Friday, September 18, 2009


I'm getting my bags packed and I'm headed for Yunnan at 6:45 tomorrow morning. We hop on a bus to the airport northeast of town, and fly to the provincial capital, Kunming.(For some perspective, here's a map. Beijing is in the northwest, Kunming is in south-central China.)

The next morning, we'll be meeting some Chinese students who go to Yunnan University and hang with them for a while, and then we're off on a temple hike. That evening, we take a night train to Dali, which is due west of Kunming. We'll spend a few days in Dali, one of which is devoted towards hiking Tiger-Leaping Gorge. Very, very excited about this hike. Here's a more detailed map of Yunnan for further reference.

From Dali, we go to Zhongdian, up in the far northwest corner of Yunnan. This section shares a border with western Tibet, and so the population there is primarily Tibetan. This area, to give some background, has become internationally famous for taking on the name "Shangri-La," a reference to James Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon. Sichuan province tried to pull the same trick, but the bureaucrats in Yunnan got there first, and have been raking in the tourist dollars ever since.

But really, I'm told this area is beautiful, and I can absolutely not wait to get out of Beijing for a little bit. It's a great city, but even thinking about clean air sends shivers of anticipation down my spine.

We'll hang out in a village near Zhongdian, called Napa Village, where we'll be home-staying with Tibetan families for a few days, eating, hiking, and doing a bit of volunteer work on one of their roads.

Since I'm going to be out and about, expect infrequent updates from me. I will most likely be able to find an internet cafe around Kunming and Dali where I can post, but once I'm up in Napa Village, it's going to be all quiet on the northwestern front. However, expect fantastic pictures on the 1st of October, when I return to Beijing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cultural Perspectives

I had an awfully good conversation with my Dad on Skype the other day, and I think that I ought to share some of the thoughts that arose from it.

How to put this? Chinese and Americans often don't understand one another very well. Intellectually, it's a no-brainer. But experiencing it first-hand has been interesting. For example:

I've started to make a group of Chinese friends. They're BeiWai students like me, only studying English full-time instead of Chinese. This is pretty convenient since we correct one another's pronounciation and can translate words we don't know for one another. One fellow, English-named 'Will', likes to talk politics, and, being who I am, one of the first things I asked about was Tibet. His response was interesting. He told me that the Dalai Lama was a power-hungry ex-slaveholder who had manipulated the Western media to his perspective. While I concede that we tend to see the Tibet issue pretty one-sidedly, his position seems somewhat extreme.

Anger at the Western media is not uncommon. I read a really fascinating article written by an award-winning columnist for the New Yorker Magazine about China's 'Angry Youth.' These are the guys that occasionally carry out attacks on Australian film festival websites to make political statements. One of these 'Angry Youth' makes a claim, the author told us during the lecture he gave a few weeks ago, that CNN actually takes orders from the U.S. State Department before it reports the nightly news.

My Chinese Government class has been informative along these lines as well. We learned that, particularly among the old Party hard-liners, the Korean War is regarded as a huge military success for the PRC. Despite around 400,000 or more military casualties for a war that ended in a stalemate, the "War to Resist America and Aid Korea" was regarded as a huge victory over American Imperialism. Some scholars argue that it gave future PRC leaders sufficient confidence in the PLA (People's Liberation Army) to challenge American power later. I find it fascinating that a war regarded as a lukewarm success in the United States is a point of pride for old-timer Chinese nationalists.

I think that these misunderstandings, or perhaps better phrased as 'differences in interpretation,' go both ways, however. Before I went, I got a lot of people telling me to be awfully careful about what I say, to keep a close eye out for the police, etc. While well-meaning, my experience so far has suggested that this advice is a bit more cautious than is necessary.

For example, I've had no problem discussing China's political problems with friends in a university park. Although the Internet is censored (or, as the Central Committee phrases it, 'harmonized'), anyone with a little Internet-savvy can get around it, no problem. In our classroom in a Chinese university, we talk freely about the political implications of the 1989 protests in Tian'anmen and the corruption of the current political regime.

I think the point is that as long as you're not making a serious disturbance (or doing drugs, or proselytizing), the government couldn't be bothered. I'm the first to admit that if I strolled out onto Tian'anmen Square with a 'Falun Gong' T-Shirt whilst espousing Tibetan independence at the top of my lungs, I'd get in serious trouble. But the perception that modern-day China is Stalinist Russia is unfounded for a number of reasons. However, on Saturday, I'm off to Yunnan, a rural, heavily minority-inhabited province, so we'll see how my own perspective evolves from there.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

To Grandmother's House We Go...

Today was big. I met Grandma.

