Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘pictures’

Xiamen!!!!

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2015 at 2:02 pm

This morning, I had my closest call yet with missing a flight.  I had been running on about three hours of sleep a night the last few nights (a combination of trying to get work done during the day, and late nights of majiang and karaoke), so I was just exhausted.  I counted on one alarm and my natural anxiety about an early morning flight to wake me up in time – 4:30am, ideally – but neither worked.  I must have solved math problems while sleeping to turn off the alarm, and I even slept through answering the phone (in Chinese) when my taxi partner called me.  I randomly woke up at 5:22, about two minutes before she knocked on the door.  Luckily, I was packed, and just had to stuff a few things into my bags and zip them shut.  We were downstairs on time at 5:30.  I don’t want to think what could have happened . . . . .

We got to the airport in plenty of time, so I took the opportunity to do a little bit of repacking.  Then more repacking, because apparently China has a thing about lithium batteries in checked luggage.  

I was anxious at the airport.  Part of it was residual adrenaline from the morning’s near miss, but it was also about Xiamen.  It seemed impossible that Xiamen could stand up under the weighty expectations I’d placed on it – I remember my year there as perhaps the best year of my life, and the picture has only grown more rosy in the last five years.  Add in my excitement to see something beautiful after 8 weeks of Beijing Gray, and what paradise on earth wouldn’t disappoint?  A secondary concern was: if Beijing was hot, how will I handle 130-degree heat indexes again??

The flight was slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful.  When I came out of the gate after baggage claim, I saw XuLei – impossibly, she seemed smaller than I remembered.  I hugged her, grabbing my own shoulders after wrapping my arms around her.  I also got to meet NianYu, her boyfriend/fiance that I had heard so much about.  They have a car!  And XuLei drove!  These were the first of many surprises for me in Xiamen, little indications of how everyone has grown up in five years . . .

I felt a little foolish, but I basically had a list ready when they asked where I wanted to eat.  I was devastated to learn that Green Chairs Restaurant is closed (we never learned the real names of most of our favorite restaurants, just came to a sort of group consensus on what to call them), but our malatang place is still there.  Some people in Beijing scoffed, but Xiamen’s malatang (specifically this place) is just the best.  Malatang, literally “numbing-spicy soup”, is a sort of buffet of fresh ingredients that they cook in a spicy broth for you.  I got meat, tomatoes, bok choy, potatoes, three kinds of eggs, and a piece of fried dough for the top.  I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours, and it was everything I wanted and needed.  Plus we had 烧仙草, better known by its [Ch]English name “fubu burns the fairy grass”.

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We bought fruit at a nearby market – oh Xiamen mangos, how I’ve missed you!!!! – and then went home.  NianYu is a professor of materials science at Xiamen University, so they live in faculty housing on campus.  It’s great for me, because campus is where I’m most familiar with :)  They have a nice two-bedroom apartment that they share with a roommate.  In my first taste of Chinese hospitality, NianYu slept in the living room (without an air-conditioner!) so that I could sleep in the air-conditioned bedroom with XuLei.  (Interestingly, the temporary bed he’s sleeping on would pass for a folding table in America.  It’s funny, we put mattresses on the floor, because the most important feature of American beds is that they’re soft, while in China the off-the-floor aspect of a bed seems to be more important.)

I took a much-needed nap before my big evening plans.  Basically my entire return to Xiamen was scheduled around my need to be here for a Saturday evening – I wanted to go to Chinese Mass and then dancing.  I’m so glad I insisted on that . . . 

XuLei drove me to church.  It was a little after 6 as we started driving, first down Huandao Road along the coast, past my old beach, before getting on one of the bridges over the ocean.  The sun was just setting behind the two giant new buildings dominating the horizon, and I was just overwhelmed.  

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I started crying.  It had been a few weeks, generously, since I saw anything that could be considered beautiful in Beijing, and going from that concrete world to a Xiamen sunset was almost too much to handle.  I was immediately certain that my wonderful memories were not airbrushed and my high expectations were not too high.  The dominant emotion, though, was gratitude.  For this sunset, but not just for that.  The phrase that kept running through my mind was, How was I so lucky to live here for a year?  China can be a difficult place, and Chinese can be a nightmare, and I am continually realizing the perfect path I have been led along in both, to fall gradually in love with them without being scared away.  Stronger people could perhaps fall in love with Beijing, but I needed the charm of Hunchun and the beauty of Xiamen.

