Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Tsinghua’

Saturday at Work

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2015 at 10:49 am

I went to work today.  On a weekend.  Everyone commented on it.  I thought you don’t work on weekends back in America?  Well, sometimes I do, but not 9-to-5-as-a-rule, more like as-needed.  

I feel like there’s so much left that I want to do at work . . . and so little that I want to do in the rest of Beijing.  Yes, Beijing is a huge city with a lot going on, but some of it doesn’t interest me much and anything outside is just not appealing at all right now.  There are several parks I’d like to go to, if it were under 90 degrees and I didn’t have to wear a mask, but neither or those are true so I might as well be in the lab if the alternative is the hotel.

On the way to lunch, I told Zhao Yan something like 我刚刚到了 (I just got to the office).  He said that I use this 了 too much, and I don’t need it in this case.  了, a particle used to indicate tense, is the hardest part of Chinese grammar, in my opinion, and I freely admit that 80% of the time I have no idea what I’m doing and I just put it where it feels right.  Apparently my intuition is not so good, because he gave like five examples of when I’ve used it wrong (generally, where I’ve used it when not necessary).  国洋 joined the conversation as we ate, and tried to argue against my assertion that 了 is confusing.  It’s used for things that are completed, he said.  Only, one of their examples of when to use it was 我马上毕业了, or I’m about to graduate.  That hasn’t been completed yet, I said.  Yes, GuoYang responded, but it will be completed in the future.  Haha.  I think pretty much every action in the world falls into either the category of ‘already completed’, or the category of ‘will be completed’, right??  I’ve had this conversation with Chinese people before.  It’s easy, they say, 了 means something has happened . . . or is happening right now . . . or will happen . . . Yes, I nod, very easy.  It’s not like tenses are a cake walk in English or other languages, but they’re hard in a different way.  In Spanish, I might not know how to conjugate the specific verb I want to use in the tense I need, but I know which tense it is that I need.  In Chinese, the ‘how’ is exceedingly easy, but the ‘when/where’ part still eludes me.

No one was in my office when I got there.  So today I learned that we do have an air conditioner that usually makes the temperature just bearable, because in its absence the temperature was not.  I didn’t know how to turn it on, so I was happy when Huang Chong came in the afternoon, commented on how hot it was, and pressed the magic button to make it cool.  

Li Bo came by the office in the afternoon and asked me if I was free for dinner.  We were joined by his wife for dinner, and I was reminded of the extent of Chinese generosity, which always seems to me to be more generous than American generosity, but hopefully is just different.  We ordered roast duck, chicken, shrimp, eggplant, cabbage, and mushroom dishes, plus a sort of jelly crepe thing (that I saw and inquired about, and next thing I knew was on our table).  I’m pretty sure we got about the same amount of food for the three of us that we had ordered last night for 8 or 9 Americans.  There was food left on the table, which is a necessity in Chinese custom but always bothers me a little bit.  

I’m taking some friends to lunch tomorrow, friends who treated me to lunch the first few weeks I was here, so I was studying my hosts’ actions tonight.  Anything the guest expresses interest in, should be ordered.  My usual rule of thumb is one dish per person, but when treating perhaps double that.  Definitely get drinks.  Offer to order more at the end of the meal, even though there is still plenty of food left and everyone is clearly stuffed.

The most interesting part of the dinner conversation tonight (other than when I asked his wife if she was also from Hunan, and she said, Yes, I am also from Hulan) was when I tried to describe duck syndrome.  Things like that or work-life balance just seem to be impossible to translate; the combined language and cultural barriers are just too much.  I don’t think there are ducks at Tsinghua.  More like horses.  

Some of my labmates had talked about playing Catan again tonight, but they bailed.  (Lame, I said, and then had to try to explain what I meant.  You’re no fun, I’m disappointed in you?)  So I went home, on the way stopping to play with some puppies and talk to their owners.  

IMG 2384

This guy’s name was David.  I think he’s American.  The other one (I think his name was Twelve?) was not so into me; he mostly stood at a distance and yipped.  Fun Saturday night!

I’m the Best at Spicy, Crossing Streets, and Catan

In Uncategorized on July 21, 2015 at 10:39 am

We had a lab meeting this afternoon, where every student gave a 5-10 presentation on what they did this semester.  I really understand a lot of the mechanics now, because I’ve learned the vocabulary.  I was really excited when 差分 (finite differences) and 谱方法 (spectral method) came up, because I’d just learned them the other day while reading The Three Body Problem!  

