L’étrangère

As of 7:25 a.m. Paris time, I set aside my memories as a waiguoren and became une étrangère.  But unlike the Chinese word waiguoren, which literally means “outside country person,” the French étrangère encompasses “foreigners,” “outsiders,” and, more tellingly, “strangers.”  That last one is the definition that sticks out to me.

Riding on the RER train into Paris from the airport this morning, I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner as I did a stranger.  I don’t stand out here like I did in China, after all.  People told me how to (try to) be a “true Parisian” before I came – wear black and boots and look straight ahead when you walk – but as far as I could tell on the RER, Parisians are some of the most diverse people I’ve ever encountered.  And they’re all strangers to each other.

The RER leaving the airport happened to be closed this weekend (lucky me), so I had to take a bus to its other branch.  But thanks to that thirty-minute jaunt, I rode through Paris’ outermost banlieue (suburbs), the farthest thing from our American concept of suburbia.  We’d be more likely to call the banlieue the ghetto.  If you’ve seen La Haine, that amount of diversity is what I kept picturing as each new person boarded the RER, from a teenage kid who snapped at an Indian man who asked him a question, to a young black boy and his mother who read from a pamphlet called Grandir dans la Foi (Grow in Faith) on their way to church.   There was an Asian couple who conversed quietly in Chinese, a pair of conservative, white women whose hair sat in tight buns on the tops of their heads, and a man who boarded for one stop to play the violin for tips.  All these different people, and I knew no one.  But they basically all knew no one, too.

Outside of the train, there were areas that looked nearly abandoned with garbage riddling the streets, and ones where you could hardly tell the color of the buildings thanks to the graffiti that covered their walls.  The banlieue is the Paris tourists stay away from, and I doubt I’ll ever be closer to it than I was riding the RER, but it’s as big a part of the city as the River Seine or the Eiffel Tower.

Four hours after getting off my flight, having navigated the closed RER, sat through two train delays, lugged my suitcase up and down the staircases of the métro, and entered the wrong apartment building, I finally reached my professor’s apartment.  She greeted me with a “Bienvenue à Paris, Emily,” and all of a sudden, I wasn’t a stranger.

Then it was on to my host family’s home, a charming apartment in a great neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement, in the southeast part of the city.  My host mother is super chic and extremely helpful, as are my siblings, an 18-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy who live with us and a 21-year-old girl and 22-year-old boy who stop by occasionally.  My host mother made two great meals that, of course, included baguette and cheese, and I loved sitting around the table listening to their lively family conversations.  Near the end of dinner, my sister asked what time it was and rushed to turn on the TV to watch their father, who was doing political commentary for France’s regional Presidential polls.  The two girls simultaneously told me about the different candidates and made fun of their dad’s new hairstyle, and crowding around the TV with them was a funny reminder that I am, in fact, in a real Parisian household, where the players in politics are more than something I read about in the New York Times.

I did take a little time today to explore my neighborhood with Diana, another Carl who lives ten minutes from me.  Her host mother told us a route to follow for a nice promenade, and I think we ended up straying from it a bit, but we walked through one of Paris’ many quaint side streets and ended up passing the Pantheon and the Jardin de Luxembourg, a park/garden that’s near where we’ll be taking classes.  Sorry to say I forgot my camera, but I’m sure there’ll be no lack of photos in the future.

It’s hard to say whether I felt like more or less of a stranger as I meandered the streets of Paris.  At the airport, I was pretty pleased with the fact that the man who sold me my RER ticket spoke to me the entire time in French and even gave me directions that came in French and English with the French ones facing up.  Maybe that meant I could fit in here after all?

But there are definitely little things that stand out.  Like the women who were jogging in the Jardin de Luxembourg; they wore black pants or leggings, some with skirts, and tight-fitting shirts.  So much for shorts and a t-shirt to exercsise?  I was warned before I came that no matter how hard you try to fit in in Paris, Parisians will always know you’re not one of them.  As Diana and I walked past a crêpe shop, the owner shouted out a “hello” without even hearing us speak English, confirming the fact that we are, still, des étrangères.

Posted in France 2011 | 2 Comments

Applied Learning

Chinese Internet turned against me, so pretend this was posted around November 11th:

In addition to frolicking around Shanghai for the past two weeks, I’ve also been doing a bit of reading—more than I get in at Carleton to say the least.  Reading is a cool prospect on its own, but it’s getting to apply what I’ve been reading to our experiences that has been the greatest.

Being the hao xuesheng (good student) that I figured I should be, I read through one of our Chinese history text books last week, which confirmed that I know much less about modern Chinese history than I should.  Reading about China in the 20th century, I quickly realized how Western-based everything I’ve learned about modern history has been.

The most exciting part of all this reading (because I promise it gets exciting!) was finally figuring out exactly how the Chinese Communist Party came to be, from its founding through the Cultural Revolution.  Even though there are photos and bags and decks of cards everywhere in China baring the face of Mao Zedong (probably the most influential chairman of the CCP and the starter of the Cultural Revolution), I knew little about him from my high school world history classes and had only picked up bits and pieces around China of why he is so revered here—and widely disliked in the Western world.

Literally four days after finally figuring out the details of all of this, we visited Xintiandi, the founding place of the CCP, right in Shanghai.  There was nothing too impressive about it, except that we watched some new Party members adamantly reciting the Party pledge and saw the room where the CCP’s founders first met.

