Tuesday, October 31, 2006

An Outlaw

祝你万圣节快乐! Happy Halloween!

You can celebrate by reading the newest column in the Tufts Daily, here. It opens with some exciting news that I hesitate to publish in this forum. Enticed?

The weekend was rather mellow-- most of my fellow CIEE students took off for Pingyao, a city I visited in my travels last summer. So I stayed here, and enjoyed a restful and productive weekend on campus. Boring, huh? I took a bunch of pictures, though, and I'll publish my favorites here over the course of this week. Expect one a day, so be sure to come back regularly. Let the festival commence:
Every Saturday, there's a little flea market on Beida campus. They mostly sell books, and some desk supplies. I bought some hard to find 0.7mm lead for my mechanical pencils. Although I paid a delightfully Chinese price, it also turned out to be of woefully Chinese quality. Every three characters, it breaks, and I have to reclick my pencil. Darn. Pictured above is someone's hand with some books. Got it? I apologize for the annoying angle.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Amartya Who?

Harg harg harg. I foolishly signed up last week to go along with a few members of Beida's US-China Business Association to a big event this morning. Essentially, this was the opening ceremony of an annual conference held by Beida, this year the topic is "The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All." Theoretically interesting, but from my vantage, mostly a lot of hot air.

Despite having to sit through a few boring speeches by Beida officials, Beijing officials and Olympic committee officials, the trip was not without perks. Most notably, the shebang was held at the Great Hall of the People, one of the big buildings adjacent to Tiananmen Square, at the center of Beijing. It was fairly impressive, although I wasn't really allowed to run free through the building. Understandable, I guess.

Also cool was hearing the keynote address given by Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen. He's one of those card-carrying certified geniuses who is kind of intimidating even to look at. The speech was interesting, although necessarily itself somewhat full of hot air. He talked about the interdependency of civilization (not, notably, "civilizations"), and was full of professorial anecdotes and stories.

Both Amartya and I decided to cut out at intermission-- he because he's a genius, and me because I was bored. He was mobbed by Chinese students who wanted a picture with him, and it took him ages to get out of the room, but eventually made it and headed for the elevator. As I was slipping out simultaneously, I surreptitiously snuck into the same car.

OK, everybody, raise your hand if you've ridden in an elevator with a Nobel Laureate? That's what I thought. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. I thanked him for his speech, and he asked me if I wanted to accompany him on his tour of Asia. I politely declined, as I have class on Monday. Actually, that last bit isn't really true. Anyway, I had a pleasant trip back to Beida with Frankie, pictured at right, who speaks better English than I do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Once the world's largest gardens, the YuanMingYuan park, just to the north of BeiDa campus is a pleasant place to walk, read, sit and sometimes take pictures. My most recent trip yielded this experimental photograph, which serves a second purpose as proof that I'm still alive. Like many historical relics in China, the sign outside laments the fact that everything is now in disarray, thanks to the ruthless invasion of British and French forces in 1860. I admit I don't really feel sorry for them.

A new column appeared in yesterday's Tufts Daily. If you missed it, check it out here. It's about taking the bus.

Funny thing: I went to play soccer today in one of the neverending games on campus. I found another loner, a Chinese student, and we scouted the three matches currently in progress, looking for the one best suited for a pair of newcomers. "I think this game would be better than that one," he said, "What do you think?"

"What about this other one," I asked, pointing to the third game, which he had ignored.

"Oh," he replied, "They're Koreans."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Hey, Lady!

Hey, Lady! Wake up! There's a bus that needs driving! Yes, that's a Beijing bus driver, taking a nap at the wheel. Beijing traffic is just that bad. Still, a little on the disconcerting side of things.

Unrelatedly, I didn't mean for the tone of that last post to be so gloomy. I was just trying to explain what it's like to live in a really foreign place, and I meant it when I said 'There are parts of living here that I like, and parts I can do without.' Also, an attempt to illustrate my reasoning behind returning to Tufts for spring semester, which, yes, is really what I plan to do. I'm quite sure I'm making the right decision, and I'm looking forward to an extra semester in the ivory tower. There's a tinge of regret, too-- I sort of feel like I'm giving up by going home early-- but China will still be here later, and college, really, won't.

Keep an eye on The Tufts Daily for a hilarious column about the traffic situation in Beijing. It should be up in a few hours.


