Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘games’

Last Tsinghua Meal

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2015 at 12:33 pm

I went to work early today, to take advantage of the last day I can run simulations.  I was also supposed to meet with Profs. Feng and Li about the next step, but there was a miscommunication.  So instead, I met with just Prof. Feng in the afternoon.  

I had lunch with my Romanian coteacher, Tamas, to say goodbye.  As we walked outside after lunch, the loudest crack of thunder I’ve ever heard scared the crap out of me, and was immediately followed by an absolute downpour.  Ugh, 墨迹天气, my weather app, is the worst.  Of course, today was the day I only brought an umbrella.  I barely made it to a nearby building, where I waited out the rain shopping for a few more Tsinghua souvenirs – and another rain coat.  

In the evening, I had my last meal at the Tsinghua cafeteria.  The food selection seemed so fraught with importance, and then I choked and got what I thought was pork but was actually bamboo shoots, haha.  Also, two people bought watermelon, so we ate so much watermelon . . . 

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Afterwards, I realized I had to clean up my desk and transfer data, which took longer than I expected.  Then we went to play mahjong again!  Two of my EAPSI friends were interested but bailed, so it ended up being me, Zu Yan, Cheng, and her boyfriend.  I did a lot better this time.  I think the time off to process things helped – I literally dreamt of Zu Yan teaching me more rules last night, so I know my brain was working on it all night.  

We played until a little after midnight.  I still got to bed waaaay earlier than some EAPSI people . . . As tomorrow is the closing ceremony, all the non-Beijingers have to get back here by tomorrow.  Easier said than done, because apparently the noon thunderstorm in Beijing threw the air traffic situation in the entire country into complete disarray.  People sat on the tarmac for hours, were delayed or canceled multiple times, etc.  For a while, I wondered if it was just going to be the 12 of us Beijingers for the ceremony tomorrow, but I think the last flight landed around 4am.  

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.  

S’mores

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!

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).  

I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake

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

I got my first shipment from 亚马孙 (amazon.cn) today! I asked GuoYang to help me buy this book that one of my students recommended the other day, 藏在这个世界的优美. I looked it up online and saw that it was only 28元 in China, so I decided to just buy it – there’s no way I’d be able to get it for $5 once I left China! I’ve been reading a book in another language every year for the past four years, and I think this might be next year’s book. I still have the second and third parts of the Three Body trilogy left, but I’m not sure if I want to spend 3 years of my life reading them (also they’re bigger than the first one, which is already a challenge for me). This could be a nice change of pace. It’s 330 pages, with lots of spaces and pictures!, so it’s totally doable in a year.

I gave GuoYang 30元 for the book, and he insisted on giving me change. He eventually scrounged up 4元, but then I looked at the bill and saw that it was actually 28.5元, so I gave him back three of the bills. When I use them for my banking purposes, I’m fine with rounding up, but they don’t like it. I tell them it’s a tip, but they protest. I guess they don’t want to come across as greedy, but in the same way I don’t want to come across as stingy, which is how I would feel if I counted out exactly 28元 and 5角. So, I guess we’re stuck doing this song and dance every time I pay them for things.

I worked hard all afternoon on these wrinkling instability derivations. Ugh, so tedious. I’m trying to get from this:

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to something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elephant in the Road

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Hmm, I think I like jetlag!  On the way home from Asia it’s a justification for my laziness, and on the way over, it’s the only time in my entire life that I wake up early!

I got up at 6:30; I had woken up earlier but stayed in bed biding my time until breakfast was open.  The hotel provided rice, fried green vegetables, a dish with sprouts, egg pancake, fried eggs, bread, butter, pineapple, and OJ.  Not bad!  It was a lot like Chinese food but all-around less flavorful, like they don’t know about salt or something.

I spent the morning reading Harry Potter in my bed.  I bought my Chinese copy of the first book, reasoning that it’s the smallest book that I could read for an entire week and not finish.  I read about 10 pages (out of 200) on the plane over and another 10 this morning.  It’s going pretty well – I’ve learned a lot of new words by context (magical words like wand, robe, owl, etc.).  The hardest things are adverbs – “She said, tempestuously/viciously/amusedly/etc.” – but the story is easily understood without them.

