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.