Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Break!

So I am already two weeks into my Christmas vacation and things are going pretty well so far. I finished up the semester at Harbin well and I am looking forward to returning there in the spring. I feel like I will make a lot of progress with my Chinese next semester because I have established a pretty good foundation already. I have also decided I really want to immerse myself in the language, including not listening to english music and movies. Total immersion will probably really pay off in the end so I am going to give it a try.

I will do a little recap of what I have been up to the last few weeks. We took a train from Harbin to Beijing and the next day everyone from our program went back to America except for six of us who are returning next spring. Me and two others, Luke and Andrew, hopped on a plane to Chengdu in Sichuan province. Chengdu is a pretty cool place and we stayed there about 4 nights. The two biggest highlights included seeing the Giant Pandas in the Panda Zoo and the worlds largest Buddha statue engraved alongside a mountain in a small town called Leshan. The Pandas were pretty much what I expected, cute little animals and all that. The giant Buddha was amazing though. Built in the 8th century AD it was intended to calm the raging river. Ironically, because of all the rock that was carved out of the cliff, it did have a calming affect on the river and made it safer for shipping vessels. The carving is 233 ft. tall and is really an awesome sight, definitely one of the coolest things I have seen in China.

From Chengdu, the three of us took a train to Chongqing and spent about 4 nights there as well. A Chinese friend we had met in Chengdu recommended a place for us to stay that was really cheap and near the city center. The placed turned out not to be a hotel but an apartment building with an extra room. It was a little sketch and at first we did not want to stay more than one night. But it was only $20 a night for the 3 of us to share and it was in a really good location so we put up with it for the duration of our stay. I did not like Chongqing very much. For some reason I felt like everyone there was trying to cheat us all the time. The worst thing was when we took a bus to find some museum a little outside the city. We got off the bus too early and thought the musuem was still pretty far away. This lady told us she would drive us in her van to the museum for 20 kuai, or about 3 dollars. Since we thought it was pretty far and we were not thinking at the time, we agreed. The van driver then literally drove us for about half a kilometer and drop us off at the museum we wanted. That ride would have cost about 5 kuai in a taxi! So that really upset.

After a few days in Chongqing, Luke flew to Shanghai to visit his girlfriend there and Andrew and I stayed another night in Chongqing. We wanted to see the 3 Gorges Dam and started visiting some travel agencies to see if we could take a river cruise on the Yangtze to see the dam. It turned out to be a lot more expensive than I had envisioned. The attendant finally told us that we would have to take a bus to a city called Wanzhou, hop on a fast boat to Yichang where the actual three gorges dam is. She said she would also arrange a hotel and bus to our next destination of Wuhan. All of this for a total of 600 kuai a person, a little shy of $100. But I was very hesitant because we did not have any guarantee that all of this would work out. She did not give us any travel itinerary or confirmation that everything was as she said. Also, since I had felt that people in Chongqing were trying to cheat us all the time, I did not want to spend that much money on something and have it be a disappointing experience. But we decided to give it a shot and see what happens, at least it would be an adventure.

So we paid the lady and she told us to show up the same spot at 6:30 the next morning for our bus. We arrived the next morning and no one else was there. We wanted a little while and finally this guy out of the shadows appears, smoking a cigarette and tells us to follow him. We start to but again I have this bad feeling. After telling him we are not very comfortable about this situation, he just keeps repeating, dont worry, dont worry. So we hop on a bus for a few hours and arrive in Wanzhou and then get on the boat. The boat ride was about 5 hours long and had some pretty amazing views of the Yangtze River. I wasnt paying much attention because I was really engaged in the is books called "The Snowball Effect" by Alice Schroeder. It is basically a biography on Warren Buffet and was a very interesting read. Anyway, after a few stops we arrived in Yichang, site of the Three Gorges. When we got off the boat, another person was hurrying us into another bus to take us who knows where, we were assuming our hotel. This is the disappointing part. Our whole purpose of this trip was to see the dam and it was at the location where our boat docked at Yichang. As we were driving, we saw the dam pass by and were assuming we would be staying someplace near town where we could easily come back and get a better look at the dam. But our bus ride was over an hour long and when they dropped us off, another guy with a van was waiting for us to take us to our hotel. On the way we were asking him when we were going to see the dam and he said, "oh no problem, I can take you tomorrow for 150 kuai a person." We were not very happy. We told him our purpose of coming here was to see the dam and we had already spent 1200 kuai total. But this jerk would not budge on the price so we agreed. He then dropped us off at this crappy hotel that was freezing cold and told us to be ready at 7:15 am. That night Andrew and I would both upset and frustrated. It also sucked that it was so cold! We both wore our winter jackets and other winter stuff to bed and still was not comfortable.

The next morning, we were just too tired, and decided we did want to spend the extra money to see this stupid dam. We just wanted to get the crap out of this hell hole and hope Wuhan, our next city was better than this place. So we got our bus ticket and went on to Wuhan.

This trip was actually a good learning experience. I wont ever agree and pay a lot of money for something where the details are unclear. I also did not have a good feeling from the start and should have trusted my instincts from the start not to go along with it. But thats all in the past.

So now I am in Wuhan staying in a really nice hostel. The rooms are really nice and cheap and when we got here there was a bunch of other Americans sitting around watching a movie in the lobby. We hung out with them the next day before they left and it was cool to be around some other Americans for a change.

