Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘food’

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.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Anyway, in the last few days, I’ve noticed people’s behavior around escalators changing like I have around manhole covers.  Another friend said he’s noticed people stepping over that metal plate, unconscious about this adaptation already.  Like I said before, while the human body (and mind, and spirit) can accomodate any number of terrible situations, it would be better if it did not have to.  

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoked Sichuan Duck

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2015 at 10:34 am

After a day of working on Abaqus simulations, I took off around 5 to meet the other Beijingers at the subway station.  From there we headed to Olympic Park, to a restaurant called 湄洲东坡 for dinner.   An EAPSI alum from 2004 (the first EAPSI in China!) who is still working in China, treated us to dinner.  The food was great, honestly probably the best meal I’ve had in Beijing.  The sweet and sour fish was ridiculous and delicious, the smoked Sichuan duck might even beat Beijing duck for me, and the eggplant was on point.  

We also got a chance to talk about our EAPSI experience and the upcoming Young Scientists Forum after the closing ceremony next Friday.  It seems a little bit ridiculous – 5 minute talks, followed by 1-minute summaries of the talks – but, thus is China sometimes.

I got home around 8:30 and spent the evening planning out my remaining week.  We still have no internet at the hotel (apparently someone “borrowed” the router yesterday, with no indication of when we’ll get it back) so I had to do this all on my phone.  But, I found a place near the train station to have lunch on Sunday (treating the friends who treated me the first few weeks) so I can get my train tickets afterwards.  And found a couple potential places to take my labmates on Monday or Tuesday.  I also sorted out the gifts I brought.  How does 2 pounds of chocolate, 8 shirts, and 3 bottles of wine suddenly seem insufficient?  

Today I learned: On 点评, the Chinese equivalent of Yelp, Burger King has 5 stars.  

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).  

Bad China Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Uncategorized on July 12, 2015 at 10:50 am

I was a little late leaving for Mass today, so I ended up taking the subway halfway there and a taxi the rest of the way.  But seriously, taxi driver conversations are some of the best conversations.  I hailed the cab using the 快的 app, and meeting up with him took a few extended phone conversations.  He was patient, though, and when I got in the cab he said he could tell I was a foreigner so he spoke slower and more standard.  Good man, there.  In further conversations about China and California, he told me that Beijing people are more easily satisfied and so less likely to go abroad in search of a fortune; this is why most of the Chinese people outside of China are southerners.  

I got to church in plenty of time.  It was over 90 degrees, humid, and AQI over 200, so I just didn’t feel well.  Had a hard time staying alert/awake/upright during Mass. 

I was supposed to meet some Stanford people for lunch, but those plans fell through.  I was not sad at all to return immediately to my air conditioned hotel room!

On the way back, I had a funny experience.  I bought some food on the street and as I waited for it, a woman standing there kept staring at me.  Eventually she got up the courage to speak to me, and told me that I was beautiful. 

It was very sweet; I used to get told I was beautiful in Xiamen a lot but not so much in Beijing (or in the US, haha).  I just thought it was odd because I was wearing a face mask.  My dress was pretty, yes, but all she could see of my face was my eyes.  It reminded me of the time my dad told my mom that she would look good in a burqa.  

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It was also funny because a little girl ran up to this woman, took one look at me, and hid behind her.  Later on in the subway, a little girl saw me, pointed, and looked scared.  I certainly don’t feel beautiful in a mask – I feel scary.  

I took a nap, and was woken up by a phone call in Chinese.  This is the best test of one’s language skills . . . and I failed.  It was my best friend XuLei, and I had to ask her who it was.  

She was calling to talk about my travel plans after Beijing.  We had made plans for me to visit her home in Wuhan, then go back to Xiamen before flying back to the US, via Beijing.  But things had changed on both of our ends – I wasn’t going to have a chance to get to Jilin during the 8 weeks, so I have to go during my travel time at the end, and her family is busy during the days I’d originally planned to be in Wuhan.  

