Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Beijing’

Coming Home to Xiamen

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2015 at 1:22 am

Nothing makes a place feel more like home than returning to it.  I think I first said this, about Xiamen, after a 10 day trip to Taiwan in 2009.  Returning to the Xiamen, seeing simplified characters, getting on my usual bus, knowing where my next meal was coming from – it was the first time this island felt like home.

When I landed at Xiamen Gaoqi airport on Saturday, I thought of all the times I’ve returned to Xiamen.  By my count, it’s something like three times in that airport, twice by train, once by bus, once by boat.  

Unlike the other times, I didn’t really know what to expect.  Five years is a long time, especially in China.  When I went to Taiwan for 10 days, I remember they remodeled Coco, my favorite milk tea place, and I almost didn’t recognize it.  

Especially after my time in Beijing was less than lovely, I had a lot of anxiety about coming back to Xiamen.  Part of my post On Beijing and Loving China was an attempt to understand why I’ve loved China, remember why I loved Xiamen, and predict whether or not I would still love it.  

The two easiest changes to identify are the absence of my international friends, and the inevitable changes in myself over five years.  During my time at XiaDa, I had very few (like 3?) American friends, but as my classmates were also studying Chinese, they were all international students.  My best friends were Dutch, Spanish, Cape Verdean, Russian, Slovenian, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Mexican, etc., and it was hard to imagine Xiamen without them.  I ate most meals with them, went dancing with them, debriefed with them after strange or frustrating experiences.  Our knowledge of the city was communal.  I’ve since seen several of them, in their countries or in mine, and they were as delightful as I remembered, so it seems natural to question if they were what made Xiamen delightful.  Then, in their absence?

As for myself, the unhappiness I felt in Beijing worried me.  Maybe I had lost my adventuring spirit, or my patience, or my sense of humor.  China requires hefty supplies of all three.  Was this Beijing that I didn’t like basically Xiamen, seen through loveless eyes?  

But now, five days later, I’m once again devastated to leave Xiamen, pained at the knowledge that I don’t know when I’ll be back, and struggling to express my feelings.  

There have been changes – There are two giant new buildings on the horizon, visible from any part of the island I go to.  The air is worse, although the worst day I saw here would still be in the top 10% of my days in Beijing.  There are a ton of tourists now – I think the opening of the new high-speed rail routes since I left has been huge for tourism here.  This translates into crowded beaches, once the domain of us foreigners only, and significant traffic, of the kind I had only seen before on national holidays.  There’s a Walmart on Zhongshan Lu, now, and a Carrefour, too, so you can buy Western goods without having to travel all the way to SM.  

Distances changed, too – not in reality, obviously, but in my memory.  I went walking around 西村 and found our old malatang place and our old jiaozi place, but they were at least three times further than I remembered, and I almost gave up before we got to them.  It was amazing that I was able to find so many things that I remembered, between the pace of development in China and my notoriously bad spatial memory.  But for everything that was gone (Green Chairs Restaurant!!), there were two that were still there (the malatang soup place, the hand pancake stand).  I’m honestly not sure what surprised me more, when I found something exactly where I expected it, or when it wasn’t there.  Both astonished me, every single time.  

But these changes are fairly superficial.  The island is the same island I loved.  Xiamen just can’t help being beautiful.  People are always surprised when I say that Stanford is not the most beautiful campus I’ve lived on, but it’s true.  Minutes from the beach at Baicheng, surrounded by mountains – In comparison with XiaDa, Stanford might as well be in the middle of Iowa.  The most ridiculous thing is, Xiamen doesn’t seem to know it’s beautiful.  Everyone always talks about Gulangyu, this smaller island nearby, but it’s so full of tourists I find it anything but peaceful.  It’s okay, you can have Gulangyu, I’ll take Xiamen any day.  

Xiamen is a very clean city, and it seems like aesthetics were considered when building and developing it.  I always feel stupid saying this, but one of my favorite things about the city are the highways – sleek and white instead of the usual dull gray concrete, and they light up at night along their edges.  I could sit all evening on the beach at Baichang, watching the sunset first and then enjoying the winding illumination of the highways.  