Me and some Communist leaders in Huaxi Xun, sporting the red scarves

The cooler application of my learning came on Saturday, when we were invited to the home of a Chinese Carleton student in Huaxi Cun, a Communist village two hours from Shanghai that calls itself “the number one village under Heaven.”  It’s hard to even put the experience into words.  The idea behind the village is that everyone holds shares in its industries, mainly steel and agriculture, and they all live in similar houses that they get for their shares, rather than actually paying for them with money.  The man who hosted us proudly proclaimed that Huaxi Xun has no poor people, and everyone in the village has about $200,000 per year, a huge sum in China.

Houses in Huaxi Xun

On our way to the village, we were all unsure what to expect.  We’d heard speculation that the government actually funnels money into the village to make it China’s most successful Communist settlement.  Driving into the city (in the three brand new vans our hosts rented for us) was about the farthest experience you could get from Jiangxi and the “real China.”  The homes were the size of large ones in the U.S., obviously part of a thoroughly affluent society.  And yet, on our way to lunch, we learned that of the 60,000 people who work in the town, 30,000 are migrant workers who don’t actually get a large house or shares in the industry.  So Huaxi Xun definitely had poor people; they just weren’t allowed to live there.  Although the village is deemed a model of Communism, it seems that concept only applies to the elite, especially since no outsiders can actually move into the city.

The steel factory in Huaxi Xun

Our hosts sent us on tours to the town’s very Communist museum and buildings, a surprisingly dull experience with lots of repeated pictures of their leader meeting important people.  As we saw tour buses of Chinese people who came to see the country’s wealthiest Communist town, we were more and more convinced that there really was little there to see.

Sea cucumber

Despite the strangeness of the city, we thoroughly enjoyed our hosts’ hospitality.  Chinese people are hospitable to the point of embarrassment, and these hosts went all out.  We ate a meal in a restaurant and then one in their home, “so you can see how peasants live,” they said. Yeah right.  Both meals had 30 different dishes, including these firsts for me:  shark fin soup, sea cucumber (it’s NOT a cucumber), raw salmon, jellyfish, turtle soup, snake, and lobster.  The shark fin tasted like turkey, the snake tasted like chicken, and the jellyfish tasted like you were chewing on cartilage.

We left the village filled with food and a strange feeling.  It seemed unreal that people could actually live in this place believing they were a successful society of completely affluent people, when half of their industry was based on a group of migrant workers who added to the village’s industries but got none of the benefits.  We all agreed it was one of the most foreign ideas we’d experienced in China.

After a pretty easy Sunday, we left yesterday for four days of travel at Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Hangzhou, and Suzhou.  And once again, I was caught up in the experience of my books.  After the Chinese textbook, I started The Good Earth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Pearl S. Buck, an American who lived in China for much of the early 1900s.  She’s appreciated for her deep understanding of Chinese culture, and reading the first 100 pages of the book aboard our tour bus, I couldn’t help but notice that the same observations she made—from the differences between the South and North to the way to go about begging on the streets—were all things I’ve noticed on my own trip, 80 years later.

A view of Anhui province from the bus

The book is about a man who farms in Anhui province, the location of Huangshan, and it was pretty unbelievable to read a sentence, then look out the bus window and see someone working in the same fields the author had just described.  Huangshan was another experience in itself.  It was the third of four mountains I’ll be visiting in China, and by far the most exhausting.  I’ve learned not to underestimate stairs in China; even if they seem like they’d be easier than hiking, after 5 miles each way at 1,000-meter altitude when you’re already out of shape, they’re pretty tough.

Men carrying supplies up Huangshan

My walk up was nothing compared to the men who work on the mountain, though.  They carry cases of water, fruit, and chairs all the way up the mountain on wooden poles balanced on their shoulders, stopping for 30-second breaks every few minutes and completely amazing us.  Just like the other mountains, Huangshan was completely breathtaking, and I’m continually amazed by the varying geology and incredible beauty of China’s landscapes.

I suppose you could call today’s trip in Hangzhou a bit of applied learning as well.  We started at Xihu (West Lake), which is the site of the famous legend of the white snake, a story we’ve all studied in our Chinese classes.  The basis is that a man marries a woman.  Then a sorcerer tells the man she is a snake, so the man makes her drink alcohol, which turns her back into a snake.  Then she tries to hide in a temple on Xihu and wait for her husband, but the sorcerer kills her, and she’s buried under the temple.  I don’t really know if there’s a moral to the story, but the lake was so peaceful, and the air was amazingly clean, so I was pretty content.

Tea fields

I was especially content as I wrote this, sitting on our tour bus after a visit to Longjing, the original producer of Dragon Well tea.  It’s said that tea in China is like wine in France, a statement that I would fully back after walking through rows and rows of tiered fields of tea leaves today.  We got the chance to see the precise leaf-drying process and taste hand-made Dragon Well tea, then go off on our own to relax among the tea fields.  I took the opportunity to read some more of The Good Earth, nestled into the beautiful scenery of Hangzhou and the tea fields while the book’s main character stopped in a tea house for a drink and some town news.  A completely pleasant, completely applicable addition to a beautiful day.

My reading spot above the tea fields

Today brought Suzhou, the silk capital of China, and a visit to an amazing garden and a silk mill.  We’ve now arrived in Shanghai, and I’m taking in my last few days in China before Mom and Dad arrive on Saturday (!).

Posted in China 2010 | 1 Comment

Peaceful, Easy Feeling

Ah, the joys of a Westernized city.  Just wandering around in Shanghai has so far been a breath of fresh air, so to speak (because the air still isn’t great).  But the streets are clean, the subway is extremely convenient, and the stares come far less frequently.  Plus we’ve done things like play with kindergarten children, gaze out of a beautiful building onto the entirety of Shanghai, and watch a master artist paint an entire painting.  Peaceful and easy—I would say so.  And then we also attempted to experience every culture in the world in one day—not quite so peaceful and easy, but still a highlight of Shanghai so far.  But I don’t think I’d enjoy Westernized Shanghai so much if I hadn’t first jumped in to Chinese history in Beijing and Tianjin and explored “the real China” in Jianxi.

