Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween Ramblings With No Relation to Halloween

I've got a headache that came out of nowhere. Anyone who has known me when I have a headache knows what this means. The rest of you are about to find out.

I saw a goat today. Actually, I think it was a ram. It had the horns to be one. It was just hanging out by a tree eating some leaves. I called it goatface, making reference to a very funny segment on homestarrunner dot com. He was sitting near the Muslim restaurant, and no one was paying him any mind. I just hope there weren't plans to eat him. He seems like such a good goatface.


Another thing I would like to mention is another illustration of the pressures to be thin in China. We read a rather sad text today written from the perspective of a "pang ren" (literally translated to "fat person"). I think the text speaks for itself in terms of what the opinions are about being overweight, so I'm just going to translate it.

A Fat Person's Worries

Going along with the improvement of people's lifestyles, people have gone from not eating very much to eating alot. Now, they only eat really good food, like food from Sichuan or Guangzhou, and duck. Anything like that they'll certainly eat. However, in all of this time that they're feasting, they'd better not forget that they can become fat. Look at me - I used to be a handsome young man. I really don't know when this all started. My nice figure has been replaced with a huge potbelly.

And don't think that being fat is irrelevant. If you were fat like I am, you'd have alot of worries, too. Just take stairs as an example. Every time I try to climb them, I can't even make it to the third floor before my face turns red and I'm sweating all over until I can't even move. And sometimes when I go over to friends' houses, I sit on the couch and no one else can fit. Then everyone stares and it hurts my feelings. Sometimes when I'm walking down the street, groups of girls look and laugh at me. And these aren't even the biggest of my problems.

This year I'm 28 years old, and I still haven't had a girlfriend. Really nice people have introduced me to girls, but as soon as the girls find out how heavy I am, they get scared away. It's so hard to find a girl doesn't want to run away from me. I was really happy this one time that I was going to be meeting a girl, but then it turned out that she was fatter than I am! Ugh.

I've tried everything: dieting, running, taking pills, drinking diet teas, etc. None of it has worked, though. I haven't changed except for the fact that I now have less money as a result. It's all not enough. So if you find yourself eating in a restaurant the way I used to, you should know how hard I have it now. Being a fat person makes life really difficult.

I was kind of dumbfounded when I read this in class today. The guy sitting next to me is from Mexico, and during the break we talked about how we thought people from our home countries would react to hearing someone talk like that. Then we both mentioned various shopping experiences we've had, and how they've made us feel like we must be monsterous. This guy is on the lean side of average weight for the states, and he has to buy XXL clothing here.

After the break, our teacher talked a little bit about the passage. She looked around the room and said, "Ah, there aren't any fat people in our class. That's good." I could feel the shock in the air coming through from some Westerners. She continued, "You see, it's very difficult to be fat. My friend just gained weight and is trying to lose it now, and it's very hard."

"What is she doing to lose weight?" someone asked.

"Ah, good question. She drinks alot of water, and only eats one apple a day. I think it should help."

I bit my tongue on screaming about a culture of anorexia. Starving yourself isn't a disease here yet. This economy isn't quite developed enough to start labeling disorders like that. It's difficult for me to watch some of the ills of development come here. When I think about how recently in the history of this country that the famines of the Cultural Revolution occurred, I can't help but be a little surprised that it's looked upon as good to deny yourself food. There are still thousands of people alive who lived through that period. There are people three hours out of this city who still don't have consistent access to clean water and food. I could go on and on about this, but I'll spare you because I'm confident that you can see where this is going.

The big businesses have moved in, and with them have come the advertisers. With the advertisers has come the goal of selling a product, which in turn has become selling an image. All of these slogans on red banners tell people to build society, build the economy, and make Beijing an international city. People are buying into status symbols, both materially and physically. I wish that wasn't such a cosmopolitan concept. Please, Beijing, stay down to earth.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

An Awesome Breakfast/Lunch

I had a late breakfast today, but it was worth every minute's wait. I had what was probably the best meal I've had since arriving in China. Donny and I went over to the 24-hour rice porridge place in Wudaokou. We had passed this place innumerable times, commenting several of those times that we'd like to go try it out. Last night, my friend Jenny mentioned to me how good it was, so I decided that I needed to go soon. I wasted no time.

The first thing they brought me today was a pumpkin and lily bulb porridge. It was thick and lightly sweetened. The pumpkin was cooked to the perfect consistency - it was soft, but not a mush. I had never had lily bulbs before. They were really good. They're crisp and have a subtle flower taste. They were fresh and watery. So good.

potato and lily bulb sweet porridge

Then we got a filled bread dish. I wish I knew what this was called. The bread was kind of pastry-like, but not exactly. Regardless, it was encasing a wonderful treat - eggplant, leek, and egg. I always get egg and leek dumplings at a nearby restaurant, so this dish sounded good. And indeed, it was good.


(the filling)

The biggest treat of all was the last thing they brought to the table. Donny mentioned these steamed milk buns he ate in Qingdao last summer, and as I'm always up for bready things, we ordered some. On the outside, they look like regular steamed bread. Once I bit into one, however, I was instantly aware that these were no ordinary carbohydrate bundles. They were sweet and fluffy.

steamed milk buns

Then I got to the filling! It was sweet, creamy, and thick. Ah, I can't begin to describe what it tasted like, other than amazing. I can't think of anything to compare them to. All I know is that I want to go back to that restaurant right now and eat more of them.

steamed milk bun filling

Mmm Chinese food.

