Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Jilin’

On Beijing and Loving China

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 2:19 pm

I’ve lived in China for about 16 months now over a span of 8 years – 11 months in Xiamen, 3 months in Jilin, 2 in Beijing.  As my time in Beijing draws to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on this city and this country. 

I first came to China in 2007 as part of an Engineers Without Borders group, to work on sustainable energy project in China’s northeast.  I spent 9 days on a farm on the border of Russia and North Korea, building a wind turbine.  We lived with an American family who spoke Chinese for us, and I made exactly one Chinese friend, Zaibin, because he spoke English.  I don’t know exactly why I wanted to come back – it wasn’t the people and it wasn’t the language, yet.  Perhaps the food – Hunchun has the best lamb and beef sticks I’ve ever eaten – or the project itself, the way we “built things out of stuff”.

But for whatever reason, when I left my return was never in question.  The next summer I went back to the same place, this time for two months.  That time, it was definitely the food.  On the farm, we had the best of all worlds, it seemed like – crisp, cold water straight from the spring to the faucet; fresh milk from our cows and enough to make butter, ice cream, and cheese when we had the time; eggs from our chickens, some of which we slaughtered and ate; bread from wheat the girls ground every day.  Korean lunch prepared by Adjima, the farm cook, and generally some sort of Western dinner prepared by a rotating cast except for the one or two times a week we went into town to a Chinese, Korean, or Russian restaurant.  

But I also fell in love with the people and, through them, the language as well.  Most days, I headed a few kilometers across the farm to the shepherd’s residence where my project was based, walking or hitchhiking on the workers’ sanlunche.  I was kilometers away from the nearest English speaker, and was left to my own devices to get my design across to the workers.  From a combination of grunting and pointing, we progressed to simple sentences (你来帮我, come help me, was the first sentence I understood).  I bought a children’s picture dictionary at the supermarket and they were more patient with me, as I clumsily learned my first few hundred words, than most people are with their own children.  I thought these people were exceptional, and they were, but this patience and understanding with learners of their language seems to be a fairly common trait among Chinese, to various extents.  

Xiao Zhang, Xiao Li, Lao Liu, and Han XiaoGuang were the first Chinese people I loved.  And because Chinese was the way that I communicated with them, I think I started to love it too.  I remember Timothy expressing surprise at how quickly I learned – the fastest he’d seen, he said – because language learning seemed like a male thing, stemming from a desire to dominate.  For me, it’s a desire to communicate, to interact with the people around me.  When people ask me why I’m studying Chinese, and I don’t want to give the whole story, I jokingly respond that “I like to talk, and it gives me 1.3 billion other people to talk to.”  It’s a joke . . . kind of.

It was on this trip, and even more so on the next – a quick 10-day follow-up visit to the farm that fall that was extended by a couple snowbound days in Yanji – that I experienced and embraced the adventure of living in China.  When I travel, I “adventure” towards a destination – hoping to eventually get there, but remaining open to experimental modes of travel and possibly even alternate destinations if they come up as options or necessities.  But even outside of travel, adventuring is a way of living, really, being open to the joy and surprises that await when you allow yourself to be flexible and have “yes” as your default answer.  

When I was offered a scholarship to study in China for a year, this seemed like the ultimate adventure.  I delayed graduation, sublet my apartment, and moved to a tropical island to study something completely outside of my major.  Xiamen was a daily feast of all the things that I loved about China – wonderful people, both those native to the country and those drawn to it for various reasons; delicious food that often surprised and always seemed to be worth more than it cost; constant improvement in my language abilities and constant positive feedback on my progress; and an endless supply of adventures.  

The magical spell of Xiamen was further enhanced by my freedom in most respects.  I had no long-term commitments, no pre-existing demands on my time, no purpose other than to learn Chinese – which is to say, to live in China and experience it fully.

It was hard to leave Xiamen after that year.  I remember mostly wanting to go back to Tulsa to prove to others and myself that I still wanted to be an engineer, that Chinese wasn’t everything to me now.  But it was my first time leaving China without knowing when I would be back.  