I decided on the title for this post our second day in Shanghai, but when I listened to the Eagles song that inspired it, I figured more than just the song’s title could be an inspiration.  (I’m an English major, after all, so I can find parallels and symbolism in pretty much anything.)  Here’s the entire song, as it applies to my Shanghai experience so far.  Be open-minded:

I like the way your sparkling earrings lay

Yes, I’ve bought lots of earrings and other jewelry here, both for myself and for the lovely people back home.  This weekend we found another bartering market like Beijing’s Silk Street at a subway stop here, and in the little time we spent on Shanghai’s famous Nanjing Road, it seems to be another hot spot for shopping. Great.

But the market was only one part of a lovely day on Saturday, our first real chance to explore Shanghai.  It started with a Skype date with my parents (always a pleasure), followed by a trip to the market, and then dinner at the home of a Tongji University professor’s parents.  Her mom and a few other women had us help them make hun dun, a dumpling popular in the south that’s boiled and eaten in a soup.  I’m sure it was hard for them to hold back their laughter when we had no idea what we were doing, but they taught us well, and I have the video to prove I can actually wrap hun dun.

The professor’s young son and daughter were great entertainment and had some of us rap for them before they whipped out a Chinese rap for us, complete with hooded sweatshirts and some Carleton beat boxers.  The whole night was a great chance to see a Chinese home and experience more of China’s amazing hospitality, since we don’t get to live with host families.

Against your skin so brown,

Or my skin so white.  It’s still getting some comments, but much fewer than in Jiangxi province, which we’ve since been told is the place to go to see “zhen de Zhonguo,” so I’m happy we chose it for travel week.  In Shanghai, I did meet a Chinese Mary Kay dealer who told me to give her a call if my skin “you wenti (has problems).”

And I want to sleep with you in the desert night

My peaceful, easy feeling has unfortunately depleted since I found out how early the deadlines are for lots of summer internships.  At this point, I would rather sleep by myself in the desert for a night than write a cover letter.

With a million stars all around

The Pearl TV Tower and skyline at the Bund

We kind of felt like stars when we went to the Bund this weekend, where we had a line of people waiting to take pictures with us, only because they were also tourists.  The Bund has been described as Shanghai’s equivalent of Times Square, but basically it’s a walkway along the Huangpu River that has a great view of the Pearl Tower and the rest of Shanghai’s famous skyline and meets up with Nanjing Road. We theoretically stayed at the Bund long enough to see the stars in the sky, too, except that the light from the city makes that pretty impossible.

On Shanghai's High Street

The skyline and city are even more exciting at night, though.  After dinner at the professor’s house on Saturday, she led us on a walk around the French Concession, a part of Shanghai with a strong European influence from the Opium Wars.  We wandered under Shanghai’s blue-lit “high street” and through the Concession’s French and Spanish architecture and a twisting alleyway full of quaint, sophisticated galleries and bars called Tianzi Fang that we’ll surely be returning to.

Cuz I got a peaceful, easy feeling,/And I know you won’t let me down

Looking out from the 19th floor of the design school building at Tongji over the rest of the building, I sure hoped the railing wouldn’t let me down.  Our culture and civilization classes are on the 18th floor of the building, but the 19th is probably one of the prettiest bits of modern architecture I’ve ever seen, mainly because Tongji is a very prestigious architecture and design school.  The floor-to-ceiling windows make the whole space light and open to fantastic views of the city, and the plants add that peaceful, easy feeling I’m pretty fond of.

The lovely 19th floor

Our classroom in the building also has some great views of the city, plus we’ve been lucky enough to see amazing artwork from a Shanghai painter who paints entire traditional paintings in front of us and plays Chinese music.  We feel pretty lucky to be taught by him and other leaders in their respective cultural fields.

Cuz I’m already standing on the ground.

And I’m almost surprised I’m not still standing on the ground, walking or standing in lines at the World Expo.  I’m so excited to have gotten to go to the Expo last Friday, and since it’s so big, we’ll be going again today to see more.  Most of the countries in the world have either their own pavilion or a joint pavilion with other countries at the Expo, which stretches on both sides of the Huangpu River and covers a huge space of land.  It’s actually kind of ridiculous how many buildings had to be torn down to make it, but I’ll just focus on the positives for now.

Designer clothes and stuff at the Italy pavilion

My favorite pavilion was the Italian one, which we didn’t have to wait for because we made a reservation.  Some of the pavilions’ lines to get in (especially China, Saudia Arabia, and Germany) are up to six hours long.  Italy’s had a huge range of stuff, from shoes and designer dresses to cars and pasta, and the inside of the building was beautiful.  Throughout the day, I also made it to the joint African pavilion and one with smaller Central and South American countries, as well as Greece, and today I hope to get to France, Switzerland, Thailand, and the U.S.  We also went to the theme pavilion, where we saw an amazing, rather apocalyptic exhibit on urban life and sustainability.

The Netherlands pavillion

Of all the things I could describe from the Expo so far, though, I’d like to focus on the Netherlands’ pavilion.  I’m just going to come right out and say that I’m pretty sure it was based on the experience of being high on marijuana, with it being legal there and all.  I imagine its designers’ conversation going something like this:

‘ Well, Sufjan, what is the Netherlands famous for?  Hmmm, Hilki, I don’t know… tulips? Great.  We’ll make our pavilion in the shape of a tulip.  Maybe we should put some tulips in a glass box for people to look at, too.  Good idea, Sufjan… what else? Sheep.

