Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘America’

Privilege and Discrimination in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:)

IMG 2336

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.

Americans Can’t “Can’t Dance”, Chinese Can’t “Can’t Sing”

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2015 at 10:45 am

After a string of early mornings (5am, 7am, and 6am) I got to sleep in today!  It was glorious.  But then it was hot when I biked into work :-/

I had Hainan chicken rice for lunch – probably the best thing I’ve eaten in the cafeteria, and the cafeteria food is actually really good here.  Part of it could have been that I had really low expectations – I thought Zhao Yan told me it was 酸 (suān, sour), but he actually said 蒜 (suàn, garlic).  I was pleasantly surprised :)

As we were eating, a woman walked by us wearing a dress with little pretzels all over it.  Ugh, China, it’s hard enough for me to live here when everyone is in cute dresses that they don’t sell in my size, but a pretzel dress???  That’s a low blow.  As bad as the pineapple dress I saw when we shopping a few weeks ago.  It’s like meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife, and all those other terrible things Alanis sings about.  

I asked Cheng and Zhao Yan what kind of music they like to listen to, and Cheng said, stuff like Domino, that’s happy and makes you want to move.  I asked her if she likes to dance, and both of them said they can’t.  They don’t know how, they’ve never been to a club, and they feel awkward because they don’t know how to move.  I think this is so interesting.  In the US, it seems like very few people “can’t dance”.  Clubs and bars are a part of life, and eventually most people figure out some way to move their bodies to music, at least when forced to by social conventions, like weddings.  In China, though, singing is kind of like this.  Everyone can sing, perhaps not well, but karaoke is such a staple that no one would straight up refuse to do it.  

In my opinion, though (as a lover of both activities!) that it’s not so much that people “can’t”, but that they “won’t”.  Most people dance a little awkwardly, and many people don’t have beautiful voices.  You either forget this and enjoy yourself, or stay on the sidelines.  In the US, it’s acceptable to “can’t sing”, but not as much “can’t dance”; in China you can 不会跳舞 but you can’t 不会唱歌.  Goal for the next few weeks: take Cheng dancing. 

I asked my labmates if they would help me translate the abstract of my last paper into Chinese, and they were confused as to why I wanted this.  I’m learning a decent amount of technical Chinese (today: boundary conditions, initial conditions, equilibrium equations, gradient, derive, and partial derivative) but I still can’t really explain my research to non-engineers.  I wish I could do that in Chinese like I can in English – is that too much to ask?  I asked them if their parents know what they do, and GuoYang told me he tried explaining it to his dad when he was learning about finite elements in college.  He told his dad that, if you have a cantilevered beam and bend it, I can tell that the highest stress will be right where it’s attached.  His dad responded, Even I know that!  I don’t that he tried anymore after that, haha.  

I left the lab at 8:45pm.  At home I almost never stay this late – I either go home to make dinner or have some event with free food.  But here, I get lunch at work, don’t have anything to do at home like clean my apartment, and have no commitments, social or otherwise.  So I find myself regularly staying until 8 or 9.  When I left, I found myself thinking about how I could use a cold drink – milk tea, of course, not beer.  Sometimes I feel reluctant to get Coco, as if I don’t deserve it or something, but usually convince myself to stop by.  It’s a $1 indulgence that brings me so much pleasure, and it will not be available to me for much longer!

A friend of mine from Stanford arrived in Beijing last night for a several-week-long conference.  I got a WeChat message from her shortly afterwards:

So, I’m experience something weird.  My hotel has internet, but I can’t connect to facebook OR my Stanford email.  Is that a thing?

Haha, yeah, it’s very much a thing.  That’s got to be a rough introduction to China if you don’t know it’s coming.  I wonder if she knows she has to bring her own toilet paper to the bathroom . . . maybe I should compile a list for situations like this.  


Today I learned: 

“Dog paddle” is an international concept.  Zhao Yan and 国洋 were talking about swimming, and 国洋 said he could 狗刨.  I recognized the first word as ‘dog’ and immediately knew what he was talking about.  

“Spherical cow” is not an international concept.  I showed them my explanation of mechanics, and they had a lot of questions about why the cow was round.  

You can send postcards without having to pry international postcard stamps from the hands of a stubborn post office worker!  I paid the postage and the guy just stamped them and said that was okay.  The second batch of postcards, 14 of them, went in the mail this morning!

Birkenstocks and sandals like that are called 人字拖, because the straps look like the character 人.

Learning to Toast

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2015 at 11:16 pm

I spent 7 hours at karaoke today with my labmates!  A very traditional 4th of July activity, right?

I sang a lot of English songs – Telephone, Call Me Maybe, My Life Would Suck Without You, Rolling in the Deep (a request), I Will Always Love You, Domino, Thrift Shop.  Then I wanted to introduce them to some country music, so I did Fastest Girl in Town by Miranda Lambert.  It was so strange to watch that music video in Chinese, knowing that Chinese eyes were also watching it.  There were guns . . . 

I also sang Southern Comfort Zone by Brad Paisley and Carolina by James Taylor.  We have a lot of wistful songs about home, don’t we?  I almost did Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel, but I didn’t want my labmates to think I wanted to be somewhere else.

But Southern Comfort Zone really did seem very poignant today.  I have walked the streets of Rome, and I have been to foreign lands.  I definitely know what it’s like to talk and have nobody understand (like, that happened last week).  I’ve been to some amazing places and had some incredible experiences, but I also love the comfort of home.  

