Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘internet’

64.89

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2012 at 8:41 pm

From today’s New York Times:

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but when the Shanghai Stock Exchange fell 64.89 points on Monday — uncannily echoing the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy students on June 4, 1989, exactly 23 years earlier — the Chinese blogosphere went into a tizzy.

. . . Whatever the reason, the strange trick that the stock market played on the Chinese Communist Party sent the country’s censors scrambling as well, prompting them to undertake unusually strenuous efforts to block references to the tragedy, which Chinese leaders have tried desperately to erase from their country’s consciousness.

In a nation where numerology is taken very seriously, the censors quickly began blocking searches for “stock market,” “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market,” “index” and related terms. They also deleted large numbers of microblog postings about the numerical surprise.

And even before tens of thousands of demonstrators clad mostly in black gathered at Victoria Park in Hong Kong for an annual candlelight vigil commemorating the Tiananmen killings, censors were also blocking searches for “Victoria Park,” “black clothes,” “silent tribute” and even “today.”

Not only did the broad index of the Shanghai exchange fall 64.89 points on Monday, but the index also opened that morning at 2346.98, a figure that, to some, looked like the date of the crackdown written backward, followed by the 23rd anniversary.

The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index is calculated by adding up the market capitalizations of hundreds of stocks and then converting the sum into an index based on a value of 100 on Dec. 19, 1990. Richard W. Kershaw, the managing director for Asia forensic technology at FTI Consulting, a global financial investigations company, said that it would be almost impossible for anyone to coordinate the buying and selling of so many stocks to produce a specific result.

But hackers have targeted the computer systems at other stock exchanges in the past, and Mr. Kershaw said it was at least possible that this might have occurred in China. He predicted that the government would investigate, adding, “You can bet we’ll never hear the results.”

Chinese culture puts a very strong, sometimes superstitious, emphasis on numbers and dates. The Beijing Olympics started at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008, a time and date chosen for the many eights, considered an auspicious number.

Haha.  I really can’t decide which would be funnier, if some hacker did this or if the censors are just fighting a paper tiger. 

On the topic of internet censorship in China, I recently watched the movie Schindler’s List for the second time.  The first time I had watched it was while I was in China, and while it was too long ago to be completely sure, I think it was a slightly different movie.  I remembered it being much shorter and there were several scenes I didn’t remember.  I don’t know, maybe the guy with the video camera fell asleep in the theater . . .

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UA898

In Uncategorized on May 4, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Hopefully you all are aware of the escape of Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and subsequent international political drama surrounding his treatment.  If you’re not, read up – it comes off as quite the thriller, what with him pretending weakness only to escape in the middle of the night, when his blindness actually gave him an advantage.

I just wanted to share a paragraph from an article that I found particularly interesting, talking about the surreptitious ways the Chinese have come up with to refer to him without censorship:

First he was “blind lawyer;” then “blind man,” then “A Bing,” a reference to a nationally famous blind singer. All were blotted out by the Chinese government’s pervasive, highly computerized security apparatus. Lately, his plight has been referred to as “UA898” — the daily United Airlines flight from Beijing to Washington which, this week, has come to symbolize Mr. Chen’s demand to emigrate to the United States rather than face an uncertain future in his homeland.

Who says the Chinese aren’t creative?

Home Life

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2010 at 9:00 am

My mom made pancakes for brunch my first morning home.  After eating, I wandered the house taking everything in.  It was pretty anticlimactic, as everything is exactly as I remembered it.  Granted, the living room was redone and there are new faucets in the kitchen and bathroom, but those things come and go with houses.  The microwave, the one constant of my 22 years of life, is still in its position over the oven, and that’s what really matters. 

I had to drive all the way around the Riverdale shopping area to find Panera, and I still don’t park well.  Like I said, everything is exactly as I remembered it. 

There were two loving dogs waiting to welcome me home, but they weren’t quite as cute as I had pictured them during my time away.  Itty, my brother’s dog, had surgery and currently looks like she tried to walk through a lampshade.  Bud, my parents’ dog, had an unfortunate experience with my dad experimenting as a groomer, and looks like a mangy stray. 

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My closet is full of clothes, mainly more skirts than I think I have ever seen in one place.  How do I have so many clothes, and how was I able to part with them for an entire year?  It’s a good thing that I had a full wardrobe at home, though, because my clothes suitcase was the one that got lost.  It didn’t arrive until nearly a full day after I had.  When I opened the door to accept the delivery, I had to keep myself from bursting into laughter.  “If I sign, it just means that I received the suitcase, right?  Not that it’s okay, right?” I asked.  “Because . . . it’s NOT.” 

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I really have no idea how they knew this suitcase was mine; I had described it as green and rectangular, but its current shape was anything but.  If I had to guess as to what had held it up these past few hours, I would say that it got into a fight with a bear and was then run over by at least one jet plane.  That’s the only way to explain the frame bent beyond recognition and the ominous scrapes and tears along all surfaces. 

I also have a collection of half-used lotions that could moisturize the skin of an entire sorority for a year, and a whole glorious bookshelf filled with all my favorite books.  I felt happy just looking at it until I realized that my dad had done some rearranging and my library was no longer impeccably sorted.  Oh, the horror!  I added my new books (making the language shelf a little more crowded) and now my world is again as it should be.

 

I think I’m going to be at home for the perfect amount of time.  For two weeks, my parents are just really happy to have me home and are about the most wonderful parents anyone could imagine.  Mom cooks all my favorite foods, and Dad’s okay with paying if we want to go out to eat. 

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They brought me a sandwich to eat in the car that first night, took me to dinner at Texas Roadhouse (my traditional coming-home-from-China dinner venue), and Mom prepared an amazing dinner of pork roast, green beans, Mom’s legendary mashed potatoes, and a cake for my dad’s birthday (and, if I may flatter myself, for my return).  I made myself a quesadilla for lunch one day, relishing the tortillas and sour cream even as I realized that canned salsa almost isn’t even worth eating. 