We leave Wuhan tomorrow for Shanghai. Our plan is to spend New Years Eve there and then move on to Nanjing. Im really looking forward to Nanjing because they have a lot of historical attractions that I am looking forward to seeing. Im also reading a book about the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century and the rebels had made Nanjing their capital. So it will be cool to be in the actual place I am reading a history book about.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stomach issues

I had my first experience with stomach problems this last week and it was not fun. Last Sunday two of my friends and I went to this Korean restaurant. The food was actually really good, especially this dish called haixian bing, which translates to something like seafood pancake or seafood cake, take your pick. I think I ate at least half of this dish myself because it was really good. This turned out to be a big mistake.

The next day I woke up and just felt awful. My head hurt, I was super tired and my stomach was incredibly uncomfortable. I got up to do some hw like I usually do and was planning on going to class but a few mintues before I was planning to leave I just started puking. Afterwards I began feeling even worse. I took some pepto bismol and drank a lot of water and went back to bed. But about 15 min. later I had to get up and puke the medicine and water I just ate and drank. That is basically how my morning and afternoon went. Drinking water and taking medicine and then throwing it back up. Not a whole lot of fun.

Luckily, that night I started feeling better and was able to go to class the next day. My roommate was very concerned for me when he found out about my 24 hr. illness and thought it might be a good idea to go to the hospital. I thought that was a little excessive. He also about died when I told him I had been drinking normal, room temperature water all day instead of hot water. Chinese people have a fear of cold water, they think it will make you sick and is bad for your health. He also recommended I eat this traditional Chinese porridge called zhou. Most Chinese people at the cafeteria eat this stuff every morning. It is basically hot water mixed with like slimy rice. It is not bad but it just does not have any taste so it is very difficult to eat. My teachers the next day also recommended I eat some zhou to get back on my feet.

Another interesting thing is China's view on medicine. You can get Western medicine here but I think Chinese view western medicine as a little risky. Yes, it works a lot faster than Chinese medicine and cures whats ailing you but also can harm other parts of the body. So if you have a headache and take some tylenol, your head will stop hurting but a couple months later you may have some kidney problems or something. So they do not like to take it. They say their medicine takes into account your entire body as a whole rather than treating specific places. I dont know a whole lot about Chinese medicine but it seems like it is mostly herbs, tea and other natural supplements. All the Chinese people I have talked to say it works and is good for you but Im pretty skeptical. Im not sure how much it is based on science than old wives tales.

Anyway, this was my first experience with illness in China and Im actually pretty fortunate because I have not had any other stomach or health problems. I just not going to back to that Korean place and will be wary of any more haixian bing.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Movies, entertainment and culture

I have been watching Chinese movies lately and usually have a lot of questions afterwards. A lot of the themes dont make sense to me. I asked my roommate (picture above) if he has the same issues when he watches American movies or television. He says he has the same thing, he does not understand a lot of what Americans do on tv. I think he has learned 90% of what he knows about American culture from the televisions shows Friends and Desperate Housewives, his two favorites. When I asked him for some examples, here is what he said:

Su Ya Dan: In Friends, I dont understand why Monica's parents dont like her. They like her older brother, Ross, and not her. I dont understand this. Do most American families favor one child over the other?

Me: I dont think so. I think most families treat kids the same.

Su Ya Dan: Also, during Christmas can anything serve as a gift for someone else?

Me: Hmm, it depends. You usually ask the person what they want and then buy them that.

Su Ya Dan: One time in Friends, Joey got his girlfriend a pen as a gift for Christmas. Is this normal?

Me: (laughing) No this is not normal. You usually get them something they want, not a pen. This is a bad gift.

Su Ya Dan: So what do you give your friends as gifts.

Me: Well, I think guys often dont give gifts to their friends. Girls often do because they like gifts but guys dont.

Su Ya Dan: But in Friends, all of them gave gifts to each other, including Ross, Chandler and Joey.

Me: (laughing) oh really? Well, Friends is not real. I think most American men dont often give their friends christmas gifts. If they have a girlfriend, then you must, but not other friends. Any other questions?

Su Ya Dan: In America, when you move to another house, I dont understand why the neighbors give you presents. Is this true?

Me: Neighbors give you presents? I dont think neighbors give their new neighbors presents.

Su Ya Dan: In Desperate Housewives, some new neighbors moved into the neighborhood and the people gave them cakes and other things.

Me: Oh, well yeah. It is polite to give your new neighbors a cake, some cookies or a bottle of wine. You want to make them feel welcome, right? Do Chinese people not do this?

Su Ya Dan: No, we never give gifts to new neighbors. We might ask them to share a meal but not gifts.

Me: Traditionally, neighbors give new neighors some cake or something but presently, Americans move a lot so it is less common. I dont even know any of my neighbors.

I found this conversation to be very entertaining. Being in China, I have also realized how influential movies and television are in shaping the outside world's perceptions about America. Everyone in China watches American television and movies. It seems by far the most popular show is Friends. It is alwasy the first one they mention. They use it to learn English and the plots and humor are fairly easy to understand. Others are Desperate Housewives, Lost, Prison Break and Hero's. Prison Break is especially interesting because all young Chinese people talk about it as one of their favorite shows but I dont know anyone in America who watches it. Is it very popular there?

