Friday, August 22, 2008

In Conclusion

China was hard, but so much fun.

I started this blog claiming that anyone who read it would be doing it out of pity. Now I've heard that for some people, reading this has become a part of their daily routine (and only one of those people was my mom). Following my stories, a habit! But all things must come to an end.

I've done a lot since I left. I was rerouted flying out of the country. I bought a cheap watch. Then tried to get a refund. I purchased a scarf for the first time, got unexcited about China, felt really embarrassed, slept in my roommate's bed. I chatted up the bakery girl, broke copyright law, ate dinner with a Chinese family and a secret vegetarian, grabbed a cab, and realized that Chinese really enjoy the NBA. And that was just in the first month.

I used to think that I wasn't good at finishing things, that I was doomed to having great ideas that I couldn't bring to completion. But I have consistently blogged for the last seven months. Cumulatively, about 75,000 words. That's long enough to be a book. Speaking of which, I've been writing a novel. I never finish my writing projects, but maybe I will this time. Anyone who's read through these posts has surely earned a look at the final product when I'm done (this time 2009?).

One final story. After I hung out with a bunch of my friends tonight, Jessica dropped me off at home. As I got out of her car, I started making sure that I hadn't forgotten anything. I hadn't been wearing a hat, I didn't have any bags, my wallet was in my pocket. Why think through this so assiduously? So that when the taxi drove off I wouldn't lose anything, of course.

That's silly, I told myself. You're not in a taxi. But my mind persisted in thinking the situation through: it's okay, I said. If I left anything behind, just make sure to write down the license plate number and I can find the driver. Who can I get to call the taxi company who speaks good enough Chinese to explain what happened?

And then, at the end of my chain of thought rested this dilemma: I could call Sophia, but now that I'm in America it'd be really expensive to get in touch with her.

And so it goes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


And Will comes back from China. It's almost 1am here in Orlando (that's right, in America), but I think my strategy for quickly overcoming jetlag has backfired. I left Beijing August 20th, at 4:10pm and arrived in Chicago August 20th, 3:50pm (it was a fast plane). Florida is twelve time zones away from Beijing, so when I got on the plane I tried to think of it as being 4 in the morning. "Just like a night out clubbing," I thought to myself. "Although this airplane seat isn't as comfortable as Emma's couch." I slept until around 11, then decided I should be awake until I got home. That way my body would be convinced that it really is night. But I'm afraid I've held out so long it thinks night has just skipped and I'm already on a new day. Gives me energy for a blog entry.

The guy I sat next to on the plane was a Chinese guy with bad English coming to America for grad school. It reminded me of me seven months ago. I had to explain how to put on an airplane seatbelt, and helped him fill in his customs card, and taught him the word "soda." All in Chinese.

In general I felt pretty good about my Chinese leaving. Someone forgot to stamp my ticket saying I had gone through security, and a random American next to me knew the word "to stamp" when they questioned me about it. I'm not perfect. But I understand some things. I recently learned 乘客是上帝, the Chinese equivalent of "the customer is always right." And then the Chinese guy two over from me used it, only in English: (to the stewardess hassling him about asking for ice too late) "But the customer is God."

Arriving in America I felt out of step, like a marching routine that I haven't done in a long time and isn't instinctual any more. I was in Chicago trying to sort out Verizon's ridiculous rules about getting my phone working. ("I need the primary account holder [my mom] to approve me helping you." If I could call my mom to ask permission, I wouldn't need to talk to Verizon.) An older woman comes up to me trying to shuffle me toward a terminal. I told her I wasn't sure where I was going, and she went off to ask her supervisor to help me or something. When she came back toward me, I said to her, "Hey, I think I actually got it worked out."

"Don't call me 'hey,'" she says. "But that's good." I was so thrown off. "Sorry," I apologized, trying to think of what I was supposed to have said. Lao dama isn't English, nor is nainai...

Then on the subway I was watching people interact and heard a middle-aged guy say to his son, "Did you hear what I said to your mom when she left us?" Then he noticed I was looking in his direction and paused, sizing me up. "Mind your folly," he said, pointing his finger at me and going back to his loud monologue. I don't even know what that phrase means. I spent the rest of the subway ride a little confused.

But now I'm home. Rosie remembers me. I ate toasted Little Caesar's bread sticks and an apple that I picked right out of our gigantic refrigerator.

I think I'll post once more, a kind of summing up of everything. Because now, I'm back! And I'm glad life is still interesting.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What I'm Returning to

My family

My friends

Shower curtains

"No smoking" policies

Real peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

The need for knives


Little smog

No public transportation

No ring roads

Signs that I can read

Unfettered Internet access

TV stations that aren't controlled by the government

Good music

No one outside at dusk relaxing

Babies with diapers

Several kids per family

Businesses, not shops

Miles and pounds

Fruit that I don't need to disinfect before eating


A racial mix in which Chinese are the foreigners

Religious freedom

A normalcy that I automatically understand


Classes taught in English


Restaurants with less than three waitresses per customer

The pressures that face college students


Video stores

A car that the government says I'm allowed to drive

What I left

Bible studies

The extravagantly wide street winding through Waterford

Speed limits

No trains

Toilet paper in bathrooms

Nobody squatting. Ever

Not being the tallest

Not being able to pick my nose in public

Haircuts that cost more than $1.20

UF football games

Non-negotiable pricing

Exercise toys that are the least used playground equipment, not the most

People who won't have experienced the same things as I have

Money that isn't colorful

Cellphone plans

Rosie, our dog

Pets in general

Privately owned grass

My mom's spaghetti and meatballs

The End is Near

This blog entry has been in the back of my mind since the first week I came to China, so even if it's not that interesting or whatever, I'm still going to talk about it, since tonight is my last night in China, and time is short.

