Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘air quality’

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.  

National Museum

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2015 at 10:25 am

We met this morning at 8am to visit the National Museum, a trip arranged by our Chinese hosts at CSTEC (Chinese Science and Technology Exchange Center).  It got off to an underwhelming start, as we waited in line in the hot muggy smoggy weather (temperature over 90, AQI approaching 200) for at least an hour.  But there was AC inside, plus, you know, art and stuff.  

We went through the main painting gallery first – a room full of beautifully-done paintings of either really boring or really terrible things.  Lots of Mao talking at meetings, plus piles of bodies after the Rape of Nanking.  

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From there, we took a tour through the Road to Reconstruction permanent exhibit, which is essentially a documentation of China’s century of humiliation (from the Opium Wars through the World Wars) and their ascendence to prosperity afterwards.  One of my Beijing EAPSI colleagues is absurdly knowledgeable about Chinese history, so we had an excellent guide.  His knowledge was very enlightening and not a little bit humbling.  (I took a class on Christianity in late Imperial China and all I could remember about the Taiping Rebellion was that “a lot of people died”.)  

GuoYang told me I had to see the Song vase, so we almost ran through the ancient China exhibit to snap this picture:

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I’ve been thinking of some other popular English phrases to teach him, so I took this opportunity to introduce “pics or it didn’t happen”.  Nice try, he responded.  Yeah, we really have to expand his vocabulary . . .  He also told me that there’s a Chinese equivalent – 无图无真相.  

We had two and a half hours in the museum, then Mr. Li took us to a Japanese restaurant.  He kept asking if we wanted salmon, or shrimp, or eel, or tongue, and it was never quite clear how much we were ordering.  Answer: a LOT.  One of my favorite things about China is the family-style eating almost everywhere; beyond the comfortable feeling of it, it’s also nice that I’m not limited to one food choice and I can also try “risky” things I might not like without committing to finishing them by myself.  This was individual style, so bereft of that comfort.  We ended up sharing things anyway, and almost everything was good (the crab with mystery green sauce, not so much) and I was happy we each got our own portion of grilled salmon, which was beyond description.  

Everyone else went to Qianmen to shop afterwards, but I was exhausted.  I felt a little lame, but I don’t want to pack my days in Beijing beyond enjoyment, so I’ve given myself “permission” to do one thing each day.  And anyways, I had evening plans.  I slept in the bus on the way back, then had a few hours to rest and journal in the hotel before going out again. 

I had dinner – malatang, a sort of spicy create-your-own soup – with Liu Ying, a friend of a friend from San Francisco.  Turns out her parents are professors at XiaDa, so she grew up there!  She looked at me like I was crazy when I said that one of the reasons I want to go back to Jilin is because they have the best chuar (meat sticks) I’ve ever had, so I decided not even tell her how much better I think our malatang place in Xiamen was than the one we were eating at.  I stand by both proclamations.

After dinner, we went to one of the Chinese Academy of Science institutes for their weekly dance event, but it was canceled for some reason, so she took me to a rooftop bar in Sanlitun.  Because that went so well last time . . . 

But, it was okay.  We drove by Tiananmen and I got to see it all lit up at night!  We went to a salsa club on the top of a hotel.  The music was in Spanish and there were a few songs I knew, and Liu Ying was really good about sending her friends over to dance with me after they danced with her.  But everyone was super good at Latin dances, and I am more a jack-of-all-trades kind of dancer.  I felt like I held a lot of the guys back.  My favorite guy was a really fun dancer, and I enjoyed the three or four times we danced.  He was a little crazy, but he always looked like he was having a really fun seizure.  

We’re on the front end of a heat wave in Beijing, so it was probably 85 degrees without the slightest hint of a breeze.  It was HOT. We also went inside for a while, but they were doing kizomba in there, which is very much sex-with-your-clothes-on (not really my thing).  I felt bad being that girl, but I was still exhausted from the morning, drained from dancing in the heat, and I think I made her leave when she still would have danced more.  As it was, I didn’t get to sleep until after 1.  

冠军! Champions!

In Uncategorized on July 6, 2015 at 10:53 am

I woke up at 5am this morning to watch the USWNT in the final of the Women’s World Cup.  Unfortunately, the game didn’t start until 7am – I had miscalculated the time difference (I think because the previous game was in a different time zone in Canada?  Or I’m just an idiot).  

