Wednesday, December 31, 2008

South China

Day 7:  In the morning, our friendly minibus driver took us to a wharf to catch a Li River cruise.  The river is really famous for all the craggy karst mountains around it, but unfortunately it was raining.  It was pretty cool to have the mountains rising out of the mist, but it would have been nice to see them on a clearer day.  There were locals on little rafts formed from 4 pieces of bamboo (very tippy-looking) who would attach to our boat and hawk their souvenir wares. Some even gave fresh fish to the kitchen on the back of the boat.  We arrived in Yangshuo at 2 in the afternoon.  West street is really narrow and full of touristy shops and cafes.  There are neon lights all along the second story, giving it an especially lively look at night.  We finally made it to our hotel, which was 30 minutes from the main part of town (again, the travel agent is not too bright) after a long walk in the rain.

Day 8:  Made it back to Guilin in the morning, and went for a walk around town.  The town has a lot of inter-connected lakes with little park areas around them.  Eventually we made it to Fubo hill, which has a cool cave and a great view from the top.  Lots of mountains.  Next was seven stars park, an area with 7 hills and various other attractions, including a panda, fake waterfalls, a hill shaped like a camel, and lots of peacocks.  We walked along the lakes at night when they were all lit up, and saw the largest man-made waterfall in the world cascading down the front of a hotel (10 min at 8:30 every night).  It was quite impressive. 

Day 9  We caught a plane to Shenzhen, and a train to Hong Kong.  The cross-boundary busses involve getting off for an hour at the border to go through two different customs lines.  Unpleasant.  But you get stampys.  We finally made it to Kowloon and treated ourselves to the outrageously expensive, but delicious Haagen-Dasz while watching ice-skating children pushing little penguins around (like the chairs used for balance, but way cooler.)  Huge bright lights in Hong Kong, little lanes filled with salespeople.  We had noodle soup, and went to temple street night market.   Really cheap cool looking oil paintings, which Eric and I bought a lot of.  

THe hotel has TV channels from around the world, including French TV Asia.  It currently has little gazelles running around with the narrator talking in a soothing French voice.  Somehow fascinating at 6 in the morning.  Have a happy new year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Playing tourist at last

I met my family just fine six days ago, and since then, it's been a whirlwind of sightseeing, funny stories, and just good times. It was so unreal to see them walking out of the arrivals gate at the Beijing airport.  We arranged our travels through a Chinese tour guide, who is well-meaning, but didn't realize that we did not speak Chinese, so always sent the itinerary in Chinese.  He also is very Chinese in that he'll do exactly what you want, but not be particularly rational about things.  For instance, he had us in a 10 hour layover each way in the Kunming airport so that we could spend 2 days in Lijiang (both in Yunan province).  We opted for 4 days in Kunming instead.

Day 1:  Beijing.  We left early in the morning for the Mutianyu section of the great wall.  It was cold up there, and very windy, but the scenery was wonderful.  I'll never cease to be amazed by looking in the distance to see the wall snaking along some distant seemingly unreachable ridge.  You hear that it's built upon the mountain ridges, but it's hard to grasp until you actually see it.  On our return to the city, we stopped for a bit at the olympic park, where there were endless Christmas trees lining the main road, and a little christmas house decked out with a sleigh, decorations, and several santas, one of which was playing a saxophone.  (More is better, right).  We then went to the central hutong area near the lakes and wandered around for the remainder of the afternoon, catching another glimpse of Beijing life.  And of course, sampling the street food.

Day 2:  Forbidden City day.  We first headed to my favorite Jingshan park to see the dancing, clapping, games, and other elderly Chinese people activities.  It's so cool to see all the retired people hanging out with their friends and doing active things outside instead of sitting around the house.  Also enjoyed the spectacular view from the pavilion at the top of the hill.  The forbidden city is something I've kind of been avoiding in my time here.  I mean, it's just a bunch of buildings, and all the contents were moved to Taiwan when the Japanese invaded, so what's to see.  It was actually pretty cool.  I wouldn't have been really sad to not see it, but the sheer scale and the sheer absurdity of having it all for one person were pretty amazing.  2000 concubines, and 75,000 eunochs.  1 emperor.  

Day 3:  Transit, to Kunming.  Up at 4:30 to catch a flight to Kunming, Yunan.  My dad, grandma, and aunt went to Shanghai to visit relatives, while my siblings and my mom went to Yunan. The flight was relatively painless, and we arrived around 1:30.  We walked around town to a shopping district and some really really old pagodas.  The streets are a lot narrower and there seem to be a lot more people here than in Beijing.  Or maybe it's just warmer.  We found a Wal-mart, which was very amusing.  Very much like any other Chinese supermarket, but fancier than Wal-marts at home.  Funny, working at Wal-mart is probably a pretty stable and well-paid job here.  For dinner, we went to a cute hot pot place which had a little pot for each person.  I love hot pot.  

Day 4:  Western Hills, and area to the west of Kunming on the shore of a lake.  We started by exploring two beautiful temples that were filled with lush vegitation (I get the feeling that it rains a lot here in the summer).  The hills were breathtaking and there were many sheer cliffs and lovely Chinese architecture tucked into them.  There were a lot of tacky souvenir items on the way up, which makes me wonder who in the world buys such useless junk?  It's like the people say "Oh look, tourists, I bet they want some of this random stuff!"  On returning from the hills, we went shopping a bit, but didn't end up buying anything.  Dinner was at a fast food dumpling restaurant, where it took me 10 minutes to decipher the menu before we ended up with two bowls of noodles, and an enormous plate of 饺子 (Chinese stuffed dumplings).

Day 5:  Stone forest is an area 70 km from Kunming.  It used to be a lakebed, and the large concentrations of Ca in the water led to strangely shaped CaCO3 (limestone) deposits on the lake floor.  As a result, there are stone pillars over 100 feet high and gorgeous rock formations dotting this valley.  There is a lot of vegitation growing in the stone canyons and on the stones themselves, and it felt like there should be dinosaurs around.  Or monkeys.  It was pretty breathtaking.  The trails wandered in and out of the countless rock formations and I felt like a little bug walking through a junk yard.  Some places were flooded with Chinese tourists, but some of the more remote places were still and tranquil.  Unfortunately, Amanda got Staph food poisoning and was really sick on the way home and all the rest of the night.  

Day 6:  Amanda was still sick, so she stayed in the hotel with mom, while Eric and I wandered Kunming a little more.  We walked through a cute little park/lake area with more seagulls that I have ever seen in one place.  There were stands selling "seagull bread" and many adorable children running around with bright looks in their eyes, and seagull chow in their fists.  It was kind of like San Marco pigeons, but with seagulls.  We also went to the biggest active temple in the city, and apparently Saturdays at 11 is a big Buddhist service time.  There were hundreds of people burning incense and candles; you could barely walk through.  The candle holders had gallons of wax dripping down every hour, and the clouds of smoke from the incense was huge.  We got some incense and felt a little sacreligous lighting it, but it was fun anyway.  There was a monk speaking and then chanting/singing in a haunting voice.  It ended with a monk-led procession of several hundred people around the entire complex.  A pretty amazing experience.  The pond had a lot of cute little turtles too.  For lunch, we stopped at the chain restaurant "The Brothers Jiang," which serves the Yunan speciality, "Over the Bridge Noodles."  We were confused, but you have to buy your ticket for your food at the entrance and then hand it to the waiter to him to bring your food.  Kind of like an amusement park.  Wheeeee.  We got a decent-sized bowl of cold noodles and then an enormous bowl of over the bridge noodles.  I love noodles too.

We came back to the hotel around 3 and caught a taxi to the airport, where we waited for about 4 hours for our delayed flight to take off.  For some reason, the airport needed to announce everything about three times in both languages and had to start each announcement with "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention" or the Chinese equivalent.  We decided that they could cut down on their speaking by at least 75%.  We arrived safely in Guilin, Guangxi province.  It you've ever seen Chinese paintings with eerie finger-like rock hills pointing out of a green, riverine landscape, it's probably Guilin.  