I also sang basically my entire repertoire of Chinese songs.  It’s not a ton, as potential candidates have to meet several requirements – I have to like the song, it has to be within my range, and the words have to be relatively easy.  I sang 人间、日不落、桃花朵朵开、and 改变自己, but it was 遇上你是我的缘 that everyone exclaimed over – I think it might be a Western song (either Xinjiang or Tibet) and no one was expecting me to sing it?

YiZhou sang in Korean, and apparently everyone can sing in Cantonese.  (This is a major headache for me, as almost all karaoke lyrics are in Traditional Chinese characters already; when I’m both looking at and hearing words that are almost, but not quite, familiar to me in a second language, I just want to switch off my brain.)  I further contributed to the language potpourri by singing Corre in Spanish, which I was pleasantly surprised to find when scanning through the songs.  

The other 6 hours when I wasn’t singing, I watched my labmates and took notes of songs that I liked.  There were an incredible number of sad songs – probably half of them had someone actively crying in the music video.  The best example of this is 童话, in which music video a guy sings to his girlfriend as she dies of lung cancer, promising that they’ll live happily ever after like in a fairy tale.  In the US, where it seems like getting people pumped up or dancing is the standard by which karaoke is judged, you don’t sing songs like this, but in China it’s a karaoke standard.  My favorite guitar songs are mostly sad drinking a songs (a category in which country music excels), so this is right up my alley.  It’s like I’ve finally found my people – the ones who will watch you sing sad song after sadder song without wondering if you’re suicidal.  

When our time was up at 5pm, we went to dinner.  We biked through Tsinghua’s campus to a 串 place near the West Gate.  串, or “chuar”, is basically like the Minnesota State Fair – everything skewered and cooked on a stick.  We got chicken wings, lamb meat, cow tendon, and fried bread on sticks, plus a mysterious (but delicious) bowl of black noodles, roasted eggplant, and edamame.  

I had told them I eat everything but 肠 (intestines) and bitter things.  I hadn’t really foreseen  them ordering tendon, but it was actually better than what I expected.  (When I commented thus – perhaps I just said it was “good” – we ended up ordering more, haha.)  Later, they asked why I don’t like intestine, and I said it was too chewy.  Tendon can be, too, but this was prepared in a way that wasn’t so much.  “Transversely isotropic”, GuoYang commented, in perfect English.  That was exactly it – tendon, like muscle, is transversely isotropic, with different material properties in one direction than in the others (it’s quite strong in the fiber direction, but the fibers are only loosely connected to their neighbors).  This tendon had been cut through the fibers, so the loose connections between the fibers came apart easily in my mouth, avoiding the dreaded interminable chewing of intestine.  I started laughing when he said this, though, which made him think he had spoken incorrectly.  No, I told him, that’s exactly how I would have explained it to friends back home (if they were nerdy in the same way that I am), but it’s so strange to have these guys produce perfect English technical vocabularly when 99% of our interaction is in Chinese.  He later said the word “morphology” in a different conversation.  I guess it’s like my vocab was when I was living on the farm – mostly based on a 500-word picture dictionary for children, plus construction terms like “weld”, “backhoe”, and “rivet gun”.  You learn what you need to know!

I carry around a little notebook that I bought the first week, and throughout the day scribble down new words, notes for my journal, names, etc.  They’ve all noticed it, because it usually comes out as a preface to a question I’m going to ask.  During dinner I showed JiaWen all the words I’d written down in my notebook, from 特征值 (eigenvalue), which she taught me yesterday, all the way back to 微米 (micron) and 尿布 (diaper) from the visiting American professor.  When we got to those, she said, I think your Chinese and his are pretty much the same level, right?  I agreed with her, but commented on the different ways our language levels are perceived because he looks Asian and I don’t – his level was described as “一般” (average, or half), while they say mine is 非常不错 (extremely not bad) or something like that.  A few of the guys leapt in to my defense, to say that I speak better than him.  One of the things that makes Chinese easy to learn in China is the absolute, unconditional encouragement you get from Chinese people on your progress.  But, I said, you don’t really compliment people on their language abilities once they really get good enough.  I don’t even think of complimenting most of my international friends at Stanford, any more than I would do so to a native speaker, because that’s what they sound like.  As long as I get told my Chinese is great, I know it’s only good.  

We had ordered a few bottles of Tsingtao beer, which we drank from small glasses (about 2-3 times the size of a shot glass).  Before long, the toasts started.  ZhaoYan stood up, said some nice words about America’s Independence Day, and we clinked glasses.  I sought out everyone else’s glasses, clinked with them, and then drank.  This is not how you do it in China, Cheng kindly told me – in China, toasts are one-on-one, not communal.  Oops!  In the US, I said, we usually do group toasts, so I did one as an example and everyone drank, but then we returned to the Chinese model – ShaoZhen and GuoYang toasted me, and I returned the gesture and toasted each of them.  

When I studied Chinese in Xiamen, I took classes like 口语 (oral Chinese), 听力 (listening), and 报刊 (newspaper reading), but I’ve long maintained that these are not sufficient for a holistic Chinese education.  I would like to see classes in four main areas which have a huge impact on the quality of one’s life in China: ordering food, singing karaoke, getting mad, and toasting.  The whole lab is going to dinner after group meeting on Friday in celebration of the three students who are graduating, so I better start preparing some toasts now . . . 