I was too irritated at myself to fall back asleep, so I left the TV on CCTV5, the sports channel, and watched reruns of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Usain Bolt winning the 4×100 relay!), an interview with a doctor about reducing oil in your diet, and a ribbon dancing exercise program.

I had committed to helping a few days at an English summer camp for rising sophomores in the school of Aerospace Engineering, working on their technical English and presentation skills.  Today was the first day, and we were scheduled to talk about air pollution, so I did some reading while I waited for the game.  It was pretty depressing . . . a lot of really high numbers and pictures like this, which is just about the worst thing I have ever seen.  What have we done to this world?  

The good news about being up so early is that the internet is fast.  At Stanford, the internet is robust enough that I’ve never really sensed heavy traffic, but here at the hotel I am painfully aware of everyone’s else’s browsing/downloading habits.  It’s nearly unusable in the evenings, but mornings are at least not terrible.

The game finally started at 7.  At like 7:03, we got a corner kick and Carli Lloyd nailed a perfect shot into the goal, and I probably woke up my neighbors.  The next goal came so quickly afterwards that I’m not really sure what happened; I was just posting something on facebook about watching the game, which I quickly changed to reference last year’s Brazil-Germany World Cup semifinal.   Serious flashbacks to that day, that joy and that confusion – are they just replaying the same goals over and over, or are these happening live?  

One of my EAPSI friends showed up a few minutes later, and was massively disappointed that he’d “probably missed the only two goals of the game.”  Haha . . . not.  The third goal was the most ridiculous, a lob from just inside center field that somehow went in.  Jesse: “That’s gotta be demoralizing – I love it!”.  After that, we had to wait a few boring minutes before the fourth goal.  Jesse: “At least I got to see two goals.  Haha, who just says that about a soccer game?!”

The worst part about miscalculating the start time of the game was not the two missing hours of sleep, it was that I had committed to being at Tsinghua at 8:30, before the end of the game.  After the Japanese managed to get two past Hope, I was so annoyed at missing such an exciting game.  As it was, we scored again to bring it to 5-2 as I walked out the door, and I ended up getting to see all of the goals.  I was kept up to date via WeChat as I biked to Tsinghua, although nothing major happened.  We won!  Congratulations, team!  


This English summer camp got off to a rough start, because I am an idiot.  (Definitely a theme here.)  I had put the location information, building and room number, into my Google calendar, as is my habit.  But when I got to the building, whose name I had remembered, I had no way to look up the room number.  Nothing Google syncs to my phone, I couldn’t get the VPN to connect on mobile data, I didn’t have the login information for the internet account I’m going to use for the rest of the month, and my own internet account was out of money.  I was actually sitting on the steps outside the building when I learned that we won.  Ugh, what an idiot. 

The students all heard some opening remarks about the purpose of the camp and tips about making good presentations, I guess, and then I was able to get a hold of my contact and find my room.  I’m working with a Romanian Masters student who will be there for the whole two weeks, and we have 12 students.  We did introductions, asking each of them to say their name, their hometown, and what they like to do.  Lots of ping pong and badminton, but my favorite was the guy who said he like to read science fiction and that his favorite book was Ender’s Game :)

We have one guy in the class who is a real character.  We decided to go by English names if they have them, and this guy is named “Ancient”.  In his introduction, he gestured to the two people before him and said that “unlike them, my grades are very poor.”  He ended up being the most active participant in today’s group discussion, which was interesting because I don’t think his English is necessarily the best.  Unlike everyone else, though, he seemed reasonably at peace with the possibility that he was going to do or say something stupid, which in my experience is one of the best things you can do when learning a language.  