 It's kind of funny how I end up leading everyone around and handling all of the logistics because I'm the one who can speak Chinese.  Eric says it's like I'm the mom.  It's kind of stressful having to deal with all of the stuff going on, especially since I'm not fluent, but we've gotten by pretty well so far.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Mellow Farewell to Tsinghua

Today is the day. My family arrives at the Beijing airport at 9:40, as my University life here comes to an end. It's been so great living, studying, and working here. I feel like I've learned a lot more about the world from all my foreigner friends, and hope to meet some of them again someday.

Yesterday, I had brunch (Western) with my Western friends, and dinner (Chinese) with my Chinese labmates. It was wonderful to have a last hurrah with everyone, and strange to say goodbye. They're ok when you know you'll see them again, cause you can just say, 'until next time. . .' but it's hard to say 'goodbye, I know I'll never see you again, have a good life.' I'm going to miss campus life here. So strange to be thrown in with a group of people and be best of friends for three months, then to have it end so suddenly. I'll miss you all so much.

Today will be the coldest day of my trip at a -10 windchill. Maybe Beijing's weather gods are trying to comfort me with a little feel of home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It can't be my birthday

There' s no snow on the ground, no Christmas decorations.  No finals.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chinese table manners

Chinese (at least Northerners) love to take their friends and family out to eat and treat them.  Even poor college students will take their friends out for their birthday and insist on paying the whole bill.  My labmate says that it makes him really happy to be able to make all of his friends full and happy too.  They call the Western method of paying (i.e. everyone pays for their own) "AA." Not sure why, but they think it's pretty strange.  Part of it may be that it's hard to find what everyone owes because all the dishes are shared, but I think it's mostly because Chinese people care a lot more about harmonious relationships than Westerners.  If there's something to celebrate or you want to do something fun with your friends, go out to eat!  And it's cheap.  You can eat your fill at an average restaurant for about 35 kuai ($5) and get all you can eat at a really really nice buffet for 59 kuai ($8).

Also, when it comes to boxing up the leftovers (No they don't have Chinese-take-out-shaped boxes here), it's really rude to do it unless your only with your family.  If you go out on a date and ask to box up the rest of the food, it means that you care too much about money and little things and not enough about the person you're with.  Again, may be because of the shared dishes phenomenon. 

When you eat with a bowl of rice with others at a restaurant, you use your chopsticks to take a piece from the communal dish and eat it over your rice bowl, sometimes dabbing it on the rice to make the white stuff exciting.  I do prefer to just spoon the sauce over my rice, but that's not really how it's supposed to be done.

My favorite:  when you're eating soup and/or noodles, slurp as much as possible.  It means you're enjoying it.  I'm going to miss noodle soup the most.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The end of the beginning

I leave here in 5 days and I'm starting to get nostalgic already.  

Things I'm going to miss about Beijing:
1.) My friends:  I've made a lot of awesome friends here.  Mostly Westerners, but some Chinese as well.  I was originally planning to do a homestay during my time here, but I think I would have gone insane if I didn't have any Western friends to bum around and commiserate with. I've learned so much about other parts of the world, and hope to see many of them again.
2.)Beijing food, especially stuff that I don't expect to find at home: jian-bing, beef noodles, yummy soups.  I'm addicted to street food.  It's so simple, cheap, filling, and loaded with MSG and other delicious flavor enhancers.  
3.) Speaking Chinese:  It's pretty satisfying to be able to converse with people in another language.  I don't know how much practice I'll be getting out in Colorado.

Things I'm not going to miss:
1.) Annoying salespeople:  You can't look at something in a store without the salespeople walking up to you and pestering you about buying it.  You like? you like? No. Buyao!
2.) Pollution:  Today was especially bad.  Sometimes it just smells really nasty.  It's usually not too noticable, but on days like today, I decide that sitting on my butt inside is better for my health than going for a run.
3.) Speaking Chinese:  Yes, it's love hate.  It's fun, but so frustrating sometimes, especially when people try to explain things and you feel like this stupid little kid who never learned human speech.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Birthday Parties

Last night, my friends celebrating the birthdays of my two French friends Claire and Benjamin and myself.  We went to a nice French resto called Cafe de la Poste (apparently it's a very stereotypically French name).  It had French steak, French desserts, French wine, and more French-looking people that I've seen in my 3 months here in Beijing.  It was fun to see my friends delighted by the appearance of bread that crackles when you squeeze and and songs that they all knew from home.  The wine was good, the cake was chocolately.  We offered a slice to the French owner man and he was so excited he brought out the aerosol whipped cream, which got me pretty enthused.

Today, my lab group got together to play ping pong (because the badminton courts were all booked up) for a couple of hours before going to dinner together.  I'm pretty bad at ping pong, but it was fun to see all of my labmates and my professor so hardcore and having so much fun.  For dinner we went to "Big Pizza."  This is my first time going to an American restaurant in Beijing and it was pretty funny.  They had a salad bar (awesome), soft-serve ice cream, and pizza.  The most amusing kinds of pizza were "warm banana pizza" and "chicken pizza with blueberry sauce."  Both with cheese of course.  Chinese are a lot more liberal about mixing sweet and savory.  They also had a lot of Chinese-type skewers, chicken wings, and other various dishes.  And "Special Big Pizza Wine," which was like grape juice with a slightly off taste.  It was one of my labmates birthday.

Great news from the lab:  My name is getting put on a paper that I have put some editing time into.  It'll be great to be published!  I'm like a real person now.  I guess I shouldn't talk to soon as it hasn't been reviewed yet, but still very exciting.  I'm also helping to write another paper on the experiment I've been working on here and I should be 2nd author.  My prof. joked that I should come back for a postdoc someday, which is probably a good sign.

A week from now, I'll be waiting for my family in the airport.  

Friday, December 12, 2008

Halfway Home

I arrived in Beijing 3 months ago, and my plane ticket home is 3 months from today.  Halfway home.  I feel like I've been here for ages, and it's hard to believe I still have 3 months before I'm home.  I know it will be fun and all, but it gets me a little down thinking about it that way.

I only have one more week here at Tsinghua before my family comes to Beijing and I run off with them.  I would be pretty happy staying here the whole year, but I'm also ready to move on and try new things.  The people I've met here are fantastic, and I really like my work, but I don't think I'm ready to be a Beijinger quite yet.  Maybe post-doc.

Some more little notes about Chinese-isms.  India.  It's seems like Chinese people have a similar idea of India as most Americans do about China.  To them, it's dangerous, poverty-stricken, unstable, and generally scary.  Several people have warned me that I shouldn't travel to India.  It's a little strange, because I feel like until recently, most Americans didn't differentiate between China and India.  Those two Asian countries with scads of people, non-potable water coming from the taps, and millions of out-sourcing beneficiaries.  

People here press the close-door elevator buttons frantically.  As if each event counts for speeding the door shut and getting you to your destination 1.5 seconds earlier.  When 
Chinese student groups hold a "party," it doesn't involve going to a local bar to hang out and talk with friends and maybe play a round of pool (though they do love pool here).  I means sitting in the Tsinghua auditorium and watching your classmates sing to karaoke, perform dances, act out skits, or do kong fu.  Wednesday night was the environmental department's party and I sang a song with one of my labmates.  The rest of the show was pretty funny and very Chinese.  I couldn't imagine American students getting up in front of their classmates and singing pop songs or dancing somewhat erotically.  The best performance was a cosplay of Super Mario Bros.  One person in red overalls jogged in front of a black sheet and other people moved by carrying clouds, baddies, money boxes, and other things Mario encounters in the game.  It was pretty clever.

My mom successfully sent me a birthday cake and cheese from my favorite holiday catalog, the Swiss Colony.  So last night I shared them with friends and also cooked knoephla soup (creamy chicken soup with egg-flour dumplings) and cornbread.  It was fantastic.  In addition to requiring a trip to the grocery store (which I love to do), it was great to see all my friends and fill their tummies with delicious foods.  It's hard to believe that my birthday will come next week, with Christmas hard on its heels.  Everything here is so non-holiday.

I hope you all are having a lovely holiday time, with more tinsel and holly than me.  

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Ultimate at last. and partying.

