Monday, April 21, 2008

Post embarrassing.

Wow guys. I'm really sorry. I doubt anyone even pays attention to this anymore at this point, but I apologize anyway. It has almost been 2 months since my last post, but I will not let that 2 month mark pass! As can be imagined, much has happened. I will start with most recently. Seeing as I have a vocab quiz, here referred to as a 听写 (ting xie = hear, then write), in a little bit I will probably do the update in stages. Starting with this past weekend.
CIEE took us to Hangzhou, which is a city in the south known as one of the most beautiful cities in China. And beautiful it was, though unfortunately it rained both days we were there. CIEE trips, of which there were two, work like this. Friday afternoon you meet up by two big buses with all your stuff and make your way to the train station. In the case of the Xi’an trip, which was a couple of weeks earlier, it unfortunately worked a little bit differently. That update will come in a bit. For the Hangzhou trip though, we bussed our way to the train station to make a 4pm train. I believe the train ride was about 16 hours, so we got hard sleepers, which means in each train car there are around 20 compartments, all open (no doors), each with 6 beds (3 stacked on either side of the compartment). So what usually happens is the CIEE group of 80 takes up a whole car and then the overflow end up in a second car, but all the cars are connected so you can freely flow between. So people usually cluster together in compartments, chatting, usually a bit of alcohol is involved (hey, there’s nothing else to do). So after partaying on the train all night you finally make your way to your bed, which could be on the bottom (pro: easy access con: people are usually sitting on your bed hanging out), middle (pro: people don’t sit on it, con: a bit squished), or top (pro: really high! So that’s fun, and there’s also more privacy in terms of changing clothes etc., con: when the lights go on in the morning, sometimes at 5AM, there is nothing shielding your eyes). So then the next morning we arrive usually around 6:30-7, go get breakfast and drop off our bags at the hotel, and then CIEE has organized a tour guide and a plan for us. That night then after dinner we usually go out to the bars and clubs. The next day is free, so we roll ourselves out of bed to check out by 12, then go exploring on our own.
This past weekend in Hangzhou we made our way around a bit. The first day (Saturday) CIEE took us to West Lake, where we went on a little boat ride. It could have been great but it was rainy and foggy, so unfortunately it ended up being pretty useless. Though we got to chat with each other I suppose. Then after lunch we went to Lingyin Temple, translated as “Temple of Inspired Seclusion” or “Temple of the Soul’s Retreat.” It is one of Hangzhou’s main attractions, and it was pretty nice. Originally built in 326 CE, though it has been rebuilt a bunch of times. It’s a Buddhist temple, so there are a couple of giant different kinds of Buddhas, which is pretty standard for Chinese Buddhist temples, of which we have already seen a few. A bit after we got there the skies cleared up a bit, so that was fun. I sort of got separated and wandered around the grounds by myself a bit, which was pretty enjoyable, though some people went to climb up a big hill/mountain and I kind of wish I had found them. Around the temple there are giant bowls where people put their incense, first they burn it and hold it in front of them while they pray, then they put in it big incense bowls. There is also a big thing where you are supposed to try to throw a coin in for good luck. Unfortunately the temples were all pretty crowded; it is kind of hard to feel like you are connecting to a place when people are hustling and bustling around you all the time, though honestly that is often the case in China. There are just so many people here!
So after the temple we all bussed it back to the hotel, showered, changed, and quickly got back in busses that were taking us to Hefang street, which is a shopping street. That was pretty nice, I kind of wanted to buy some things, but I ended up not really having time since we were on our way to dinner. So we wandered around and looked at the things being sold on the street: some little dolls made out of straw, people drawing pictures, custom-made clay busts of tourists’ heads, etc etc. There were also a lot of silk scarves and the like, though you have to make sure what you are buying is real, and then you have to bargain down the price, so shopping is always a bit of an event.
We went to dinner at a restaurant near Hefang jie (street) and ordered the Hangzhou specialties, which were chicken cooked wrapped in banana leaves and mud, which was pretty good, some shrimpy thing, and really fatty but (once you found the meat) realllly good pork. The eggplant in Hangzhou was also pretty tasty. After dinner we went out first to a Reggae bar, then danced the night away at a place called Coco club, recommended to me by my lovely friend Alea from DC. She hooked us up with the DJ and got us some free drinks.
