Monday, September 25, 2006

As a Dog

Although she may not look it, pictured at right is a villain of the highest order. Take a good, long look, and know the face of evil.

That may be a bit overly harsh; she was actually one of the nicest ladies I can imagine meeting (although she was talking to the other customers about how bad my Chinese was... at least I understood that much?). Her crime, however, was cooking something that got me sick as hell for about 24 hours. What began as a docile-looking bowl of noodles, quickly turned into a vicious case of la duzi, and from there morphed into a long night of wild fever, sweating, shivering, hobbling to the bathroom, and some crazy dreams. I rode it out, lived to tell the tale, and was fine 24 hours post-noodle.

But that was Friday, and this is Tuesday (at least on this side of the world)! Not that I have much excitement to report. Last night I discovered the Beida campus coffee shop, where they serve instant coffee with "REAL MILK" and liquid, hazelnut flavored, sugar. It was godawful.

Also, Red Sky at Night has made its triumphant return to the Tufts Daily! I must say, having a triumph every week is really terrific. If you're into reading real copyrighted material (unlike the bogus crap at the bottom of this page) check it out here. Again, might look familiar. Fresh content coming next week.

Finally, I ought to put in a plug for the blog of Susannah Louise Nitz Gund, which chronicles her mischief and other fandangos in the Kingdom of Morocco. The posts are long, but they're wildly entertaining (quality AND quantity!), and truly fascinating. It's linked above, or click here

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Rounding Out Nanjing

One week later, still telling stories of Nanjing. I guess it was that good. This post will be photo-laden to encourage your continued attention.

After the adventures of the first day, we were cut loose for the evening, and I took to the city with fellow CIEE student and CU Boulder undergraduate Meagan. We explored downtown Nanjing, which was conveniently located immediately outside our hotel. The night included such exploits as paddling a boat up a river that runs through the center of the city (see the river, a tributary of the mighty Yangzi, at right), and sharing a few outsized bottles of Tsingtao while enjoying the scene on the street.

The aforementioned scene was, as I suppose ought be expected, a bit absurd. Grown men chased after a dog in the street, trying to kick it (think that's cruel? ready my last post); plastic cups filled with unidentified fluids rocketed overhead from unknown sources, landing in the street; sparks flew-- seriously, honest to god sparks. The source of said sparks was, in fact, the combination of a skill saw and spot welder, which were in use about 3 meters from our table, as a squad of men worked to put an awning above the entrance to a tiny restaurant. This ridiculous process (pictured, at left)seemed doomed to failure, especially considering the (massive) size of the sign and the (pathetic) metal stays meant to hold it up. If nothing else, it made for grand entertainment.

The next morning was way weirder. I teamed up with a few compatriots, and headed to the "famous Nanjing hot springs." The cab ride, we had been told, would be not more than about 15 minutes. Half an hour later and still in the back seat, I was quietly taking the cash out of my wallet and readying for fisticuffs with the driver and his gang. When we finally arrived (we weren't, after all, driven to a warehouse and held up by our driver), we were not in the pastoral location we had expected, but at a massive spa and resort-- kind of cheesy and wildly overpriced. A little disappointed, we hung around for the morning anyway, soaking in the hot tubs and laughing at ourselves.

The afternoon was spent ruining our newly healthy skin and getting sweaty again. I returned to the giant park/mountain that featured Sun Yat Sen's Tomb and went for a hike up Zijin Shan (Purple Gold Mountain). The day was cloudy, and not conducive to good photos, so hopefully this unrelated photo will suffice: it's the view from my hotel room. On my way out of the park, a clanky minibus screeched to a halt next to me, the driver leaning out demanding to give me a ride. After a bit of haggling, I boarded his illegal taxi and crawled into the back, where I sat by an old woman from Xi'an. Also in the van were a pair of college students, and in the front seat, an 8 year-old clad in pyjamas. Needless to say, I survived the trip, though the likely outcome was not so obvious at the time.

Before I knew it, I was on the train, speeding back towards Beijing (speaking of trains, see below). Another overnight trip, this more restful than the last: fortunate, because we arrived just in time for classes on Monday morning.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I'm Such a Tease

Here's the kitten story, which I know you're hankering to hear.

The setting: Last Summer, while teaching in Xiantao, Hubei, China

I was on my bike, riding along one of the canals that runs through Xiantao. I came across a stone bridge leading onto an island in the middle of the canal, and I turned onto the bridge, curious to see what was on the other side. I passed a gatehouse on the far end of the bridge, and coasted into a parking lot, where, after mucking through a sign-full of chinese characters, I realized I was at a school.