So apparently I'm bad at reading/remembering, and when I discovered in September that  there was pickup Ultimate at my university every Saturday afternoon, I proceeded to check on Sundays and was very sad when I could not find the game.  I've recently recovered from a serious bout of "I'm lame and refuse to exercise" sickness after discovering that sitting on one's ass all day really does not do wonders for one's girlish figure.  So on a run, I spotted people at the field playing Ultimate, so went to join.  They were all quite funny and friendly people and we played 4-on-4.  I feel so broken; my muscles and joints have become so complacent.  I was complete rubbish and spent most of the short time getting schooled or turfing the disc, but it was great to have a disc in my hands again.  It's too bad I found the group when I only have two weeks left.  Also, it turns out there is an expat team in Beijing called "Big Brother."  You can't say that isn't hilarious.

Yesterday was St. Nicholaus Day, and we did a Secret Santa/Kris Kringle/whatever you call it round of presents with my group of foreign friends.  In addition, you were required to compose a poem for your recipient.  After a slow start, we cabbed to a classmate's apartment near campus.  By the way, this place really made me get excited to have my own place to decorate and make homey next year.  We ordered Indian food delivery (which was fantastic) and snacked on cookies, stollen, and traditional st. nick candies (these are kind of like little gingerbread chunks that resemble dog food, but were actually quite delicious.  The presents and poems were all very cute.  The French girl who got a gift for me wrote a song to the tune of L-O-V-E and sang it to the karaoke track.  It was great to just hang out with good friends in a holiday atmosphere.  I can't believe I'm leaving in two weeks.  

Party number two was this morning.  I finished teaching my English class a couple of weeks ago, and wanted to get together with the class again to hang out.  This morning was their last test ever, and they will graduate soon.  So afterwards, I met them and we went out to eat together.  We went to a buffet called American Island, though the food was Chinese and Asian.  It was very delicious.  It seems that when Chinese people do buffets, they go up for multiple trips at once and get most of the food they plan to eat so that afterwards, they can eat and talk and don't have to get up again.  By the way, I'm convinced the Chinese word for chocolate doesn't really mean chocolate, but rather "brown colored and slightly sweet."  The buffet also included beverages, so all of the boys in the class drank quite a few beers.  I did think it funny that none of the girls drank and all of the boys did.  They are all really cool kids.  (Actually I'm younger than all of them)  It was interesting speaking Chinese with them for the first time, and hearing them crack jokes in Chinese.  I hope to meet up with some of them again in the next two weeks.  It's funny, I now have 42 instant Chinese friends.  

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Arrival of Winter

Today, winter arrived in Beijing.  After a couple balmy week of over 10 C, we have bust through the freezing point.  It's not really that frigid, but the wind is pretty harsh in this city.  Still, it makes me think of home, and it makes me think of skiing.  Which makes me happy.  So while my European (and Floridian) friends are experiencing the most bitterly cold day of their life, I am happily reminded of home.  I hear there's a lot of snow there, so feel free to send me lovely pictures from out your window.  I'm not sure if it will actually snow here, as it's only precipitated 2 times in the last 2.5 months, but keeping fingers crossed for the white stuff.

This Friday is St. Nikolaus day, and we are doing a secret santa shindig with the upped anty of a required poem.  (Apparently a Ducth thing.  I approve).  Another random note:  I was an episode of "Pushing Daisies," a TV show about a pie-maker (who does a lot of other stuff too).  I'm going to be a pie-maker someday. . . sigh.

And:  I'm starting to actually put words down for this MFC paper I'm supposed to help write.  yay

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great Wall Outing #1

We went to one of the less popular sections of the great wall and hiked 8 km between Jinshaling and Simitai.  The group was Matt, Claire, Benjamin, Sarah and I, and we left from our hostel at 6:30AM.  According to Claire (the most French person I have ever met) "This is the first time I have watched the sunrise."  Luckily, it was a 3 hour drive, so we got to catch up on sleep a little bit.  

One of the strangest happenstances of the day was that every tourist was singled out by a local Chinese person who walked with the group and acted all nice and kind of annoying before trying to guilt people into buying things halfway through.  I am glad to not burdened with an excessive sense of compassion.  

The scenery was beautiful, with mountains on either side fading into the haze.  It was really interesting to walk on a mix of refurbished and crumbling sections of the wall to get a sense of the age of the thing.  Somehow, I also didn't expect there to be so many stairs on the wall.  I guess I should have known, since they built it across the impassable mountain ridges.  It was quite a hike, but very awe-inspiring.  To think they built it without excavators and cranes and bulldozers.  Crazy stuff.  The Chinese people are actually fiercely proud of the wall, despite the horrifying death toll its construction bears.  

Monday, December 1, 2008


So Matt and I spent two lovely days in the Shanxi province town of Pingyao.  It's actually a UNESCO world heritage site now.  The city had no money to modernize, so it's still largely the same as it was in the Qing dynasty with grey Chinese-looking roofs, courtyard homes and offices, and cute little doorways (I have a thing with Chinese doorways.  They're always so exciting, because you never know what you'll see).  We took the night train to and from, hard sleeper.  There were three bunk on top of each other and no door separating compartments, but it was surprisingly nice.  Chinese night-train riders are a lot quieter than their European counterparts.  We wanted to do cup ramen on the train like everyone else, but didn't.   

We got picked up at the train station by a funny little motorbike with covered sitting cart in the back and rode through narrow city streets in the dawn.  Our hostel was great and the people all very helpful.  There was a great little courtyard in the middle and a pool table.  It was good that the hostel was nice because shortly after we arrived, Matt got a case of China tummy ills.  I fed him a lot of street food in the days before and am very bad a knowing when things are sketchy or not.  Sketchy things in China just don't phase me any more, I guess.  Anyway, Matt feasted on crackers and Sprite for the next two days, though it did grant us the opportunity to try many kinds of Chinese packaged crackers. 

When Matt was feeling up for it, we wandered around the town looking at old courtyard offices, temples, city walls, and tourist shops.  It was strange to be one of the only Westerners in town, as the place was pretty deserted for the off-season.  It seemed like people were always trying to proposition us with, "Hello. . . hello. . . look!" Eventually whenever we heard to word "hello" we just turned away and started walking fast.  

Also, all the restaurants were pretty deserted, so there was a peek-a-boo effect whenever you'd walk by and someone would pop and and try to get you to come in.  We ate, ironically, in a Catholic guesthouse.  I guess it's more accurate to say I ate and Matt partook of the tea.  Anyways the food was actually quite good there and the Shanxi specialty is noodles of every shape and make.  I like getting noodles from random street vendors, but again, probably not very safe. 

It was really nice to spend some time away from Beijing where things were less hectic and the crowds were few and far between.  I think Pingyao may be one of my favorite places in China so far, though I may be biased by the excellent company I had.  

Thanksgiving in Beijing

It's just so overwhelming when you get a week and a half behind.  I'm gonna start from recently.  I'm sick again.  Generic 'Beijing air quality is awful and dry' sickness of just feeling crappy.  It's funny because I rarely get sick at home, but here is seems like everyday is something.

Matt was in Beijing visiting me last week, which was amazing.  The last three days we spent around the campus area and hung out with friends, went shopping, toured campus, etc.  On Thursday, we got off a night train and I had to go hand in my grades for my english class.  Most of the students are seniors, so the class is done early to get the grades in for those graduating this semester.  I gave my final exam the week before, which was quite an experience.  I really didn't know what was going on, but it went pretty well and I think the students did quite well.  I'm hoping to meet up with the class for lunch or coffee every week instead of class until I leave.

Friday, we had lunch with a Chinese friend of my whom I a helping with her applications to US grad schools.  She's pretty cool and it's fun to talk about cultural differences with a Chinese engineering student.  We had hot pot which is always really fun.  Basically, you have a boiling pot of soup in the middle and you add raw meat, veg, mushrooms, tofu, etc. to desired doneness and dip in delicious sesame sauce.  