The next day a big group of people and I ate lunch, then we split off and two friends and I went touring. We went first to Dreaming of Tiger Spring, which was a nice park-like thing with trees and (obviously) springs; it was really nice to breathe in some clean, fresh air. That is hard to come by in Beijing. Inside we had some Longjin tea, which is a Hangzhou specialty, though to be honest we were a bit disappointed by the tea that we got. Though I’m sure other places had better varieties.
Next we went to the Six Harmonies Pagonda and climbed up to the top. It was pretty, though the view would have been better if it hadn’t been rainy and foggy. But it was definitely a fun experience. After that it was getting late, so we made our way back to the West Lake, had some dinner at a Japanese restaurant, then made our way back to the Hotel around 8:30 to be bussed to the train.
Another long train ride, we didn’t get back to Beida until Monday afternoon (which did mean we got to miss Monday classes, wooop!)

Alright, sorry again this took me so long. I have to get to studying for my quiz in an hour, but later I will post more and maybe add some pictures. Comment if you’re reading!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A bit after The Beginning

大家好 (da jia hao, =hello everyone)! Sorry for the delay, it has been a slight while since my last post. In the beginning there is much to get together and organize, so that’s mostly what I’ve been doing. After signing up for our Hanyu (reading & writing) and Kouyu (speaking & listening) classes, we have one week of only those classes before signing up for electives. As it turns out, the elective classes listed on the CIEE website are not necessarily the ones that are available to all students. Some of them are just not there, and some are only available to advanced students (ie, those who have taken since high school or native speakers that are working on their writing). Sooo it looks like I might not be satisfying as many requirements as I had counted on this semester, everyone cross your fingers I’ll be able to graduate on time! Hahah… . Not really all that funny. But! Moving on to more important things. I realize it has been too long since I wrote last because I went to see the Forbidden City! And it feels like a long time ago now, but I have yet to tell you lot about it. CIEE organized the event for us last Sunday, a little over a week now. We all got in two big buses, each equipped with an English-speaking tour guide, and made our way to the center of Beijing, which as I recall took about 45 minutes, maybe even less, but that’s only because it was midday on a Sunday. Word on the street is it can take over an hour. So we got off at the infamous Tiananmen Square, where we were welcomed by blue skies and warm sunshine. The children flying kites and people selling candied fruit on a stick were very contrary to the square’s past, and it was as if there was a giant elephant standing in plain view that no one seemed to notice. But I couldn’t help enjoying myself; it was a beautiful day, kites were flying, birds were singing, and the excitement of almost 80 外国人 (wai guo ren, foreigners) meeting each other and exploring a (for some of us) new city and country (and continent!) was in the air. So we skipped through the square, took pictures, had a group shot (see above!) and enjoyed those blue skies (no 空气污染 (kong qi wu ran=air pollution) in sight! ...yet) all the way to the entrance of the Forbidden City.
Which is great! I was told that there used to be a Starbucks there, but thank goodness they apparently decided that that was too much modernization, even for them. Inside in the beginning there are a bunch of stands selling things, like fun hats etc, but us being 外国人 (remember it? You just learned!) they would probably be selling the things at a very high price, and I was not yet (and still am not really) confident in my bargaining skills. On the tour we went through gate after gate, which opened up into another large area with more buildings. See pictures above. I kept trying to guess which one was from the last scene in Mulan, but none of them looked quite right. Then we started talking about Mulan, got the “you must be swift as a coooursing riiiver, with all the strength of a greaaat tyyphoooon” song stuck in our heads, which was fun until it didn’t go away. Once we got toward the end of the tour we were up on higher ground within the city, and it was crazy to look beyond the tops of the old school Forbidden City buildings and past them you see the rest of the city of Beijing, with high rises and cars and highways and all that. I think there is a picture up there to that effect.