Basically, I have 12.5 days to visit Wuhan, Xiamen, and Jilin.  Taking America as an analogy, I’m in Washington DC and I have to visit Nashville, Miami, and Maine.  We went through about every permutation before setting on an itinerary of Beijing-Xiamen-Wuhan-Changchun-Hunchun-Changchun-Beijing-San Francisco.  XuLei’s getting us tickets from Xiamen to Wuhan together, but I have to get the other flight and several train tickets myself.  Every time I go to Jilin, I realize how far in the middle of nowhere I lived.  (To be more accurate, it’s really on the edge of nowhere – right on the Russian and North Korean borders.)  Even on the new fast train, Changchun is over 6 hours from Beijing, which gets me within 6 hours of Hunchun.  Some combination of trains and buses and taxis has to get me the rest of the way.  Yay logistics?  I am really excited about the destinations, though, so it’s worth it.

For dinner, I joined my Romanian coteacher and some friends of his for dinner.  There’s a Pakistani place with an all-you-can-eat special to break the fast during Ramadan.  The food was so good!  

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I ate way too much and do not regret it at all.  This was also my first time using a fork this time in China!  

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.  

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.

Learning to Toast

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2015 at 11:16 pm

I spent 7 hours at karaoke today with my labmates!  A very traditional 4th of July activity, right?

I sang a lot of English songs – Telephone, Call Me Maybe, My Life Would Suck Without You, Rolling in the Deep (a request), I Will Always Love You, Domino, Thrift Shop.  Then I wanted to introduce them to some country music, so I did Fastest Girl in Town by Miranda Lambert.  It was so strange to watch that music video in Chinese, knowing that Chinese eyes were also watching it.  There were guns . . . 

I also sang Southern Comfort Zone by Brad Paisley and Carolina by James Taylor.  We have a lot of wistful songs about home, don’t we?  I almost did Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel, but I didn’t want my labmates to think I wanted to be somewhere else.

But Southern Comfort Zone really did seem very poignant today.  I have walked the streets of Rome, and I have been to foreign lands.  I definitely know what it’s like to talk and have nobody understand (like, that happened last week).  I’ve been to some amazing places and had some incredible experiences, but I also love the comfort of home.  

I also sang basically my entire repertoire of Chinese songs.  It’s not a ton, as potential candidates have to meet several requirements – I have to like the song, it has to be within my range, and the words have to be relatively easy.  I sang 人间、日不落、桃花朵朵开、and 改变自己, but it was 遇上你是我的缘 that everyone exclaimed over – I think it might be a Western song (either Xinjiang or Tibet) and no one was expecting me to sing it?

YiZhou sang in Korean, and apparently everyone can sing in Cantonese.  (This is a major headache for me, as almost all karaoke lyrics are in Traditional Chinese characters already; when I’m both looking at and hearing words that are almost, but not quite, familiar to me in a second language, I just want to switch off my brain.)  I further contributed to the language potpourri by singing Corre in Spanish, which I was pleasantly surprised to find when scanning through the songs.  

The other 6 hours when I wasn’t singing, I watched my labmates and took notes of songs that I liked.  There were an incredible number of sad songs – probably half of them had someone actively crying in the music video.  The best example of this is 童话, in which music video a guy sings to his girlfriend as she dies of lung cancer, promising that they’ll live happily ever after like in a fairy tale.  In the US, where it seems like getting people pumped up or dancing is the standard by which karaoke is judged, you don’t sing songs like this, but in China it’s a karaoke standard.  My favorite guitar songs are mostly sad drinking a songs (a category in which country music excels), so this is right up my alley.  It’s like I’ve finally found my people – the ones who will watch you sing sad song after sadder song without wondering if you’re suicidal.  

When our time was up at 5pm, we went to dinner.  We biked through Tsinghua’s campus to a 串 place near the West Gate.  串, or “chuar”, is basically like the Minnesota State Fair – everything skewered and cooked on a stick.  We got chicken wings, lamb meat, cow tendon, and fried bread on sticks, plus a mysterious (but delicious) bowl of black noodles, roasted eggplant, and edamame.  