So I think American Hollywood has a much more profound world influence than I previously realized. They are responsible for shaping the way the rest of the world views American life. Im not so sure this is a good thing.

Cultural Lessons

Last night I watched a Chinese movie called Red Sorghum. This movie, directed by Zhang Yimou (the guy who directed the Olympic Opening and closing ceremonies), is very famous in China. It came out in the late 1980's and was one of the first Chinese internationally critically acclaimed films. But to me, and I would guess the vast majority of western audiences, it just did not make sense. I will give a brief synopsis.

SPOILER ALERT: The movie is set in the countryside in China during the 1930's. It opens with a young poor beatiful girl (the famous Gong Li) being carried in a sedan chair by some hired men to meet her new husband. She has just been sold to an old, rich leper who owns a wine plantation (every little girls dream, right?). Her father is very pleased because her marriage price was a large mule (what father would not be pleased?). On the way to meet her new leper husband, the entourage is attacked by a bandit who attempts to rob them and take Gong Li. But one of the hired workers attacks the bandit and takes back their stuff as well as Gong Li. As she gets back into her sedan chair, some romatic looks are exchanged between her and this hired worker. She arrives at the winery and this worker disappears, but he reappears later when she is coming back to the winery from her parents house. This hired worker decides to dress up as the previous bandit and kidnap Gong Li. After a brief chase he is successful and then reveals his indentity in the Sorghum field. Then he clears a spot in the field and they do the dirty. Later, the leper husband has been found to be mysteriously murdered (presumably by the hired worker) and Gong Li takes over the winery. The hired worker comes back, drunk as a skunk, and tells everyone very boisterously how he slept with Gong Li in the field and how she likes him so much. She is not very happy with this and the winery workers throw him out.

As the winery is finishing its first batch of wine of the season, the hired worker comes back again. He again appears drunk and it front of everyone begins urinating in all the brand new wine jugs. But no one does anything. Then he stands in front of Gong Li, staring at her for a long time, then without a word, picks her up over his shoulder and carries her out like a piece property. Gong Li does not say a word. The movie then fast forwards nine years where it is revealed that these liasions have produced a son.

The movie then shifts to the Japanese occupation in WWII. The Japanese force all the Chinese to do hard manual labor. The Japanese are very cruel and even force a skilled Chinese butcher to skin another Chinese person alive! The people then decide to rise up against the Japanese and join the Communist underground resistance. The hired worker, Gong Li and the rest of the people plan an ambush of Japanese troops with improvised liquer bombs. When it is carried out, it has marginal success but most of the Chinese die, including Gong Li. It ends with the hired worker and the son looking over the aftermath of the ambush in the Sorghum field.

After I finished I told my roommate that I really did not understand this movie. I hated the hired worker and did not understand why Gong Li liked him. He was constantly drunk, rude and treated Gong Li like he owned her. He told me that this was a Chinese traditional culture movie, so it is hard for a foreigner to understand. He told me he liked the hired worker, he was very "masculine", could protect Gong Li, and this is what traditional Chinese women wanted in their man. He said that things have definitely changed since this time but this "masculine" quality of Chinese men is still very important.

So I found this to be a very interesting lesson in traditional Chinese culture. I've found that Chinese movies are a good way to learn about China and its history. I will watch a movie and then ask some Chinese people about. They are usually excited that I have watched their films and I have found it to be a good learning experience.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Language Progress Update

I should also give an update on my language progress. Even though it doesnt feel like it, I have definitely made a lot of progress with my Chinese. I think I am at least at the survival level where I can accomplish the essential life requirements to get around in China. It is still definitely challenging, especially capturing the tones correctly. You can know how a word is spelled in pinyin but if you say it with the wrong tone it is a completely different word. So this aspect of my Chinese is what I want to improve the most.

I had one discouraging experience this past weekend when a few other students, my roommate and I went out to eat and then walked around a shopping area in Harbin. In one of the stores we were talking to the store people who were excited and surprised that we could speak Chinese. They brought up the American election, our economic crisis and other topics. I was adding little to the conversation but still able to follow what was being talked about. Then out of the blue, one of the ladies told my friend, "oh your chinese is very good." Then gestured to me and said, "Oh, and yours, not so good."

Ouch! First of all, I wanted to say, tell me something I dont know. And what am I supposed to say to that. I just said thank you in the most sarcastic way my Chinese was capable of. I talked to my roommate later about this and asked him isnt this kind of a rude thing to say to a complete stranger. He said that NE Chinese, women especially (his words), have a reputation to speak very zhishuai or frank. So dont be offended. Easier said then done I guess.

One thing that is hard about talking to Chinese people is the way they look at you when you are speaking Chinese. A lot of times they will look at you like you are either from another planet or will just laugh at you. The second one is the worst because it just makes you feel like an idiot. I know that this kind of body language is not on purpose, and Im sure Americans do the same to foreigners back in the states, but it can be discouraging.

My classes are still going pretty well, they are much more clear than they were in the beginning of the semester. One thing that has been interesting is the teaching methods because they are pretty much the same as I would expect back in the states. One thing different is that you actually have to spend a lot of time on your own studying, that is something that a lot of Americans are not used to. Teachers always tell you that you should be studying as much time on your own as you have class hours in a week, which of course no one really takes seriously. But here it is definitely true. Some days I probably spend much more time studying on my own than in the classroom.