XuLei let me off at the bus stop where I used to get off the bus to go to church.  I navigated with my phone, because I didn’t trust my memory, but the route was so familiar.  Other than the construction scaffolding I used to walk under, now a completed building, it was all just as I remembered it.  I got more and more excited as I got closer, literally exclaiming out loud when I saw people rinsing fish in the street because that meant I was close!  

When I walked in to the church, the first person I saw was Joseph Chen, one of the men who is always helping around the parish.  He smiled at me and greeted me by name, as if no more than six days had passed since we had seen each other last.  But there were changes . . . as I knelt to pray, the rhythmic sounds of Chinese chant surrounded me – they were praying the rosary in Mandarin, I quickly realized, but it was unfamiliar and strange to me.  Xiamen has a local dialect, Minnanhua, which was quite common among the older parishioners.  Daily Masses were offered in Minnanhua when I was here last, and it was the dominant language for personal devotions as well – to the point that I don’t think I ever heard the Hail Mary in Mandarin and still can’t recite it fluently.  

Everything is in Mandarin now, though.  Bishop Cai was appointed near the end of my time in Xiamen (after 20 years of the diocese without a bishop), and could see his influence all over.  They recited selections from the catechism after Mass, and reception of communion was orderly and more reverent than I remembered it.  

After Mass, Bishop Cai came over to greet me and “welcome me home”.  Sister Mangu came as well, grabbing my arm affectionately in the way of Chinese women.  As other parishioners and older friends gathered round, I took the opportunity to introduce Alba to them.

So, Alba is kind of a crazy story.  I had made it to church just a few minutes before Mass started, and there weren’t that many open seats.  I spotted one on the aisle and asked the woman next to it if anyone was sitting there.  She responded no, and I sat down.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized I had found the only other foreigner in the church. We whispered a quick introduction – her name is Alba, she’s from Mexico, and she arrived in Xiamen on Wednesday.  She came by this afternoon to scope out the location of the church and, when she heard that Mass was in a few hours, just hung around.  She was sweet and enthusiastic and joyful and on this day of extreme gratitude I was determined to do whatever I could to make her time in Xiamen as wonderful as mine had been.  

So I introduced her to the bishop, and BinBin, and Little Brother.  And when Mangu whisked us off to drink tea (it was inevitable), I made sure she came along.  And when I said I was going dancing afterwards, and her face lit up, I told XuLei we were going to be joined by a friend.  I felt like her fairy godmother, swooping into her life bringing only the best things.  

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XuLei picked us up outside the church and we drove to the Nanputuo gate of Xiamen University.  This was where, on one fateful Saturday night – my first in Xiamen, actually – I got off the bus on my way back from Mass and heard music . . . The gate is under construction now, so we only found the place because we knew where to look for it.  This was one of those moments where I felt very profoundly the immense consequences of the most trivial-seeming events.  My time in China on this trip felt like one long chorus of “There, for the grace of God went I”, to paraphrase John Bradford.  What if I had been sent to my first-choice university, Sichuan University in Chengdu, instead of Xiamen?  What if I had discovered the closer bus stop a few weeks earlier, and never got off at the Nanputuo gate?  Or if I had been too shy to ask what they were doing?  People that know me know associate me with dancing, as if it’s this deeply ingrained personality trait, and it even feels a little bit inevitable to me, but upon closer inspection it seems a very precarious outcome indeed.  

Anyway, construction be damned, it was Saturday night between 8 and 10 pm and my dancing friends were there.  I often found life in China confusing and unpredictable, but this group of older men and women were a rock for me.  Every single Wednesday and Saturday, with the single exception of a national day of mourning, they met to dance for two hours.  Even more incredibly, they welcomed a complete beginner with childlike Chinese to join them.  They taught me almost everything I know about dance – they certainly gave me intensive instruction on following without communicating verbally, which is the basis of social dance.

Tonight I walked in about 20 minutes to 10, to lots of smiles and waves and “what has it been, two years?”  Try five!  I got one dance in before they closed up.  Luckily, I’m not leaving Xiamen until Thursday, so I told them I’ll be back on Wedesday.  

We went back to XuLei’s apartment for some fruit (no one had really eaten dinner), then walked back down to the road to catch a taxi.  There were no legitimate taxis, but I wowed XuLei by haggling with a black taxi driver to take us to Haiwan Park for 25元.  (I didn’t think it was that impressive, because I think he started at 30元, but XuLei talked about it for days afterwards . . .) 