As it turned out, nearly five years would pass before I came back again, this time to Beijing.  It’s hard to isolate variables and identify what differences I observe are due to the temporal distance, and which to the spatial, but for the moment suffice to say that there have been differences.

I haven’t loved Beijing.  I don’t tend to love big cities anyway, so it’s not too much a surprise, but even among big cities Beijing is a  tough one to love.  It was bad enough, that sometime during Week 3, I did some soul-searching, asking myself if this was it, if China had lost its charm for me.  

A month later, most of the factors that prompted that despair having changed, I’m still asking that question, although I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no’.  It’s hard for me to articulate why.  Maybe there are just enough threads connecting my experience in Beijing to happier times elsewhere – the people I’ve gotten to know are as wonderful as those I’ve known elsewhere, the food is still delicious and still cheaper than the US, and I am pleasantly surprised almost daily to discover that I can speak and understand and read Chinese – that I can recognize the good things as being Chinese, and attribute the more negative ones to the city only.

I’m glad for the opportunity to experience Beijing, although I am grateful on literally a daily basis that I got to spend a year in Xiamen and two months in Beijing, instead of the other way around.  I am also glad for the opportunity to think critically about my feelings about China, to examine the reasons I’ve wanted to come back for so long and to consider whether or not they still hold.  

Beijing is definitely the third-best city that I’ve lived in, but honestly after Xiamen and Hunchun, most cities in China would be lucky to get third place.  I’m not in China for the history or the politics or the economics, so Beijing was never going to be my jam.  Most of the things it’s known for (the clear exceptions being the Great Wall and roast duck) are just not important to me, and some things I value are missing (here I guess I’m referring to breathable air and any discernible trace of beauty).

Probably my favorite thing about Beijing is that, as a big city and major hub, people are always passing through at one point or another.  This is one of my favorite things about the Bay Area, too – people just tend to end up here, for a day or a few years.  It was great to reunite with a friend from California now working at Apple in Beijing; family friends who visited with the son they adopted from China; a Stanford friend in town for a conference.  This never happened in Xiamen.  And Hunchun?  Don’t make me laugh.  

Unfortunately, this goes for me, too, though.  I’m confident that there will be plenty of opportunities to come back to China, but many of them will be to come to Beijing.  

My secondary objectives in coming to Beijing with EAPSI this summer (the primary objective being the project) were to make professional contacts and work on my technical Chinese.  My tertiary objectives were to make friends, eat well, sing, and dance.  On this basis, my trip was a great success, and it’s due mostly to my labmates.  If it hasn’t been clear from my writings, my labmates were the shining stars of my time here at Tsinghua.  Their friendliness, kindness, generosity, patience, sense of humor, and assistance in every facet of my life never failed to put a smile on my face.  

So I guess it comes down to this.  China’s greatest asset and biggest draw for me is its people.  They’re really the only thing that’s making it hard to leave Beijing, but they sure are making it hard.  

Sarcastic English

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2015 at 10:07 am

Summer has finally started at Tsinghua.  Not just the ridiculous heat (over 100F these few days), but graduation was last weekend and people are moving on.  The graduated students came in today to clean their desks out, and there was a new guy at dinner – an undergrad working in the lab for the summer.

(Undergrad is taking the TOEFL in August.  I asked if he wants to go abroad, and he said America.  Where in America?  MIT, Harvard, Yale . . . . . [long pause] . . . Stanford, of course.  I think one of my other labmates whispered something about it being my school.  He caught on, though, and next said that Stanford was his dream school.  Good choice, kid!)

At lunch, GuoYang was talking about Bruce Lee and made a high pitched noise in an attempt to mimic the sounds he makes when fighting.  I took this opportunity to teach them “go home you’re drunk”.  Between that and “nice try”, eating with GuoYang and ZhaoYan is like eating with two Chinese Martin’s.  This is a great exchange; they’re teaching me technical Chinese and I’ll teach them sarcastic English.

Somehow we got on the subject of driving at dinner.  GuoYang was asking about the driver’s test, which I honestly don’t remember too clearly because I took it 10 years ago.  He then asked how I am at driving.  How does one answer that?  I’ve been driving for 10 years, so I guess I’m alright. In return, I asked him how he is at driving.  

