Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Stanford’

Immersion: Circumstances and Attitude

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2014 at 9:52 pm

On the way to my last Chinese class, I walked across Main Quad at noon – peak tourist time.  A lot of Stanford’s tourists are Asians, and I heard the sounds of Chinese floating on the air.  The irony did not escape me – here, with a dozen conversational opportunities within a stone’s throw, I was instead heading for my Conversational (with a capital C!) Chinese class.

When I lived and studied in China, I also noticed this.  In greater Xiamen, the ratio of native speakers to foreigners was probably 1,000’s to 1 . . . but instead, I was supposed to shut myself in a room where the ratio was more like 1:20.  Not exactly the ideal learning environment.

This all just reminded me that the ideal learning situation isn’t one where you’re immersed in the language, but one where you take advantage of opportunities to immerse yourself.  It’s a combination of both circumstances and attitude.  I was lucky to have both during the year I lived in China, and when I look at what’s missing from my current situation, it’s more the latter than the former.  (For heaven’s sake, I live with a girl from Sichuan.  It’s embarrassing that I had to take a class this quarter in order to speak Chinese regularly.)


In Uncategorized on August 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Somehow over two years have passed since I came back from China.  Every now and then I will see or smell or feel something that reminds me of China, and the suddenness and intensity of the memories that come back nearly take my breath away.  Hiking the Dish at Stanford and seeing the view of campus, which is so similar to Nanputo;


this article on a Shaanxi restaurant in New York that had pictures of the shredded meat sandwiches that were my go-to running-late meal at West Gate;


the sound of a live band playing “I Gotta Feeling” or anything by Rihanna just takes me back to Saturday nights at the Key.

I definitely miss it.  But then again, posts like this one also remind me of some of the more frustrating aspects of life in China:

When I started at a four-year college in 1998, I didn’t think it the least little bit odd that the schedule included in my orientation package already had the date of my graduation ceremony listed. Considering that family and friends would be traveling from out of town and would need to plan in advance, this made perfect sense to me. Why would it be any other way?

Fast forward to late September of 2002 and I was trying to find out what the October Holiday was, . . . what day or days it took place, and how many days off work I had. . . I couldn’t understand how this apparently very important yearly holiday was something that wasn’t listed on the school calendar of events.

I’ve been in China for a tad under 10 years by this point and I still don’t understand. I accept that the Chinese are apparently culturally unable to plan in advance, but accepting and understanding are not and never will be the same thing.

On January 6, 2003, when I left China for a trip to the US and Thailand, I gave my employer a wide variety of options for contacting me to let me know about my schedule. I would have given them my contact information anyways but it was more important than an American might otherwise think due to no one knowing when the Spring Term was going to start. Within half an hour of arriving at Capital Airport in Beijing my phone rang. The head of the English Department was frantic with worry because she hadn’t been able to reach me by phone, hadn’t tried my email address, and classes were starting tomorrow.

The kindergarten after the high school job let me know on a Tuesday that, despite the printed schedule in my contract, classes were ending for the summer on Wednesday and I needed to prepare “going away party” materials to say good-bye to all my kids. I thought maybe it was a boss-to-foreign employee relationship thing but as a student at Hainan University, it was no better. Holidays were announced or not announced seemingly at random and no one knew when classes started until after they had already started. Maybe it was my fault for not living in the dorms?

However, as I got to know more long term laowai and got to know them better, I realized that it wasn’t just me. For instance, friend and fellow Lost Laowai contributor Nicki was working for a training school that wanted her and her husband to renew their contracts for a further two years. The couple made some unreasonable demands to the school, however. They wanted to have two consecutive days off each week and they wanted all schedule changes (with the exception of emergency cancellations) to be posted 24 hours in advance.

This inability to plan in advance isn’t just a school thing but seems, rather, a cultural thing that is endemic to Mainland China. . .

Even though the October Holiday is on the 1st of October every fricking year no one is going to know what days they have off until its published in the newspaper; and the same goes for May Holiday, Spring Festival, and New Years’.

Things are going really well at Stanford.  I’m basically done with my first year, and so far each quarter has been better than the previous one.  It’s a good trend!  I leave for Europe in a week for a short course with my lab, plus trips to Slovenia and the Netherlands to see classmates from my year in China!!