One of the first things we were told when we signed up for a home-stay with a Chinese family was, "If the family offers to introduce you to Grandma, it doesn't matter what plans you have, you make time to see her." And how it pays off to meet Grandma.

We left at 9:00 am from our place in Haidian District, and drove about 30 minutes south to Fengtai, where Grandma, who I call 奶奶 (Nai Nai), lives. Her husband died some years ago, so she lives with Shushu's younger sister, who I call 姑姑 (Gu Gu). Nai Nai is adorable. She's an older woman (has to be at least 70), with the sweet-and-shrunken grandma look about her, but her health is fantastic. She climbs three flights of stairs to get to her apartment without stopping to take a breath.

And can she cook.

We had 肉饼 (rou bing), which are kind of like crepes, but stuffed thickly with salted pork, mushrooms, scallions, and unidentified herbs. After being wrapped up, it's fried in a wok, and served with a 糖醋 (sweet and sour) sauce that has a whole head of garlic floating on top. Later, they pulled the head of garlic out, peel it, and then you eat the cloves (which have been absorbing all that sweet sauce for an hour.

After we ate, I talked with Grandma about her flower box on the windowsill, since she seemed to take really good care of those petunias. She seemed pleased by me taking interest. One of the things about meeting Grandma is that you want to make a good impression; she is the matriarch of the family, after all.

Soon after, we piled into Shushu's car and drove to Ma Lian Dao, a street lined with tea stores. We walked about for a while, then went inside a four-story building jam-packed with 15ft by 15ft tea stalls. These are set up really well. You walk around the shop for a couple minutes, pointing out the types of tea you're interested in. For example, Shushu can't get enough Jasmine Tea. You then sit down at a nifty stone table that has a slight angle towards slots on the sides, where spilled tea flows out. Then they give you cups of tea. For free. It's a delicious kind of try-before-you-buy set-up. Shushu knows I'm not loaded, so he had us try the cheaper stuff, but it was fantastic! Better than most anything I've had in the States. I came away with a half-pound of Jasmine and a quarter-pound of Yunnan pu-erh, which is a delicious and slightly astringent red-colored tea from China's southern province of Yunnan.

All for $11.

I love this country.

On another note, here is my address for those who don't have Chinese characters installed on their computer. Just print this guy out, paste it on a letter, shell out 98 cents for postage, and send me a letter if the mood strikes you!

Wish you well! Off to make dinner with Shushu. It's 玉米粥 night!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Zoo and the Old Summer Palace

太好了!Yes! Finally I have Chinese characters reinstalled on my laptop! It's hard to explain how much of a pain this was. But hey! Now I can read all the lurid messages my Chinese-speaking friends were leaving in the comments.

I'd also like to welcome all of the PHS students and staff now stopping in to visit my blog! Hope your semester's gotten off to a promising start, and I'm looking forward to reading your comments.

As promised below, I've gotten those pictures from the old Summer Palace and the Beijing Zoo up on my Flickr page. Here are the zoo pictures, and here are the old Summer Palace shots.

The zoo was pretty run-of-the-mill, except, of course, for the pandas. They were just about as adorable and lazy as I could ever have hoped. It's a bit ironic, actually: the names of their homes are the Asian Games Panda House and Olympic Games Panda House, despite the fact that these were, by far, the most lethargic creatures in the zoo. In a way, the Beijing Zoo really impressed me. I was expecting 'animal jail' given the PRC's previous environmental policies. But generally the place was well-kept, and the animals seemed to have adequate living conditions. The tigers were a sad exception. Really small pens, extremely close human contact, and obvious stress on the creatures, including one tiger clawing at the back door to get out... No good.

On Friday after class, a buddy of mine and I went to the old Summer Palace. This was the Summer Palace of the Qing emperors up until 1860, when an expeditionary British and French army marched in destroyed it almost entirely. What they didn't destroy, they left for the Eight-Power Alliance to annihilate when they came through to put down the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Not a shining moment in European or Chinese history, this.

To remind the Chinese of the 'national humiliation' at the hands of the Western imperialists, the Chinese government has not restored any of the previous buildings that once stood there. In their place are just the stone foundations, and a placard explaining what used to stand there. Needless to say, this place is kinda eerie. No buildings in sight (except for a food stand here and there), very few tourists, and a heavy fog all combined to form a pretty somber scene.

On a brighter note, this weekend I buy the few things I need to take with me to Yunnan the week after next! This is going to be a really exceptional trip. Yunnan is one of China's most southern provinces, backing up against Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar to the south, and Tibet to the northwest. IES has been working this program for long enough that our program director has built something of a rapport with the local Tibetans there. As such, we get to spend a couple of nights living in their homes and sharing meals with them. Very excited about this. Apparently, we're going to be doing quite a bit of hiking, too, which is just up my alley. Once I know more, I'll be posting again. Wish you all well!