I want to mention all the experiences I've had with music since I've been overseas.

On my first day in Chengdu, back in January, our group ate lunch a few tables away from a wedding ceremony. Weddings in China are a little strange, since they don't have the traditions we do--hence pastel blue wedding dresses. But what I haven't forgotten is that one of the songs they sang was "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands."

I went in to a music store once and tried to buy authentic Chinese music. One CD was Jay Chou, who's like a Chinese Backstreet Boy in popularity, and the other is... erhu. That's a two-stringed instrument which, played well, sounds like someone is moaning to death. I've gotten used to it, though, just like Mom taught us to eat fish.

When I went to Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of the summer, I had a picnic lunch with a few 10 year old boys I met. As we hiked, they broke out into an accented, thankfully incomplete rendition of "Smack That."

Later in Kyrgyzstan, I heard the latest American hip-hop song for the first time. I disliked it so much I was going to write an entry about how bad it was, but then I had other things to do.

When I was really overwhelmed living at the train station in Kazhakstan, I bought a CD of My Chemical Romance, a classic emo band. Most of their songs are about dying, but I've enjoyed having new music anyway.

I think I was in Turpan (that is, remote desert in China) when my taxi driver played "Numa, Numa." Several times. I doubt he's seen the video. (I'd link to it but China won't let me.)

And finally, during the Olympics, they play the Pirates of the Caribbean theme.

Links to old posts to remind myself what all has happened in the last seven months.

Monday, August 18, 2008

No, Fifth Time Really is the Charm

If you don't have an amazing time at the Olympics, try, try, try again. I met some cool people recently and hung out with them this afternoon. They had bought tickets online for the women's soccer semis, and I went with them on the subway since I didn't have anywhere I had to be. Then we got closer to the stadium and saw people selling tickets, and I couldn't resist. 300 kuai lighter (100 of that being Bekah's loan) I had a ticket to an important Olympic game.

America was playing, which made this twice as cool. And, of course, you might even have watched it (or will watch it, depending on NBC's mood) on tv. The New York Times had the result of this game on their home page! I was there. Watching us kick Japan's butt.

Japan was actually the best opponent we could have had, because after WWII, the Chinese hate Japanese. The 40,000+ crowd joined in bilingual cheers rooting on America.

The ticket I bought gave me a perfect seat: at the front of the second tier, right in center field. But I snuck into the lower level for the second half to hang out with the people I came with. We had a great time.

Afterward, we talked to one of the players' mom, since my friends knew their family.

Coming back home is part of the story, of course, but this time it has a happy ending. The game ended late and I only took the subway partway home. When I got a taxi, I told the driver, "Take me to Wangjing Bridge, South Nanhu Street." He said sure, then asked which place on the street. "I'll tell you when we get there," I said.

Again he agreed. "But there's a different way I could go," he said. Since I've been in Beijing a while, I knew that the road I was talking about was really long.

"The place I'm going is right by the bridge," I said. And that was the right answer, because then he said that his other route wouldn't be helpful.

I leave the day after tomorrow, (although with a hurricane coming, when I'll actually get home is a different question) and it was nice to have a chance to use the local knowledge I've acquired being in China so long.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fourth Time's the Charm--Almost

By far the most exciting (and expensive) tickets I had to the Olympics was for a morning of athletics events in the Bird's Nest. That is, this Bird's Nest, the steel nurturer for a nation ready to spread its wings, easing its way into Beijing's once-in-an-Olympics blue sky:

And from close up:

All I knew going into the morning is that our ticket covered whatever happened from 9am to 1pm, and that we wouldn't be seeing the finals of anything. But then we got there, Emma, another girl, and I, and the first thing to start was the finals... for the 20k walk. Don't worry, if you didn't catch the hour plus event on tv, I took pictures:

They're in a pack like that partially because it's the beginning, and you can't get a huge lead when you've walked half a lap; and partially because packs make things respectable, even if that's waddling like a seven-year-old rushing for the bathroom. Coming in first was Mr. Borchin, a Russian whose life story likely begins, "Back in my day we had to walk 10 miles to get to an outhouse..." I'm joking, of course. 20 kilometers is 12.4 miles, not 10.

The morning was really exciting. What I didn't understand was that they do three or four events at once. So while the women's shot put is under way on the field, the women's heptathletes are warming up for the long jump and the men's steeplechase heats are taking place. It was like having seven tvs, and whenever one thing finished--the women's 100m heats, for instance--a flying discus would catch my eye until it fell, and then I'd notice half of a pole vaulting attempt.

I took pictures of all of the events, but they're uninspiring. But, when I slipped past the "don't cross this unless you have a ticket" rope to get a picture of the women lining up for the 100m dash, the picture came out pretty well. Credits to Grandad for teaching me that it's not a real picture unless you broke a rule to get it:

But then I had to get home from the Olympics. Although it was my fourth time to see an event, it was also my fourth venue, but lots of frustration, several subway stops, and a taxi ride later, I made it home. I made myself a late lunch of leftover rice and sliced apple-pear, and took a nap. When I woke up, I realized that the way I had locked the door left my Chinese mom locked out for the last forty-five minutes. What stress I had relieved sleeping was back in an instant as I insufficiently apologized.

But when you talk to Norwegian Olympic athletes on the subway about innovations in swimming, and see scenes like the one pictured below, there isn't much room for dissatisfaction.