We met downstairs at 10 and set out for our first real look at Cambodia.  Our hotel is right off a main road (Monivong) so we started there.  Our first task was to get a cellphone for Michelle.  The guy behind the counter knew some English, certainly enough to understand “SIM card” and tell us a price, but Michelle’s other questions proved too difficult.  On a whim, I went up and asked “你会说中文?” and he responded “会” – he spoke Chinese!  I was so excited to be useful.

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Questions answered, we bought a SIM card and continued on.  After a short walk, we came to the Central Market.  We walked through the food section first.  They had a lot of fruit that I missed from China – I was so excited to buy tiny oranges again!  The hygiene in the meat section was particularly disturbing, with feet on the cutting counters, for instance, but whatevs.

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From there, we walked across the street to the mall, where we continued our shopping and people-watching.  We went up to the top floor (of 6?) which offered both a panoramic view of the city and the opportunity to watch some teenage guys learning to rollerskate.

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We had lunch at a pizza place in the mall.  David said that it was legitimately good pizza, but I think that outside of an Asian country it would be the rough equivalent of Mazzio’s.  Just not far enough removed from good Western food to lower my standards that much . . .

During lunch, I looked at the Khmer (Cambodian language) phrase book that I had bought at the market.  I was reminded of how difficult it can be to start a language, at that early point when even the Anglicized pronunciation is impossible.  Um, does anyone else know how to say “flour” in a sound London accent, or what “o” as in “corn” or “dawn” sounds like?

We stopped by the supermarket afterwards to buy provisions for the days in Svay Rieng when the food will [allegedly] be horrible.  I was way impressed with their selection, especially when compared to similar places in China.  They had so many spices!!  I would have killed for that last year . . . I also appreciated the surprisingly good selection of sparkling grape juice for our New Years celebration.

We tuk-tuk-ed back to the hotel to drop off our stuff, then took a tuk tuk tour around town.  Phnom Penh is beatiful!  There are ornate temple-shaped buildings everywhere, and the main thoroughfare is a beautiful green boulevard centered around the Independence Monument.

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(This was taken from a moving tuk tuk.  Can we take a moment to appreciate my new camera?!)

My favorite part was the riverfront, which was lined with flags from countries all over the world.

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Our tour ended at Wat Phnom, the main temple in Phnom Penh.  (By the way, Angkor Wat, which is the largest religious structure in the world, is not in Phnom Penh and thus we will not be seeing it.)

The temple was really beautiful and it was the Golden Hour (as the sun was setting) so we posed for a group photo.

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John and Rick took the opportunity to ride an elephant for $20.

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This turned out to mean a ride around the entire temple . . . in the street.  The elephant just merged into traffic with the cars and tuk tuks, no big deal.

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Back at the hotel, Kim and Rick and I got massages – one hour, $6.  It was not the best massage I’ve ever gotten, as it was slightly awkward, but I enjoyed watching the Asian music videos anyway.

For dinner, we walked to a Japanese restaurant on Monivong.  I had sushi and tempura – good, but really expensive ($13).  Michelle and Garret went to bed but the rest of us played Loaded Questions for a while.  Then David and John went to bed, leaving just us young’uns to greet the new year.

We retired to our room and played a game of Catan, which I won about 20 minutes before midnight.

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With the game over, we decided to turn on the TV and try to find a countdown of some sort.  We found a recording of fireworks from the hour before in Taipei and Hong Kong, but right before midnight they cut to commercial!  We frantically scanned through the available channels looking for something remotely festive, but ended up on a Danish news station as the clock struck 12:00.  It was moderately ridiculous . . .

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Happy New Year?