Satisfied with my discovery, I turned my bike around and started back towards the bridge. As I approached it, and old man emerged from the gatehouse, with a young boy of no more than 5 or 6 years at his heels, scrambling to keep up. I drew closer, and saw that the old man was carrying a long pair of wooden tongs, clamped at the end of which was a tiny kitten, trying to wriggle free. I watched with both shock and, I admit, some amusement as his intentions became clear.

The old man and the little boy walked out, halfway across the bridge, looks of excitement on their faces, and without a moment's hesitation, tossed the kitten into the canal below. They peered down at the water, the little boy wrestling to get his head over the stone railing, and watched as the kitten struggled for its final breaths, then turned around and returned to the gatehouse, looking well pleased.

Once you've finished meditating on that, here's a photo to clear your mind. It's from the park around Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum in Nanjing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Behind the Scenes

Our other stop on Saturday in Nanjing was an outdoor amphitheatre-- the likes of which I had never seen before in China. The stone stage sat before a grassy seating area designed to resemble a paper fan. The whole place was overrun with white pigeons, which could've passed for doves in my book, and which were slaves for birdfood sold to the visitors to the amphitheatre.

More peculiar was what I found behind the stage, between the stone back of the amphitheatre and the woods beyond. Much to my surprise, a little boy, who may well have lived in one of the tiny apartments under the theatre, pulled a puppy out of a styrofoam cooler by the stairs. Pictured is the boy with the tortured, freezing dog. The Chinese have an odd relationship to animals, one that is not entirely friendly. If you haven't heard the story about the kitten that got thrown in the river, you should ask me about that one sometime.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Unprecedented Heights

Good news for the computer illiterate and the short of patience! Red Sky at Night is now a dual-media publishing source, as I will be authoring a weekly column in the "Viewpoints" section of the Tufts Daily newspaper. For those fortunate enough to not be in Medford, Massachusetts, these columns will also be available online at the Daily's website. Read my first column, running in Monday's paper here. To regular readers, it might look somewhat familiar.

In other news, I am freshly returned from Nanjing, China's historical southern capital. It was an adventurous, action-packed weekend, shared with my 60-odd fellow American CIEE students. I found Nanjing to be a very pleasant city, much more manageable than Beijing. It is considerably smaller than its northern counterpart, and environmentally it was, literally, a breath of fresh air. Partly thanks to the fact that much of the weekend was spent outdoors, running through mountains, a nasty sinus infection that had been creeping up on me was gone within 6 hours of arrival. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It was an 11 hour train ride to Nanjing, done overnight in the "hard sleeper" class. Though it sounds terribly unpleasant, "hard sleeper" is actually quite comfortable, once you slide yourself into your berth. There are six people in each doorless "compartment", stacked three high on each side, which open out onto the corridor running down the side of the train. I would tell you more, but I was asleep the whole trip.

We arrived, groggy, on Saturday morning, and made two major stops as a group. Both were within the same, massive park that encircles and includes Zijin Shan (Purple Gold Mountain). The highlight destination was the mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen (pictured, with Lion). The steps ran up the side of the moutain, leading to one heck of a final resting place, solely for Dr. Sun. If you've got to go, I'll tell you, that's the way to do it.

There are more stories and more pictures to come, but for now, I have some Chinese characters to study.

Friday, September 15, 2006

I'm Off

In two hours I'll be on a train to Nanjing, another of China's most historical cities. The weekend trip is CIEE-sponsored, and I'm going along with a number of my fellow American students. The 12-hour train ride might not be a whole lot of fun, but hopefully I'll be asleep for most of it. I'll bring back lots of pictures and stories-- expect to hear more on Monday.

Peace be with you.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Sorry, Mum, I guess this probably isn't the picture of your son that you've been hoping to see, but here it is, anyway. For the sake of experimenting with self-portraits, and to better convey my feelings about dinner this evening, I give you The Picture of Frustration at Monolingualism (go ahead, look it up, I guarantee you it's in the dictionary).