Coming to Xiamen was good for my soul.  The last few days in Beijing was honestly less a countdown to Xiamen and more a countdown to the next time I would see something beautiful.  Counting generously, I would say the last time I saw something beautiful was at the Bird’s Nest, on July 18th – two weeks ago.  Then there were those few clear days at the beginning of the month . . . and then orientation, when we went to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.  Hmm, still have a few fingers left on this hand.  

So that first evening in Xiamen, as XuLei drove me along one of the bridges over Baicheng, I saw the sunset and cried.  How was I so blessed to live here for a year?  Questions like that ran through my head for most of my visit.  What could I possibly have done to deserve this?  

Because it’s not just the island – it’s also the people.  Oh, 厦门人,你们真的了不起.  For all the time I spent with my international classmates, I was also pretty involved at church and did a lot of dancing, and in these circles my friends were mostly Chinese.  To a person, everyone seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, and they were so good to me.  Chinese hospitality manifests itself in large part in “treating” (paying for things), which sometimes makes me uncomfortable because I don’t know how to respond, but I also appreciated the time people took (away from work, away from their families) to spend with me, and the way they welcomed me back into their lives for a few days after, for some of them, five years without contact.  

I made a few new friends, too.  My host and good friend Xu Lei’s boyfriend/fiance; the labmate of a church friend who climbed Nanputuo with me; a Mexican woman I happened to sit next to at Chinese Mass who happened to be, like, my soul sister.  And there were a few people I didn’t really remember from church, but they were really excited to see me (I made chocolate chip cookies that Christmas and handed them out at church, which I think did a lot to foster feelings of good will) and we talked more in these few days than in the whole year I was here.  

I saw Bishop Cai at Mass on my first day here, and talked to him afterwards.  How have you been? he asked, Everyone is happy to see you.  Thank you! I replied, it feels like coming home, I told him.  Welcome home, he said.

On Beijing and Loving China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DARE Fellows in Beijing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad China Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

A Month in Beijing

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2015 at 10:14 am

It was discussion day again at English Aerospace Summer Camp. Today was somehow more difficult than the first day – they seem to have regressed? I guess the topics my coteacher chose were also a bit harder – nanomaterials, high speed rail, and 3D printing. These guys are rising sophomores and have really only taken introductory math and physics classes, so one challenge is that we’re teaching him both concepts and vocabulary. With my labmates, we can describe things like “isotropy” or “eigenvalue” in some rough combination of Chinese and English, and eventually we figure out the right English or Chinese word to go with the concept in our minds. But when homogeneity came up today during class, my coteacher  and I kept trying to get them to connect this English word with the concept in their minds, only to realize that the concept wasn’t in their minds yet, so we had to put it there.

We got the most class participation when talking about high speed rail. We asked them how they get home, and got a wide variety of answers, from a few hours on bullet trains to the guy from Xinjiang, who takes a 39-hour train to Urumqi and then another overnight train to his hometown. All of a sudden Jilin and Xiamen don’t seem so far away!


In the afternoon, I started the computational part of my project. I use a commercial finite element software package called Abaqus which . . . I should probably explain what finite elements are. In mechanics, remember, we study how things react to forces acting on them. This is easy for a simple system like, say, a cantilevered beam with a point load. Think of a diving board, supported at one end with a person standing on the other end – there’s a simple equation that will tell you how much the board will deflect given the stiffness of the board and the wait of a person. For more complex systems – say, a plane flying through turbulence – there are no such easy equations.

Instead, we “cut” the object in question into tiny pieces – finite elements, if you will, where “finite” means it is not infinitesimally small. This way, you end up with a bunch of simple shapes, like hexahedrons (cubes) or tetrahedrons (a shape with four triangular faces). Meshing – the practice of numerically cutting objects into appropriate pieces – is somewhat of an art.


As you can see, if the pieces are too big, you’re not really modeling the object you want to model, but if the pieces are too small the system gets harder/slower/more expensive to calculate. In the picture above, #1 and #2 are too coarse, but depending on the application, any one of #3-6 could be appropriate.