Songs and Games

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2010 at 11:38 pm

I finally got a chance to sleep in this morning! I spent the morning packing in between chatting on QQ. Recently a bunch of people have been adding me on QQ to talk about Jesus, which is pretty interesting. I’m not sure if they know I’m Christian (and how they would know this) but at any rate, there is a veritable horde of these online evangelizers. Here’s a typical conversation:

Him: Are you Christian?
Me: I’m Catholic.
Him: Why don’t you believe in Jesus? Why do you want to believe in Mary? Jesus was God’s son, Mary was just a person.
Me: You don’t know what Catholics believe, do you? You really don’t. We also believe in Jesus.
Him: I don’t know, I just know that Jesus is the Messiah.
Me: We also believe that.
Him: So what’s up with the Lord of Heaven?
Me: The Lord of Heaven is the Emperor on High, they’re the same person.

See, in Chinese, Catholics and non-Catholic Christians have different names for God. Catholics say 天主, or Lord of Heaven, while non-Catholic Christians call Him 上帝, or Emperor on High. There is so little actual knowledge and so much misinformation that sometimes the Chinese don’t realize they refer to the same person. It’s not that unusual to have theological disagreements with other Christians in the US, and sometimes they even refuse to admit that Catholics are also Christians, but usually you have to get into more specific doctrines like the Immaculate Conception or the Communion of Saints before having problems . . . not just the belief of the Trinity.

Jelle called me up in the afternoon wanting to play a final game of Catan. I ended up boxed in between him and YongZhi, and lost with 9 points. It’s probably better this way, as Jelle is super competitive and kind of a sore loser; I guess I can handle him winning once, even if it was my last game in China :)

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I had a little time before dinner, so I walked around West Gate. As I was perusing the street goods, one of the sellers ran after me to get my attention. She started talking about how good it was to see me, how long it had been, and things like that, but despite my head racing I could not figure out where I knew her from. I let her talk, and after a while she mentioned something about Coco. That was it – I could picture her perfectly in an orange polo and khaki baseball cap! She used to work at Coco and was familiar because I went there almost every day. She got fired for a bad attitude, I think (which is kind of funny because the surliest Coco employee is friendlier than the friendliest waitress in any restaurant), so it had been several months since we had seen each other. We exchanged phone numbers, finally learned each others’ names, and I guess we’re friends now!

I had dinner plans with Mr. Hou, one of the men from the dancing group. I hadn’t seen him since he played ping-pong with my dad during their visit, but he happened to walk by during Diederik’s goodbye dinner and I said hi to him. This meal was definitely the most we’d ever talked; I knew he was professor of biochemical engineering, but I learned tonight that he likes to memorize speeches in English. He did the beginning of Bush’s inaugural address, starting with “Chief Justice Rehnquist, President Clinton, Vice President Gore, distinguished guests” and on from there. He also knew more of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech than I did! Surprisingly, he didn’t know the Gettysburg Address so I recited what I knew (which was, thankfully, the entire opening paragraph). Thank you, 5th grade!

After dinner I had dessert plans with BinBin, the youth group leader at church. He had a friend who was heading to America to do a PhD in mechanical engineering, so we met up to talk over shaved ice. He’s going to North Carolina State, which I told them is in the American equivalent of Shanghai, when my university is in Kunming. BinBin followed that up by asking how long it would take to get there by bus, and I had to break the news to him that you can’t take buses like that in America. I had this funny mental image of him loaded up with luggage, wandering Chapel Hill looking for the bus station to catch the sleeper to Tulsa. Hahahaha.

This friend and his girlfriend were also Catholic, but part of the underground church. They were the first underground Catholics I met, and I was happy to tell him a little bit about the Church in the rest of the world where there won’t be this division. (Incidentally, BinBin told me that if I were around for another month, I would be able to witness the beginning of the reconciliation between Xiamen’s patriotic and underground church! Oh, for another year here . . . ) I felt like I was telling him the streets were paved with gold in America when I told him that there would most likely be a Catholic church and student organization on his actual campus!

My new friends joined me afterwards for karaoke. It was Carlos, me, and a bunch of my Chinese friends – but because they were from different groups, I had to introduce them to each other! There were my dancing friends, friends from church, a friend I stole from Carlos, one of Carlos’ coworkers, and my two new friends.

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We sang all the songs I learned after our last karaoke party, plus I sang a few from their English selection.