So the Forbidden city tour was interesting and fun. Afterwards I went with some program friends, Karen, Nathan, Christoph, Ali, and LA, to go find some scorpions to eat. Ohhh yesss, scorpions. We took a bus and a subway to a street called Wangfujing, a pretty famous street market, and walked through with the people trying to sell you whatever they have to offer. There was everything from starfish to lamb penis. The guy who was selling it thought it was really funny to try to get foreigners to eat it asking “what do you think this is? What is this?” and then answering his own question, “penis of lamb! Ha ha ha ha!” Very good times.
We found the scorpion stand a little ways down the street, and once we saw them we sort of started to lose our nerve. But no! We had a mission! There were multiple types of scorpions you could eat, and we went for the smallest ones. So each stick had three scorpions on it, and there being six of us we decided to get two of them and each have one. We each got ours (I took off the tail pincher, just to be safe) and popped them in our mouths, all at the same time (see pic above of scorpion group). It was actually delicious! Tasted a lot like soft shell crab. I guess you can deep-fry pretty much anything. Next time I’ve decided I’m going to go for the big one, I’ll keep you posted. Once we’d had our fill of scorpion we walked back, each clutching some caramelized fruits on a stick, and caught a bus, two subways, and another bus back to Beida. Definitely a successful day. A couple days later, as one of my fellow scorpion eaters and I were bragging about how badass we were, someone said “yea I hear Chinese people never actually eat scorpion. They just have it there for the tourists.” After that we felt a bit less cool. But whatever, we ate scorpions, they were just jealous.
On Feb 21 2008, exactly two weeks after this Chinese New Year (Feb 7 2008, for those not math-inclined) there is a festival called 元宵节 (Yuan xiao jie, Lantern Festival), which occurs on the first full moon of the year and marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. To celebrate some friends and I, Hana (my roommate), Isabelle, Lauren, Ashley, Karen, and Nick, all went to dinner in Houhai (see dinner pic above), an area about a 20-30 min cab ride from Beida. After eating we met up with a bunch of other kids from our program, some of whom had obtained a VIP area in a club just down the street from our restaurant. Though I had been planning on going home early, the party picked up and we were having a good time. My friend Lauren and I went out on the dance floor, where nooo one else was dancing, which was kind of awkward at first. But after about 10 minutes all of these Chinese people who had been just sitting at tables before got up and joined us, and it turned in to a giant China party! Various members of our program got up on a small stage that they had and were shouting into a microphone, which someone had (mistakenly) left on. We all vied for our turn, shouting things like 新年快乐! (xin nian kuai le=Happy New Year!) and 我爱中国! (Wo ai Zhong guo=I love China!). Then the Chinese people would grab the mic and shout various English phrases, as well as Happy New Year. Needless to say, it was 很好完儿 (hen hao wanr =good fun).
So that was the Thursday of the first weekend. The next couple of days I went to class (Friday) and went to dinner and out on the town with friends. Fun places to go are in Wudaokou and Sanlitun, where there are cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs to check out. Unfortunately though everything is a taxi ride away, which costs money. Especially when they pretend like they are lost and drive around “looking” for your location. This has happened to me a good 3 times so far, and my knowledge of the area and/or ability in Chinese to successfully intimidate/argue with the cabby have been insufficient to do much about it. So now I am just a taxi driver hater and paranoid, and taking cabs tends to stress me out. But when the weekend rolls around, I doubt that will stop me from making my way out and about. Especially when you are sharing a cab with 3 other people, you can chat and bond over how much you hate the cheating drivers. I’m excited for when I can pull some major confrontation action on a frontin’ cabby. Those will be the days.
One thing that will hopefully make taking cabs less necessary is a bike, which I just bought. Fun side note: when I was in line waiting to pay for my bike and some delicious chewy gummy candy, there was a Chinese father and son behind me. The son was wearing a WASHINGTON REDSKINS sweatshirt! It was such a happy moment. See picture!
Also, in the beginning of the trip, I was wondering why everyone said pollution was SUCH a problem. I mean I could tell it was polluted more than usual, but I had heard that you couldn’t see the sky; you couldn’t see far down a road it was so bad. My first week had been pretty nice, blue skies and sunshine on several occasions. Then Tuesday morning, Feb 19 I went outside and oh my goodness. It was crazy, at first I thought it was mist but the weather didn’t feel humid or damp, it didn’t feel like misty or foggy weather. And also, this so called mist was brown in color. It was gross. But that was the worst day yet; though it’s cold today was actually pretty nice; blue skies and sunshine. Good thing the Olympics are on their way, otherwise who knows whether the pollution problem would be being worked on or not.