When you’re toasted, I was told, you make the other person very happy if you drink your entire glass. I can just drink a shot in one mouthful, but these glasses are way too big for me.  The girls, Cheng and JiaWen, agreed with me, but none of the guys seemed to have a problem at all.  We decided we’re going to write a paper on how men drink so fast.  It would go well with the visiting professor’s research on urination!  

Someone asked me how old I am – apparently the oldest in the room.  This makes me their 师姐, they explained – it’s something like “older lab sister”.  I love this custom in Chinese, to address members of very close groups with family terms.  I first experienced it in church, which was familiar because we also call fellow Catholics “brother and sister” in the US.  But while I feel like my labmates at Stanford are like brothers, I still call them “labmates”.  Here, though, these guys are my 师弟 and 师妹.  

I treated everyone to dinner.  I think I was pretty awkward about it, but 请客 (treating) is a complex affair in China and friends have a history of sneaking off and paying before I even realize what’s going on.  (For example, I still have no idea how karaoke was paid for or what it cost.)  So after we ordered, I announced that I was going to pay.  I got away with it with only moderate protestations and last-ditch attempts to pay the cashier that I was easily able to override.  Dinner for 6 was just under 500元, or about $80.  That’s a great price for a wonderful day spent with these guys outside of work!  It’s amazing – it’s almost four times what I paid last night for the sangria and various taxis, but I don’t mind spending money on friends and good times, while getting cheated even out of $3 is absolutely infuriating.

In a very bittersweet revelation, I also found out that I’m going to be saving about 200元 this month.  ShaoZhen, my office mate, main lunch buddy, and the first guy whose name I learned, is leaving on Monday for an internship in Zhejiang and won’t be back until after I leave.  The good news is, he’s going to let me use his internet account since he won’t be here and I won’t have to worry about stealing someone’s precious allotment of internet.  

That should save me 10元 a day . . . but ShaoZhen is leaving!  My friend circle just got a little bit smaller.  I was also not prepared to say goodbyes this early.  I’m really bad at sharing my emotions in Chinese, so I’m even worse at goodbyes in China than in the US.  I said that I had enjoyed getting to know him thanked him for all of his help, and wished him a good experience in Zhejiang.  Then I said, We Americans usually hug goodbye, but I know that you guys don’t have this custom, so . . . We shook hands, before everyone else told him to let me hug him.  It was a good hug, actually.  A lot of Chinese people don’t seem to know how to hug, so sometimes they try to go left, but he went right.  Goodbye, ShaoZhen!

As we biked back to the Tsinghua campus together, I biked next to GuoYang and we talked.  He has probably the most similar personality to mine.  We both tease people a lot – he was the one who asked me if I was really a mechanical engineer when I didn’t know how to operate the kickstand on my bike the first week.  (It’s a complicated kickstand, okay??)  He said, I figured you could handle it.  I, in turn, have been giving him a hard time about his Chinese, haha.  (He didn’t know a song by 王菲, the most famous female Chinese singer, so I’m not even sure he’s really Chinese.)  But, he told me seriously, he’s been learning from me about how to learn a language: carrying a notebaook around, reading a book in another language every year.  I was so flattered by this!  Now I’m trying to think of recommendations of English books for him – he especially likes history and culture.  

Another aspect of this perfect day – it rained through most of the day, but we avoided it perfectly during either karaoke or dinner.  Hopefully this means another few days of clear skies!

Today was not the first Fourth of July I’ve spent in China – 2008, 2010, and now 2015.  It was also not the most traditional (in 2008, we put on an amazing fireworks show at the farm and ‘barbecued’, although the meat was a goat we slaughtered).  And it was not the most beautiful (in 2011, we rented a boat and went around to some deserted island’s around Xiamen).  But this one deserves some sort of superlative . . . Today felt pivotal, like it was really the point at which we transitioned from labmates to friends.  

Yeah, I’m definitely leaving a part of my heart in Beijing.


Today I learned: 

I cannot sing Shakira’s La Tortura without someone to sing Alejandro Sanz’s part.  Also, all of Lady Gaga’s music videos are super weird.  

How many Tsinghua graduate students it takes to figure out a cell phone plan – apparently 5.  My cell phone plan was, and still is 128元, which is about as much as I pay in the US!  I’m not sure how this simple transaction is beyond my language abilities, but it was some comfort that it took literally all five of my friends half an hour to help me put money on my phone account.  

Americans Throw the Best Parties

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2015 at 10:31 am

I went in to work for a half day before going home to get ready for the evening’s event – “a celebration of the 239th Anniversary of our Independnce Day in honor of America’s National Parks” at the US Embassy in Beijing.

A few of us met downstairs for pictures (by this beautiful pagoda behind our hotel)



then hopped in taxis to go to the embassy.  Well, at least that’s how it was supposed to go.  In reality, I spent an hour hailing three taxis.  This was using a combination of three apps, plus all 20 arms available to us.  I got the first one almost immediately using 快的, a taxi-hailing app, which lulled me into a false sense of securing.  My next 20 requests on the app, including ones for the more expensive 专车, were ignored, and we couldn’t get Uber China to accept any form of payment we had available to us.  We came upon a driver taking a water break next to his taxi and convinced him to take another group of passengers.  Finally, one of the guys hailed a taxi across the intersection . . . just as my last request on 快的 was accepted, with a driver on his way to get us.  Ugh.