Feel free to disregard the following text and just look at the pictures. The two are unrelated. Brief captions for each of the photos are at the end of this post.

As autumnal weather settles on Beijing, I am confronted with a new sight with which I am until now unacquainted: lots of Chinese people wearing coats. With my 13 weeks of China experience (6+7=13) all in the summer months, I’ve seen oodlesof Chinese in t-shirts, bathing suits, and even business wear. These days, however, it’s not uncommon to see whole gaggles of Chinese all walking around wearing coats. It’s new.

Ahem, I’ve been thinking recently that China is beginning to lose a bit of its lustre. Arriving in a totally wacky, different place, comes with a sort of giddy excitement affecting even the most everyday activities. Ordering food is an adventure, crossing the street is an expedition, and taking a bus across town is a veritable odyssey. After a while, for better or worse, things start to get more normal.

Then, I think, one can objectively answer the question ‘do I like this place?’—once a trip stops being a carnival and starts being—life. My main objective in coming to China last summer was to answer that question, and I didn’t come up with a satisfactory response. With all the traveling about that I did, I hardly ever got past the “honeymoon stage” of culture shock, as it’s known among the pros. Only now, really, am I getting a taste of life in China.

There are parts of living here that I like, and parts I can do without. I suppose it’s the same no matter where one lives. Ultimately, however, this place isn’t home. I think with significantly better language abilities, I could get to a point where I was comfortable in China, but it’s hard to imagine choosing to move here on any sort of permanent basis. The question that naturally follows is a tough one: if one doesn’t plan to live in China, than really, what is the point of learning Chinese? There doesn’t seem to be much reason to put in all the effort.

This is not my resignation letter—I’m still planning to continue with the language through my final three semesters at Tufts—but it is some of the reasoning behind my decision to return to Tufts for the spring, which, at last, is my final decision. I think I stand to gain a lot from an extra semester in academia, and if I decide that I do want to spend some post-graduation time working in China, well, I can put in the time and learn the language then. I’ve got a good start.

The photos: I went today down to the Panjiayuan antique market, way the heck on the other side of Beijing. It was fun, and thanks to a spot of rain yesterday, the sky was clear enough for some sun to shine through the city air. Photography ensued. The most fun spot was outside the market, where they were storing all the outsized Chinese statues. Photo 1: Buddhist goddesses, roped to the truck by their necks. 2: A dude with one of the aforementioned goddesses. 3: Some monks, securely fastened. 4: Some guys play chinese chess while another goddess gets funky. 5: A smorgasbord of Buddhist deities.

Monday, October 16, 2006

3 Scenes

This morning, before dawn, it rained. Not much, just a little, but enough to clear the skies of some of its usual filth. I capitalized on a beautiful, free morning, and did my studying outdoors, flipping through flash cards at a stone table in front of my dorm. A trio of men, two dressed in the garb of Buddhist monks, walked past.

One stopped, and asked if I was studying hanyu-- Chinese. I was. They had come from Tibet to study religion at Beijing University, and they are part of a small but noticeable population of monks on campus. He insisted my hanyu was exceedingly fluent, I insisted otherwise, we said our goodbyes, and he went off to class.

I sat outside on Sunday, contemplating the morning. A woman, an employee of the school, rode past on her three-wheeled bicycular contraption, into which she deposits the contents of the campus' trash bins. She stopped, picked up a can, and emptied the garbage into the back of her vehicle.

After replacing the can, she peered over the edge of her depository, inspecting the catch. She reached in, and pulled out a small mirror, which someone had thrown away. Holding it in her dirty hand, she looked at herself, turned her face to the side, and adjusted an earring. She put the mirror in the basket on the front of her bike, and rode on.

I sat in an immaculate, brand new classroom of brushed steel and white boards on pulley systems. I was there after hours, studying hard, and in silence, along with half a dozen Beida students, scattered around the room. The tranquility was shattered by a snipping sound coming from the back of the room.

An older man-- perhaps a student, perhaps a loafer of some sort-- sat back in his chair, books closed lazily in front of him. His hands were at his face, and he was trimming his nosehair with a pair of fingernail clippers. He was at it for minutes on end, snip, snip, snipping away; first his nosehair, then his facial hair. I went back to work.