Harry Potter (哈利·波特, hālì·bōtè)

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

It’s been a year and a half since I returned from China, and I have spent nearly every day of those 18 months worrying about losing my hard-earned Chinese.  I’ve tried various techniques at various times with various degrees of success – classes, flashcards, activities, movies, books – but the truth is, it’s harder when you’re not immersed in the language effortless every day. 

But this quarter, I’ve been doing a lot better.  Stanford offers a program called PALM (Program for Advanced Language Maintenance), which meets twice weekly for informal but structured conversation.  I went last week, and we (a Chinese woman, a Polish man, and I) watched some controversial excerpts from a popular reality show and discussed them.  I’m hoping to go to that about once a week, which is great for listening input and speaking opportunities.  I think one of my greatest strengths in Chinese is the willingness to speak, and that’s certainly something I don’t want to lose!

I’ve also been really diligent about my flashcard reviews.  Three things have been helping me with this:

First of all, as if I haven’t made this clear enough, my flashcard program (Anki) is awesome in general.  The spaced-repetition system means I spend 5-10 minutes every day keeping up with my 9,000+ flashcards. 

Also, I started using the website Joe’s Goals to track several things I want to do daily – get up by 9, write in my journal, do my flashcard reviews, etc.  You create the list of goals, then check them off every day you complete them.  It helps you along in these goals by keeping track of (and quantifying!) your diligence.  Create a long chain of check marks is a powerful incentive, and looking at the webapp is a great daily reminder of what you haven’t done yet.  All in all, it’s a simple but very effective tool! 

Finally, having new material in my flashcard deck has made studying more fun.  This goes hand-in-hand with another technique I’ve been using – reading!  I bought a few Chinese books during my year there, but had enough input when I was living in China that I never even started them.  I picked up 哈利波特与魔法石 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) for my trip to Cambodia last December and made it about 20% of the way through it, but didn’t touch it again for nearly a year.  I resumed reading over Christmas break, and have made it a goal for 2012 to finish an entire book in Chinese.

I’m currently halfway through the book, and would wholeheartedly recommend a similar exercise for anyone trying to maintain a reasonably-advanced language skill.  The biggest disadvantage of not living in a country where the language is spoken is the relative dearth of input, but if you have reading material (or at least the internet), then you have access to input!

Harry Potter was a great choice of book, too.  It’s engaging and I already know that I enjoy it.  (I’ve read it several times in English, and about halfway through in Spanish as well.)  This means I have a pretty good ability to learn words and phrases from context, and I also have the ability to know which words are not worth learning (which is possibly just as important).

So I’ve been learning lots of words and adding them to my flashcards, which means new material to study!  The words I’m adding are an odd mix of generally useful (applaud, a match, wig, spinach, steam, tin, telescope, frog, yawn, ceiling, mildew, rib, remote-controlled, feather, tin, safety pin, slug, scar, spider, bacon, fireplace, to blow one’s nose, dolphin, eardrum, steering wheel, rearview mirror, heavy) and extremely specialized Harry Potter words.  Examples of the second category include magical things,

  • Hogwarts (霍格沃茨, huògéwòcí)
  • sorceror’s stone (魔法石, mófǎshí)
  • transfiguration (变形术, biànxíngshù)
  • alchemy (炼金术, liànjīnshù)
  • Muggle (麻瓜, máguā)
  • goblin (妖精, yāojing)
  • Quidditch (魁地奇, kuídìqí)
  • flying broomstick (飞天扫帚, fēitiān sàozhou)
  • wand (魔杖, mózhàng)

names of main characters,

  • Harry Potter (哈利·波特, hālì·bōtè)
  • Ron Weasley (罗恩·韦斯莱, luó’ēn·wéisīlái)
  • Hermione (赫敏, hèmǐn)
  • Draco Malfoy (德拉科·马尔福, délākē·mǎ’ěrfú)
  • Voldemort (伏地魔, fúdìmó)
  • Dumbledore (邓不利多, dèngbúlìduō)
  • McGonagall (麦格, màigé)
  • Hagrid (海格, hǎigé)

and the names of the four houses of Hogwarts.

  • Gryffindor (格兰芬多, gélánfēnduō)
  • Ravenclaw (拉文克劳, lāwénkèláo)
  • Slytherin (斯莱特林, sīláitèlín)
  • Hufflepuff (赫奇帕奇, hèqípàqí)

So, I basically just can’t wait until these words come up in conversation.