I had told them I eat everything but 肠 (intestines) and bitter things.  I hadn’t really foreseen  them ordering tendon, but it was actually better than what I expected.  (When I commented thus – perhaps I just said it was “good” – we ended up ordering more, haha.)  Later, they asked why I don’t like intestine, and I said it was too chewy.  Tendon can be, too, but this was prepared in a way that wasn’t so much.  “Transversely isotropic”, GuoYang commented, in perfect English.  That was exactly it – tendon, like muscle, is transversely isotropic, with different material properties in one direction than in the others (it’s quite strong in the fiber direction, but the fibers are only loosely connected to their neighbors).  This tendon had been cut through the fibers, so the loose connections between the fibers came apart easily in my mouth, avoiding the dreaded interminable chewing of intestine.  I started laughing when he said this, though, which made him think he had spoken incorrectly.  No, I told him, that’s exactly how I would have explained it to friends back home (if they were nerdy in the same way that I am), but it’s so strange to have these guys produce perfect English technical vocabularly when 99% of our interaction is in Chinese.  He later said the word “morphology” in a different conversation.  I guess it’s like my vocab was when I was living on the farm – mostly based on a 500-word picture dictionary for children, plus construction terms like “weld”, “backhoe”, and “rivet gun”.  You learn what you need to know!

I carry around a little notebook that I bought the first week, and throughout the day scribble down new words, notes for my journal, names, etc.  They’ve all noticed it, because it usually comes out as a preface to a question I’m going to ask.  During dinner I showed JiaWen all the words I’d written down in my notebook, from 特征值 (eigenvalue), which she taught me yesterday, all the way back to 微米 (micron) and 尿布 (diaper) from the visiting American professor.  When we got to those, she said, I think your Chinese and his are pretty much the same level, right?  I agreed with her, but commented on the different ways our language levels are perceived because he looks Asian and I don’t – his level was described as “一般” (average, or half), while they say mine is 非常不错 (extremely not bad) or something like that.  A few of the guys leapt in to my defense, to say that I speak better than him.  One of the things that makes Chinese easy to learn in China is the absolute, unconditional encouragement you get from Chinese people on your progress.  But, I said, you don’t really compliment people on their language abilities once they really get good enough.  I don’t even think of complimenting most of my international friends at Stanford, any more than I would do so to a native speaker, because that’s what they sound like.  As long as I get told my Chinese is great, I know it’s only good.  

We had ordered a few bottles of Tsingtao beer, which we drank from small glasses (about 2-3 times the size of a shot glass).  Before long, the toasts started.  ZhaoYan stood up, said some nice words about America’s Independence Day, and we clinked glasses.  I sought out everyone else’s glasses, clinked with them, and then drank.  This is not how you do it in China, Cheng kindly told me – in China, toasts are one-on-one, not communal.  Oops!  In the US, I said, we usually do group toasts, so I did one as an example and everyone drank, but then we returned to the Chinese model – ShaoZhen and GuoYang toasted me, and I returned the gesture and toasted each of them.  

When I studied Chinese in Xiamen, I took classes like 口语 (oral Chinese), 听力 (listening), and 报刊 (newspaper reading), but I’ve long maintained that these are not sufficient for a holistic Chinese education.  I would like to see classes in four main areas which have a huge impact on the quality of one’s life in China: ordering food, singing karaoke, getting mad, and toasting.  The whole lab is going to dinner after group meeting on Friday in celebration of the three students who are graduating, so I better start preparing some toasts now . . . 

When you’re toasted, I was told, you make the other person very happy if you drink your entire glass. I can just drink a shot in one mouthful, but these glasses are way too big for me.  The girls, Cheng and JiaWen, agreed with me, but none of the guys seemed to have a problem at all.  We decided we’re going to write a paper on how men drink so fast.  It would go well with the visiting professor’s research on urination!  