Friday, August 15, 2008

End of the Term, No Exploing

I came across a blog today which shows that good writers can have a successful blog. I thought being in China might compensate from any good writing skills I haven't acquired yet, but maybe I should start putting up cute pictures of kids. Or use CAPITALIZATION or cuss words.

I did teach my Koreans some bad words yesterday. You have to start at low-level words because their vocabulary isn't good enough to work on words that they might only have an opportunity to say once in their lives. They've already mastered "crap." I did find it interesting that when I said I was willing to trade bad words in English for any bad words they knew in Chinese, the two boys who are bored out of their minds by English scrambled for paper and a pencil. The most studious girl sat there with her head in her arms

Speaking of my Koreans' progress, I brought home the essay Sky (a boy) wrote in class today. We've been reading Harry Potter, and today we read the first scene in the third book where the students encounter boggarts. Boggarts, as you'll remember, are the monsters that take the shape of whatever you fear most and are only destroyed by laughter. The assignment was to pretend that they saw a boggart.

Sky writes: I'm scared of teddy bears. I'm a president, but I scaring of teddy bears. so students laugh at me. So my boggart is teddy bears. It is cute. so I sayd, "It is cute!!!" So It exploed.

And yet, with several weeks down and only one more lesson to go, I think I've helped them make progress. I've tried to convince them that the past, present, and future tense are not the same; that nouns need qualifiers; that sentences generally consist of more than three words and lots of pointing; that verbs are important; that "He is 155 cm height" is not a proper sentence; that "Me, too" should be "Me, neither" if you're concurring with a negative statement; and that "died" is not transitive.

I had my last day of class today. I attended reading class, because it was the last day and I still have that elementary school urge to think that my attendance will affect my final grade. It was a waste of time.

But I've made it to the end of the term, and haven't exploded. China can still work me over when it wants to, as my most recent trip to the Olympics shows, but I've survived. And here's an icing-on-the-cake story.

When I was younger, my mom would occasionally let stories about learning Chinese slip out. One time she was trying to tell me about how the Chinese have a proverb for almost any situation you can imagine. I asked for an example, and she told me the only one she remembered. "A poor man walks by a bakery every morning and lingers to smell the great aroma of the bread baking. The shopkeeper gets mad at the poor man for enjoying something he didn't pay for, and starts to demand payment. When wise Asanti gets there, the baker explains the situation and says he wants 10 kuai for all the smells the man has gotten as his expense. Asanti says that that sounds reasonable, but the poor man pleads that he doesn't have the money. "No problem," Asanti says. "I happen to have a whole purse full of money here." When the baker sees the pouch, he gets really excited. Asanti jingles the coins. "The sound of money buys the smell of bread," he says, putting the pouch back in his pocket and walking away with the poor man.

I'm bracing myself this morning for reading class, when what do I see? This same story. The story that represented Chinese to me when I was seven is the last thing I study before leaving the country. Isn't that cool?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Day at the Olympics

Today was a disaster. It began simply enough by me skipping class at the last minute to go see basketball. But Emma and I rode the subway there with three other people from our program who were not as group-conscious as we were. To make a long story short, they ended up in a taxi on their way to the stadium and we ended up on the subway with one of their extra tickets (People had backed out, so the three of them had eight tickets total and Emma had two extra). On our way in, lots of Chinese were haggling for tickets, so we sold them Emma's two tickets and the extra one that she was carrying. Then we got through security and received a call from the people we were with. Apparently, they had also sold their extra tickets, but were counting on getting their other one back from us and had actually sold a ticket they didn't have a replacement for. Well, we were past security already and, not expecting to hear from them, had sold the other ticket.

They got mad, we got mad, and we stormed into basketball--which, contrary to one's guy's firm assertions when the tickets were bought--was actually women's basketball. There were lots of empty seats and we did see these people. I spent most of the game trying to calm down from the hectic morning and get into the spirit of horrible Olympic basketball.

But on to handball. Emma and I didn't have time to have lunch. Our taxi dropped us off at the wrong place. We walked half an hour and showed up halfway through the game.

But, every Swede in Beijing must have been at this match, because the handball game (which is actually more like lacrosse than it is ultimate frisbee) was very lively. Emma and I eventually managed to say that we were having fun.

These mild paragraphs lightly pass over what was possibly the most stressful day of my life. I have the feeling I've said that before, but like Michael Phelps' swimming, records can be broken. Forget taxi drivers being able to speak English: it'd be nice if they knew where the buildings were and were willing to drive you there. It's not like we just said, "Hi, please take us to go see handball." Emma and I had an Olympic map with the location labeled in Chinese, a dot where it was in relation to all the other streets, and even a picture so the driver would recognize it by the shape! And I won't even mention the fiasco trying to get a taxi to the women's basketball game.

When all else fails, or you're not enjoying the Russian women's basketball team play Belarus, you can always practice for the next big thing, Olympic napkin throwing:

(Package of napkins not actually visible)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Juggling, Koreans, and Handball

Last night I went to the Beijing juggling club. What's a China experience without going to a juggling club? And now that the days are down to single digits until I fly back to the States, I have to do all the China-y things I can.

(A basic 10-club feed with a guy from Italy and America.)

That includes continue my part-time job teaching Koreans English in China. My curriculum consists of Harry Potter for one hour, then grammar help/story time for the next hour. Do you want to improve your English, too? That'll be $29.00 for the day.