 

For my first two days back home, I was completely unconnected.  My laptop was half dead and I didn’t have a US cell phone, so I was reduced to using a land line (I know, right?!) for all communication.  But on Friday night we went to Best Buy as a family and got smart phones – smarter-than-us-phones, to be specific.  Before I went to China I had never really texted, but I did find it pretty useful in China (if only because texts in Chinese were slightly less terrifying at the beginning than phone calls in Chinese) and I guess it will be good to have now in the States.  I also have facebook on my phone, which is so ridiculous.  A few days ago, I had to be in my room, plugged into a LAN, and signed into a proxy to access facebook; now I can access it anytime, anywhere from the phone in my pocket.  Insane! 

Our trip to Best Buy seemed so typically American.  First of all, I ran into a friend from high school and got to catch up with him.  The fact that he was dating a friend of one of my college friends made it feel even more small-town.  But even more so, everyone was so incredibly nice.  We were greeted with a smile (not just an emotionless 欢迎光临) when we entered, and were approached immediately by employees offering to help.  The woman who ended up helping us was warm and personable throughout the whole process, so much so that we didn’t even realize until we left that we kept her there 15 minutes after closing!  This kind of courtesy is totally unheard of in China, where workers usually treat you like scum even when you’re there during normal business hours.

And it’s not just the employees.  People hold doors open for each other here – and accompany that action with a “hello!” or a “have a nice day!” or other such pleasantry.  After a trip to a store I feel overwhelmed with warm fuzzy feelings, like I just went through an affirmation process or a group hug.  Some of the papers that I was given by the TU Center for Global Education to prepare me for reentry talked about how many students struggle with the rudeness of Americans.  I’m not sure where those students are coming home from, but compared to China it’s like every single American is my best friend or something. 

That evening at Best Buy we became even more connected than we’d ever been (and this from a family with a 2:1 ratio of computers to people), but we took a step back and went analog that night.  My dad, recently retired, has been indulging even more in his passion of organizing and editing old negatives and slides, and he treated us to a slideshow of old family photos.  We saw pictures from my babyhood in Ohio and childhood in Oklahoma, the days when I was an insanely cute little girl.  Okay, 95% of my cuteness came from the fact that I was an really chubby little girl, but still – I was adorable.  I had cankles, my brother was knock-kneed, my mom had huge glasses and too much hair, and my dad used to have hair (as opposed to now . . . ).  Basically, we were one good-looking family!

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So now I can contact people any one of five ways from my phone, and we hooked my laptop up to another monitor so I can use it.  I got on QQ for the first time since I got home, and had a new crop of Christians who wanted to talk to me about Jesus.  There was also a message from LiuQin, the maddening woman from church: “Maria, I heard the bishop say you were going home and now you’re gone.  You never said goodbye; you really aren’t a very good friend.  I don’t even know if you foreigner understand me!  When war breaks out between China and America, I won’t wake care of you.”  She really is crazy, I think. 

 

I went to Mass on Saturday morning, only my second [intelligible] English Mass this year.  The similarities between English and Chinese Mass are far greater than the differences, but the little differences have a large impact.  Shaking hands during the Sign of Peace instead of bowing, receiving wine during communion – it felt good to be back.  I did find myself mouthing the Chinese along sometimes, though, and my Xiamen diocese friends were never far from my mind.  We sang “Sing of Mary Pure and Lowly” and I teared up at the last line:

And the Church her strain reechoes
Unto Earth’s remotest ends

because I think, in geopolitical terms, southeast Asia is about as remote as it gets for Catholicism. 

 

Saturday afternoon, my mom and I set out on a mini-road trip down to southern Minnesota.  We stopped first in Eden Prairie to see a college friend of mine; she had been the last college friend I saw before leaving for China last year and now became the first one I saw upon my return.  A year a six days had passed, which means I will go at least a year between seeing any of my other college friends.

From there we continued down to Winona, where one of my oldest friends was getting married.  I’ve known Rachel since 2nd grade, and we’ve been friends almost as long.  (Only “almost” because I very plainly told her when we moved to Minnesota that we were only going to be there for a few years and I didn’t want to make new friends.  I was a very practical 2nd grader.)  I had saved this date well before I left for China, and while it took me 10 months to buy my return ticket I always knew that it would be for some day safely before July 24th.  I wouldn’t miss her wedding for anything (not even, thankfully, the incompetence of Cathay Pacific). 

I think Minnesota is a beautiful state, green and blue everywhere you look, but the Mississippi River is certainly the jewel of our state.  The drive down to Winona is gorgeous, with trees and wheat to either side and bald eagles soaring through blue skies overhead.  This is what it would be like to drive through Catan, I imagine.  Makes me wish I had a wood port . . .

Winona is a nice city, too.  The river is lined with majestic bluffs and the streets are lined with quaint old buildings.  My friend’s wedding took place in a park outside, and they were blessed with a beautiful Minnesota summer evening.  They had the most perfect setting to say their vows!

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There was a reception afterwards in a local hotel – hors d’oeurves, speeches, and dancing.  I was excited to hit the dance floor with some of my old friends, but wasn’t sure about the music situation.  See, I really only dance when I can sing along, and a lot of music had come out since I was last in the States.  But my nights at The Key and 10 gigabytes of downloads from Google Music apparently served me well, because I knew almost all the songs that were played.  One friend even remarked at how much of the lyrics I knew, but the facade came tumbling down when a song I didn’t know came on.  Everyone else shrieked and sang along while dancing, while I just stood there and felt awkward.  “I just got back from a year in China,” I remarked to the groomsman standing next to me.  “Oh, you’re the China girl, aren’t you?”, he responded. 

Yup, that would be me.  The China girl. 

Beach Football is the Best Football

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2010 at 3:55 am

I heard a rumor last night that they were shutting off our electricity today.  Why is that the bad rumors are so much more often true than the good rumors? 

