Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

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!

Thanks, Obama

In Uncategorized on November 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

China has been very much on my mind recently.  I’m applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation to do research in China next summer.  The program is called EAPSI and it would be an amazing opportunity for me, to turn my past experiences in China into real research experience abroad and international professional contacts.

With the help of my advisor at Stanford, I made contact with a professor in the Department of Engineering Mechanics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and we discussed a few possible questions relating both to my work and his.  He’s an expert on the wrinkling and buckling of soft films, and I study the development of the brain (which is essentially layers of soft tissues), so it’s a really good match.

Anyway, I spent last week reading a lot of papers and writing the 5-page project proposal, because I had told my potential host that I would send it to him by Friday.  I clicked ‘send’ at 5:30 and allowed myself to forget about it for the weekend.

But come Monday . . . and then Tuesday . . . I hadn’t heard from him.  This professor had been extremely gracious and prompt in all of his previous replies, so I was concerned.  A follow-up message that I sent last night was returned to my inbox, undelivered – on all four attempts! – at which point I started to legitimately panic.  The proposal is due Thursday at 5pm and I needed him to review the proposal.

Fortunately, about an hour later I received a response from him:

I have received your proposal, which is excellent. For more details, we may discuss later.
Sorry for having not replied you earlier since we have been in a one-week holiday.

I immediately felt stupid.  Of course, it was a Chinese holiday!  . . . Wait.  It’s mid-November.  What holiday was this??  I know that 11/11 is Singles’ Day in China, but it’s essentially like China’s Black Friday, not occasion for a week of vacation.  I asked my roommate (a Masters student from Zhejiang) and she verified this.  Maybe he was at home for a week shopping online?  I deemed that unlikely.

But at any rate, the crisis was averted and the proposal was approved, so it didn’t really matter.

Then today I took a break from preparing some of the supplementary documents to catch up on some news.  I had seen headlines about President Obama’s visit to China and the agreement on climate change, but didn’t know anything beyond that.  Going to the bottom of my “to-do” pile, I came across this article (In Beijing, Clearer Views Hid Real Life):

. . . The ban on burned offerings was one of a cascade of government orders, from the draconian and sweeping to the picayune and puzzling, aimed at reducing air pollution and securing azure skies when government leaders meet in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which began Wednesday and runs through Tuesday.

Determined to offer visiting heads of government, including President Obama, a cleaner, emptier version of China’s capital, where the air is often dirty and the streets always full, the authorities have ordered dozens of temporary changes that are upending people’s lives and dampening commerce, affecting activities like marrying, driving, eating and mourning the dead. . . .

The government has also tried to shed some of the city’s 21 million people, declaring an APEC Golden Week, a six-day vacation modeled on the Golden Week public officials get each year around National Day in early October. Public schools have been closed, work has been halted on construction sites, and public services such as issuing marriage licenses and passports have been suspended.

Cue hysterical laughter.  The university (and much of the city, apparently) were shut down for a week-long “holiday” as part of the attempt to clear up the air for Obama’s visit.  Thanks, Obama.

It’s things like this that make China so exciting – frustrating, yes – and intriguing to me.  Can’t wait to adventure back.

One-to-One and Onto

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2014 at 1:46 am

The other two girls in my Chinese class are both American-born Chinese.  They’ve clearly come to their language abilities in a much different way than I have; parents speaking to them, for instance, instead of teachers and randos on trains.  Conversationally, they’re very capable, but my formal study of the language has given me a huge advantage – I can read and write.

One of the girls has clearly studied before, but I don’t believe the other ever has.  She can’t read characters.  This is so interesting to me!  Illiteracy, at one of the top universities in the nation!  Haha.

No, but for reals.  Illiteracy is terrible.  The reason you don’t know this is because you’ve probably never been conscious of your illiteracy.  You couldn’t read, and then you could, and now you can forever.  But when you learn a language like Chinese or Japanese, you take a huge step back in that regard.  Turns out there’s a big difference between losing something and never having had it.

I lived in China for two months one summer with a reading level not even equivalent to a child who could only read three-letter words.  When I went back to visit the farm in the northeast where I had lived my “Chinese childhood”, I delighted in reading street signs and billboards out loud – just because I could.  It was such a wonderful feeling!

A friend of mine was talking to me recently and he told me that if he ever learned an Asian language, he wouldn’t try to learn to read and write.  That’s what I thought once.  I guess, even in a second language, illiteracy is okay until you realize that it’s really not.