Fake sheep and Chinese people

Silly Sufjan, we can’t have real sheep at our pavilion.  How about fake, life-size sheep that the Chinese people can sit on?  Maybe even on fake grass. Okay! And let’s not forget about soccer, a cartoon rabbit, Vincent Van Gogh, electronica music, or really small houses.

A tiny soccer field

But you know what, Hilki?  I think we’re leaving out something important. Sufjan… we can’t. But Hilki, we have to.  What’s the one thing people think about when they hear the word “Amsterdam?”  I know, I know.  Marijuana.  What if we take everything we just mentioned and put it all into really small houses, then make the whole thing look like an amusement park?

Small houses floating around

But what good would that do, Hilki?  I like to call it, “Marijuana: the Gateway to Happiness.” How about we just call it “Happy Street?”  Great! ‘

The dark side of Happy Street

And I found out a long time ago/What a woman can do to your soul.

And sometimes what she does to your soul is a pretty good thing… as in she creates it… because she’s your mother.  And mothers have children, and we met some of them last week at a Chinese kindergarten.  (Like how I got to that connection?)  Our visit was pretty okay.  I mean, it’s not like I get excited about seeing tons of Chinese children or anything…

Pretty much my favorite

But really, I have so many videos and pictures of them singing, doing martial arts, and giving peace signs that I’ll probably end up making a separate “Chinese Children” album once I get Facebook back.  Before our visit, we’d been under the impression that children’s Chinese is the easiest to understand, but we’ve modified that to about 10-year-old children who’ve had some grammar and pronunciation education.  The basic idea of communicating with 4 to 7-year-olds was to ask them a simple question, then let them ramble on with an answer that you mostly didn’t understand and smile and laugh while you listened.  Actually, it’s pretty similar to what happens in most of my Chinese interactions.

Oh, but she can’t take you anyway/You don’t already know how to go.

And knowing how to go pretty much anywhere is unexpectedly simple in Shanghai.  The subway is so easy and clean, and a really convenient line runs right to Tongji.  It’s only four stops to the Bund and Nanjing Road, and we’re hoping to go to a Mexican restaurant only a few stops north of us this weekend.  Sometimes you just have to give in to the Western cravings, like our subs and cookies at Subway on the Bund on Sunday.

And I got a peaceful, easy feeling,/And I know you won’t let me down

I guess I wouldn’t use peaceful and easy to describe our language classes, but I’m hoping not to let anyone down in them.  I’d say they’re still up and down, but for the most part, they’re going well.  We have three different teachers, two who are really good and one who’s not, but we’re learning, and that’s what counts.

Cuz I’m already standing on the ground.

I get this feeling I may know you/As a lover and a friend,

During our civilization class at the Shanghai Museum yesterday, I got the feeling that I already knew a lot of the things we were seeing.  The reason for that, I decided, is the things that Chinese people liked thousands of years ago—making jade statues and jewelry and painting landscapes, flowers, and birds on scrolls—are the things they still like today.  Looking at jade carved 16,000 years ago, it was unbelievable to think that that same style of jewelry (which used to represent wealth) is still popular today, paired with modern clothing and sold pretty much everywhere.  The same goes for the paintings.  Our painting teacher told us that modern painters struggle in China because there’s still no market for anything but traditional paintings like those from a thousand years ago.  The same could be said for ceramics and porcelain, which we definitely know pretty well since our trip to Jingdezhen.

But this voice keeps whispering in my other ear,/Tells me I may never see you again

With how busy I’ve been the last month and a half, it’s hard to stop and realize that my time here is already more than half over.  Thinking back to Beijing, it does seem like a long time ago, but looking forward, it’s a sad prospect to think that I’ll be flying home less than a month from today.  My roommate and I were talking about it the other night, and she said even if we left tomorrow, she’d feel like she had a fulfilled experience in China.  I think she’s probably right, but I’d rather be ready to leave when it’s time to go than just fulfilled.  Plus, I’d like to think that when I leave, I will indeed see China again.

Cuz I get a peaceful, easy feeling,/And I know you won’t let me down

Cuz I’m aready standing,/I’m already standing,/Yes, I’m already standing on the ground.

Posted in China 2010 | 3 Comments

And how do we get there?

National travel week:  seven days of vacation following China’s national holiday for the entire population of China to simultaneously hop on trains and buses and flood the country’s tourism sites, then leave them deserted and return to work, where they must make up four of those seven days off on the following weekends.

Needless to say, it’s not an ideal time for foreign college students to be traveling, too, but we sure did.  After “graduation” from our two-and-a-half weeks at Nankai University, my travel group of five Dragon Riders went to Jiangxi province, southwest of Shanghai, where the words are all pronounced at the front of the mouth and foreigners are a rare, rare commodity (so much so that one man told Liz he’d never seen a white person before).  We visited three locations, and since coming to China, we’ve probably traveled nearly every way you can.  If you forgot from an earlier post, China is huge, and with so much land and so many people to travel through it, the number of transportation options is pretty huge, too.  In my own particular order, a selection of those options:

The mandatory train photo

Train. Let’s just start with the best.  Or what I thought was the best until last night.  My first lengthy train travel was about as good as the tomato and egg dishes I mentioned before, which I’ve eaten at least a dozen times by now, so that’s pretty good.  The surprisingly comfy beds convinced me trains are the only way to travel, and seats by the windows added the romantic (in the not-love sense) feeling I’d always imagined a train would have.  Our 17-hour trip from Tianjin to Lushan was the most comfortable travel experience I’ve had.  Our eight-hour ride from Longhushan to Shanghai at the end of the week was one of the least.  In addition to sleepers, Chinese trains offer hard and soft seats, the only difference being people who buy soft seats (like we did) are guaranteed a spot.  But people with hard seats stand or sit in the aisles around you if all of the seats are taken, and the overnight trip was spent with the lights on and people talking while none of us could move our legs.  So the moral of this story is that long train travel is only awesome if you get sleepers, easier said than done during travel week.