There were a few presentations that were quite heavy on the bio- side of biomechanics.  These presentations had the most English on their slides, but I understood them the least.  My Chinese mechanics is better than my English biology?

The air quality was pretty terrible today, somewhere around 250.  I tried to go up to the roof to get another panorama for comparison, but the door was locked!  That was to be my only consolation for such terrible air :(

After the lab meeting, we went out to eat – Cheng, JiaWen, ShaSha, GuoYang, Guo Yang, and Zhao Yan – at a hotpot place.  I fully appreciated that these people ate hotpot with me on such a warm day.  Although looking out the windows at the dreary gray outside, I could almost pretend that it was cold out there . . . 

They ordered, which always makes dining in China more adventurous.  I steered clear of the stomach, intestines, and duck feet, which I know I don’t like, but I did try some new things.  Turns out I like lotus!  

We also had these little fish, which looked like something out of my nightmares.  They’d been gutted somehow, so their mouths were open garishly wide.  It reminded me of that line from Mulan: “It’s your breakfast!  And it’s so happy to see you.”

IMG 2371

Cheng gave me a beautiful gift during dinner – a hairpin and earrings.  I was excited because I learned the word for hairpin a few weeks ago.  Also, it will match my qipao!

After dinner, we biked back to campus to the apartment of a lab mate who said we could play there.  We took basically my usual route to work.  One intersection was a hot mess as always (green light for us, but cross traffic parked in the intersection).  I confidently wove my way through the cars and trucks, only to get to the other side and find that my labmates were still waiting on the other side.  I can’t believe I’m the best at crossing streets!?  I think it’s due to my American conviction that green means go.  

To get onto campus, we went through the northeast gate.  It’s my usual gate, but tonight was definitely the last time I’ll go through that gate.  It’s under construction, so we had to take a detour over a stone path, up and down a few ramps, and through a small forest (only a slight exaggeration).  

Tonight I remembered to bring all the parts of Catan, and finally got to teach them how to play it.  Explaining the rules of Catan to first-timers is a bit of a marathon for everyone involved, even more so in a second language.  But, we made it through.  Cheng and ShaSha were playing together and they made a good run at the win, but I managed to win despite several stupid mistakes (trying to steal Largest Army from no one, forgetting I had a brick port).  

The Service in China is Great, Said No One Ever

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2015 at 10:45 am

Today I had to deal with a new obstacle in my path at work.  Literally.  They’re doing construction on the northeast gate, which is the one I use, and they’re building a brick wall in front of it.  Today I managed to get through, but I might have to plot a new route.

IMG 2369

Cheng had promised to take me to get really good 地三鲜, one of my favorite dishes, and we finally went today.  It was the third floor of a different cafeteria and featured actual sit-down service.  Well, at least the sit-down part.  We waited about an hour for our food.  You know the service is bad when even your Chinese friends are frustrated.  The waiters were straight-up ignoring us!  Once Cheng managed to get a hold of one of them, she asked if fried egg and tomato was really that hard to make.  I’m pretty sure he snapped at her; it was not very enjoyable.  The food was okay, but not worth the wait.  

When we got back to the office, my first Amazon package was there!  I went up to the guard and said, I have a package!  He wordlessly grabbed something off the shelf and gave it to me.  Haha.  They had no way of knowing my name but I’m probably one of two foreign women in the building and the other definitely can’t use Amazon, so it was pretty easy guess.  

When it came time for dinner, my usual dinner buddies GuoYang and Zhao Yan were doing experiments, so Guo Yang (#2) came for me.  I’m pretty sure a week ago no one would have had dinner with me, but he’s gotten really into my English lessons.  He’s mastered “go home you’re drunk” and “you had one job” but he had questions about “nice try”.  I showed him the xkcd comic that brought it all about, and then another one.  


We had to talk through both of them, but eventually he realized they were funny.  We also did “said no one ever”; at first I had a hard time thinking of examples, but then I came up with a good one.  We all like math, I said, so we might say “Math is so fun!”, but then other people probably disagree, so then they would say “. . . said no one ever.”

I stayed until almost 9 again tonight.  I would be sadder about working so late if there were anything to miss about the daytime.  It’s actually nicer once the sun goes down – the gray is less noticeable.  Today was a particularly ugly day; it’s been threatening rain (but rarely following through) for over a week so the sky has been gray forever, but today was a different kind of gray.  The kind of gray that makes me clean my glasses, only to realize the reason I can’t see clearly is not dirty lenses.  

Also today my VPN kept routing me through Saudi Arabia.  Not exactly a bastion of freedom, is it?  