The interesting thing about having this girl in class is watching her and the teacher work around her illiteracy.  The teacher typed up all of the questions in the text in pinyin, the standard romanization of Chinese, and she prepared her report in the same way.

The trouble with pinyin is that romanization is a process that leads to information loss.  Romanization, to get technical here, is not bijective.  Quick lecture:

A function is one-to-one, or injective, between set X and set Y if every x in the set X is related to a different y in set Y.  A function is onto if for every y in set Y, there is an x in set X that is related to it.  A function is bijective (and therefore invertible) if it is both one-to-one and onto.

Left: one-to-one but not onto.  Center: onto, but not one-to-one.  Right.  One-to-one and onto.

Left: one-to-one but not onto. Center: onto, but not one-to-one. Right. One-to-one and onto (bijective, or invertible).

Let’s say characters are in set C, and pronunciations (pinyin) are in a set P.  If romanization is our function, it goes from C to P (taking characters and giving them a pronunciation).  This function is onto, because every pronunciation that is valid in Chinese has at least one character that sounds like that.  But it is NOT one-to-one, because several different characters can be related to the same pronunciation (even when tones are taken into account).  For instance, 是、事、试、世、市、式、and 室 are all pronounced ‘shì’.

So, romanization is not invertible.  While you find the pronunciation of a character (with the few exceptions in which there are multiple pronunciations, but let’s not trouble ourselves with that), you cannot find the character of a pronunciation.

I’d love to come up with an analogy here, but in English maybe the equivalent would be saying that you’re thinking of a word that rhymes with “sad”.  Um, not helpful.  Now picture trying to read a text written like that!

It’s very difficult to read pinyin as anything more than an accompaniment to a new word.  An entire essay?  I’d have a headache within a few lines.  The teacher even has trouble with it; I think the only way to understand it is to read it out loud and then focus on the sound.

What I’m trying to say here is – stay in school, kids, and learn how to read!


In Uncategorized on April 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I’m taking my first Chinese class in almost four years this semester – Intermediate-to-Advanced Chinese Conversation.  It’s a tiny class, just three of us and the teacher, 钟老师.  I know that it sounds a little silly, taking a class instead of just talking to my Chinese roommate . . . but inertia is a powerful thing and I think it’s good to know your weaknesses and to work on them.

The first time we met, the only students were me and 韩夏, a grad student in East Asian Studies.  The teacher asked us to prepare a presentation on our research – easily done for my classmate, who is presumably studying the country whose language and culture the teacher and I are very familiar with.

Me?  Not so much.  When I said my major, 机械工程系, the teacher had to translate it into “Mechanical Engineering” for her.  I didn’t even bother getting more specific with 计算生物力学 (computational biomechanics) or 有限元分析 (finite element analysis).

But, I like a challenge.  So I went home and started looking up the words I would need – cortex, white matter, gray matter, axon, neuron, autism, simulation.  The Google Translate version of my speech goes like this:

My research is about the development of our brain. Our brains, gray matter out there, there are white matter. Gray very curved, which is in the stomach when occurred. We have more brains than any other animal bent, this is very important for brain function.  We do not know how the brain is bent up. Occasionally there will be problems, and some mental disorders may occur, such as autism.  I use a computer to simulate the development of the brain and see what things will affect the bend.

Although I assure you it sounded better in Chinese.  Somewhat.

I was expecting my classmates to have a hard time with some of the words, but I was surprised when the teacher didn’t know some of them!  There was some confusion as to whether I was talking about the growth of the brain or the skull, and the more specific term ‘cortex’ didn’t seem to have much meaning to her.

The biggest challenge, though, was the concept of buckling.  This is a fundamental concept in mechanical engineering, and is also a physical reality that you must have experienced even if you did not know what is was called.  Buckling happens when long slender objects are subjected to compression and an instability causes it to bend out of the plane.  The classic example is pressing on the two ends of a yardstick; it can’t easily shorten in length so it compensates by buckling.


I looked for a translation of this word (变形) for my presentation, but it’s hard to tell if you’re getting results for mechanical buckling or belt buckling, you know?  I also got a couple of words for folding (折) and bending (弯曲), but still wasn’t sure I had the word to convey my meaning.