My Koreans have taught me really cool things about their culture: in Korea, newborns count as being one year old, so I'd be 21 there. In Korea, their thumb is called the "father" finger, followed by the "mother," "son," "daughter," and "baby" fingers. And Koreans don't play. They just work.

And now to briefly discuss handball. Tomorrow will be my second adventure to the Olympics. This time I'll be seeing an event almost unknown in America: handball. I thought I knew what it was, since Dan and I play racquetball, but I was wrong. This sport, best I can tell, is like ultimate frisbee with a ball instead. If you're younger than 30, that description probably didn't help, and I recommend going to NBC's handball page and reading the rules or watching some video. Unfortunately, NBC figured out that I'm not in America and won't let me watch any of its coverage.

Finally, I wanted to say that you asked a good question, Jaclyn. I don't have the distribution of Olympic tickets quite figured out. The cheapest ones are really cheap ($4 US). On the other hand, a lot of the ticket sales happened during work hours, so if you're a wage earner dependent on those hours for food, it's unlikely you'll go stand in line, especially if you're risking a stampede. Large blocks of tickets were given (or bought, or somehow ended up in the hands of) large, rich companies, but that's to be expected. If worse comes to worse, you can always find a ticket to attend handball!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Going to the Olympics

This weekend has been crazy. Up till 3 Friday night for the opening ceremony and celebration, up till 1 last night hanging out with a rich friend Emma went to school with, and going to see Olympic weightlifting this morning.

I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I was really impressed at how Olympic the auditorium looked considering we were in some random school's gym. And everything was so official, from the Chinese guys who rushed out to change the weights, to the dramatic "There has been a change of weights" announcement when people decided to push themselves harder.

I'll give you the set-up. There are eight weight classifications for men. Emma and I watched the first round of the lightest group (less than 56 kg). That's less than I weigh, and I couldn't donate blood in high school because I didn't weigh enough. But all of them were a head shorter than I was, so I guess that gives them kilos to spare for muscle.

Olympic weightlifting is the composite of two events: Snatch, and Clean and Jerk. In the first, you lift the weight from the floor to over your head in one motion. In the second, you first bring the weight up to your chin, and then jerk it over your head. Obviously it's easier to lift something over your head when you get to stop halfway, so the Clean and Jerk sees higher weights. So even if you're winning after the Snatch, you still have to do well in the Clean and Jerk because it's easier to lift a few more kilos in that part.

The other rule that made everything really exciting was that even though everybody gets three attempts, turns go in the order of the next highest weight. So if you start attempting a 103 kg Snatch and only go up a few kilos from there, you might have used all three of your tries by the time a better weightlifter starts at 112 kg. The upset of our match, though, was that the highest-seeded guy, who started at 115 kg, couldn't do it! "Bombing-out" disqualified him, since how can you add the scores of Snatch and Clean and Jerk when you don't have a Snatch? He was disappointed, to say the least.

Our round had obscure countries (Moldova, Belgium, Turkey) so we weren't sure who to root for. One of the Americans sitting next to us, though, lived in Thailand and swept us up in cheering him on.

After the Snatch (these aren't supposed to be capitalized, by the way, but I think it adds to the excitement), our Thai guy was in first. The Clean and Jerk began, the weight kept going up, and I thought Mr. Maneetong had it for sure. He finished his three attempts early on, but had such a high score from the Snatch that he looked unbeatable. Then, the only one left was the weightlifter from Turkey. On his second attempt, he locked in third place. (We thought this was the finals, too, so were doubly enthralled.)

For his last attempt, he first had the weights set to put him in second. Then he went balls to the wall and loaded them up so that, if successful, he would usurp our Thai favorite to win. He came out focused, and then 10 seconds away from his time expiring, lifted the weight to his chin, then with great effort pushed it up all the way, trembling with the exertion while the judges made sure his feet weren't moving.

"成功!" the commentator said in Chinese. You don't need language classes to understand that.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Opening Ceremony

First, an online high-five to Lauren for knowing that I wrote the word guanxi (loosely translated "connections") in my last post.

My attempt to see the opening ceremony instead of watch it on tv can be summarized by one picture:

Can you see any fireworks? Neither could we. And it's not just because of the smog (recently relabeled "fog" by the Chinese Olympic Committee).

I stood on a bridge--that was the view for non-ticket holders who aren't NBC--with several hundred Chinese people as the auspicious time of 8:08 August 8, 2008 drew near. Then it passed. We on the bridge still didn't see anything coming from the Bird's Nest, located in the picture in between the skyscrapers on the right and the building with video of fireworks in the center. From what I'd heard, the huge firework display would happen near the beginning of the opening ceremony.

Then we saw one firework go off. Then a burst of fireworks. And then nothing. "Wouldn't it be funny if that was it?" I joked to the American couple standing on the bridge next to me. Apparently, I wasn't joking. About half an hour later, when nothing came next, all the Chinese on the bridge decided to go home.

I had come to the spot itself because I knew that right next to the Bird's Nest was the building with a video screen several stories tall. "Excellent," I thought. "I'll watch the fireworks over my head and the show on the screen." Only the screen, several stories tall, didn't broadcasting anything but previously recorded fireworks. So we were left standing on a bridge, alone, a quarter mile away from the action watching for fireworks that didn't seem to be coming.

Not only that, but I was separated from my friends. I had tutoring in the afternoon, so they went ahead of me. It turns out they arrived early enough that the protective barrier was put up with them inside. I didn't know this, though, and spent an hour or so trying to ride the right bus to get closer to them. I ended up on the bridge far away with two very nice Americans, but they weren't my friends. And there was no fireworks/ceremony-watching, regardless.