It was another one of those days, those days when instead of eating I mostly pick up food with my chopsticks and fling it all over my clothes.  GuoYang was making fun of me and said, I drive like you use chopsticks – sometimes there are accidents.  Hahaha!

I am always the last to finish my food, probably due to some combination of me talking a lot and the accidents I sometimes have with my chopsticks :)  Today GuoYang commented on how our table was like four simulations, but although the initial conditions were all the same (we got our food at the same time) the results are not the same.  Then we got into a discussion of why the water at the bottom of the watermelon bowl had a striped pattern.  It’s wonderful to realize that nerdiness crosses language barriers.  

As much as I love these meals with the guys, I have lingering questions about why no women eat with us?  Today I invited ShaSha to eat with us, and she seemed to agree . . . then rode over on her scooter and ate by herself.  And I still can’t get over this new information that ZhaoYan’s girlfriend works in the same building (it’s confirmed – I ran into her in the bathroom today) and she has never once eaten with us.  What am I missing here??

After Xu Lei and I set our travel dates yesterday, I spent some time looking at tickets while my simulations ran.  Hunchun is soooooo far away.  It’s an hour and a half beyond the last train stop.  But, looking at tickets makes it feel more real and I am undeniably excited.  Hunchun is the site of my Chinese childhood, where I learned my first words and clumsily learned my way around.  Returning in 2010, I got to see the city with the fresh eyes of literacy, and I’m excited to see what new perspectives I will have this time.  

In Xiamen, my friends were mostly from the university or church, and most of them are young.  It’s been pretty easy to keep in touch with them over the last few years, using some combination of QQ and WeChat.  Hunchun, though, is a different story.  The only young friend I have there is really the son of two of my friends.  We’ve kept in touch online although I think his parents can barely type.  The other people I want to see when I go up there are our DVD salesman, our machinist, our taxi driver, the man who worked on the horse farm, and the old woman who lives by the power plant.  The DVD salesman has QQ and WeChat, but the others . . . I have five-year-old phone numbers for some of them (and in the case of the old woman, only a rough idea of where her house is).  I think the people I’m in touch with can help me get in touch with the machinist and taxi driver, but I have no mutual friends with the man from the horse farm.  

So I think I’m going to have to call this old phone number and say, Hi, it’s Maria, the American, and just see what happens.  I’ve done this before, never after a five-year absence, but after a few months or a few years.  I called up the DVD salesman to say I was in town once and he insisted on having me over for dinner.  Another time, I called some other workers from the farm to wish them a happy new year, and I think I just said 你好 before they said they knew it was me.  

I’m never really sure how memorable I am.  Our interactions were very special to me, and the times I spent in Hunchun have been defining in both my China journey and the rest of my life, but what was it from their end?  Do they think of me often and fondly, or is it more that I’m “the” American to them, easily identified and remembered although not particularly missed?  Does it seem strange, unnecessary to them that I want to look them up every time I make it back up there?  Like, okay, we had a moment but the moment has passed?  Maybe everyone’s just being polite.  I don’t know, but they always make me feel welcomed and missed and loved, so I’m looking forward to being up there in less than a month!

I Would Be a Horrible Prank Caller

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2012 at 3:19 am

When I talked with Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li a few weeks ago, I asked about the other people that I worked with on the farm that summer.  The others were from Heilongjiang, the province to the north, so they weren’t around when I went back in 2010, but I was sad to miss them on that visit.

I got the phone numbers of my favorite couple, Lao Liu and Han XiaoGuang, though, and thanks to the wonders of Skype, I decided to give them a call.

The phone rang a few times, then someone picked up.

“Wei?”  A woman’s voice.

“Hi, is this Han XiaoGuang?”

“Yes.  Is this Maria?”

What on earth?  I haven’t seen this woman in nearly four years, we’ve never spoken on the phone, never traded contact information, she’s moved since I last saw her, and the last time we spoke I had the vocabulary and grammar of a 5 year-old.