None of them worked.  When I illustrated the concept of buckling by pressing on the sides of my notebook until the pages bent, she just shrugged her shoulders.  Back in the office, I asked one of my labmates, who is Chinese.  She expressed dissatisfaction with each of my candidate words, but had nothing better to offer.  While I was heating up my food in the kitchen, a Chinese professor in our department walked in, so I asked him.  He struggled for a bit before saying that he was sure he could find it in a textbook somewhere . . . Later, I got an email from him suggesting 压曲, but when I asked another Chinese colleague later he disagreed with that one, too.

All this goes to show how difficult it is to reach professional fluency (or even professional competency) in another language!  Technical terms have very specific meanings; colloquially “stress” and “strain” might mean pretty much the same thing, but not in an engineering setting!  I’d love to have the opportunity to work on this skill further, but this really illustrated to me the need for people who are proficient both technically and and in Chinese in order to really learn!

Spaced Repetition Systems

In Uncategorized on September 8, 2010 at 12:19 am

I’m planning to write sometime about the resources that have helped me most in my Chinese studies, but here’s a short bit about perhaps the most important.  Anki is a flashcard program that uses a Spaced Repetition System.  Basically, each time you answer a flashcard you rate how easy it was.  The program brings the hard ones up again soon until they become easy; the easy ones get longer and longer intervals. 

It’s great for learning Chinese because characters like ‘video recording’, which I can never remember is 录像 or 录象, come up every few days, while I won’t see the super easy ones like “you” for a year or two.

There are a lot of other reasons why it’s great.  The graphs that show how much time you’ve spent reviewing and how many characters you know from which levels of difficulty!  The ability to add pinyin hints when writing characters!  The online sync!

But right now I’m realizing that it’s great because it works.  I’ve been using it for over a year and have learned over 1,900 characters.  Yes, I also took classes and lived in China – but as far as being able to write characters, that is almost all from my diligence with Anki.  You’re not going to get fluent with flashcards, and you have to have sources of input for your flashcards, but you also don’t learn to write thousands of characters by hand just by riding buses and going shopping.

Also, it’s great because it works efficiently.  When I was in China and adding hundreds of cards each week, it was sometimes a lot to keep up with.  I spent at least a half-hour most days looking at new cards and reviewing ones whose intervals were up. 

But now that I’m back in the States, my sources of input have all but dried up and I’m not really adding anything new.  There’s just those same 8,807 cards that I’m stuck with for the foreseeable future until I either return to China or actually start reading on my own.  Because of the way SRS works, I have to spend less time each day to maintain this body of knowledge.  The words that are hard for me are getting easier and easier with each repetition – and their intervals are getting longer and longer.  This means less cards to review each day.

Since school started, I haven’t spent more than 20 minutes each day.  If I keep at it, in three months I’ll have about 20 cards coming up for review each day, which should take just a few minutes to go through.  Yeah, every now and then I forget an old one and it goes back into the pool of stuff I see frequently, but for the most part you see cards just when you need to see them – just before you might forget them. 

I’ve been pretty good with Anki since I started using it, but there have been some breaks.  The longest one was nearly a month and a half – and ended just over a month ago, which makes the low numbers listed above even more impressive since I had a pile of 3,000 cards to go through. 

Because I’ve been so pleased with Anki in my Chinese studies, I’m using it with other areas.  I have an Engineering deck now, too, which contains equations, concepts, constants, and code that I find myself forgetting and relearning in between each relevant class.  I’m adding to it as I review my notes from the first three years of college, and am hoping it will prove as useful in retaining this knowledge as I’ve just talked it up to be!

How China is Like a Meth Lab

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I just spent a few hours of my afternoon in the basement of Kep, the engineering building at TU, locked in a death struggle with Mathematica.  And it reminded me of my life in China more than anything else I’ve done since I returned to the US.

Mathematica is a computational software program used in many of my engineering, physics, and math courses.  It’s like a graphing calculator on steroids.  It can solve anything, graph anything, and put anything into a table.  It is perfectly capable of doing all these things, but the average person is hard-pressed to perform a calculation like 2+2 on the first try. 

(Sound familiar?  China is the most populous country in the world, the second largest economy, and I couldn’t successfully check out a book from any library in my city.)

When using Mathematica (or any other programming software), the user must master a certain syntax to communicate with the software.  Mathematica is case-sensitive, freaks out over punctuation of all kinds, and even requires a special combination of buttons to evaluate an expression.