A Cold Weather Friend

One of my textbooks talks about three kinds of trees being friends in the winter. They've got it all wrong, though. I think I met my best winter friend right in my own dorm room.

The other day, I heard some water dripping while I was sitting at the computer. It was just one of those passively noticed things. This building makes weird noises all the time, and if I were to take note of all of them and try to determine their sources, I would go mad within a matter of minutes. Besides, it was a day with especially low visibility, and that normally means it's going to rain.

Wait, allow me to qualify "rain," because it doesn't actually rain here. I haven't seen one downpour yet. There's either mist, or a light sprinkling that lasts for a few hours. Everybody pulls out their umbrellas and runs like there's a monsoon coming, but I just look around confused about the reaction. I walk to my dorm from class, and barely end up wet at all. I've been casually referring to this phenomenon as "Beijing Rain."

So as I was sitting at my desk, I thought some Beijing Rain might be falling. Then I received an instant message that said, "I hear water in my room. Go put your hand on your radiator." Sure enough, it was warm. They've finally turned on the heat. I'm very thankful, because the solar heating system I came up with stopped working once the sun got destroyed. Okay, it didn't get destroyed exactly, but the the smog has been pretty awful lately, so it's looked like the sun has just taken a break. It's been quite cold, too. I'm glad I have heat now.

I took the necessary precautions against fire once I realized the heat was on. My long hanging curtains are now pulled onto the windowsill, and the beds are pulled away from the wall with no sheets hanging it. You see, it's not just the radiator I have to worry about in this room. The entire wall opposite the entrance is covered in exposed pipes where it isn't covered in window. That's the other reason I pulled my bed away - I have no desire to be awakened by the smell of a burning, misplaced hand.

Friday, October 28, 2005

North Korean Presence

I have class with people from North Korea. I think that is really cool. I had never met anyone from North Korea before, and now I live in the same dormitory as a large group from there. North Korea is place that I feel like alot of Americans don't really know anything about. I certainly don't know much about it. The little bit I know is information about their nuclear programs, which I'm sure is inaccurate, and the rest is related to their participation in the 6-party talks. All I ever hear about in relation to North Korea is Kim Jong Il and nuclear weaponry. It's nice to see some real people, and to have some faces to humanize the country.

Everyone I've seen here from North Korea is male. How could I notice that? How do I know when I'm seeing someone from North Korea? It's simple, really. Everyday, these men wear plain colored, button shirts, and solid colored pants. Most of them are also carrying briefcases. These are not the identifying characteristics, however. Rather, the thing that really tips me off is the red flag pin with the face of Kim Jong Il in the center that is pinned on the shirt of every man from North Korea.

North Korea and China have relatively good diplomatic relations, so it's not surprising that this is the place I'm meeting North Koreans. I'm sure these men are functioning as goodwill ambassadors, to some extent, too while here. The people in my class and in my dorm are really nice, so maybe at some point I can ask about the pins (after already establishing a comfortable relationship). I just wonder what they were told before coming here, and if they all met beforehand.

I really like that I have the opportunity to meet people from a country that has been the target of world criticism, especially from my own country. It's nearly impossible to gain access to their perspectives within the US, so being here is actually giving me more freedom and access to information. Ha, that's funny, because China just blocked Wikipedia. I guess I'm just experiencing a change in the kind of information I have access to.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Production Update

I received several concerned emails regarding my safety as it relates to the the shady film production company, so I feel it is necessary to provide an update. Sadly, it is rather anti-climactic. I know that people didn't really want me and Donny to lose vital organs and awaken in ice baths, but it would have made a much more interesting story.

Instead, the conclusion is that the people were, in fact, quite shady, but not in any kind of dangerous way. They never called us back. My guess is that they'll use the photos of us in costumes for advertisement without our permission, and we will have no recourse about it if we find out. That's fine. We were swindled, I suppose, but I don't really feel like I was. I got an entertaining experience out of the whole thing, and I don't really care what they do with a confused looking photo of me. It's just a photo. Any one of the million people on the streets around my school can see me any day.

I'm just glad that we didn't have to enter the contract negotiation stage. I was armed with vocabulary and grammar about contracts that I learned the day prior to the appointment we were supposed to have, but I wasn't planning on signing anything. Any contract that we could have signed would have only hurt us in the end.

Though no information was given to the scholarship students on this issue, I know that we are not supposed to be working. First of all, we don't have work permits. However, second of all, there's a white paper (official document) written regarding the scholarship I hold that explicitly states that scholarship students are not to be working, permit-holding or not. I looked it up before I left for China. So, in the case that we would have negotiated payment, written it into the contract, signed it, and then not received proper compensation after the job, we would have actually had nothing we could do. We couldn't take the contract to the police or a lawyer, because they would see that we were working without permits. Also, in the event that we had the work permit realization during the work, and stopped attending, we would have broken a legally binding contract. Then we would have been in even more trouble, because we entered a work agreement without a permit, and then broke a legal agreement. The effects of all those years that I wanted to be a lawyer never left my head.

