Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Church in China’


In Uncategorized on August 1, 2015 at 2:02 pm

This morning, I had my closest call yet with missing a flight.  I had been running on about three hours of sleep a night the last few nights (a combination of trying to get work done during the day, and late nights of majiang and karaoke), so I was just exhausted.  I counted on one alarm and my natural anxiety about an early morning flight to wake me up in time – 4:30am, ideally – but neither worked.  I must have solved math problems while sleeping to turn off the alarm, and I even slept through answering the phone (in Chinese) when my taxi partner called me.  I randomly woke up at 5:22, about two minutes before she knocked on the door.  Luckily, I was packed, and just had to stuff a few things into my bags and zip them shut.  We were downstairs on time at 5:30.  I don’t want to think what could have happened . . . . .

We got to the airport in plenty of time, so I took the opportunity to do a little bit of repacking.  Then more repacking, because apparently China has a thing about lithium batteries in checked luggage.  

I was anxious at the airport.  Part of it was residual adrenaline from the morning’s near miss, but it was also about Xiamen.  It seemed impossible that Xiamen could stand up under the weighty expectations I’d placed on it – I remember my year there as perhaps the best year of my life, and the picture has only grown more rosy in the last five years.  Add in my excitement to see something beautiful after 8 weeks of Beijing Gray, and what paradise on earth wouldn’t disappoint?  A secondary concern was: if Beijing was hot, how will I handle 130-degree heat indexes again??

The flight was slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful.  When I came out of the gate after baggage claim, I saw XuLei – impossibly, she seemed smaller than I remembered.  I hugged her, grabbing my own shoulders after wrapping my arms around her.  I also got to meet NianYu, her boyfriend/fiance that I had heard so much about.  They have a car!  And XuLei drove!  These were the first of many surprises for me in Xiamen, little indications of how everyone has grown up in five years . . .

I felt a little foolish, but I basically had a list ready when they asked where I wanted to eat.  I was devastated to learn that Green Chairs Restaurant is closed (we never learned the real names of most of our favorite restaurants, just came to a sort of group consensus on what to call them), but our malatang place is still there.  Some people in Beijing scoffed, but Xiamen’s malatang (specifically this place) is just the best.  Malatang, literally “numbing-spicy soup”, is a sort of buffet of fresh ingredients that they cook in a spicy broth for you.  I got meat, tomatoes, bok choy, potatoes, three kinds of eggs, and a piece of fried dough for the top.  I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours, and it was everything I wanted and needed.  Plus we had 烧仙草, better known by its [Ch]English name “fubu burns the fairy grass”.

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We bought fruit at a nearby market – oh Xiamen mangos, how I’ve missed you!!!! – and then went home.  NianYu is a professor of materials science at Xiamen University, so they live in faculty housing on campus.  It’s great for me, because campus is where I’m most familiar with :)  They have a nice two-bedroom apartment that they share with a roommate.  In my first taste of Chinese hospitality, NianYu slept in the living room (without an air-conditioner!) so that I could sleep in the air-conditioned bedroom with XuLei.  (Interestingly, the temporary bed he’s sleeping on would pass for a folding table in America.  It’s funny, we put mattresses on the floor, because the most important feature of American beds is that they’re soft, while in China the off-the-floor aspect of a bed seems to be more important.)

I took a much-needed nap before my big evening plans.  Basically my entire return to Xiamen was scheduled around my need to be here for a Saturday evening – I wanted to go to Chinese Mass and then dancing.  I’m so glad I insisted on that . . . 

XuLei drove me to church.  It was a little after 6 as we started driving, first down Huandao Road along the coast, past my old beach, before getting on one of the bridges over the ocean.  The sun was just setting behind the two giant new buildings dominating the horizon, and I was just overwhelmed.  