A few other conversational snapshots from the class:

  • on the topic of air pollution, I asked if anyone had seen 穹顶之下, or “Under the Dome”, the recent documentary about air pollution in China.  A few hands went up, and I asked them to tell me about it.  Ancient shrugged and said simply, “It tells the truth, so it is forbidden.”
  • when we were talking about biking (perhaps asking about helmet use?  or green transportation?  I don’t remember.), one guy started talking about a bunch of people riding bikes in Poland without clothes.  This was one of those situations where what I thought I heard was so strange that I didn’t dare assume that I had heard correctly.  I felt bad, because he actually spoke well enough but I asked him to clarify four or five times before repeating it back to him.  Yes, something about a naked bike ride in Poland.  
  • I tried to introduce the concept of negawatts, which completely failed, but first took us to a discussion of watts.  I kept saying the word “watt” and “kilowatt”, and my coteacher jumped in with “joules per second”, but we just got blank stares.  Finally, I went up to the board and wrote “1 J/s = 1 W” and everyone immediately “aaah”ed with understanding.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we were doing a summer camp to improve their technical English speaking skills.
  • They have to give presentations every other day on a science or technology topic of their choice.  While brainstorming ideas for these presentations, I said that they could talk about the science in some science fiction book or movie.  三体, for instance, I suggested (this is the Chinese science fiction novel I’m reading right now), and wrote it on the board.  I had told them that I speak Chinese, but maybe they didn’t expect me to be able to write, because they all flipped when I wrote those characters on the board.  Never mind that 三 is literally the third easiest character to write, and 体 was among the first 100 I learned as well.  I felt like the winner of America’s Got Talent or something.
I had lunch with my coteacher.  (He was surprised that I had gotten up so early to watch the game today.  I asked him, if the Romanian women were in the World Cup Final, would you watch it?  “But this is science fiction!”, he responded.)  He’s here writing his Masters thesis at Tsinghua and seems about ready to leave, although he doesn’t until September 1st.  He doesn’t speak Chinese, doesn’t like his project, and his labmates work 12 hour days 7 days a week and he has nothing really better to do than join them.  He remarked incredulously that he had a few friends who were studying Chinese at Peking University and that they love it here.  This made me realize how much different the life of a language student is than a graduate student.  I am so fortunate to have spent my first times in China the way I did, with so much freedom to learn Chinese in the way I wanted, and beautiful places to do it in.  I don’t think I would I have loved China if this had been our introduction, so I guess I can’t really blame him.  In an attempt to point out some good things, I said that China was cheap so it’s easy to “treat” yourself.  Except, apparently China is more expensive than Romania.  (He’s also getting gouged for student housing, paying 80元 per night.)  And he drinks coffee, which is an admittedly huge stumbling block that I just happen to not have.

When I went into work in the afternoon, I found that something must have been percolating in the back of my brain over the weekend, because a few more things made sense.  Eventually I found a minus sign that I’d misplaced, and successfully derived the Euler equations that I had struggled with last week.  Yay!!  

I rewarded myself with a break and went up to the top of the building to take a panorama on a mild pollution day.  According to different accounts, the AQI was either just above 100 (the point at which I generally wear a mask) or around 160 (on the low end of Unhealthy).  

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It was far from the worst I’ve seen (which is over 300) and looked only drab, instead of desolate, but it took a little bit of conscious effort to find the mountains off in the west:

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which had been so clear on the horizon last week:

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Over lunch, I told my coteacher that I think there’s something stifling, mentally and emotionally, about the gray Beijing sky and the way it shrinks your world down – lowers your eyes, restricts your gaze to the things near enough to be seen clearly.  There’s something aspirational and inspiring about looking up to the sky, I think.  Am I just being dramatic?  These pictures make me think not.  Today we’re missing the mountains for the smog; perhaps the forest and the trees as well.  I’m sure that there are long-term physical effects from this pollution, but I think there must be psychological effects as well. 

I stayed late at the office and got lunch with GuoYang and Zhao Yan.  I asked them for the name of 伟花’s “zhāngfu”, a question that was met with blank stares.  (Story of my day . . . )  I tried again: “zhángfu . . . zhāngfǔ . . . zhāngfù . . . “  Finally: “husband!”  “Aaaaaah, zhàngfu!”, they exclaimed.  Yes, that, of course that!  I allowed myself to complain to them a little bit – how was I supposed to get “lùchī” out of “nùchī” but they couldn’t figure out “zhàngfu!” from “zhāngfu”??  They all agreed that it was a bit unfair, but what can I do?  Tones are more important than consonants.  