The electricity stopped at 7 this morning, and didn’t return until after 8 in the evening.  Yes, that’s right – as if it weren’t bad enough that they were cutting our electricity during the hellishly hot days of July in Xiamen, they also conveniently arranged it on the weekend and during the scorching daylight.  Thanks, guys. 

We drew the curtains before going to bed, so the room stayed reasonably cool until we got up.  But then Leinira left the balcony door open for a half hour while she cleaned and all the pleasantly cool air fled the room.  By staying in bed and lying perfectly still, I managed to pass the time until about 2 in the afternoon.  At that point I got up, immediately started sweating, and decided to get the heck out of my room.

Apparently most of campus and some other parts of the city had lost power as well, so every place at West Gate with air conditioning was mobbed with sweaty patrons.  Eunice and Andreea somehow found a table at McDonald’s, and I joined them there for a few hours of studying.

While we sitting there, the day got even better.  (And of course by “better”, I mean “worse”.)  Two girls came in and stood uncomfortably near our seats, causing Eunice to protectively move her purse to her lap.  I, not being from the Philippines, didn’t think much of it and we all went back to reading.  Then all of a sudden there was a commotion and we looked up to watch Andreea nearly tackle a girl to get her purse back.  While we were figuring out what the heck was going on (and trying to think of the word “thief” in Chinese), the three of them got away.  No one so much as looked at us afterwards, and they barely reacted even when we finally started yelling 小偷, 小偷! 

That was the first time I witnessed an attempted theft.  When people warned me about thieves in China, I guess I always figured it would be more of a pickpocketing thing.  Anyway, with how easily I lose things I didn’t worry about it too much.  Why fear a thief I’ve never seen when I’ve lost more cameras than some people have ever owned?  But this, this blatant grab-and-run, was scary – and the complete apathy of everyone around us was even more so.

I wasn’t feeling like showering in my dark bathroom, so I went to get my hair washed instead.  It’s been far too long since I indulged in this luxury, and the scalp massage was even more amazing than I remembered it.  The lady next to me was so excited to see me, and said that she’d always wanted to wash a foreigner’s hair.  I’m not one to disappoint, so I’m planning on going back there once more before going home – #48, your time is coming!

I went to church in the evening and, thankfully, got home after the power had come back on.  I was able to get online after an entire day without internet – while it is kind of a long time for me, it really wouldn’t have been that big of a deal on a normal day.  But the first email I saw was from my parents and ended with “Still awaiting news on Cathy” and the second email was titled “Prayers needed”.  They had both been sent 16 hours earlier, when my aunt suffered [basically] two heart attacks and was put into a drug-induced coma to minimize damage to her organs. 

I was upset and scared to hear this news, and even more so because it seemed like so much time had passed without me knowing.  Let’s be honest – 90% of my communication online is not time-sensitive at all, and only a fraction of a percent is truly urgent like this was, but almost all of my communication over here is internet-based in one way or another, and thus it is all – important and trivial – subject to the whims of China. 

 

A little later, Eunice and I went to the beach party.  We arrived a few minutes past 10 to find an entire beach full of people focused attentively on the Germany-Argentina match being broadcast on a white screen that swayed gently in the breeze.  We had already missed one German goal but it turned out to not be a big deal.  We settled down in the sand to watch the rest of the game, all four German goals of it. 

One thing I’ve been a little annoyed about during the World Cup is the way everyone gets so worked up when a team loses.  I mean, everyone except one team goes home a loser, so it seems like it shouldn’t be such a big deal.  But I’m starting to see that it’s not so much the losing as the way it was lost.  France was an obvious disgrace and apparently (though I’m not clear on why) Italy was as well.  While I want to remember the awesome 91-st minute goal, everyone else is remembering how tired the US team looked when we lost to Ghana.  England’s Rooney was so hyped that a 4:1 loss is kind of bad (although, really, everyone and their mother has allowed 4 German goals, if you think about it).  South Africa didn’t live up to expectations/hopes as the host nation, none of the other African countries stepped up either, so that every African loss felt like a continent-wide failure. 

And then tonight – Messi, Maradona, que paso? 

While I don’t relish the idea of an entire country in mourning, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this match.  Cafe del Mar has been a nice venue, but nothing can beat cool sand and a fresh breeze after a hot day.  The sound of waves over there, the moon shining through clouds, and stars visible in the clear sky overhead – they helped, too.  And when they celebrated Germany’s victory with fireworks – well, that was almost too perfect. 

I also had a burger.  They were too small, the buns were sweet, and they cost $3 each (a fortune!) but they were still the best burgers I’ve had in nearly a year.  (It’s kind of fun to be able to say that.  Almost makes up for having to go nearly a year without getting to eat stuff like hamburgers.  Almost.  But not quite.)  It kind of felt like the Fourth of July!

I danced for a while but went home because I had to cook while we still had electricity.  The good news was, there was a match on – Spain vs. Paraguay – to keep me company.  I was hoping to watch it with Carlos, my favorite Spaniard, but he was sick.  I found him in his room, huddled under a blanket and asking me to bring him mine.  I would have stayed with him, but his AC was off and his room was so hot I started sweating immediately upon entering. 

So I sat on my bed, slicing tomatoes and cheering for Spain whenever I remembered to look up.  The game was 0-0 for a long time, and the thought of Spain losing made me cry.  Come to think of it, it might have been the onions I was chopping; really tough to say.  I washed spring peas and diced garlic and cut up hot peppers and finally Spain scored and won.  Around 4, I finally went to sleep on a bed that smelled of salsa, under the blanket I had reclaimed from Carlos.  Germ warfare using blankets – that is just like the Spanish, isn’t it? 

Goodbye, Jilin (And Good Riddance!)

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2010 at 10:00 pm

I was woken up at 3 a.m. by a train steward who hit me on the leg and mumbled 江北, the name of my stop.  We were late and didn’t arrive for another hour, though, which gave me plenty of time to watch the sun rise over Jilin Province.

The sun being up made it slightly less miserable to get off the train at 4 a.m., lugging a suitcase and two backpacks through the streets of an unfamiliar city.  I had never been to Jilin, had no friends or place to stay, and 15 hours until my plane took off from the next city over.  Awesome . . . not.