KK, the Chinese bar next door that we always used to navigate taxi drivers, is closed now, but “our” club, The Key, is still open.  They’ve rearranged the inside, and when we walked in, everyone was sitting at tables listening to the band sing “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran.  Not the atmosphere I remembered . . . but when they started the next song, I realized that it was the same band!  I talked to the lead singer a few minutes later when they took a break and she said it would get more dance-y later, so we decided to hang around.

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We first snuck outside to get some food – there are always street vendors that set up along this street of bars.  This was the precursor to my habit of In-N-Out after late nights dancing at Saddlerack!  I got a 肉夹馍 (Xian meat sandwich) and a mango smoothie while the girls got 烧烤 (barbecue).  When we got back inside, the music was more upbeat and everyone was dancing.  Alba is a great dancer, and a lot of fun to be around, especially when they played streaks of Spanish and Portuguese music.  There were also new pop songs – Roar, Up All Night, I Don’t Care, Bulletproof, Chandelier.  This band introduced me to all sorts of music – I heard Your Love is My Drug and Empire State of Mind from them first – so in the years since, I’ve occasionally wondered what it would be like to hear them play this or that song.  It was neat to hear all the new stuff, but I was also thrilled to hear I Gotta Feeling.  It was a new song back in 2009 and basically became my theme song for that year . . . And anyway, I did have a feeling that it was going to be a good night . . .  

We left at 2:30 and taxied home.  I Skyped with my parents (haha, the internet in my friends’ apartment in Xiamen is way better than the internet at the hotel in Beijing), then went to sleep!  First day in Xiamen has assuaged all of my fears, only to stoke new ones that the next few days won’t be as wonderful . . . 

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China-US Young Scientist Forum

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2015 at 10:52 am

The China-US Young Scientist Forum was not my favorite part of the EAPSI experience.  Perhaps least fave, actually.  The whole day just left me wondering what the point was.  I was excited to hear what my colleagues had done in the far-flung parts of China that they had been in, but . . . . Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day started with us on a bus at 7:20 for the hour-long slog through Beijing traffic to a different [read: nicer] hotel.  Best part was getting to catch up with said colleagues from said far-flung parts of China.  My favorite story: one girl was in Yunnan, and during orientation week I gave her some tips on survival when you don’t know Chinese.  For instance, in a restaurant, look around and tell the waiter you want “what they’re having”, basically.  She told me it worked for her so many times, but once the family whose food she pointed to insisted on giving her that actual meal, as if she were starving instead of unable to communicate.  Haha!

There was no food at the hotel when we got there.  Come on, 8am start time?  I don’t even drink coffee and that seemed cruel.  The first activity was short research presentations given in small groups (the 40 of us divided into three groups of ~13).  Each person had about 5 minutes, which was insane, but largely resulted in us hearing the big-picture motivation and takeaways, which is more enjoyable than getting bogged down in details.  I say “largely” because one person went way over time due to a completely unecessary explanation of, among other things, eigenvalues and the meaning of every parameter in their very complicated set of equations.  The most important skill on display today seemed to be knowing your audience – what they want to hear, and what they are capable of understanding.  

After these short summaries, we all gathered together to hear a summary of the summaries.  Six students, two from each group, gave 20-minute overviews of the ~13 presentations they had heard.  It was like a public game of research telephone, and for all the valiant effort the reporters demonstrated, it was pretty painful to listen to.  Also, since this took an hour, we could have heard another twelve 5-minute presentations, which I would have much rather done . . . 

We then had a short ceremony in which we got Certificates of Completion and letters from Ambassador Baucus.  He’s proud of me!  

We had lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel.  It sounds nice, but in Beijing it’s really just a panoramic, 360-degree view of gray.  

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But there was ice cream, and macaroons!  

The afternoon was technically the US-China Young Scientists Forum.  Some of us had brought labmates (Cheng came with me) and some tech people joined for small-group discussions on cross-cultural communication.  (We were also supposed to talk about entrepreneurship, but at least none of the Americans had anything to say so we just ignored that topic.  It was an odd attempt to shove this topic into a seemingly unrelated discussion – where did entrepreneurship come from?  Was Zhongguancun a sponsor?)

