Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’

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.  

Learning Mahjong

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2015 at 10:51 am

There are a ton of donkey restaurants in Beijing; apparently it’s a Hebei thing.  It had been on my dwindling Beijing to-do list for a while, so this morning I went to get 驴肉火烧.  Contrary to what I was told, it turns out that donkey sandwiches are not a breakfast food, so I’ll have try again tomorrow.  

Today I brought in a bunch more things I couldn’t return or didn’t use up.  Here, have some conditioner I didn’t like, and some q-tips.  Seriously, I give the best gifts.

I also brought in the rest of the s’mores ingredients.  I just realized this morning that they have bunsen burners in the lab – we could have been eating s’mores all day err’day!  

Prof. Feng’s son came in to the lab today and ate lunch with us.  He’s a sophomore or junior in high school and is taller than me – a veritable giant.  Zhao Yan asked him if his biggest problem is that every girl likes him, haha.  He’s tall, left-handed, and was born in Germany (while Feng was doing a post-doc at Dusseldorf) . . . an eerie number of similarities with my own brother!  

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I made a complete mess of myself while eating watermelon today.  We have watermelon after lunch and dinner about 87% of the time.  I’ve easily eaten more watermelon in two months here than I have in the rest of my life combined.  Unfortunately, watermelon is not my talent – I just can’t eat it without getting soaked.  But, I have my own gifts.  My labmates here (like people everywhere, really) are fascinated by my extraordinary talents at sleeping and frowning.  Sleeping and frowning are my talents.  Today I learned how to turn pictures into stickers, so now I can send my frown in WeChat messages with one tap!  

It was supposed to rain today at noon.  Of course, my weather app has said this literally every day for the last two weeks.  Around noon, it says in the morning.  At noon, it becomes 1; at 1, rain is predicted at 2.  At some point, they give up and say, it will rain tonight.  I think we’ve had rain twice since it began this game two weeks ago – basically as accurate as a broken clock.  Today I taught my labmates the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  And they taught me a word for liar: 啃爹.  

In the afternoon, Prof. Feng asked if I would like to join the meeting with a visiting professor that Zu Yan is going to work with next month.  Oh man, that was the most awkward meeting I have ever been in.  I tried to break the ice by speaking English with him as they set up, but he didn’t seem that interested in talking to me.  Then, Prof. Du and Zu Yan presented, both in English, which I’d never heard either of them speak.  They did a good job, although their work is definitely outside my field and I couldn’t do much more than smile and nod.  But the visiting professor had arrived in China two days ago and was obviously not over jet lag.  He couldn’t stay awake, which led to long silences as they waited for him to wake up and answer a question of theirs.  There were also weird moments when he was asleep, I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I wondered, if you speak English and no one understands it, does it still make a sound?

At various points during this, Prof. Feng answered the phone, printed off a short story for me to read, and gave me a gift of tea and showed me how to steep it.  Aaah it was so awkward.

Afterwards, Prof. Feng suggested that I present.  So I also got to experience the awkwardness of speaking English at a sleeping American while a bunch of Chinese listen.  He seemed interested when he was awake, though, and we ended up speaking at length about the EAPSI program, and my experiences in China.

After me, HaoYuan and Chang Zheng talked about their research on spider silk.  It was also the first time I’d heard them speak English, although to be honest, it was about the first time either of them had talked to me except for that graduation dinner.  When I told them tomorrow is my last day, they seemed sad to see me go.  I’m not sure why, but I guess that’s cool?

Today I finally gave out the Stanford shirts I brought from home.  I probably waited too long to do this, but I was waiting for a time when all the people I wanted to give them to were there, and no one else, which never happened.  I also underestimated the number of girls that would be in my lab, and how small they would be.  Sigh.

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Zu Yan wanted to take me to get donkey to thank me for helping her with her presentation, but she took too long so I went with Zhao Yan instead.  It was good – the most similar thing to a sandwhich or taco that i’ve had here in China.  

Zu Yan joined us at the donkey place.  She was exuberant, having finished finished the English presentation, and wanted to celebrate.  She wanted to play mahjong, and I was definitely in!  We coerced Zhao Yan into joining us (Zu Yan s a social instigator like me, so he really stood no change), but that still left us 三缺一 (three, missing one).  Luckily, GuoYang was done packing and agreed to come over.

We went to a mahjong place near the south gate, a pretty seedy place, the kind where you could picture opium being smoked.  (But only cigarettes were smoked.  I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke, but when I asked about it, Zu Yan pointed to a No Smoking sign.  As if that meant anything . . . It struck me as a very Chinese response, to defer to the official word instead of conceding to reality.)