I was expecting realy strict disciplinarians as teachers when I came to China, but they are all very nice and encouraging. Half of my teachers are still in their 20s so this makes class a little more interesting because it is more fun to talk to people closer to your own age. I do have one teacher that is a little different then the others and better fits the mold of what I was expecting before I came here. She just isnt really encouraging and I often get frustrated by her teaching style. She has a way of unintentionally (I hope) of making me feel stupid. For example last week we read this newspaper article and were answering true or false questions about the material:

Teacher: Dou Ning, do you think number 1 is dui bu dui (true or not true)

Dou Ning: Hmmm, dui

Teacher: Ohhhhhh (with a look of shock on her face), Dou Ning thinks dui (long pause). Liu Yu, Li Hua (my classmates) what do you think?

Li Hua, Liu Yu: Bu dui.

Teacher: So, Liu Yu and Li Hua both think bu dui. So Dou Ning, why do you think dui?

Dou Ning: Hmmmm (not having anything to say), because I think it is dui.

To me it comes off as, I just cannot believe you do not know the right answer. This is so easy and simple. Also, sometimes when one of us says something incorrectly she will ask the rest of us if we agree with what the person says. So we are forced to say something like, "I dont agree, what that person said was wrong." But who likes correcting your classmates (or being corrected by them)? Basically, Im not a huge fan of her style.

But I also think we as Americans are used to encouragement and be coddled more so than most other places in the world. For exmple, this teacher is really hard on our class because she really wants us to improve and thinks that this is the best way to do it. Anyone bad feelings on my part are just a result of differences in culture. And I can only imagine how frustrating it is on her end. If she were writing a blog it would probably twice as long as mine with frustrating stories.

A lot of times I feel like my ego and self esteem need more encouragement to keep me going strong. But again this probably comes from my American upbringing. Things are different here and I just have to get used to it. No other way around it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

大连,青岛,北京的旅游--Trip to Dalian, Qingdao and Beijing

In the middle of October we had a week of Fall break after our Mid-term finals which gave me a chance to do a little traveling around NE China. Four other CET students and I traveled to Dalian, Qingdao and Beijing. It was a very interesting adventure and I learned a lot about how to travel around China. This will be a good experience for me during Christmas vacation when I have about two months in between terms.
So we hoped on train to Dalian a few hours after our exams were done set off for Dalian. Dalian is several hundred miles SW of Harbin and the train took about 10 hours of so. Dalian was not too exciting, not many cultural attractions or other things to do. We went to the city square (which was actually a circle), hiked up the local mountain, visited a park, etc. We only stayed for one night and it was definitely enough for me. Here are some pics:
This first picture is a KFC in Dalian, a very strange looking KFC at that. KFC (or kendiji, which literally means Kentucky) and McDonalds (maidanglao) are probably the most popular American restaurants in China. They taste pretty much the same as in America and are a good retreat when you just cannot handle China anymore. KFC and McDonalds compared to normal Chinese restaurants are a lot more expensive, about the same price as in America. Also at night and on weekends they are usually packed with young people; not really the same as in the States. This other picture is a child playing with pigeons in the public square.

One of the weird things I noticed when I first arrived in Dalian was that there were tons of brides all over the place. Several caravans of wedding entourages passed us as we were walking down one of the main streets of the city. If I had to guess I would say that a lot of people chose this day to get married because it was the 18th. 8 is the most lucky number in Chinese culture, not sure why. That is why the Olympics started on 8/8/08, an incredibly lucky day. On the other hand, 4 is the worst number because 4 (si) sounds the sames as the word for death (also si but a different tone). In one of our hotels, they did not have a 4th floor, similar to how some buildings dont have a 13th floor in America. Although this bride happens to be wearing the traditional white dress, we say many others in blue, green and red dresses, very interesting to see.
This other picture is on top of the largest hill in Dalian. When we hiked up there we saw they had this sweet slide all the way down. It was super fun! It felt like being in a bobsled and it went super fast. Id say it was probably the most fun thing we did the entire week.

At the bottom of the hill was a little amusement park that we walked through. I thought these giant bubbles on the water were very cool. I have never seen them in America. It would be really fun to be inside one and walk around a lake or something. The other picture is Luke banging a giant gong.
This picture of me on the right is inside an aquarium in Dalian. Apparently this is the largest underwater viewing tunnel in the world, but I think I would doubt that. All the attractions said they were the worlds greatest, biggest, tallest, etc. something.
After staying in Dalian for a night we bought a plane ticket through out hotel and flew to Qingdao the next day. I think arranging travel plans compared to the US is a lot more difficult, and not because of the language barrier. In the US, you can do everything online and pay using a credit card....very easy. But credit cards are still very rare in China so you have to make a lot of phone calls, visit places in person, etc. But it was not that big of a deal.
Qingdao was absolutely beautiful. It was a former German concession city back earlier last century and so is very western and modern. Also, the weather was very warm so it was nice to be able to wear just a short sleeve shirt for a change. Our hotel was a 5 star hotel and extremely nice. When we got into a taxi to the hotel from the airport, our taxi driver said about out hotel, "oh that place is very expensive, I know a cheaper one." He actually drove to some other hotel despite the fact that we told him what hotel we wanted to go to. This is very common in China. Chinese people always really going out of their way to help you in any way they can. I think it is very interesting but sometimes a little annoying.

Despite the fact that the hotel was 5 star it was actually pretty cheap. A nice room for two people with an ocean view cost about $30 a night per person, not too bad.
Buying sweet sunglasses at a market and visiting the local brewery.
At this brewery they had a "beer room." It appeared level but was really lopsided so it was easy to lose your balance. Here is Luke having some fun with it.
So after a few days in Qingdao we got on a train to Beijing. Beijing is obviously a must to see in China because there are just so many cultural attractions. We had three days so we decided to see the Olympic buildings, Summer Palace, Great Wall and Temple of Heaven. Beijing was a lot colder than Qingdao so we had to put the jackets and winter hats back on.
Here is the Birds Nest, the place where Usain Bolt took over Track and Field during the Olympics. This building was incredible. The architecture was unlike anything I had seen before. Even amidst the pollution, which is evident in the picture, it was quite a sight.
I put these two pictures of Randy and Katherine on here posing with other people because this was a very common occurence. It was very common for people to come up to us and ask to take a picture with them like we were a celebrities or something, especially Randy. My guess is Chinese people do not see a whole lot of black people so Randy was defintely popular. We kept calling him Kebi, the Chinese name for Kobe Bryant.
Being a foreigner in a place like Beijing is not uncommon because they are all over the place. But the places we went to had a lot of other Chinese people from all the country who dont see foreigners too often. So my guess is these people were the ones who were intrigued to see some non-Asian people.
Next we went to the Summer Palace, the centuries old summer getaway for China's Emperors. Western powers destroyed large portions of it on two different occassions, once in 1860 during the Opium War and in 1900 during the Boxer rebellion. This is something that still shapes a large part of China's cultural identity and outlook on the rest of world. It also an example of the progress it has made as a country over the last century. In the past, foreign powers could easily come in and do all sorts of damage which the Chinese were defenseless to stop. This is contrasted with today, where China is becoming a world power and seems to have a bright future.
Here is a license plate I saw in Beijing. Who would have thought?
Finally we made it to 长城(changcheng: the Great Wall). This was the highlight of the trip for me. I had seen another part of the Great wall in Dandong but it was not a major section. The one outside of Beijing is stunning, stretching as far as you can see and completely full of people. I can only imagine what it is like during the peak summer months.
Hiking the Great Wall, quite a thrill.
So that pretty much sums up the trip. We hopped on plane after three days and made it back to Harbin. We had planned at first not to speak English during the week but we slowly started to change...i think it was inevitable. So it was nice to be able to clearly understand and communicate with one another for a change. And it was good to get some experience of traveling in China. I feel like I will be fine on my own when the time comes here next month.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Trip to Dandong, Great Wall and North Korea

It has been a while since my post which I regret because I really want to chronicle my time here as best I can. Anyway, yesterday we returned from a 4 day trip to the city of Dandong. Dandong is a large tourist city in the NE of China that sits right on the border of the Yalu River. It is also one of the few entry points into North Korea, (NORTH KOREA!!), which is connected by a bridge across the river. Other highlights of our trip included relaxing day on the beach as well as going to the Great Wall, a must when visiting China.

Our trip started Wednesday night when we took a train down to Dandong. This was my second China train experience and it was very interesting. The trip is about 12 hours and we had "hard sleeper" tickets. Despite the name, hard sleepers are very comfortable. In the cabin, bunks are arranged with 3 beds on each side, with a top, middle and bottom. Not a whole lot of room but it was not so bad.

Here is a picture of what our bunks looked like. Here on the right is my friend Katherine mingling with our Chinese companions. These guys insisted that I share a beer with them as well as their food. It was pretty much impossible to say no. One thing I have noticed about China is if someone offers something to you it is customary to refuse it even if you really want it. I think this is considered polite. But this is all an act because the person offering you something will just assume you are being polite and be even more forceful. But when Americans say no, they really mean no. So I've had to adjust to this.

So we arrived in Dandong in the morning and took a boat out to some island off the coast. Here we ate dinner and later had a bonfire on the beace, roasted marshmallows and listened to our Chinese friends sign karaoke on the beach (or as the Chinese say kala oukei).

I think Chinese people really enjoy singing so naturally enjoy kala oukei. I really enjoyed hearing them sing. They mostly sang some kind of corny love songs but had so much enthusiasm that it was impossible to not smile. The Chinese people I have met have been so nice and helpful it is impossible not to like them and China as well. I have been reading a book about the life of a young girl and her family during the craziness of the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960's to middle 1970's. This era was full of neighbors turning on neighbors, accusations of being "capitalist roaders", witch hunts, and really just chaos. So it has been interesting reading this book about this crazy time yet living with these same people who are so good and friendly. One thing I do not understand is how 20th century Chinese history can be filled with so much violence amongst such a loving, kind and welcoming people. It really blows my mind.
The next day we were planning on heading back to Dandong early afternoon but for some reason our boat was delayed several hours. No one really knew why. But it wasn't so bad, the weather was beautiful and we all just lounged aroud. Me and some other people rented some tandem bikes and biked down to the beach. This was quite the adventure because the bikes were definitely too small and could not be adjusted. But my partner and I made due. We biked down to the beach, met some Chinese fishermen, and hiked up a hill to catch a larger view of the ocean.

Later that day we hopped on the boat and went back to Dandong. Here we ate dinner, some great Korean dishes, and that night strolled around the Yalu River. Now from China's side of the bank you can see North Korea! To me, this is extremely fascinating to be able to view one of the most secretive nations in the world. There is a bridge connecting the two countries which is half controlled by China and the other by North Korea. At night, China's half is fully lit up with vibrant colors while North Korea's half is completely black, you can barely see that it is there. North Korea currently has a major energy shortage and at night it turns the switch off throughout the country. This in and of itself is a good example of how far China has come in developing its economy. Not too long ago, the 1970s, the economies of China and North Korea were not that much different in terms of development. But since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, life in China has gotten better for everyone and currently has tremendous economic growth. Here is a (poor) picture of the bridge at night.
The next day we took a boat ride on the Yalu river and were able to get more up close to the North Korean side. Here are two pictures side by side of the coastline from China and North Korea. I will let you guess which side is which.

Also, I noticed there is another bridge right alongside the one connecting North Korea and China that reaches only half way across the Yalu River from China. I later found out that this was the original bridge connecting the two countries but was completely destroyed during the Korean War by (SURPRISE!) American bomber planes. China has since rebuilt its half while the North Koreans have not bothered. American troops and their NATO allies in the early 1950's had driven communist North Korea all the way to the Yalu River and General MacArthur was thinking about continuing on through to China to topple the communist government there as well. This made Mao Zedong very nervous and sent roughtly 3/4 of a million troops into North Korea to repel American forces. This actually worked and American forces were pushed all the way back to the 38th parallel, where the border between North and South Korea is today. It is interesting to note that before the war the border was the 38th parallel and after the war (and the deaths of several million people) the border is still the 38th parallel. Also in China this war used to be called "The War to Resist America and Aid Korea". Anyway, here is a picture of the broken bridge.

Finally, on our last day we went to a section of the Great Wall. As most of you probably know the Great Wall is really a series of walls throughout northern parts of China that was built and rebuilt over centuries as well as many different dynasties. This section of the Great Wall was built by the Mings in the 16th century, I think. But it was confusing to me who this section of the wall was built to keep out. Were the Chinese afraid of the Koreans? Were there other "barbarians" in this region. I'm pretty sure the Mongols were farther north so Im not really sure. I asked some Chinese people who seemed to know but I did not really understand what they were saying. Anyway, to be honest the Great Wall was not real exciting, pretty much what I expected. It was extremely steep at parts which I was not anticipating but it is not something that I would go out of my way to see again. I hear the Beijing portion is a little cooler. Here are some pics.

Finally, we headed back to Dandong, ate lunch and made our way back to the train station. We were little early so we took a little break underneath the gigantic 70 ft. red Mao Zedong statue! I am having computer issues and I cannot get it down here but the giant picture of Mao at the beginning of this post is what I am referring to. After this we got on the train and took the long ride back to Harbin. It was a whirlwind trip and a lot of fun.
As for how my language is going it is still a struggle. Sometimes I feel like I am making some good progress but other times I just hate it. For example, on the train back to Harbin I was sitting with some of the teachers and other students who were all just chatting away about whatever and then me just mostly silent. I can follow pretty much what they are talking about but it is still a challenge to substantially contribute to conversation. But hopefully it will just keep getting better and better. Time will tell I guess.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

中秋节——Mid Autumn Festival

I feel like there are a lot of things I could write about but I want to talk a little about this weekends Zhong Qiu Jie, or Mid-Autumn Festival. I had no idea what this holiday was until about a week ago. How I actually found out is pretty funny/embarrassing. I usually eat lunch at this student cafeteria near my dorm. It is the cheapest one on campus, and not really very tasty, but I like going there because Im usually the only foreigner in the place. Anyway, previously I had met this older woman who kind of took a liking to me. She came and sat with me and we tried speaking Chinese but I could not understand 90% of what she was saying. And it seemed the more I told her I did not understand the faster she spoke! So last week I came there for lunch and I hear a shout from across the room,

"DOU NING!!!" (my chinese name) And there she was. She began speaking lightning fast and incredibly loud and soon a lot of Chinese people were just staring at us. And then she wanted to show me all the cafeteria had to offer, grabbed my arm and started leading me around.

"Oh, look at this dish....blah blah blah....oh this dish is really healthy....blah blah...etc. etc."*

Now a lot of people were staring at us and laughing and I was powerless to do anything because I am stuck in a mutes body! Finally I ordered my food and she came and sat down with me. Then she began talking and talking and I was picking up words here and there. My understanding was something like this,

"This weekend...blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah son and family...blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah....want...blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blahblah blah dinner...blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah...whats you phone number?....blah blah blah blah blah blah."

I could pretty much figure out what she was saying but because there was so much other stuff I did not understand, I could not be sure. Then she wrote it down on a note, which I also did not understand, and told me to have someone else translate it. She also gave me her phone number. Basically she wanted to invite me to her house to have dinner with her family for the mid-Autumn incredibly nice gesture! However, I never gave her a call just because I did not feel very comfortable around her. I cant really explain it. Also, Chinese students have a three day weekend because of the holiday but us Waiguoren (foreigners) still had to go to school on Monday and I had a lot of homework to do that weekend so it just didnt work out.

I feel like I probably missed out on a good opportunity for an entertaining story but Im sure I will have plenty of those as this year continues.