It worked out, because our contact who gave us the details for the embassy party was wrong on over half of the information.  Yes, we had to bring our passports and dress nicely (common sense also suggested as much), but there was no need to leave electronics at home (you could easily check them at the door), or print off the invitation (not surprisingly, a printed version of a poorly-scanned invitation without a name on it does not suffice to get you in the door of the US embassy), or arrive 45 minutes early.

I’d been to the embassy twice before, but today was different.  We were greeted by a good number of American flags, a miniature Lincoln Memorial, and patriotic music playing as we waited in the reception line.  We shook hands with Admiral Adrian Jansen, the defense attaché; Ambassador Max Baucus and his wife Melodee Hanes; and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, and were graciously welcomed by them to “America”.

And goodness, did it feel like America.  We were blessed with another (!) gorgeous day – warm bordering on hot, but with perfectly blue skies above.  The grounds were clean and well-kept, there were myriad buffet lines that included things I hadn’t eaten in a month like cheese and salad, there was a live bluegrass band inside – and in the bathroom, the toilet bowls had so much water in them and there was toilet paper on the stall wall.  I know, right?!

The theme of this year’s party was America’s National Parks.  It was a pretty fun theme.  There were giant painted fabric images from some of our most famous parks, including a giant Mt. Ranier.  Some of the food – a make-your-own trail mix stand and a s’more tent! – were also outdoor- and camping-themed.

I went in every buffet line.  No regrets.  Those key lime pies, man!  It gave me something to do while we were waiting to take a picture with the ambassador.  (No electronics were allowed inside, at least not for lowly students like us, so I’ll have to post the picture when I get a copy.)

After the welcoming address by the ambassador (in which we learned the real reason for this party being on the 2nd – it’s their anniversary!), I went to explore the grounds a bit.  I ended up at the Hawaiian luau, sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, who recently opened a direct flight from Honolulu to Beijing.  I sat next to a sweet woman from the airline, who showed me how to make a crown of flowers as we listened to a Hawaiian band and watched the dancers.  They had all been in Hawaii that morning – including the flowes! – and it seemed so incredible that they were here in Beijing tonight.  It’s funny, I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’m sure it’s a bit different from the parts of the US that I’m used to – but when you’re far from home, anything that is closer to home starts to feel more like home.  And so I loved my time in Hawaii.

IMG 2227

Then I went next door, to a big room with a band playing – the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia, and they were great.  Before too long, people were swing dancing.  None of the guys I was there with would dance with me :( so I grabbed the two other Beijing girls and made them follow.  I also asked one guy to dance, but most of the guys seemed more focused on their beer than dancing.  (The beer was good, brewed locally by a bunch of expats.)  Other Maria got to dance with the Ambassador for a few minutes!

As the party would down (around 9pm; early, but later than the official time of 7:30 at least!), I ended up talking a man from Denmark.  He was the head of their diplomatic envoy tonight, as the ambassador was out of town – I found this out because I was amazed that he was able to keep his cell phone.  We talked about the Little Mermaid, New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, the EAPSI program, and the other places I’ve lived in China.

It was such a great party – the setting, the food, the people, the activities, the dancing.  I complimented the ambassador’s wife and she said, “Of course!  We’re Americans, we throw the best parties.”  Pretty much.

As we left, a Chinese man was coming in, carrying a bucket and a broom made out of straw tied together.  It was a reminder that we were leaving America and going back to China . . .

Outside, a friendly Australian soldier gave us a bar recommendation in Sanlitun, a nearby part of the city, and we got cabs to head over.  One guy took a cab home, and I thought about going with him – go home, write about the night, and get to bed at a decent hour for work tomorrow.  But no, I thought, I didn’t come here just to write about China, but to live it.  We’re all dressed up, no one’s working late tonight, and we’re already out in Beijing – let’s see where the night goes!  Yeah, that ended up being a terrible decision, as the night went straight downhill from basically that point.  Oh, hindsight . . .

We ended up at Fez, a rooftop bar in Sanlitun.  The sky was perfectly clear and the moon was absolutely brilliant, so the atmosphere got top marks.  Unfortunately, a few of the EAPSI guys took advantage of the setting to smoke.  Seriously, we finally get some nice fresh air and your first instinct is to light up a cigarette??  I’ve never really understood smoking, but I do get why people smoke when they drink – a lot people do stupid shit when they’re drunk.

And then it got worse.  We ordered a giant bowl (5L) of sangria for the 10 of us.  It was 700元, so around $12 each.  A bunch of people chipped in 100元 bills, and the waiter walked away.  A few minutes later, he came back – two of them were fake, he said.  He produced two bills, which were indeed fake, and asked for real bills.  I wasn’t witness to this exchange, unfortunately, but the guys at the other end of the table gave him two new 100元 bills.

Ugh.  This is just the worst.  Our money was good; we were all given stacks of hundreds when we arrived, courtesy of the Chinese government, so where would we have gotten fakes from?  But of course you can’t argue after they’ve made the switch – the bills they presented us with were undeniably fake and we couldn’t prove that the ones we had given them weren’t.

