polite.  I don’t know, but they always make me feel welcomed and missed and loved, so I’m looking forward to being up there in less than a month!