On Friday night, we went with one of my friends to the home of an American/Chinese family that was celebrating Thanksgiving.  Matt and I contributed pumpkin pie and sweet potato casserole.  We made the ingredients for the pie beforehand and put the filling liquid in a nalgene to bring, which I found really amusing.  The dinner was great:  turkey, mash, stuffing, sweet potatoes with ample marshmallows, green beans, all sorts of American tasting stuff I haven't had in ages.  And of course the Thanksgiving food coma.  We played some games, which Matt and I owned at, chatted, and played with the half-asian children.  The dad was frighteningly conservative Christian ("I know what to do with gays in the military:  put 'em on the front line and give 'em a gun that doesn't work!") and it was hard to keep our mouths shut when he said stupid stuff and contradicted himself every other sentence.  It is kind of frightening that people that are so immune to reason exist.  It renews my fear of humanity and knowledge that people are unreasonable that you really have no idea what they might do.  Even so, it was a good night.

Saturday, the German embassy hosted a Christmas market, which we attended with some friends.  It was naturally very expensive, but brimming with Christmas cheer, not to mention mulled wine and pretzels.  There was a cookie decorating booth, which made me feel nostalgic, and lots of white people.  It was strange not being able to pinpoint my friends in a crowd from their blond/brown hair.  

Yesterday, I saw Matt off at the airport early in the morning and napped and read most of the day.  My friend Maelle returned from a visit home to France yesterday (ironically she missed Matt by about 5 hours on either side) bringing delicious foods, so we supped on spaghetti bolognese (sidenote:  for some reason, I don't like round long noodles.  Fettucine, linguine ok.  Spahgetti not so much.  Don't ask why I don't know.) chocolate cake and French cheeses.  She even brought back a round of camembert especially for me.  It was awesome and helped to cheer me up.  The night ended with "Wall-E."  Oh, fer cute. . .

More on the last week next time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

真棒的天!My fabulous day

Yeah today was pretty good.

I've been doing a lot more work in the lab lately.  I have two reactors that are technically "mine," though another grad student helps a lot, but they are both going very well, and it's fun to solve the little problems that come up.  I also got to do some PCR (a useful molecular biology method that necessitates an anal retentive level of precision) today, which reminded me of the good old days at the lab at the U of M.  The grad students are all very nice and happy to speak English and exchange English practice for some valuable knowledge about their work.

I got confirmation today that I can spend two months in May and June in a big laboratory in Zurich helping a student with her aquatic ecology project, which will be awesome.  As an added bonus, now that I have friends living in Germany, Holland, and France, I can visit them and see their hometowns after I'm done in Zurich.

Tonight, I had dinner with my language partner, who is the cutest little Chinese girl.  Afterwards, we made chocolate pudding (amazing. . .) and got together with a bunch of my friends to eat chocolate in several forms and watch West Side Story.  

I'd say today was pretty sweet.  As another bonus, Matt will be here in two days!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Boy's day and my experiment (finally!)

In China, 11/11 is singles day.  Four sad lonely lines.  But the day after is specially celebrated by Tsinghua University as Boy's day (girls get their turn in March).  I went with one of my Chinese friends to watch the festivities.  All the girls of a class give gifts to the boys.  My friend's class congregated outside the dorms where the boys were and called them to come downstairs, then sang to them many cute silly songs.  Another group was playing a relay game that involved holding a cup with your teeth and pouring the contents into the next person's cup.  And on and on down the line.  China is so cute.

And. . . my experiment finally got set up today!  It's pretty exciting.  I have to feed it everyday for the next five weeks until I leave the University and test the influent or effluent 2/3 of the days.  It's pretty cute.  I'm sure it will wear off after a while, but it's pretty sweet right now to have something useful to do.  It's a relatively novel application, so hopefully we can get some good results.  Though, believe it or not, seafood processing wastewater is a little rank.

Tonight I went with language partner #2, Yanan, to go have a special kind of fish.  It's called "water fish."  The cook brought out the squirming fish in a bag before we ate to make sure it looked ok, and then 10 minutes later, it came out swimming in a huge dish of oil and chiles (its' Sichuanese).  It was so fresh and delicious.  Yanan is a cute Asian girl studying fashion design.  I'm hoping to go to her studio sometime and see her stuff.  

It seems like a lot of people like musicals here, which is amazing.  I can share my strange obsession with friends.  

Oh, and being lonely yesterday, I pulled Atlas Shrugged off the shelf, and have been opening to random pages and overcome with joy.  It's amazing--or sad--how good of a friend that book has become over the years.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Visitors etc.

The beginning of this week was pretty crazy.  My aunt and uncle were in Beijing for a couple of days at the start of a 3-week China tour, and one of my professors from the U of M was in Beijing for about 6 hours on Monday evening.  It was fun to play tour guide/tourist and to be able to use my Chinese for useful things.  It's neat to actually be able to be witty in another language.  

Some highlights of the sightseeing:  We tried to go to the forbidden city, but it was already getting late, so we went to Jingshan park just north of the palace.  From the top of the hill, there is a spectacular view of the palace and it's 1000 yellow roofs.  We went to Houhai, a lake area that is packed with bars, restaurants, kitchy little shops selling all sorts of souvenirs, and rickshaws.  When I said we like walking because you also get exercise, the driver suggested I bike and he ride.  Lots of street food was consumed, including bings, little sesame cakes, lamb skewers, potstickers, jian bing, and deep fried pumpkin.  

It's a little sad, but I've been less enthused about learning Chinese lately.  I've been going to fewer chinese classes with the hope that if I hang around the office more, I can help out in the lab more.  (I still haven't actually started lab work yet, 2 months later)  I've also been trying to read more articles to learn more about the research being done.  But in the meantime, my original drive to learn Chinese has slackened.  I guess it's good that I'm going to be doing Environmental Engineering my whole life instead of Chinese.

I've been reading a ton here, so if you have a good book to suggest, let me know and I'll try to track it down.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Apparently not that different

I had a Wastewater treatment test today in Chinese.  Last week in class, I thought the teacher said the test was Saturday at 9PM.  I thought, whoa that's really weird, but hey, this is China.  Anything is possible.  So I had made plans for this morning and afternoon, and was putzing around at 9AM when I got a call from my classmate asking why I wasn't at the test.  Everyone was amused that I thought they would schedule a test for 9PM.  

The Prof asked the students in the class who were in his lab group out to eat afterwards (which I thought would be really weird at 11PM.  morning was much better) and we went with his family to a nearby Hunan (his home province) restaurant.  It was pretty delicious.  I love the Chinese charing method of eating, so you can try 12 different dishes instead of just one.  And you don't even have to scoop a bunch on your plate.  You just take bits with your chopsticks directly from communal plate to your mouth.  It's so simple.  Hopefully no one has mono.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ok, some things are just different

Some things about Chinese culture are so puzzling to me.  

1.) It's bad to "lose face."  Under this rule, it's better to tell someone that you will take him to dinner sometime and then just not do it than to say, hey sorry I'm too busy.  Also, it's better to just avoid the subject of a change in plans and then if the other person doesn't mention the thing you had previously planned to do tomorrow, you just assume it's off.  To ask about it would be to make them lose face if they couldn't go.

2.) It's ok to have your phones out during class or important meetings, and send text messages or even quietly answer a call.

3.) I don't know how to generalize this, but this week, the cleaners in our buildings were required to put up emergency exit signs on a specific spot on the inside of our doors.  Many of us had things on our doors and were sad.  But the lady putting it up in my friend's room took down her poster, put up the emergency exit sign, and promptly replaced the poster so that you couldn't even tell the sign was there.  I guess she followed the directions. . .

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I think I've discovered the national favorite word here:  和谐。It means harmonious.  Chinese culture puts a lot of emphasis on things being harmonious.  Your associations with other people, the way you organize your own life, the variety of foods that you consume, the bacteria in your wastewater treatment plant, all are subject to this strange word.  It's especially weird because it's always translated as "harmonious," a word I don't think I've ever seen in my life before coming here.  

I'm doing some more work in the lab and reading scads of academic papers, which is actually very interesting (tiring though).  This weekend, my aunt and uncle are visiting, and also a professor from my university, so I will be flooded with things to do.  Also planned are a photo scavenger hunt with foreign friends, and possibly KTV (karaoke) with Chinese friends.  

I've somehow met several engineering students who are applying to their PhD programs in the states right now and have been helping with essays and CVs.  It's pretty interesting to talk to them about the process.  Apparently, the profs are all so busy here, that none of the letters of recommendation are actually written by the prof.  The student writes it and the prof signs it.  Seems a little shady to me.