I was not about to sign that contract. Honestly, I was not about to take any work offered to me here. If you'll recall, I never actually agreed to anything in this situation. That man just spoke to me in an assumptive tone about the work. I don't want the hassle and potential trouble of working here. Furthermore, I just don't like the way people that I've encountered from that industry think they should do business with foreigners. So my new standard operating procedure for getting approached by people for modeling, advertisement, etc. is no longer going to be passive refusal. It's going to be a strong, resounding, "No," followed by a, "Go away," if necessary.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Money Matters and Dating

I always dread meeting with my language partner. This has nothing to do with him. He's really nice, and very helpful for my improvement in Chinese, slow as it may be. Rather, I dread the meetings because I'm horribly nervous speaking Chinese. Outside of a classroom situation, I'm terrified to speak. As I explained to James, I feel like people are a little angry already from being busy, and I don't want to further anger them with my bad pronunciation and confused grammar. I don't think people here get as much exposure to nonstandard pronunciation as someone in the states may get. James agreed. I was happy that I could explain clearly, because it was a Chinese-speaking day, and I have a hard time expressing myself.

As we were discussing this, James said, "You know what, though? I think today I am more nervous than you. Do you know why?"

"You're more nervous than I am? That's impossible. Why are you nervous?"

"Because my girlfriend is sitting behind you."

"Oh, does she not know that you're helping me with Chinese?" I asked.

"No, she does. She's just easily jealous, like most Chinese girls."

And that is what launched us into our conversation about how dating works here. This is a topic I've been curious about as there seems to be no information readily accessible. A few of my friends have Chinese girls interested in them, and they also don't seem exactly sure how everything works. Furthermore, relationships are a common thread in all cultures, and it interests me to see how different ones handle them.

"Oh, you think they're easily jealous?"

"Definitely. And easily angered, too," he said.

At this point, I told him about how I got the feeling that I was the target of some hostile feelings from Chinese girls who like Donny for how often they see me with him, regardless of how many times it's been said that I have a boyfriend, and that he isn't Donny. James laughed and said that he wasn't surprised.

"It can be very difficult to date a Chinese girl. This week, I didn't call my girlfriend for two days. Then, when I called her, she yelled at me for not calling. I didn't think two days was such a long time. I, I..." He pulled an imaginary phone away from his ear and looked at it partially confused and partially disgusted.

I laughed and told him that there is probably a good number of girls like that in the states, too, though I hope that the number of more reasonable ones is growing. Then we started talking about how guys "fix their screwups" in both countries. I told him that sometimes guys buy flowers when they think they're in trouble. He said that it isn't the case in China.

"We don't buy flowers here. We invite the girl over and cook her dinner, and then we apologize profusely. 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.'"

"Haha, wow. That's alot of work, James."

"Dating is alot of work. In China, girls are here," he said, and held one hand above the table. "And guys are here," he said, and held the other hand at half that distance. "Girls have all the power."

"Really? Some people still say that men are in control."

"Men are not in control. We have to pay for everything, or else the girl will get mad at us. We have to pay for dinner, and when we go out, and for the dinners when we make them mad, and for expensive gifts for them. Oh, if we don't buy them expensive gifts, they get mad. And then, if you get married, it's even worse! I have to pay for the wedding ceremony and reception. Do you know how expensive that is? It's twenty-thousand! Ten-thousand for one that is not good. And then I have to pay for wherever we live, and how am I ever going to find a job where I can do that? I have to give my parents money, too!"

I thought the poor boy was going to have a breakdown. This is the kind of thing I could hear about all I wanted in the states, but it took watching his eyes nearly bug out of his head for me to understand the kind of pressure that he's under. He kept trying to restrain the panic in his voice so his girlfriend wouldn't hear him, but he was really worked up.

"Doesn't the girl help with paying at all?"

"Maybe I pay 80 percent of the living place, and she pays 20. Maybe. I don't want to get married!"

I'd be interested to see how many other Chinese guys agree with his opinions. I get the feeling that it might be alot after having observed a good number of Chinese couples. Granted, I'm an outsider, and I'm still very ignorant on this cultural issue, but from that perspective, it seems like girls are whining at their boyfriends for small issues, and these guys are spending a good amount of time placating them. I actually videotaped this yesterday so I could watch it again to see if I still agreed with my initial assessment. I'm very aware that there are plenty of cases that aren't like this at all, but you've got to admit that this kind is going to be the most noticeable (read: audible, especially when you're sitting in the cafeteria trying to do your homework and there's a tantrum complete with kicking and pounding fists on the table going on next to you.).

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Class Bonding Time

Tonight I went out with my classmates. Doing this kind of thing struck me as really different than anything else I've been used to before the first we all went out together, but I've come to find that it's important to grow close to your classroom unit. The plans for tonight had been in the works throughout the whole school week, so I was looking forward to it.

We started with dinner at a place near campus. It was a feast. Not everyone from the class could come, but it will still alot of fun. It's funny to hold conversations when the language everyone's learning is the only common language amongst a group. Most people could speak some English, but speaking solely English definitely couldn't have flown. There was a mix of Chinese, Korean, English, and Indonesian going around, and I think it ended up working pretty well.


We kept toasting and alcohol to a minimum, but we did have one "ganbei" (dry cup) to make it a real dinner. Yanjing beer is made in Beijing, so it's readily available at most restaurants. I like Qingdao better, but Yanjing is still good. China is the only place I ever drink beer. Normally I'm disgusted by the thought of it, but it's not bad here. It's not very strong, either. Plus, not many things around here are cold and bubbly, so the beer is nice sometimes.

yanjing pijiu

Instead of giving you Chinese names from left to right, I'm just going to give you the countries people came from.

(part of) my class

Back row: Thailand, Indonesia, Britain, France, Philippines, USA.
Front row: South Korea, South Korea, Canada, Indonesia, Indonesia, Holland.
Not pictured: Japan (3), Thailand (2), South Africa, Italy, Israel, Greece, Mexico, and I think that's it. I'm not entirely sure.

Look at that feast! There were two meat dishes, one seafood dish, four vegetables dishes, and two buckets of rice. I love big dinners in China. I get to try so many things, and I never leave hungry.

Karaoke was really fun. We got one of the rooms reserved for our group, and we sang for a good two hours. I knew people were nervous about singing in front of the group, so I went first and danced around like a moron while I sang "Lovefool" by the Cardigans to try and put people at ease a little. We sang songs in English, Korean, and Chinese. I was excited to be able to follow along with the characters on the Chinese songs. I, of course, had no chance on the Korean songs. About halfway through karaoke, people were dancing around even when they weren't singing. That made me happy to see.

So I've decided that I really like going out with my class.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mornings Approaching Winter

My thoughts this morning, when you remove the sleepy grumblings, were, "What? No! Where is the sun?!"

I think Beijing and our beloved sun must be quarreling. It's pitch black here before 6pm, and the sun is no longer glaring through my window at 5.30am. In fact, right now, it's 7.30am, and it's barely there. This is gross. How am I supposed to be able to get up in the morning at 6.30am for youtiao if it looks like nighttime? Luckily, the youtiao soaked in zhou are so good that they alone are able to make me drag myself out of bed in the morning.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Sometimes, my life here makes very little sense. My friend Gene commented not too long ago that, on occasion, walking through China is akin to walking to through a Dali painting. After several quite surreal happenings, I could not agree more. Today was definitely one such occasion.

I had almost reached the entrance to my dorm on the way back from lunch today when I heard a man behind me call, "Ding Mei!" (That's my Chinese name, if I haven't mentioned that before.). I turned and saw four men walking out of a black car parked in front of my dorm. I recognized the man who called to me. I was suddenly filled with dread.

Last week I was approached, yet again, by someone doing an advertisement who needed foreigners to act. I've developed a standard operating procedure for these situations, so I followed the protocol. I gave him my Chinese name and email address, and told him to email me with more information. "No, I'm sorry, I don't have a phone. And no, I'm sorry, I won't give out my friend's phone number so you can call him to get ahold of me. And no, my roommate doesn't want me giving out our room number."

I didn't think that this situation was going to be any different than the last several instances. The man told me his company was making a cooking video to advertise a cooking school in Beijing. He told me which one, but I couldn't remember. Anyway, he took a few photos, and took a video of me speaking Chinese. I didn't like speaking Chinese on camera because I know I sound like a moron. I thought that would take me out of the running for sure. His director certainly wouldn't want this particular half-wit American for their ad. Maybe another would be better.

To my dismay, the director did want this half-wit American for the role. So much, apparently, that these people camped outside my dorm waiting for me to come back. This scared the hell out of me for about two seconds. I tried to get out of panic mode quickly as I approached them to talk. I knew that if I ignored them, they could come find me. The desk people will tell pretty much anyone who asks where we live.

So I walked to the car and politely said hello. The man I met before explained to me that the director wanted to hire me for the ad, and that I had to come with the four of them today at 5.30pm to make sure the clothes fit. I had the presence of mind to remember to say, "I'm not going to come unless I can bring my friend with me." They tried to talk me out of it, and so I told them I wouldn't go. Then they relented and said I could.

I went up to my dorm room and instant messaged Donny to tell him what happened. He said he'd come with me, and we could talk to them about exactly what's going on, especially since I never agreed to anything. So, at 5.30pm, we met the man and his crew at the South Gate. Right away, I started questioning the man about what company he is with, and why doesn't he have a name card, and when exactly is the filming, and what school is this for, and what is the payment situation, and what language are the contracts in? I had alot of questions, and I think I scared the guy because his English isn't as good as my questioning were demanding.

The man went into assurance mode, and I heard something relatively genuine in his voice, so I decided that I could go today and then decide what to do. There was another student from the school coming, too. I figured that if need be, the three of us could band together against this skinny crew of filmmakers.

The three of us students got in a taxi with the man, and his crew followed in another. We were stuck in traffic during rush hour, but eventually we arrived somewhere near Xizhimen. We went to a building, and the man seemed lost about where we should be going. The whole time we were walking, I was carrying a key, ready to stab the man at any false move. I know that's paranoid, but I don't care. It's better to be prepared than be caught off guard when it comes to my personal safety or sense thereof. When he didn't seem to know where we were going, I was ready to pounce.

Fortunately for him, he got his wits back about him, and he took us up to the eighth floor. He turned the wrong way to get to the office, but we got rerouted in the right direction after he asked another office worker where room 801 was. I was expecting this place to be kind of dark, dirty, and generally shady feeling. It turns out that I was horribly mistaken.

We walked in, and the place was bright and full of Chinese models. There were fashion photos on the walls, and a photo shoot taking place to my right when I walked in. I looked around and felt really strange. I thought I was just trying on clothes, and so I wore a huge pair of jeans, and a huge t-shirt, along with a huge coat. I was very underdressed for the occasion. I stared at all the people who were staring me. I'm still not sure how I found myself in such a strange situation.

The man came over and broke the haze I was in to tell us that the clothes were not ready yet, and that we would need to wait a few minutes. We said that was fine, and continued to talk about how we didn't understand what was going on. I saw a group of men talking and looking up at Donny every few seconds. I got the feeling that something was about to happen to him.

The man came back over to us and asked Donny where he is from. I watched huge smiles come across the faces of the men when they heard that Donny is a meiguoren (American). "Would you like to try on some clothes, too? We need more actors for this film," the man said to Donny. In typical Donny fashion, he shrugged a little, and hesitantly answered, "Uh, I guess? Um, yeah. Sure." He looked to me in such a way that I can only assume that he was thinking, "I can't believe you've gotten me into yet another one of these things. Oh my god."

We moved to the couch in the middle of the room after that. We had only been sitting for about two minutes when the other student walked by in full chef gear. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened with the knowledge that I, too, was going to have to look that ridiculous. Then I realized that they were taking him to the photo shoot area. Yes, they were, in fact, going to take our pictures, too. Donny and I looked at each other with equally incredulous glances, and didn't say a word.

After the other student had been photographed, some of the office people took Donny away. I sat by myself on the couch, receiving the stares of the people in the office. They were loudly talking about me, and I kept thinking that it was a little odd, because I had been speaking Chinese audibly just a few minutes earlier. Subtlety, people! I called to the man in Chinese and started asking him more questions, hoping that people would catch on to the fact that I could understand what they were saying. Apparently they just didn't care.

In the midst of questioning, two women accompanied an entirely new Donny out of the other room. He had on black shoes, black pants, and a white coat with orange buttons and an orange tie. I believe he had on an apron, too. The look on his face was a blend of terror and sadness that I don't think I've been privy to seeing in most people. It looked a bit like a death march when they took him to have his photo taken. I didn't laugh at him, though, because I knew I was next. I also didn't get up to watch the photo shoot, because I knew he'd lose it if he saw me peek my head around the corner.

It was my turn next. I went back to the room where Donny had been, and the woman there handed me a black dress. "Oh, I think this must be the wrong one," I said. "I'm supposed to be in a cooking video."

"Yes. This is the right one. You can go to the bathroom in the hallway to change."

Uh... why does a cooking video require a black dress? I figured that I would soon find out, so I went and put on the dress, and came back. I had my photos taken, and then the man approached again. "So in this movie, you will play the love interest - ." I stopped him right there.

"What do you mean, 'the love interest?' You said this was a cooking video. What are you talking about?"

"No, no. It is a cooking video. But you go to the student canting with your boyfriend, but you fall in love with the cook. And then - ."

I had heard enough. I had enough of this explanation, and I had enough of this man only being willing to deal with me in English. I started after him in Chinese. I wanted to the pressure to be on him from his officemates in case he had lied to me before, and I wanted to make sure they all knew what was going on.

"Look, I thought you said originally that I would be in this video, pretending to be cooking. That is what you said, isn't it?"

"Yes, but - "

"But what? That isn't what you're saying now. What is this?"

His explanation was insufficient, and in English. He's supposed to be calling me and Donny tomorrow, and meeting us so we can talk about all of this. I don't know what I think about this. The company is obviously legitimate. That was evident from the condition of their office and their office procedures. But still, I don't like this style of business. Donny and I are getting a Chinese friend to help us with this now.

Ah, what a day.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


During the week, class ends at 12.30 every day. I usually head to the student cafeteria for lunch shortly after I get out of class. The cafeteria is really crowded at that time, but I'm getting used to standing in a clump waiting to order, and then waiting to get my food. I usually order from the same area everyday, so the cashier man recognizes me and calls me if I haven't heard someone announce my order.

a frequent lunch

This is one of my favorite dishes. It's called di san xian gai fan. Di san xian literally means "three treasures." It's appropriately named; the three treasures are potatoes, eggplants, and green peppers, and those three things are so good. Gai fan, I learned, means "over rice." I'm happy I learned that phrase, because I kept getting rice on the side, and getting charged extra as a result. If you get your meal gai fan, there is no extra charge. I was putting my food on my rice, anyway, so gai fan was just convenient on top of everything.

This dish tastes so good. The sauce isn't really overpowering, and it's a little salty. The potatoes are thinly sliced and stir-fried in such a way that they absorb all the flavors of everything else cooked with them. Also, the eggplant skin is amazing. It gets slightly blackened during the cooking process, and the texture changes so that it's a little chewy while still being soft. The green peppers stay crisp, but get cooked enough not to aggravate my raw vegetable allergies. The dish is really perfect for me.

I've also been drinking bubble tea fairly often at meals. That's the purple drink with the black dots at the bottom in the photo. I like the taro kind of bubble tea. It's sweet and good. My favorite part of it is the bubbles, though. They're chewy, and the cafeteria puts a ton of them in the tea. I'm glad that they're aware of the fact that too few bubbles in bubble tea makes the whole thing pointless.

Now don't you want to visit China? There's so much good food.

A Break!

This is the first time in the past eight days that I haven't had class. That's right. I had eight straight days of class. Welcome to my life, everyone. I live in China.

We had class last weekend because we had a week long break the week prior to it. So on Saturday and Sunday I had Thursday and Friday classes, respectively. Additionally, on Saturday, I had a class at Peking University (Beijing Daxue, or Beida), as I also did yesterday. I decided that I couldn't handle the lack of music in my life here, and enrolled in a class at Beida to learn erhu. We ordered our instruments through our teacher, and they were shipped in from Suzhou.

my erhu

Erhu is a two-stringed, traditional Chinese instrument, and it is bowed between the strings. I'm really excited to be learning it. I've never learned a string instrument before. Learning erhu has the double benefit of a new experience and learning new vocabulary in Chinese. The class is taught entirely in Chinese, and I've found that I understand everything so far. That is really exciting! I want to find a dance class to take, too, so I can get even more different kinds of vocabulary.

It's been fun to learn so far, even though I'm still not very good. I'm trying not to be too critical of myself, though. I've still only had two classes where I've actually played the instrument. It's been great. However, fun as it is, it's still a class. It's a two-hour+ class on top of that. I have class six days a week now. Ah, education.

Be prepared, everyone. I'm hoping to be playing erhu all the time when I return to the states, and you may be subjected to whatever sounds I'm able to make with it by that time.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Another Culture Note

highlighting another cultural difference
Click for the full size version.

This is a shot of a page in one of my books. In this exercise, we were supposed to describe the pictures using our most recently used grammar pattern. When I looked at the bottom right drawing, I couldn't figure out what exactly was going on. I couldn't tell if the woman was in the process of standing up, sitting down, or dancing.

When I got to class, the westerners all seemed hesitant to answer this question. The other students, however, started talking about how fat the woman was. They were using the grammar incorrectly, but still getting the point across that there wasn't space in the chair for her.

The answer, roughly translated, ended up being that she couldn't fit in the chair. My class was roaring with laughter. This is fairly typical, as far as I can tell so far. People seem to find being overweight completely unacceptable. This is obviously not the case in my own country, as several health reports on obesity will indicate.

Attack of the Insurance Posters

Around campus are very large posters for an insurance company that show gruesome accident scenes. They are definitely there for shock value. You definitely wouldn't see these in the states. There are photos of dead, bloodied people sprawled across streets next to turned-over, wrecked cars. There are others still of seriously ill people being pushed through crowds, burn victims, and basically any other kinds of human suffering that would make you sick to your stomach. The first day we all saw these, I think it's fair to say that we were taken aback. It's just become part of the scenery, though, and now it doesn't really phase me or anyone else.

However, this morning brought some new activity with the signs. Donny and I were walking out of the building to go to breakfast, talking groggily and shuffling along. As we stepped onto the ramp outside the door, we both stopped talking and froze. In a split second, I saw something huge in the corner of my eye, and it was flying. I watched as one of these huge signs flew past us, slammed into a bicycle in front of us, and with a loud crash, knocked the bicycle to the ground.

attack of the insurance posters

I stood there wide-eyed for a second or so. That definitely took me out of the fog of recently awakening. We both started laughing and headed to breakfast. "I think we need accident insurance for those signs," I said. I don't know how the wind picked that thing up. I went back to the scene of the incident later and lifted the sign. It's fairly heavy. It must have been possessed or something. Hehe. The photo above is of another scene. It must have happened several times throughout the day.

I found it interesting, though, that all of the signs were gone today. Those crazy monsters must have escaped the main drag inside the South Gate to wreak havoc. I can only hope that my classmates were safe. Pu Yuzi (Yuko) and Mei Xianghua weren't in class today. Hopefully they were not casualities to the advertisement rampage.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


my almost daily breakfast

I try to eat breakfast on most days here. It really helps me get through four straight hours of class. I eat youtiao (fried dough sticks), shucai (vegetables), jidan (eggs), and zhou (rice porridge). Actually, I think this might be my favorite meal of the day. It seems like it would be really heavy, but it isn't. I throw everything into the zhou and eat from the bowl. After the main stuff is gone, I drink liquid from the zhou and eat the rice.

It's a nice way to start my day. It wakes me up a little bit, and I've been much more conscious in class since I started eating breakfast. I've been doing it for several weeks, and I want to keep it up during the winter. It's going to be cold, and I need to keep food in my stomach to make sure my body keeps warming me up.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I'm Not Just Learning Language

Something I've noticed in my classes is that I need to not only pay attention to translation or meaning when listening, but I also have to pay attention to ingrained differences in thought. This isn't very clear, so I will give an example.

We listened to a text in my listening class today. The girl speaking talked about her sister with a man who asked about her. She said to not even ask. Her sister was unsatisfied and didn't want to get married. The question about the text asked us what the general meaning of her speech was. The correct answer was that the sister had alot of problems.

Not wanting to get married is a problem? I was thrown off in selecting an answer because of that. I had to get into a different mode to be able to get it right. Someone asked why that was the answer, and our teacher replied, "Remember? The girl said she doesn't want to get married. What girl doesn't want to get married? See, she has many problems." I'd go crazy if I heard an expectation like that in states. I would completely lose it. Here, though, I'm forcing myself to listen and try to understand where the ideas come from. I wouldn't say that I'm assimilating, but I'm being respectful and paying attention.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Summer Palace

I was overwhelmed by the beauty at the Summer Palace. I didn't really do much there except walk around in awe, taking photos of everything. I'm just going to tell you about it in pictures. I'm not the kind of writer than can do that place justice in words.

child by the lake


friends on bench

bridge and lake

me on rocks
- This one was taken by my friend, Gene Young. -

man pointing

man and child

lone boatman

If you come to China - I suggest that you do - you should definitely go to the Summer Palace. It's gigantic, and I'm sure that I didn't even see a fourth of it. I'm looking forward to going back during the winter when the lake is frozen. I've heard that you can walk out on it, and I definitely want to if it's possible.

Ah, I love living somewhere with such a long past. I'm living in the oldest surviving culture in the world. Beijing gives me a great mix of modernity and history in a short walk. This is a good place for me.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Dashanzi Art District

Today Gene, his language partner Jenny, and I went to check out Beijing's art district, Dashanzi. It took a while to get there by bus, but I think it was worth every minute of transport. From what I've heard, Dashanzi used to be a warehouse district, and it's been taken over by artists. People have entire buildings as their studios. We checked out as much as we could, but I definitely want to go back on a regular basis.


Even outside of the studios, there was so much to look at. You have to walk down tiny streets and alleyways to get to the buildings, and there's something to find everywhere you turn as a result. I found a lomo gallery down one of the alleys! That was really exciting for me since I just started to get interested in those cameras and the subculture using them before I came to China.

jenny and gene

I was really happy to see how much space these artists got for their work. I think that most people from the states would agree that their work is cutting edge if they could see it. The fact that they're doing the work in China, I think, makes it that much more amazing. They have more to fight through to create their art.

exhibit in beijing contemporary art gallery (dashanzi)

One installation called "Offspring of China" had casts of people hanging from all over the ceiling. We saw it from outside and ran up to the gallery right away. The casts were suspended by thick rope that was tied around various limbs. Some were hanging high, far from the ground, but others were hanging so low that you could look them in the eye upside down.

We also went to the studio of Sui Jianguo. Before going in to see Sui's installation, we had to remove our shoes and valuables and put them in a bag. I wasn't reading the sign on the wall carefully, but I saw something about a pool. I was confused, but shuffled through the door before I had a chance to ask what we were going in to. We climbed stairs, and found ourselves on a platform overlooking a huge pit of black foam.

exhibit in dashanzi

The piece was aptly titled "My Nightmare." It was so difficult to walk through, and we kept getting stuck. I'm not sure how much of the intended effect was achieved, however. Everyone around us was throwing the foam, so we, of course, joined in. And furthermore, we fell into the pit backwards. And even further(!) we took video of it. If anyone can suggest a video hosting site that isn't blocked by the China block on the internet, I'll put it up here. It would be worth it to watch, I think. We got completely swallowed by the foam.

I hope to go back there alot. There was alot that I didn't see, and I'm sure it's constantly changing there. I bet it's gorgeous in the winter, too, with all of those buildings covered in snow. Ohh, I can't wait.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Xiangshan Gongyuan and Fun Misadventures

Donny and I decided to go to Fragrant Hills Park today. My Lonely Planet Beijing Guide said that we should get out at Pingguo Yuan subway station, and then board bus No. 318 to get there. That seemed straighforward enough to me, so we headed over to our subway stop, Wudaokou.

wudaokou station

We took the yellow line to Xizhimen, and then transferred to the blue line. We took the blue line south to Fuxingmen, and then transferred to the red line. We took the red line west to the end of the line, which was Pingguo Yuan. We got out of the station, and found ourselves on a street with a block of food lining the sidewalks - sweet potatoes, egg foldovers with vegetables inside, various types of meat kebabs, carmelized fruit kebabs, dumplings, and much more. Everything looked so good. If the subway ride hadn't taken the hour that it did, I probably would have stopped for some food.

As it stood, however, it was already 4.00pm, we still had another bus to catch, and the park was supposed to close at 6.00pm. We waited for bus No. 318 for about twenty minutes on one side of the street. There was no sign for it, but alot of busses stop even if they don't have a sign on the sidewalk. Finally, though, we decided that we needed to ask someone. We found out that we were on the wrong side of street. The person we asked said that we'd be able to find out what bus goes out to Xiangshan by looking at the signs on the other side.

We went over there, and were still basically clueless. Fortunately for us, the next people we started questioning were also going to Xiangshan, so they let us follow them. There was no bus 318. We took something else, and then transferred to another one. The bus rides were long, too. By the time we were dropped off in the parking lot at Xiangshan, and we walked up to the entrance, it was already 5.55pm. They weren't going to let us in.

I have no complaints, though. We got to walk through a huge array of sights and smells with the food being sold on the way up. Also, I did get to see the hills quite a bit on the bus ride. It was really scenic. When we were at the entrance, I got a nice view of things, too. I'm sure I'll go back when the place is actually open, but I don't consider having gone a loss. Plus, the air was really clean! My lungs love it when I give them a chance to get rid of some toxins.

xiangshan parking lot

As you can probably tell, the sky there was really clear. It got dark very quickly on our way up, and it was undoubtedly nighttime on our way down. The shops closed on our way down, too. As a result, the light pollution was gone, and when we looked up, we saw something that we hadn't seen in a long time - stars. Tons of stars. It was amazing. Because of that, we decided not to take the bus at the first stop, but rather walk on a bit to the next one. We ate dinner at a restaurant we ran across, and then kept walking. We decided to pass the next stop, too, because it was so nice outside.

We kept walking and walking, and then we came to a highway. It was a classic fork in the road kind of situation. We knew that we had gone straight the whole time in the bus though, and the traffic directions indicated that we'd have to go left in order to retrace our path. So, we walked on the left part of the road, under an overpass, and to some area that was a little less recognizeable than I think we were both hoping it would be. We continued onward, though.

Further ahead, we had another turn decision to make, and we chose left again. That, however, brought us to a dead end, and a sign that prohibited cars from the area. Certainly that wasn't the place we wanted to be since we were looking for a bus. I started cracking up. I love being lost. It's really entertaining to me. Donny started laughing, too. I don't know if it's because the situation was so ridiculous, or because he was nervous about being lost. Regardless, though, it fed my laughter, and I just kept going for another three minutes.

We rerouted back to our last decision point and decided to go right this time. This path took us by a gas station, and we both thought that was a good sign. We remembered passing several gas stations. Great. We were on the right path. We walked past the gas station, and then past what looked like a car repair shop with a family sitting around and eating outside it, and further still. Then we ended up on another highway.