How do you say "disappointment" in Chinese?

The low came when we jumped ship and tried to go to the Olympic party we had tickets to. All my friends were going and I was to meet up with them, since Emma had my ticket. But taxis were scarce and I didn't really know where I was going. Then I passed a group of Chinese on the bridge crowded around a girl's phone watching the show.

"This'll make a great blog entry," I thought to myself bitterly.

Just then, Emma calls to say I should hurry to the club because they have the opening ceremony in high-def on huge screens.

I've let myself describe the full extent of my frustration because the second half of my night made up for it. This video gives you a good idea:

If your body wasn't pounding with the background music, the speakers on your computer aren't giving you the full effect. I didn't imagine I would watch every country in the world stream into the Olympic stadium to a throbbing techno beat, but loud, slightly drunken cheers for each person's country removed any doubt of patriotism.

And with weightlifting tickets for tomorrow, I fully agree in saying let the games begin!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Guess Who Got Olympic Tickets

I didn't think I'd be able to come back to America and tell people that I had happened to be studying at the city hosting the Olympics and not attended. Now I don't have to worry. I've been working my connections the last few weeks and am proud to say that I will have Olympic tickets.

I feel like I'm allowed to be excited now. And with the opening ceremony tomorrow night, I'll have a lot of chance for it. (Our teacher said that despite most of Beijing (and China?) having tomorrow as a holiday, we would still have class. "What if there are no students?" I asked. "Then we teachers will have a holiday, too," she replied. Sounds like a deal to me.)

That is, if everything goes mostly according to plan. One of my friends from America had tickets but wouldn't be in Beijing until halfway after the Olympics were over, so he readily agreed a few months ago to give me some. I only got the contact info of the person who actually had the tickets two days ago, and she said she had already allotted them to people. Out of the goodness of her heart, though, she said she'd give up a few of the ones she was planning to use personally so I and a friend could go see weightlifting on Sunday.

Independently of this, Emma found a website that the newly accessible BBC said was legit and bought a few tickets for a track-and-field event later next week.

Then Emma's boyfriend's friend is Chinese and said he didn't have any tickets, but he knew people. A day later he said he found a pair of tickets for handball. Not exactly the 100m dash, but who says we foreigners can't use 关系?

All told, I should be able to attend three Olympic events, and one of those should be in the Bird's Nest.

Our teacher said that Chinese people are all going to watch the opening ceremony on tv at home. That's practically the same as watching it from America, though, (except for the 29 locations where ridiculous fireworks will be set off simultaneously, so the whole city can be part of the action) so my friends and I are going to try to go to the Bird's Nest and watch things from nearby. 100,000 people will attend the opening ceremony, though, so maybe we'll think it's too crowded.

I'm excited!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

When I'm Not the Tourist

My audience asks, and I deliver. I think I assumed that since I was reading everything anyone wrote about the Olympics, that everyone else would be, too, and wouldn't want to hear me saying kinda the same things. But I do have a perspective of already having been here for six weeks.

I was walking to lunch yesterday with two friends when a random Asian accosted us in rapid-fire Chinese. "You guys speak Chinese, right?" Lizzie, a British friend I went to Tianjin with, didn't understand anything, and I was too thrown-off to be helpful. The Polish girl from my class answered that we did. "Good," the guy says. "Can I have a picture with you?"

I pause here while we asked him several times what he wanted. Chinese tourists don't consider it a trip unless they've gotten a picture with a real foreigner. Seriously.

Eventually we agree to take a picture with him. I think that this encounter was so strange, and our school so full of Koreans (i.e. everyone in my class but me and this Polish girl) that this guy might not even be Chinese. When I ask what country he's from, though, he was offended enough that I knew he was Chinese.

It's his first time in Beijing, he explained. He lives in the Northeast and is here because his sister, who lives here, found him tickets for the Olympics. "Welcome to Beijing," I called to him as we left.

I was riding the bus a few days ago when I heard several people ask the conductor, "Does this bus go to the subway?" Of course it goes to the subway, I thought to myself. Don't you know which stops are subway entrances? But of course they didn't, because none of them live in Beijing. I was proud of myself that I was able to tell independently of their questions, since anyone who rides the bus frequently (that is, not them) would use their transportation card instead of paying in cash and getting a receipt.

I live in between school and the Bird's Nest (the Olympic stadium), so even though practically no cars are on the road, I still get hit with a huge burst of traffic as we pass it.

The pollution is still horrible. Earlier, I was annoyed that everyone would come to Beijing, see the fantastic weather, and think it was always like that. But now all the Western media talks about is how there still aren't blue skies. I'm rooting for China to get it cleaned up.

Maybe I'm not as excited as this guy, who we saw in Tianjin:

Monday, August 4, 2008

My Ferris Wheel Experience

Now in video.

Apparently we weren't alone in being terrified riding Tianjin's ferris wheel. I found this video of other foreign students:

I posted mine as a video reply:

Now that I watch it from the peace and quiet of my apartment, it doesn't sound like a leaf blower. Any better suggestions?

I found out that the train we rode from Tianjin back to Beijing opened only three days ago, and is now the fastest train in the world. So that's cool.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Chinese Amusement Park

Emma, Lizzie and I decided to go on a day trip to Tianjin, the neighboring municipality. We tried to plan a trip to Nanjing, but were thwarted when train tickets were sold out when we went to buy them. I'm much better at planning for just myself--that is, not planning at all.