We were in a little room with a table – the coolest table I’ve ever seen.  It’s an automatic mahjong table – you press a button in the middle and a circle rises up, revealing an opening under the table.  You shove all the tiles in there, press the button again, and the circle lowers to close the table.  While the tiles are swished around underneath, shuffled and restacked for you, a new set rises up out of the table.  Within seconds of finishing a game, you’re ready to play the next one.  It’s only good for one thing, but it does that thing perfectly.

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The rules of mahjong vary across China.  Zu Yan is from Heilongjiang and GuoYang is from Chongqing, so they first had to agree on rules – the simplest, I think, for my sake.  Even so, mahjong is definitely the hardest thing I’ve done yet in China.  Part of it is that I had to learn the rules in Chinese – my brain works slower when it has to process two things at once, like language and logic.  Another reason is that mahjong does not follow the some of the basic rules that most games I’m familiar with do.  For instance – play moves counterclockwise, which never stopped confusing me; you can form series (123 or the like in the same suite) but not sets (111 from different suites), and even then only ever three in a row; and there are multiple ways to win (in our “simple” rules, either four sets of 3 and a pair, or seven pairs).  

The worst part was that, by the time I got my tiles flipped over and arranged in some logical order, a few tiles had already been played, and they inevitably included one that I needed.  They were going too fast for me, although they said they were actually playing slow!

Zu Yan, bless her heart, kept trying to help me.  She’d look at my tiles sometimes and offer advice.  Often, the advice would include assessing the tiles that other people had already played, so as to not give them what they want.  I laughed so hard at this.  I literally hadn’t looked at another players’ hand in several games.  I was barely holding it together at this point – I did not have the brain power to even consider the other players.

The low point of the night was definitely when GuoYang asked if I had won, and was right.  I hadn’t even realized!  He couldn’t even see most of my tiles, just guessed based on the ones I’d picked up and how I had them arranged.  How embarrassing.  

The high point of the night was when I won the last hand on my own!!

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Other notes:

if I never hear 国洋还是郭洋 (guōyáng or guóyáng?) again in my life, I will be happy.  

Once they asked me if recognized the characters on the tiles 發 and 萬.  They’re traditional, but also really common (the simplified forms are 发 and 万 – much easier!!).  I introduced them to the phrase, “bitch, please”.

Also GuoYang is really good at mahjong, which was annoying, so I taught them “Who invited him?”  He was really really good, and I was terrible, so I almost taught them “rage quit” as well . . . 

GuoYang called the direction of play “inverse clockwise”.  I laughed.  Counter clockwise, I said.  Would people understand me? he asked.  Yes, they’ll understand, but they’ll laugh.

I made a joke about us being 赌博的读博的人 (gambling PhD students).  It’s funny because the two words, “gamble” and “PhD student”, are identical except for one tone.  See, this is the humor only foreigners like me can come up with, because we play fast and loose with tones.  

 

We stopped playing around midnight or one – that table makes it so easy to play without noticing the passing of time!  I still had to pack after getting home – I’d been hoping to be able to take my extra luggage to the lab tomorrow, but I’m going to have to make an extra trip.  As it was, I didn’t get to sleep until 3am.  

Gifts

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2015 at 7:50 am

We haven’t had internet in the hotel for several days now; the person who borrowed the router apparently has not seen fit to return it.  So, had to do my interneting this morning.  

The day was fairly nondescript; I worked and made some progress, but never enough :)  I listened to country music while I worked, and between that and showing my labmates pictures of my dogs at home, I missed the US . . . 

At dinner, I sat across from the undergrad, which is trying for both of us.  He is like the voice in my ear that keeps me from getting too proud by constantly whispering “your Chinese isn’t that good”.  It’s a blessing and a curse, you know, having understanding friends in a foreign language.  I experienced it first among the construction workers I worked with on the farm; for years afterwards I would realize things that I had learned wrong.  Friends just let you get away with too much stuff – that’s why we have teachers.  

This undergrad keeps me honest, though.  Let’s not beat around the bush here – my tones are pretty terrible.  Today, I found out that 赵, the last name of both my priest in Xiamen and one of my closest friends here, is fourth tone instead of second tone.  If this undergrad were my only friend here, I would have much less fun but my tones would be perfect by now.  

We also had an extremely painful convesation about how to make 小笼包, or soup dumplings.  At one point, GuoYang offered to translate – from Chinese to Chinese.  Sigh.

After dinner, I decided it was time to give them their gifts.  I couldn’t wait any longer, haha.  In addition to notes hand-written in my childish Chinese characters, I gave Zhao Yan, the only guy who really drinks, a bottle of American Honey (honey whiskey); GuoYang got a copy of River of Doubt, a book I recommended to him because he said he was interested in history and culture; and for Cheng, who is going to MIT this fall, I’m buying her first meal (20 dollars, cash) and I gave her a bunch of music I thought she would like.  