I think I’ve been a little heavy on the “Chinese is hard” side of things recently.  I generally like to balance it out with some aspects of Chinese that are easy, so I told them that I have pity on students learning the English names for the days of the week and months of the year.  Neither of them could spell February or Wednesday – such horrible words those must be to learn, although I don’t personally remember what it was like.  They agreed, suggesting that English start calling months “Month Number One” and “Month Number Two” like they do in Chinese.  It would be nice, but again, what can I do?

Dat View

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2015 at 10:17 am

The sky was blue today!!!!!

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I feel like I’m a plant, with my physical and emotional well-being completely dependent on the sky.  I was full of energy and couldn’t stop smiling all day.  The people of Beijing are not plants.  They seem to go about their lives without giving the air or weather quality a second thought.  They don’t wear face masks when it’s polluted, and they don’t linger outdoors when it’s nice.  My whole day is different when the AQI is 300 and when it’s 30, from my clothes to my mood. 

 As we got our bikes to go to dinner, I asked if we could get food and eat outside.  At first they were confused by my words; I had said 外面, which means outside but I realized in this context meant off campus.  When I changed to 户外 (outdoors), though, it didn’t seem to get any clearer.  I guess the Chinese are not a big picnic culture . . . takeout is a staple of life here, and I almost tried again with that, but just gave up.  We ate inside.

A similar instance of understanding the words, but not the concept, happened during dinner.  One of the guys asked where I was going back to, and I felt stupid as I kept asking what he was saying.  They all thought I had forgotten these basic words – “where”, “you”, “go”, “return” – but I just didn’t know what he meant.  I’m going back to the hotel tonight and eventually I’m returning to America, but you know all this so why are you asking??  Turns out he wanted to know if I was going back to the office with them after dinner.  Oh . . . then yes.  

As we ate, I mentioned that I had spent Chinese New Year at the home of a friend from church, so one of the guys asked if I am religious.  This led into a discussion of what it means to be “have religious faith”.  He asked if he prays to Buddha before a test, is that religion?  I said, no, that’s superstition.  Huge thank you to Anki, my awesome flashcard program, which had shown me the “superstition” flashcard literally 20 minutes before.

After dinner, we ran into a friend of one of the guys and he introduced me.  I said 你好 and then, as if on cue, his face changed to one of incredulity and he exclaimed that I speak Chinese so well!  I laughed, and said that it always feels funny when people make such comments after hearing me say literally one simple two-syllable phrase.  He defended it, actually, and has somewhat of a point – most foreigners pronounce each syllable like a word, he said (“Ni. Hao.”) or with no tones (“nihao”) but I spoke smoothly and properly (“níhǎo”).  Maybe 你好 is actually a pretty good Chinese shibboleth?


I stayed so late at work that I saw the sun setting out the office window. Cheng saw me staring and asked if I wanted to take pictures. Yes, but the office window is too dirty, I said. She suggested I go upstairs to the top of the building. Um, yes please! She told me how to go up, and I discovered my new favorite place. Our building is 11 stories tall, definitely one of the tallest buildings on campus. What a gorgeous view of the city we have!!


There’s a nice open area up there, too, that seems to just be begging to host a happy hour . . . 

I caught the sunset over the mountains and stayed there until it was all the way behind them, just breathing and smiling.  

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Today I learned: 

I’ve been pronouncing “who” wrong ALL THIS TIME?!?  It’s one of the question words and probably in the first 100 characters I learned.  APPARENTLY INCORRECTLY??  At Mass this weekend, I noticed the priest pronounced 谁 oddly, as “shuí” instead of “sheí”.  I thought it was an archaic pronunciation, or like the way we pronounce 了 as “liao” instead of “le” when we sing.  Or maybe he has an accent?  He has a few verbal quirks, like saying 好 in between pretty much every clause, so I didn’t think too much of it.  But today, when one of my labmates did it, I asked him about it.  Is it an accent, or a regional thing, or some dialect?  No, it’s pretty standard, he said, even the news announcers use it.  I didn’t believe him, but when I got home and looked it up on Pleco, my favorite Chinese app, it lists

shuí: 1. who 2. (used in rhetorical questions) who 3. someone, anyone 4. (used before 都 or 也) everyone, anyone.
sheí: a variant pronunciation for 谁 shuí.


What Do You Do Here?