I took a taxi to an internet bar, where the manager and I reenacted the scene from Hunchun.  I asked to get online, he asked for a form of ID I didn’t have, I threw a fit, and he claimed to have no power.  He was sleepy (I had just woken him up) so I thought I might win, but the best I could do was get the name of another place where you can borrow ID cards.  There you go, China – I knew there had to be a shady way to get around this stupid rule!

Aforementioned other place was not as described, so I went one step further.  I flagged down another taxi and, before getting in, explained my situation to the driver: “I want to go to an internet bar, but I’m a foreigner with no ID card so I can’t get on.  If you’ll take me there and swipe your card for me, I’ll pay you more!”  He instantly agreed, the workers at this place were willing to overlook his the obvious way in which he signed me on and then left, and I was able to spend two hours catching up on emails and news. 

Shortly before 8, I took a taxi to the Jilin Catholic Church, easily spotted from its huge spire.  By the time I walked in, at least 10 minutes before the service started, there were no seats left.  I took a spot near the back, where I had a great view of the people who continued pouring in as Mass started.  China doesn’t have many Catholic churches, and they don’t offer many Masses, but I will say that I’ve never been to one that looked empty.  My church is probably the least populated, but even then there are only spots left on the second floor. 

Today is Trinity Sunday.  ‘Trinity’ is really easy in Chinese – 圣三, or ‘holy three’  – but I had wondered how they made the distinction between 1 God and 3 Persons.  Turns out, they say 三位一体 – and now you know. 

After Mass I went on another adventure looking for foreigner-friendly internet.  I called 114 (China’s information line), tried to buy a wireless card, visited a Western restaurant hoping for wireless . . . all without success.  Finally, I got a taxi driver to help me.  He suggested a hotel, by which I thought he meant a nice place with a restaurant where I could eat and use their wireless. 

Apparently not.  I say this because I’m writing from the “Love Her Fashion Motel”, in a room that I have rented for four hours.  Looking around, I’m pretty sure I’m in a love shack.  There’s no desk or anything – that’s not what the businessmen come here to do, probably – just a large bed, a nightstand with a large variety of condoms, and a bathroom with see-through glass doors.  Sweet.

When my time was up, I grabbed lunch in a nearby . . . shack? for lack of a better word.  It was malatang, but apparently “Sichuan-style”.  Basically, it was noodles, and hot.  I asked for a little little bit of hot and could just handle it; the other guy ordered extra hot and didn’t seem to have any problems. 

I didn’t see a single foreigner the entire day.  Oddly enough, though, I still spoke a lot of English because, lacking a Chinese friend to chat with, I spoke to myself in English.  I noticed this when I was nearly hit by a car and yelled “WTF?!?” at the driver.  Two days ago at the night market, the same thing happened but I yelled “Aiyaaa!”.  I even yell in Chinese now (most of the time) and exclaim “Waaaa!” instead of “Wow!” when something impresses me. 

I thought I had oodles of time – over four hours – to get to the airport in Changchun, but I steadily made my way there.  Taxi to the bus station, then a bus to Changchun.  The cities are pretty close but this sort of bus ride always seems to include 20 minutes of meandering through the first city, 1 hour (the cited time) on a highway, and then another 40 minutes of meandering through the second city. 

When we finally stopped, I got in a taxi and asked how far to the airport.  When the driver answered “one hour”, the exact answer I’d gotten two hours before in Jilin, I was surprised.  It turns out that the airport is in between the two cities and I’d basically wasted money and a bunch of time taking the scenic tour through the twin cities.  Dear Mr. Jilin Taxi Driver – when I told you of my plan to take a bus to Jilin and then a taxi to the airport, you might have mentioned this little geographical oddity.  Thanks . . . for nothing.

For once, I was thankful for the ridiculous way people drive in China.  By driving into oncoming traffic, cutting off people by turning at utterly inappropriate times, and speeding like a maniac, my driver got me to the airport JUST in time.  Just in time to find out that my flight was delayed two hours, that is. 

Trips home are always like this for me.  At this point, I’m unhappy to have left where I was and impatient to get where I’m going, but there’s ALWAYS a problem.  Each of the three times I’ve come to China before, the only delays have been on the last leg of the return trip, when I’m in America but not home, and it just seems cruel and unusual.  This whole days has been an absolute waste and an incongruously disappointing end to an otherwise amazing trip.

There are people I love all over the world and there is no small number of places I’d like to be . . . but the Changchun International Airport is not one of them. 

Hong Kong Isn’t China, But It Might Be India

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 at 2:10 am

Oh, Guangzhou Victory Hotel – it’s been great.  Thanks for the bacon and croissants, the decadent bed, the super-friendly bellboys, and nightly chocolates delivered to my room.  But all things must come to an end, and today was a day for leaving – leaving Guangzhou, and leaving China.

My friends went home to America this morning, but I had another stop to make before heading home (to Xiamen, of course) – Hong Kong.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t consider Hong Kong to be part of China.  It might have something to do with the fact that I had to go through Chinese and Hong Kong Customs and Immigration to go from one to the other, or the fact that I had to change currencies and my cell phone no longer works.  Things like this indicate different countries to me – I know, I’m crazy like that. 

I was prepared for those changes, in theory at least.  In actuality, I wasn’t quite prepared for the trek from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, which involved 3 separate subway rides and a longer train ride, adding up to over 5 hours – longer than it took me to get from Xiamen to Guangzhou!  A lot of this time was also spent waiting in lines to get through customs and immigration, each time comically divided into a ridiculous number of lines showing the complicated relationship between China and the places I refer to as non-China (HK, Macau, and Taiwan). 