Also, I've booked a plane ticket to Nepal in January, so I'm for sure going there to volunteer, probably in some po-dunk Nepalese village entertaining small children.  Should be interesting for a couple of weeks.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween in China

For most of the day, it didn't really seem very special.  I went to class.  I went to lab.  I went to work.  Pretty dull.  

In the evening, some friends organized a free hug event in front of the canteen.  Having never experienced a free hug shin-dig, I was curious.  It was awesome.  The Chinese people were generally really confused.  It took a bit for them to understand what we were doing (despite signs and costumes), but most were pretty willing to have a hug.  I think that all the people we hugged now think that foreigners all give each other hugs on Halloween.  

We went to a party at a pizza bar on campus.  At first it was pretty lame.  Just a bunch of excited Chinese freshman talking to us in English.  After a bit though, we met some really cute Chinese girls and talked to them for a couple of hours in Chinese about many things:  movies, sight-seeing, food.  It's so satisfying to be able to talk to Chinese people about things other than "What's your major?  Where are you from?"  I feel like I can almost hold normal conversations.

Afterward, some friends went to a nightclub, but we went to someone's dorm room and watched the eternal classic "The Princess Bride"  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beijing Food

Ok.  The Chinese food that most of us know and love at home at various Chinabuffets is usually some bastard version of cantonese food.  Beijing food is actually quite different.  Here are some of my favorite dishes:

Egg and Tomato:  literally just egg and tomato fried separately and then mixed with some salt.  

NiuRou Mian:  aka beef noodles.  The noodles are often pulled by hand from a big clump of dough and put directly into water to cook.  Add some savory beef chunks, cilantro, maybe an egg, and a scoop of delicious broth.  I think this is my favorite food. . .

Red Bean Chou:  This is a great breakfast food.  It's red bean (adzuki) and rice cooked in a soup with peanuts and dates.  Slightly sweet, hot and delicious.

Jiaozi and Baozi:  of course.  Dumplings are the kings of the world.  steamed, boiled, fried, filled with meat, veggies, egg, or any combination.  These are awesome.

Jian Bing:  This actually is my favorite.  It's like a big crepe, made on the same type of pan.  Then an egg or two is cracked over the crepe and scallions and cilantro are added.  It's flipped over, and smeared with a sweet/salty duck sauce, and a big fried wonton skin is placed on top.  It's then cracked and folded into a nice little bundle for you to have on the go.

Yogurt:  The yogurt here is of a drinkable consistency and rarely is flavored like fruit.  Sometimes it has sugar, and sometimes it doesn't.  It's a lot like an Indian lassi, if you've had one of those.  You can get the on the street in cool brown crocks you have to leave at the store.

Notice that none of these foods contain soy sauce. . .

Lab work at last!

So I started learning in the lab yesterday.  I guess that was my primary reason/excuse for coming here, but I honestly haven't been all that sad not to do lab work.  But I'm still excited for it.  One of the grad students is working on single-chamber microbial fuel cells.  The ultimate goal for the concept is use in wastewater treatment plants to generate electricity while removing organic material.  He is doing some study on whether or not it improves power output to spin the anode, and is also trying to convert one of the reactors from a batch reactor to continuous flow.

He's going to be gone in Harbin next week to give a presentation, so I'm going to help babysit his reactors and feed them substrate every day.  It's pretty exciting, though a little weird at first.  I think it's always hard to come into a new place to do work, because you have no idea what to do.  

I had dinner with my language partner on Sunday (he cooked Chinese food, and next time I'll make western food) and talked for about 3 hours in mostly Chinese.  Someone who lived down the hall came to chat, and I had an entire conversation in Chinese.  Also, my language partner has a classmate from University who's doing her Ph.D. at the U of M Civil Engineering Dept.  I wonder if I've seen her.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I went to IKEA today with a Chinese friend.  Not surprisingly, it was a lot like any other IKEA you'll ever see, complete with swedish meatballs.  The ice cream cones were only 1 yuan = about 15 cents.  Hell yes.  I got a really sweet poster of lingonberries for my wall.  How Scandinavian is that?  

Anyways, Chinese studying is still progressing quite fast.  I bought a novel, "Sophie's World" in Chinese, and have been slowly working my way through the first chapter.  It's really fun and learning new words is kind of like a mystery story.  Very entertaining.  

I'm trying to make an effort to spend more time with Chinese people speaking chinese than with Europeans speaking English.  Tomorrow, I will cook Chinese food with my language partner.  In other good news, next week, I get to help a grad student build a new reactor for his microbial fuel cell project, and the week after, I will babysit his entire project (feed the beasties substrate every day).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chinese web lingo

Ok this is funny.  We are learning about using the internet in Chinese and here is a list of abbreviations/special lingo that chinese people use.

3Q:  "san-Q" = thank you
88:  "baba" = byebye (Chinese people say Byebye all the time)
360: "sanliuling" sounds like "xiangnianni" = I miss you
NB: "niubi" literally "cow-press" = awesome (slang)
大虾:means large prawn = pro
小虾:means small prawn = n00b

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Recycling, lame bikes, and floors

Recycling in China is quite a different story than in the US.  I feel like in the US, the people who are most excited about recycling are rich and educated people.  In China, you can earn money from recycling, so you often see poor people digging through trash bags looking for recycling, and people with a 10 foot cube or recyclable material strapped to a cart behind their bike (which are very scary when they pass by)

Bikes suck here.  The quality is just terrible.  I've been here 6 weeks and I've had to get my bike repaired three times:  the tire went flat, the pedal fell off, and the axle broke.  Consequently, there are bike repair shops everywhere.  I think our campus has at least 20.  I imagine that the repair parts are about the same quality as the original bikes, so they break just as easily.

When I first arrived, I was always confused with the Chinese aversion to putting your stuff on the floor.  No one ever puts their backpack or purse on the floor in the classroom.  In the canteen, you can't put your bag on the floor because people are coming by every 5 minutes to clean it.  After a month, I'm starting to know why.  I've seen students spit on the floor, I've seen people drop any kind of trash on the floor.  I think it's part of the same cultural phenomenon as the trash in the mountains.  The world is my trash heap. . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Day at Jackson Hole

My professor invited the entire lab to his weekend home near Beijing today for a barbeque.  He has a flat near campus that he lives at with his family during the week, but they recently bought this American style house in a neighborhood called "Jackson Hole."  It is designed by a Western American designer and actually looks like a suburb in Wyoming might look.  Complete with Indian statues and Chinese guards wearing cowboy hats.  It was pretty funny.

We went for a little hike in the hills, and there were a lot of pretty big rocks.  I think it's the first place I've been in China where you can't see any trash lying around.  We did the Chinese version of BBQ, where meat is put on skewers are barbequed with some delicious seasonings loaded with MSG.  It was so good.  I finally got a chance to get to know my labmates better, which was fun.  They are all very funny and generally very willing to tolerate my sometimes-disjointed Chinese.  When I came to China, I could not understand much of what people said, but we spoke almost all Chinese today and I probably got about 80% of it, which feels awesome. And I have two more months.  

If you went to fifth grade in my era, you probably played Mafia, and we played it for about 2 hours in Chinese which was quite funny.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Maybe I am cut out to be a teacher. . .

I taught my second English class today, and it was actually awesome.  Their English level is actually very high and they are mostly just shy about talking.  I was also a little less nervous today, and a little more easygoing, which I think helped too.  

We talked about family and holidays today, especially comparing them between the two countries.  Everyone was so amazed when I told them that I have 12 cousins.  About 90% of them were middle children, so we discussed what they thought about the one-child policy.  I went through some of the important american holidays and what we do, and then they talked about Chinese holidays that they like the best.  

The students are shy, but generally very respectful and eager to learn, and if I am laid-back and supportive, they react really well and speak well.  We're still working on the volume level though.

I also visited the largest wastewater treatment plant in China today.  It was amazing.  250 MGD, 16 huge anaerobic digestors, 16 primary clarifiers and aeration basins, and 10 secondary clarifiers.  The sheer mass of it was awe-inspiring.  I went with two master's students and a Ph.D. student who knew a lot about the plant and explained a lot of stuff.  