Belated Understanding

In Uncategorized on July 16, 2015 at 9:15 pm

This morning, Cheng helped me buy my Beijing-Xiamen and Wuhan-Changchun plane tickets.  These were the last pieces I needed to complete my Beijing-Xiamen-Wuhan-Changchun-Tumen-Changchun-Beijing route, and just like in the game Ticket to Ride, you don’t get any points if the route isn’t complete . . . so, I’m relieved to have that done.  I don’t have an online bank account in China, but Cheng makes an excellent banker – she pays for things online, and I pay her in cash.  Much better customer service than any Chinese bank I’ve used before, too!

At lunch, the guys tried to teach me Cantonese.  And Chongqing dialect.  I learned one Cantonese phrase (where are you?), and then forgot it.

At dinner, I asked the guys I was with for the name of the guy I had been talking about board games with.  GuoYang, they answered.  I looked at one of them, questioningly.  Isn’t he GuoYang, I asked?  GuoYang, GuoYang, they said.  Clearly there is some difference, but I was not hearing it.  Once we sat down, I handed one guy my phone and asked him to type this second name.  The one I know well is 国洋, and this other one is 郭洋.  GuóYáng and GuōYáng, respectively.

UUUUGGGGH I couldn’t believe it.  (It was right around this time that I taught them “wtf”.)  After a little more thought, though, I realized that this explains SO MUCH.  The second GuoYang isn’t in the circle I socialize with the most, but he’s still around a lot.  I’ve slowly been learning the names of more peripheral people, but his continued to elude me.  Turns out it wasn’t just that no one ever talked about him, it was just that when I heard his name I figured they were talking about the first GuoYang.  

We continued speaking of names.  They are fascinated by the fact that I call my advisor by her first name, Ellen.  They like to repeat their advisor’s names, as just the idea of calling Prof. Cao “Yan-Ping” is hilarious to them.  I knew that the professor-student heirarchy can be pretty strict, but until today I have no idea that the heirarchy among students is so important.  I thought everyone called everyone else 师兄弟姐妹 (lab brother or sister), but actually they use it to address older students.  The very idea of this made me laugh for several straight minutes, it’s just so far from the American way of thinking.  As fourth-year PhD students, Zhao Yan and I are the oldest – the others told me that calling me by my name (马利亚) is actually uncomfortable for them!  I told them that they’re free to call me 师姐 (lab sister) or 马姐 (sister Ma, because “Ma” is my “last name”), but there’s absolutely no guarantee that I’ll respond.  

As I was writing this, I came to another realization, about why I had such a hard time learning Zhao Yan’s name.  He always ate lunch with me, but I only tried to learn two names each meal and somehow never got to him until it was waaay past the point when I felt awkward asking.  Eventually I looked at the names on the door of his office and, by process of elimination, guessed that he was Zhao Yan.  I tried it out one day with 程 and it worked, so that’s how I learned his name.  It was hard, though, because I’d never heard anyone say this name before!  I didn’t know how this was possible, but now I do.  As he’s the oldest student, only the postdocs or the people who just graduated would have called him by his name, and I guess I never witnessed that.  Everyone else calls him 师兄 (lab brother), which never registered to me as a name.  

Before dinner, when GuoYang (the first!) was helping me with [another] computer problem, he saw the 24 pages of LaTeX derivations I’ve been working on.  They all use Microsoft Equation Editor (just threw up a little bit in my mouth) so they were in awe of how nice the LaTeX looks.  They kept repeating, You’re so great at this!, although if I were really that great I would have these derivations done . . .

On the way too and from dinner, GuoYang peppered me with questions – is it free?  How did I learn?  Can you write papers in it?  I love LaTeX – I basically see LaTeX code when I think about math – so I was advocating pretty hard.  After dinner, he asked me to help him get started.  I helped him download MiKTeX and TeXmaker, install them, and create his first document (“hello world”, naturally).  Then I helped Cheng, too.  It took about an hour, but I was really happy to be able to help them with something for once.  I can’t help be needy in most situations here, but it’s nice to have something to give back to them.

Today I learned: So much.  Seriously.  Belated epiphanies, but better late than never, right?

The Beauty Hidden in This World

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2015 at 10:12 am

Today was the last day I had volunteered to help at the Aerospace English Summer Camp.  As luck would have it (well, not for her) one of the other teachers called in sick, so I was able to help out with her class.  Her class seemed more talkative, I think.  Also, I have to commend their English naming; one guy said his Chinese name meant “tree”, and my heart sank . . . but then he said, so I chose the name Troy.  Right on!