Taxi. The most dangerous form of transportation, I’ve recently decided.  Especially down a mountain.  Taxi rides have to be the defining experience of our fist stop at Lushan, a mountain with extremely convenient bus tour routes that should take a two-hour cab ride to reach.  Except that our trips up and down the mountain were both a little over an hour, mostly spent holding our breath and (only half-jokingly) leaving goodbye-video messages on cameras while the driver passed cars that were already going 20 km over the speed limit, whipping around blind switchback corners and blasting Chinese electronica music on the radio.  (Mom, you would have puked within the first 10 minutes.)  Luckily, the mountain itself was worth the near-death experiences.  I’m not sure taxis are that much safer in cities, either.  Or at least not in Tianjin, since none of the traffic actually obeys traffic laws.

Part of our exploring area past the Black Dragon Pool

Bus. The cheapest way to travel and, within the city, sometimes the most confusing.  For getting between cities and finding spots to explore on the mountains, though, buses were our most common rides.  At Lushan, they toted us around the mountain to the most scenic lakes and views, which I at first thought was a little too touristy.  Once I realized how much walking we’d be doing though, the buses became a nice break.  It’s hard to describe Lushan, just because it was so full of temples and views and trees and paths that I’m not sure what its defining characteristic would be.  My favorite stop was a small waterfall called the Black Dragon Pool, which a few of us climbed over until we lost the crowd of tourists and could sit and appreciate the quiet beauty around us on our own.  Such a nice break from the city and the crowds of people looking at the waiguoren.

Liz and me on the Dragon Head Precipice

We also climbed to the gorgeous Dragon Head Precipice (notice the name pattern?), where we looked down over a gorge that was breathtaking… literally, considering that a sign described in broken English how Buddhist monks came to the precipice to jump off and try to become Buddha.  So that’s cool I guess?

Feet. When plausible, our favorite way to travel.  I did occasionally wonder why, though, like on Lushan, when we walked almost the entire day after our first bus stop.  “It’s the Great Wall all over again,” I kept thinking.  But we saw so much more of the mountain that way, and we got to enjoy all of the glories of fresher air (because even the mountains had some smog).  By foot was the main way to explore our second stop at Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital, too.

A man dipping a painted bowl in white glaze to be baked at a ceramic workshop

We walked a block outside of our hotel to arrive at Ceramic Street, lined with nothing but porcelain shops and lots of the blue and white ceramics that pretty much dominate Jiangxi province.  Yeah, those dishes are called “china” for a reason.  We were definitely back in the city, but within Jingdezhen we visited an ancient kiln area full of forests and old buildings where we saw how all of that porcelain is made, a really intricate process that’s existed there for 1700 years.

Rafting on a river at Longhushan

Raft. Awesome.  We took a raft down the river at Longhushan, literally the “Dragon Tiger Mountain” because it claims to be shaped like a dragon with a tiger’s head.  You can kind of see it, I guess.  The entire area around Longhushan is full of unique geography, with sandstone formations that a Chinese website translated into looking “some like divine peaches and some like fairies.”  Gotta love that.  We figured most of them fell under the peaches category, and only the Fairy Maiden Rock fit into the other.  If you think dirty enough, you can figure out what part of the fairy maiden that rock is supposed to look like…

Enjoying a cave at Longhushan

But on to the raft.  It was a perfect way to see all of those divine peaches popping up from the land and to get a sense of the calm the area is supposed to bring.  It purports to be a founding spot of Daoism, which focuses on being one with nature and, in modern lingo, “going with the flow.”  Everything about the area was beautiful, from the rock formations that also looked like elephants and faces to the beautiful cave we took some time to explore.  Plus most of the tourists were gone since we went at the end of the week, so we were often the only people at the sites.

Subway. The best way to get around Beijing, and I’m guessing it will be our defining transportation in Shanghai, too.  Tongji University, where we’re studying, is in a less busy part of the city but right next to a new subway stop.  If the subway is anything like Beijing, it will be much nicer than the ones I’ve been on in the U.S. and France.  And just as an added note about Shanghai, our dorm rooms are all brand new, we have a refrigerator and tons of shelves, and there is a washing machine downstairs.  Plus there’s a street much like Xi Nan Cun.  It’s great.

Honking machine. Also known to Americans as a car.  In Tianjin and Jingdezhen, the honking never ended.  Cars literally honk when there is nobody in front of them for 25 feet.  Like they just want to hear the noise.  My roommate suggested once we could make a CD like “Sounds of the Whales,” but with the sounds of China, which would basically be honking and old men spitting (yes, it sounds disgusting).  Since we’ve gotten to Shanghai, though, we’ve only heard one very necessary honk, and people seem to stay in their own lanes, obey traffic lights, and drive at a reasonable speed.  Go figure.

Scooter. Or moped or motor bike or motorcycle, or anything else that has the privilege of considering itself a form of both motorized and pedestrian transportation.  Which, in China, means it can hop from the car lane to the bike lane, or the street to the sidewalk, whenever it so pleases.  And being well-equipped with a horn, it pleases very often.  As of yet, I’m not sure any Carls have gotten to ride one.