In Uncategorized on November 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm

This year I celebrated Thanksgiving at “home” – that is, on Stanford’s campus where I’ve been living for two months now.  My parents came out here for the break, and for the actual holiday we enjoyed a free dinner provided by the Graduate Student Association.  It was nice because we got to share the meal with Mirela, my roommate, who is from Bulgaria and was celebrating her first American Thanksgiving.

Dad - 3281

My parents said it was their first time celebrating Thanksgiving not at someone’s home, and their first time eating Thanksgiving dinner outside (although we were in a tent), which I thought was interesting because neither was a first for me.  In fact, I realized that, of the last 6 Thanksgivings, I haven’t spent any two in the same place – 3 different states and two different countries, in fact – and there are only three people (Mom, Dad, and Grandpa Holland) who have been at more than one of the meals.

It reminded me of how often I’m far away from the people that I care about, and made me so grateful for those people who continue to care about me even when I’m far away from them for long periods of time.

Other things I’m grateful for:

Family, friends, and ways to keep in touch:
I QQ-ed with XuLei last night, something we still do pretty regularly.  How amazing is it that we can catch up whenever we want, talking face to face, for free?!  I’m also grateful for the fact that she said I look thinner, which I’m pretty sure was a first for her.

The circumstances that have allowed me to visit friends, and friends to visit me:
This last year was full of so many opportunities to reunite with friends – from Lester and Denise visiting me in Minneapolis, to my summer trips to Tulsa, St. Louis, and Chicago, and my extended road trip through 2/3 of the country, I got to see so many people that I hadn’t seen in too long!  Every visit was excellent, and there’s not a place that I visited that I didn’t leave thinking to myself, “Yeah, I could live here”.

New friends:
This time last year, I hadn’t realized yet how important the friendships that I made senior year at TU would become.  I was still unsure about the consequences of leaving the country for my senior year, and hadn’t yet figured out that it was pretty much the best thing ever.  Also, I’m thankful for the new friends I’ve made at Stanford, who have helped me through this first quarter!

The opportunities I’ve had to study at three of the most beautiful universities:
I love TU’s matching sandstone, library steps with a majestic view of downtown, and luxuriously spacious student apartments.  I loved Xiamen’s proximity to the beach, neighboring mountains, continually blossoming flowers, and Tall Building.  And now I’m continually in awe of Stanford’s classic Main Quad, modern-but-appropriate new Engineering Quad, the killer view from the Dish, and the insane fall colors.  How have I been so lucky?!  And . . . where could I possibly go from here?

And lastly, I’ve started reading The Confessions of St. Augustine, and this passage reminded me of the way I learned Chinese (although here he’s talking about learning his first language, Latin):

There had  been a time too, of course, when I did not know any Latin words either; yet simply by paying attention I learned Latin without any fears or torments; I learned it in the caressing language of my nurses and in the laughter and play and kindness of those about me.  In this learning I was under no pressure of punishment, and people did not have to urge me on; my own heart urged me on to give birth to the thoughts which it had conceived, and I could not do this unless I learned some words; these I learned not from instructors but from people who talked to me and in whose hearing I too was able to give birth to what I was feeling.  It is clear enough from this that free curiosity is a more powerful aid to the learning of languages than a forced discipline.

Pretty much super grateful for that opportunity that I was given.

Mad Skillz

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm

While I was in China, I – like most visitors to the country – was continually astounded by the sheer amount of stuff that people managed to carry on a single motorbike. 

Families of five, 15-foot rebar, refrigerators or TVs, 30-40 full dispenser water bottles, etc.  Of these amazing feats of balance, strength, and recklessness, I’ve said that “Chinese people put more on a bike than the average American ever puts in their SUV.”

So now I’m at Stanford, and I again find myself impressed – on a daily basis – by people’s two-wheeled exploits.  The name of the game here is multitasking, not high capacity, but it is no less impressive.  People so rarely use their hands here that I wouldn’t be surprised to see dusty handlebars, and they don’t just let their hands dangle – they’re using them!

Things I have seen people doing while riding bikes:

  • texting
  • reading a map
  • reading a newspaper
  • putting on a jacket/sweater
  • warming their hands in their pockets
  • talking on the phone while drinking coffee

The last one was truly a magnificent thing to witness, as the woman executed a perfect > 90 degree turn with no hands and, as far as I could see, zero visibility. 

Only this state’s especially strict distracted driving laws make me feel okay about driving around these people . . .