The surprises of Hong Kong did not stop there, though.  Coming to Hong Kong after living in China is like going about your daily life while wearing a pair of glasses that aren’t your own.  Everything is different – usually just a little bit, but enough to throw me off.  The traditional characters, for instance – a lot of them familiar from my summer course in the US, but some only understandable based on context.  But even traditional characters are preferable to the Romanized Cantonese that accompanies them.  It’s strange and I hate it – again, it bears some semblance to Mandarin pinyin but the differences are non-negligible.  Cantonese is so prevalent here that the ‘common-ness’ of 普通话 (Mandarin, the ‘common language’), is questionable; I’m not sure how much use my Mandarin is, so I’m paralyzed by doubt every time I try to speak. 

It’s not just language based, either.  In a relic of British imperialism, they drive on the left, walk on the left, and put their pants on left leg first (most likely); I have made an ass out of myself even more often than usual because of this.  Even the money is almost-but-not-quite.  I traded in 1,000 RMB for 1,112 HKD, which is a difference slight enough to mean that revising my usual estimation of 7-to-1 isn’t worth it.  The bills are even brighter than Chinese money, but look weird because they are issued by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited and HSBC instead of a government; they pretty much look like traveler’s checks or something. 

Anyway, I made it the correct subway stop and came up to the surface of Hong Kong for the very first time . . . and culture shock immediately set in.  Hard core, more overwhelmed than I’ve been since coming to China.  I was on Nathan Rd, the main drag of Kowloon, and the neon signs in English, Chinese (characters), and Cantonese illuminated the street like the midday sun.  And what was there to be illuminated was people.  In terms of quantity it was much like China, but the quality of the people was different.  I really felt like I had taken the wrong train and ended up in Mumbai or something, because Indians and Pakistanis had clearly overtaken the Han Chinese as the strong majority in this area.  They harassed me as I walked along, selling watches, computers, tailors, and places to stay.

It was around this point, when I was being intimidated into near hysteria by some men who weren’t even being particularly aggressive, I realized that if I were to immediately travel from China to a culture of machismo, I would mostly likely experience a completely emotional breakdown.  Chinese men are just not very aggressive, and even when drunk they’re more deferent than Western men.  I’ve become accustomed to this, and thus was surprised by and unprepared for the efforts of these men to get my attention.  Worse, they all spoke English so couldn’t even hide behind the language barrier as a defense. 

But, I actually was looking for a place to stay, so at some point I had to talk to them.  I went to the Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s most infamous low-budget hostels, and let one guy take me up to his place.  For 150 Hong Kong dollars ($20) a night, I get what could generously be described as a cell. 

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I have my own bathroom so I shouldn’t complain, but it’s miniscule – I could literally drink from the faucet while relieving myself on the toilet, and could do both while taking a shower. 

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After setting my stuff down, I decided to explore my surroundings.  I had grand delusions of eating at the TGIF next door, but when I saw that appetizers were 100 HKD ($13), I decided even that wasn’t worth it.  Enjoy what you have, where you are, I reminded myself, and grabbed Indian food from one of the 400 tiny food stands in Chungking Mansions. 

I got it to-go and planned to retire to my room and enjoy the freedom of expression available here in Hong Kong, in the form of Facebook, Youtube, and The Onion.  If only it were that simple . . . Turns out that the Chungking Mansions consist of at least 5 buildings, sharing a common base but unconnected at the top.  I’m sure you see where this is going, but to explain completely why it took me an hour to get up to my room on the 6th floor of building D, I also have to add that the elevators are epically slow.  Each building has two – one that stops on even floors and one that stops on odd floors – each capable of holding about 6 people an uncomfortable proximities.  After dinner time, lines for the elevators were spilling out into the main corridors and made me glad I had a book on me. 

So yeah, my bad sense of direction + a maze of identical Bollywood DVD shops, naan and curry stands, and knock-off iPod sellers + worst elevator situation ever = 4 trips to the 6th floor, including one by stairs. 

Back in my room, I curled up with my chicken rice, pita bread, and wifi-enabled laptop, and there spent several wonderful hours rotting my brain.  I read about 40 Onion articles in a row and watched a music video for the first time since leaving America.  I came to the conclusion that Lady Gaga is freaking messed-up, and am now fine not watching music videos for another 7+ months.  But I also watched a few videos I had bookmarked for this occasion.  One, a guerrilla handbell stunt from Improv Everywhere, was distinctly out-of-date with a Christmas scene but despite (or perhaps because of?) this, brought me to tears. 

I’ve been using my proxy back home in Xiamen so it wasn’t weird at all to get on facebook, but videos load too slow so it was really my first time on Youtube in many months.  It has changed – I can’t describe exactly how, but the page is laid out differently and there are a lot more videos in HD.  Weird that a familiar website can feel so unfamiliar. 

But maybe I should have expected it.  Familiar sites have brought me a lot of unfamiliar things this year – engagement announcements of friends, pictures of things I wasn’t there for, news of current events I missed, and popular songs I’ve never heard of.  Most recently, it’s been weird checking out the new 2010 scholarship winners.  For the last two years, April was a time to await scholarship decisions, a time to obsessively check websites looking for my name.  This year, I checked the same sites but looked instead for the name of my school.  I was happy to see TU students do so well – with a Truman, 2 Goldwaters, and 3 NSFs – but felt weird that I didn’t know most of the winners.  (Technically, this was more true before I found out about the NSF winners, one of whom is living in my room of my apartment right now, and the other who just sent me a letter from New Zealand.)  SENEA totally swept the last two years of Goldwater and Udall scholarships, but I guess all good things must come to an end. 

I Can See Clearly Now, The Haze Is Gone

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I feel bad when one of my teachers is sick.  Clarification – I’m really happy when one of my teachers gets sick because then we don’t have class, but then I feel bad for being happy about it.  Our oral teacher was sick today, so we just had a short stint of 听力 (Listening) class.  A lot of my friends call it 听不懂 class, a play on words that means “don’t understand” class, a name that was unfortunately quite fitting today.

But the weather today was absolutely delicious – mid 70’s, sunny, and clear!  A few us of grabbed ice cream and drinks and headed straight for the beach. 