EDIT: For those who want to send snail mail, you can send letters to this address. Both the English and Chinese addresses have to be on the letter, side-by-side, for it to arrive, since most mailmen from China don't speak English, and most American mailmen don't read Chinese...

IES Abroad Beijing
PO Box 138
4th Floor, No 7 Building
Beijing Foreign Studies University
19 North Xisanhuan Avenue
Haidian District
Beijing, 100089, China


IES Abroad 北京中心
北京外国语大学院7号喽4层 (138 信箱)
邮编 100089

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mao & Me

For those who have been following the blog for a little while, you might have noticed a change in my profile picture. Glance right, and you'll see me with Chairman Mao himself. Last weekend, IES took some of us down to Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Now, this was a strange trip for a couple of reasons. Through the course of about a half-hour's walk, we experienced a living slideshow of centuries of Chinese history.

We began the trip in the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall near Tian'anmen. It tracks the history of the urban development of Beijing since it was a capital by the Khitan Liao, Jurcheds, and Mongols, all northern steppe tribes. On the second floor of this museum are two pretty cool displays. To your right, you see a 25-foot long wooden diorama of the Forbidden City. On your left, a 150-foot by 200-foot scale model of the modern city of Beijing. These displays point out two things. First, you're pretty well awe-struck about how big Beijing really is. There's just a lot of Beijing to be had. But secondly, you see that the Forbidden City, a cultural relic dated back for centuries, still sits in the center of this urban sprawl. Its a real testament to the power of this icon that it, instead of high-rises, occupies the most important part of town.

We left the Exhibition Hall and took a walk to the legation quarter. This was the neighborhood where Europeans put in their own embassies during the 19th century as dynastic power became weaker and weaker following the Opium Wars. This spot is cool because each European nation's legation building was built in the home country's architectural style. So two-minutes walk from the Forbidden City, you can see French, British, American, Swiss, and other architectural styles all in a row down the street.

We then cruised on down to Tian'anmen itself. Apparently, when Mao built it, he had his engineers look up the size of Red Square, and make Tian'anmen Square slightly bigger, thus making it the largest public square in the world. Crafty guy, Mao. This place is a cool sight. When facing the iconic image of Mao over the gate, you look right and see the National Museum. Facing left, you see the Great Hall of the People, which is the Chinese Congress building. It can hold 10,000 representatives at one time. In the center of the square is the Monument to the People's Heroes, a calligraphy-laden obelisk devoted to those slain in the struggle for Chinese nationhood in the 19th and 20th centuries. And lastly, behind you stands a building colloquially named the "Mao-soleum" and accompanying statues. If you arrive early enough in the morning, you too can stand in line with legions of people from the provinces and shuffle by the preserved corpse of Mao Zedong.

It started to get a little weird at this point. Philosophically, I mean. Think about it: We're starting to walk under a gate built by Chinese emperors, adorned by the picture of a man who tried to destroy the Chinese identity associated with pre-Communist China, and what should I see to my left as I walk into the forbidden city? This. Modern Capitalism, meet Imperial China and Maoist Socialism.

Lastly, we walked through the Forbidden City. It's an enormous complex, and we only scratched the surface. Jeremiah Jenne, my history professor, gave us tidbits of historical data behind the sights as we cruised around. I'll be heading back there at some point.

The experience of walking through the Beijing metropolis, Tian'anmen, and the Forbidden City was definately an eye-opener in terms of understanding Chinese identity. It's more complex than one might think. Westerners are bombarded with stereotypes about what China is. We see Confucius, Chairman Mao, and Ke Kou Ke Le all on the same plate, and we see no way to really reconcile the obvious philosophical and cultural contradictions we're presented with. But that question's going to require another post later. This one's gotten too long anyway.

I got over to the old Summer Palace yesterday, and the Beijing Zoo today, so I'll be posting pictures of those soon. Hope everyone back home and abroad are well!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Food, mk.2

Yes, another food post. I thought about fitting it in the one below (which you ought to read before this one if you haven't already), but that would have set a new record, so here it is.

Shushu is a food guru. I mean it. The food I've eaten here has blown me away. Totally different from any Chinese food I've ever had in the states. What I've learned is that the Chinese food we imagine in the little cardboard fold-up box is generally Shanghainese cuisine: lots of rice, lots of sweet meats. Beijing cuisine has more bread, more noodles, and tons of vegetables. I told him in broken Chinese the first night that I wanted him to teach me how to cook Chinese food. And he's gladly obliged. Here's the short list of works so far, and a picture to go with:

Liangcai: It's all sorts of squash, carrots and cucumbers thinly sliced, briefly blanched in oil and water and then put in a bowl with a sugar and vinegar dressing. It's topped by these really spicy peanuts the likes of which I have never tasted.

Chao Cai Hua: Chao means to fry. And Cai Hua is cauliflower. Put cauliflower in a wok with pork, oil, salt, ginger, and small red onion, and you're ready to go.

Meatball Soup: Ok. That's not the Chinese name. But it's still super tasty. You beat the crap out of some pork, and stir it with chopsticks while adding water until it forms a meat goo. Bear with me. Add chopped scallions, salt, and garlic to the goo and let sit. Meanwhile, put water on the boil and add salt and quite a bit of chopped cilantro. Once it's to a rolling boil, take spoonfuls of the pork goo and plop them into the boiling water. If you do it right, they form perfect little meat spheres in the water, which then becomes your soup. This dish has a really light, fresh flavor (due to the cilantro) which cuts the greasiness of the pork really well. This is a favorite.

Qie zi: Translates to eggplant. You have not eaten eggplant until you've had it in Chinese food. Seriously, fried in a wok with potatoes and onions, it's a nice, hearty (albeit somewhat greasy) part of the meal.

Bean soup: This was a strange one, but it's grown on me. In the morning, shushu takes all sorts of little beans, washes them, and puts them in a covered pot. They soften for the whole day, and then you eat them, water and all. Though bland-sounding, it functions like rice does in other meals; as a filling dish that gives you a break from all the rich flavors of the 'side' dishes.

Usually we make three or four dishes for dinner, including the filler dish of rice, beans, and/or bread. The eating style is cool, too. The dishes are brought out to the coffee table in the living room, and, with chopsticks or spoons in hand, we have at the communal dishes.

After about a half hour to forty-five minutes, he leans over and asks, "Chi bao le, ma?", which means "You full?" To which I respond, "Chi bao le!", which translates to, "Yes, I'm full.", but my tone of voice implies more of a "Christ, yes. If I eat one more grain of rice, I will explode." At this point, he grins, and triumphantly exclaims, "Chi bao le!" He too is full, and freakin' satisfied about it.

This house rocks. Go food.


I moved in with my Chinese family on Saturday and I couldn't be happier. My shushu (homestay dad) and ayi (homestay mother) are an older couple, my guess is they're in their early 50's. They're daughter is 20 years old, and lives in an apartment elsewhere in Beijing. They've had five study abroad students live with them, and they have a room really well suited to the purpose. A bed, dresser, clothesline (Chinese people don't use dryers), desk, and filing cabinet/storage unit. In a way, it feels just like home; small-ish, with plain decorations, good lighting, and a rock-hard bed :-).

Their apartment is pretty small, about 50-some square meters. They've got a bathroom, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a family room that doubles as the master bedroom. It suits me perfectly, though. Lots of opportunities to chat, a quite reasonably sized room to myself, a Western-style toilet, and a small but very servicable kitchen.

One great thing about the apartment is that it is really conveniently located. Whereas some of my friends have to ride the bus for twenty minutes to get to class, I literally walk down the stairs, hang a right, walk 100 feet, and I'm at the courtyard in front of the IES building where all my classes are.

Shushu is a seriously cool guy. From what I can tell, he manages all of the handimen on campus. Conveniently, his office is 25 feet from the IES building, so I often say hello to him on the way to class. He speaks barely a word of English, so that's made deep conversation a bit... difficult. But he's one of the most patient and joyful people I've met. He's glad to spend a full five minutes trying to explain the verb "to lose" in Chinese to me. Once I figure it out, he erupts in huge laughter. I can't describe how much I lucked out getting this homestay.

I haven't gotten to know Ayi as well. She works as an accountant off campus, and tends to work kind of late. She often doesn't get home until about 8:00, and by that point, Shushu and I have already made dinner, and I've got my nose in the books. But from what little I've talked to her, she seems just as friendly and warm as Shushu, if a bit less exuberant.

Ah, and I almost forgot Ding Ding. Yes, he's the dog. About one foot high, and a bit skittish, but very soft. He's even starting to get used to me. He barks less now when I walk into a room, and when I say his name, he trots on over to get pets.

While the homestay situation has been great, school, eh, not so much. I'm learning a lot, there's no doubt. But, God, this program is rigorous. Around thirty new characters a day, a dictation quiz first thing every morning, followed by four hours of Chinese study until noon. Needless to say that I'm not the only one who's having trouble adjusting to such a fast-paced curiculum. It's just going to take a bit more studying on my part, (and more flashcards) to get back on my feet. But it'll happen :-)