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Carlos and I did a killer rendition of Circle of Life.

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I did Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You as a sort of goodbye, Anson sang a Chinese song for me called “If There Comes A Day”, and we ended the night with the cheesily perfect Chinese song “Friends”.

这些年 一个人
风也过 雨也走
有过泪 有过错
还记得坚持甚麽

还有伤 还有痛
还要走 还有我

Through the years by myself, the wind has blown and the rain has fallen.
There have been tears and mistakes, but I’ve persevered.
There is hurt, there is pain, we have to keep going, but you still have me

The room was paid for until daylight, but we didn’t stay that long.

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There were lots of goodbyes once the singing ended; while it still didn’t seem real to me yet, one friend obviously clearly remembered Lester’s recent farewell and started crying at the thought of his other foreign friend leaving.

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I didn’t want to sleep. I was leaving 后天 (the day after tomorrow), but as soon as I went to sleep it would become 明天 (tomorrow). So Carlos, XuLei, and I postponed sleep by eating barbecue at West Gate and walking back to the dorms at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t enough; eventually I had to go to bed.

Why the Chinese Carry Umbrellas

In Uncategorized on July 15, 2010 at 12:59 pm

After a late rising and a meal of mangos and egg tarts (breakfast of champions!), I 爬山-ed up to the tall building.  I registered for my completion-of-studies certificate and finally got my HSK certificate, officially verifying my 中等B季 (B-level intermediate) Chinese skills.  Sweet!

I kind of started packing before I met XuLei for dinner.  I’ve been teaching her an English word a day recently, starting with “party pooper” when she refused to stay up all night to watch the World Cup final.  My goal is to find useful words that native speakers actually use and ground them with a personal experience – it is the best way to learn after all.  So we started with “party pooper” (It’s like a bunch of people want to have a party, but you poop on it) and, when the conversation turned to plans for my last night in country, I taught her “skinny dipping”.  Hahaha.  She was mortified. 

Carlos and I had plans to play games with his work friends again, so we headed out to meet them after dinner.  Carlos had told me about a different version of Catan he had sighted in a board game shop, and through the power of suggestion we became convinced it was Cities & Knights.  (Cities & Knights is the awesome expansion to Settlers.  Cities is to Settlers what milk tea with pearls is to its pearl-less counterpart; regular milk tea is good but you don’t realize what excellence you’ve been missing until you try the 珍珠.)

But, seeing as Settlers of Catan has both cities and knights, it proved to be very difficult to discuss the game clearly.  In the end, no one had Cities so we just played a game of Settlers with 6 players.  And to add insult to injury, I lost!

Afterwards, the owner of the board game shop suggested another for us to try: a French game called Dixit.  It’s like Dictionary (a.k.a. Balderdash) mixed with Apples and Apples, featuring artsy French illustrations.  Everyone has a hand of six picture cards (all unique); one person lays a card face down and somehow describes the content of the picture with words, sounds, or actions.  Everyone else chooses the card out of their hand that best fits the description, lays it facedown in the piles, which is shuffled before people vote on which card they think was first laid down.  You get points for guessing correctly or causing others to guess correctly. 

It was fun and interesting, but I was really bad at it.  It may have been the fact that they all knew each other, because it’s pretty important to understand how others think when playing.  Like the one time Carlos said “James” (the name of one of the guys playing with us) as a clue and three of the six people played cards that had some sort of sword fighting on them.  But at least once there was an allusion that I caught.  The clue was “China” and cards included a girl being rescued from the jaws of a monster, a crowd of eggs or possibly houses, a thermometer filled with blood showing a high temperature, a table covered in food, and a map and compass.  Lots of possibilities there, but the 5 of us foreigners all chose the correct one – a sun shining over a sea of umbrellas – from the available choices.  The pictures are all a little ironic, or have something not quite right about them (umbrellas in the sun??), but in this case this one was absolutely perfect for the clue (yeah, if you’re in China!). 