This discussion was another example of the excessive summarizing that went on today.  We had a 30-minute discussion, then my fellow reporter and I had 20 minutes to discuss the discussion, then we addressed the entire body to give a 15-minute summary of our discussion.  Thirty minutes of discussion, 45 minutes of summary.  

Our discussion was actually kind of interesting, though.  My Chinese co-reporter was a Uighur man from Xinjiang – as a fellow non-native speaker of Mandarin, we had a sort of shared comraderie that I don’t usually find with Chinese people.  Our group spoke extensively about language, and I heard echoes of thoughts I’ve had over the years.  From American students: I felt like a hassle, When I was there I was forcing them to use their second language.  From Chinese students (actually, from my own labmate Cheng!): I wish we had spoken more English. 

Hearing these views expressed one after the other was very interesting to me.  I attribute my Chinese 80% to the situations I’ve been placed in where I had no choice other than to speak Chinese.  These were difficult moments.  I wasted money, I ate weird stuff that I didn’t like because I ordered wrong, I got on buses going the wrong way, I got taken advantage of, I embarrassed myself on a daily or hourly basis.  The easy times, when I had American friends around or more fluent people with me or Chinese who spoke passable English, I learned nothing.  It’s not just that knowledge comes from struggle – lots of people realize this – but (for language in particular?) if the struggle is avoidable, we will avoid it.  I am weak, and I know it.  If I had studied abroud with a group of American college students, I would not be the Mandarin speaker I am today.  I have paid for my language skills with, if not blood and sweat, definitely tears.  

So, there’s this uncomfortable truth of language learning – it’s a hassle, almost necessarily.  To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “A language-learning opportunity is only a hassle rightly considered. A hassle is only a language-learning opportunity wrongly considered.”  It depends completely on mindset.  When I speak Chinese with my labmates, am I being considerate of them and saving them the hassle of using their second language?  Or am I being selfish, robbing them of the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker?  Cheng surprised me today by saying that she wished we had spoken more English.  I didn’t know quite how to feel about that.  They could – and did – speak English with me any time, and I generally responded in English.  But, it’s a hassle, and unless compelled to do so by outside forces or propelled by habit, people generally avoid hassle.  

It’s all part of the “language tug of war”, which occasionally becomes a “language game of push and shove”.  There’s great potential for arbitrage, here, of course, in which determined language learners seek out native speakers of the target language who prize convenience over fluency, but this is somehow underexploited.  

The other topic of conversation was somewhat related.  One Chinese participant echoed the confusion and perhaps resentment that I’d heard before, about this being an “exchange” program . . . in which no Chinese went to US institutions.  To the American students, this reaction is logical but also slightly ignorant of the reality.  One of my colleagues here said that sometimes he forgets he’s in China, because his average day in Beijing is just like his average day in grad school in Tennessee – get up, go to work, put on headphones to drown out everyone else speaking Chinese.  There are whole labs in the US that are Chinese, from PI to grad students.  Most of us were the first international visitor in our labs.  

We also discussed the topic of self-segregatation, because my co-reporter pointed out that most Chinese students, when they go to the US, hang out with other Chinese students.  (It’s a generalization, but as true as they ever are.  My roommate is Chinese and if she didn’t live with me, I sometimes wonder if she would have a single non-Chinese friend.  There are enough students here from her undergrad alone that she doesn’t need to meet new people and, as I said above, doing so is a hassle that is gratefully avoided when possible.  The number of Chinese students in the US makes it possible.  Blessing or curse?  It’s in the attitude.)  I pointed out that foreigners do it in China; how many nights did my Beijing colleagues spend in American bars with each other?  I love the option of American/Western companionship after a “Bad China Day”, but due to a combination of stubbornness and habit I generally don’t seek it out.  It’s human nature, to seek out the familiar.  Unfortunately.  

Cheng left in the afternoon, and we said goodbye until we meet in the US soon!

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Then the worst part of the day – a random tour of the Zhongguancun technology park, basically China’s Silicon Valley.  We visited a Maker Lab, and some company that makes cell phone games and I just stood in the back and wondered why we there.  It had been a long day for everyone, made longer when the tour went over schedule.  And more importantly, it had been a long 8 weeks without a single mention of entrepreneurship until today . . . . . . 

Then a long bus ride back to the hotel.  There was a bit of nostalgia when our bus did a U-turn in the middle of the busy intersection by our hotel.  Probably the last time for that!