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I think it was mainly due to the weather, but I was almost overcome by the beauty around me today.  The glory of a blue sky cannot be exaggerated, and its beauty is only magnified by the frequent gray spells here in China.  As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder!  Same can be said for white clouds, twinkling stars, and tonight’s brilliant half-moon, all long absent from my vision. 

Campus was also exceptionally good-looking today.  On my way to dance class tonight, I stopped to sit by the lake for a while and realized an uncanny resemblance between the reflection of campus on the water and a picture I once took of a castle on the river in Prague (below):

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Dance class was fun, but hard work!  It has taken me over a semester, but I think I’ve finally figured out how to move my hips.  HuangDa said that I move my hips 非常厉害 (extremely awesomely), which was basically the highlight of my life.  It certainly made me feel better, despite the sweat and sore back muscles. 

Besides the passage of the health care bill, the other big news story is the latest development in the Google-China battle.  Google.cn no longer exists; instead users are directed to the Hong Kong-based Google.hk site.  As of now I have no additional difficulties in accessing internet sites, but of course we’re all wondering what the next step is.  Opinions on the issue obviously differ and I’m still not 100% sure what I think, but I know this overseas Chinese commenter, obviously a supporter of the government’s right to censor, is a freaking idiot:

“All Chinese, I urge you to boycott Google, and join my facebook "Chinese boycott Google" group.

Um, apparently you live in Houston so you’re a little out of touch, but facebook has been blocked in China for a few years now because they, too, refused to self-censor.  Oh, irony’s a bitch.

Forgive Me, Father, For I Have Sung ‘Alleluia’

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2010 at 2:17 am

It’s like the end of summer, when you start waking up early to get ready for the start of a new school year.  Only, in this case, it’s more like the beginning of summer.  I woke up at 7 today, only the second time I’ve been out of bed before 9 probably since coming back to Xiamen.  There was something going at at church, possibly a retreat-like something, and I decided to check it out. 

When I got there, they were halfway through the Stations of the Cross, so I joined in.  Much to my delight, it was in 普通话 (Mandarin); the last time I prayed the Stations was in Shanghai and we used 闽南话, the local dialect that I don’t speak or understand.  Even better, they sang the Stabat Mater (the song of Mary’s sorrows) between stations, or at least something to the same tune. 

When we had finished the Way of the Cross, we went upstairs to a sort of conference room.  Father He, a priest from Taiwan who has visited before, had come back to lead the day’s event.  He began with the story of the resurrection of Lazarus and then began talking.  I understood a good part of the Gospel but then my sleepiness set in and I struggled in and out of sleep.  Between that and the fact that my Chinese isn’t incredible even when fully conscious, I didn’t catch a whole lot of the several hours of lecture that followed.  He explained why Catholics keep the corpus on the crucifix, pointed out that Jesus’ entire life was a progression towards Jerusalem, and remarked on the Chinese belief that names and numbers can control destiny, but I couldn’t figure out the overarching theme of it all.

This got harder when he put on a video called “+/- 2°C”, which was a look at natural disasters since last June and their cause, global warming.  As far as I can tell, it came out of nowhere, and immediately after the video ended, the lecture part was over.  That’s kind of too bad, as I think there’s a lot to be said about environmental stewardship in a church setting.  The humanitarian and social effects of pollution, energy dependence, and climate change are what attracted me to sustainable energy in the first place, and this year more than ever, Church leaders (including Pope Benedict and a Filipino cardinal) are speaking up about the same thing.  But, as it was, I was just mainly confused. 

I was also confused by the after-lunch activity we had.  (Incidentally, lunch consisted of fried rice with green vegetables.  My Chinese New Year Mom excitedly asked if I wanted worms with my fried rice, but I tried to protest politely by asking if worms might possibly be considered meat, which we can’t eat on Fridays in Lent.  I guess it worked!)

Anyway, back to the after-lunch activity.  Fr. He passed out songsheets, pulled up a Youku video, and had us all sing – AND DANCE – along to a Chinese praise-and-worship song.  First of all, it was weird doing these juvenile hand motions and movements in a room full of old Chinese women (and a few men).  Some of them were out of breath afterwards.  Secondly, half of the words in the song were ‘alleluia’, which we don’t use (and basically aren’t supposed to say) in church during the season of Lent.  Everywhere in the liturgy where we usually say ‘Alleluia!” is omitted or changed for the duration of Lent; the Gloria, whose joyfulness don’t really fit with the mood of the season, is also left out.  It’s kind of a bummer, but the self-denial makes Easter even more special and joy-filled.  So, I know that we aren’t supposed to say ‘Alleluia’ during lent, but maybe 阿肋路亚 doesn’t count?

After all this, though, things settled down into something more recognizable to me.  We moved downstairs to the church and they rearranged some pews.  I never know what’s going on until it’s too late, but as soon as I figured out they were setting up a second confessional, my heart started racing.  I don’t go to confession often enough, but I always go during Advent, Lent, and before leaving the country.  I never got around to it during Advent for multiple reasons, but had promised myself I would go sometime during Lent.  And, there you go – the perfect opportunity!

The set-up was not ideal, and I found myself – possibly for the first time – grateful that my Chinese is not so great, because listening to others confess is really uncomfortable.  I’m not going to lie; I also found some comfort in the knowledge that no one else would understand my confession either.  While the Church makes allowances for those without recourse to a priest with a common language, I was lucky enough that Fr. He could meet me half way.  I spoke in English and he responded in Chinese, and it worked out – at least enough for him to offer some pertinent counsel and for me to somewhat understand. 

After everyone had gone to confession, we had Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament and said the Divine Praises.  It was great, really just what I had needed.  I read a really amazing blog post a few months ago in which the author described the way she feels taken care of in church, and was reminded of that today.  From the loving concern exhibited by my church friends, to the welcome sound of the familiar Stabat Mater, to the availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation without me having to seek it out, to the language skills of my priest that were just enough to communicate, to the perfect ending of adoration, it was all just what I had needed but far more than I would have thought to ask for.