Chinese Proverbs

In Uncategorized on October 7, 2011 at 9:33 pm

One of the cool things about studying Chinese and living in China is that, after you return to America, you realize how often Chinese language and culture is appropriate in our culture.  Prominent examples include tattoos and proverbs.  Please check out Hanzismatter for the former if you haven’t yet, and for the latter – I’m sure everyone can list at least one thing that “Confucius say”.

On my first day of class here at Stanford, I went to my Linear Algebra class in the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center in the new engineering quad.  It’s a very nice new building in an whole area of new development, and the whole thing just screams “design”.  It definitely gives the impression that every element of each building was carefully thought out and intended to convey some idea. 

So as I approached the doors (in the lower left-hand corner of the picture above, I was surprised to notice that, of the 6 doors in the front of the building, only the doors on the farthest left and farthest right have handles and are able to be opened.  Interesting, I thought, I wonder what the designer was thinking when he came up with this

I asked a few students their thoughts, but we came up with nothing conclusive.  On the way out after class, though, I noticed a quote engraved on stone set into the patio directly in front of the unopenable doors. 


“Teachers open the door but you must walk through it yourself.”
– Chinese proverb

Now that really made me think about the conscious choice to make it impossible for students to open 2/3 of the doors.

Seems odd to me for a school like Stanford to encourage students to think that doors (in the figurative sense of the proverb) can only be opened by teachers.  I’ve been told several times that in a PhD, you teach yourself – open your own doors and walk through them, if you will.

Maybe it’s just a subtle reminder of how selective the school is – the teachers here have left some doors open, but only for some students.

Or maybe they just googled “door chinese proverb”.  (At least they chose the one from the first two results and not the third . . .)

Culture Shock

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Culture shock is a funny thing.  Based on my experience, it seems to be not so much about differences, but rather about expectations of similarity. 

During my first three trips to China, it’s hard for me to point to many instances of culture shock.  I can think of one, and that was at the end of my two-month summer stay.  The thing is, I knew nothing about China – and I knew that I knew nothing about China.  I had no illusions about my familiarity with the language, culture, food, or anything else that I encountered.  Everything was very different from what I was used to, but I just accepted it as it was and moved on.

When I went back for the year, I felt reasonably adept at life in China, but my recent Chinese language course made me realize that my language skills were rudimentary at best.  Again, with low expectations, I adjusted fairly well to my new life. 

The culture shock came later.

Culture shock is a consequence of confidence.  The instances that easily come to mind (shopping in Beijing after my parents left, and Easter Sunday when a woman told me I’d been sitting improperly all year, for example) both came much later in the year, when I felt like I knew everything. 

The worst culture shock I’ve ever had in my life was my first day in Hong Kong.  I’d already been to Taiwan, so I thought I knew what “China-not-China” was like, and was NOT prepared for the reality of Hong Kong.  The aggressive English-speaking Indian men, the cost of everything, the Cantonese and traditional characters, the cars driving on the left side of the road – it all took me by surprise, going against all of my expectations, and was just too much for to take in all at once.  So I retired to my room and watched youtube videos for a few hours. 

In preparing to come out to California, I knew that the West Coast is different from the Midwestern/Central states that I’ve always lived in.  I was prepared for political differences and higher prices and not being able to carry a gun with more than 10 rounds (not that this was going to cramp my style at all). 

But it ended up being something much more mundane that got to me.  A few days after I arrived, I went grocery shopping and nearly ended up in the fetal position in a corner.  It wasn’t just that there wasn’t a familiar grocery store around – there weren’t any familiar products in the grocery store.  The brands were all different, and everything was organic or gluten-free or free-range or whatever.  Also (like Hong Kong) everything was more expensive than I was used to.   When you’re stocking a brand new apartment, it’s a long shopping trip, and by the end of the produce section I was ready to quit.  I was so happy when I saw something I recognized! (I feel like it was Old El Paso taco shells or something stupid like that.)

I’m not trying to be all small-town Oklahoma here or anything.  (When people ask, I say I’m from Oklahoma; I figure it is at least as accurate as any other possible response.)  When I tell Californians of this culture shock, I make sure to follow it up with the Hong Kong story, so that they know I’m not just freaking out because we don’t have stoplights in the town where I grew up or something stereotypically small-town like that.  Like I said, culture shock isn’t as much about differences as the expectation of similarity.  My Bulgarian roommate nailed it on the head when she said, “But you’re from America!”.  I would never assume that Xinjiang is basically the same as Xiamen, but it’s easier to fall into that trap when you’re dealing with your own country. 