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I started crying.  It had been a few weeks, generously, since I saw anything that could be considered beautiful in Beijing, and going from that concrete world to a Xiamen sunset was almost too much to handle.  I was immediately certain that my wonderful memories were not airbrushed and my high expectations were not too high.  The dominant emotion, though, was gratitude.  For this sunset, but not just for that.  The phrase that kept running through my mind was, How was I so lucky to live here for a year?  China can be a difficult place, and Chinese can be a nightmare, and I am continually realizing the perfect path I have been led along in both, to fall gradually in love with them without being scared away.  Stronger people could perhaps fall in love with Beijing, but I needed the charm of Hunchun and the beauty of Xiamen.

XuLei let me off at the bus stop where I used to get off the bus to go to church.  I navigated with my phone, because I didn’t trust my memory, but the route was so familiar.  Other than the construction scaffolding I used to walk under, now a completed building, it was all just as I remembered it.  I got more and more excited as I got closer, literally exclaiming out loud when I saw people rinsing fish in the street because that meant I was close!  

When I walked in to the church, the first person I saw was Joseph Chen, one of the men who is always helping around the parish.  He smiled at me and greeted me by name, as if no more than six days had passed since we had seen each other last.  But there were changes . . . as I knelt to pray, the rhythmic sounds of Chinese chant surrounded me – they were praying the rosary in Mandarin, I quickly realized, but it was unfamiliar and strange to me.  Xiamen has a local dialect, Minnanhua, which was quite common among the older parishioners.  Daily Masses were offered in Minnanhua when I was here last, and it was the dominant language for personal devotions as well – to the point that I don’t think I ever heard the Hail Mary in Mandarin and still can’t recite it fluently.  

Everything is in Mandarin now, though.  Bishop Cai was appointed near the end of my time in Xiamen (after 20 years of the diocese without a bishop), and could see his influence all over.  They recited selections from the catechism after Mass, and reception of communion was orderly and more reverent than I remembered it.  

After Mass, Bishop Cai came over to greet me and “welcome me home”.  Sister Mangu came as well, grabbing my arm affectionately in the way of Chinese women.  As other parishioners and older friends gathered round, I took the opportunity to introduce Alba to them.

So, Alba is kind of a crazy story.  I had made it to church just a few minutes before Mass started, and there weren’t that many open seats.  I spotted one on the aisle and asked the woman next to it if anyone was sitting there.  She responded no, and I sat down.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized I had found the only other foreigner in the church. We whispered a quick introduction – her name is Alba, she’s from Mexico, and she arrived in Xiamen on Wednesday.  She came by this afternoon to scope out the location of the church and, when she heard that Mass was in a few hours, just hung around.  She was sweet and enthusiastic and joyful and on this day of extreme gratitude I was determined to do whatever I could to make her time in Xiamen as wonderful as mine had been.  

So I introduced her to the bishop, and BinBin, and Little Brother.  And when Mangu whisked us off to drink tea (it was inevitable), I made sure she came along.  And when I said I was going dancing afterwards, and her face lit up, I told XuLei we were going to be joined by a friend.  I felt like her fairy godmother, swooping into her life bringing only the best things.  

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XuLei picked us up outside the church and we drove to the Nanputuo gate of Xiamen University.  This was where, on one fateful Saturday night – my first in Xiamen, actually – I got off the bus on my way back from Mass and heard music . . . The gate is under construction now, so we only found the place because we knew where to look for it.  This was one of those moments where I felt very profoundly the immense consequences of the most trivial-seeming events.  My time in China on this trip felt like one long chorus of “There, for the grace of God went I”, to paraphrase John Bradford.  What if I had been sent to my first-choice university, Sichuan University in Chengdu, instead of Xiamen?  What if I had discovered the closer bus stop a few weeks earlier, and never got off at the Nanputuo gate?  Or if I had been too shy to ask what they were doing?  People that know me know associate me with dancing, as if it’s this deeply ingrained personality trait, and it even feels a little bit inevitable to me, but upon closer inspection it seems a very precarious outcome indeed.  