(In this analogy, syntax = red stamps on paperwork.  If you’re missing one, don’t even bother.)

My roommate and I were working on homework for our Introduction to Numerical Methods class.  (We call the class “Meth”; thus our assignment is a “Meth lab”.)  We had to use the bisection method to find the zero of a function.  This basically consists of choosing a range on either side of someplace you know is a zero, dividing the range in half, figuring out which half the zero is in, and repeating until the ranges are tiny enough that the error is within a given tolerance. 

Alli was both more familiar with Mathematica and further ahead than me from the start, so she finished while I was still struggling with it.  She helped me decipher error messages, redefine functions, clear variables, etc. 

It was getting pretty frustrating.  What could possibly be wrong in my 5-line Do[If[ ]] statement??  I double-checked my square brackets, counted by squiggly brackets, and was still flummoxed.

Finally, Alli leaned over and, pointing to the {n,1,nMax} statement that was closing my Do loop, said I was missing a comma.  I added it in, pressed shift+enter, and a table of values appeared below, converging on the zero of the function at 0.31706. 

The feeling I had at that moment – the combination of the exhilaration of victory and the annoyance at how hard that victory was to come by – was so familiar to me from my year in China.  I kind of hate that feeling, but I also kind of like it – because, seriously, doing calculations in Excel is so commonplace that I barely get a high from it at all anymore.  In the same way, ordering food or making a phone call in America is nothin’ but doing the same (successfully!) in China is an indescribable rush. 

First Day of Classes

In Uncategorized on August 23, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Matt and I high-fived each other as we reached the top of the stairs at 7:55.  “Five minutes early!  Go us!” we exclaimed.  Our class was not in Keplinger, the engineering building right next to both of our apartments where we usually spend our days (and occasionally nights), but instead was all the way across campus – thus, a timely arrival had required superhuman feats of waking up early.

And then we walked into our Writing for the Professions classroom, where the professor was already halfway down the first page of the syllabus.  What on earth?  Who just starts a class early, much less one at 8 a.m., much less on the first day of classes? 

Great way to start off the year.


Next was Control Systems Engineering.  I have some things to review for that class, but it’s a finite amount so it’s okay.  I like Dr. Mohan and the vibe I get from our class is almost as awesome as the dynamic that existed among my old classmates.

The only frustrating thing was the syllabus.  I went through and wrote down the test days and big due dates, and ran into a problem.  Seriously, at this point in the school year after a year away I have like two events in my planner, and there’s already a conflict.  Gotta snap out of China-mode, where tests were optional and finals doubly so!


I then walked back across campus to another non-Keplinger building for Chinese.  I found the room and looked in to see a Chinese teacher, a guy, and a girl, just standing around.  The teacher asked who I was and seemed a little doubtful when I said I hadn’t taken Intermediate Chinese or passed a placement test but that wanted to attend the class anyway, but within a few minutes of “repeat-after-me” exercises, she could tell I was going to be okay.  The class is CHIN 3003, Advanced Chinese I, and without bragging I will say that my level is significantly higher than the other students. 

It’s not due to any special ability, but a year of living in China and studying Chinese in Chinese will do that to ya I guess.  I have spent possibly orders of magnitude more time speaking and listening to Chinese (with native speakers) than them, and when students are only studying Chinese we tackle a lot more vocabulary.  As an example, they knew one word for “understand”, while I can think of 5 (明白,懂,理解,了解,体会). 

I think I’m going to stick with it though, at least for a little while.  I like the teacher and it’s still good practice for me.  I feel bad because I think I might intimidate the other students, but maybe I can be a help instead.


After lunch, we had Senior Design.  I adore our professor (and, I’m realizing, the ME class of 2011 is not half bad) but I’m mildly terrified.  It’s just the first course of two that serve as the culminating experience of our undergraduate engineering education, nbd. 

I really thought my year in China was going to hurt me as I tried to get back in the swing of things with my ME major, but apparently that’s not the case.  After Dr. Tipton lectured us on creativity and intellectual blocks, he described a problem for us and asked us to brainstorm solutions.  Basically, there’s a room with a concrete floor, into which is set the base of a tube.  The tube contains a ping pong ball with very little clearance .  The challenge is to get the ball out of the tube without damaging the floor or the tube, and all we had to do it was:

  • claw hammer
  • hanger
  • box of Wheaties
  • plastic spoon

One guy shouted out “Use the Wheaties to make yourself salivate and then spit into the tube until the ball floats out!”.  Good idea, but I immediately responded “It’d be faster if you just pee in it.”  At this point Dr. Tipton stopped the exercise because he said I’d gotten the answer he was looking for.  He was trying to illustrate cultural/environmental blocks to creativity; apparently there is usually one kid snickering in the corner for about ten minutes before finally saying that idea out loud.  Well, if there’s one thing that my experiences in China have taught me, it’s that there are no inappropriate times to talk about defecation or urination. 