 

When I got back to XiaDa, I checked the class lists and schedules.  I’m in 二年下, the second semester of 2nd year, just as I thought.  The schedule looks pretty miserable, with 7 class periods somehow completely taking up the entire week, but maybe we’ll be able to change it.  Just have to buy my books before classes start on Monday!

Today was Diederik’s birthday, so we went out in a large group for dinner. 

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Dinner included, among other things, amazing shrimp and delicious snap peas, plus we had a rooftop view of the ocean, framed by Xiamen’s illuminated highways.  Gefeliciteerd, Diederik!

I have two updates on current conditions in Xiamen.  First, weather: The humidity here is INSANE.  We’re currently at 100%, and it probably hasn’t dropped below 85% in days.  Everything is wet with no hope of drying.  Floors that were cleaned three days ago have turned into slick muddy paths.  Every slick surface – windows, mirrors, clocks, handrails, pews – is sweating.  It’s very weird and kind of uncomfortable.  The worst is that I have to do laundry really soon . . . it probably won’t dry for a week. 

I mentioned once that the internet situation sometimes changes as swiftly as the weather.  I think a front of internet freedom has moved into the area, but it’s hard to tell how long those conditions will linger.  It looks like the weekend is going to be great for WordPress, Blogspot, and Picasa Web Albums (all unblocked), so get out there and enjoy! 

[Insert Title Here]

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2010 at 1:40 am

My breakfast today – a bowl full of strawberries and three bananas – cost 50 cents.  Have I mentioned loving fruit (and their prices) here in China?  I tried a new fruit today – the small mangos – and was reasonably impressed, but I think the discovery of a kumquat vendor right next to the malatang soup place was more exciting.  Polished off a pound of those today . . . Katrine also tried a new fruit (heard of the custard apple, anyone?) which was good, but also randomly ridiculously expensive – one of them cost nearly $4.

I went to lunch at the malatang soup place with some friends, those who made it out of bed before our 2 o’clock date.  I thought me and my friends back home (okay, mainly me) could be pretty lazy, but I have never seen people like my friends here.  I think the only times I’ve slept past noon were times when I was really sick, but here it is not unusual at all.  Part of it may be the drinking . . . Growing up in America, I was always led to believe that we drink irresponsibly as a function of the high drinking age, but based on my experience living in China with a bunch of foreigners I would like to say that is utter bull.  Maybe Europeans grow up sipping a glass of wine with dinner, but once they’re my age, they drink like fishes.  Maybe it’s something about people who choose to come to China, maybe it’s something about China (goodness knows I sometimes try to drown my frustrations in a glass of milk tea), but it is definitely something.  I’ve heard more stories of hangovers, throwing up in inappropriate places, bruises one can’t remember, and incriminating photos here than I ever did in America. 

I live between Muslim families.  There is absolutely no sense of community in NanGuangWu (my dorm) so I barely even notice (other than to wonder how whole families live in rooms this size).  But since I’ve been home, I’ve been noticing.  I think the kids are on break from school, and they’re quite loud; their favorite game seems to be Bang the Headboard Against the Wall.  Also, the men pray throughout the day.  Several times every day, I hear chanting in an unfamiliar language, so at least I assume they’re praying.  It doesn’t bother me, and it helped me feel okay about starting to chant the Salve Regina before I go to bed.  At least I don’t bang the headboard against the wall!

I went to church with Andrea from Romania tonight.  She’s Orthodox, but as the nearest church is in Shanghai, she comes to Catholic Mass.  When she told me she had consulted with her priest about it, I said I had too – but then I had to explain about the Chinese Patriotic Church and all because she had no idea.  There is so much misinformation about the Church in China, but this was perhaps the first time I ran into a lack of information, wrong or right.  Is this because she’s Orthodox?  European?  Just her?  I don’t know.

The Gospel today was Jesus being tempted in the desert.  No idea on the first two readings, but 1/3 is about as good as I get.  I also understood a good part of the homily because a) it was the same explanation of the significance of 40 days as every beginning-of-Lent homily, and b) it contained a lot of numbers.  Father He (visiting from Taiwan) walked us through the calculations for the dates of Easter and Lent.  In case you were wondering, Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.  The Chinese calendar is also lunar, which I’m guessing means that this overlap between the New Year and Lent occurs annually?  Lame.

There was a woman nodding off during the homily.  Then all of a sudden she sat up straight, and I thought she had heard something something interesting and decided to pay attention.  But then she leaned to the right . . . and then I heard a farting sound . . . and then she went back to sleep.  Also, three people answered their cell phones during Mass.  Remember my first Sunday as choir director with Cell Phone Man (whose transgression was so infamous that he was named after it!) answered his phone during Mass?  Yeah, it wouldn’t even register with me anymore – much less texting.  The Venn diagram of “Actions that are permissible” and “Actions that are permissible in church” basically consists of a single circle here in China. 

Diederik invited me to dinner with the French and a new Dutch guy at 8.  I usually really hate such late dinners (darn Europeans) but tonight it was perfect.  I was happy to see Diederik, just back from the Netherlands, and went up to hug him.  It ended up being awkward, as he was expecting to exchange kisses.  I miss hugs!  Again, darn Europeans. 

We ordered hotpot cabbage, braised eggplant, cold chicken, and fish.  The waitress told us they were out of that kind of fish, so I told her to bring us whatever kind of fish they had.  She brought squid.  In what world is squid an appropriate substitute for fish?? 

Back in my room, I finished watching 花木兰, the Chinese version of the story of Mulan.  There are some differences with the Disney version.  I mean, right off the bat, they’re speaking Chinese.  Also, the songs are way less memorable; I can’t think of a single one that I would sing with my friends.  But seriously, it’s a live-action historical drama, so there’s less color, humor, and physically impossible physiques.  The story line is quite different – for example, two guys (including the love interest) find out she’s a girl in the first 10 minutes of the 100-minute movie!  She is portrayed as a natural for taking her father’s place: she actually fights (well!) and is promoted to general, from which position she leads her troops for twelve years.  I followed it pretty well, but wasn’t able to figure out the random foreigner in the Hun’s court or where the crazy sandstorm came from.  I did like the fact that the memorable lines were more moving than funny, but in the end I was disappointed with the film.  The lovers part ways!?!  That’s just crap, China; next time, add a happy ending . . . and a dragon.