We were warned about fake bills during orientation, and in the context of a scam where taxi drivers will take your hundred and return a fake one to you, demanding that you pay with good money.  Then the first week, we had it happen to us in a restaurant.  We paid again, but later some Chinese friends told us that you should always follow the waitresses to the cash register to make sure they don’t pull a fast one on you.  I should have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t.

I usually get mad at myself when I make decisions that cost me money, but what was my mistake here?  Being insufficiently paranoid?  Not assuming that everyone is out to get me?  So I’m just angry at the bar.  I also just can’t believe that they had the audacity to claim that we had given them, not one, but TWO fake bills.

The night had lost its charm for me, so once the sangria was done, a few of us left to get a taxi back home.  Sanlitun is a bar area, so there were lots of taxis around – but it’s also an area that’s very popular with foreigners and expats, so most of them were trying to take advantage of the drunk and/or ignorant.  We walked up to one taxi that was parked in the intersection, and I asked him to take us to CUMTB, where we’re staying.  He looked me up and down and said, 150元.  I actually laughed in his face – I couldn’t help it, the fare would be about 60元 on the meter and we all knew it.

Walking on, we started getting targeted by black taxis.  These are illegitimate taxis, just guys with cars who buy red lights to put in the front window to signal that they’re available.  We had also been warned about these during orientation – “never get in a taxi if the driver speaks English”.  They really obviously target foreigners; I hadn’t seen a single one until we found ourselves in Sanlitun at midnight trying to hail a cab.  One thing I will say, they were all on the same page when it came to the bogus fare they wanted to charge – everyone quoted me 150元.

It took us about an hour before we finally got a cab.  He used a meter, and the fare was 60元.  We got home a little before 1.

What a day.  Thinking of the party at the embassy just puts a smile on my face, but the rest of the evening was a rude reintroduction to China.  Thinking about it now, I realize that we saw just about every scam that we were warned about during orientation.  I guess I should be glad that no one tried the tea ceremony scam on us; two out of three was bad enough.  Never again, Sanlitun.

Location and Identity

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2015 at 10:41 am

I went shopping with the other Beijing EAPSI women today.  We’re going to a 4th of July party at the US embassy on Thursday, and the guys got suits made so . . . the stakes have been raised.  We actually had a decent amount of success – one time I even had to tell the shopkeeper that a dress was too big!  This had never happened to me before in China.

I bought a few dresses and some cute cards.  They had pretty scenes on them, along with “recipes”:

Travel recipe
there are a lot of things that we canlearn through
traveling to different places experience
culture and your information

Reading recipe
in today’s world,
training and learning do 
not stop when
we finish schoolthey
must nowcontinue
throughout our working lives

Shopping recipe
use a shopping list
you also need to think about what you
can afford to have

Sleep recipe:
i spread my wings and i’ll learn how to fly
wanna feel the warm breeze
sleep under a palm tree

The last one was my favorite, because it is literally some of the lyrics from “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson.

About halfway through, I started noticing my own behavior and seeing in it a mirror of the behavior I see around me.  Chinese people are beyond generous with the people in their ‘inner circle’ (family, friends, colleagues, etc.), but people on the outside of this circle are really not extended any basic courtesy.  I think in the time I’ve spent here, I’ve internalized this attitude more than I’m comfortable with.  In Chinese, it’s easier for me to be demanding, dismissive, curt.  Even five years later, it’s an easier skin to slip into than I realized.  

It’s a difficult question for me, how to find a balance between assimilation and authenticity?  If I could, I would remove any trace of an accent in my Chinese, remove any indication of my American-ness.  There’s much that I admire in Chinese culture and want to make “mine”, most especially the incredible generosity among friends.  I have enough relativism in me to know that Chinese behavior towards strangers is “rude according to Americans”, not “rude”, but . . . I’m an American.  Should my behavior be governed by identity or location?  A bit of both, no?  I don’t quite know what the test is, but I think it comes down to a comparison of values.  When it comes to food, for instance, I go with location: my gastronomical repertoire has increased markedly because I value “accepting gifts graciously” over “Americans don’t eat that”.  And in public transportation, “getting on a bus at some point this week” does outweigh my American belief in “queueing patiently”.

In dealing with shopkeepers, it’s something like “acting less obviously foreign” vs. “recognizing the people I’m interacting with as human”.  The former (besides being a hopeless cause) is simply not worth sacrificing the latter.  

So I started to make a conscious effort to look people in the eyes, smile, say ‘thank you’.  I know that it’s super American to say thank you so much, but I can’t hide my foreignness in my outward appearance, and maybe I shouldn’t try to hide some aspects of my culture any more than the color of my skin and hair or the shape of my face. 

The Language Game

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2015 at 10:38 am

Today was a pretty good day.  I finally mailed the first batch of postcards (the hotel staff “doesn’t do that” and the guy at the campus mail room wanted me to fill out a form for each of the 22 postcards with their intended destinations).  I bought an awesome bike raincoat that I’ve been eyeing since I got here; it covers all the way over my bike basket in the front, protecting my legs and the contents of my backpack, all while allowing a refreshing breeze to cool me while biking.  I couldn’t do laundry, though, because it was supposed to rain today.  (Heaven help us if we’re waiting for sun; I haven’t seen that since last week.)  