Anyway, construction be damned, it was Saturday night between 8 and 10 pm and my dancing friends were there.  I often found life in China confusing and unpredictable, but this group of older men and women were a rock for me.  Every single Wednesday and Saturday, with the single exception of a national day of mourning, they met to dance for two hours.  Even more incredibly, they welcomed a complete beginner with childlike Chinese to join them.  They taught me almost everything I know about dance – they certainly gave me intensive instruction on following without communicating verbally, which is the basis of social dance.

Tonight I walked in about 20 minutes to 10, to lots of smiles and waves and “what has it been, two years?”  Try five!  I got one dance in before they closed up.  Luckily, I’m not leaving Xiamen until Thursday, so I told them I’ll be back on Wedesday.  

We went back to XuLei’s apartment for some fruit (no one had really eaten dinner), then walked back down to the road to catch a taxi.  There were no legitimate taxis, but I wowed XuLei by haggling with a black taxi driver to take us to Haiwan Park for 25元.  (I didn’t think it was that impressive, because I think he started at 30元, but XuLei talked about it for days afterwards . . .) 

KK, the Chinese bar next door that we always used to navigate taxi drivers, is closed now, but “our” club, The Key, is still open.  They’ve rearranged the inside, and when we walked in, everyone was sitting at tables listening to the band sing “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran.  Not the atmosphere I remembered . . . but when they started the next song, I realized that it was the same band!  I talked to the lead singer a few minutes later when they took a break and she said it would get more dance-y later, so we decided to hang around.

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We first snuck outside to get some food – there are always street vendors that set up along this street of bars.  This was the precursor to my habit of In-N-Out after late nights dancing at Saddlerack!  I got a 肉夹馍 (Xian meat sandwich) and a mango smoothie while the girls got 烧烤 (barbecue).  When we got back inside, the music was more upbeat and everyone was dancing.  Alba is a great dancer, and a lot of fun to be around, especially when they played streaks of Spanish and Portuguese music.  There were also new pop songs – Roar, Up All Night, I Don’t Care, Bulletproof, Chandelier.  This band introduced me to all sorts of music – I heard Your Love is My Drug and Empire State of Mind from them first – so in the years since, I’ve occasionally wondered what it would be like to hear them play this or that song.  It was neat to hear all the new stuff, but I was also thrilled to hear I Gotta Feeling.  It was a new song back in 2009 and basically became my theme song for that year . . . And anyway, I did have a feeling that it was going to be a good night . . .  

We left at 2:30 and taxied home.  I Skyped with my parents (haha, the internet in my friends’ apartment in Xiamen is way better than the internet at the hotel in Beijing), then went to sleep!  First day in Xiamen has assuaged all of my fears, only to stoke new ones that the next few days won’t be as wonderful . . . 

Fate Is Like a Strange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fate is like a strange

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

Chinese Catholic Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I learned:

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

North Church

In Uncategorized on June 21, 2015 at 10:46 am

I didn’t feel great when I woke up this morning (maybe the spicy food from yesterday, maybe just my period starting).  I faced a difficult question – what about Mass?  My stomach was vaguely unhappy – it could get worse, but it was currently not bad enough to not go to Mass . . . just bad enough to not go right now.  The problem is that 8:30am is the last Mass at West Church, and one of the later ones in the city.

I ended up waiting another hour, feeling slightly better (or at least not worse), and deciding to go to Xishiku for their 10am Mass.  Every church in Beijing is at least an hour away by whatever various combinations of walking, biking, buses, and subway that I use.  This one was no exception: I biked to the 五道口 station, took two subway lines, including a lengthy walk to transfer, and then walked another kilometer to the church.

Xishiku, more commonly known as the North Cathedral, is beautiful.

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I liked the church, the music, and the length of the homily (of middling-to-low importance to me usually, but a serious consideration at Chinese Mass), plus the option of 8am or 10am Mass is nice.