Someone asked me how old I am – apparently the oldest in the room.  This makes me their 师姐, they explained – it’s something like “older lab sister”.  I love this custom in Chinese, to address members of very close groups with family terms.  I first experienced it in church, which was familiar because we also call fellow Catholics “brother and sister” in the US.  But while I feel like my labmates at Stanford are like brothers, I still call them “labmates”.  Here, though, these guys are my 师弟 and 师妹.  

I treated everyone to dinner.  I think I was pretty awkward about it, but 请客 (treating) is a complex affair in China and friends have a history of sneaking off and paying before I even realize what’s going on.  (For example, I still have no idea how karaoke was paid for or what it cost.)  So after we ordered, I announced that I was going to pay.  I got away with it with only moderate protestations and last-ditch attempts to pay the cashier that I was easily able to override.  Dinner for 6 was just under 500元, or about $80.  That’s a great price for a wonderful day spent with these guys outside of work!  It’s amazing – it’s almost four times what I paid last night for the sangria and various taxis, but I don’t mind spending money on friends and good times, while getting cheated even out of $3 is absolutely infuriating.

In a very bittersweet revelation, I also found out that I’m going to be saving about 200元 this month.  ShaoZhen, my office mate, main lunch buddy, and the first guy whose name I learned, is leaving on Monday for an internship in Zhejiang and won’t be back until after I leave.  The good news is, he’s going to let me use his internet account since he won’t be here and I won’t have to worry about stealing someone’s precious allotment of internet.  

That should save me 10元 a day . . . but ShaoZhen is leaving!  My friend circle just got a little bit smaller.  I was also not prepared to say goodbyes this early.  I’m really bad at sharing my emotions in Chinese, so I’m even worse at goodbyes in China than in the US.  I said that I had enjoyed getting to know him thanked him for all of his help, and wished him a good experience in Zhejiang.  Then I said, We Americans usually hug goodbye, but I know that you guys don’t have this custom, so . . . We shook hands, before everyone else told him to let me hug him.  It was a good hug, actually.  A lot of Chinese people don’t seem to know how to hug, so sometimes they try to go left, but he went right.  Goodbye, ShaoZhen!

As we biked back to the Tsinghua campus together, I biked next to GuoYang and we talked.  He has probably the most similar personality to mine.  We both tease people a lot – he was the one who asked me if I was really a mechanical engineer when I didn’t know how to operate the kickstand on my bike the first week.  (It’s a complicated kickstand, okay??)  He said, I figured you could handle it.  I, in turn, have been giving him a hard time about his Chinese, haha.  (He didn’t know a song by 王菲, the most famous female Chinese singer, so I’m not even sure he’s really Chinese.)  But, he told me seriously, he’s been learning from me about how to learn a language: carrying a notebaook around, reading a book in another language every year.  I was so flattered by this!  Now I’m trying to think of recommendations of English books for him – he especially likes history and culture.  

Another aspect of this perfect day – it rained through most of the day, but we avoided it perfectly during either karaoke or dinner.  Hopefully this means another few days of clear skies!

Today was not the first Fourth of July I’ve spent in China – 2008, 2010, and now 2015.  It was also not the most traditional (in 2008, we put on an amazing fireworks show at the farm and ‘barbecued’, although the meat was a goat we slaughtered).  And it was not the most beautiful (in 2011, we rented a boat and went around to some deserted island’s around Xiamen).  But this one deserves some sort of superlative . . . Today felt pivotal, like it was really the point at which we transitioned from labmates to friends.  

Yeah, I’m definitely leaving a part of my heart in Beijing.


Today I learned: 

I cannot sing Shakira’s La Tortura without someone to sing Alejandro Sanz’s part.  Also, all of Lady Gaga’s music videos are super weird.  

How many Tsinghua graduate students it takes to figure out a cell phone plan – apparently 5.  My cell phone plan was, and still is 128元, which is about as much as I pay in the US!  I’m not sure how this simple transaction is beyond my language abilities, but it was some comfort that it took literally all five of my friends half an hour to help me put money on my phone account.  

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.