Speaking less abstractly, a fresh column appears in today's Tufts Daily. I address the timely topic of North Korea's nuclear experimentation, and draw dramatic conclusions. Enjoy it here. Call me nitpicky, but I wish to mention this qualifier: the title is kind of dumb. I was planning to (cleverly) call it "Nukes for Kooks," but submitted to my editors, along with a few other possible titles, the concern that Kooks was perhaps too easily mistaken for Gooks (which, my dictionary tells me, can be used as a derogatory term not just for Vietnamese, but for Filipinos and Koreans as well). Not wanting to be labeled a racist, I left the decision to my editors.

They came up with their own title, which, in my opinion, makes no sense: "Nukes for Dummies." From this title, I feel readers are bound to draw one of two assumptions about the article, both of which are incorrect. 1: By referencing the not-particularly helpful self-help book series, the title suggests I am somehow going to explain "Nukes." I'm not. I don't understand them. 2: Koreans are Dummies. They're not. In fact, I've met a very nice, very smart girl of North Korean descent while at Beida. Even Pres. Kim isn't a "dummy," per se... more just a kook.

While I'm at it, if you thought my last column, "Stormy Straits," was a little bit choppy and/or asinine, I'd be happy to provide you with the full, unedited version. Just send me an e-mail.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Too Much to Bear Thinking About

China's national English language newspaper, The China Daily, is a constant source of hilarity for me here in Beijing. The humor is not, as you might guess, in consistently poor/ridiculous English (actually, most articles are very well written), but other, much more subtle features of the paper. One of my favorites is a daily page devoted to "headlines from around China." Some highlights of one recent edition include:

"Pampered Cat Attacked by Uppity Mouse"
"Stressed out Fugitive Turns Self In"
"Wedding Leads Groom to Drink Self to Death"
"Girl Fakes Kidnapping to Avoid Doing Homework"

And this is all from one day's paper. It may give us a clue as to how The Onion keeps coming up with fresh ideas. There is something in today's paper, however, that I feel compelled to share. Take a look at the cartoon in the photo below.

Old Man "World Oil Co." drowns in the swamp, marvelling at the way fat, young "Chinese Oil Co." walks on water. How does he do it, indeed?

Well, to begin with, he does business with the most unsavory regimes on earth, personally propping up the genocidal regime in Sudan, and the nutbars in Iran. That , I suppose, goes back to what I was saying the other day, about Chinese not wanting to mess in the affairs of others. For me, the real killer, is the bitter, bitter irony provided by the headline immediately below the cartoon: "Harmonious society to be a model for the world." Harmonious, honestly.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Inner Mongolia- Part II of II

After a day in the grasslands, the Koreans, Judy and I piled back into the bus, and headed for the caoyuan—grasslands. We arrived at a small ‘”village” late in the evening, in time for a dinner of roast lamb—Inner Mongolia’s famous dish. The village was a bizarre place. I hesitate to call it fake, but it was something along those lines, existing solely for the consumption of tourists. Like our experience in the desert, it was a bit on the touristy side, but just being in the environment and seeing the landscape was reward in itself. Plus we got to sleep in yurts (pictured).

We were also treated to traditional Inner Mongolian songs and dances, and had shots of niujiu (milk wine, another specialty) foisted upon us. I’m still unsure as to the composition of milk wine—the name has rather inauspicious connotations—but it turned out not to be half bad.

Plus, it helped with the evening’s weather, which was a tad on the freezing side. I huddled in my yurt wearing two pairs of pants and three shirts, thankful for the heavy blanket left for my by the Mongols. By morning it was much, much colder, and the local creatures were evidently feeling it, too: I awoke to find a small, dirty, sort of ugly cat snuggling with me. Gnarly. The hardy among us—me and the cat included—were up and out of the yurts in time for the Mongolian Sunrise, which was magnificent (see right).

It got warmer, and the morning was spent in grand fashion, riding horses across the gently rolling hills of the caoyuan. On the way out, I was riding a white steed that I think was on the verge of death. He and I were both disappointed with the match. A bit overly domesticated, the horses tend not to respond to any urging by their riders, just following the lines in which they have spent their whole lives.

We stopped halfway at a little Mongolian house on the prairie, more to rest the horses than anything else. I had the pleasure of watching a sheep slaughtered and skinned, which was morbidly fascinating in a way nothing I’ve ever seen is. The guy doing the work was a pro, making it look easy as he pulled away the skin, and snapped off the sheep’s feet.

On the way back, I was blessed with a more stable stallion, and one of the leaders of the pack. I even managed to persuade it into a gallop once or twice, which was a very cool feeling. Judy did pretty well for herself—on the way out, she used her unique Chinese-speaking abilities to make friends with one of the guides, who, on the way back, let her ride his own horse. While the rest of us were trotting along in a pack, Judy and her pal shot off at top speed, and weren’t seen for hours. Since that afternoon, she’s been a little bit crackers, and most of what she’s said has had something to do with riding horses.

We all boarded the bus again, Judy and I delighted not to be stuck in there for 8 hours with the rest of the squad. We had talked to our guides, who were happy to drop us off in Hohhot, and, lo and behold, a couple hours into the ride, the bus screeched to a halt, and we were hustled off the bus and on to the side of the highway. The busses pulled away, and we began our solo adventure.

Hohhot wasn’t actually much to speak of—a mid-sized city with little to boast of other than signs in both Chinese and Mongol. Our days were spent mostly wandering the streets, and hanging about in parks studying Chinese characters—both those in books, and those that walked by.

One highlight was meeting the sketchiest guy in all Hohhot, who slowly sidled up to my picnic table while I was studying. He complimented me on my writing in Chinese, which he said was very beautiful. I discovered a few minutes later that he is completely illiterate. He sat himself at my table, and we talked intermittently for nearly an hour. A recurring theme was girlfriends—specifically, he wanted an American one, and could I help him out with that? He claimed to be a night watchman, and that he hadn’t returned home in three days. His older brother was college-educated and living in Tianjin, married to an American woman, he: illiterate, stuck in Hohhot and apparently facing the prospect of an arranged marriage. The pieces didn’t really fit, but I didn’t really press.

Three relaxing days in Hohhot, and then it was back to Beijing, where classes are now in full swing once again. I promised you the tale of the bus ride from hell, but that account will soon appear in the pages of the Tufts Daily, so I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Henry Who?

Guess who came to receive an honorary doctorate at Beijing University today? That’s right, freakin’ Henry Kissinger. Guess who found out he was coming two hours after the ticket window closed? That’s right, Sam duPont. On the upside, at least our two names have now appeared in the same paragraph.

I did everything I could, honestly; pulled every string available to me. I even went so far as to improvise a press badge, show up at the door with my camera, and insist that I was an important member of the foreign press corps. No dice. I hung about outside the building during his speech, and did manage to snap a picture of him as he was leaving. He’s pretty old.

While loitering, I met some guy (also loitering) who, upon discovering I am a student of 国际关系 (international relations), was interested to talk politics with me. I more or less failed, but he sprinkled his monologue with enough English words that I caught the drift of his diatribe. Basically, he told me, Chinese people don’t think much of American foreign policy—messing with other states’ business and blowing the democracy horn. Countries should mind their own damn business, and not go bothering any Saddams or Castros or anybody else.

I think he probably did speak for the majority of Chinese, but I think it goes beyond China’s obvious self-interest in keeping American hands off such unsavory governments as those in Tehran or, ahem, Beijing. The Chinese possess a very strong racial identity, and that goes along with a strong sense of nationalism. Quite naturally, this extends to other countries, and they view, say, the Iraqi government, as purely the business of the Iraqi people. Fair enough.

Consequentially, I think it’s very difficult for most Chinese to even conceive of a country founded on something other than common racial identity. Community is very important in China. So are relationships, connections, etc. The state is, to the Chinese, another ring of community, of common identity. But I digress…

I steered the conversation towards North Korea—a hot topic of conversation among me and, well, me. My new friend admired North Korea’s noble effort to maintain a pure form of socialism, and hoped countries like the US and China would let them be. “Do you know me?” He asked. “Do you agree my meaning?”

“Well… I understand.”

Also this afternoon, I went to play soccer at the indoor-style outdoor courts on campus. Games rage on, all day every day, and I managed to jump in on a match. Turns out, the language of soccer is an international one: “give me the ball” translates to “Hey!” “Look out” translates to “Hey!”, and any sort of agony (of defeat or injury) translates well to the international distress signal “F***!” Perhaps they’ve been watching too much American television.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

内蒙古- A Tour in Pictures

I am returned from Inner Mongolia, so freshly as to still be smelling of yurts and delicious spit-roasted lamb. Let us commence the photo tour in grand fashion, with my favorite portrait yet, of a genuine Inner Mongolian man, enjoying the sunrise with his Honghu cigarette.

I staggered aboard the bus at 5:30 last Monday morning, along with 40-odd Koreans students, plus my travel buddy and fellow Tuftonian Judy. The ride was long and painless, and we arrived in Baotou-- a city notable for basically nothing-- with time enough for a round of evening karaoke. Judy and I began a quest to master the Chinese hit "Xi Shua Shua." It’s a dreadful song, and dreadfully catchy; hopefully we’ll soon be able to wow crowds of Chinese by rocking in their native tongue.

We were up early again the next morning, and hustled onto the bus (after I took the above photo), and before we knew what was happening, we were on our way to the 'Shamo'-- the desert! Anxious to break away from the crew of Koreans, Judy and I decided to forgo the chairlift out to the dunes, and make the trek on foot. Assured by our tour guides the trip would take hours, and could ultimately prove too much for our frail health, we headed off anyway, and rightfully so-- it was a 15 minute walk up the side of the dune, and we saved ourselves ¥30. Observe me in all my (impressive) glory, as I scale the dunes. I think I could probably pass for Lawrence of Arabia, if I shaved.

The top of the hill proved to be a bit of a tourist trap, but was nevertheless very much on the edge of the Gobi desert. We skipped the camel rides, which looked sort of slow and lame, and ventured off into the sands on our own, which again, proved a wise choice. For the uninitiated: running down sand dunes is a whale of a good time, as is throwing people down sand dunes. The landscape, aside from being the natural equivalent of a room full of plastic balls, is quite striking as well. If you don't believe me, look at the picture. Pretty cool, seriously.

Also, I should add, I surrendered to one of my more base urges- the urge to fly- and shelled out the ¥100 ($12) to go parasailing. Basically, I had a parachute strapped on my back, and was dragged behind a truck over the desert. I got to fly for about a minute or two. I confess, it was a lot of fun.

Check back in coming days as I recount more adventures, with more pictures-- these from 'Caoyuan' (Grasslands), 'Huhehaote' (Hohhot), and 'Diyudegonggongqiche' (The Bus from Hell).

Sunday, October 01, 2006


In a few scant hours I will be on my way to Inner Mongolia (内蒙古, as they say around here), to spend the week free of classes and other burdensome activities. We've got a week off here in honor of National Day - 10/1 - and the mid-autumn festival which follows closely on its heels. Gentlemen, start your moon cakes.

The trip promises ample hilarity and adventure, with excursions planned to ride horses in the grassland, camels in the desert, and taxis in the city. Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, will be the base of operations, where I hope to visit Genghis Khan's mausoleum, among other attractions. Expect wild stories.

I've recently had a few highly coincidental run-ins here, which I will share, briefly. I left the subway station at Wudaokou, the nearest stop to Beida. On my way out, I passed a young gentleman wearing an orange MOXIE t-shirt. Ahh, Moxie, I thought, foul-tasting beverage favored by the hardy people of Maine... but wait.... I went back. "Are you Martin?" I asked. Indeed he was, Martin Connelly, friend of Corinne Fay and Kyle Thompson-Westra, and a fellow from Brunswick, Maine whom I had had the pleasure of meeting once before. Plans to meet again for mischief and monkey business have been put into motion.

I went to play frisbee today with the Beijing Ulimate club, and had a grand time, as before. While dining with some of my fellow players, post-practice, we discussed exciting new words we had learned in Chinese. Judy offered up the word for awkward: "Ganga." Nadim, another at the table, laughed. "That was the name of my high school mascot."

I confess I was initially scornful: honestly, who would have a mascot named Awkward. Then my cerebrum kicked into gear, and I realized that Gunga was, incidentally, also the name of my high school mascot. As it turned out, Nadim graduated two years ahead of me at Andover. Small world, seriously.

That's all for this week, I expect I'll be well out of the range of the internet whilst visiting Inner Mongolia. Keep an eye on The Tufts Daily for my column in Monday's paper. It's got a political slant this time around, which I hope won't bore too many people.


A trip to Tiananmen Square yesterday yielded this image of a soldier guarding one of the staircases leading up to the Square. It was a madhouse, as expected, because this weekend is the National Day holiday in China. October 1 is the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

More coming soon.