After Mass, the children’s choir sang a song for their dads, and the big screens showed pictures of them with their dads (hard to see here).

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It made me think of my dad!  Happy Father’s Day!

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I felt weak and tired after Mass, so I took a taxi home.  First time using Kuaidi, a Chinese taxi-calling app, and it was wildly successful!

I spent the afternoon in the hotel, taking it easy.  I took some charcoal caplets, took a three hour nap, drank some yogurt, read a lot.  I had dinner in the restaurant downstairs – we just found out that you can order food there, and it is so nice to know that I can get a huge variety of good food at good prices downstairs any time before 8:30pm!

First Day at Tsinghua

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2015 at 10:06 am

I had breakfast with some EAPSI students, and one of them told us the story of his extreme Traveler’s Diarrhea, which was probably actually food poisoning.  He went to the hospital and nearly passed out; they couldn’t even measure his blood pressure.  The most interesting thing was that he said he got it from “street food”, and then corrected himself, saying that they went in off the street but it was kind of a shithole.  Then he described it . . . and it was the place with the big red picture menus, the place where we got the delicious wood ear mushrooms.  To me, that was a nice restaurant . . . I guess everything is relative!  Also, my two favorite restaurants so far are where one guy got food poisoning and where we got slipped a fake 100 :(

My advisor didn’t want to meet until 4, but the other Tsinghua Maria was supposed to be at work at 2:30.  We set off together around noon, rehearsing the walk to her lab.  We went through the main gate of Tsinghua University and then took an unexpectedly scenic tour of part of campus, looking for her building.  We parted ways there, and I set off on my lonely trek to 蒙民伟科技楼 where I’ll be working.  It’s kind of on the outskirts of campus.  By the time I got there, I was exhausted.  I’d walked about five miles in 90+ weather, most of it wearing a face mask (which makes drinking prohibitively difficult), and my shoes were apparently not broken in properly so I had blisters :(  I need to get bike . . . 

At 4, I met Prof. Feng and Prof. Li in Feng’s office.  It was a short meeting, mostly figuring out all the things they have to help me apply for (building card, cafeteria card, student card, internet access).  Then they  took me on a tour of the department.  We saw two student offices, where he introduced me, and several labs.  It was all quite impressive, with things ranging from a decent-sized tensile machine to an AFM setup, plus cell culture capabilities.  My favorite part was the machine doing tensile testing on spider silk.  I didn’t realize they even did their own experiments, honestly; we usually collaborate with experimentalists and do the simulations ourselves.

When we were done, they had a student take me to the nearest gate.  As we walked out of the building, I asked her her name, in Chinese.  你叫什么名字? This is first-day-of-Chinese-1 stuff, people, the sentence you learn after “Hello, my name is __”.  But she jumped and looked like she’d seen a ghost.  

This sort of story is where the term “talking muffin” comes from.  There’s a joke: Two muffins are in the oven.  One muffin says to the other, “Man, it’s hot in here!” and the oher muffin goes, “Whoa!  It’s a talking muffin!”.  That’s how I feel sometimes.  I’m just making conversation, and they’re freaking out because they didn’t think I could talk.  Anyway, it turns out not everyone in Beijing is so over Chinese-speaking foreigners.  

We rode on her moped, which was slightly terrifying as I am about a foot taller and waaay heavier than her.  I was quite impressed by her ability to handle that, as evidenced by us not dying.  Once at the gate, I took a taxi.  Yeah, this can’t be an everyday thing but today was exhausting.  It was totally worth the 17元; no regrets.

I showered and a bit later went to dinner with a few other EAPSI students (at the fake 100 place).  We had the things we’d had before, plus a few new dishes.  One of them was . . . twigs?  I don’t know else to describe them.