We got home at 7.  Ugh.  I had major packing to do.  The other EAPSI girl who was at Tsinghua came over to chat while I packed.  After seven weeks of being politely ignored, she became really popular her last week in the lab.  It was a little sad, because she really didn’t have a lot of great interactions with her labmates.  Her stories were like, “One time we talked about the weather.”  It reminded me of the Mean Girls quote – “She punched me in the face once.  It was awesome.”

I finished packing at 10 and took my two larger suitcases over to Tsinghua to drop them off in the lab.  I ran into Zhao Yan and, when I expressed surprise at finding him there on a Friday night, he said that 10 was still quite early.  #chinesegradstudentlife

I walked across campus to get a taxi, and went straight to Liudaokou to join some other EAPSIers for karaoke.  It was a very different karaoke experience than my others – all Americans except for one Chinese guy, and almost exclusively English songs.  All upbeat ones, too, none of these people-crying-and-rain-pouring-down-windows music videos.  I ended with I’m on a Boat :)

Last Tsinghua Meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Mahjong

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2015 at 10:51 am

There are a ton of donkey restaurants in Beijing; apparently it’s a Hebei thing.  It had been on my dwindling Beijing to-do list for a while, so this morning I went to get 驴肉火烧.  Contrary to what I was told, it turns out that donkey sandwiches are not a breakfast food, so I’ll have try again tomorrow.  

Today I brought in a bunch more things I couldn’t return or didn’t use up.  Here, have some conditioner I didn’t like, and some q-tips.  Seriously, I give the best gifts.

I also brought in the rest of the s’mores ingredients.  I just realized this morning that they have bunsen burners in the lab – we could have been eating s’mores all day err’day!  

Prof. Feng’s son came in to the lab today and ate lunch with us.  He’s a sophomore or junior in high school and is taller than me – a veritable giant.  Zhao Yan asked him if his biggest problem is that every girl likes him, haha.  He’s tall, left-handed, and was born in Germany (while Feng was doing a post-doc at Dusseldorf) . . . an eerie number of similarities with my own brother!  

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I made a complete mess of myself while eating watermelon today.  We have watermelon after lunch and dinner about 87% of the time.  I’ve easily eaten more watermelon in two months here than I have in the rest of my life combined.  Unfortunately, watermelon is not my talent – I just can’t eat it without getting soaked.  But, I have my own gifts.  My labmates here (like people everywhere, really) are fascinated by my extraordinary talents at sleeping and frowning.  Sleeping and frowning are my talents.  Today I learned how to turn pictures into stickers, so now I can send my frown in WeChat messages with one tap!  

It was supposed to rain today at noon.  Of course, my weather app has said this literally every day for the last two weeks.  Around noon, it says in the morning.  At noon, it becomes 1; at 1, rain is predicted at 2.  At some point, they give up and say, it will rain tonight.  I think we’ve had rain twice since it began this game two weeks ago – basically as accurate as a broken clock.  Today I taught my labmates the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  And they taught me a word for liar: 啃爹.  

In the afternoon, Prof. Feng asked if I would like to join the meeting with a visiting professor that Zu Yan is going to work with next month.  Oh man, that was the most awkward meeting I have ever been in.  I tried to break the ice by speaking English with him as they set up, but he didn’t seem that interested in talking to me.  Then, Prof. Du and Zu Yan presented, both in English, which I’d never heard either of them speak.  They did a good job, although their work is definitely outside my field and I couldn’t do much more than smile and nod.  But the visiting professor had arrived in China two days ago and was obviously not over jet lag.  He couldn’t stay awake, which led to long silences as they waited for him to wake up and answer a question of theirs.  There were also weird moments when he was asleep, I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I wondered, if you speak English and no one understands it, does it still make a sound?

At various points during this, Prof. Feng answered the phone, printed off a short story for me to read, and gave me a gift of tea and showed me how to steep it.  Aaah it was so awkward.

Afterwards, Prof. Feng suggested that I present.  So I also got to experience the awkwardness of speaking English at a sleeping American while a bunch of Chinese listen.  He seemed interested when he was awake, though, and we ended up speaking at length about the EAPSI program, and my experiences in China.

After me, HaoYuan and Chang Zheng talked about their research on spider silk.  It was also the first time I’d heard them speak English, although to be honest, it was about the first time either of them had talked to me except for that graduation dinner.  When I told them tomorrow is my last day, they seemed sad to see me go.  I’m not sure why, but I guess that’s cool?

