Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘China’

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.  


In Uncategorized on July 28, 2015 at 9:07 pm

The rough morning kind of continued into a rough afternoon.  At lunch, we were talking about sleep and Zhao Yan told us when he went to bed and woke up.  You only slept three hours?, I asked.  No, he said, 6.  Didn’t you go to bed at 2 and wake up at 5?  Not a single number was right.  I still have no idea how much sleep he got last night.  

Then he started asking me which was more round, the moon in the US or the moon in China.  I thought they were baiting me, kicking me when I was down as it were, so I was kind of annoyed.  Turned out that he was really just trying to make a point to Guo Yang, who kept talking about how much better American computers are.  This is a phrase that means, some things are the same everywhere.  

The only moment during this conversation where I felt like I knew what was going on was when Zhao Yan said 在中国,月亮代表 (“In China, the moon represents”) and I cut him off with 我的心 (“my heart”, which is the title of one of the most famous songs in China) .  But then I had that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day.  

Somehow we got to talking about humor, and how American and Chinese humor differs.  I honestly don’t think it does that much, if something fails to translate it seems to be a language issue or perhaps a cultural reference, not a difference in sense of humor.  To prove this, I told my favorite joke – one that luckily translates perfectly:  “What did the zero say to the eight?  Nice belt!”  

Two people bought watermelon today, so we all had to pull double or even triple watermelon-eating duty.  This seemed like an appropriate time to teach them ‘food baby’ and ‘food coma’.

I spent my lunch card down to the last 4毛 (40 Chinese cents).  Pretty good timing; I just have to rely on my labmates for the last three or so meals.  I asked them how to return the card, and they said I should give to Li Bo.  He’s faculty, so his card can’t be used in the student cafeteria and when he eats with the students I guess he has to pay them back.  I understand how it could be useful, but I feel really weird giving it to him because the foreign students have to pay a 20% fee every time we put money on our cards.  Here, have a card that makes everything cost 25% more!  I give the best gifts. 


After lunch, I finally watched the escalator video.  This story has quickly overtaken the Uniqlo sex-tape (which I didn’t watch) as the most-talked about video here in China.  The video is difficult to watch, so if you’d rather not I’ll summarize.  A woman and her child are taking the elevator up a flight in a mall in Hubei.  After they step off onto the metal panels at the top, one of the panels gives way and she falls down into the hole.  With her only her upper body free, she pushes her son to safety before getting dragged all the way in.  

It was not what I had expected at all.  When I first heard about it, I didn’t realize the woman had died. It also seemed like a lot of the comments were to the effect of “watch this so you’ll be careful when you ride an escalator”, so I actually asked one of my labmates which part of her clothing or body got stuck in the machinery.  Like, check your shoelaces before you get on and you won’t die?  But after finally watching it, I don’t know what there is to take away from it, what I should do differently next time I get on an escalator in China.  What happened was a tragedy of faulty machinery, a lack of safety standards and inspections, nothing that 站稳扶好 (“stand firm and hold the hand rail”, the constant message broadcast on every escalator in China) would prevent.  I feel so sad.

It’s also sad because I see accidents waiting to happen everywhere I look in China, accidents that we’ve had in America and we’ve learned from.  A lot of, perhaps even most, doors have some mechanical or electrical device preventing  you from opening the door from the inside; sometimes you have to have the key to leave your room or house.  Most taxis have seat covers, and in the back they cover the seatbelt latches so you can’t wear the seatbelt.  No one moves aside for ambulances, and apparently the paramedics are not really trained, so they’re basically unreliable taxis.  

I’ve had three friends fall through manhole covers, so we all avoid them as much as possible.  It’s hard, too, when you realize how many manhole covers there are.  It’s like anytime someone needs to get at something underground they just dig another hole.  Here’s a great example, a fairly typical street in Xiamen:

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Anyway, in the last few days, I’ve noticed people’s behavior around escalators changing like I have around manhole covers.  Another friend said he’s noticed people stepping over that metal plate, unconscious about this adaptation already.  Like I said before, 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.  

This all seems to point to larger issues, too.  The dichotomies that exist within China are incredible.  In different situations, I would describe it either as a place where you can do anything that you want to, or as a place where most things are restricted.  It’s a suprisingly libertarian culture for a communist country.  So the government can’t prevent deadly escalators from being sold, but heaven forbid a foreigner use an internet cafe.  It’s like the worst of the far right and the far left at the same time – no personal freedom, and no public responsibility.  

Next week we’re supposed to be talking about innovation and entrepreneurship, but I think of the risks I see being taken in Silicon Valley and I don’t know what kind of person would take them out here in the Wild Wild East.  The rule of law just doesn’t seem to hold, or doesn’t seem to mean much.  It makes it hard to invest one’s money, or one’s time, or one’s life.

In the afternoon, Dad wanted to talk so I went down and Skyped with him for a half hour.  It was really nice to talk to him, but I still felt down.  And it took 1GB of data.  


I finally found a DIY barbecue place place, so I made a reservation there in the evening.  When they called, though, they said they don’t allow DIY barbecue when the AC is on.  And then it ended up being way out on the other end of CUMTB and we were biking forever in the middle of nowhere and we had trouble finding it and I was convinced this disappointment of a day was just going to continue.  

But everything turned out better than expected!  Their chicken wings were super good.  We couldn’t grill ourselves, but they agreed to roast the marshmallows for us (seriously, how is it of all the things I tried to do today, the one that worked was asking a restaurant to roast 20 marshmallows for me?).  

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They seemed to like the s’mores alright, although everyone said they were too sweet and started talking about calories.  What, am I back in California?

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We also had honey whiskey, my gift to 赵岩 that really became communal.  I was really amused to watch their faces as they took their first sips.  These people drink baijiu, which tastes like jet fuel, with no discernible reaction, but they all made ridiculous faces when drinking American Honey, the smoothest thing I’ve ever drunk.  

The girls left after dinner, but the guys wanted to play Catan again, so we relocated to a KFC.  I can’t believe we didn’t think of this before!  KFC is really the perfect environment for board games – AC, free Wifi, big tables, food and drinks available.  I treated everyone to a round, and was really amused to see almost all of them get sundaes.  I thought the s’mores were too sweet?

This time was more fun than before, because I didn’t have to explain the rules.  There were two new players, but they played on teams with the GuoYangs and they explained the rules to each other.  It’s also a great language environment, because they’re speaking to each other more than they are to me, so the language is more authentic, but I’m very familiar with the context and vocabulary, so I can follow it.  I loved listening to them haggle over trades or berate each other for bad moves.  

The KFC we were at unfortunately closed at 11, so we couldn’t finish our game.  I basically built the Great Wall of Catan (When in China, I said . .. ) and had 8 points when we stopped.  GuoYang also had 8 points, but my wall blocked him in and he had really no way to get more points.  Guo Yang and Zhao Yan had 7 points each.  The score was close enough that everyone felt that they 差一点赢了 (almost won); they argued about this the whole bike ride home!

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.

The Service in China is Great, Said No One Ever

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

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

IMG 2369

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bad China Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

What Do You Do Here?

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

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

The official abstract for my NSF EAPSI grant is: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

Screenshot 2015 06 27 16 40 40

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

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

Today I learned: 

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