I think I am more addicted to Google Reader than to any other site.  It’s where I catch the news, read friends’ blogs, and get some laughs.  XKCD.com is a classic, 1000 Awesome Things makes my heart glow most days, but I don’t know that anything can top The Onion.  Almost every headline makes me laugh out loud – before even reading the article – which is good, because I have to use my proxy and sometimes the Great Firewall figures out that I’m not actually in San Francisco.  Examples:

  • Sports: Construction Restricts Daytona 500 Traffic to One Lane
  • Ford Recalls 2010 Mustang For Being Too Cool
  • NASA Scientists Plan to Approach Girl By 2018
  • Family Concerned After Aging TV Show Has Another Terrible Episode
  • Hometown Boy Makes Good Enough
  • Miss Teen U.S.A. Declares Herself Miss Teen U.S.A. For Life
  • Best Thing That Ever Happened to Area Man Yelling At Him About Socks
  • Sports: Saints, Colts Hoping To Resolve Super Bowl Through Diplomacy
  • Secondhand Smoke Linked to Secondhand Coolness
  • In Focus: Wal-Mart Announces Massive Rollback on Employee Wages
  • Self-Defense Tips That Will Only Make Him Angrier
  • Friendship Between Caterpillar, Horse Exploited For Cheap Children’s Book
  • Make-A-Reasonable-Request Foundation Provides Sick Child With Decent Seats To Minnesota Timberwolves Game
  • Dubai Debt Crisis Halts Building of World’s Largest Indoor Mountain Range
  • Jews’ Covenant With God Is Up For Renewal

I could go on and on (in fact, I think I did), but you get the picture.  The Onion is unblocked [today] in China – celebrate by checking it out!

Usually I write a post and then look for the unifying theme to help me choose a title.  Most days, surprisingly, have unifying themes.  I’m most proud of my post “Digging Our Own Graves”, which contained an account of the self-service hot sand therapy and my thoughts on the dangerous consequences of China’s One-Child policy, but I make do most days.  Today, though – I have written, I have looked, and have not found.  Sorry. 

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 at 1:30 am

After this long in China, I really should have learned: you can’t have expectations.  Life is great here month to month and even most weeks are good, but individual days seem to delight in defying my expectations.  Sometimes it sucks, but sometimes China passes the low bar I’ve set.  Sometimes I think I’m in for an average day but things turn out to be way better. 

Today was one of those days – a good one.  I slept in late, grabbed a lunch of jiaozi, did some shopping, and went back to my room.  I spent the afternoon working on pictures from our trip and watching movies, but I actually made progress and the movies were actually good!  I’ve updated the Chinglish album with some new gems, and put my top 100 pictures of us from the trip up in a new album

As far as movies, Ghost Town was both hilarious and somewhat meaningful, and The Princess and the Frog at least made me laugh with its horrible English subtitles.  They were apparently based on someone’s sub-par listening skills, as they featured such Freudian slips as:

  • “We’ll never come up with the money for the damned payment!” (instead of ‘down payment’)
  • “You drive a hot pot.” (instead of ‘hard bargain’)
  • “This man is obviously a Satan.” (instead of a ‘charlatan’)

I went to dinner with Pun, and even though we ate in the cafeteria the food wasn’t bad.  Also, the group of Americans was in there and I finally introduced myself to a few of them. 

My evenings usually wind down in front of the computer, but not today.  Around 10, the phone calls started.  My friends downstairs, Deni from Mexico and Paloma from Colombia, called to see if I wanted to join them for sandwiches, salad, and wine – which of course I did.  I can’t think of the last time I had a sandwich . . . it was delicious (and included bread)! 

While I was there, my phone kept ringing (which is really quite unusual).  Dad called to check on me and wish me a happy New Year.  Yong Zhi called me to say his sister thought I was pretty and wanted to give me a present.  I know, right?  What a great evening.

Even without the phone calls, it was a great night.  We hung out in their room for a few hours, just talking.  It’s something I really miss from TU.  We talked about our classes, our travels in China, our plans for the rest of the break, our lives back home, and what awaits us back there.

Speaking of heading home, I successfully signed up to keep my apartment at TU for next year.  I have a roommate and everything, which makes it all seem so close.  Is it weird that I fantasize about my apartment back in Tulsa?  A room of my own with a walk-in closet and soft bed, a living room with places to sit and entertain, but most of all a kitchen.  Deni and Paloma sympathized with my longing dreams.  Preparing food here is such an ordeal, even two people making sandwiches is difficult.  We don’t have the space, don’t want to invest in the equipment, can’t get the right ingredients, and the only utensils we have in abundance are 筷子 (chopsticks). 

I’m planning on baking/cooking up a storm next year when I get back to that huge shiny kitchen with a full oven, microwave, dinner settings for 8, and jars of flour and sugar on the counter.  Get ready, Tulsans! 

Tomorrow will be a sort of practice, though.  It’s Fat Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnavale, whatever) and I’m planning a big celebration.  I’m going to bake all day, then have a nice dinner with friends, and end the night with sangria and the Lantern Festival. 

Just gotta remember to keep my expectations low.

PS – My Hong Kong proxy hasn’t been working recently, so I’ve been using Washington DC or San Francisco.  I almost had a heart attack when I went to check the weather and saw temperatures of 48 and 55.  If that’s Celcius, then we’re in for a toasty February! 

PPS – I’m always surprised by the controversial topics that Golden Girls took on, way back in the 80’s.  I’m part way through the 5th season and I’ve seen: infidelity, homosexuality, artificial insemination, assisted suicide, homelessness, care of the elderly, immigration, plastic surgery, and more.