We managed to buy tickets for the slow train to Tianjin, though, and arrived without incident. In my opinion, the funnest part of traveling is that your Chinese naturally gets better. Emma is in A+, and Lizzie is in B, so they have a lot of travel to do. Emma has been feeling discouraged that she's been in China six weeks and she feels like she's only gotten worse. At first she boldly tried to talk to people, but now that she knows she knows nothing she feels too overwhelmed. When you can't even pronounce the name of your apartment complex so that taxi drivers can understand you, it's no wonder.

I think when I came to China I'd already crossed that phase, so it wasn't bad for me. I'm still prone to disappointment, obviously, but it's on a different level.

There were no must-sees in Tianjin. I mostly wanted to go because I've been itching for travel and I knew my language partners back home came from there and thought it would be cool to say I'd traveled to their home town (if you can call a city of 10 million a town).

First we wandered down a street of tourist-y shops. I finally found a stone master to buy a stamp with my name in Chinese from. He explained how he went to the quarry himself to get stones. He carves them, and polishes them, and knows way more than I do about why one costs 30 kuai and another one that looks almost the same costs 300. I settled on a really cool big one for 50 kuai, and seeing my excitement Emma and Lizzie decided to buy one too. Their "How much is this?" was getting better the more we walked around. What use are we going to have for a stamp in Chinese? Probably none, but for about $8 (after the engraving fee, by the stone guy's "famous brother") it's a really cool symbol of China. Just wait till you see my name in red ink: 潘伟.

After lunch, we went to a park. When we entered, we realized that it doubled as a low-grade amusement park. The bumper cars were 8 kuai, which made them a must. I felt quite at home using all the driving techniques I've learned from taking taxis on small Chinese kids.

Then we saw the ferris wheel. It was huge, and was moving really slowly. We bought snacks before we boarded in case it broke halfway.

We couldn't hear it creaking until we got on, but it sounded like something was horribly wrong. The noise increased the higher up we went, until I was honestly a little nervous. I couldn't tell what the noise was either: it sounded like a leaf-blower that would turn on and off. I've found Chinese has relatively few obscenities, so I couldn't practice my Chinese by translating Emma's comments.

We had a fantastic, expensive dinner at T.G.I. Friday's before we boarded the super-fast train back to Beijing. It topped out at over 340 kilometers/hour, which is 200 mph. I felt like I was in an industrialized country. All three of us agreed that we like Tianjin more than Beijing, but maybe it was just the freedom that a day out of town can do to you.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Beijing's countdown board, which one couple I met said they saw with thousands of days left, is down to single digits now. Olympification is in high gear.

"Pictures cannot reflect reality," Du Shaozhong, a high-up, said in response to the bad press it's getting about Beijing's air quality. "They are not accurate." (As if I have enough skill to know how to upload a picture to Photoshop, let alone alter it.) But pictures are still speaking a thousand words for me, making this a very long entry.

Most intrusive to the average Chinese, of course, is Beijing's traffic rule that license plates ending with even numbers can only be driven on even calendar days, and odd-numbered license plates on odd calendar days. My solution, of course, would be to drive without a license plate, but I understand why many haven't adopted that. (They would ban cars altogether, then, of course.)

Or, if you're like my Chinese dad, you just don't go to work on the days you can't drive.

That looks like a substantial number of cars, you say, but you're wrong. These cars don't even have their brake lights on, and everyone knows that it's not an Olympics-worthy city unless there's normally a traffic jam anywhere cars are allowed (and some places where they aren't).

What you can't see in this picture is the Olympic lane that most of the roads have. Highways only have three lanes each way here, and when you cut out a whole one for an unknown Olympics-related reason, you're back to a reasonable amount of traffic.

Exhibit two is Beijing's prettifying.

A week or two ago, Average Zhou and his buddy painstakingly positioned a flowery pedestal every hundred feet or less. Apparently, these were a one-time investment for the government, because since then the potted flowers have been withering and the nice enamel has been cracking. Today as I walked by they looked like something Beijing should clean up instead of evidence that it has.

I'm not sure if this sign was added in preparation for the Olympics, but it fits in. In case you wanted to time your terrorist attack properly, car bombings are only allowed from 6am to midnight. I don't know how else to interpret that sign. They've started to check my backpack every time I get on a bus now.

And then there's overall Olympification. This structure was in a garden Emma and I visited recently. Our school has been working on it's own project, a papier-mâché globe twenty feet in diameter. At least that's what it looks like. They make me show my ID to get into school now (since I don't look foreign enough already), so I concentrate more on accepting China's restrictions than on appreciating their artistic prowess.

If effort won gold, though, then China's in for a big victory party. But from what I hear, over eight people and the gathering is illegal. Gotta watch out for separatists.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Skipping Class, Listening to the Radio

I feel stilted when I write something topical. My little videos, as Melanie assures me, are "thrilling." Didn't I say the erhu in the background would make it fantastic? :) Today was interesting enough for me to just talk about what happened.

I'm in C+ now. I worked like crazy for four weeks in D, then instead of moving up, I moved down. This level is really good for me, though, and I think I'll still learn a lot. I have speaking class every day for half of the morning, then either reading or listening for the other half. But my reading teacher is horrible, and since I'm not in high school any more, I don't have to deal with that.

Accordingly, I spent two hours in the school library this morning skipping class in the most blissful studying session I've had practically ever. I was reading, and comprehending, and learning. Then I went to speaking class and learned some more.