Woo another awesome day in Beijing.  

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Adventures in Mandarin

So I've been learning Chinese here for about a month, and I think my character reading capacity has tripled.  You can learn so fast when its everywhere around you.  It's such a fun language to learn because it makes so much sense.  No conjugations, no tenses, no gender-specific particles.  And the grammar is so logical.  

There are a few basic symbols that most characters are made from, and each symbol means something simple, like knife, dish, or moon.  When the symbols are put together, they make a word.  For example, a woman and a child makes the word for good.  Put a roof over the woman's head and you get peace.  Also, most words are made up of two characters, so often if you don't know the word, but know the characters that make it up, you can figure out what it means.  Small write means lower case.  Hand machine means cell phone.  

Beijingers all talk with a funny accent, adding "ar" to the end of many words.  Kind of like pirates.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I went with three European students to the nearby city of Chengde this weekend.  It's four hours by a scenic train ride where you can catch glimpses of the great wall and the Chinese countryside.  I think I'm learning just as much about Europe from my friends as I am about China.  Did you know that in Holland, people don't use credit cards because it's considered irresponsible?  Maybe that's why they manage to save more than they spend. . .

A group of people tried to scam us when we got off the train.  They promised to go to the hostel that we had picked out, but instead went to another, expensive hotel, telling us that the hostel was full, and when we called, they said it wasn't.  Well when we got there, they couldn't say if or when they would have a room open, but would we like to go on their tour bus?  Um, no.  We ended up staying at the Bank of China Hotel, which made up in amusement factor what it lacked in frugality.

We wandered around the largest Royal garden complex in the country with many temples and scenic spots.  There were also a lot of temples in town, including one that was a replica of the Potala temple in Lhasa.  Pretty sweet.  

They had this huge clothing and food market in a dry riverbed on Sunday with truckfuls of leeks and all sorts of yummy street foods.  We also wandered around a poor neighborhood with many of the houses abandoned and half-torn down, and sometimes used as a dumpster by remaining neighbors.  When we were buying guotie (jiaozi) at a street restaurant, we were looking at this cute dog eating some egg for his dinner, and the guys tried to sell him to us for 5 yuan (about 80 cents).  We declined.  

And at night, we went to a nearby square where there were tons of young people skating, juggling big shuttlecocks (not sure what they're called yet) with their feet, and dancing.  The dancing was amazing.  There were about 100 Chinese people of all ages doing line dancing.  And when a new song would come on, everyone would know the steps and jump right in.  We tried for a few of the easy ones, but were generally amazed that everyone else seemed to know exactly what to do.  That's China for you, I guess.

And good news:  I may be starting some work in the lab in the next week.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Teacher Ali

Oh man.  What have I gotten myself into.  I taught my first English classes today for four hours straight.  When I came to China, I never had any intention of teaching English.  In fact, my thought was to completely avoid it.  I always thought that as a native English speaker, I would be terrible at getting someone else to understand the ins and outs of the language.  

So when a friend asked yesterday if I wanted to come sit in on an English class and possibly interview to teach, I thought, hell, why not?  The class yesterday had 35 20-year olds in it, many of them very rude, loud, and not very excited to learn English.  After this, somehow I decided it would be a good idea to teach too.  

Still, it was actually quite fun.  I switched last minute with another teacher, so I teach the level 2 class instead of level 1 (This means that after 13-15 years learning English, about 1/8 can hold on an intelligent conversation.)  My classes had 28 and 12 people in them, and luckily most of them were girls.  Yes girls are nicer.  Yes boys are obnoxious.  Yes I'm very happy to have mostly girls.  And little boys are demons, for the record.  

Anyway, I taught two 2-hour classes.  No powerpoint available to show my wonderful prepared pictures.  Just a blackboard, me, and 20 kids who are older than I am.  

I tried to have lots of discussion and have people speak to the class and play a couple of interactive games, and I think it actually went very well.  Most of them are very shy, and speak so that no one can actually hear, so they need a lot of encouragement.  I imagine this is why their English level is so bad.  But I'll take shy over obnoxious any day.  And there is a girl in each class really eager to learn who will answer my hanging questions.  

I think this will be quite a learning experience for me.  I may want to travel in the future and possibly teach English, (though I rather do something more interesting and useful if I can help it).  Still, I can learn how to keep people entertained.  And hopefully they will learn something.  

Wish me luck. . .

Monday, October 6, 2008


I went with some of my French friends to the Carrefour in Beijing.  Carrefour is a French brand of supermarket.  Near the store and underground, they have starbucks, DQ, KFC, and many French brand clothing stores.  (By the way, Starbucks has resumed serving milk in their coffee.  There's hope for me as a milk addict yet.)

Surprisingly (and a little sad) Carrefour was exactly like the chinese supermarkets here.  Massive.  Has everything.  Cell phones? Books? Long underwear? Every kind of steamed bun imaginable? Individually packaged baby squids? Yep, everything.  At least everything Chinese.  And like Chinese supermarkets, it was packed.  Huge line to weigh your fruits, and about 30 minutes wait to check out.  

They did have a small import section, which was an interesting mix of International Chocolates, French cookies, boxed foie gras, American soup and cake mixed, Korean pickles, and lots of wine.  They had nutella too.  And camenbert for about 80 yuan.  Anyways it was exciting, though I am kind of glad that I'm not cooking here.  I never thought I'd say this, but grocery shopping here is like dangling your toes in a big hot fiery pit.  

Sunday, October 5, 2008

European Christmas Traditions

So I know this isn't Chinese, but I was talking to my European friends about their Christmas celebrations and learned some cool stuff.  

In Holland, they have St. Nikolaus day on Dec. 6th.  The three weekends before, children put their shoes out before the fireplace and get gifts in them (good deal) and on the night of the 5th, each family gets a big bag of gifts on their front porch.  This is the gift time, so they don't really give gifts at Christmas.  Also, by Dutch friend celebrates Chrismas for several days with different people.  1st Christmas (the 25th) with one side of the family, 2nd Christmas (the 26th) with the other, and 3rd (the 27th) doing more family things.  

The French eat foie gras for Christmas.  In Holland on New Years they eat fried battered fruit.

Also, both countries celebrate King's Day on Jan. 6th, which is when the Kings arrived at the nativity.  In France, they have a gallete du roi (King's cake) and there is a porcelain crown somewhere within it.  When it is cut, the smallest child goes under the table, and is asked to whom each piece should be allotted, so the slices are given out at random.  The person who gets the crown is the king for the day.  

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Last couple days in Qinghai

Back safe in Beijing.  I think I visited at least 6 different outdoor markets in Xining, and must have eaten almost all of the fresh kinds of foods they had.  The breads are the most exciting:  fried, baked, grilled, steamed, sweet, salty, spicy, wheat, corn, barley; unlimited options.  

I cooked dinner for Matt and Emily last night, which was awesome.  I got fresh noodles, and exciting types of mushrooms (really cheap here) and made a delicious mushroom yogurt pasta.  I also made stewed Asian pears.  I got the cinnamon from a stall in one of the markets.  She didn't have the powder, but she ground the sticks up before my eyes.  It was pretty cool.  I also made chocolate chip cookies in Emily's toaster oven.  It only went to 250 degrees, and we had to use a really little coffee pot to bake them in, but they were pretty wonderful.  Made with yak butter too.  

I also got my haircut yesterday in a market shop for 15 yuan (2 dollars).  It was pretty exciting, because I couldn't for the life of me communicate what I wanted.  Luckily they had photos.  In the middle, I think they tried to sell me something and they kept saying the same thing over and over and I kept saying I didn't understand, so they'd say it again, slower like I was just dumb or something.  It was a little annoying, but eventually they gave up and just finished cutting my hair.  

It was a great vacation week, and I liked seeing one of the less-visited, less-talked-about parts of China.  I'm glad to be back at Tsinghua, and have a day to take it easy before classes start again.  Wooo laundry. . .

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Ok, so I didn't actually go the the province of Tibet, but I'm on the Tibetan plateau with an 80% Tibetan population, and it seems like many people don't speak Chinese. I've had a pretty Tibetan last few days.