Today I finally gave out the Stanford shirts I brought from home.  I probably waited too long to do this, but I was waiting for a time when all the people I wanted to give them to were there, and no one else, which never happened.  I also underestimated the number of girls that would be in my lab, and how small they would be.  Sigh.

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Zu Yan wanted to take me to get donkey to thank me for helping her with her presentation, but she took too long so I went with Zhao Yan instead.  It was good – the most similar thing to a sandwhich or taco that i’ve had here in China.  

Zu Yan joined us at the donkey place.  She was exuberant, having finished finished the English presentation, and wanted to celebrate.  She wanted to play mahjong, and I was definitely in!  We coerced Zhao Yan into joining us (Zu Yan s a social instigator like me, so he really stood no change), but that still left us 三缺一 (three, missing one).  Luckily, GuoYang was done packing and agreed to come over.

We went to a mahjong place near the south gate, a pretty seedy place, the kind where you could picture opium being smoked.  (But only cigarettes were smoked.  I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke, but when I asked about it, Zu Yan pointed to a No Smoking sign.  As if that meant anything . . . It struck me as a very Chinese response, to defer to the official word instead of conceding to reality.)

We were in a little room with a table – the coolest table I’ve ever seen.  It’s an automatic mahjong table – you press a button in the middle and a circle rises up, revealing an opening under the table.  You shove all the tiles in there, press the button again, and the circle lowers to close the table.  While the tiles are swished around underneath, shuffled and restacked for you, a new set rises up out of the table.  Within seconds of finishing a game, you’re ready to play the next one.  It’s only good for one thing, but it does that thing perfectly.

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The rules of mahjong vary across China.  Zu Yan is from Heilongjiang and GuoYang is from Chongqing, so they first had to agree on rules – the simplest, I think, for my sake.  Even so, mahjong is definitely the hardest thing I’ve done yet in China.  Part of it is that I had to learn the rules in Chinese – my brain works slower when it has to process two things at once, like language and logic.  Another reason is that mahjong does not follow the some of the basic rules that most games I’m familiar with do.  For instance – play moves counterclockwise, which never stopped confusing me; you can form series (123 or the like in the same suite) but not sets (111 from different suites), and even then only ever three in a row; and there are multiple ways to win (in our “simple” rules, either four sets of 3 and a pair, or seven pairs).  

The worst part was that, by the time I got my tiles flipped over and arranged in some logical order, a few tiles had already been played, and they inevitably included one that I needed.  They were going too fast for me, although they said they were actually playing slow!

Zu Yan, bless her heart, kept trying to help me.  She’d look at my tiles sometimes and offer advice.  Often, the advice would include assessing the tiles that other people had already played, so as to not give them what they want.  I laughed so hard at this.  I literally hadn’t looked at another players’ hand in several games.  I was barely holding it together at this point – I did not have the brain power to even consider the other players.

The low point of the night was definitely when GuoYang asked if I had won, and was right.  I hadn’t even realized!  He couldn’t even see most of my tiles, just guessed based on the ones I’d picked up and how I had them arranged.  How embarrassing.  

The high point of the night was when I won the last hand on my own!!

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Other notes:

if I never hear 国洋还是郭洋 (guōyáng or guóyáng?) again in my life, I will be happy.  

Once they asked me if recognized the characters on the tiles 發 and 萬.  They’re traditional, but also really common (the simplified forms are 发 and 万 – much easier!!).  I introduced them to the phrase, “bitch, please”.

Also GuoYang is really good at mahjong, which was annoying, so I taught them “Who invited him?”  He was really really good, and I was terrible, so I almost taught them “rage quit” as well . . . 

GuoYang called the direction of play “inverse clockwise”.  I laughed.  Counter clockwise, I said.  Would people understand me? he asked.  Yes, they’ll understand, but they’ll laugh.

I made a joke about us being 赌博的读博的人 (gambling PhD students).  It’s funny because the two words, “gamble” and “PhD student”, are identical except for one tone.  See, this is the humor only foreigners like me can come up with, because we play fast and loose with tones.  

 

We stopped playing around midnight or one – that table makes it so easy to play without noticing the passing of time!  I still had to pack after getting home – I’d been hoping to be able to take my extra luggage to the lab tomorrow, but I’m going to have to make an extra trip.  As it was, I didn’t get to sleep until 3am.  