I'm struck by how Chinese is so different from English in some respects--they use the same word for animals making noise, like barking or chirping, as they do for kids making noise, and that offends me--and yet occasionally I run into an instance where Chinese actually makes sense. For example, in Chinese you can say that you know so-and-so "through" a mutual friend, just like we do in English. And today I just learned that when your kids are gone to college or whatever, it's also an "empty nest."

I've started a part-time job every afternoon that deserves explanation. I was on the bus a few nights ago when a middle-aged Korean woman asked me in accented English what country I was from. Then she asked if I was an English tutor, to which I said I certainly could be. "Do you have a plan?" she asked, and the answer was obviously supposed to be yes. She asked for my number (the parallels between this encounter and my chance meeting of now-let go Suzie have not been lost on my friends) and we talked briefly about what she was looking for. "How many days a week?" "Five." "And how long each time?" "Six hours." What? "And can you start tomorrow?"

I signed up to do two hours each day to the tune of 100 kuai an hour, which is about three times as much as I would make working at McDonald's back home. It turns out the Korean woman I met on the bus is actually just the middleman skimming some off the top for gathering students and teachers and having an apartment-turned-classroom to offer. I talked her into paying my taxi fare, so I'm all for the set-up. The two kids I teach are Korean middle-schoolers who don't really want to be there. I like teaching, though, and have had a good time trying to make them have a good time the past two days.

Tonight I went out to eat with my Chinese Mom and Dad. Mom was picky about where we sat, and did a really good job playing up her outrage when she found some bad meat. ("Look!" she said to Dad excitedly. "This soup they're giving us for free now cost 78 kuai!")

On our way home, they tuned into an English radio station, and I listened to some song by The Fray. It was the first time I've been in a car listening to English-language radio in more than half a year. I do miss America. And once I leave, I'll miss China. 这是一个问题。

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Life in Beijing

Grammie has given rave reviews of the videos I've made. I'm not very good at it, but I figured if I put the sweet sound of the Chinese erhu in the background, then what video could go wrong?

I hope it's uploaded.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Breaking Up

I did upload the videos, but the post displayed before my last one (since I created it earlier), and now the videos won't play for some reason. It's too bad.

If you need to have a relationship to end one, I guess Suzie's been my girlfriend for a while, because we broke up. People say that the only decent way to break up with someone is in person. A phone call is horribly disrespectful, text message unthinkable. I can't even imagine what people will think when I say that I had my friend write the text messages that broke up with my girlfriend.

Actually, I do know how people will react, because there were several girls at my table when I did it. Seven or eight of us were out celebrating Emma's birthday. Suzie texted me a clingy question about why I hadn't replied to an earlier text. I tried to say that it was because I had nothing to say, but didn't say that well enough. That afternoon we had had a text message fight--I think--because our phone conversation didn't go well, I hung up rather quickly, and she got mad.

And sitting in the restaurant I realized that my Chinese was too bad to handle this. Not necessarily at its current stage, but if I met anyone who spoke English and looked pretty, I would have no problem dropping Suzie, and that was a much more casual place than she was at. As I found out when my friend Tony composed the well-worded break-up text. The only relevant vocabulary I could bring to the table was "to break up" (literally "to stop holding hands"), and any combination I could think of using that would sound really harsh. Tony wrote a very nice message about how my Chinese sucked too much for us to continue, and that it would be best for us not to be together.

"What? You don't like me?" Suzie replied.

We clarified. The process was not helped by the girls sitting next to Tony and me, who let out a sympathetic "aww" on behalf of Suzie any time we opened our mouths.

"I didn't think this would happen," Suzie continued. "You really don't want to hang out any more? We were doing so well."

About that time, my phone died, our dinner ended, and I was a single man again. Well, single-r, since I had denied having a girlfriend the whole time. Honestly, I was more relieved than anything else. I wasn't trying to be mean. I just think that when you feel like hanging up every time you talk on the phone, there's a problem.

We didn't know each other for a long time. I don't even think I've mentioned Suzie as many times in this blog as I have my epic sunburn (which, in the final count, befreckled my ear with two brown dots).

But all the girls still think I'm a heart breaker.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Military History Museum

There's a very multi-medic post coming, but videos take a while to upload. While we're waiting, I'll talk about the Military History Museum.

I was told that this museum was really cool. It has its own subway stop for easy foreigner access and has been especially Olympified. I have a really low museum tolerance, so I think it was good that I made it through three of the four floors before retreating.

My favorite part was the floor with real, inactive tanks a few feet away. And, if you pull a Grandad and ignore the sign saying not to touch anything, right within your grasp.

What will really carry you through until my videos upload is this sign. You don't understand propaganda until you see it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Student Formerly Known as D-Level

I finished my first four-week program at BLCU a few days ago. On August 20th, I'll be going back to America. I haven't blogged in a few days because I've been collecting video to demonstrate our varying levels of Chinese.

Here is Whitney, an American who was in A-level.

I interviewed someone from B-level, but then I accidentally deleted it. Oops. So now we're skipping ahead to D-level, with a guy from my class who's Peruvian-American.

And here's a piece from the worst guy in D-level. I think his was the least grammatical of all of these interviews.

There was one other average American white guy in my class. He's the one I went to church with.

And this is what most of the kids in my class sounded like: The native speakers who were in our D-level class because they weren't fluent at reading.

So for those of you not listening to four hours of Chinese a day, I hope that provides a good introduction to the way Chinese actually sounds. And hopefully all these samples aren't overwhelming, because I had enough of that this last month.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chinese Church and Swimming Lessons

Yesterday a friend and I went to a registered ("Three Self") Chinese church. That's the kind of church that China says is legal, except when it says it isn't--which happened a few decades ago and caused all the underground churches to flourish. The church has a deal with the Chinese government to be silent on the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Wikipedia does note, though, that some churches have some leeway on that, and the one I went to must have been one of them, because the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was explicit in the Romans sermon text.