So! That’s all for now folks, I’m off to do some homework and watch the Oscars a day late at a pizza place with some friends. I miss you all, please let me know what you’re up to! Till later!


Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Beginning

大家好 from Beijing! This blog was created to try to efficiently keep in touch with anyone who wants while I am overseas. Exciting! So, please treat this like an email and write me back if you so desire! Email= Right now it is 5pm Beijing time, 13 hours ahead of the east coast US (China doesn’t do daylight savings time) and 16 hours ahead of the west coast US. So you guys are all sleeping soundly in your beds. I don’t have internet though, so this post won’t go up for a couple of days. It’s only my third day here, and right now is about the time of day the jetlag hits hard. Sooo I am writing this mainly to try to stay awake! Anyway, Beijing. I flew out from LA, after spending about a week visiting my sista and seeing San Francisco and Santa Barbara. Cali was sweeeet (shout out Sarah!!), and after spending time in southern California I wasn’t too happy about re-entering winter, but I was counting on Beijing being worth it. So my flight was flying from LA to San Fran, where I would connect to a flight going directly to Beijing.
The SF flight was late, and after we landed we spent another 20 minutes just hanging out waiting for a gate to be open. So I was stressing out a little, though there were a lot of Chinese peeps on my flight so I assumed there would be enough going to Beijing that they would hold it. And I was right! So during the 12 hour flight I watched a movie and popped some benadryl after which I conked out big time, and there was a Chinese guy sitting in my row and he would save me food when I was sleeping which was really nice. I also got to practice speaking a little bit, which ended up just freaking me out when I realized how much I couldn’t say. Though the flight was 12 hours it really didn’t feel that bad. I talked to some expats who were on their way back to Beijing after the New Year vacation and they gave me some helpful hints and email addresses.
When I got off the plane I immediately ran in to some other kids from my program who had been on my flight, and we all stuck together for moral support while we got our bags and tried to find our bus. It was a huge relief when one girl said “anyone else thinking what the hell they’re doing here?” and everyone immediately replied “YEA!” While it was amazingly cool knowing I would be spending the next 4 months plus in China, when the plane was descending to land it was totally daunting. I just kept thinking what if I don’t like my roommate, people in my program, if no one wants to be my friend! etc etc. I had learned that no matter where you are, if you don’t find people you enjoy spending time with, you can end up feeling like you’re missing out. But once off the plane I was chatting with some of the people I met and they were all quite friendly. I also realized that there are more people than I thought in my program; I thought it was about 40 but it’s actually around 80 (though only 30 or 40 people met at the airport at the same time as I did). So once everyone got together we made our way, with allll of our luggage, to the bus that was waiting to take us to Beida (short for Beijing Daxue= 北京大学=Peking University).
Just dealing with our bags alone was such a pain. Most everyone had two heavy suitcases that they had checked, plus carry on luggage, so with the 30some people that met in the airport we had a looot of baggage. All of it on to the bus, off of the bus, through one building, outside, into another, up to our floor…needless to say once we finally got to our rooms I was very relieved. My roommate was at the airport too but we didn’t figure out we were roommates till we got to our room. Her name is Hana and she’s nice, she’s actually from Serbia and Croatia which was pretty cool, though she’s gone to boarding school and college in the US since 9th grade. I’ve met a good number of people in my program by now, though not all cause there are a lot, and there a bunch of fun people so everything looks promising.
So the first night I went to dinner with some program people, unpacked, and went to bed. Before I came here I got mixed reports about the food. Some people said it was delicious and some said it was inedible. My experiences so far with it have been quite positive, and there actually is also a lot of western food available, though I’m going to try to rock the local cuisine as much as possible. Anyway, the next morning we had to meet up at 8:30, and the schedule said they were providing breakfast so we were all stoked. Apparently China doesn’t really do breakfast, at least not the same way we do, so everyone was looking forward to taking advantage of a rare meal. So fast forward next day, when we’re going up to get the food, and we discover that the breakfast they had gotten for us consisted of packaged mini donuts, oreos, and chocolate bars. I guess that’s what they think Americans have for our first meal of the day, but needless to say I was very happy about all the power bars I had brought.