Biogas digesters, squatty potties, and split bottom pants FTW!


There was a room change before our next class (Introduction to Numerical Methods), but our teacher didn’t get the memo.  She came hurrying into class a few minutes late and made a comment about M4 being a good approximation of U9.  We ALL laughed – ah, math humor.  In a class like that, you take what you can get.

I think the class will be useful and not deathly hard, but it was during this class that my record of not falling asleep in class all day bit the dust . . .

Mondays and Wednesdays are pretty long days for me – 6 hours of class spread out from 8 to 5 with only an hour in the morning and two hours for lunch.  That’s a long way from XiaDa, when the most class I ever had was 3 hours and the shortest lunch I ever had was also three hours. 

But . . . I really liked it!

Jet Lag and Reverse Culture Shock Aren’t So Bad

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2010 at 12:42 am

I think I actually like jet lag.  Coming back from China is the only time I ever get up early willingly, and it’s also the only time that’s acceptable to feel as tired as I always feel.  Four hour nap in the late afternoon?  It’s just jet lag.  Incapable of staying awake during a 15-minute car ride?  She just got back from a year in China, what do you expect?  Sleeping for 14 hours when a pre-dinner nap went too long?  Well, it’s noon where she was before! 

(Never mind that I regularly do these things – or at least would love to do them – when I have no such valid excuse.)

Since I’m already just this side of narcoleptic, it’s a little hard to tell when I’m over jet lag.  Kind of like how it’s hard to tell if I’m drunk or not; I have no sense of direction anyway and can’t ever walk straight, so don’t jump to any conclusions.


After the insane heat of my last month in Xiamen, I couldn’t wait to get home to Minnesota on the 45th parallel.  But when you study abroad you hear a lot about reverse culture shock, when you realize everything you’ve been missing about home maybe isn’t quite as amazing as you remembered it being.  So while I sweated through multiple changes of clothes each day and spent all available moments on the beach in the sun (because it was just as hot anywhere else and at least there it was acceptable to sweat gallons), I wondered to myself if I was seeing Minnesota through rose-colored glasses. 

But no, it’s all true.  Minnesota summers are just as gorgeous as I remember.  I heard some people talking about heat but they were obviously completely crazy.  It was a week before I used the AC in the car, and I told my mom the first day I broke a sweat – a good 10 days after my return. 

It wasn’t until I got back to Minnesota that I realized just how hot Xiamen was.  The temperatures were in Celsius; while I developed a good feel for that scale I could only compare those temperatures to other temperatures in Celsius.  Also, I never once heard mention of a heat index, which must be either a Fahrenheit thing or an American thing.  Looking back now, the heat index on my last day in Xiamen was 124F; the first day of that weekend we lost power was 138F.  The two hottest days of my two weeks in Minnesota were barely even 120. 

So when people complain about the heat, I just say that it’s nothing “compared to China”.  This is actually relevant to many topics.  Weather, prices, population, distance, convenience, courtesy – everything looks a little bit different when China is added to the perspective.  It’s all relative. 

I can’t help but compare.  I expected the price comparison to be especially hard to take but actually overprepared for culture shock in some ways.  I was terrified to come home and have to spend American dollars, but it’s not so bad.  I’ve gotten some decent meals for less than $10, even $5, and the movie theater near my house has $5 movies except on weekends.  That’s what I was paying in China, with the 50% student discount!! 

My haircut was a total rip-off, though (especially when I realized later that, with hair this long, I could easily cut it myself), and taxes and tips suck.  After a long year of dividing by 7 (which I am really awesome at!), calculating 15% shouldn’t be so ridiculously hard.  But it is. 