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Now that I’ve finally got my computer set up and am working, perhaps I should talk a little about why I’m in Beijing?  

The official abstract for my NSF EAPSI grant is: 

EAPSI: Investigation of the wrinkling and buckling behavior of layered soft materials, with applications in the developing brain.

During the third trimester of gestation, the human brain evolves from having a mostly smooth surface to the characteristic ’wrinkled’ appearance of the adult brain. How does this happen, and why does it sometimes go wrong? The mechanics community has been interested in these questions for decades, attempting to model the brain as a thin, stiff, growing layer (gray matter) attached to a thicker, softer layer (white matter). Recent mechanical tests, however, have revealed that gray matter is actually slightly less stiff than the underlying white matter, challenging many prior models and assumptions. Through collaboration with Dr. Feng Xi-Qiao of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, an expert in the wrinkling and buckling of soft films, this project will explore the behavior of thin growing layers on substrates of a similar stiffness. This research will lead to a greater understanding of brain development in light of these recent findings.

For a stiff growing layer on a soft substrate, the formation of sinusoidal waves is expected, while the growth of a soft layer on a stiffer substrate will lead to creases with pinched valleys. The transition between waves and creases happens gradually in the region of interest for brain tissue. Using both analytical and numerical approaches, this research will explore the behavior of soft layered materials with stiffness ratios close to unity. Numerical simulations will be performed in the finite element software Abaqus, using the built-in linear perturbation analysis as well as user-defined material models that simulate volumetric growth.

This was written for lay people (especially the first paragraph) so I’m assuming this is all crystal clear to you, right?

If not . . . Okay, so I’m a mechanical engineer, and I study the brain.  Yeah, it’s weird.  My field, more specifically, is solid mechanics, which is the study of how solids respond to forces (as opposed to fluid mechanics, which is the study of how fluids react to forces).  Even more specifically, I do computational (as opposed to experimental) solid mechanics, which means I make mathematical or computer models of objects in order to predict how they will respond to forces.  Even more specifically, I do computational biomechanics, so the objects I study are biological systems.  And, for one level of specificity beyond that, the group I work in at Stanford focuses on biological systems that grow (add mass) or remodel (change their physical properties).

During my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, I spent four years studying the behavior of engineering materials, like steel and concrete.  These are super important, as we build houses and bridges out of them and stuff.  They’re also fairly simple (well, at least in hindsight).  Under normal conditions, their behavior is well-known and reliable.  

Picture an ordinary steel pipe.  If you compress it (squeeze it from both ends), it will get shorter, exhibiting a linear elastic response.  “Linear” means that if you doubled the load on it (squeezed twice as hard), it would deform twice as much (shorten by twice as much).  “Elastic” means that if you unloaded it (stopped squeezing), it would return to its original length immediately.  Not that you would probably notice – under normal loading conditions steel exhibits small strain deformation, meaning that its length would change so little that we can assume its new length is approximately the same as its original length.  It is also “homogeneous”, meaning that if you cut it into shorter pipes, each of them would behave identically because the material is the same everywhere.  And finally, it is “isotropic”, meaning that if you cut square out of this steel, you could compress it from side to side or from top to bottom, and it would behave the same.

But, I study the brain.  Many biological materials, including the brain, differ from engineering materials in a few major ways.  They are generally not linear, elastic, small-strain, homogeneous, or isotropic.  Instead, they are usually “nonlinear”, meaning that as you compress or stretch them, it may get easier or harder to do so.  They may be “viscoelastic”, which means their response depends on how fast you compress or stretch them (like Silly Putty), or “plastic”, which means they don’t return to their original shape when unloaded (think of a paper clip).  Or both!  They can exhibit large strains.  Squeeze some of the skin on your arm together – if you can reduce the distance between your fingers by half, that’s 50% strain, waaay larger than the 0.02% strain range that engineering materials operate in.  They’re usually “inhomogenous” – your bones, for instance, have different densities throughout, in order to bear the weight of your body most efficiently.  And they’re often “anisotropic” – muscles are a great example of a fibrous tissue, with muscle fibers running along their length because the direction in which they contract.  Finally, biological materials can grow, or add mass.  Steel doesn’t do this – if you have some quantity of steel now, you’ll have the same quantity of steel a year from now.  