They started off presenting their ideas for their final presentation on Friday – holographic projection and virtual reality.  To my surprise, neither Obi Wan Kenobi nor the Oculus Rift were mentioned in the presentations.  But there were videos of Stephen Hawking talking about One Direction and of some pretty incredible special effects from the Spring Festival gala, so it worked out.  They were pretty passionate about their choices, but in the end I helped them see that they could combine the two topics into one, something like visualizations of the future.  And everyone was happy :)

I brought my 3D printed brain in today as a fun topic for discussion.  I asked them what it was, how it was made, why it looks like a walnut, etc.  They seemed to think it was pretty cool, although they hadn’t prepared anything about the brain so they didn’t really have the vocabulary for the discussion.

To fill the rest of the time in that period, I asked them about a news article I saw on Baidu the other day.  I often look at the stories on the Baidu homepage, and sometimes understand what’s going, but I rarely see things that relate to me at all.  So when I saw the very distinctive main gate of Tsinghua in one article, I had to read it.  Apparently a guy had put a ring on a drone and was flying it over to the women who were taking pictures in front of the gate, until the guards shut it down and took away his drone.  I thought this would be an interesting topic to talk about (it has it all – science, love, action and adventure!), but the students told me it was all staged – even the guard was fake, they said.  They were trying to go viral, and it worked . . .

We’re allowed to talk about non-science and technology things some of the time, so for the last period I asked them for book and movie recommendations.  The most intriguing book (besides Sophie’s World, which is on my bookshelf at home but I haven’t read yet) was 藏在这个世界的优美 (The Beauty Hidden in This World), written by a Chinese woman who traveled to 80 different countries.    There was only one girl in the class, and she recommended Twilight.  I tried to be encouraging, and to get her to speak more English asked her if she was Team Edward or Team Jacob (Edward, she answered, without hesitation).  So there you have it.

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.

Nancy  EEG

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

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

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


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

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

IMG 9379

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.  

IMG 9355

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

IMG 2276

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.

IMG 2300

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!

IMG 2299

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.

IMG 2307

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.  

冠军! Champions!

In Uncategorized on July 6, 2015 at 10:53 am

I woke up at 5am this morning to watch the USWNT in the final of the Women’s World Cup.  Unfortunately, the game didn’t start until 7am – I had miscalculated the time difference (I think because the previous game was in a different time zone in Canada?  Or I’m just an idiot).  

I was too irritated at myself to fall back asleep, so I left the TV on CCTV5, the sports channel, and watched reruns of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Usain Bolt winning the 4×100 relay!), an interview with a doctor about reducing oil in your diet, and a ribbon dancing exercise program.

I had committed to helping a few days at an English summer camp for rising sophomores in the school of Aerospace Engineering, working on their technical English and presentation skills.  Today was the first day, and we were scheduled to talk about air pollution, so I did some reading while I waited for the game.  It was pretty depressing . . . a lot of really high numbers and pictures like this, which is just about the worst thing I have ever seen.  What have we done to this world?  

The good news about being up so early is that the internet is fast.  At Stanford, the internet is robust enough that I’ve never really sensed heavy traffic, but here at the hotel I am painfully aware of everyone’s else’s browsing/downloading habits.  It’s nearly unusable in the evenings, but mornings are at least not terrible.

The game finally started at 7.  At like 7:03, we got a corner kick and Carli Lloyd nailed a perfect shot into the goal, and I probably woke up my neighbors.  The next goal came so quickly afterwards that I’m not really sure what happened; I was just posting something on facebook about watching the game, which I quickly changed to reference last year’s Brazil-Germany World Cup semifinal.   Serious flashbacks to that day, that joy and that confusion – are they just replaying the same goals over and over, or are these happening live?  

One of my EAPSI friends showed up a few minutes later, and was massively disappointed that he’d “probably missed the only two goals of the game.”  Haha . . . not.  The third goal was the most ridiculous, a lob from just inside center field that somehow went in.  Jesse: “That’s gotta be demoralizing – I love it!”.  After that, we had to wait a few boring minutes before the fourth goal.  Jesse: “At least I got to see two goals.  Haha, who just says that about a soccer game?!”

The worst part about miscalculating the start time of the game was not the two missing hours of sleep, it was that I had committed to being at Tsinghua at 8:30, before the end of the game.  After the Japanese managed to get two past Hope, I was so annoyed at missing such an exciting game.  As it was, we scored again to bring it to 5-2 as I walked out the door, and I ended up getting to see all of the goals.  I was kept up to date via WeChat as I biked to Tsinghua, although nothing major happened.  We won!  Congratulations, team!  