Bike. China’s preferred method, it appears.  Bikes are everywhere, and all of them have long, skinny seats on the back for passengers, who sit sidesaddle-style.  The bikes weave in and out of pedestrians just like the scooters, and I have no idea how anyone stays on the back.  One Dragon Rider got a chance to try, and she claims it’s not as easy as it looks.  It doesn’t look easy at all.

The Tianjin TV Tower from the Ferris wheel

Ferris wheel? I only included this because I want to put up a picture from the Ferris wheel at the water park back in Tianjin.  Liz and I took a ride in the clear carts before we left for Lushan, and it was lovely.

Rickshaw. I will not leave China without riding one of these.  So far, I’ve always had too far to go or had too many people with me for it to be a good choice, but they’re the most uniquely “Chinese” way to get around.

And since I had so many photos, a few more:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in China 2010 | 5 Comments

True or False

What’s real, what’s fake, and how can we tell the difference?  Is it even important to tell the difference?  Such deep questions for such a shallow blog post.

There are some things in China that are obviously fake:  the ripped-off DVD’s at the Xi Nan Cun market, the pagoda-style buildings on Tianjin’s “Ancient” Culture Street, the Scotsmen in Friday’s tourism festival parade.  The word “fake” first came up earlier this week when my roommate bought a DVD of Disney’s The Lion King that turned out to be an awful children’s cartoon about jungle/forest animals.  “Here’s a theme for your blog post,” she said.  “Things that are fake in China.”

It sounded like a good idea, since we had been wondering the day before whether the super-Chinese buildings on Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street and all of the chopsticks, fans, paintings, and clothing sold inside them were authentic, or simply a way to capitalize on tourists.  The “ancient” buildings of Culture Street stretch on for blocks amidst the towering, modern architecture of Tianjin.

My Chinese name and the man who painted it on Ancient Culture Street

We stopped at every qipao and painting shop along the way and took in an overwhelming amount of Chinese culture in the interesting, if not genuine, atmosphere, and I’m excited to have some decidedly Chinese souvenirs.  Plus, we finally found a DQ nearby where the Blizzards were surprisingly not fake.

This post could have come a few days sooner if it weren’t for the king of all falsities that was the Tianjin Tourism Festival on Friday.  But that title makes it sound much too negative.  It was actually the complete opposite, and quite possibly one of the most surreal experiences of my life.  When 10 Carleton boys are dressed as Scotsmen in a parade in China, hilarity is bound to ensue.  Add waiguoren-crazy photographers and scantily clad Russian women posing as Brazilian and Spanish dancers, and you get an entirely posed event to remember for a lifetime.

The basics of the parade were this: the Tianjin tourism office asked Zhao to provide 10 (white) male students to dress in kilts and carry Scottish instruments (i.e. bagpipes, drums, clarinets).  We all took a bus to the site and could hardly wait to snap photos of the boys with a variety of locals, most notably a group of mostly older women dressed as cartoon characters.

The Carleton Scotsmen, cartoon characters, and me in the corner

Then we headed off to the red carpet-esque performance area, complete with emcees and Tianjin city officials, where a theme began to develop.  Each of the groups announced, starting with the Brazilian dancers and going through the German and Spanish ones, was actually a random assortment of foreigners (mostly Russians), just like our American Scotsmen, who were indeed announced as being from Scotland.  The parade’s attempt at cultural diversity was more entertaining than anything, especially when we blindly followed a tourism representative who led us onto a trolley, which, to our amused realization, led us onto the red carpet and through the parade.  Apparently we’re special enough to ride in a parade just as we are, no candy-throwing or fancy costumes needed, appropriately introduced as “waiguo pengyou (foreign friends).”

The photographers ready to capture us nearing the red carpet at the parade

The entire morning passed with smiles glued to most of our faces and the words, “Did that just happen?” floated around the bus as we returned to Nankai University.  We’d all had a blast, and it continued during lunch at the Xi Nan Cun market, watching people’s reactions to the boys’ kilts (which they got to keep).  After that, though, Zhao took us to his parents’ apartment for a more pensive, but equally enjoyable, discussion on our experiences in China so far.

Quite appropriately, the first word that came up when Zhao asked our opinions on the parade was “fake.”  Not only the fake nationalities, but also the staging of photographs and the use of background music for a violin group and our Scotsmen’s bagpipes.  Yes, we all agreed, the parade was most definitely staged.  But so is most of the tourism industry and a lot of TV news, so was it really any different?  More important than the parade being fake, we mused, may be whether people realize it’s fake.  From there, we ventured into deeper topics of whether the people of China accept falsity, especially as a result of government corruption.  We talked about China’s education, the economy, Western influences, and the country’s future, all with a somber tone in contrast to the morning’s festivities and the kilts the boys still wore.  As a group, it was just as easy to pick out the country’s negative aspects as it is to enjoy all of its positive ones.  We complain about China’s low wages but readily buy everything here dirt cheap.  We acknowledge that the parade was entirely fake but still had the time of our lives.  And despite American copyright laws and the obvious typos on my bootlegged “82th Oscars” DVD and one from the Vriterion Collection, I’ve so far bought three themed collections, a Chinese movie, and a TV series for myself, as well as two collections as gifts, each for around $1.  It’s kind of disconcerting to talk about the problems in a country in one setting and then take advantage of the perks of those problems in another.