That first day we had some orientation stuff, then we spent the last half of the day in Wudaokou, which is a district right next to Beida, about a 5-10 min cab ride. We ate lunch at a “typical Chinese restaurant,” more good food, then split up into groups and did a scavenger hunt type thing where we had to go around Wudaokou and sort of observe things and answer some questions, after which we had to report our answers to a teacher (laoshi). So we got to know the area a bit, then lots of us went to get cell phones and SIM cards at a China Mobile in Wudaokou. The rest of the day we had free, so after a power nap some program people and I went to a café in Wudaokou where there was free wireless since we don’t have internet in our dorms yet.
Part 2: 2/16
The next morning was the placement test, which was awful. It was like taking the SATs all over again, but in Chinese. It put everyone in a bad mood until a 1 year student who had been here in the fall said it wasn’t really that important. Afterwards we took a group photo (say 茄子! qie zi=eggplant), ate lunch, then got a campus tour by a 1 year student. That was helpful for the campus tour, but also mainly for the info we got afterwards about different bars and clubs and places to hang out, things to do, etc. It got me really excited to explore the city. We had more free time then, so more (unsuccessful) power naps and hot showers (the water pressure is lovely!) before I went with some program people to dinner and then out. But! On the way to lunch, me and two friends were heading to find a restaurant when we heard some animal sounds, looked up, and there was a kitten stuck in a tree! I know, it was straight out of a cartoon. Since there were no fire trucks around, me and Ali (from DC actually, went to Holton Arms) lifted up this girl LA (from Williamsburg! I know, crazy) who rescued the kitten. It was adooorable, we played with it a little afterwards, it was orange and really nice and wonderful. If I lived in an apartment I would definitely have taken it home. But yea anyway later that night after dinner we ended up at this club with a friend of one of the people in my program, up in a room on the third floor since one of her friends worked at the club or something along those lines. By then it was only 10:30-11 but me and some others were still sooo tired from jet lag, and the music was pretty terrible, so we ended up leaving and getting to bed by midnight. The next day we had to be going to get our books at 8 so it was a wise choice. Well, so we thought. We all got ourselves out of bed and to the Russian Building by 8, when they told us that it actually didn’t start till 9. So we got some breakfast and went back around 9, when the games began.
So the whole getting your books process is pretty interesting. From the placement test they give you a general idea of what book you should get, which then corresponds to which class you end up taking. So you wait in line and when you get to the front a Chinese teacher shows you the book you’re assigned and you look through it and decide whether you think it is right for you. If you decide it’s too easy, you have to negotiate with the teacher in Chinese to see if they’ll let you move up. Depending on who you get, whether your person is lenient or strict, it can be somewhat difficult. This year it was extra complicated because you can only take electives if you get intermediate or higher, but the definition of what intermediate was had changed. So my and some other people’s book was newly titled “pre-intermediate II,” which last year had been called intermediate, and last year had allowed electives. But since the system changed, this year it was only 50-50 whether electives would be allowed with that book, and no one knew for sure, not even the Chinese teachers. The problem was that there was no way to know until classes had already started, and by that time it is very difficult to switch, especially if you are switching to a harder class than you had been in before. So once I found that out I got nervous, because to get the credits I need for my Chinese major I need to take electives! So there was a big hubbub about switching up books, and the lady was a bit strict, but I weaseled my way in to the Intermediate I book (drop), which definitely allows electives.
A couple hours later I went to lunch with some friends, after which it was time to meet our tutors. I got a note that my tutor was out of town, so instead I read through my Lonely Planet Beijing guide and tried unsuccessfully to take a nap. Jet lag blows. It makes you tired enough to not have energy and want to sleep, but I can never actually sleep. So here I am now, afternoon again, writing to stay awake. I’m making plans with some friends for dinner tonight; we’re going to have some of the finest Peking duck in Beijing! Very exciting. Till later!