This highway didn't have any sidewalks, and what's more, it didn't have a bicycle lane. That didn't really seem right. There weren't any foreigners walking around, which came as no surprise since we didn't see any the whole time we had been gone. The strange thing was that we didn't see any Chinese people walking around, either. There wasn't a soul on that road. There weren't really even many cars.

For the first time since we'd been here, there was silence. No car horns, no screaming vendors, no construction, no broken bicycles rolling across the pavement, and not even any birds making noise. There was nothing. It was amazing. But for as much as I loved that road, it was also problematic. We were definitely going to get picked up if a cop rode by. We weren't doing anything illegal, but being two foreigners on that road in the dark would probably have been enough reason for a cop to stop us and drive us somewhere else.

We turned around, and walked back to our first decision point. We had been going the wrong way all along, and we realized this because there were no busses anywhere that we had been walking. It turned out that when we went left, we didn't take the correct left. There was one road further on the left that we should have taken. We walked on that to the next bus stop, which also didn't have the right number stopping there. Two men in a van kept trying to get us to let them give us a ride, but I wasn't up for that. I'm sure it would have been fine, but I still didn't like the idea. We waved down a cab, and took that instead.

We told the cab driver that we wanted to go to Pingguo Yuan station, and he said he knew where it was. A few minutes into the drive, he asked us where we were living, and we told him. "Why don't you just let me take you there, then?" he asked. That put us into argument mode. The trip to Xiangshan took forever, and we thought the guy was trying to rip us off.

"No, you don't understand. Your school is much closer than that subway station. This is a much shorter trip," he said. After going back and forth with the guy a few times, we decided to just let him take us to the school. It was going to be less of a hassle anyway. The trip only took 15 minutes. I was confused.

Donny looked at the map later and found out that Xiangshan is actually really close to our school. It's west of here. Public transportation, however, just isn't developed enough yet to make it so we don't have to completely go out of our ways to get there. When I go back, I'm taking a cab. I hope these new subway lines come in soon. That would be nice.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


I've been here for over a month now. My stomach is fairly well-adjusted to the differences in food here. For that reason, I was able to eat something delectable today.


These sweet potatoes are sold all over the place on sidewalks. They're usually sitting on a tray atop a metal barrel. Everytime I walk by these things, they smell amazing. As an added temptation, street food is most often cheaper than is imagainable. Today while walking back from our water run at Chaoshifa, my friend Gene decided to stop and buy two. He, Donny, and I went back to the dorm and shared them on the balcony.

the inside of my yam

I thought it tasted great. I didn't eat the skin because it was covered in dirt. That didn't really bother me, though. The yams were really hot, and I figured that enough of what was living in the dirt died to keep me healthy after eating it. I'm happy to report that my stomach is still fine, and I ate the yams several hours ago. This means that I'm going to be eating alot of yams in the near future. It's something like 1 kuai for one yam. Amazing.

mmm yam

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Happy National Day!

What are you doing today to celebrate this country's greatness?

I started my day at 4.00 this morning when I went with friends to catch a cab to Tiananmen Square. There were too many of us to fit in one, so we split up. I knew that was going to mean that we wouldn't see the others at the square. Donny, Sam, and I arrived somewhere between 4.40 and 5.00. Cars were not allowed on huge sections of the street, so our driver had to drop us off. We walked from there to the square.

I could not believe how many people were walking to the square. I'm beginning to get a better understanding of the population density of this country now. Throngs of people coursed through the area, but in a very orderly fashion. There were guards everywhere to assure that an outbreak of mass chaos didn't occur. We followed the huge group under the street to get to the square.

a small sampling of the crowd at tiananmen

Once in the square, we only got about fifty feet in before we hit the saturation point of people. It was foggy, so I couldn't even make out the building where Mao's picture hangs. However, the reason I was there today was to see how people acted, not for the flag raising itself. And because I went for that reason, I can say that this trip to Tiananmen was absolutely amazing for me.

child on national day

As we were standing, a grumble started to come from the crowd. It grew more and more, and whenever that happens in a huge crowd, you always know that something is about to happen. I felt hands on my back and elbows in my sides. My feet came off the ground a little. There was a huge rush of people moving forward, and we were helpless to resist it. As our wave of the crowd kept moving forward, I saw a line of guards form a human chain to stop the rest of the people from moving ahead. They tried to catch our line, but we got pushed through anyway. People scrambled on the ground between the legs of the soldiers, and others ran into their arms to break through. Screams behind us were audible as people were crushing each other and slamming against the guards.

restraining nationalism

Finally, another human chain of guards formed in front of our group. They choked us off and kept us from moving anymore. They stood in a line holding hands or linking arms, depending on the mood of the crowd, for the whole rest of the time we were there. Had someone else broken through the line, the chaos that would have ensued would have also resulted in the trampling of alot of people. But China has crowd control down, and our wave eventually calmed down and stopped trying to get through.

facing the line

What everyone had come to see today was just the routine flag raising. Music was played, the army marched, and the flag was raised. It was nothing out of the ordinary except for the mass of people there. This was an amazing experience for me, though. After so much study of the demonstrations at Tiananmen, I was finally able to be in a crowd there with absolutely no space and thousands of people. I felt the rush of a crowd and got pushed through the arms of guards. People were screaming, and I was enthralled. The videos of the demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989 give you no sense of what a huge crowd there is like. You can't see anything around you except for people. I even lifted my camera in the air to take a picture, and even then, it just looked like a sea of people. It was so amazing.

chinese soldier

I'm really happy to have gotten to experience that. Happy National Day, everyone.