Dinner, as you might be wondering, was shared with my Chinese friend Super (of Red Sky fame), his girlfriend, and my fellow American CIEE student Meagan. What I had hoped would be an ideal opportunity to practice my Chinese, turned out to be me trying in vain to follow the conversation, and constantly requesting translations from my three bilingual friends. It's enough to make a man insane.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Imperial Garden

A detail from within the Forbidden City. This is on one the palace inhabited by the Empress Dowager Cixi, famous for rising from the status of an ordinary concubine to the supreme ruler of China. Contrariwise, she is infamous for her ruthlessness and her corruption that weakened the Qing dynasty to the point of collapse. Her last words were: "Never again allow a woman to hold the supreme power in the state." Let that be a lesson to us all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Veterinarian or Restaurant?

I'll leave that question for you to ponder, dear reader.

Classes began in earnest today, with a two-hour reading/writing class and a two-hour speaking class, back-to-back. Reading/Writing 5 was too easy, Speaking 9 was too hard, I'll change them both and end up somewhere in the middle. The tricky part about all this, is that it's in Chinese.

I came to an alarming realization today. When eating with chopsticks, one uses two of them. The implication here is that there are at least twice as many chopsticks as there are people in China. That's 2.6 billion chopsticks, or about 1.5 million trees.

Actually, it's probably a lot more, considering that, on an average day, the Chinese throw away over 123 million chopsticks.

I was moseying back towards campus yesterday, noodling around, taking pictures, when I was accosted by two women who started talking to me in Chinese. They were probably in their early 30's, well dressed, perfectly respectable looking women, and they were clearly very anxious for me to understand something. Unlucky for them, I couldn't understand a word they were saying. I apologized and told them about my disability, expecting them to leave me alone, but to no avail. They continued quite adamantly, and as they repeated things, I gradually began to understand.

They said they were hungry, and needed money to buy food. I overcame an impulse to capitalize on this chance to practice my Chinese, and feigned continued incomprehension. But still, they wouldn't leave me alone. After a while, I caved, as things were becoming more and more feisty, and offered to buy them some dumplings down the street. The nastier of the two women- the one who had been doing most of the talking- only got angry at this, and demanded 200¥. I scoffed, and bid them goodbye. She responded with a phrase I couldn't understand, but she spat it out in such a way that I'm quite sure it was very nasty indeed. Really odd.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

An Open Letter to The Chinese Language, Part I

Dear The Chinese Language,

I ought to begin by clarifying my perceptions of our relationship. I have not had my happiest days working at you, indeed, my best efforts to learn you have, by and large, been frustrating and fruitless. I admit I chose you not because I think you are beautiful or particularly literary, but for entirely utilitarian reasons. I think you have a bright future, and I’d like to be a part of it. Plus, I think you could make me rich—very rich—but only if our association is a successful one.

I have invested a lot in you—a lot of time, a lot of energy, and possibly some of my future, too. It’s been four semesters of dedicated study, countless hours slaving away with flash cards, endless preparation for exams, presentations, tests… and for what? To me, you still look like a Rorschach test, and you still sound like a drawer full of silverware being dumped down a flight of stairs. I don’t feel you are making the same effort to make our relationship a happy and successful one. I mean really, no spaces between your words? That just seems like laziness—would it really be so hard to use the space? It’s the world’s most common punctuation, and all the other languages use it. Forgive my digression, but I’m sure you understand my frustration.

For all the hardship, I haven’t given up—that’s why I’m here in Beijing today: to learn you. Our first week living in these close quarters has been a bit rough, and completely exhausting. Devoting all of my time to that at which I am, arguably, worst has been somewhere between humbling and downright depressing. I find myself often shy, avoiding you, but at the same time, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I feel as though I’m wasting my time by not spending it with you. It’s been hard.

You are complicated, murderously hard to read, and I often don’t understand you at all. Nevertheless, I’m not yet ready to give up on you. I’m told that even talentless individuals such as myself can make great strides by living with you, and I believe this to be true. Yes, it’s been a pretty nutty first week, but I have faith things will get better by the time autumn arrives in Beijing, and I will do my best to make it happen. I’ll work hard in my classes, and, more importantly, I’ll use you as much as I can outside the classroom. I’ll try to make some Chinese friends willing to let me practice you with them, and I won’t spend all my time speaking in English to other Americans. That’s a promise.

We’ve got a long way to go, and I realize that, for now, the onus is on me to improve things. You can expect to hear from me again at the end of this semester, and hopefully the news then will be good. Until then, walk slow.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Person

人民, a popular phrase in the People's Republic, is Mandarin for "the people." But there's only one person in this picture! What does it all mean?

Took a trip yesterday to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was fun to return there and reabsorb the grandeur of it all. The Forbidden City is really an amazing complex; just in its architecture it's orders of magnitude more grand and majestic than anything else I've ever seen.