My friend and I arrived twenty minutes before the service started and were already shuffled into the 300+ person overflow room where we watched everything going on upstairs on video.

I was so fascinated to see what a Chinese church would be like. Even if I had understood all of the message, I would still have been distracted trying to observe: What kind of people came? (mostly girls) What were they wearing? (better clothes than normal) What did they bring with them? (a Bible, I think, and/or a book of hymns) And so on.

I was interested in figuring out what the four or five other foreigners were doing there, too. Missionaries can speak Chinese and find it too ostentatious to go to a Chinese service like that, and students are usually in one place long enough to try to mesh with a church in a foreign language. After carefully watching the foreigners--who were all Americans speaking English to surrounding Chinese people who obviously knew them--I concluded that it was evangelically-oriented Americans in Beijing for a short time who had Chinese friends interested in Christianity. I talked with them afterward and found I was right.

Language-wise, let's just say it's good that I'm used to the content of church, because I had to fill in a lot of blanks. "Trusting in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior" hasn't really come up as vocabulary in class. I heard it a lot, though, because they baptized 44 people. It was really amazing to see.

On a totally separate note, today I learned that my mom (real mom, not Chinese mom) is right when she says you should bring a swimming suit with you everywhere you go. Otherwise you may end up wearing something like the man on the left here:

And since I don't carry the swimsuit I brought all the way from America in my backpack, I did look like that man when I went to Beijing's swimming pool with Suzie today. It was an incentive to stay in the slimy-bottomed pool. When I got in, Suzie didn't eve know how to hold her breath under water. When we got out, she was doing the breaststroke for several meters at a time.

It was difficult to teach someone to swim in Chinese when the only related word I knew was "to swim." But like trying to attend church in Chinese, it's more the effort that counts.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Night on the Town

I've been in Beijing a few weeks now, so I think it's time I blogged about what I do on the weekends.

Here's what happens. Friday comes, the diligent go to class at 8:00 like usual. The afternoon is frittered away with fun, people eat dinner, and then everything starts like it's a new day. Plans are made, people get together, everyone in Beijing finds a taxi and goes out. There is one street that has a strip of clubs and bars which everyone knows, even the ones who can't write their own name in Chinese.

It's complicated in my case because I live with a Chinese family rather than with everyone else at school. Usually if we go out I end up just sleeping on somebody's couch rather than paying for a taxi to go home late at night.

Last night was pretty typical of my weekends. After dinner, I went to school and watched a (pirated) movie with Emma, this girl I know pretty well. Then, around 11, we met up with other people from school and rented a small van to take us to the club that someone had decided we would go to. The driver got lost, but around midnight we arrived, just when things were getting going.

I would describe the club in usual terms, but I'm struck by how similar it is to my daily bus commute: crowded beyond belief, everyone sweating, people jockeying for the seats, no one able to have a conversation. Our bodies reverberating from the music about equaled the jolting I get from the stop-and-start of the bus.

There are significant differences, however. Getting into the club was more than 100 times more expensive than boarding the bus. Surprisingly, there are more poles on the bus than in the club. People are generally more drunk in the club, and less tired. There are lasers in the clubs, and shiny decorations, and the only thing shiny on buses are people's iPods.

Oh, and the dancing. Chinese people, in general, don't know how to dance, and them being risque is what we Americans see at 7th grade school dances. But they try really hard, and since the music is mostly in English, it just feels like they're trying to be American and failing. Correspondingly, my self-esteem is always boosted by going to a club in China and knowing that I'm better than everyone because I know what "I'm bringing sexy back" means. (Well, as much as it has a meaning.)

I tire of the techno beats, smoke, lights, sound, and people pretty fast, so I left with Emma at only 2 am. She and I had a long discussion at McDonald's where we promised we wouldn't fall in love with each other, because she has a serious boyfriend and that would make things complicated. By the time I went to bed Chinese were out making baozi already for breakfast and the sun was coming up.

At 5 am, Friday--the sequel!--was over and I crashed on a couch way too small for me that felt fantastic. And that's how we do here in the Beijing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Getting a Physical

When your best hope for a passing grade relies on your perfect attendance, it's really frustrating to have to miss a day of class. On the other hand, when the biggest source of stress in your life is going to class, missing a day provides a nice break. I had to miss class today because the (seemingly only) place in Beijing to get physicals only does them in the morning.

Why get a physical? The answer isn't varsity ping-pong. My Chengdu residence permit expires at the end of the month, and as part of the expensive extension process, I had to get a physical to prove to China that I'm still healthy enough to live in their country for another month. Interestingly enough, if I were still in Chengdu I wouldn't need to do it.

But I was sad to miss the things we discuss in class:

It's hard to see in the picture, but our teacher found colored chalk and was giving us a color-coded explanation of the universe in Chinese. In red was the sun, in blue was the atmosphere surrounding the white earth, and in yellow was the ozone layer. He's about to give us a thorough explanation of how global warming works. What I find amazing is that everyone in China knows science and math. The other day my reading teacher wanted to explain a word that had to do with "rate" and she drew a graph on the board and looked like she was going to launch into calculus class for a few minutes.

The doctor's office was a slick operation. You signed in at a booth that had English, received a card with a lot of stickers, and then went to each of several offices to get yourself checked. