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.