I went into Tsinghua for the weekly seminar.  The first speaker was an American professor, and I got specially introduced to him before the talk.  Like the rest of the event, this exchange was a slightly awkward game of language tug-of-war.  

There are so many factors at play in a situation like this.  First of all, we have to start with outward appearance.  He’s of Taiwanese ancestry – I’m not quite sure of the distance, but he was born in the US.  Basically, he looks Chinese and therefore, in China, is expected to speak Chinese like a native.  I very much do not look Chinese, and thus no expectations are placed upon my language abilities; anything I do is above and beyond expectations.

Secondly, there’s language ability.  Surprisingly, it’s generally not the factor with the most influence.  According to a labmate of mine here who recently studied with him for half a year, his Chinese is 一般 (“average”).  I was personally super impressed that he gave a research talk in Chinese – that vocabulary is not easy, and it was not obtained in a classroom; intro language courses don’t teach you “adhesion”, “micrometer”, or “elasticity”.  The average Chinese person is impressed by my Chinese, but of course it’s all relative to expectations.  (As he pointed out, he hasn’t spent a year in China, so in a colorblind world the burden of expectations would weigh much heavier on me.)  The truth is, both the visiting professor and I speak simply and struggle with tones.  Our struggles are common – he hesitated before saying 蜜蜂 (“bee”) in exactly the same way I have done many times before, making sure I don’t say it backwards instead (because 蜂蜜 is “honey”).  This makes it easy for us to understand each other, but also marks us as intermediate-level non-native speakers. 

Finally, one of the most important factors in the language game is face.  It’s complicated, but I think you get face by speaking well, and lose face when you mess up.  You also seem to lose face if someone has to accommodate you, but gain face if you are able to accommodate someone else.  This often interacts with (and sometimes opposes) another factor, which could be characterized as generosity.  Here you gain points for graciously accepting someone else’s effort, and lose them for snubbing such an attempt or making someone else lose face.  Related to this is the question of larger audience – are other people around who would be excluded by the choice of language?  Are the other people important?

So, given all this, consider this situation:  my Chinese host, whose English is probably on par with our Chinese, introduces me to this professor in English.  The professor says, “It’s so nice to be able to speak English!”  Then, my host mentions that I speak Chinese.  Question: What language do we speak after this?

Answer: an awkward mix of mostly Chinese.  I switched back to English after the formalities (yes, I speak Chinese, I studied in Xiamen for a year) but he persisted in Chinese so I switched back.  I would say it was partly feeling each other out, gauging the other’s ability; partly courtesy towards Prof. Feng, who was in turn being courteous to us; partly the environment (we’re in China!).  But also partly absurd.  Why are we not speaking our mutual native language, for these few moments at least??

He gave a very interesting presentation on three of his research projects, all very “sexy” (as in, exciting and accessibly to the general public) topics in biomechanics.  He spoke at a manageable pace for me, and I learned lots of new words.  But he has a Taiwanese or southern accent, plus a little bit of the careless (or unclear) pronunciation that I sometimes I catch myself using, so a few times I was surprised by what I thought I heard until I figured out what he meant.  For example, when he was talking about self-cleaning materials, he told us to imagine that we were covered in xiǎo kēlì (小颗粒, “small particles”) but I thought he said qiǎokèlì (巧克力, “chocolate”).  I don’t know, it sounded like a laundry commercial, you know?

After each of the three sections, he invited questions.  Almost everyone asked them in Chinese, and he was generally able to answer them, in Chinese.  But one person spoke her complex question quickly and quietly from the back of the room, which left our visiting professor completely lost.  A very Mark Zuckerberg moment . . .  He looked around for help, and a professor up front ended up restating it for him (in Chinese) in about 10 simple words.  Why couldn’t that have been done the first time??

Most people think it’s insulting to speak slowly, loudly, and clearly to “foreigners” (which I say as a joke, really meaning people who don’t speak your native language), but I think it lies somewhere on the spectrum between making an accommodation and causing someone to lose face, depending on the actual language ability of the listener.  Personally, I know my limits in this language and I love it 95% of the time.  I cherish those Chinese people who are masters at the speaking of their language with foreigners.  

Anyway, after that debacle of a question, one woman asked her question in English.  And then the professor began to respond in Chinese.  Nervous giggles spread through the room.  Too many layers for me to unpack, but each of them was simultaneously making a generous effort on behalf of the other, and forcing them to accept accommodation.  Which wins?  And how does rank play into this (the two parties being a graduate student and a well-known visiting professor)?  I’m still not quite who lost face there.  Maybe they both did?

The next speaker (yes, back-to-back seminars, in Chinese!  A mental marathon for me) was a native Chinese professor.  He spoke SO FAST, as if to make up for any time lost by the previous speaker’s nonnative hesitancy.  His research was on . . . I don’t know, there was something about microstructure and electrical charge, which is not my area, but then later when I paid attention again he was doing wrinkling, which kind of is, so . . . again, I don’t know.  I understood so little that even the English bits didn’t help at all.  Actual sentence: 

The DFT calculations are performed in the VASP code with PAW and PBE exchange-correlation functional.

Including articles and prepositions, I understand 10 out of those 16 words – none of the acronyms.  This sentence appeared twice, too, so it must have been important.  Sigh.  