On completely unrelated notes:

  • The moon and the TV tower on Mid-Autumn Festival

    Wednesday was China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, a chance to eat moon cakes, admire the moon, and give elementary school-level “performances” in our Chinese language classes.  We bought Chinese junk food and went to the plaza at a nearby TV tower to have our own quasi-celebration, which I guess is kind of a related note because of its own “fakeness” in comparison to real celebrations.  Lucky for us, though, the moon was right next to the tower, perfect for admiring amidst the Chinese break dancers and rollerbladers on the plaza.

  • My desire to adopt a Chinese child has advanced from a random thought to a reasonable idea.  I probably have more photos of Chinese children than I should, including of a little girl who joined us in playing Frisbee last week.

    Our frisbee friend, with Kathryn taking a photo, too

    She wouldn’t talk until we brought out the camera, and then she snapped about 20 photos and, following each one, ran up to the person in the photo and exclaimed, “Ni kan! (Look!)”  Too, too adorable.  My roommate and I also lingered outside the kindergarten on campus today and watched 2- or 3-year-olds in light blue smocks playing games and taking turns on the slides.  If we were 30-year-old men, we probably would’ve gotten kicked out.

  • I’m still eating delicious (and deliciously cheap) food.  As of now, it’s what I’m going to miss more than anything else in China.  Tomato and egg – on its own, in noodle soup, or in rice – has become my new favorite, but everything from baozi to grilled dough to the Chinese versions of hamburgers and burritos is amazing and costs about 50 cents.  Since we leave Tianjin on Saturday for a week of travel before going to Shanghai for the rest of the program, I’ll soon have to part ways with the Xi Nan Cun market, quite possibly my favorite place to eat in the world (right after my mom and grandmas’ houses, of course).
  • And should you forget that I am in school, classes are good, generally speaking.  I’ve learned some Tai Chi, traditional Chinese painting, and Beijing Opera from experts in their fields, plus tons of new grammar and vocabulary.  Language class is going pretty fast, and I’m unsure whether I’m retaining anything, but every day, I hear a new word I just learned or learn something I just asked my roommate about, so I feel like it’s been really practical in that sense.
Posted in China 2010 | 5 Comments

The Circus Comes to Town

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, gather around for a show that’s sure to attract attention… a bunch of American college kids playing outside.  We’ve now settled in to Tianjin, with a daily routine of language class in the morning, culture or Chinese civilization class in the afternoon, and some Carleton-style hao wanr (good fun, I guess?) outside when we’re done learning for the day.  But really, it’s when classes are over, when we venture out on our own, that the learning is just getting started.

The last two days, some of us Dragon Riders have found a spot on the campus of Nankai University to set up a slackline, a concept I was just introduced to that’s basically a 1.5-inch wide tightrope tied between two trees.  It wouldn’t take much imagination to call it a circus act.  The concept’s been gaining popularity at Carleton, and at Nankai, Max, my roommate Liz, and I set it up in an active area with the purpose of meeting some Chinese people.  Mission accomplished.  Max is an old pro, and there was never a shortage of people who stopped to watch him walk, jump, and lie down on the nylon webbing, and some even stopped to try it.  I’m sure it would be the same way in the U.S.

Max chatting with some Nankai students at the slackline

The thing that struck me was the next day, though, when a few more of us again set up the slackline and brought along a Frisbee. (Carls never leave home without one.)  Even when no one was showing off on the slackline, crowds were watching us just throwing a Frisbee, and again we had a few people join in.  “It looks like a circus,” one Rider said as he sat in a tree and watched what I guess would be akin to tightrope walkers and jugglers playing below.  We haven’t seen many people just hanging out outside at Nankai (they definitely don’t have anything like Carleton’s Bald Spot), so our games, coupled with our foreignness and the fact that most of the Riders there (excluding me) speak pretty good Chinese, were definitely something new.  And even listening to the people who stopped by to chat, I’m picking up on more and more, taking cues from body language and getting by okay.

Which brings me to another part of our daily routine:  ordering food.  At this point, it either involves pointing at a picture or, in some cases, a random set of Chinese characters that I see include the word for pork.  Sometimes my fellow Riders know what to recommend, so I don’t think I’ve mistakenly eaten dog yet.  Actually, the food has been incredible, and I’m not sure how I’ll feel about American Chinese food when I get home (except that I’ll still love cream cheese wantons becasue they don’t actually have them here).  In Beijing, most of our meals were in large groups at a table with glass in the middle that turned to share everything family-style.  Meals are pretty much always shared in restaurants if you have more than three or four people, and even then, I think they usually are.  That makes it easy to sample lots of things and figure out what you like, not that I have any idea yet.

After a family-style meal in Beijing

In Tianjin, we’ve changed up our dining experience.  Today was my first day eating alone in the school’s cafeteria, and I really have no idea what I had on my plate besides rice.  It was hard enough trying to get chopsticks and a Fanta, let alone any type of food I actually recognized.  I doubt I’ll go there anymore now that I know I can make it to Xi Nan Cun – a great market on the other end of campus – and back during lunchtime.  We’ve been there twice so far, once to eat and once to buy hangers and a bucket for washing our clothes.  (There are washing machines, but not good ones, and it’s just easier that way.)  It’s another excellent place to practice our language skills, and also to buy fruit, snacks, and tons of excellent, cheap food from street vendors and small restaurants.  You learn quickly what to pay for things, and 5 kuai (about 80 cents in America) is a huge price difference when you can get a bottle of water or ice cream for only 1 kuai in some places.

