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.