So what is Zhong Qiu Jie? China uses a lunar calendar called nong li and every August 15, using this calendar, is Zhong Qiu Jie. Apparently on this day the moon is very big and round in the sky. I do not know if this is myth or actually true. To commemorate this day, Chinese people usually have a meal with their families, eat Yue Bing (Moon Cake) and watch the big round moon late at night. Now Moon Cake is very hard to describe. It is a small round pastry filled with a strange fruity filling. All Chinese people over the weekend buy lots of moon cake, it is customary to give them to your friends, teachers and family. I went to the local store to buy me some moon cake as well. They have several different types of filling, most of which I do not understand, so I just bought the most expensive one thinking it would be the best. And the most expensive one I could find was 6 kuai, or just under $1.

Now it looks pretty good, it really does. But honestly, it did not taste very good at all. It is super rich and thick, you have to have some water or something to wash it down. It is hard to describe. It is really sweet but it is a different kind of really rich sweet. Not the melt in your mouth kind of sweet, if that makes sense. So unfortunately I had a lot of homework on this day and I could not attend any of the functions around town. I did try to look at the moon late at night but it wasnt really very large or spectacular. I could hear other people singing and I swear there was all kinds of explosions (fireworks?) all through the night so some people were having a good time (I would guess alcohol was probably involved).

In sum, I learned about an interesting holiday that does not really have an equivalent in western culture. It's really interesting to learn more and more about Chinese holidays and traditions. Hopefully in the future I will not be bogged down so much with school work to miss out on other important cultural events which I would look forward to attending. I just hope there won't be any Moon Cake.

*Blah Blah stands for incoherent Chinese words

Thursday, September 4, 2008


This word pretty much sums up my first week of classes in Harbin. Today I just got out of my 1 on 2 class and it was literally a painful experience. I have an incredibly hard time understanding anything that my teacher says, even if it is simple vocabulary that I already know. My listening comprehension is ridiculously horrible. And my tones are even worse, I think. Chinese is a very tonal language where you have to capture the right sound of each character in order to convey the correct meaning. Enlglish, to my knowledge, is not this way at all. The most embarrassing part is the fact that I cannot even say my own name in Chinese correctly, Dou Ning. The Dou is a rising tone and the Ning is a falling one. Here is a common example:

Teacher: Dou Ning
Me: (repeating) Dou Ning
Teacher: Bu dui! (not correct) Dou Ning
Me: Dou Ning!
Teacher: Dou Ning
Me: Dou Ning
Teacher: Dou Ning
Me: Dou Ning!!!
Etc. etc. etc. etc.

It is very frustrating.

And this blog is my only outlet to vent my frustrations. All of the students here agreed to a language pledge and none of us are allowed to speak English with one another. So, since Sunday I have not spoken a word of english to anyone. The goal of the language pledge is to force you to speak Chinese in order to improve you fluency. Sounds like a good plan but instead of speaking Chinese I usually just dont speak. I dont know what the average number of words people speak in a day but right now Im probably only in the hundreds. All of my thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. are completely kept to myself. It is a strange way to live.

It is hard to describe what I am going through right now. I feel like a fraction of a person because I cannot convey my ideas or understand what other people are saying. Im like a 1 year old child in a grown ups body who cannot understand the world around him. It is a very strange feeling. And right now I cannot imagine being able to be conversant in Chinese. I guess the only thing I can do is just try as hard as I can and see what kind of progress I will be able to make this year.

I should say a few things about the classes as well. Most of the other students Chinese in this program is a lot better than mine, so they seem to be able to understand what is going on in class and what they have to do outside of it. I am that slow, dense kid in class who has to be told the same simple thing several times and still have to make educated guesses as to what is going on. That is one of the most agonizing parts because I'm used to being one of the best students, always being prepared and thoroughly enjoying school. Right now it is exactly the opposite on all three counts. And I wish I could explain to my teachers that I am trying hard, but again that is difficult to do most of the times because of the language pledge. Whenever there is complete confusion between my teachers and I, they say, "man man lai, man man lai," or "slowly it will come, slowly it will come." My teachers are probably going through the same feelings of frustration so I also sympahize greatly with them.

But the prospect of being able to speak and read Chinese is so attractive that I guess I have to pay some major dues before it happens. And know I am not the only waiguoren (foreigner) who has thought learning Chinese is impossible. Every one thinks that at some point, (at least I hope I am not the only one.) A lot of my classmates are already very good so I guess there is hope for me. Right now I just hope my teachers are right.

"Man man lai, man man lai."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Chinese Life and Culture

So here a few of my thoughts on Chinese culture so far. Most of it I do not understand at all. I'll start with the clothing. It seems that camoflauge is very popular amongst the late teen-20 year old range. Walking around campus, you will several people wearing camoflauge, some head to toe. Also, t shirts with english phrases are popular, even if they do not really make any sense. I cannot think of any right now but some of the shirts have been very bizarre. But Chinese people probably think the same thing when they see Americans with random Chinese character written on their arms. Also, a lot of the guys grow their pinky nails out really long which I thought was odd at first. But I actually read in a book that they do this as a status symbol. Since they have a long nail, you know that they do not do any manual labor which makes them more important I guess. That may be how it started and now it is just a cool thing to do, I do not know.