Once the object has been reduced to a large number of really simple objects, the problem has essentially become a large number of simple problems. They’re all connected, or “coupled”, of course – if one of the elements moves, it will drag its neighbors along with it. Because of this, we have to solve the equations simultaneously. This is done using linear algebra, which is the grown-up way to solve those problems you had to do in algebra, where you were given equations like

0 = x + y + z
3 = 2x + y
7 = y – 4z

and were told to figure out what x, y, and z are. Except in finite element problems, we have several equations to solve for each element, and there may be hundreds of thousands of elements in a simulation.

Thank goodness for computers, amiright? I use Abaqus, which is a [very expensive] commercial software package specially designed to solve problems like this. It’s got a nice friendly looking interface where you can essentially draw an object, mesh it, apply loads, and solve for deformation – to see how it will look after loading. For simple problems, that’s essentially all there is to it.

My problems aren’t usually very simple, so there’s also some problem solving involved, figuring out a workaround so I can get the program to do what I want. Some people who do finite element analysis (FEA) write their own code, which gives you more control over the calculations, but then there are other demons to contend with. I do a little bit of both, using a feature of Abaqus called user subroutines; essentially I can write a little bit of code for one part of the calculations, and plug it into Abaqus’ own code. This is one way around the unfortunate fact that Abaqus does not natively handle materials that grow. Another way is to use thermal expansion instead – materials tend to expand as temperature rises, an effect that Abaqus does model – although this only works for very limited types of growth.

Anyway, today I started working with Abaqus. I figured out that I have to use this thermal expansion workaround and with the help of my labmates got a linear perturbation buckle analysis running. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with these details, but it is one of the things I had wanted to learn about here, so I’m happy about it. More exciting developments to come . . .


I went to dinner with GuoYang and two other guys I haven’t interacted with much, and we talked about living situations on campus. I recently found out that two of my labmates are married, and tonight I found out that they don’t live together. “Of course!,” GuoYang said when I was surprised. Haha, nothing about that is “of course” in the US – at Stanford we have housing for singles, couples, and even families. One of the guys lives in an experimental mixed housing option, where Chinese and foreigners live together. This led me to ask why Chinese and foreigners are always separated – it seems like the powers that be are worried that we’ll corrupt the Chinese students. This was something that I found very frustrating when I was at XiaDa, because I was there to learn Chinese but contact with Chinese students was extremely limited – we had our own dorms, our own classroom buildings, our own cafeteria.


As of tonight, I’ve been in Beijing for a month. There have been the best of times and the worst of times. Week 3 was bad – between the air quality, my almost-constant nausea, research delays, and limited internet, I found myself wanting to be anywhere but Beijing. I may or may not have described Beijing in my private journal using the following words:

On the best days, it’s a concrete jungle; on the worst, it’s an apocalyptic wasteland. There are many places in the world where you can’t drink the water, but this is the first place I’ve lived where you can’t breathe the air. If Xiamen was the beginning of The Lorax, this is the end.

Those words seem a little extreme now. Perhaps still an accurate description of the city, but no longer an accurate description of my feelings about the city. A few blue sky days helped, as did whatever Paris Baguette did to make my stomach feel better. But also things like discovering the roof of our building, making actual progress on my project, finding a Coco on my way home from work, and the hundred small indications that my labmates are becoming friends. Beijing is still my least favorite place that I’ve lived in China, but honestly when you’re up against Xiamen and the farm, you have to be content with 3rd place. I’m looking forward to another few weeks here, and I know the goodbyes will be hard.


Today I learned:

The word for “hooligan”. I was telling GuoYang why I prefer WeChat over QQ, and I said it made my computer slow. He said those programs are called 流氓, or hooligan programs, because they install a bunch of other things without asking. The Chinese seem to have a high tolerance for these programs – I have all sorts of things floating around my phone’s home screen now because every app I downloaded wants to help me make my phone faster. Thanks but no thanks?