Dinner conversation was interesting, because someone pointed out that the three people in our group with Chinese experience (including me) are religious.  One guy is Mormon and the other apparently trained to be a Lutheran minister.  So we had a discussion about religion in China; I was interested to hear about their experiences because I go to the patriotic church, but there isn’t a state-sanctioned Mormon church.  The five recognized religions in China are Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam; with that recognition comes simultaneously more restrictions (a lot of watching, I think, with repercussions, plus the whole appointing-bishops thing) and more freedom (Chinese and foreigners can worship together).  The Mormon said he has to present a passport to go to his church, and they have to clear out before the Chinese nationals go in.

Back at the hotel, I spent a while helping some of the other EAPSI students with tasks that required some Chinese language skills.  The biggest challenge was calling a taxi for 4:30am.  This required a phone call in Chinese, which is always intimidating to me.  (First I pressed the button for English service, figuring I’d take the easy way out, but when I actually spoke English with the woman who answered, she just hung up on me.)  A half hour later, when I was supposed to get a confirmation phone call, I instead got a text saying that no one wanted to accept the ride, sorry.  So I guess he’s walking . . . 

Final note for today: I took another EAPSI girl to get our hair washed a few days ago, and the guy tried to hard sell me into doing this treatment for dry hair.  When I refused, he got all passive-agressive about it with me.  He asked if my hair was easy to comb after the shower, and I said yes.  “No, it’s not,” he responded.  Later, she and I were talking and we realized they hadn’t used conditioner.  No wonder it was hard to comb – there’s a product out there that is literally designed to fix this problem, and they didn’t use it.  But for a few days afterwards, I found myself struggling with my hair and wondering if it had, indeed, always been hard to comb?  So yesterday I bought Pantene conditioner, not the Chinese brand that the woman at the supermarket pressured me into buying, and today my hair feels great again.  I don’t know if Chinese hair is different or if Chinese conditioner is just terrible?  It’s still not as bad as that lotion I bought here once that made my skin feel like it was burning, but what good is conditioner that doesn’t condition?

Adventuring Towards Mass

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2015 at 4:24 am

I ddin’t realize this because I usually went to Saturday evening Mass in Xiamen, but apparently Chinese Catholics are early risers.  I say this because at many Beijing churches, 8am (the earliest Mass at Nativity in Menlo Park) is the “last chance Mass”.

So, today started a bit early; I went to 西直门, or the West Church, for 8:30am Mass.  It’s the closest church to me – that still means a 20 minute walk and 40 minutes on the bus, but it’s better than the alternatives.  It’s a beautiful church

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and was nearly full when I arrived at 8:20.  Actually, I had a hard time finding a seat until one of the women that had been on the bus with me indicated that I should take her spot, and she went to the back.  It was one of those small but incredibly meaningful moments that epitomize the Church in China for me.  

It felt comfortable to go to Mass in Chinese again.  We sang the sprinkling rite using the exact same song as we used to sing in Xiamen, and I still remembered a lot of the words.  (Next time, though, I need to get there earlier and sit up closer to the TV screens with the words and music.)  Lectors speak very clearly and slowly in whatever language they’re reading in, so it’s always very easy for me to understand the readings.  The homily is always the most difficult part, and this priest was especially long-winded.  The homily was perhaps 20+ minutes, and he spoke for another 20 at the end of Mass.  I catch about 20% of that extemporaneous speaking, max.  

I had planned to get off the bus at some interesting location to get lunch, but wasn’t able to react quickly enough.  Instead, I got lunch at a Western (as in, western China) restaurant.  That turned out well, even the part where I didn’t realize I had to give my order to the kitchen myself.  I sat down to wait for my food and ended up catching the end of overtime and penalty kicks for Brazil vs. Portugal in the quarterfinals of the under-20 World Cup.  Portugal totally whiffed a few shots and lost.

I went back to my room, where I took a delicious nap and did some internet struggling.  In the evening, a few of us went out to forage for food in the area I “discovered” yesterday.  We ended up getting [more] Xinjiang noodles, but no complaints here.  I treated myself to a Magnum bar (maybe a weekly thing?) and then went back to the room where I finally got caught up on these journals!