Most of my labmates skipped the second talk (unfortunately, I didn’t realize that was an option…) so I ended up having lunch with just GuoYang.  This ended up being great, because he ‘had’ to talk to me the whole time instead of a few of them going off in rapid-fire Chinese conversation.  We talked about money – his parents still give him money, in addition to his stipend of about 2,000元 per month.  But their rent is less than 1,500元 per year!  One of the other EAPSI fellows had reported similar figures, but I thought there must have been a miscommunication until I heard them corroborated.  (My rent, in a subsidized on-campus apartment with the cheapest living situation at Stanford in which I have my own room, is over ⅓ of my stipend.)  He asked me if Americans drink water out of the faucet just like they do in movies.  

And we talked about families.  He’s his grandparents’ only grandchild.  I asked him to guess how many grandparents my 爷爷 and 奶奶 (my dad’s parents) have, and he clearly went out on a limb to guess 5.  By my reckoning, including my cousins’ spouses, there are 39 of us, plus 12 great grandkids.  I don’t know which he found more unbelievable – the magnitude of the number, or the fact that we don’t all get together at least once a year.  

The funny thing about this conversation is that words for family members in Chinese are very specific – your maternal and paternal grandparents are called different things, and that’s just the beginning.  GuoYang had difficulty with these terms, though, and I’d seen this with my Chinese roommate back at Stanford as well.  Yanyang sometimes asks me what your father’s older brother is called, for instance, or what’s the difference between 伯伯 and 舅舅.  I always thought this was odd, but now I kind of understand.  My family is so big that I have at least one of every kind of family member – my dad has sisters and both older brothers and a younger one, my mother has both sisters and a brother, and they all have kids.  When I learned the word 叔叔, I associate it not with “father’s younger brother”, but with “Daniel”.  For the average Chinese, the single child of single children, “father’s younger brother” is merely a concept, and not a familiar one at that.  (In a similar way, I really can’t keep straight the way that I would call my husband’s parents and the way he would address my parents, because they’re faceless, theoretical people.)

We also had lab meeting in the afternoon, which made for a long day of being talked at in technical Chinese.  I may or may not have dozed . . . 

But in between and after this, I got some work done!  My computer was magically fixed overnight so I can now run Abaqus with all of its functionality on my own desktop, which is awesome!  So I ran a sample job, and actually got it working!  They use a different Fortran compiler, and unfortunately it’s one that actually cares about line length, unlike ifort.  So for the time I’m  here I have to code as if it were going on punchcards like back in the day :)  

It’s a pretty trivial fix – a few line-continuation characters here and there – but is another item on the list of “trivial things Maria can and will frequently forget when coding”.  This list is greatly lengthened by my recent crossover from Linux to Windows: in addition to the backslash/forward slash (no pun intended!) difference I discovered yesterday (which doesn’t seem to be an issue, actually, because apparently Python is smarter than this?), Fortran files have to end in .for instead of .f and the command line is in DOS (so, ‘dir’ instead of ‘ls’  and “cls” instead of “clear”).  Plus some of my error messages are in Chinese.  Woohoo!

I ate dinner with a few of the guys, then biked home.  I stopped at U-Center for milkea (I hadn’t actually been back since discovering the Coco there!) and as I was leaving the building, was treated to a powerful (and beautiful) display of nature over this concrete jungle in which I live.  The sky to the north was lit up by near-constant lightning.  The pollution (around 150 today, just “unhealthy” with no intensifiers) diffused it throughout the whole sky, with no visible thunderbolts.  The wind, too, was building to a frenzy, and I was nearly knocked off my feet – literally, because my skirt was acting as a huge sail.  I biked home as fast as I could, keeping one eye on the incredible light show and one eye on the road as everyone else also tried to get home as fast as they could.  The atmosphere in the air was a little frantic; only I seemed to be enjoying it at all.  I’ve been in California for a while now and can only remember one thunderstorm in the last few years, so this was super exciting to me!

I made it home right before the downpour started.  Perfect timing to curl up with my milktea and the end of Three Men on the Bummel.  It was largely as enjoyable as its prequel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), which I can’t recommend enough.  I particularly liked this quote at the end: 

“A ‘Bummel’ . . . I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.  Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days.  But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand.  We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way.  We have been much interested, and often a little tired.  But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”

I generally describe individual excursions in China (say, to buy a SIM card or to visit friends in Zhao’An) as “adventures”, with a desired destination but also openness to changes.  After reading this, though, I think each of my five trips to China could be perfectly described as a ‘bummel’.   


Today I learned: 

All animals take about 20 seconds to pee.  Similarly, bladder pressure is essentially constant, while bladder volume is roughly proportional to body mass.  An elephant’s urethra is about a meter long and as thick as your leg.  

Tsinghua University makes it own ice cream!

We have a ‘normal’ (which is a Western-centric way of saying ‘non-squatty’) toilet at work!  I don’t mind squatting all, but it’s nice to have options.

My Passport’s Bank Account

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2015 at 10:47 am

Baidu Maps says the American embassy is 1 hour and 22 minutes away from where I live by public transportation.  This is a lie.  It is at least two hours.  At least.  

Good thing I left almost two hours before my appointment, and biked to the subway station! 

The newest subway line in Beijing, Line 15, is being built very close to us.  The line isn’t completed and doesn’t seem to be very busy yet, but it’s a convenient way to get to other lines sometimes.  Today I took that and (after a 30 minute wait) a bus to the embassy.