Two things have really surprised me about America: how little Chinese there is, and how much.  First of all, no one knows any Chinese.  Every American has 30 Spanish words or phrases, 20 French, and a few German (gesundheit, danke shoen, blitzkreig, etc.).  We even know some Japanese – domo arigato [Mr. Roboto], konichiwa, and sayonara.  But Chinese?  Before my first trip I didn’t know how to say ‘hello’ in Chinese, and most people I ask back home can’t either. 

It’s kind of cool.  I can say whatever I want and no one has a clue what I’m saying.  There are no congnates to give me away, and even the tone of voice that could give me away in other languages is disguised by the choppiness of Chinese tonality.  I can also write anything in a code impenetrable to the vast majority of the American population.

(Another advantage: When my parents try to use my computer, I end up hearing them call from the other room: “How do you get rid of the Chinese?!?!”)

It would be better, though, if everyone would just learn my top 3 phrases or something.  麻烦, 走吧, and 怎么办 should be as commonplace as hola and gracias.  It would make my life so much easier.  Come on, Americans, get with it! 

But I also said that I was surprised at how much Chinese there is in America.  Characters EVERYWHERE!  On signs of Chinese restaurants, on all sorts of art, on everybody and their brother’s tatoos.  Pretty funny considering how few people can read them at all. 


I’m still realizing how different this year is going to be.  I became used to my life in Xiamen over the last 11 months to the point that that became my ‘normal’.  It’s been 16 months since I took a class that wasn’t about Chinese and 11 months since I took a class that wasn’t taught in Chinese.  Thing’s gonna be a little different this year, I think.

My Onion horoscope this week was:

Your belief that all life’s problems can be solved with a heart-to-heart talk and a good night’s sleep will be severely tested this week when you’re introduced to mathematics.

Sad day, considering a large part of my life as an American college student is mathematics.  Specifically, MATH 4503 Intro to Numerical Methods. 

I mean, I know I’m headed back to TU, back to ME and all, but I can tell I’m still thinking in China mode.  I had to buy a new computer (because my LCD backlight died and our open-heart surgery proved less than successful), and just like the army always fighting the last war, I found myself buying a computer for last year.  I pictured myself watching whole seasons of DVDs on that screen (when I have a huge TV in my living room), obsessed over having USB ports with the ability to sleep-and-charge (although I’ll have outlets and power strips galore in my bedroom), and worried about portability (even though I’ll be treating it as a desktop just like I did the year before I left).

In the end, I bought a computer.  It has a sleep-and-charge port but is just as ludicrously large as the brick I hauled all across China.  My laptops have an average lifespan of 2 years, though, and who really knows what the second year of this one will bring?

A friend called me a few days after I got home.  Stephen managed to get a hold of me on the day I left for China and also ended up being the first one to call me upon my return.  It was great to hear from him, although the familiarity of his voice reminded me instantly of my last year at TU and how, without him, it won’t be the same.  After we chatted and caught up, he asked me what was different about home.  I searched for something deep to say but came up with nothing.  You know, being gone from Minnesota for a year really isn’t weird at all.  When I’m at school in Tulsa I only make it home for a few weeks around Christmas between summers, so this year wasn’t all that different.  My parents even came to see me around the time I would have seen them normally, so I just missed out on seeing the town and the few friends left up there.  Coming back to my parents’ house after a year away felt just like that – like another year away.  Not that long, nothing special, just another year away. 

But TU?  Being gone one year from a place where the average turnover is four?  That will be different.  As I said, it’s all relative. 


Like sleep and my Anki reviews, reading the news got put on the back burner in both the pre-departure rush and the post-arrival chaos.  I finally got around to my Google Reader starred list after a week at home.  Lots of random articles and a whole series of them about the oil spill.  As far as I was concerned, oil was gushing til the end of the month (although it was actually capped on July 15th). 

I wonder if I’ll stop being out of touch now that I’m back in the States?

Spreadsheet Made; All Is Well

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2010 at 12:58 am

Today’s valuable lesson from class: If you eat shrimp and vitamin C, you will die.  It’s true, we saw it in a movie.  (But according to Snopes, it’s not true.  Who to believe?)