All of this stuff makes biological materials more difficult (and more interesting?) than engineering materials.  Just like engineering materials, however, biological materials respond to their mechanical environment – the forces they experience acting upon them.  I’m studying the development of the brain, trying to understand what influence mechanical forces have on the development of the wrinkled shape of our brain.  


A lot of things in computational mechanics start very simply.  Very much like the joke, “assume a spherical cow”, all of my work this summer will likely be on rectangular brains.  This allows us to focus on what we think are the essential characteristics of the brain, at least from a mechanics point of view – there are two materials (a thin layer of gray matter laying on a thicker layer of white matter) and they are connected to each other as they grow.  

Over the last ~30 years of people studying the brain, we thought the thin gray matter layer was stiffer than the white matter.  These equations are fairly easy to solve (on rectangular brains, at least!), especially when the gray matter is a lot stiffer.  When the top layer grows or is compressed (mechanically, the two loadings are the same), the results look something like this, with regular sinusoidal waves.  


But last year, some colleages of mine tested animal brains – literally, got them from a slaughterhouse and poked them with a very sensitive machine to see how stiff they were.  They found two things: First of all, brain is less soft than Jello!  More importantly (although probably less likely to be shared as a fun anecdote at your next dinner party), the white and gray matter are pretty much equally stiff; if anything, the white matter is stiffer.

(My dad asked me why it’s so hard to measure the stiffness of the brain – “Come on, it’s 2015!” he said.  Things like steel or aluminum or even wood are easy to test because you can cut perfect shapes, and you can grab on and pull them easily.  It’s much harder to cut a nice cube or bar out of a slowly disintegrating fresh brain, and harder still to stretch or squish it in some measurable, repeatable way.)

Given this, there are a lot of past assumptions that need to be reevaluated.  For layered materials with an “inverse” stiffness ratio (where the substrate is stiffer than the thin layer), you see patterns more like this, with creases developing under loading:


These two behaviors transition into each other gradually, looking something like this in between:


The brain lies somewhere around here.  My project this summer is to increase our understanding of the behavior of layered materials with inverse stiffness ratios (the 2nd and 3rd pictures), which I would then apply to my research on brain folding.

Bo Li, one of the professors I’m working with, found a paper that’s similar to what we’re hoping to do – they investigated both wrinkles (the first picture) and creases (the second picture) but in a single material, whereas we are looking at two layers of different materials.  I spent the day working through the first part of the paper, making sure I understand what they did and looking for the parts that we will have to change for our purposes.  It was nice to have a very concrete task and get a glimpse of an outcome similar to what we’re hoping for.  


It kind of rained today, which was nice for two reasons.  First of all, the sky had a legitimate reason for being gray, and actually had some cloud-like texture to it instead of its usual appearance, which has all the variety of a concrete wall.  Secondly, rain usually brings cleaner air.  (Which, I can’t help thinking, means that the rain is washing the pollution out of the sky.  It’s a wonder the raindrops don’t burn my skin!)  Look at what happened after Friday night’s storm: 

Screenshot 2015 06 27 16 40 40

Too bad we weren’t outside from 10pm to 1am, when the air was so nice!  I’m hopeful that today’s improvement will last a bit longer . . . 

This evening, I tried to Skype with my Dad but the hotel internet is terrible in the evenings.  It’s kind of absurd to me that I have Skyped with my parents from all over the world, including a “small” Chinese city five years ago, but here in the capital of China in 2015 it’s just too much.  

Today I learned: 

My N100 mask keeps out scents significantly better than my N95 mask.  I bike by a large, open garbage dump on my way to work, and the smell makes me almost throw up every single time I pass it.  I’ve been trying to hold my breath, but I can’t hold it for long enough.  The N100 mask worked well enough that I think I’ll start wearing it, even though it’s too big for my face.  

Chinese Catholic Art

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2015 at 10:52 am

I was woken up by one of the most disturbing texts I’ve ever received, from an EAPSI colleague in Shanghai:

I woke up in the midle of the night to a woman screaming.  Look outside my window to see a man beating up a woman.  I go to the front desk and ask them to call the police.  They call the police and the police “don’t want to get involved”.  Amazing.