This English summer camp got off to a rough start, because I am an idiot.  (Definitely a theme here.)  I had put the location information, building and room number, into my Google calendar, as is my habit.  But when I got to the building, whose name I had remembered, I had no way to look up the room number.  Nothing Google syncs to my phone, I couldn’t get the VPN to connect on mobile data, I didn’t have the login information for the internet account I’m going to use for the rest of the month, and my own internet account was out of money.  I was actually sitting on the steps outside the building when I learned that we won.  Ugh, what an idiot. 

The students all heard some opening remarks about the purpose of the camp and tips about making good presentations, I guess, and then I was able to get a hold of my contact and find my room.  I’m working with a Romanian Masters student who will be there for the whole two weeks, and we have 12 students.  We did introductions, asking each of them to say their name, their hometown, and what they like to do.  Lots of ping pong and badminton, but my favorite was the guy who said he like to read science fiction and that his favorite book was Ender’s Game :)

We have one guy in the class who is a real character.  We decided to go by English names if they have them, and this guy is named “Ancient”.  In his introduction, he gestured to the two people before him and said that “unlike them, my grades are very poor.”  He ended up being the most active participant in today’s group discussion, which was interesting because I don’t think his English is necessarily the best.  Unlike everyone else, though, he seemed reasonably at peace with the possibility that he was going to do or say something stupid, which in my experience is one of the best things you can do when learning a language.  

A few other conversational snapshots from the class:

  • on the topic of air pollution, I asked if anyone had seen 穹顶之下, or “Under the Dome”, the recent documentary about air pollution in China.  A few hands went up, and I asked them to tell me about it.  Ancient shrugged and said simply, “It tells the truth, so it is forbidden.”
  • when we were talking about biking (perhaps asking about helmet use?  or green transportation?  I don’t remember.), one guy started talking about a bunch of people riding bikes in Poland without clothes.  This was one of those situations where what I thought I heard was so strange that I didn’t dare assume that I had heard correctly.  I felt bad, because he actually spoke well enough but I asked him to clarify four or five times before repeating it back to him.  Yes, something about a naked bike ride in Poland.  
  • I tried to introduce the concept of negawatts, which completely failed, but first took us to a discussion of watts.  I kept saying the word “watt” and “kilowatt”, and my coteacher jumped in with “joules per second”, but we just got blank stares.  Finally, I went up to the board and wrote “1 J/s = 1 W” and everyone immediately “aaah”ed with understanding.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we were doing a summer camp to improve their technical English speaking skills.
  • They have to give presentations every other day on a science or technology topic of their choice.  While brainstorming ideas for these presentations, I said that they could talk about the science in some science fiction book or movie.  三体, for instance, I suggested (this is the Chinese science fiction novel I’m reading right now), and wrote it on the board.  I had told them that I speak Chinese, but maybe they didn’t expect me to be able to write, because they all flipped when I wrote those characters on the board.  Never mind that 三 is literally the third easiest character to write, and 体 was among the first 100 I learned as well.  I felt like the winner of America’s Got Talent or something.
I had lunch with my coteacher.  (He was surprised that I had gotten up so early to watch the game today.  I asked him, if the Romanian women were in the World Cup Final, would you watch it?  “But this is science fiction!”, he responded.)  He’s here writing his Masters thesis at Tsinghua and seems about ready to leave, although he doesn’t until September 1st.  He doesn’t speak Chinese, doesn’t like his project, and his labmates work 12 hour days 7 days a week and he has nothing really better to do than join them.  He remarked incredulously that he had a few friends who were studying Chinese at Peking University and that they love it here.  This made me realize how much different the life of a language student is than a graduate student.  I am so fortunate to have spent my first times in China the way I did, with so much freedom to learn Chinese in the way I wanted, and beautiful places to do it in.  I don’t think I would I have loved China if this had been our introduction, so I guess I can’t really blame him.  In an attempt to point out some good things, I said that China was cheap so it’s easy to “treat” yourself.  Except, apparently China is more expensive than Romania.  (He’s also getting gouged for student housing, paying 80元 per night.)  And he drinks coffee, which is an admittedly huge stumbling block that I just happen to not have.

When I went into work in the afternoon, I found that something must have been percolating in the back of my brain over the weekend, because a few more things made sense.  Eventually I found a minus sign that I’d misplaced, and successfully derived the Euler equations that I had struggled with last week.  Yay!!  