We also had a listening lesson in which we heard from Yang Zhenning, Chinese Nobel Prize-winner in Physics (and 87-year-old man who married a 28-year-old a few years ago, but that’s a story for another time).  He told us about how he learned English by reading books without looking up words in dictionaries, and letting the language slowly seep into his brain.  Convenient for him that he happened to be learning a phonetic language, no?  The teacher asked us what we thought of his method, and we were nearly unanimously against it.  I certainly don’t think you should look up every word you don’t know – I usually wait until I see the same character come up repeatedly – but the Chinese language demands use of a dictionary.  The meaning and pronunciation of Chinese characters are completely unrelated and the character components only occasionally have a vague phonetic indicator.  There is some use to knowing what characters mean even if you can’t say them out loud, but it’s quite limited.  And this is why all of us Chinese students have shelled out $100+ to buy electronic dictionaries with handwriting input . . .


I went to dinner with 5 friends tonight.  We went to the 东北 (NE China) restaurant and ordered mushu pork, lamb-‘n-onions, a fish, cucumbers and cashews, potato-eggplant-and-green-pepper, and sugared potatoes.  We must have been hungry, because we polished off every last bit of food.  I love how the table looks after a good Chinese meal is devoured: puddles of empty oil; plates of where only hot peppers – added for cooking, not eating – remain; fish skeletons picked clean. 


I sit back, hands on my pleasantly full belly, and think to myself, “We ate that food, man!” 


Ever since I began preparing for my first trip to the northeast of China, I’ve been following the news out of North Korea.  On one hand, it’s always good for a laugh (seriously, just check out the posturing on their official news site; the day something the U.S. just did isn’t being ‘blasted’ or ‘flayed’ will be a strange one indeed), but on the other hand it’s a continual source of heartbreak.  Today there was an article written about interviews with 8 North Koreans in China, and of course there’s no shortage of tragedy in their stories.  They tell of decades of famine, the loss of their life savings after the recent currency devaluation, and the stunning illogic of workers paying the state-owned companies for the privilege of not working for them without pay:

“How would the companies survive if they didn’t get money from the workers?” she asked without irony.

One interviewed was the wife of a party member; her story was different and included “a six-room house with two color televisions and a garden.”  I’m sad to say, there wasn’t much unexpected in the article for me except for the headline picture.  Usually these sort of stories take place in Dandong, in the province south of Jilin.  But these interviews took place in Tumen, a city I’ve been to.  I’ve stood on the bridge in the background of the photo at the fake buildings and real portrait of the Dear Leader.  I’ve stood on the lush green of the left side and I’ve looked across the river at the dead land on the other side.  It’s something you don’t ever forget. 


I’ve been a little bit 烦恼 recently, the kind of funk I get into every time I have to make a big decision.  Yes, it’s that time again (rather, a year or so past the time) – time to choose a school!  I have one more year at TU to finish my bachelors in Mechanical Engineering, but I’m planning on graduate school after that and senior year (a.k.a., a few months from now) is the time to be contacting specific professors and all.  I detest big decisions like this, a hatred I readily admit stems from fear.  But yesterday I got emails from two friends in response to my pleas for help, and that has helped me get started. 

I love these friends, classmates of mine at TU who think more like me than my friends here at XiaDa.  Aleid makes fun of my obsession with organization; both of these friends began their emails with “first, make a spreadsheet . . .” 

That’s what I’m talking about!  All major decision-making processes should start this way – no exceptions. 

Spreadsheet made; all is well. 

Can I Kiss You? I Mean, Ask A Question?

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2010 at 12:22 am

I love Mondays.  They’re the perfect slow day for recovering from full weekends.  I had class this morning at 8, but didn’t bother getting dressed or anything until afterwards.  (Class, by the way, was kind of interesting today in that a Thai classmate fainted – according to our teacher, this was because we was wearing too little and hadn’t eaten breakfast.  I think not wearing enough and not eating breakfast are probably the leading causes of death in China!)

I went to malatang for lunch with Eunice and XuLei, where we continued our boy talking from the beach.  I had told them about this Chinese guy that I kind of like, and had some new info to share with them.  We added each other on QQ (Chinese Skype), and I found his profile kind of interesting:


I want a normal healthy girl, one who can make fried egg-and-tomato, who can work a washing machine, who still has some freckles on her cheeks, who blushes when she meets strangers, who knows how much a bottle of soy sauce costs, who would help me wash rice if I brought a big bag home.  Are these requirements too high?  If there really is such a girl with such a spirit, please give me one!