You’re not supposed to put chopsticks directly on the table. Usually in the cafeteria, one person will get the chopsticks for everyone, and today I did it. I put them on the table, and when ZhaoYan came by with his food, he invented a pretext for going back up to the front so could grab a new bunch of chopsticks. This makes perfect sense, as people spit food out on the tables and they’re just wiped down with a rag occasionally, but I didn’t really think about it and besides, it’s sometimes hard to tell what kinds of uncleanliness are acceptable in different cultures, right? Like in the US we wear our shoes indoors, and in China there’s never soap outside of bathrooms. But, now I know!

Fate Is Like a Strange

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2015 at 10:58 am

Today I adventured to a new church for Mass.  I went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Wangfujing, also known as 东堂 or East Church.  I think that means that I win Beijing Catholic bingo – I’ve now been to the South, West, North, and East churches.

I went to the 4pm Mass because I was meeting friends afterwards.  Only as I walked up to the church did I remember that it was an English Mass.  I’ve generally avoided them (or, rather, not gone to any extra effort whatsoever) because after a few weeks I found that I caught as much or more of the Mass in Chinese than in English when spoken by a Chinese priest.

We had an Indian priest, though, which oddly makes me feel like I’m back in America?  Foreign priests are commonplace in the US; Tulsa was even a missionary diocese, to make our dependence on international priests explicit.

We did several of the Mass parts in Latin chant.  I’ve always treasured the time I spent with one of our priests at the Newman Center in Tulsa learning Gregorian Chant, including the entire Missa de Angelis, and it has served me well.  (Speaking of, that was an option at karaoke yesterday.  Along with the Regina Caeli.  Odd?)  And in my capacity as choir director at the Newman Center, I advocated for at least a basic familiarity with chant and the Mass parts in Latin, because Latin is the language of our universal Church.  This conviction has been reaffirmed in my international travels – Latin is our common denominator.  Plus, if the Chinese can learn it (they don’t even get any cognates!), there’s just no excuse for English speakers.

After Mass, I met up with some family friends from the States.  It was incredible to see them – they’re wonderful people, and I felt so happy hearing those Oklahoman accents.  It was also a very vivid reminder of how much time has passed since I was last in China.  They came over to China in March of 2010 to adopt a son, and I flew over to Guangzhou from Xiamen to hang out with them while they dealt with the paperwork.  I got to help a tiny bit with communication, and got them a few memorable meals (some for good reasons, others because there were cornflakes on the salad).  Five years later, that son has grown into a hulking football player, a high school graduate, and a sharp young man.

Similarly, another of their sons was just learning Chinese when they came over for the adoption. He was full of questions – “how do you say ___” – as a beginner asking someone more advanced.  Since then, he’s spent a year at Peking University studying Mandarin, picked up a few more languages at school, and is off to Japan in the fall for a year of study there.  Now when we talk, it’s much more as equals, and more about experiences than vocabulary.  “Do you feel like you’re a different person in China?”, that sort of thing.

He’s also way more of an old Beijing hand than I am, having spent a year here.  I told him a bit about the difficulties of my third week here – I never realize how deep those emotional pits are until I’m out of them, but being sick, fretting about the lack of progress at work, dealing with a straight week of worst pollution I’d experienced, and various other collisions of expectations with reality really did a number on me.  He said that he loved Beijing, but “it can really chew you up and spit you back out”.  Sounds about right.

We went to 南锣鼓巷街, a touristy market street on the west side of Beijing.  We walked up and down, grabbing dinner and several beers at a restaurant and capping the night with 绵绵冰, my favorite Taiwanese dessert (super finely shaved ice topped with fruit).  It was cold and delicious, basically everything I was expecting.


It was great to see them!  As we were parting ways in the subway, we saw a woman carrying a bag that we became obsessed with:

Fate is like a strange

It is just so ridiculous that our paths have not only crossed once again, but that it happened in China!  Fate is, indeed, like a strange.

Part of My Heart

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Wed East

and looking west, towards the mountains:

Wed West


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dat View

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

The sky was blue today!!!!!

IMG 20150630 121621

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.  

IMG 2207 

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.