Sunday, March 28, 2010


I've been back in Beijing from our trip to Tianjin for about a week now (pictures are up!), and it's been busy. Our semester is broken up into three 'blocks,' and we're coming to the end of one of those blocks in just a couple of days. This means papers and tests are due, and stress is high.

I'm fortunate, then, that Tianjin was such a relaxing and fun mini-vacation from Beijing. Lili and I got to explore a couple of the museums and traditional streets around Tianjin (albeit, at one point, in the middle of one of North China's famous sandstorms), ate some fantastic food, saw this, and had time to hang about and chat. Every day I got to know her a bit better, and I'm ever more conscious of how special she is. Despite having a really modest background in a small town in the dusty plains of northern Anhui, she's always been a bookworm, spending her money as a kid on translated works of Jane Austen instead of buying toys or snacks. Despite going to high school with a mixed urban-rural student body whose city-dweller classmates looked down on those from the countryside, she was elected president of her class. She got her tourism license in a record-setting one month, and is looking forward to finding work as soon as possible.

I learned quite a bit about her family background as well. When I asked her about why she had a problem with Japanese people, despite having a generally liberal and fair worldview of everyone else, she told me how her family was deeply affected by the Japanese invasion during WWII. But despite this, she's tasked me with introducing her to a couple of my Japanese friends in order to get past what she knows is a deeply-ingrained prejudice on her part.

It's clear, too, that she's an anomaly among her peers. She's not planning on getting married until her late twenties or later, valuing her career and life plans over finding a husband. In contrast, her younger brother, nineteen years old, just found a fiancée and will be getting married next Spring Festival. While I put no judgement either way, it does speak to the fact that she's already set out on a very different path from those back home.

And on a more personal note, during this trip together I learned that not only was I her first foreign boyfriend, I was actually the first foreigner she ever met.

But good things, as they say, must come to an end. She's decided that Beijing isn't the place to look for work right now, and she's decided to head south to Guangdong to try her luck there. I'm guessing that part of the reason she sprung this trip to Tianjin on me so suddenly was that she knew she'd be leaving in not too long. While it's too bad we won't be spending my last month or two in Beijing together, I'm excited for her prospects in southern China. In a way, I think she's making this move to go exploring; she still feels that she hasn't seen nearly enough of her mother country. I can't speak to the state of the job market down south, but I can only wish her the best, knowing she'll succeed by sheer force of will and her cheerful, good spirit.

And while I'm going to be seeing much less of Lili in not too long, I'm already starting to find other ways to fill the social vacuum that will open up when she's gone. I spent the last two evenings hanging out with a couple Chinese buddies of mine that I met last semester, Will and Tony. Hanging out in a locally-run pizza bar on the edge of campus, we talked about what is only natural given our age and gender: American gun laws, beer, and World of Warcraft. Some things, it seems, transcend cultural differences entirely.

As for what else has been running through my mind lately, the biggest concern floating about is, not surprisingly, about going home. Just over two months remain in my time here, and my feelings are really mixed. On one hand, going home is going to give me the opportunity to let me pick life back up where it left off back in Fort Collins; I'll see old friends that I haven't see for nine months or more, I may have a nice spot lined up in the CSU dorms as an RA, and I'll get to take some great classes back at CSU. But on the other hand, my identity has been become deeply tied up in my experience in China. Here, I can wake up each day and answer the question, "Why am I here?" with the simple and satisfying answer, "To learn Chinese." (I usually avoid the natural extension of that question, "Why are you learning Chinese?" Answer: TBA). But, really, having that sense of purpose each day, and reaping immediate, tangible rewards from learning each new character is extremely gratifying.

When I go back to the United States, I fear that in some way, I'll return to that same feeling of disorientation I dealt with my freshman year. But another part of me assures me that my experience here will stick, that I'll find a way to intergrate it into my new life back at CSU, and I'll be all the more prepared for graduation looming just over a year away.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


I'm well back from my trip to Hangzhou and Nanjing with my class, and pictures are posted on Facebook. Overall, it was a pleasant, uneventful trip. I'd already visited most of the sites we visited in Nanjing, but Hangzhou was totally new to me. The West Lake, perhaps the most famous, most written-about lake in China, sits right in the center of the city, so we got the chance to take a nice evening walk around the lake and a brisk morning bike ride across the elaborately decorated causeways that span across it.

We also had the chance to take a hilly hike through the tea fields in the highlands above the lake. These fields produce some of the finest tea in China, though unfortunately we came before the picking season had arrived, so we only got to try the year-old stuff. Still very good though; I can see why it garners so much attention from those with a real taste for the stuff.

We were fortunate enough to have the Chinese lantern festival fall during our stay in Nanjing. People celebrate this lunar calendar holiday by crafting mini-hot air balloons out of paper on which they've written their wishes for the new year. Then they light a candle suspended within and let them fly away. We saw relatively few of those floating about, but they still made a pretty surreal scene. The (perhaps less traditional) but far more in-your-face event of the evening was the series of stalls and activities near the Confucian temple at the center of the old town. Stalls were everywhere selling ice cream, roasted mutton, congealed duck blood, fried doughy cakes, and candied hawthorne berries (糖葫芦). Combine that with the mad consumer flair to the scene (nearly everyone is wearing a pair of light-up teddy-bear ears, devil horns, or some other flashy five kuai bling), and you're in for a good time. As a case in point, my buddy bought this sick hat. It doesn't get much better than that right there, folks.

As for nowadays, things have been going exceptionally smoothly. Everyday I wake up at around 6:30 or 7:00 and take a light breakfast of dumplings, rice porridge, and a hard boiled egg at the cafeteria while studying my characters. My literature class of four students and one professor starts up at 9:30 and goes until lunch. At 1:30, our Chinese class of five students and one delightful Chinese teacher meets for two hours. After that, the day is mine! I study, I hang out with Lili (we watched the film 'To Live', 活着, the other day, and I can't recommend it enough), and make dinner with Shushu. Not bad at all.

It's funny that living here in Beijing has in some ways become mundane. That's not at all a bad thing, though. Living here really feels like living here; I have deep-rooted relationships with people here, a family that looks out for me, and classes I find very satisfying. And since my parents have moved out of my hometown, and I don't have a permanent address back in Fort Collins, I might as well call Beijing home. I like that.

Next weekend, it looks like Lili and I are headed out to Tianjin, a large city about an hour-and-a-half outside of Beijing by train. It's supposed to have some cool colonial architecture which sounds worth checking out. But, to be honest, I'm more relishing the opportunity to go traveling with Lili. She gets to practice her tour guide thing (sidenote: she has officially received her tourism permit, which is great for her work prospects!) and I'll have a guide and a friend to haul me around to see the cool sights and give me some perspective. And it's a great excuse to share some good memories. I can't wait.