S’mores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

DARE Fellows in Beijing!

In Uncategorized on July 23, 2015 at 10:05 am

I biked to Beijing University today to have lunch with a Stanford student an an alumni.  We’re connected through the DARE (Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence) fellowship program.  The guy was member of the 2nd cohort and has been a postdoc here for almost four years!  The girl is in the 8th cohort with me and is here in Beijing for a conference.  We had a nice lunch, sharing China experiences and talking a bit about DARE.  

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It was a long, hot bike ride over there and back.  We met at the southwest gate, which, as I work on the northeast side of Tsinghua, is all the way across both campuses, over 5k.  

In the evening, though, it was really comfortable.  Biking to dinner was really enjoyable!  As I worked after dinner, I saw the sun setting through the window.  This is NOT a usual occurence here in Beijing.  Here the sky is usually one shade of gray during the day, and the entire sky gradually dims to a darker shade of gray in the evening.  It was strange to see pinks and oranges in the sky, and shadows on the ground.

I couldn’t keep working.  For over a week, I’d been thinking that I wasn’t going to see blue sky in Beijing anymore, and I just couldn’t miss this.  I left work really early (7pm!!) and biked home, listening to Sarah Bareilles’ “Many the Miles”, my sunset anthem.  A far cry from the evenings I used to watch the sun set on the beautiful beaches of Xiamen, but I’ll take what I can get.

I also had to stop by the tailor to pick up my clothes.  I had him fix up four articles of clothing – small things, like missing buttoms or torn seams.  He was super friendly – no clothing problem is a problem, he said! – and he makes me want to go back there for more things.  Maybe I will get another qipao?

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 (amazon.cn) 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,

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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.  

What Not to Do

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2015 at 10:57 am

Today in English Aerospace Summer Camp (it doesn’t seem to have a name, so I’ll call it that), the students had to give presentations.  It was a veritable What Not To Do for Powerpoint presentations – busy backgrounds with unreadable words overlaid, multiple fonts, slides full of text, crazy animation, no sources listed.  We had told them they could include videos, which of course meant that over the course of the morning we spent about a half hour watching people trying to get their movies to play.  It’s 2015 – when will this no longer be an impossible task?  

Also, most of the videos were just not that relevant.  One guy showed us the trailer for Jurassic World in his presentation about genes and cloning; another showed the trailer for Stealth in his presentation about UAVs, which marked the first time I’ve heard the phrase “ménage à trois” in a scientific presentation.  A few videos were shown without audio, and only one guy was able to tlel us what was going on in the video in English.  

Other odd moments in the morning included the guy who spent several minutes explaining in detail how the people of Atlantis used crystals as a power source, leading me to wonder if he realized that had only happened in a movie.  But then he actually went from there into a discussion of crystal-based power sources like piezoelectric materials, so it ended up okay.  And the guy who presented about Tesla, showing a picture of the headquarters in Palo Alto while I sat there and thought, I went on a date there a few months ago.  

They all thought 10 minutes sounded so long to speak English, but of course you speak slower in an unfamiliar language, so almost everyone went vastly over time.  It was a tiring morning.  

In the afternoon, my friends from the US were visiting Peking University, which is next to my campus, so Cheng and I went over to walk around with them.  I hadn’t been to the PKU campus yet, but it’s quite nice.  I haven’t yet been to the nice parts of Tsinghua, so for now at least I think it’s nicer than my school! 

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There were some nice buildings, but the clear standout to me was the lake.  We got a great group picture:

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and then got asked to take some pictures with some tourists.  They were from Xi’an, and when they heard that the family was headed there tonight, they apologized profusely for not being able to show them around or have them over for dinner.  So friendly!  

We also got a picture with just the kids on the stone ship:

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and one of just me and my labmate:

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I was glad that she came with me – I had invited a few of my labmates, to hear Southern accents if nothing else, but the others had work to do (lame).  

My allergies started acting up later in the evening.  This is really the first time I’ve had any problems, and I wonder if it’s because I walked around for an hour or two without a mask on?  

 

Today I learned: 

Fission (裂变), fusion (聚变), Hiroshima (广岛), metaphysics (形而上学), proton (质子), neutron (中子), carbon fiber (碳纤维), entrepreneuer (企业家), photosynthesis (光合作用), and conductor (导体), all from the presentations.