A hamburger and a beer in China on my 21st birthday

With how cheap everything is, it’s funny to see the price of American food.  A small bag of M&M’s is 13 kuai, about $2 and, again, really expensive compared to everythig else.  So when we went to Alibaba’s – a restaurant popular with foreign students – for Western food on my birthday (we couldn’t figure out where DQ was), the price of an 18-kuai hamburger and fries initially shocked us until we reassured ourselves that that’s less than $3 in the U.S.  I’m not sure how to describe the hamburger except to say that it somehow tasted Chinese, but we got forks and knives instead of chopsticks and sat amidst pictures of Bob Marley with Yahtzee in one corner and the Yankees game on the TV in the other.  More than anything, it was just fun to see how Western food tastes in China, much like how Chinese food tastes in America.  And just like I’ve discovered with American Chinese versus the real thing, it doesn’t compare.

Posted in China 2010 | 6 Comments

Zhen de Zhongguo (The Real China)

It’s tough to know what to write when every sight you see is more amazing than the last.  But now that we’ve been in China three days, we’ve started to see the counterparts of all of the tourist attractions and far-reaching development that’s consumed our wanderings so far.  Monday and yesterday brought some of the biggest attractions in/near Beijing (Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall) before we headed to Tianjin, where we’re getting ready to actually start classes.  Yes, I kind of forgot that’s what we’re here for.  The touristy sites really are incredible, so a bit of description before I get to “zhen de Zhongguo (the real China),” as Zhao called it:

There’s one thing that stands out about all of the places we’ve visited so far:  they’re huge.  After seeing the Summer Palace that seemed to stretch on forever, you’d think I’d be ready for the Imperial Palace.  Not even close.  Familiarly known as the Forbidden City, the palace was first built in 1406-1420 and is the largest group of ancient buildings in China.

In front of one of the many buildings at the Imperial Palace, with another behind me

I can’t even begin to describe how huge it was, but every time you’d pass through one pagoda or temple, you’d be met by another huge square and even bigger building, or you’d wander through a doorway into a garden that stretched on for acres.  A total of 24 emperors and all of their advisers, servants, concubines, etc., lived in the city, which is situated in Tiananmen Square.  As anticipated, there’s no sign of the protests and untold number of deaths in the square in 1989, which makes seeing it even more surreal.

The rest of Monday brought a visit to Beihai Park (another imperial park) and Silk Street, an indoor market (again huge) that is packed from end to end with vendors competing to sell you clothes, shoes, bags, electronics, trinkets, and on and on.  A few of their efforts at gaining our business:  “For your husband, miss?” “Oh, you are so sexy.” “You want a Chinese boy?”

The painting I bought at the Silk Street Market

The market was a great chance to practice our bartering (or for me to listen to my more advanced classmates practice their bartering), and I ended up getting a pretty neat traditional Chinese painting.

If there’s anything that deserves the title of huge in China, though, it’s the Great Wall.  It covers around 5,000 miles (about 3,900 miles of that are wall, and the rest is trenches and natural barriers), and apparently it would take about six days to walk the whole thing when it was first completed in 1368.  A 45-minute climb was more than enough for me.

Great Wall of China

Being the true adventurers that we like to think we are, all of us Dragon Riders chose the more difficult of the two options to climb.  I’ll be sure not to make that mistake when Mom and Dad come to visit in November.  The trek was steep, and the sun was hot, but the views were amazing.  I never thought I’d see the Great Wall of China, and Zhao kept telling us we could cross Number 1 off our lists of the 10 places to see before you die.

A view from the Great Wall

So all of this touring was great.  In the midst of it, though, you have to stop and look at what’s going on around you.  Riding out to the Great Wall, Zhao told us to look out at the countryside and the people working along the road.  “These are the important people.  Not the ones in Beijing,” he told us.  “They’re poor but hopeful.  They’re the people who are changing the world.  What they’re doing is incredible.”  All along the road, we saw buildings more run-down than the ones in Beijing, people outside sweeping away rubble from who knows where or working in fields.  Zhao’s words were beautiful, and I hope we get to experience more of “zhen de Zhongguo” than just a view from our tourist bus.

It wasn’t until the Great Wall that we really started to notice the smog that fills the air around China’s (again huge) cities, the awful price countries pay for development.  We were lucky to be in Beijing on unusually clear days.  When we got to Tianjin, the third largest city in China and our home for the next two weeks, the smog cover was like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Smog from Beijing on the way to Tianjin

My roommate said the red sun reminded her of the sky in California during forest fires.  The city itself is much prettier than Beijing, with interesting buildings and bridges that take cues from all different types of architecture, and we can only hope the smog goes down so we can truly appreciate it.  Zhao grew up here and was extremely enthusiastic about showing us everything from where he met his wife to where he went to kindergarten.  Riding through the city on the bus and walking after dinner last night, we saw no other waiguoren (foreigners), save the ones who live with us in the international student dorms.  We’ll be starting classes tomorrow, and I can’t wait to move farther from Chinglish to Chinese.

On a side note, as some of you may know, today is my 21st birthday.  “It’s better than spending it in prison,” my dad said.  As I sit here eating the piece of cake my roommate bought me for breakfast, I’m unsure what I’ll do for my shengri today, but it will surely be a birthday I’ll remember.  A trip to a Chinese Dairy Queen is high on the list of possibilities.  Still, it’s the first big reminder I’ve had of home, a kind of bitter sweet feeling full of excitement at being in a new place and a little sadness at being unable to participate in an American milestone with my family and close friends.  Oh the woes of getting to travel to a foreign country, right?  Still, it’s kind of part of my own “zhen de Zhongguo,” understanding what it’s like to try to be part of a global society.

Continue reading

Posted in China 2010 | 7 Comments