And she picks me out after the first sentence?!

News from the Zhangs

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm

The other day I got an unexpected [webcam] call.  I’ve been “friends” with Zhang Lei, son of the foreman on the farm I worked on in Jilin, since I got QQ, but he has always had limited internet access so we rarely talk.

But this call was preceded by the words, “Are you there?  This is Xiao Li.”  His mother!  It was well past midnight and I was heading to bed, but I took the call anyway, and we talked for about an hour.  It was so good to hear from her!  I hadn’t heard her voice or seen her face since I visited Hunchun in May 2010, nearly two years ago. 

She caught me up on all the news of our mutual friends – the big news being that Zhang Lei is married!  He’s a few years younger than me and I always felt like they [not-so] secretly wanted us to get married, so I’m extremely happy for him and a tiny bit relieved :)

The next night, I got another call – this time from Xiao Zhang, Zhang Lei’s father.  It’s hard to describe how I when I saw his face and heard his voice after so long.  He is pretty much one of my favorite people in the entire world.  You know how your mother’s voice is about the most comforting sound in the world?  In my second language of Chinese, that’s the role that he fills – his voice was the first one that I really heard and understood in Chinese.  His Chinese is the standard by which I compare everyone else’s; to me it is perfectly unaccented 普通话. 

And he understands me – yes, we still have a lot of cultural differences but he, more so than any other Chinese person I’ve talked to, can see through the grammatical mistakes and limited vocabulary to what I’m trying to say.  While we chatted, I tried to tell him that we have a Chinese language radio station here in the Bay Area, but I realized I didn’t know the word for radio.  He figured it out immediately from my clues (not the TV, the thing you only listen to) and said the word for me a few times, clearly and slowly.

Xiao Zhang has done a lot of different kinds of work – welding, chicken-keeping, farming, etc. – and I don’t think he’s very highly educated, but as we talked I told him that I think he was born to be a teacher.  Later, though, I thought about it more and reconsidered.  I’m not sure if he was born to be a teacher, if he was born to be a Chinese teacher, or if he was born to be my Chinese teacher.  Either way, I’m lucky to have had him act as such!

On the Border

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2011 at 10:25 pm

So, last week I spent a few days visiting my grandparents in El Paso, TX.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world, probably because it’s kind of like TWO of my favorite places in the world.  This is because El Paso reminds me A LOT of the farm in Jilin China.  Why?

It is literally ON the border.  El Paso is almost like half of a city, inconveniently located where a national border runs through it.  From many places in the city, you can see the Rio Grande and the enormous flag that sits just across the river. 

Hunchun isn’t quite that close to the border, but you could see the Russian border (a line through the trees and a guard tower) from anywhere on the farm) and the road to town ran along the Tumen river, which formed the border with North Korea. 

The regions are heavily influenced by the culture from across the border.  Immigration (legal, illegal, and refugees) has led to a significant percentage of the population coming from/identifying with the other country.  The other language is widely known, widely used, and widely accepted; it’s almost as easy to get by in the other language as in the official language of the country.  Their food is easily available and pretty authentic – score!

There are mountains.  Lots of them, but not too big.  And they fade into the distance . . . I love it.

Also, I only really know old people in both places. 


So, I was thinking about this as I left El Paso and headed west to Tempe, Los Angeles, and eventually Stanford.  And as I crossed the border into California, I again had the sense that I was back in China.  Probably part of the reason was that going through a “customs” of sort at the border made me feel like I was entering a foreign country. 

Also, there are the stricter laws.  My Oklahoma friends complain about how you can’t carry a gun with a clip containing more than 10 rounds; in China you can’t have guns at all.  There just seems to be a lot more government control here, which reminds me of China.

And there are a ton of Asians here.  I overheard at least 4 conversations in Chinese while at IKEA, and the congregation at Mass on Sunday was strikingly Chinese. 

The palm trees, proximity of both ocean and mountains, and the availability of fresh and local fruit reminds me specifically of China.  Stanford even has a Palm Drive like XiaDa’s West Gate!


I really appreciate the similarities.  It’s good to be someplace familiar : )

What Was On My Mind (III)

In Uncategorized on September 4, 2010 at 5:00 pm

The end of the year, captured in facebook statuses:


Maria Holland heard someone say “Not gonna lie” today and, not gonna lie, it made me realize how long I’ve been away from America.
May 12 at 11:35pm

Maria Holland is still delighted every time I realized I can speak and read Chinese. Does it ever get old?
May 15 at 12:36am

Maria Holland It would have been nice to know we were climbing a mountain after Mass today, because the clothes I usually wear to Mass are generally not the best for mountain climbing. But, I’ve now climbed a mountain in peep-toed sandals and a skirt and feel more Chinese for the experience.
May 16 at 10:00pm

Maria Holland is spending the night at the church on Gulangyu. I’m planning a peaceful and quiet night, praying for Uncle Daniel and Robert, Nick, & Lonnie on the anniversary of their deaths. Glad we got to know you, Daniel.
May 18 at 5:12pm

Maria Holland had a beautiful night on Gulangyu. I took in a violin concert, savored the silence of the island broken only by piano music, slept three doors away from the choir loft of a century-old Catholic church, went to morning Mass, and had porridge with the bishop.
May 19 at 9:46am

Maria Holland got a SEVEN on the HSK!!!!!! I could theoretically go to college in China . . . but I think I’ll head back to TU and finish up there.
May 19 at 11:55am

Maria Holland it is May 2010 and, just like May 2007 and May 2008, I am making my way to the northeast of China. It’s almost like going home . . .
Meat sticks, I’m coming for you. Get ready!
May 20 at 2:54pm

Maria Holland is in Hunchun, the (0,0,0,0) coordinate of my life in China! I’ve been living with Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li, visited Mob Boss and MacGyver, eaten at DongFang and am currently preparing for an epic Shell birthday dinner complete with my cake and homemade dairy products like you wouldn’t believe.
Be jealous.
May 23 at 4:43pm

Maria Holland is in Hunchun at the farm today, for the third anniversary of my first day in China, and the third International Day of Prayer for the Church in China. Please join me, il Papa, and Christians around the world in praying for love, mutual understanding, and unity (both spiritual and political) between all 基督徒 in China.
May 24 at 8:34am

Maria Holland met up with Zaibin, my very first Chinese friend, today and we went to see Goose Lady!
May 25 at 8:52pm

Maria Holland has spent nine months in China!
May 26 at 10:31pm

Maria Holland is going to Xiao Zhang’s to learn how to make jiaozi and sugared potatoes! This means no internet ’til Sunday night though . . .
May 27 at 3:21pm

Maria Holland it is 10 a.m. in China and I’ve already stolen someone’s identity and broken the law. I’m currently sitting in what seems to be a love motel that I have rented by the hour. This has been a great trip . . .
May 30 at 10:39am

Maria Holland is back in Xiamen, happy to be out of Jilin but already missing Hunchun.
Also, how is it almost June??
May 31 at 10:52am

Maria Holland I live on a tropical island. Today is the 2nd of June. I wore my winter coat to go to dinner. One of these things is not like the others . . .
June 2 at 9:42pm

Maria Holland taking advantage of the rain to have the laziest day ever. Entire day spent in pajamas – check. Lunch delivered – check. Dinner delivered – check. Four seasons of Psych on DVD – check.
June 3 at 8:38pm

Maria Holland found out that Chinese people think mixed-blood babies are exceptionally beautiful and smart. Whatever. It’s when it turns into a matchmaking service designed to match me with a Chinese husband that I start to mind. Also, does EVERYONE have to participate? Random old man on the street last night, I’m talking about you . . .
June 5 at 2:56pm

Maria Holland watched Iron Man 2 (钢铁侠2) in theaters today and then bought both 1 & 2 on DVD immediately afterwards, for less than the cost of a movie in America. Sweet!
June 6 at 8:49pm

Maria Holland enjoyed an hour-long massage for $5 this morning. Yeah, I’m doin’ alright.
June 8 at 11:09pm

Maria Holland has still not bought return tickets. Maybe I’m not quite ready for that step . . .
June 10 at 12:52am

Maria Holland has pancake mix, dried pasta, marshmallows, chocolate, nutella, condensed milk, brown sugar, powdered sugar, and most of a bottle of gin . . . . and I am determined to use all of it before I leave this country, despite lacking an oven or any discernible kitchen.
June 10 at 5:41pm

Maria Holland had a great time watching the opening game of the World Cup. It’s a weird feeling, though, probably like what Harry Potter felt upon discovering this whole other world that only cares about one sport, a sport that you’ve never heard of.
June 12 at 1:01am

Maria Holland US vs. England in our first World Cup appearance – at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday/school night? Why certainly!
June 12 at 11:12pm

Maria Holland needs more soccer-related vocabulary if I’m going to continue watching the World Cup in China. Tonight’s 生词: “draw” = 平. 我为美国加油! (I’m cheering for America!)
June 13 at 5:01am

Maria Holland Tomorrow would be the perfect day to leave Xiamen, because I just had the perfect Last Night in Country: singing French drinking songs on a bus that we flagged down at 2 a.m. and convinced to take us to a bar.
June 18 at 3:39am

Maria Holland is gearing up for a showdown between America and Slovenia – basically, me vs. Kristina. 美国 para ganar!
June 18 at 8:41pm

Maria Holland is really getting this football thing. Not getting the whole sleep thing, though. The two may or may not be related.
June 19 at 3:19am

Maria Holland is ready to go home, I guess. Everything is moldy and I’m tired of it. 30 days seems just about right!
June 21 at 11:06pm

Maria Holland has the Stomach Clench of Death. Come on yogurt, work your magic . . .
June 22 at 2:23pm

Maria Holland and this is why I’m loving the World Cup: sitting in a coffehouse, watching the England-Slovenia game and reading updates on the US-Algeria game, with friends from 3 of the 4 countries next to me. The US goal in the final minutes to win the group didn’t hurt either, of course!
June 24 at 12:38am

Maria Holland This may be the best line of its kind since “save a horse, ride a cowboy: “Although I’m a cowboy, I only drink milk in bars. Why don’t I drink beer? Because it’s bad for your health.” Courtesy of a Chinese cowboy song, “Cowboys Are Very Busy”
June 25 at 2:52am

Maria Holland taking a nap in my U.S.A jersey before the game. Sorry, Africa, but I hope Ghana’s out after this . . .
June 27 at 1:08am

Maria Holland Xiamen has a way of making up for Bad China Days. I had a very successful trip shopping for gifts this morning, spent a beautiful afternoon on the beach, and am headed out for dinner and the game. NEDERLANDS!!!
June 28 at 6:59pm

Maria Holland plans to enjoy each of my remaining days in China as much as I did today. Lunch with friends, afternoon on the beach, winning two games of 6-player Catan tonight. Spain and Holland play this weekend and we’re celebrating the Fourth on a boat, then I go to Hangzhou to see Matt Thomas! 挺好的 :)
July 1 at 1:38am

Maria Holland has a plane ticket! On July 20th at 8 p.m. (Beijing time), I will begin my adventure towards home. Expect me around 9 a.m. Central on Wednesday, July 21st at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport – allowing, of course, for 48 hours of possible “adventure-related delays”.
July 1 at 12:20pm

Maria Holland is feeling far from home right now. Didn’t realize how important the internet is to keeping me connected, until they shut off our electricity today and I missed the news of my aunt’s heart attack. Please pray for my Aunt Cathy!
July 3 at 9:34pm

Maria Holland This was the best Fourth of July ever . . . if I do say so myself. Wait for pictures if you don’t believe me!
July 4 at 8:34pm

Maria Holland is not quite caught up from an amazing Fourth of July weekend but, ready or not, I’m off to Suzhou and Hangzhou tomorrow afternoon!
July 6 at 12:07am

Maria Holland Spain vs. the Netherlands in the World Cup final: two countries with the best-looking football, the best-looking footballers, and some of my best friends. I cannot lose!
July 8 at 4:29am

Maria Holland had Papa John’s delivered and ate it with an old friend from elementary, middle, and high school. BTW, I’m still in China. That’s crazy, right?
July 8 at 9:20pm

Maria Holland returned to Xiamen for the last time. The next time I return somewhere, I will be returning to the United States. 11 days . . .
July 9 at 8:55pm

Maria Holland will miss many things when I leave here – but not The Key anymore, and never the giant kamikaze bugs.
July 11 at 2:00am

Maria Holland is getting ready for three finals: the World Cup at 2:30 a.m., Listening at 9:00 a.m., and Grammar at 10 a.m. I predict domination in all three!
July 11 at 9:31pm

Maria Holland AAAH. This morning was amazing, between the game, the glorious sunrise, and the celebratory s’mores that we ate (possibly for breakfast). No longer tired. Two finals in three hours.
July 12 at 6:06am

Maria Holland is so tired. My sleep schedule has been messed up by constant goodbye parties and the month-long World Cup, but if I can keep it up for 8 more days maybe I won’t have jet lag when I get back home?
July 13 at 1:58am

Spreadsheet Made; All Is Well

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Spreadsheet made; all is well. 

Some Notes On Money

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2010 at 12:22 am

I went to the tailor this morning to pick up my latest order – a qipao top custom made for me out of beautiful red embroidered silk for $16.  I was considering ordering a full-length qipao as well, but have pretty much decided not to.  It’s not so much what the tailor would charge (certainly not more than $40), but more the associated costs of transporting it home and finding shoes to wear with it.  Also, this is a sort of gamble – me betting that I’ll be back in China some day with less luggage and more occasions to wear a qipao :)


While walking back from the bus stop at West Gate, I stopped at the DVD cart and bought 松花江上.  It’s a Chinese TV show, a historical series set after the Japanese surrender concerning the Communists vs. the KMT.  I don’t know that it’s the pinnacle of Chinese television (a peak that doesn’t seem to be that high, anyway) but I watched a couple episodes with Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li so it has a special place in my heart.  I have a hard time telling apart the Japanese/Communist/KMT characters (which meant I was continually asking “Are they a good guy or a bad guy?”), but their accents are good and they’re easy to understand.  The entire show cost me $2, but when it turned out to only be on two discs instead of three, I got a refund of 70 cents.  Buying Chinese DVDs are possibly the most guilt-free purchase to make here, as they are a) incredibly cheap, b) unavailable in America, c) small and easily transportable, and d) both entertaining and educational. 


I bought tickets this afternoon to Hangzhou at the beginning of July for $130.  It’s a trip to a part of China I don’t want to go to (Shanghai), and during a week when I don’t want to be traveling (last week of classes before finals and goodbyes).  So why am I going?  A friend of mine is going to be there.  We aren’t best friends, but we went to elementary, middle, and high school together and have kept in touch sporadically since then.  I’ve probably only seen him twice since we graduated, one of those times being a chance meeting at Caribou Coffee, but I guess this is a good example of how facebook can actually be used to actually keep in touch with actual people who you actually know.  I know, right?  I saw he was taking a tour through Europe and Asia and knew that I had to try to meet up with him.  I kind of promised myself when I came to China this year that if someone I knew came to Asia (especially China), I would do my best to see them.  Hence the spur-of-the-moment trip to Guangzhou to see the family friends who came to adopt a son, the repeated postponing of my trip to Jilin, and now this.  I am really excited to see Matt and catch up, and have been moderately successful at mitigating the parts of the trip I’m not excited about.  I’ll be flying in and out of Hangzhou, completely avoiding the insanity of Shanghai and the Expo, and scheduled the trip during the week (missing class) so as to be in Xiamen for the all-important Fourth of July and last weekend. 


I also resumed searching for tickets home two weeks later – and it turns out that they all suck.  The cheapest flight available from Xiamen to Minneapolis is $1,052 but most of the cheap stuff involves 4 legs (and sometimes 4 countries) or ridiculously long times between flights.  Yes, I’d like to visit the Philippines but an 11-hour layover wasn’t what I had in mind.  The price isn’t of utmost importance as I have a scholarship to cover it, but is it too much to ask for an journey home that starts in the afternoon, lasts under 24 hours, and is preferably through either Delta or Cathay Pacific?  Apparently.  Nevertheless, it must be done – don’t worry, I firmly intend to return home. 


I took a look at my records and calculated that my 10-day trip to Jilin cost just under $500 total.  40% of that was the plane tickets, a third was food, and the remainder was other transportation.  I was so lucky to not have to pay for a place to stay!  I spent $120 treating people to dinner, but (besides that fact that this is a drop in the bucket compared with what they’ve given me) it’s still less than I would have spent otherwise – on lodging for 10 nights and for food on the occasions that they treated me to dinner!  The only disappointment (again) was that final day in Jilin, which cost $50.  That’s a tenth of the total cost, and a full third of my transportation costs, in one day!

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. 

Goodbye, Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2010 at 10:34 pm

They woke me up for breakfast, a veritable feast of leftovers.  I think they’re still going to be eating jiaozi for a few days, which means they won’t forget me right away! 

Xiao Zhang went to work but Xiao Li and I went back to sleep in her bed (and by bed, I mean floor).  We didn’t get up until after 9, which was such a ridiculous hour for her that she kept bringing it up all day long.  We went for a walk through town, buying ingredients and other things along the way.  I bought a pair of split-bottom pants for some friends who are expecting a baby, and a super-hot pair of pink Louis Vuitton leggings.  You know you want some!

We had a big lunch, our last together, then they took turns sitting and talking with me.  I got a picture of Xiao Zhang wearing the TU shirt we gave him two years ago!


At 2, Mob Boss and his wife came to pick me up.  We made a stop to get my train ticket (which they insisted on buying) and then they took me to the bus stop.  We got there at 2:14 and the bus left at 2:15, but I refused to leave until I got one last picture:


Then I was on a bus headed to Yanji.  It was just like last Friday – only the exact opposite.  The power plant was the last familiar thing I saw, and I hated to watch it recede behind me.  The trees still pointed relentlessly, but now they were pointing in the same direction as I was traveling, urging me onward and homeward.  Even my mood was the opposite – no longer excited, maybe a little melancholy.

But I couldn’t be too sad.  I had such an amazing trip, that even its inevitable conclusion can’t ruin my happiness.  I was worried, before coming, that maybe I had planned to stay too long, that maybe everyone wouldn’t be as excited to see me as I was to see them.  That did not turn out to be the case, though!  I’m glad that I seemed to make my friends as happy as they made me. 

They say you can’t go home, but apparently you can in China.  See, I’ve decided that, while I have grown up in Fujian, I was born here in 东北 (the northeast). 


After a two-hour bus ride, I arrived in Yanji.  Yanji is the nearest big city to Hunchun, the closest place to find an airport, university, or McDonald’s.  It’s also the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and is even more Korean than Hunchun.  I have some friends in Yanji, so I took a taxi to their place where I got to catch up with them. 

Daryl and Brenda are great people to sit down and talk with.  Their life is a crazy story, and one that they tell well.  I heard about their oldest daughter’s adventures learning to drive a stick in China.  They described Forrest, their Chinese friend who learned to speak English from watching Forrest Gump over and over.  We talked about the cultural obstacles to Christianity found in Chinese and Korean cultures.  They told me about the trials of designing an American-style apartment in China.  Daryl, fluent in Korean but still a toddler in Chinese, showed me how he avoids taxi drivers’ questions by pretending to talk on the phone in Chinese:

“Wei? Nihao . . . . eng, eng . . . haode . . . eng, eng, eng . . . nage, nage . . . dui, dui, dui!  dui, haode . . . eng, haode, haode, baibai!”

Hilarious – and spot on! 

They took me to Gina’s Place, a Western restaurant, for dinner.  I had garlic bread, chicken quesadillas, and cheese cake, all of it heavenly.  Then, all too quickly, it was time for me to go.  I had a 9:30 train to Jilin, and made it just in time to get on board, find my berth, and fall asleep.