Monday, we went out to eat with two of Matt Ho's Tibetan students. Both are from Tibetan areas in Sichuan province. Adam is a nomad, whose family moves their yak herd every season to a new pasture in the valley they share with 100 other nomad families. They eat zampa, yak, home-made yogurt, and yak-butter tea. No veggies. Jimyang is from a bigger town in the same area. Both want to teach English in the future, and their speaking skills are very good. Sounds like a lot of Tibetan students also want to be tour guides for foreigners. The food we got was delicious. The yak meat, which is absurdly tough and hard to eat, was polished off clean to the bone. Fat, sinew, tendons and all. We also had rice with yogurt of little baby yams. And zampa. Zampa is barley flour, which is the primary crop in here in Qinghai. Tibetans eat this pretty much every day. You take some yak butter and put it in a bowl with warm tea. Then you add the zampa and either some sugar or yak cheese (which is hard as a rock--a little dissapointing for the cheese lover in me) and mix it carefully with your hands. I was really bad and spilled a lot on the table, but the Tibetans were pros. In the end, you have a large lump of the zampa, which is basically delicious cookie dough and you eat it. Pretty good. And it expands in your stomach so keeps you full for a long day of work.

Tuesday morning, Matt and I departed for the Tibetan town of Rebkong (Chinese name: Tongren) some 4 hours SE of Xining by a rickety old bus. It stopped a lot to pick up people, drop them off, re-fuel, have snack people sell things, etc. The road was very mountainous and windy, and there was a lot of construction. It actually seemed like they built the road in 200 meter segments with a 10 meter gap in between that the bus had to slow down to cross.

We visited the monastery at Wutun Si, which is famous for it's Tibetan thangkas--a religous kind of painting. After looking lost for a while, some monks guided us to where we bought tickets, and we were shown around by one of them. First, we entered a prayer hall where the monks were seated in lone lines in a dimly lit room, and were chanting. It was amazing. Sometimes, they would stop and one would go on in a deep, scratchy voice, before the others would rejoin, often using bells. The boy monks (ages ~8) were much more interested in giggling at us than at chanting.

We saw some other temples, all beautifully ornate and filled with people praying (from age 4 to 80). On the way out, we met a monk who was the thangka painting teacher, and he invited us to his house. The monks all live on the premise in small houses that are enclosed in with a courtyard. We entered his house, and he poured us tea and showed us pictures on his computer. He spoke a lot about Tibet and how the Chinese government treats the people, and the way they are discriminated against. He was pretty passionate about it, unsurprisingly. Unfortunately, our Chinese was not good enough to understand most of it, but we got the jist. And he had a really cute little cat. All in all, it was pretty awesome.

For dinner, we had more Tibetan food with yak butter tea. It's just milk tea with butter. The stuff is very warming and very filling, and I guess Tibetans drink a lot of it. Towards the end of our meal, some nicely dressed Tibetans came and sat next to us, and we sould tell they were talking about us. On the way out, two of the women asked if I could take my glasses off so they could have a picture with me. I guess I look Tibetan. That's pretty cool.

Today, I woke up early and wandered the markets before we both went to the monestary in Repkong. It is a dizzying grid of narrow alleyways with doors to the monks' homes. Chanting emanated from some of them. There were also many beautiful temples woven into the site, and many local Tibetans had come to pray or spin the prayer wheels. We wandered our way up out of tourist land and onto the hillside. The people who saw us were usually either amused or terrified. We passed many houses on the way up, and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the temples and city. There were cows and sheep on the hillside too. And prayer flags.

We grabbed some amazing yogurt with honey for lunch and caught the 3:00 bus back to Xining (it seemed a lot bumpier on the way back). The most unpleasant bathroom so far definitely goes to the Repkong bus station. Basically just a trench in the ground. No walls, no garbage. Just throw stuff all over. Icky boodily.

More Tibetan-ness in store tomorrow at the Qinghai provincial museum, but probably not quite as up close and personal. I'd say Rebkong yielded a pretty awesome couple of days and insight into the Tibetan way of life.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cutsie Chinese Things

So the Chinese seem to like using cutsie music for all sorts of things. Like the garbage truck. I heard some music and immediately thought "ice cream man," but was corrected. Yes, the garbage truck runs ice cream man music the entire time it is doing it's rounds. Imagine being a garbage man.

Also, there is cute music instead of a bell whenever class starts, break begins, or class ends. Again, it is absurdly childish music, and it goes on for about 15 seconds each time.

I guess Asians are generally more excited about cute things. There's nothing wrong with sleeping with stuffed animals when you're in college. There's nothing wrong with wearing shirts with Hello Kitty on them, or with guys having phone tassles with cartoon characters. It's actually quite refreshing. Oh fer cute!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Missionaries and the "sensitive issue"

Ok, so I haven't met any of these people yet, but apparently of the 300 foreigners living in Xining, about 250 of them are missionaries. Of course they have other jobs so they can have a residence/work visa here, but everyone seems to know that they are missionaries.

The teachers here say that there are many new university students that are used to living with their families, often in Tibet, and once they get here, it's very different, they're discriminated against, and lonely. So the nice missionaries invite them over and feed them cookies. (Made in a toaster oven of course. No one has real ovens in China.) And after a couple of weeks, Jesus pops into the picture. I must say, it's brilliant.

The Tibet issue is a very hot topic here, and many people are deported if they are suspected of being supporters. Here especially on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and with so many minorities around, things are a little tense. One American professor at Tsinghua was fired just before the Olympics simply because a student sent an e-mail suggesting he was a sympathizer. No further evidence needed. Good bye yank. Go home.

Xining at first glance

This week is China's national holiday, so basically the entire country is on vacation. I arrived yesterday in Xining, in Western China to visit a friend from high school, Matt. He is here for a year or two teaching English at a University in the city.

Xining is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and there are a lot of minority people: Tibetans, Hui muslims, Uighur. It has a very different feel than Beijing. It's not nearly as new and shiny, though there are a lot of new skyscrapers going up.

Today, we walked around town, stopping at a market (I love markets) to peer at the foodstuffs in the windows. We ate some la mian, or pulled noodles, at a muslim noodle place called "Kin9 of Beef Noodles" Yes there is a nine in the name. You put in your order and then watch as the cook pulls a piece of dough over and over again to make delicious noodles.

We also went to a place called Beishan (North Mountain Temple) and walked around some Daoist temple places, some of which were built right into the cliffside. There were very few foreigners, and we chatted with some Tibetan monks from the temple on the next mountain for a while.

We had Sichuan hot pot (boiling broth that you add raw meats, veggies, tofu, and mushrooms to) last night with some other teachers here, and tonight we had Qinghai style food with cold mutton, fried potatoes, sour veggies and noodles, and these delicious barley cakes. Tomorrow we are going to Tibetan food with some of Matt's Tibetan students, who sound pretty cool. It's a good thing he likes food just as much as I do.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Foreign Language wierdisms

In Chinese, the word "niu" means cow. However, if you use it to describe a person it basically means that they are the bomb, they are the cat's meow. God-like. You are cow.

To take a picture, they say "qie/zi," which actually sounds a lot like cheese, except it means eggplant.

In French the word for a chopstick is a "baguette." Imagine: Je utilise les baguette pour manger le baguette.

I'm sure there will be more strange tidbits in the future

I think I like it here.

I've come to the conclusion that I really like Beijing. The people are hard-working and earnest. Most academic types are very friendly to speaking to English-speakers and like to practice. No one is boorish or abrasive, and somehow I haven't met anyone who seems stuck up. People are not very outgoing, but they just go about their business and don't get in each other's way. They is nothing embarrasing about singing to yourself while walking or biking, and no one is going to ostracize you if you wear the same shirt for a week. They'll probably even call you practical.

The food is awesome (apart from the lack of cheese) and cheap. Lots of fresh vegetable and noodle and plenty of dumplings. The city is currently an intriguing mix of ancient and modern (though that will change. alas)

Yes, I like it here well enough.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My First Peking Duck Experience

Last night, we went out for a friend's birthday to one of the ritzy Peking Duck restaurants in town. We showed up around 9PM, so I was very sleepy the entire time. There was a 30 minute wait, so we took a number and helped ourselves to the tea, pop, water, and wine that was available while you waited for your table (this place was quite fancy and full of foreigners). We sat down and paged through a huge tome filled with elaborate descriptions and pictures of side dishes that you could order with your duck. We settled on a nice variety, and waited for the appearance of the legendary duck. After some time, a man in a tall white hat arrived with our duck on a large platter and began to carve it with no lack of ceremony. I'm not sure if he was really the a cook or someone who just went around carving duck.