XuLei thinks he’s good-looking, liked his description of the ideal woman, and nearly fits it (as long as he doesn’t have height requirements, she joked).  Maybe I should just set them up . . . I’m not really sure what to think about it.  I think the utter Chinese-ness of it is hilarious, with the 西红柿炒蛋 requirement and mentions of soy sauce and rice.  But I’m taken aback that he’s so frank about his desire for a woman who can cook and do laundry!  According to XuLei, though, this guy has much better standards than most.  The average Chinese guy is looking for a beautiful elegant wife who can cook and clean and make money, is good with computers – and is willing to overlook his affairs.  Umm . . . no.

By the way, if I ever do decide to pursue a Chinese guy, we’ve figured out the perfect pickup line.  All you do is go up to the guy and casually ask “qíngwěn”.  If you say the tones correctly, it means “Can I kiss you?” (请吻), but the much more common use of those two syllables (with different tones) is “qǐngwèn”, which means “Can I ask a question?” (请问).  If he’s interested, then he may catch your meaning; if he’s not, then he’ll just figure you messed up the tones and meant to ask a question.  Ah, for once a fun use of tones!


I took a nap after lunch.  It was amazing, with great sleeping weather (rainy and slightly cold outside, the sun’s brightness mitigated by the clouds) and a full belly.  And then I was woken up by the sound of tornados approaching. 

Well, at least that what I, born and bred in Tornado Alley, figured was going on.  Crazy loud sirens – wailing up and down, up and down – right outside my window = tornado, obviously, or possibly some other natural disaster.  But which one?  Earthquake (get outside), tsunami (stay on the 4th floor), fire (run away from it)?  I could see people from my window, none of whom looked remotely concerned, so as the sirens continued, I started making phone calls.  I eventually found out that it was an air-raid siren, a test that they do this every year on this day.  Wonderful.  I freak out momentarily at noon on the first Wednesday of every month when they test the tornado sirens in Oklahoma, so this nearly caused a heart attack!  The sirens continued for well over a half-hour, which seemed kind of excessive considering that it only took 30 seconds for me to be absolutely positive that they were working just fine. 

Not exactly the best way to be woken up from a nap – Reminder!  Taiwan is just across the strait and we have never technically ruled out the possibility of a forcible takeover! – but it did succeed in getting me out of bed when my cell phone alarm didn’t.

After making it through all of my flashcards, I tackled another element of my daily study routine: a Question of the Day from the Fundamentals Exam, the first test on the way to becoming a professional engineer.  I found the site a few weeks ago and hoped that it could help me keep the scientific part of my brain from irreversible atrophy.  I’ve done pretty well (especially considering I tackle all of the questions without textbooks or a graphing calculator, essentials you don’t truly appreciate until they’re on another continent). 

But the last two days’ questions have been regarding beams in loading and have utterly stumped me.  This is beyond depressing, as beams in loading is to mechanical engineering what multiplication is to mathematics – so fundamental it ought not need review.  I remember graphs of . . . stuff (two of them in fact) and an equation that contained . . . letters.  That’s about all I got.  The hint mentioned something about a moment of inertia, which actually wasn’t much of a hint, as I can’t remember how to calculate it or what to do with it.  It’s like my Spanish, all over again – still in there, but I can’t get it to come out on cue for the life of me! 


This evening I found a bunch more articles of interest:

  • A Chinese article on Bishop Cai’s ordination – in Chinese, but it has a lot of really great pictures!
  • The Union of Catholic Asian News story on the ordination – including more numbers (2,000 participants), details on the participation of the local underground church, and a little bit of information on Bishop Cai’s life and vocation.
  • The CathNews Asia article on the implications of the ordination and the possible of many many more double-mandate ordinations to come in the next few months!
  • An old article on the status of the other Fujian bishop, currently illegitimate but apparently hoping for the approval of the Pope.
  • An even older article on the death of the last bishop of Xiamen – the first native bishop – back in 1991.  He was illegitimate (without papal approval) but apparently suffered from poor health due torture sustained during the Cultural Revelation.  Hearing things like this makes me understand why Pope Benedict has called for mutual understanding between the official and underground churches here – it’s certainly not as simple as the good guys and the bad guys.  Also in the article, Fr. Jiang (the older priest here, now 65 according to their info) said that he was taking care of the church and “didn’t know the arrangements for a new episcopal election.”  I wonder if he ever thought they would wait 20 years?
  • This article about Cardinal Sin, which I found interesting mainly because it’s a really unfortunate name for a cardinal, no?
  • This slideshow (kind of random) of Russian vets.  Definitely check out number 14, who is basically like my Grandpa Garibay, only Russian.