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We took a taxi back to West Gate and then Carlos and I walked home across campus.  We took a route I don’t usually take, Carlos leading the way.  Suddenly, he stopped and pointed to the tree in front of us.  “Look!”, he said, and I looked.  The tree indicated was surrounding by a glistening wet patch, and in the light of the streetlight next to it, we could see a torrent of water drops falling down.  It was weird looking – a rainstorm confined to the tree’s surroundings – but in a pretty way, because the water drops looked like jewels in the yellow light.  “It’s cicada pee,” he told me. 

My mind processed this information immediately.  Yesterday when I was walking under those trees by the supermarket, those drops were not air conditioner water.  DISGUSTING.

In 7 days I will land back at home.  Between the road trip my brother and I have planned, and the hordes of peeing cicadas here in Xiamen, I am totally ready. 

Supply and Demand

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2010 at 2:43 am

We’ve put up with our share of crap from the weather in Xiamen this year.  For about five months, if you asked a Xiamenite when the rainy season is, they would respond, without fail, “n月和n+1月” (essentially, this month and next month).  And, from about February to mid-June, it was true.

But the blazing sun and brilliant blue sky have been out these past few days, and it has been glorious.  It’s been hot (35C or 100F) but not as deathly humid as before.  It reminds me of Texas, or (if the wind is blowing) Oklahoma.  Except there are beaches here.

I had my first final today, in newspaper reading.  I was really excited about the class at first but somewhere along the line (between the second and the third teacher) it became newspaper analysis and started to suck.  Glad to be done with it.

I rewarded myself by spending the afternoon at the beach with a book.  A book I’ve already read, granted, but that’s the reality of life in China for me.  I didn’t go in the water, just sat by the large concrete mice (computer, not animal) that are there for some reason.  I had the beach basically to myself, which would have made more sense if it had been during a downpour or a snowstorm or a tsunami instead of an insanely gorgeous day.  But this is one of the perks of Asians’ cultural dislike for dark skin – sometimes understandably mistaken as a downright fear of the sun.

I should admit – one of my purposes in sitting out there was to get a tan.  I feel slightly conflicted about this, because I dislike the importance attached to skin color in societies all over the world.  I guess I think I look better with slightly darker skin (hopefully to cover up those mosquito bite scars) but what I think is more interesting is the connotation that different skin colors carry.

Because of course, skin color is just a convenient proxy for the connotations associated with it.  This is why Americans love bronzed bodies and Asians treasure their porcelain skin.  (See?  Even the words differ; Americans would more commonly say ‘pasty’.)  In societies where many labor under the sun, skin untouched by its rays is a sign of wealth or prestige keeping it from a darker fate.  In societies where many spend their lives indoors, only those with the money and time to exercise, relax, or travel enjoy prolonged exposure to the sun. 

But over time, the connection between skin color and what it signifies becomes so close that the two are seemingly one.  And instead of that skin arising naturally from those circumstances, obtaining that skin color through alternate methods is a way to create the facade of that lifestyle.  So this is why my classmates at Coon Rapids High School were bright orange in the dead of winter, a physical impossibility using natural sunlight.  And this is why my friends who work construction in Jilin wear layers of clothing all summer, to preserve their white skin in spite of the reality of their jobs.

It all seems kind of silly to me; I’m not trying to fool anyone here with my skin color.  I want it to speak the truth – and the truth is that I live 3 minutes walk from a beach.  I want to have enjoyed this luxury by the time I leave, and my tan is just a convenient meter for measuring my progress. 

 

This evening, Carlos invited me to go out with his work friends to play Catan.  We had dinner and [two bowls of] shaved ice and fruit, and then went to their house to play.  Carlos won both games last time we played 6-player, so I warned them not to let him win.  They really believed me, so Carlos got crushed and I won.  I won the second one fair and square, though.  And things are back to how they should be :) 

Catan is such an amazing game, really.  I am continually amazed at how simple it is, how perfectly balanced the rules are, how many times it can be played without ever getting boring.  I want to do research on Catan – what kind of degree program would that be?  Supply and demand, game theory, statistics?  Sounds like economics to me.  Hmmmm. 