Daily life is pretty much the same. My dorm room is about the same size as the one I lived in Washington. Granted, the average Chinese dorm is a small room that houses at least six people, us waiguoren (foreigners) get a little spoiled. The bathroom, however is far from desirable. Our dorm toilets cannot handle toilet paper so when you do your business you have to throw it away in the trash can next to the toilet. Actually, I thought this was pretty gross at first but Im getting used to it...the smell is not all too bad, haha.

Hanging out with my roommate has been interesting. His name is Su Yadan and from what I have gathered he is a PHD student in electrical engineering. Harbin Institute of technology is one of the top universities in China and one of the leading technical schools. So Im assuming he is a pretty smart guy. He spends all of his time at the lab and does not come home until 10 at night. It is interesting having conversations with him because there is a lot of guessing and charades between us to try and understand what we are talking about. But he has helped me with a few things and teaches me new words and phrases a lot. Most of the other Americans roommates are home more often and I wish mine was as well so that I could have more Chinese practice.

Speaking of Chinese, the first days of class have been exceptionally challenging. Its like having a class where a teacher is talking but someone can mute half of her words. So while you are listening you only pick up a few words here and there and are left guessing about what is going on. And then she hands you some hw where half of the words are whited out and you have to figure out what it is you are supposed to do for the next class period. I bet it is even more frustrating for the teachers because Im sure they are using very plain language and assigning extremely easy assignments and these stupid americans do not understand what they are saying. Im hoping I will improve in the future so we can all laugh about what I am going through now.

Lastly, the best thing about China is how affordable everything is. I go to the student cafeteria, order some random food, pay less than a dollar! And more often than not, it is pretty good. And when Im in the mood for a treat, I will go to the dozens of restaraunts around campus, pay maybe 2 or 3 dollars, and have more delicious food than I could possibly. Another example is that Im paying about 2o cents an hour to use this computer at a local computer bar.

So, my chinese is slowly improving day by day. I keep learning new words and try desperately to remember them. Even though 90% of the time I am completely lost in class, every now and then I will understand a concept the teacher is explaining and it is a great feeling. Hopefully, the amount of understanding versus being completely lost will increase as time goes on.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I made it

So I am finally here! I have wanted to get back on this thing but I have not been able to access my internet in my dorm room. I am sure it is not difficult to do but there is a grand canyon size language barrier between me and the people at the Computer Center. Anyway, I feel like I have a million stories to tell already. First the people in China are very nice and friendly. I think they enjoy a waiguoren, or foreigner, trying desperately to speak their language. I was in the student cafeteria and was trying to figure out what to order. I asked someone randomally what some of the different food was. He tried to help me but the only word I could understand was jindan bi, or egg bread. So I ordered it and went to sit down. Then all of a sudden, I noticed the guy was following me and wanted to eat with me. It was very interesting to say the least. We basically only discussed the little bit I could muster in Chinese such as where im from and i think of harbin, etc. I was having some trouble eating my bread with my chopsticks so i picked it up with my left hand to eat it better. Immediately he gave me a dirty look and I was very confused. He then tried to explain to me that the left hand is considered dirty because it is the hand you, how do you say, wipe your business with. I have probably been making these kind of cultural errors continuously for a week now.

Anyway, I do not have a lot of time to write. The school here is incredibly difficult because it is taught all in Chinese so I probably understand about 10% of what is going on. I have a 1 on 1 class about Chinese newspapers with just me and one teacher for two hours!! Im pretty sure she thinks I am the stupidest person in the world because my most common phrase has been ting bu dong, I do not understand. They keep saying that things will get better as time goes on so I hope they are right. As of now, this is the hardes thing I have ever done and I have never been so uncomfortable, frustrated and nervous in school in my entire life. But it can only get better so Im hoping it will.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Peparing for China

I leave for China in less than a week! I have all the paperwork, plane ticket, reservations all taken care of so now all I need to to do is pack and hop on that plane. As D-Day approaches, my excitement is slowly turning into nervous anxiety. I have never really traveled to a foreign country and now am about to spend 9 months in a language and culture completely different than my own. What I am most nervous about is the language pledge I have agreed to once I arive in Harbin, China. For the duration of the program I am not allowed to speak English, even away from the school. Currently, my Chinese is nowhere near that kind of proficiency so the first couple of weeks are going to be extremely difficult to handle. I anticipate a lot of confusion, miscommunication, me feeling stupid and being very frustrated to be in my near future. But at least I realize that now. I probably should have studied more Chinese this summer, I anticipate regretting this soon upon arrival as well. This trip will definitley be an experience.

My first meeting with my Chinese roommate has also been on my mind lately. Apparently it is customary to exchange gifts after meetings like this so I just imagine it being funny and awkward. The ritual will go something like this: I will extend my hand wrapped present with two hands, not one, which he will accept with two hands and wait until later to open it. Then he will give my present in the same manner and I apparently have to wait to open it as well. I read in a book that it is rude to open presents immediately because you will appear greedy. But I think putting it aside like that in American culture means you dont really want it. Am I right? I guess we will play it by hear and I dont commit any major Chinese cultural faux pas. I still need to figure out something to get him, I really have no idea, something Alaskan probably. I was going to get him a cool Native Alaskan cutting knife but I also read that giving someone a knife in China means you wish them dead! So that gift may send the wrong signal. Hopefully I will think of something.

Anyway, I do not want to ramble in these postings. China is coming soon and I am very excited! I certainly hope the experience lives up to expectations.