I registered for classes today, and I'll be in level 5 for writing and listening, and I somehow squeaked into level 9 for speaking. Impressive though this may sound, I should mention that levels 1-7 are for "beginners" and 8-15 is "low intermediate." A little disappointing, actually, that after two years in the classroom, I'm still beginning. More on all that later.

While wandering recently, I was accosted by a man who wanted to know if I was a native English speaker. A 10 minute conversation ensued, he demanding to know the difference between "this year's output increased two-fold" and "this year's output increased by two times," among various other iterations. To be frank, it got a little annoying after a while. Plus he had bad breath.

Friday, September 08, 2006

A View on BeiDa

Bamboo and a small monument on Beijing University campus. A chilly morning yielded to a warm day, beautiful.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Gray day in Beijing

Note: This picture looks the same in color.


While dashing around Beijing to compete in the orientation scavenger hunt, our team, including Exodus (pictured, front and center), ran into a break dancing troupe. We were wowed not just by their physical prowess, but also by how much that guy in the middle looks like Bruce Lee.

The Coconut Meets The Peach

“Americans are like peaches, but Chinese are coconuts.” Such was the message from Prof. Donny Huang, specialist in intercultural communication, in a lecture yesterday to new BeiDa students. Americans are amicable, and quick to make friends—like the soft, sweet outside of a peach—but just as the core of a peach is a hard, rough pit, it is difficult to become very close with an American. By contrast, the Chinese can be tough as coconuts on the outside, but once one penetrates this coarse exterior, they are willing to “share their milky sweetness,” to quote Prof. Huang.

I went to dinner this evening at one of the campus cafeterias, hoping to more convincingly play the part of a BeiDa student. I collected an unappetizing brown and beige meal of pan-fried noodles, and a sort of cold vegetable salad based inauspiciously around sliced cucumber. After a gruesome 2-hour placement exam this morning, and a continuing stream of evidence supporting the notion that my Chinese is inexorably pathetic, I was more in the mood for another round of airplane food than what sat on my tray.

I sat alone, but was joined almost instantaneously by a student sitting oddly close to me, considering the presence of empty tables nearby. Despite what at first seemed to be an act of uncommon friendliness, he buried his face (literally) in the whole fish and bowl of rice before him. As I made my way through my dinner, I watched, somewhere between disgusted and mesmerized as he ripped apart the fish, and shoveled the rice into his mouth, pausing only to regurgitate the fish bones onto his tray.

After 10 minutes of this noisy, slurping silence, I forced out a question, asking him (in Chinese, naturally) if the fish was any good. “很好吃” he replied, very delicious. He pushed the dish towards me and urged me to take a bite. “Very tasty,” I agreed. His name is Liu Chao, but his American friends call him Super. He has made one trip to the United States, to compete in a computer science competition sponsored by Microsoft in Seattle. He, like many of his peers at BeiDa, is an avid appreciator of American television, and could tally the shows by name: Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Lost, 24. His favorite is Friends.

I confess, by the time we had reached this advanced stage of conversation, much of our dialogue was in English. Every Chinese student must pass an English exam to gain entrance to BeiDa, and Super’s skills are not lacking. Nevertheless, it was delightful and refreshing to make this connection, and undoubtedly good practice for each of us in our respective second languages. Even my dinner began to taste better, as we chatted in an absurd mix of two tongues. I had cracked his coconut shell, plus overcome my own nutty tendencies, and was one friend the better for it. It’s remarkable what a little human interaction can do for a sullen mood.

“In China,” Super told me, “We like to download the whole season of a show, and watch it in just a few days.” I told him we often do the same in America. “You download?” I nodded. “Even though there is a copyright?” Nod. “Good, you make me feel much better.” We laughed.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bienvenue au Beijing!

After a long day in the care of (stubbornly bilingual) Air Canada, I arrived in China yesterday, and quickly shipped out to Beijing University (Beida) where I will be doing my studying this fall. I will have a more detailed report (and some pictures) when my personal computer systems are up and running, but for now, a quick summary:

I'm living in a foreign student dormitory on Beida campus, sharing a hotel-like room with a gentleman from Southern California named Armando. Navigating a world where everything is written and spoken in Chinese has been, as expected, a trial thus far, and won't be getting easier until I get better. That begins next week, as my classes (speaking chinese, reading chinese, listening in chinese) begin. Until then, I'm mired in orientation, along with my fellow American students. I'm about to be booted at the internet bar, so I must sign off here, but expect more news soon.