So the duck arrived on our table along with a stack of pancakes and 8 accompaniments: plum sauce, various julliened veggies, garlic paste, pickled cabbage, something black and salty, and rock sugar. A friend demonstrated the proper technique for loading your pancake with sauce, duck, and veggies, then folding and eating, all using chopsticks. It was quite an exercise. There was also crispy skin slices which you dipped in the rock sugar before eating (this was my favorite). After the duck came a milky-looking soup. It wasn't clear to me whether this soup was made from duck, or just what you usually eat afterwards, but it wasn't very spectacular.

All in all, I was pretty disappointed with the flavor of the duck. The meat was very moist, but didn't actually seem to taste like anything. The skin was awesome, but how could it not be? I'm glad we went once, but I'm not sure I need to go eat it again, especially for the cost of 70 plates of dumplings.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chinese Learning

I'm pretty amazed at how fast you pick up a language when you are surrounded by it.  I had 4 hours of class in only Chinese today, and then spent about 3 hours studying and I feel so accomplished.  At home, I was always pretty exhausted if I spent more than 2 hours studying Chinese, but there's something different about being here.  I have an environmental engineering textbook in both languages and have been trying to decipher it.  It's actually pretty fun.  I feel like an archaeologist.  

I have a roommate finally.  She is from Hong Kong/Singapore/French Canada.  (There are so many Asian-American/Canadian/Australian/Europeans here.  I had dinner with 8 people who looked Asian but weren't).


Saturday, September 20, 2008


I went on an outing with some people in the department today.  At 7AM, we all boarded a coach and rode about 2.5 hours West of the city to a scenic area in the Stone Forest (shilin).  We hiked up a gorge and across a cliff face on a path that was full of Chinese people on weekend.  There was a post-doc who knew some English and we spoke both languages along the way.  

After the hike, the entire group went to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant.  It's strange to see people doing things that are practical here but would be incredibly rude at home: eye-balling their glasses and rinsing them if not clean, wiping their plates with sanitary wipes, spitting their bones all over the table.  In actuality, the Chinese people did not take move food from the communal plates to their own; they ate directly from the plates on the lazy susan.  And of course, there was far too much food for us to eat.  

On the way home, we stopped at an apple orchard to pick apples.  The orchard was rather haphazardly arranged, and there were all kinds of apples (no Honeycrisp though).  I didn't understand most of what the farmer was saying, but it was very fun.  I guess Chinese people don't go to pick apple very often.

I think I was the only foreigner we saw the entire day.

Street Eats

Yesterday I had the day off, so I went into the old part of Beijing with a friend and wandered the hutongs (historic Chinese streets) that are nestled in between the skyscrapers and commercial complexes that now dominate the city. We were in an area with no other foreigners and there were small stores and food shops and many courtyard style homes that we could only peer into. We passed by a xiao long bao shop and couldn't resist stopping in to try some.

Afterwards we went to the more touristy area, and it was amazing to see the difference between the hutongs where people live and the hutongs where people sell things to tourists. Much more crowded, filled with touristy shops, and alas, less street food.

Later in the day, I returned to central Beijing to Wangfujin Dajie, the huge shopping street: Massive shopping malls, Nike store, Cartier, Nine West, all sorts of shi-shi places. There is a snack street there where you can try just about anything you can imagine. I partook of scorpion (which were alive about 1 minute before consumption), star fish, lamb tripe, and sweet meatballs. However, I didn't have lamb penis or 4-inch centipede.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Biking in Beijing

So biking in this city is an experience.

Firstly, everyone goes at a leisurely pace. In the states, bikers are either excercise fanatics or hippies, so they take it pretty seriously. Here, everyone bikes to get everywhere. So people just go a whatever pace they like (and there are only single-speed bikes for the most part) and they'll get there when they get there.

Secondly, there doesn't seem to be any right-of-way rules with cars. If the car is going, you'd better stop. If you have a big group of people, maybe the car will stop for you. Or maybe not.

Thirdly, people carry everything with them on their bike. Friends often sit sideways on the rack behind the seat. People seem to collect large amounts of cardboard and carry it in a cart behind them that is stacked 6 feet tall. Today, I saw a man carrying three rice cookers and his grocery shopping strapped to the back rack or in front of the handlebars. And sometimes, there are little chairs in the pull-carts for children or women to ride in.

Oh, and absolutely no helmets.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chinese Overload!

I guess I've never experienced the language barrier thing on my own before, but it is pretty overwhelming at times. I am attending a wastewater class that is taught in Chinese by my professor (who talks very fast) and I understand very little, even though I know the subject. I have a Chinese textbook that I'm trying to read/translate, but it's very slow going. I feel like a 2-year old who is learning what everything means for the first time, except my mommy and daddy are talking absurdly fast.

I do get to sit in on a Chinese conversation class that some of my French friends are in, and that should be really good for my learning. It's kind of funny, but I get so much satisfaction when I can get my bike fixed or as where a building is all by myself without using English or looking like a deer in the headlights.

In good news, the campus is beautiful. and huge. There are a lot of houses and people who live on campus who are not students and its fun to explore on my morning runs. There are also large park areas with huge lotus leaves and cute little pathways and old Chinese people doing Tai Chi. Although somehow, the 31,000 students get by with only 6 classroom buildings. Maybe Chinese people are just really good at bending space when it comes to large quantities of people.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Not Asian

My whole life, I have connected with the fact that I am Asian. I have always been excited about my Asianess and it was always pretty apparent to people who met me that I was Asian. Now I find the tables turned. I'm not Asian anymore; I'm foreign. With my light eyes and hair and my pointy nose, no Chinese person would ever mistake me for a Han Chinese. It's a little strange to have things so turned around.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Here I am!

Hi folks.

I made it safely to Tsinghua University on Thursday night around midnight, but the offices were all closed until today, and I don't get internet until this afternoon. I've been surprised with how much Chinese I've needed just to get around, and am very glad that I have some of the language. I'm going to try to take a language course and will attend a wastewater course in Chinese, which should be interesting.

I live in the foreign student dorms and have met some people from France, Ivory Coast, Holland, , Australia, USA, and elsewhere. The cafeterias are kind of overwhelming. You go to a window and point to (say if you know Chinese) what you want to eat. There are at last 20 different place you can go and they have a plate the size of your face full of jiaozi (dumplings) for about 50 cents. Yum.

I went to a clothing market with a guy I met from the Ivory Coast who could actually barter, and I got some clothes (I didn't bring many under the extremely false presumption that Chinese do not wear clothes with English on them) at about 20% of the price they originally asked (rich foreigners. . .)

People in the office seem nice and I will start doing lab work on Wednesday or so.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Coming in hot. . .

So I'm leaving in a week and a half.  It seems pretty crazy that I won't see my friends and family or be in Minneapolis (or anywhere familiar) again from seven months.  I could almost have a kid and no one would know.  Now that's scary. . .  Anyways, I have a visa and a plane ticket, so somehow, I will be in another world in ten days.  I honestly have no idea what to expect.  I don't know where or with whom I will live, what I'll eat, what I'll do on a day to day basis, who I will spend time with, or (aaaahhh) if there will be a kitchen for use anywhere.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

25 days

I'm off to Beijing in 25 days.  I've finished my internship for the summer, and have the rest of my time in the country to spend with my family before leaving them for 7 months.  Like everybody and their cousin, I've been watching the Olympics, and it's pretty cool to get a little prequel to the Beijing experience.  They even ran by Tsinghua University in the marathon today.  Hopefully I can brush up on my Mandarin with the China Game (Rosetta Stone), and practice my dumpling folding skills to impress my distant Asian relatives.  

I'm still not sure what I'll be doing in the spring, but it looks like I may remain in limbo for a while.  I'll get there.