I rewarded myself with a break and went up to the top of the building to take a panorama on a mild pollution day.  According to different accounts, the AQI was either just above 100 (the point at which I generally wear a mask) or around 160 (on the low end of Unhealthy).  

100 East

It was far from the worst I’ve seen (which is over 300) and looked only drab, instead of desolate, but it took a little bit of conscious effort to find the mountains off in the west:

100 West 2

which had been so clear on the horizon last week:

Wed West

Over lunch, I told my coteacher that I think there’s something stifling, mentally and emotionally, about the gray Beijing sky and the way it shrinks your world down – lowers your eyes, restricts your gaze to the things near enough to be seen clearly.  There’s something aspirational and inspiring about looking up to the sky, I think.  Am I just being dramatic?  These pictures make me think not.  Today we’re missing the mountains for the smog; perhaps the forest and the trees as well.  I’m sure that there are long-term physical effects from this pollution, but I think there must be psychological effects as well. 

I stayed late at the office and got lunch with GuoYang and Zhao Yan.  I asked them for the name of 伟花’s “zhāngfu”, a question that was met with blank stares.  (Story of my day . . . )  I tried again: “zhángfu . . . zhāngfǔ . . . zhāngfù . . . “  Finally: “husband!”  “Aaaaaah, zhàngfu!”, they exclaimed.  Yes, that, of course that!  I allowed myself to complain to them a little bit – how was I supposed to get “lùchī” out of “nùchī” but they couldn’t figure out “zhàngfu!” from “zhāngfu”??  They all agreed that it was a bit unfair, but what can I do?  Tones are more important than consonants.  

I think I’ve been a little heavy on the “Chinese is hard” side of things recently.  I generally like to balance it out with some aspects of Chinese that are easy, so I told them that I have pity on students learning the English names for the days of the week and months of the year.  Neither of them could spell February or Wednesday – such horrible words those must be to learn, although I don’t personally remember what it was like.  They agreed, suggesting that English start calling months “Month Number One” and “Month Number Two” like they do in Chinese.  It would be nice, but again, what can I do?

Learning to Toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Today I learned: 

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

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

Part of My Heart

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2015 at 10:24 am

Today started early; I woke up at 6:30 to watch the US Women’s National Team play Germany in the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup.  I have a great knack for being on the wrong side of the world for these things, so watching World Cup games at awkward hours of the night/morning in China is actually pretty familiar to me.  Two EAPSI colleagues joined me, and we shared weird Chinese snacks (lime and chocolate-and-salt potato chips) while we watched.  

It was a good game.  The NYT said we were “leading 0-0” as we went into halftime, which is about how it felt.  Germany whiffed their penalty kick and Carli Lloyd nailed our [extremely questionable] penalty kick, so then we were 1-0.  I didn’t really want to win that way, so I was happy when we got a beautiful goal late in the game to clinch it.  We’re going to the final!  5am, Monday morning, can’t wait!  

The game was made just that much better by the stickers I used to update Cheng on the game.  Stickers (the love child of emoticons and gifs) are a huge deal on WeChat, and the EAPSI cohort has gotten way into them.  My favorite stickers include a vomiting llama, a toaster with bread jumping out of it happily, a little Dutch bunny who rides a bicycle and says things like “here I am” and “let’s play together”, a hot dog walking another hot dog on a leash, Einstein making the “rock on” sign or doing pushups, and a skipping egg.  You would be surprised how often these and other such stickers are the perfect addition to any conversation.  

Anyway, I downloaded two football-related sticker packs.  One has Barca players’ faces on animated bodies with speech bubbles, things like  Messi saying “I’ve got it”, Neymar with “hahaha”, and Pique with “Love you”.  The other is cartoon fans from different countries cheering on their teams – two Argentines toasting their beers and saying “thx buddy”, a Brazilian screaming “Victory” (hahaha ouch), a Dutch guy yelling “OMG”.  For this game, I sent a sticker of Mascherano running and yelling “Goooall” when we scored, and the Brazilian victory guy when the game was over.  Pretty much sums it all up.  


We went to a nicer cafeteria for all-you-can-eat lunch today.  I got date cake (枣糕, zǎogāo) and commented that it sounds like 糟糕 (zāogāo), which literally means “messy cake” but is kind of a mild ejaculation like “darn it”.  They all agreed with me, but the thought had clearly never crossed their minds.  While you can be understood with improper tones (goodness knows that’s been a crucial component of my successful communication!), they’re so fundamental to the Chinese that these two words just don’t really sound all that similar to them.