The culture shock passed quickly enough (well before the dairy aisle), and now two weeks after arriving I am feeling pretty settled in.  I’m still getting used to all of the proper nouns associated with my new home (cities, roads, stores, brands, etc.) – a challenge with any move – and I’m sure there will be surprises ahead . . . but I did it in China and I’m pretty sure I can handle California. 

Uh oh, there’s that confidence again . . .

“Studying Abroad” in California

In Uncategorized on September 30, 2011 at 1:51 am

While I was in Xiamen, I realized how awesome my life was, but I realized that it was not because I was living abroad.  Studying abroad is all the rage on every campus everywhere, but I sometimes wonder if it’s not the attitude that makes the experience special.  The excitement, the freedom, the new experiences, the openness to everything – maybe that’s where the growth and learning come from. 

But why can’t that happen anywhere?  So here is my list of ideas, ways you can get the “Study Abroad Experience” wherever you happen to be:

  1. Take public transportation.  Get lost on public transportation.  Talk to people on public transportation – especially the crazy ones. 
  2. Talk to everyone!  Cashiers, waitresses, policemen, kids, taxi drivers, old people, priests . . . everyone!
  3. Try new foods.  Point to something on the menu and trust the cook!  Look around for local produce you’re not familiar with and learn how to cook it! 
  4. Cook your favorite foods and share with others.  Invite them to do the same. 
  5. Make a bucket list.  Make sure to include visits to the famous and not-so-famous things in your area.
  6. Try things you normally wouldn’t.  Go to free performances of whatever sort.  Take classes outside your major.  Try a new route.  Learn a new dance. 
  7. Say “yes” when invited.  Pretty much always.  (But if it’s illegal, you can say no . . . )
  8. Get outside to enjoy the seasons.  Or season.  However many of them there are, experience them all!
  9. Look for diversity and similarities in unexpected places.  Reflect on and record these experiences.  Pictures help.

Feel free to steal this list for yourself, whatever walk of life you may be in. 

I’ve been trying to keep these rules in mind as I start life on the West Coast, which sometimes feels as foreign as China!  So far, resounding successes on #2 (pretty much besties with all the Marguerite shuttle drivers), #6 (um, physical fitness class?  Expect a post soon on me learning taiji and Taiwanese), and #7 (which I have to thank for a particularly traumatic choir experience). 

I’m also making progress on #1 (only on campus so far), #5 (bucket list started, but nothing checked off yet), and #8 (Stanford is bike-mandatory but I’ve only been here for two weeks).  Really itching to get started on #4, but the insane availability of free food has made it hard to find time for dinner parties . . .

Choices Have Consequences

In Uncategorized on September 25, 2011 at 11:19 pm

So, in the past week I have started a new phase of my life in a new part of the country at a new institute of education.  It’s going to be an adventure, for sure.

Seems like a good time to look back at what I’ve learned from previous such adventures.  At the end of high school, a teacher had us write down answers to a few questions:

What are two of your collegiate objectives?

One huge goal is to find an area of study that fits me and my life, both present and future. That’s going to be a very big deal for me, way bigger than choosing a college, and also very hard because I feel pulled in so many directions. The second thing I hope to do is to make the most of every opportunity at Tulsa like I have here at CRHS. I came in with so many plans of classes I was going to take and groups I was going to join, but I just took every opportunity presented to me and it came out way better than I ever would have expected. I already know of many opportunities that await me at college, but I hope I have the courage to take advantage of others that arise.

Change “Tulsa” to “Stanford”, “CRHS” to “Tulsa”, and “college” to “grad school”, and you have my feelings now.  Apparently not much has changed in 5 years.  (And apparently I had a little bit of the concept of “adventuring” even then!)

I’ve been thinking recently . . . sometimes it seems like such a ridiculous, out-of-the-blue thing that I just did, going to China for the year.  But that’s not the way life works – there are no big choices, just small ones that seem big in hindsight.  Who knows what little decisions I’m making now that will later be seen to be the first steps of a big journey?  That’s a scary thought as you register for classes, arbitrarily selecting courses to fill up your 8-credit course load.  Joining the China project of Engineers Without Borders, instead of the Sierra Leone project – that seemed like an insignificant choice at the time!  Yet look where it took me . . .

On the Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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