So now, I’ve introduced my labmates to xkcd, PHD comics, phrases like “you had one job”, Catan, country music, and honey whiskey.  They’ve really gotten the full Maria experience – I think I could only share more of my favorite things with them if we could go to Saddlerack and I could bake them something with pumpkin in it.  

Saturday at Work

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2015 at 10:49 am

I went to work today.  On a weekend.  Everyone commented on it.  I thought you don’t work on weekends back in America?  Well, sometimes I do, but not 9-to-5-as-a-rule, more like as-needed.  

I feel like there’s so much left that I want to do at work . . . and so little that I want to do in the rest of Beijing.  Yes, Beijing is a huge city with a lot going on, but some of it doesn’t interest me much and anything outside is just not appealing at all right now.  There are several parks I’d like to go to, if it were under 90 degrees and I didn’t have to wear a mask, but neither or those are true so I might as well be in the lab if the alternative is the hotel.

On the way to lunch, I told Zhao Yan something like 我刚刚到了 (I just got to the office).  He said that I use this 了 too much, and I don’t need it in this case.  了, a particle used to indicate tense, is the hardest part of Chinese grammar, in my opinion, and I freely admit that 80% of the time I have no idea what I’m doing and I just put it where it feels right.  Apparently my intuition is not so good, because he gave like five examples of when I’ve used it wrong (generally, where I’ve used it when not necessary).  国洋 joined the conversation as we ate, and tried to argue against my assertion that 了 is confusing.  It’s used for things that are completed, he said.  Only, one of their examples of when to use it was 我马上毕业了, or I’m about to graduate.  That hasn’t been completed yet, I said.  Yes, GuoYang responded, but it will be completed in the future.  Haha.  I think pretty much every action in the world falls into either the category of ‘already completed’, or the category of ‘will be completed’, right??  I’ve had this conversation with Chinese people before.  It’s easy, they say, 了 means something has happened . . . or is happening right now . . . or will happen . . . Yes, I nod, very easy.  It’s not like tenses are a cake walk in English or other languages, but they’re hard in a different way.  In Spanish, I might not know how to conjugate the specific verb I want to use in the tense I need, but I know which tense it is that I need.  In Chinese, the ‘how’ is exceedingly easy, but the ‘when/where’ part still eludes me.

No one was in my office when I got there.  So today I learned that we do have an air conditioner that usually makes the temperature just bearable, because in its absence the temperature was not.  I didn’t know how to turn it on, so I was happy when Huang Chong came in the afternoon, commented on how hot it was, and pressed the magic button to make it cool.  

Li Bo came by the office in the afternoon and asked me if I was free for dinner.  We were joined by his wife for dinner, and I was reminded of the extent of Chinese generosity, which always seems to me to be more generous than American generosity, but hopefully is just different.  We ordered roast duck, chicken, shrimp, eggplant, cabbage, and mushroom dishes, plus a sort of jelly crepe thing (that I saw and inquired about, and next thing I knew was on our table).  I’m pretty sure we got about the same amount of food for the three of us that we had ordered last night for 8 or 9 Americans.  There was food left on the table, which is a necessity in Chinese custom but always bothers me a little bit.  

I’m taking some friends to lunch tomorrow, friends who treated me to lunch the first few weeks I was here, so I was studying my hosts’ actions tonight.  Anything the guest expresses interest in, should be ordered.  My usual rule of thumb is one dish per person, but when treating perhaps double that.  Definitely get drinks.  Offer to order more at the end of the meal, even though there is still plenty of food left and everyone is clearly stuffed.

The most interesting part of the dinner conversation tonight (other than when I asked his wife if she was also from Hunan, and she said, Yes, I am also from Hulan) was when I tried to describe duck syndrome.  Things like that or work-life balance just seem to be impossible to translate; the combined language and cultural barriers are just too much.  I don’t think there are ducks at Tsinghua.  More like horses.  

Some of my labmates had talked about playing Catan again tonight, but they bailed.  (Lame, I said, and then had to try to explain what I meant.  You’re no fun, I’m disappointed in you?)  So I went home, on the way stopping to play with some puppies and talk to their owners.  

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This guy’s name was David.  I think he’s American.  The other one (I think his name was Twelve?) was not so into me; he mostly stood at a distance and yipped.  Fun Saturday night!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bayern at the Bird’s Nest!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake

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

I got my first shipment from 亚马孙 (amazon.cn) 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:

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to something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belated Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Day Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I learned: 

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

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.