I’ve known and tried to comprehend this for a long time.  But only recently have I realized that there’s a corollary to this, perhaps even more difficult for me to understand: consonants are just not that important in Chinese.  One guy was trying to tell me the word for a person who gets lost easily (so, me).  “nùchī” he said.  He said it like it was one I knew, and these guys seem to have a pretty good grasp of what characters I know, so I racked my brain trying to think of what this “nù” was.  “The nù in nùdào!” he said, as if that made it obvious.  But while I could think of two characters that are pronounced “nu”, neither of them made any sense with any character pronounced “dao”.  After a few minutes of this, he pointed to the thing we were biking on.  Oooooohh, you mean “lùdào”, or road, in which case this new word makes perfect sense because it’s 路痴, or “road idiot”.  He laughed it off as his “southern accent”, but where I’m from, accents change vowels, not consonants.  I’ve also experienced this many times, from not knowing if vendors in Xiamen were telling me things cost 4 (sì) kuai or 10 (shí), to being asked if I have a blue friend (lánpéngyoǔ) instead of a boyfriend (nánpéngyoǔ), but for some reason it all just sunk in today: tones are more important than consonants.  Unfortunately, even 8 years on, I can hear and produce consonants much more reliably than tones.  Sigh.  


I went back up on the roof today, to take more pictures as storm clouds came rolling in.  Looking east, towards the clouds:

Wed East

and looking west, towards the mountains:

Wed West


Okay, now it’s time to talk about gender!  Being a female mechanical engineer, I have a lot of guy friends. Stanford’s graduate schools are something like 2:1 male:female, my entering class in ME was 17% female, and I was the first woman to join my lab at Stanford (with the significant exception of my advisor!). I love my labmates as brothers, I enjoy their company, and I think we get along well.

My labmates at Tsinghua include four women and about 10 guys. One of the women, Cheng, sits next to me and thus is the unfortunate recipient of most of my questions; she’s really great about it, though! But sometime around 11 every day, the women all disappear, so by the time I start thinking about lunch, I end up going with a big group of guys. I think we’ve had another woman join us three times, out of at least a dozen. The guys are great, though – they pay for me when we get to the cafeteria too late for me to use my card (which is restricted between 11:45 and 12:30), and include me in the daily dessert order of watermelon slices.

But despite sharing meals together sometimes twice a day, we were not friends. Not officially, that is. None of the guys had added me on WeChat (which is the gold standard of these things in China as facebook is in the US). Maybe it’s nothing, you think? All four of the women added me after our first interaction of any significance, while zero of the men I interact with daily added me . . . Also, reports were coming in from my EAPSI colleagues of gender segregation at their workplaces – lots of guys eating lunch with guys, and girls only talking to girls – so I definitely wouldn’t be the only one to see some effect like this.  

Yesterday at lunch, one of the guys asked me if I use English or Chinese on WeChat, so I thought maybe they hadn’t added me because they were afraid they’d have to use English. No, I told them, I use Chinese with Chinese people and English with Americans. Then I jokingly reminded them that they hadn’t added me, so two of them pulled out their phones to scan my QR code (an easy way to find someone as a contact) . . . and then neither followed through by adding me. This is also after I listed my WeChat name in the presentation I gave my first week; I saw a bunch of people pull out their phones and not add me.

What’s up with that? I remember being told in our EAPSI orientation if a request is ignored it’s a way of refusing without having to say no. But why are they refusing to be my friend??

I know that rules governing interactions between people of different genders vary around the world. I thought that could be it, maybe adding someone on WeChat is fraught with implications of flirting or even something more serious? I texted XuLei, my Chinese best friend, and asked her if a guy adding you on WeChat was a big deal. No, she said, not if you know him. About the same as asking for someone’s phone number in the States.

From there, I escalated the situation by texting Cheng, my office neighbor and frequest question recipient. She seemed surprised that none of the guys had added me, and especially that they hadn’t done so even after scanning the QR code. But she said that it wouldn’t be just because I’m a girl. Haha, awkward . . . I thought there was a logical reason I had no friends, but no, it must just be me :-/

Anyway, the reason this is anything close to a big deal (besides cultural curiosity and, okay, maybe a little bit of pride) is that we’re making plans to do something on Saturday and I have no way of contacting them! Cheng offered to help out by making a group chat and inviting us all. And today, one of the guys added me from the group! Somehow, the group thing made it okay and I’m no longer a complete WeChat pariah.