I went to 北堂 again today.  I had the route figured out and, feeling healthy, had a bit more pep in my step, so I made good time.  I got to the church at least 10 minutes before Mass started, and was able to stake out a good spot near the front.  This is important because I don’t think the music is in hymnals, just on two screens near the front, which I couldn’t read last time.

The only thing I caught from the homily today was that “we all have our own crosses to bear”. I did find myself wondering what people in the pews were hearing back home, and praying for my country.  A lot of “I’m so sorry, Father”s.  

I’ve written a lot about the Church in China in the past, and most of it holds true here in Beijing.  The main new thing I’ve noticed is the fairly regular occurence of priests or members of the congregation taking Hosts back from people who try to walk away with It.  I think I saw this once in Xiamen, and it was very confusing to me at the time; I only later realized what must have happened.  Maybe we get more tourists at the Beijing cathedrals, who don’t know what’s going on but want to get the snack that everyone else is getting?  I’m not sure, but I’ve seen this happen at least once at each of the Sunday Masses I’ve been to so far.  I am really impressed and gratified by the sharpness of their observation, and their courage in confronting people (gently); as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at my home parish, I know it’s a difficult task for many reasons.  

Last week, I took a taxi home immediately because I wasn’t feeling well, but this week I took the time to look around.  I visited each of the side altars, and was struck by two of them in particular:

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They’re both images of Mary with the child Jesus, but with Asian features and dress.  These aren’t great pictures, but I also bought several prints of each at the religious goods store.  Plus a book on The Art of the Catholic Church in China!

I took my time walking back to the subway as well, and stopped for noodles on the way.  

In the evening, I got a few friends to go to the U-Center for fish.  This was a great choice.  We got one big fish with potatoes and broccoli, plus rice and tea, for the four of us for 100元.  And afterwards I splurged on a kumquat-lemon drink from Coco which was all that I had hoped for, and more.

Today I learned:

You can see a forecast of the pollution at  The next two days are supposed to be more of the same.  I haven’t seen a hint of blue in the sky since last Sunday.  

AQI Apps

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2015 at 10:29 am

I woke up to a flurry of texts in our EAPSI WeChat group (seriously one of the highlights of this experience, sharing our diverse China experiences with 39 other American grad students), comparing air pollution in our various cities – 284 in Shanghai and 349 in Beijing.  

There are several air quality apps available, and I check a few of them.  I don’t know which one this woman in Shanghai is using, but I kind of love it.  In addition to the “air soup” comment, there is a picture of a man wearing a mask next to . . . a glass of wine?  


Apparently this is the suggested method of dealing with it.  This led to my new motto: “Drink up, the AQI is over 300 somewhere.”

One of the apps I use is called Air Quality China.  It offers four monitoring stations for Beijing, with hourly data over the last 24 hours and daily data over the last 30 days.  

Screenshot 2015 06 22 11 27 29

The other one is 墨迹天气, a Chinese weather app.  One of my friends was surprised to hear that pollution changes as often as weather, but really all the weather apps here do pollution, too.  It’s the most aesthetically pleasing weather app I’ve ever seen.  The home screen is a litlte girl dressed for the day’s conditions, with the temperature, highs and lows, current pollution, and tomorrow’s forecast.  

Scrolling down, you can see an hour-by-hour forecast for the next 24 hours as well as a weekly forecast, plus a bunch of other information like what license plates are permitted to drive today, the date on the lunar calendar, fishing conditions, and what kind of clothes and makeup you should wear (true story!!  The answer to the former always seems to be t-shirts, and the answer to the latter (taking into account temperature, humidity, and windspeed) was non-oil-based foundation.)  If you click on the AQI number, it tells you where your current city is ranked among 626 of China’s cities – this morning, we were #619.   

Anyway, I should say that it’s the most aesthetically pleasing weather app I’ve ever seen . . . when the weather is good:

Screenshot 2015 06 22 11 19 13

But this morning the scene looked positively post-apocalyptic.  

Screenshot 2015 06 23 09 16 18

The reading on 墨迹天气 when I woke up was exactly 300, which is the boundary between “Very Unhealthy” and “Hazardous”.  The icon for Very Unhealthy is a full-fledged gas mask, like trench warfare style; later I saw that for Hazardous they don’t pull any punches and just use a skull.  