Going to the US embassy in China is an odd feeling.  I kept flashing my blue passport as if it were a VIP ticket or backstage passes, but I kept being beckoned in without any questions.  This was greatly appreciated, as the line of Chinese nationals waiting for their visa interviews did not inspire envy.  

Once I got up to the counter of American Citizen Services, I felt myself subconsciously relax.  Maybe I could sometimes do things in China in English, but I never do.  Here, though, was an English oasis.  My people!  Fellow native speakers of my mother tongue!

I was at the embassy to get a letter notarized, indicating that I had replaced passport #xxxxxxxxx with passport #yyyyyyyyy.  I’d emailed and they’d said that was no problem, just bring photocopies.  They did not mention that it would be $50 (USD!  Not divisible by 6!!!!), so I nearly choked when I saw the fee schedule.  That’s almost half of what I payed to renew my passport!!  

The whole thing was painfully trivial, too.  I literally filled in my name, both passport numbers, and swore that everything was true while he stamped it.  I paid my $50, and left the oasis.  

I went to Bank of China immediately afterwards.  I had gone through all this hassle to reopen a bank account from five years ago that surprisingly contained about $300 more than I had expected.  That was great news, but for some reason my account seems to belong less to me, and more to my passport.  Instead of the passport being used to prove my identity, it seems that the passport is my identity.  Because of this, the fact that I recently got a new passport presented quite the difficulty – hence the embassy trip. 

I got there right around lunch and had to wait about an hour to see someone.  She spent at least 30 minutes shuffling through the papers, taking innumerable pictures of each one, and clicking on her computer.  I signed in a few places.  Then she handed me carbon copies of all the forms and said I was good. 

That was when I mentioned that, by the way, I also don’t remember my password.  She had clearly been ready to be done with me for a whlie now, so this was not good news.  “You’re quite annoying!”, she exclaimed.  

I had thought that re-opening a frozen account for a foreigner with a new passport would be about the most difficult operation she does in a day, but somehow resetting my password took at least twice as long and just as many signatures and pictures of my documents.

I got home and, about an hour later, got a phone call.  It was the bank, telling me I still couldn’t use my card online (which I had also, after her outburst, requested), so could I come back in? I walked back and it appeared that the woman who had helped me earlier had had lunch and a nap and was refreshed and ready to deal with me.  She took all my forms, took more pictures, got a few more signatures, and then pushed it all back to me and said I was ready.

So, that was an all-day affair.  Let’s not calculate my hourly wage, shall we?

Today I learned: The real name of the United States of America.  For the entirety of my first 8 Chinese-speaking years, I have said that I am from 美国, but today I was confused by the Chinese translation on the official embassy letterhead – 美利坚合众国.  They’re basically just equivalent to American and the United States of America; the former is almost always sufficient, but it is good to know the actual name of one’s country.  

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 March 23, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Recently, living in America has reminded me uncomfortably of living in China.

First there was the proposal of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the resulting uproar against it.  There was that one day where you couldn’t access Wikipedia the normal way, and instead had to use various roundabouts to get the information you wanted.  A lot of blogs were inaccessible, too.  It was crazy!  Oh wait, I did that for a year, paying $5 a month to have access to facebook, Wikipedia, CNN, and (for most of the year) blogs.  The reasoning behind SOPA and the Great Firewall is different – I understand that.  But freedom of speech once curtailed for one reason is easily enough thwarted for another. 

Followed shortly by that issue was the announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that religious institutions will be forced to supply health insurance plans that offer free contraceptives and other “family planning” services to their employees.  This issue blew up so quickly that it seemed we bypassed some fundamental issues (birth control, really – out of all the drugs to make free?  Have we really decided that pregnancy is the most threatening disease?) and have moved right on to a debate over religious freedom. 

Today, across the country, people are gathering to “Rally for Religious Freedom”.  Someone derisively asked, "Is someone keeping you from going to church?”.  The answer, obviously (thankfully!) is no.  But the rest of the answer is that the practicing of one’s religion is – and should be! – more than just going to church. 

I confess that I thought the US Council of Catholic Bishops was being a little bit overdramatic when it warned about possible issues of conscience when the new health care reform was being debated.  I don’t believe that Obama has anything particularly against Catholics or Christians or believers of any religion, and I believed that the freedom of religion guaranteed in the constitution was pretty secure.  The death panels, forced sterilizations – I thought it was all hyperbole. 

And now I’m scared.  Because I see this mandate as a first step along the path that leads us to a place where the reproductive “rights” are valued higher than the right to religious freedom.  And I think that China is somewhere along that path, further ahead than us.  Remember,

Freedom of religion in the People’s Republic of China is provided for by the country’s constitution, with an important caveat. Namely, the government protects what it calls "normal religious activity," defined in practice as activities that take place within government-sanctioned religious organizations and registered places of worship.  [From Wikipedia]

But China has clearly decided that its interest in curtailing the growth of its population is greater than its interest in protecting the practice of “normal religious activity”, which for some religions that I’m aware of prohibits abortion, sterilization, and contraception. 

So yeah, I’m a little bit worried.  Not sure what other rights will fall before this “right”.  Not sure which Catholic institutions – or what still-practicing Catholic institutions – will be around when in 10 years.  Not sure what US policy will next mimic China. 


* Note: I think both articles I linked to make very good points, but I do take issue with the name calling they employ.