And more importantly, we have karaoke plans for 10am on Saturday! I’ve already been practicing :)

A friend posted a quote about home on facebook the other day, and it rang so true for me.

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I’ve left parts of my heart in Coon Rapids, Tulsa, Stanford, Hunchun, and Xiamen.  This last week in Beijing, with continuously “unhealthy” air, was difficult. When they sky looks like that, it’s like being surrounded by concrete in all directions, even above. Considering also the length of my stay, it’s obviously more difficult to make friends in 7 weeks than over 11 months, and that situation had not looked promising recently. So, I had wondered: would I leave a piece of my heart in Beijing?

On Monday, I would have said no. Today, I think it’s a very real possibility.

Dat View

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2015 at 10:17 am

The sky was blue today!!!!!

IMG 20150630 121621

I feel like I’m a plant, with my physical and emotional well-being completely dependent on the sky.  I was full of energy and couldn’t stop smiling all day.  The people of Beijing are not plants.  They seem to go about their lives without giving the air or weather quality a second thought.  They don’t wear face masks when it’s polluted, and they don’t linger outdoors when it’s nice.  My whole day is different when the AQI is 300 and when it’s 30, from my clothes to my mood. 

 As we got our bikes to go to dinner, I asked if we could get food and eat outside.  At first they were confused by my words; I had said 外面, which means outside but I realized in this context meant off campus.  When I changed to 户外 (outdoors), though, it didn’t seem to get any clearer.  I guess the Chinese are not a big picnic culture . . . takeout is a staple of life here, and I almost tried again with that, but just gave up.  We ate inside.

A similar instance of understanding the words, but not the concept, happened during dinner.  One of the guys asked where I was going back to, and I felt stupid as I kept asking what he was saying.  They all thought I had forgotten these basic words – “where”, “you”, “go”, “return” – but I just didn’t know what he meant.  I’m going back to the hotel tonight and eventually I’m returning to America, but you know all this so why are you asking??  Turns out he wanted to know if I was going back to the office with them after dinner.  Oh . . . then yes.  

As we ate, I mentioned that I had spent Chinese New Year at the home of a friend from church, so one of the guys asked if I am religious.  This led into a discussion of what it means to be “have religious faith”.  He asked if he prays to Buddha before a test, is that religion?  I said, no, that’s superstition.  Huge thank you to Anki, my awesome flashcard program, which had shown me the “superstition” flashcard literally 20 minutes before.

After dinner, we ran into a friend of one of the guys and he introduced me.  I said 你好 and then, as if on cue, his face changed to one of incredulity and he exclaimed that I speak Chinese so well!  I laughed, and said that it always feels funny when people make such comments after hearing me say literally one simple two-syllable phrase.  He defended it, actually, and has somewhat of a point – most foreigners pronounce each syllable like a word, he said (“Ni. Hao.”) or with no tones (“nihao”) but I spoke smoothly and properly (“níhǎo”).  Maybe 你好 is actually a pretty good Chinese shibboleth?


I stayed so late at work that I saw the sun setting out the office window. Cheng saw me staring and asked if I wanted to take pictures. Yes, but the office window is too dirty, I said. She suggested I go upstairs to the top of the building. Um, yes please! She told me how to go up, and I discovered my new favorite place. Our building is 11 stories tall, definitely one of the tallest buildings on campus. What a gorgeous view of the city we have!!


There’s a nice open area up there, too, that seems to just be begging to host a happy hour . . . 

I caught the sunset over the mountains and stayed there until it was all the way behind them, just breathing and smiling.  

IMG 2207 

Today I learned: 

I’ve been pronouncing “who” wrong ALL THIS TIME?!?  It’s one of the question words and probably in the first 100 characters I learned.  APPARENTLY INCORRECTLY??  At Mass this weekend, I noticed the priest pronounced 谁 oddly, as “shuí” instead of “sheí”.  I thought it was an archaic pronunciation, or like the way we pronounce 了 as “liao” instead of “le” when we sing.  Or maybe he has an accent?  He has a few verbal quirks, like saying 好 in between pretty much every clause, so I didn’t think too much of it.  But today, when one of my labmates did it, I asked him about it.  Is it an accent, or a regional thing, or some dialect?  No, it’s pretty standard, he said, even the news announcers use it.  I didn’t believe him, but when I got home and looked it up on Pleco, my favorite Chinese app, it lists

shuí: 1. who 2. (used in rhetorical questions) who 3. someone, anyone 4. (used before 都 or 也) everyone, anyone.
sheí: a variant pronunciation for 谁 shuí.