Gas maskSkull

I laid in bed a little longer, reading those messages and staring out the window in despair.  I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, but now I think some part of my subconscious was waiting for some authority figure to recognize that the conditions outside were terrible and give me permission (or an order!) to not leave the hotel.  Like when I was a kid in Minnesota and we saw the snow built up outside and watched the TV raptly, listening for a school cancellation.  

Alas, none came.  I got up, put on my big girl pants and my face mask, and biked to work.  I saw, like, maybe eight people wearing masks all day.  But I also saw two people jogging, which just . . . what?!  There is no way the overall effect of that activity is positive.

I even wore my mask when biking to lunch.  The lab window was open all day, so it’s really all an exercise in futility, but I do what I can.  I asked one guy if he ever wears a mask, and he said “you get used to it”.  There’s something powerful and sad in that statement.  Powerful because, what an incredible machine the human body is, that it can take particulate matter as input when expecting a pleasant combination of oxygen and nitrogen, and still function normally.  Sad because, 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.

I’m still feeling 20% nauseous 80% of the time, so I picked at my lunch.  

On the way home, I saw out the window a worker squatting on top of the next building over, welding.  The light is so distinctive, it immediately caught my attention.  He was holding his hand up in front of his face, quickly lowering it and raising it again to ‘protect’ his eyes.  And immediately, I’m back at the farm, watching the workers weld rebar.  I remember the day Huo JieKuai repeatedly refused my offers to get him a welding mask, and came to work the next day with horribly sunburnt eyeballs.  

One of [the many] ways in which China seems like a paradox to me is the attitude towards health.  I read a lot of China news, and there’s so many stories about this animal being poached or that animal being driven to extinction because of the Chinese demand for one of its body parts for traditional medicine.  There are also stories about the growing demand for organic or, at least, trustworthy food sources after incidents like the melamine scare of 2008.  My roommate suggested I buy fish oil pills to China if I had any old people to visit; tourists to the Bay Area always visit Costco or GNC to buy quality supplements in bulk.  No meal with Chinese people would be complete without being gently forced to eat something because “it’s good for your body”.  My life in China is one of constant chiding about my love of ice water, which is apparently terrible for you.  

But, at the same time . . . the official pronouncement of today’s air quality is that it is Hazardous, masks and air purifiers are Necessary, outdoor sports are Not Suitable, and open windows are Not Recommended, but 99% of what I saw was no masks, outdoor activities as usual, and “open ALL the windows!”.  Smoking, despite a June 1 ban in public places, is still huge.  Welding masks and other basic safety precautions used in American machine shops were scorned.  

Upon further thought, I realized that this is probably no different than the hypocrisy of American attitudes about health.  We demand the best health care but don’t generally take the proper preventative measures.  I think tanning bed use is still depressingly high, and most Stanford students don’t wear helmets while riding their bikes.  

I think we are all selective about the things we worry about, and the ways we feel capable of action.  In China, there seems to be a high value on traditional medicine and ways of eating, but these traditional beliefs don’t seem up to the challenges of modern China, with 1.3 billion people competing for these scarce ingredients and some of the worst air pollution in the world.  In the US, we place our trust in technology and reactionary medicine, and undervalue preventative measures.  

After work, I biked to the U-Center at 5 to meet Hannah, another EAPSI fellow.  My work chair is broken in 3 places so I needed to invest in some pillows, and she was looking for a wallet.  I bought an adorable and super squishy stuffed elephant, and then we stopped at Paris Baguette.  I’ve been a somewhat vocal critic of eating American food in China, so it was with some self-loathing that I did this.  But my reasoning is solid: American food in China is generally sold at American prices and is not as good as American food in America; while Chinese food in China is both way cheaper and way better than both American food in China and Chinese food in America.  I try to enjoy what I have, when I have it.  

With that said, I haven’t been hungry in a few days and I’m trying to give my stomach what it thinks it wants if it will agree to then eat it.  So I bought a garlic baguette, a cream-filled donut, and egg tarts (which aren’t even American, they’re Portuguese and imported so long ago they’re essentially Chinese).  And I ate, and my stomach was reasonably happy about it.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I learned:

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

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

One Shade of Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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and this was on the walk home as it rained:

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

Orientation Day 3 – Forbidden City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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