Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘money’

Things I Luckily Didn’t Leave at Home, and Things I Should Have

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2015 at 10:12 am

I went to Mass today at the North Cathedral – last Mass in Beijing.  There was some activity going on, ton of young people in matching blue shirts, so I couldn’t sit where I usually do.  But it’s always nice to see full churches.  

I think every time I’ve gone to Mass in Beijing, I see someone instructing someone else how to put their arms over the chest in order to receive a blessing at Communion.  I wonder if Chinese Catholics bring a lot of non-Catholic friends to Mass?

Afterwards, I went to a nice Xinjian restaurant at Xizhimen to have lunch with the two friends of a friend who took me to lunch when I first got here.  

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Every single time I offer treat, I fret about not having enough money.  Every single time.  This time I had 450元.  A lot of the dishes were around 150元, so I was legitimately worried.  I even asked if they took credit cards, but they said only domestic cards worked.  I tried to stay calm as we ordered, but they said what I suggested was too much and reduced it.  We ended up getting a “big plate of chicken”, a plate of noodles, a few lamb sticks, some bread, eggplant and green beans, and Xinjiang [salty?!] milk tea.  It was still a ton of food, and delicious, and cost 130元 (around $20).  This also happens every single time I offer to treat – I can’t believe how cheap it was, and that I was ever worried.

I got a ride back to the train station, which was great because it was HOT today.  Only 35C, apparently, but it felt like the hottest day yet.  I’m not sure if it was the humidity (only 50%!  Xiamen will be 90+%!!) or the fact that the pollution was pretty bad and I wore a mask all day, but I could not handle it.  

At the train station, one of the girls helped me get my train tickets.  I had bought three of them online, and had the confirmation numbers, so those were easy enough to get.  (Side note: I had a mild panic attack when, at the front of the line with the grumpy teller and a long line of people behind me, I thought all the information was in my Gmail account.  That’s like three layers of inaccessible, as I’d have to have internet, get on my VPN, and download PDFs.  Thankfully, I had put the numbers in Evernote.  But it was just one of those situations where I realize how smoothly my life runs in the US and how . . . different that all is in China.)

The fourth ticket was the one I bought at Tsinghua and then lost.  Unfortunately, they had no record of my ticket on the train number I had written down.  I vaguely remember him saying that that train was sold out and offering me another one, but I don’t really know which one.  We tried several others, all the fastest trains on that day (which better be what I bought!) but found nothing.  I’ll probably make a trip back to the place where I bought the ticket, then, worst-case scenario, buy it again.  It was 270元, or $45 – not nothing, but I’ve definitely made worse mistakes.

After being on the go all morning in the crazy heat, I was ready to go back to the hotel for the rest of the day.  I showered, cleaned up, took a nap, read The Three Body Problem, and kind of started packing.  I’m trying to figure out what I can/should bring on my two weeks of travels, and what should stay in Beijing.  Opening up my suitcases and going through my drawers, I got a look at the things I’d brought and never used.  The award for Most Worthless Thing I Lugged Across the Pacific definitely goes to the big box of business cards I’d been told were ‘essential’.  I think since I came to China, I’ve legimitately used one, and gave another two to labmates as basically a souvenir.  The award for Thing I Almost Left Behind That I’m Glad I Didn’t is a tie between my Time Capsule (oh, the glories of wireless internet in my hotel room, at least when we have internet in the hotel) and my 3D printed brain (best. show-and-tell. ever.).  All in all, I did a decent job packing.  

Bayern at the Bird’s Nest!

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2015 at 10:51 am

I made my first purchase on 亚马孙 ( by myself today!  I’m buying some gifts for the labmates I’ve become the closest to, and was able to find what I was looking for at reasonable prices on 亚马孙.  They allow you to pay with a [foreign] credit card, and I copied the address of our lab from the invoice that came with the book GuoYang ordered for me, so the two biggest hurdles in online ordering were easily overcome.

The main event of today, though, was definitely the football match at the Bird’s Nest.  I first saw an ad on the subway at the beginning of the month – the poster caught my eye because of the faces of Neuer, Robben, and Müller (stars of the German and Dutch national teams).  As soon as I deciphered the phonetic Chinese names for the teams (拜仁 = Bayern, 瓦伦西亚 = Valencia) and realized that the date fell during my stay in Beijing, I was set on going.  I mean, seeing Luckily, I found a few friends to go with me, and Cheng helped us buy tickets on a second-hand site after the cheapest ones were sold out.  

A slight blemish on my day was the announcement that the Olympic Center subway stop was closed.  Honestly, I had expected it; remember that time I tried to go to Yanji to watch the Olympic torch and all the buses to Yanji that day were canceled?  For some reason, China responds to massive amounts of people trying to go someplace by reducing the availability of public transportation.  

I met Cheng and her boyfriend at Tsinghua and we took a taxi over to a restaurant near the Olympic park for dinner.  We were joined by a friend from California who I hadn’t seen in probably close to a year.  He works for Apple in Beijing and speaks Chinese about as well as me, so we had a nice dinner with a comfortable mix of Chinese and English conversation.

The most memorable conversation topic was, as it often tends to be, “what are we eating?”  For instance, we got a bowl of delicious fried shrimp, which came with a bunch of fried balls.  I tried one, and it was strange – a cube of fruit, breaded and fried, then covered in crispy sugar shell, plus somehow spicy.  I couldn’t identify the fruit inside, but Cheng told me it was “li”.  Pear, I thought, and it seemed about right.  It’s the same fruit as in the tea we’re drinking, she added – “li”.  Plum, I thought; and it made sense because the drink tasted like prune juice.  But wait, these are the same thing!?  Neither Michael nor I believed her, so this led to a 10-minute conversation of plums, pears, 李, 梨, lǐ, and lí.  Supposedly everything was pear.  I guess I’ve just never had pear juice before?  

As we made our way from the restaurant to the stadium, we passed a lot of people selling Bayern merchandise.  (The entire night, there was literally no sign of Valencia other than 11 people on the field.)  I bought a Müller shirt for 80元.  I love that I probably got ripped off and it was still only $12.

When I got the shirt, Cheng told me to check the size.  When I read XL, she said: good, just right for you.  What every woman loves to hear, right?  But it’s true, she knows; here in China I’m a solid XL.  

I was more okay with my body when we came upon a bunch of cutouts of Bayern players, including one where you could put your face.  As I went up to take a picture, the girl before me was posing – well, trying to.  Even on tiptoes, she couldn’t get more than her forehead in the opening.  I started laughing, realized it was mean, and still couldn’t stop.

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We had bought the cheapest tickets – originally 180元 ($30) but resold for 250元.  They were in the upper level, but I thought we had a great view of the field.  

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The game was pretty great – three beautiful goals in the net closest to us (2 Bayern, 1 Valencia) and then Bayern scored again twice after the half.  I got to see Müller score live!  I’d only watched one football game live before, and it was Feyenoord vs. Zwolle, and we were behind one goal and the only goals were in the other one.  So yeah, this one was a bit better :)

The crowd was definitely Bayern friendly (with giant Bavarian flags being passed around the stands and constant cries of “Super Bayern!”), but I was excited to see Valencia score just to keep things interesting.  

It was such a cool night – watching such a great game in such a beautiful stadium with such good people.  

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It’s things like this that really make me appreciate my Chinese language abilities.  This is why it’s so fun for me to travel and live in China, because I can hear about opportunities like this and make them happen.  So glad I noticed that poster in the subway and took a picture!  Although huge credit also goes to GuoYang, who helped me extract the QR code, and Cheng, who actually bought the tickets.  

The air looked terrible as we left the stadium.  The official numbers said it was around ~50 but after a month and a half my eyes know >100 when they see it.  I wonder what sort of clauses the players had for air quality – would they get more money if it was worse, or is there a point at which it would have been canceled?  It’s sad, these athletes’ bodies are like finely tuned sports cars, and breathing the air in Beijing is like filling them with sewer oil.  

Learning to Toast, Part II

In Uncategorized on July 10, 2015 at 10:41 am

This morning, I took the bus to Beijing Normal University with one of my EAPSI colleagues to participate in his experiment.  He’s studying how English speakers learn Mandarin, with a focus on tones, judging by the things I did.  

I had had to do a pretest to qualify for the experiment, which included a bunch of questions about how difficult it would be for me to do, among others, the following tasks:

1….bargain for items in a tourist shop.
3. …order food from a written menu without pictures.
4. …tell a taxi driver where to go even when I don’t know the specific name or address of the destination.
5. …politely ask a stranger for directions.
9. …debate issues such as free speech or the death penalty with a friend. 
13. …discuss social problems such as air pollution or the gap between rich and poor with friends. 
15. …specifically and clearly explain the details of a technical task in my professional field.
(e.g., how to remove a virus from a computer, how to use a microscope) 
16. …read and understand novels that were written for native Chinese readers. 
22. …make a lengthy toast at a banquet or wedding using appropriately formal language. 
23. …ask a technical question at an academic conference or business meeting. 
24. …effectively insult (assuming I wanted to) a rude haggler who will not leave me alone. 
25. …explain the rules of a sport or other game (cards, board game).

It’s funny, because among the list are things I’ve gotten tons of experience in during my year-plus in China (1, 3, 4, 5), things I’ve specifically worked on (16, 25), things that I can do but without finesse (9,13), things that I came here this summer to work on (15, 23), and things that I think they should teach in Chinese courses (22, 24).  

The tasks during the experiment consisted of listening to sentences and identifying which ones had something wrong, all while wearing an EEG cap and trying desperately not to blink.  So, that was fun.

Nancy Sung, head of NSF-Beijing and one of our main EAPSI contacts, stopped by and took a picture of me as they applied the electrodes to my scalp.

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Then there was a lot of identifying of tones and a little bit of translation.  It was the closest thing I’ve had to a Chinese test in 5 years!  I made 300元 for my participation, so I indulged in a taxi ride home (28元) instead of an hour on a bus.  Taxi conversations can be some of the best conversations – 20 minutes in a car with a sociable, knowledgeable local?  Yes, please.  This guy, naturally, asked what I was doing in Beijing – studying at Beijing Normal?  Then, because my destination was the University of Mining Technology, he asked about that next.  No, I’m at Tsinghua, a third university . . . This part of Beijing is absurd, though, just full of universities.  He pointed them out as we drove by – government, medicine, electronics, technology, languages, geology, agriculture, etc.

After a shower to get the electrode gel out of my hair, I biked into lab.  I stopped at KFC for a quick lunch – chicken burger, fries, and a drink for 15元, which is cheap for the US at $2 but equivalent to two or three cafeteria meals here.  Plus I got two egg tarts, which were another 10元.  Hey, big spender!  

I got to lab in time for our afternoon group meeting.  I must confess, I had a hard time following and spent much of the time clicking “random” on the xkcd page to find some good ones to share with my labmates.  I showed GuoYang this one,


but he didn’t know what “nice try” meant.  I tried explaining that it was sarcastic, giving some example usages, etc., but he just asked me, So this is funny?  Yes, it’s supposed to be!  Eventually he got it, and now we use this phrase all the time.  (I never thought about how many situations this phrase can be used in!)  I think when I leave they’re all going to speak fluent technical and sarcastic English.  But again, you learn what you need to know . . . 

After the lab meeting, we went downstairs to take pictures.  There are four students graduating from the group, and a postdoc who is leaving.  

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I knew we were going out to dinner, so I asked one labmate if I should dress up.  No, she said, just the same as usual.  It’s hard to know what that means, though – a few of the women wear dresses and high heels every day as if it were nothing, but some of the guys show up in sweatpants and t-shirts.  I erred on the dressier side of things, and was glad because we took a lot of pictures.  But sweatpants and shorts were still well represented.  

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A few of the girls were wearing blue dresses as if they had coordinated, so I asked to take a picture of them.

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As Cheng pointed out, they’re my 蓝朋友s!  [In the southern Chinese accent, “l” and “n” get mixed up, so I frequently get asked if I have a “lánpéngyoǔ” (blue friend) instead of “nánpéngyoǔ” (boyfriend).]

Once we had taken almost every permutation of group picture, we biked to a restaurant in Wudaokou for dinner.  It was a nice, quiet place, off the busy roads, and we had two rooms to ourselves.  Unfortunately, we had an awkward number of people, so we started out being too few for four tables and ended up being too many for three tables.  It was cozy.  There was a lot of shuffling, but after a brief scary time where I was put at a table with literally all of the people I didn’t know, I ended up with the best seat in the room.  I was next to Cheng and Stacy, the four-year-old daughter of an older alumni.  She was very shy at first, but eventually warmed up to me and we took some silly pictures together.

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Also at my table were two of the graduating students, a few other students and their boyfriends, one of the professors I don’t really know at all, and Prof. Feng, my host.  

My education in toasting is still probably not complete, but I feel like today was an advanced class.  I learned (well, relearned; I think I knew this before) that it’s a sign of respect to toast with your glass lower than the other person.  So, when toasting Prof. Feng he should definitely be the higher glass, but in most other situations both people are competing to be the lower glass.  The result is a rapid dive-bomb from face height down to the table immediately before clinking glasses.  

I also learned the nuances of large-group toasting: you can have one-on-one toasts, a whole table toasting one person, one person toasting a whole table, a whole table toasting a whole table, or one person toasting the whole room.  Actually, my host told me there’s not much nuance, you’re just trying to get the other people drunk.  The main targets were Prof. Feng, the graduating students, and Li Bo.  At one point, everyone was toasting Bo and I heard him say, They’re coming again?? as a new group arrived.  Haha!  I also received much more than my fair share of toasts.  There was one Masters graduate that I had never seen before, but we toasted like four times.  The last time, he said “To world peace” and it was like a scene from Miss Congeniality.  

The Yanjing beer we were drinking is 3.1%, so like Oklahoma beer.  The baijiu was only 30%, too, and each toast was probably ¼ of a shot, so I was just not that intimidated, haha.  Add in the fact that I probably weighed more than anyone else in the room, and my face doesn’t give me away by turning red when I drink like most of them, and they all thought I had an incredible capacity for alcohol.  It’s also probably easy for me hide any tipsiness, because I make so many mistakes in Chinese even when sober . . . For instance, I had trouble writing down a character in my notebook when I learned a new word, but I can’t honestly attribute that to the alcohol :(

Prof. Feng’s old advisor was there, a very kind-looking older man.  He is a very good calligrapher, and apparently the traditional graduation gift in the group is a piece of personalized calligraphy from him.  Beautiful!

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I joined my table when we went over to toast him, and said that I was very happy to meet my 师爷爷 (lab grandfather).  He looked confused, so I had to explain – they had told me that we were all 师兄弟姐妹 (lab brothers and sisters), which makes Prof. Feng our 师父 (lab father), and him our 师爷爷.  He seemed okay with the title :)  It happened again when we went to toast another professor.  Cheng whispered to me that he was Prof. Feng’s 师弟 (lab little brother), so I instantly responded with, oh, so he’s our 师叔叔 (lab uncle).  He found this hilarious.  

[Incidentally, there’s a similar custom in German, at least where your advisor is called your Doktorvater.  Because Ellen’s a woman, I asked if I could call her my Doktormutter, and she didn’t exactly say no.  I met her advisor in Germany last summer, too – my Doktorgroßvater?]

It was around this point, I realized that Stacy and I are very similar, actually.  Everyone likes to have us around because we’re both cute and funny and can be counted on for a laugh or asked to perform on cue.  Sometimes we’re shy and won’t speak, sometimes we jump into the spotlight.  We also get away with a lot because we can’t really be expected to understand the rules.  Eh, I’m actually not really bothered by this realization.  

I told Prof. Feng about my proposed Chinese classes – ordering food, toasting, karaoke, and getting mad – and they all wanted to know about the last one.  I told the story from Sanlitun again, and he said that we shouldn’t have paid them; once they take the money it’s their responsibility.  I said, I knew what we should have done, but I didn’t know how to say it!  That’s why I want that class.  I just can’t argue or even hold my ground strongly in Chinese, because I just don’t have the vocabulary.  I know “darn it” and “fuck your mother”, and nothing in between.  

Some of the guys told Li Bo that I knew the phrase 不明觉厉 (I don’t understand but I think you’re great), and he said he wasn’t familiar with it.  It’s a very ancient Chinese idiom, one guy responded.  I think Confucius said it, I chimed in.  Then GuoYang told us how it all came about: Confucius was walking and ran into Laozi, who told him a story, and Confucius responded: 不明觉厉.  I about died laughing.

Then they taught me some English sayings – “You can you up” and “no can no BB”.  I didn’t understand their explanations at the time – something about how some people think Kobe can make the shot and some people don’t? – but later someone explained it to me better.  It’s sort of like “put up or shut up” – if you can do it, go do it, but if you can’t don’t bullshit (BB) about it.  It’s a quote from George Washington, GuoYang told me solemnly.  Hahaha.

As the night went on, the professors said their goodbyes and eventually we were left, about 20 grad students (and Li Bo) with a few more bottles of beer and one or two more bottles of baijiu.  Someone finally noticed that one of the graduating students hadn’t been drinking, he’d just been making other people drink.  He explained to me that he was just trying to make other people happy, and I tried to help him out (I don’t like seeing people being forced or pressured to drink) by commenting on how generous this was.  But they kept insisting . . . so he grabbed a bowl of soup off the table and started toasting with that.

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Once the baijiu was gone, we biked to the karaoke place to continue the party.  I sang the songs that they ordered for me, which was actually a nice opportunity to see what songs they like (or that I actually sang well).  Call Me Maybe, Domino, My Heart Will Go On, and 遇上你是我的缘 were hits.  I also sang 坐上火车去拉萨, with a little help from Cheng.  She is just the best.  She gets me, you know?  Exhibit A: she grabbed a mic and sang the hard characters, the ones that she figured I didn’t know.  True friendship.  Also before karaoke we stopped at a 7-11 to get drinks, and when I asked if they were 冰的 (ice cold), she answered no when every other Chinese person would say yes.  She knows, though, that I like to drink ice-cold things, not the slightly-below-room-temperature drinks that pass for “ice-cold” in China.  

I stayed until 1am or so.  I ordered 朋友 as my last song, a really sentimental one about friendship and how we’ll always have each other.  As I hugged WeiHua goodbye (she went for the hug!!), I asked her if I would see her again.  She said we would.  I’m not sure if she meant in the next few days around the office, or sometime in our lives.  I’m not quite sure what I was asking about, honestly!  But either way, I liked the answer.  

Learning to Toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Today I learned: 

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

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

Americans Throw the Best Parties

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2015 at 10:31 am

I went in to work for a half day before going home to get ready for the evening’s event – “a celebration of the 239th Anniversary of our Independnce Day in honor of America’s National Parks” at the US Embassy in Beijing.

A few of us met downstairs for pictures (by this beautiful pagoda behind our hotel)



then hopped in taxis to go to the embassy.  Well, at least that’s how it was supposed to go.  In reality, I spent an hour hailing three taxis.  This was using a combination of three apps, plus all 20 arms available to us.  I got the first one almost immediately using 快的, a taxi-hailing app, which lulled me into a false sense of securing.  My next 20 requests on the app, including ones for the more expensive 专车, were ignored, and we couldn’t get Uber China to accept any form of payment we had available to us.  We came upon a driver taking a water break next to his taxi and convinced him to take another group of passengers.  Finally, one of the guys hailed a taxi across the intersection . . . just as my last request on 快的 was accepted, with a driver on his way to get us.  Ugh.

It worked out, because our contact who gave us the details for the embassy party was wrong on over half of the information.  Yes, we had to bring our passports and dress nicely (common sense also suggested as much), but there was no need to leave electronics at home (you could easily check them at the door), or print off the invitation (not surprisingly, a printed version of a poorly-scanned invitation without a name on it does not suffice to get you in the door of the US embassy), or arrive 45 minutes early.

I’d been to the embassy twice before, but today was different.  We were greeted by a good number of American flags, a miniature Lincoln Memorial, and patriotic music playing as we waited in the reception line.  We shook hands with Admiral Adrian Jansen, the defense attaché; Ambassador Max Baucus and his wife Melodee Hanes; and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, and were graciously welcomed by them to “America”.

And goodness, did it feel like America.  We were blessed with another (!) gorgeous day – warm bordering on hot, but with perfectly blue skies above.  The grounds were clean and well-kept, there were myriad buffet lines that included things I hadn’t eaten in a month like cheese and salad, there was a live bluegrass band inside – and in the bathroom, the toilet bowls had so much water in them and there was toilet paper on the stall wall.  I know, right?!

The theme of this year’s party was America’s National Parks.  It was a pretty fun theme.  There were giant painted fabric images from some of our most famous parks, including a giant Mt. Ranier.  Some of the food – a make-your-own trail mix stand and a s’more tent! – were also outdoor- and camping-themed.

I went in every buffet line.  No regrets.  Those key lime pies, man!  It gave me something to do while we were waiting to take a picture with the ambassador.  (No electronics were allowed inside, at least not for lowly students like us, so I’ll have to post the picture when I get a copy.)

After the welcoming address by the ambassador (in which we learned the real reason for this party being on the 2nd – it’s their anniversary!), I went to explore the grounds a bit.  I ended up at the Hawaiian luau, sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, who recently opened a direct flight from Honolulu to Beijing.  I sat next to a sweet woman from the airline, who showed me how to make a crown of flowers as we listened to a Hawaiian band and watched the dancers.  They had all been in Hawaii that morning – including the flowes! – and it seemed so incredible that they were here in Beijing tonight.  It’s funny, I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’m sure it’s a bit different from the parts of the US that I’m used to – but when you’re far from home, anything that is closer to home starts to feel more like home.  And so I loved my time in Hawaii.

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Then I went next door, to a big room with a band playing – the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia, and they were great.  Before too long, people were swing dancing.  None of the guys I was there with would dance with me :( so I grabbed the two other Beijing girls and made them follow.  I also asked one guy to dance, but most of the guys seemed more focused on their beer than dancing.  (The beer was good, brewed locally by a bunch of expats.)  Other Maria got to dance with the Ambassador for a few minutes!

As the party would down (around 9pm; early, but later than the official time of 7:30 at least!), I ended up talking a man from Denmark.  He was the head of their diplomatic envoy tonight, as the ambassador was out of town – I found this out because I was amazed that he was able to keep his cell phone.  We talked about the Little Mermaid, New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, the EAPSI program, and the other places I’ve lived in China.

It was such a great party – the setting, the food, the people, the activities, the dancing.  I complimented the ambassador’s wife and she said, “Of course!  We’re Americans, we throw the best parties.”  Pretty much.

As we left, a Chinese man was coming in, carrying a bucket and a broom made out of straw tied together.  It was a reminder that we were leaving America and going back to China . . .

Outside, a friendly Australian soldier gave us a bar recommendation in Sanlitun, a nearby part of the city, and we got cabs to head over.  One guy took a cab home, and I thought about going with him – go home, write about the night, and get to bed at a decent hour for work tomorrow.  But no, I thought, I didn’t come here just to write about China, but to live it.  We’re all dressed up, no one’s working late tonight, and we’re already out in Beijing – let’s see where the night goes!  Yeah, that ended up being a terrible decision, as the night went straight downhill from basically that point.  Oh, hindsight . . .

We ended up at Fez, a rooftop bar in Sanlitun.  The sky was perfectly clear and the moon was absolutely brilliant, so the atmosphere got top marks.  Unfortunately, a few of the EAPSI guys took advantage of the setting to smoke.  Seriously, we finally get some nice fresh air and your first instinct is to light up a cigarette??  I’ve never really understood smoking, but I do get why people smoke when they drink – a lot people do stupid shit when they’re drunk.

And then it got worse.  We ordered a giant bowl (5L) of sangria for the 10 of us.  It was 700元, so around $12 each.  A bunch of people chipped in 100元 bills, and the waiter walked away.  A few minutes later, he came back – two of them were fake, he said.  He produced two bills, which were indeed fake, and asked for real bills.  I wasn’t witness to this exchange, unfortunately, but the guys at the other end of the table gave him two new 100元 bills.

Ugh.  This is just the worst.  Our money was good; we were all given stacks of hundreds when we arrived, courtesy of the Chinese government, so where would we have gotten fakes from?  But of course you can’t argue after they’ve made the switch – the bills they presented us with were undeniably fake and we couldn’t prove that the ones we had given them weren’t.

We were warned about fake bills during orientation, and in the context of a scam where taxi drivers will take your hundred and return a fake one to you, demanding that you pay with good money.  Then the first week, we had it happen to us in a restaurant.  We paid again, but later some Chinese friends told us that you should always follow the waitresses to the cash register to make sure they don’t pull a fast one on you.  I should have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t.

I usually get mad at myself when I make decisions that cost me money, but what was my mistake here?  Being insufficiently paranoid?  Not assuming that everyone is out to get me?  So I’m just angry at the bar.  I also just can’t believe that they had the audacity to claim that we had given them, not one, but TWO fake bills.

The night had lost its charm for me, so once the sangria was done, a few of us left to get a taxi back home.  Sanlitun is a bar area, so there were lots of taxis around – but it’s also an area that’s very popular with foreigners and expats, so most of them were trying to take advantage of the drunk and/or ignorant.  We walked up to one taxi that was parked in the intersection, and I asked him to take us to CUMTB, where we’re staying.  He looked me up and down and said, 150元.  I actually laughed in his face – I couldn’t help it, the fare would be about 60元 on the meter and we all knew it.

Walking on, we started getting targeted by black taxis.  These are illegitimate taxis, just guys with cars who buy red lights to put in the front window to signal that they’re available.  We had also been warned about these during orientation – “never get in a taxi if the driver speaks English”.  They really obviously target foreigners; I hadn’t seen a single one until we found ourselves in Sanlitun at midnight trying to hail a cab.  One thing I will say, they were all on the same page when it came to the bogus fare they wanted to charge – everyone quoted me 150元.

It took us about an hour before we finally got a cab.  He used a meter, and the fare was 60元.  We got home a little before 1.

What a day.  Thinking of the party at the embassy just puts a smile on my face, but the rest of the evening was a rude reintroduction to China.  Thinking about it now, I realize that we saw just about every scam that we were warned about during orientation.  I guess I should be glad that no one tried the tea ceremony scam on us; two out of three was bad enough.  Never again, Sanlitun.

五道口 (Wudaokou)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2015 at 10:52 am

Today, I met up with another of friend of a friend, Tang Zhuo.  We were joined by her brother, whose name I never learned.  We drove to their apartment, where they had a table of food prepared for me – some of it things I’d had before but a few that I hadn’t.  There was a hard boiled egg and a few zongzi, the traditional foods of the Dragon Boat Festival, today’s holiday.  There were also lychee, preserved egg, quince paste, Mongolian milk tablets, and a soup of white mushrooms, ginseng, dates, and lotus seeds (which, it turns out, are super bitter – the only thing I couldn’t get down!).

As we ate, I had my first chance to talk about my research in Chinese with people outside of the field.  I know the words computational, biomechanics, mechanics, and finite element analysis, but explaining the concepts is way harder.  I had to explain the applications of my work, the interdisciplinary nature, and why ferrets are used in experiments on brain folding.  I was exhausting, but really good practice.

Zongzi having been dutifully consumed, we drove to a nice hotpot place near Tsinghua for lunch.

IMG 2176

They were . . . . a little ambitious with their ordering.  We got thinly sliced meat, a full plate of leafy greens, a tofu variety platter, an entire frog, shrimp balls, noodles, ham, a surprising amount of congealed blood, and a platter of cow intestines, stomach, and arteries.

IMG 2173

I tried the intestines, stomach, and arteries, but I hate those chewy textures (I think I’d had all of them before), so I didn’t eat more than a bite of each.  I’ve also had blood before (haven’t we, Mom and Dad??) and while rationally it tasted fine, I couldn’t get over it mentally.  I probably needed the iron, too, so it’s a shame . . . Everything else was good – their selection of sauces was beyond expectations, and the green tea cakes at the end were the perfect way to cool down after a hot meal.

I had been planning on keeping count of the number of times I get asked how tall I am, or what country I’m from, or if I have a boyfriend, but they haven’t actually been common occurences.  Instead, I’m going to keep track of how many times I get told I hold my chopsticks better, or more properly, than a Chinese person.  Current count: 4.

From there we went walking around Wudaokou.  It’s the subway stop nearest where I live, and all four corners of the intersection have big buildings full of shops and restaurants.  I walk or bike past on my way to work, so I was reasonably familiar with the things on the outside, but hadn’t yet gone in.

But I’m so glad we did!!!!  There were tons of cute shops with great potential gifts for people back home, lots of restaurants at various locations along the price spectrum – Beijing hotpot, Sichuan snacks, Papa John’s Pizza, Korean barbecue, several frozen yogurt places.  I bought a pair of [fake, men’s] Birkenstocks, a sort of Chinese tradition for me.

We looked at dresses, but while I love the dresses Chinese girls wear and some of them were loose and flowy enough that I could have worn them, I didn’t buy any.  The problem is, I was wearing a dress I got from the thrift store for about $5.  That’s around 30元, and the cheapest dresses were 100元.  Thrift shopping has driven my acceptable price so low that even China can’t compete!

There were two highlights of the exploration for me: first, we found a Coco milktea place downstairs!!  There was one at the West Gate of Xiamen University, and after I discovered milktea I went there almost daily.  In a country of lukewarm or hot water, milktea with ice became my favorite indulgence.  Unfortunately, t seems like milktea is more of a southern thing – something that surely would have factored into my location preference had I known!  But now there’s a Coco on my way home from work and all is right in my world.

Secondly, we found a foosball table!  They took me into this Mexican restaurant, La Bamba, because Tang Zhuo said their mojitos are really good.  I was intrigued by the prospect of dancing, either there or in the Propaganda bar next door . . . and then I saw the foosball table.  3元 for 10 balls.  Not ideal, but I have to stay in shape while I’m abroad!

Today I learned:

My phone plan might actually be 128元 per month, not 38元 as I was told.  Small difference, right?

You’re not supposed to say “Happy Dragon Boat Festival”, just like “Happy Memorial Day” isn’t really right; it’s a holiday but one observing someone’s death, so it’s not really a happy day.)

You can buy a pet chipmunk on the street.


In Uncategorized on June 18, 2015 at 11:47 pm

The computer situation is still dire today, but in a different way.

I got my own internet account this afternoon, and one of my major concerns from yesterday is now a non-issue.  I had been wondering how I was going to get the research files I need up on the cloud; when I checked this morning I had uploaded around 30 MB of 3 GB total.  But somehow when I got to work, the files were on the computer there.  Both computers now say that everything is up to date.  Miraculous, I tell you!

But, after those resolutions come new problems.  I’m using a beautiful new Windows 8 machine, set up for a new student named Ren Dong.  I’ve been installing programs, but have run into some problems because I have his PIN but not his password.  Today, one of my labmates called him to get his password . . . . and he doesn’t remember it.  Between that and my labmate GuoYang’s revelation that he had messed up the installation of Fortran on that machine so I can’t use the one feature of Abaqus that I need the most, we’re going to reinstall the operating system this weekend.  Sigh.

I ate both lunch and dinner in the cafeteria.  Seriously, I kind of think the best meals I’ve had on this trip so far have been in the Tsinghua cafeteria.  Certainly if you calculate some sort of “deliciousness/元” measurement.  Lunch was fried chicken (it didn’t even have bones in it!) with green peppers-and-egg, plus a surprisingly heaping serving of spicy shredded potato.  Dinner was 麻辣香锅 (malaxiangguo), a bowl of self-selected meats and vegetables cooked in lots of hot and numbing spices.  I didn’t particularly care for the chicken stomach (too chewy for my taste), but the rest of it was fantastic.  Apparently Tsinghua is known for this dish!

After dinner, I biked home.  Seriously, this bike has changed my life.  I barely broke a sweat in either direction, and my commute is now 20 minutes.  It also helped that yesterday’s rain meant clear skies today – not just clear as in sunny, but clear as in not polluted!   IMG_2169

This picture isn’t of anything particularly beautiful, but I was trying to capture the look of the air.  Through pollution, everything takes on a dull gray tint, like a bad picture that you fix by increasing the contrast.  Today, all the colors were vibrant and the buildings glistened in the sun!  It was like seeing pictures taken by a professional photographer after looking at the ones from your own point-and-shoot.  Or wearing glasses for the first time – everything was just sharper and more impressive.

The bike ride has exciting (read: scary) moments but I’ve actually been surprised at how not terrified I am most of the time.  I ride along two major roads for most of it, and that’s all fine.  The intersections, though, are always a circus.  Every single one reminds me of the scene in Mulan where the grandmother closes her eyes and walks across a busy street holding the “lucky cricket”, leaving a scene of destruction in her wake.  Sometimes, though, I can’t quite tell if I’m the grandmother or one of the cart drivers . . .

Today I learned:

How to say the kind of Mexican I am (ethnically, not like a citizen of Mexico): 墨西哥裔人, not 墨西哥族.

How to specify the quantity of rice I want at the cafeteria: by the liang (两), or 50g.  There are two words for the number 2 in Chinese – èr (二) and liǎng (两), and while I mastered the basics of when to use which one years ago, I have been corrected on exceptions to these rules three times in the past few days.  One of these times was when ordering 100g of rice – according to the rules, it should be liǎng liǎng (两两), but they said you should really say èr liang (二两).

Jet Lag and Reverse Culture Shock Aren’t So Bad

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

My Onion horoscope this week was:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Green Trees, Blue Sea, and White Clouds

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 at 2:17 am

It was blazing hot today when I went to class – at 8 in the morning!  Of course, within five minutes of reaching the classroom I was freezing and losing feeling in my extremities.  Apparently the need to overcompensate with air conditioning is not isolated to the American South.  Ugh – I hate it!  It’s so wasteful, first of all, but I if I’m not comfortable at 60 degrees in the winter, why would I want that temperature in the summer??  I don’t want to be cold instead of being hot, I just don’t want to be hot.  But apparently I am alone in this. 

I did laundry after class.  With only 30 days left, I’m hoping to only have to do this two or three more times.  Maybe I’ll just start using Febreze more.  Seriously, the laundry situation here is another facet of the unpleasantness of Chinese dorm life.  I’ve been told by XuLei that the communal washing machines make clothes dirtier actually, and I would believe it.  Coming out the washing machine, my clothes look and smell about the same, only . . . wetter.  Awesome.

Today was the first clear day in ages, which meant Lester and I had plans: riding the cable car!  It’s been on my Xiamen Bucket List since I went to the Botanical Gardens next door, but we were waiting for a day without rain or – praying for a miracle – smog.  Today was that day! 

The cable car is slightly difficult to find (up inconspicuous steps off a busy road immediately next to a tunnel) and pretty expensive (40 kuai, or $6), but I’m glad we did it.  The route goes all the way up and down the mountain (and back!) and it moves at a glacial pace so  you get a good hour of cable-car-riding for your money. 

There wasn’t anything too amazing to see, but I did enjoy the silence and stunning amounts of green surrounding us.  Combined with the colors of the cars themselves, it made for great pictures.


Once we crested the mountain, we had an interesting perspective on the campus and the blue (!) sea and sky beyond.


So all in all, I would say the cable car is worth riding, but wait for a nice day.

This evening, Aleid and I made dinner at her place.  First, we went shopping at the supermarket, where we picked up a pound of ground sausage that was elegantly scooped up by some guy’s bare hands and placed in a plastic baggie.  Just the way I like it.  While we waited in the ridiculous dinner-time checkout line, Aleid and I updated each other on the tiny things that make our life here interesting.  Today, she told me that she just found out the salary that one of her Chinese friends is making working at a coffee shop – 5 or 6 yuan per hour.  This is less than a dollar per hour, but even after turning RMB into USD it’s still below our minimum wage!  Concrete numbers like this are such a wake-up call for me. 

When we got off the bus by her apartment, the sight of blue sea and white clouds nearly took my breath away. 


Let’s not reflect on how sad it was that we were excited to see the land over there, shall we?

Our dinner consisted of pancakes and sausage, with sides of watermelon and lychee.  It was awesome, of course.  After dinner we watched The Wrong Guy, which is the best movie you’ve probably never heard of.  Do yourself and go watch it right now if you haven’t yet – heck, if you have, go watch it again! 

Aleid has two new French roommates, and one of them told me some news of the French World Cup team: apparently they’re on strike.  This is hilarious, right?  I told them that the stereotypes we have of France are good food, a beautiful language, and constant strikes by everyone about everything.  He said it’s pretty much true. 

One other World Cup note: Portugal beat North Korea 7-0.  I’ve apparently assimilated some soccer knowledge, because I remember looking at the scoreboard at one point during the 2-2 US-Slovenia game and thinking “Wow, this is a high-scoring game!”.  But 7-0?  That doesn’t even sound like soccer; you could fool me into thinking it was any other American sport!


As of today, my blog has passed the mark of 10,000 views.  I’m pretty sure it’s not a big deal, but I did want to take this moment to share some of the odd search terms that have led people to my writing:

  • "striving for mediocrity" in liturgical practices
  • minutemen meatpuppets descendents angst
  • ridiculous fruit
  • kristina groves legs
  • pink flame bowling ball bag
  • creepy burger king

Hahaha.  I wonder if these people were disappointed with their search results? 

China In The News

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2010 at 2:03 am

Good thing I went to class today, otherwise who knows when I would have gotten around to learning the Chinese word for placenta?  (胎盘, because I know you were wondering.)  I also learned that an acceptable euphemism for “to die” is “to go see [Karl] Marx”.  If someone actually used that in a sentence, I would not be able to express the appropriate sympathy (“don’t be too sad”, not “I’m sorry” because that implies it was your fault) because I would be trying too hard – and most likely failing – to contain my laugher. 


One of the most interesting parts of my day is reading the news.  I will go down in history for this quote of mine that is repeated in everything ever written about me: "The intimate connection with a community in another part of the world has given me a different perspective on domestic and international issues that I could not have gotten any other way.”  Not what I want engraved on my tombstone, but it’s true.  I read the news in a slightly different way, and a surprising amount of it relates, directly or indirectly, to China or to my experiences here.  For instance, today:

  • In the comments on an article discussing classical education, I found an old stereotype: “For example most Asian countries by the time a student is out of high school has already studied multivariate calculus and linear algebra.”  I can’t say that I’ve had in-depth discussions with my Chinese friends on the level of their math skills (which is not to say that I don’t now have plans to do so tomorrow!), but I’m gonna go with a ‘no’ on this one.  I have two friends who are ME and Math majors, and when I listed the classes I had taken (I’ll admit, partially just to show off that I know how to say “partial differential equations” in Chinese), it seemed like they had taken them about the same time as me.  But, enough with my gut feeling – expect evidence soon!
  • I’ve been following the news of the strikes in Shenzhen and Shanghai, and the results they’ve been getting.  Interesting points include the fact that the government is allowing these strikes to take place, the doubling of salaries that has been among the concessions and its potential impact on the assumption of Chinese labor, and the absolute numbers provided on their salaries.  The new salaries are 2,000 RMB per month (plus many benefits like lodging and other stuff); this is about $300 in US dollars but a better comparison is my living stipend, which is 1,700 a month and just manages to cover my food, cell phone, and internet in Xiamen. 

There’s also been some local news causing quite a buzz – a double murder by the Marco Polo Hotel last weekend.  Even more shocking, it was a foreigner who killed two other foreigners.


I was having a slightly down day, but thankfully Aleid got back from the Expo today and we went out to Paradise Bar.  It was my first time going to a bar on a weeknight – I mean, I don’t even go regularly on weekends.  It was Ladies’ Night, which meant two free cocktails for us girls.  If it was intended to attract women, was a raging success; if they were hoping to use us to attract paying male customers, this bar will be bankrupt within the month.  A friend asked me at one point, “This is any American guy’s dream, right?”  I looked around and figured she was probably right.  This many beautiful foreign women, dressed up (to show off new items from the tailor) and slightly buzzed . . .


But unfortunately (for the bar) there were only three men there to appreciate it – one definitely taken and the other two gay. 


I got back home and was delighted to see a few emails, responses from messages I had just sent this afternoon.  Considering there a point not too long ago when I thought maybe my email wasn’t working because promised messages were not coming when they were supposed to, this was a fantastic surprise.  I also got to chat with a few friends on gmail.  I’m glad someone was on gmail because as soon as the clock strikes midnight in China no one is left on QQ – literally 0 out of 32 friends.  This is partially because the undergraduate dorms lose electricity at that point.  Now you’re thanking God that you’re American, aren’t you?