We played until 1 a.m. but it didn’t even feel late.  I guess several nights of 2:30 a.m. football matches will do that to you, eh?  There is no football tonight, day one of a two-day break before the quarter finals . . . and its weird.  I haven’t watched every night, but I have generally known who was playing and looked for the results as the games ended.  I haven’t even been a football fan for three weeks, but when Carlos put his head in his hands, groaning “What will I do when it’s over?”, I kind of knew how he was feeling.  True story. 

 

I got home to a few messages on QQ.  Joyce, a.k.a. Worst Friend Ever, is trying to rekindle our friendship; I think she needs to improve her oral English for something.  Allen, a guy I met once at English Corner, is trying to take me to dinner before I leave.  Earlier in the year I would have tried to fit them in, but tonight I was honest and said I was going to be pretty busy until I leave China.  It’s not like I’m dying or anything, but the truth is that I only have a certain number of days left here and, after this long, I have a pretty good idea of how I want to spend them.  I’ve done the fake friend thing here; it has its merits.  But by the law of supply and demand, time with the people I care about has gotten infinitely valuable, and it’s hard to compete with that. 

Tell Me How You Really Feel

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2010 at 12:11 am

I felt so much better this morning that I broke my 24-hour yogurt fast in the afternoon to eat a cookie.  It was a mistake, apparently.

But I still had a good time this afternoon.  I played two games of Catan with Aleid, Jelle, and Carlos, and won them both.  After Carlos dominated last time, things are back to how they should be. 

I went to see Toy Story 3 afterwards, which was everything everyone said it would be.  I really loved watching it in a theater full of young Chinese, hearing them exclaim “so amazing!” when Buzz flew across the room, and “so cute!” whenever the baby was on the screen. 

I’m out of sorts, though, perhaps an example of my mind mirroring my stomach.  Seriously, what happened to those six capsules of charcoal I ate??  I’ve been anxious all day, worried as if I was running late to something important.  But my pressing social engagements today were Catan, Toy Story, and a football game that I ended up skipping, so I don’t know what the big deal was. 

I guess XuLei got me a little bit down today, too.  I love the girl, really, and think she is one of the most caring people I know.  For example, as we were walking down ZhongShan Road she stopped to talk to a handicapped man who does calligraphy with his feet; when I asked how she knew him, she said that she just stopped to talk to him one day and gave him her phone number in case he ever needed anything.  After walking a bit further, we passed a man doing calligraphy with his mouth – he didn’t have arms either – and she said she knew him, too.

But she’s kind in a Chinese way.  While I know that she would never do anything to hurt me on purpose, sometimes it’s not enough to know intellectually that this brutal honesty is not considered rude in China.  Today was much worse than usual, with her asking me “Why is your face thin, but your stomach fat?” and “What’s with the black area under your eyes, didn’t you wear makeup today?”.  (I did wear makeup today . . . and this is why I don’t ever wear contacts in China anymore, because people constantly worry that I’m on the verge of death from sleep deprivation or something.) 

Another note on an aspect of Chinese culture that continually stuns me – bus etiquette.  I’ve gotten used to the shoving during the boarding process and the way that guys will take seats that leave girls standing while everyone will immediately give up their spot for a pregnant woman or old person.  But lately I’ve been shocked on a regular basis by what I can’t help but see as incredible self-centeredness. 

Two people get on the bus and head for the back, which has rows of four seats, separated into 2 and 2 by an aisle.  There are only two adjacent seats left.  In America, the first person would sit down and scoot over, allowing the other person to sit down on the aisle.  In China, the first person plops down in the first seat (obviously, because it’s the most convenient) and sits there expressionless while the second person awkwardly climbs over them to the window seat.  This is of course hampered by the proximity of the chairs (not enough room for me to sit straight) and the horrible bus design that puts some seats flat on the ground.

Aaah!  I can think of no circumstances under which this would be okay in America.  Even if you were already sitting in the aisle, if someone wants/needs to sit next to you, social convention dictates that you either move over or stand up to allow them to get to their seat easily. 

I wonder, what customs do we have that other people think are rude?  The habit of splitting the check, I know, but what else?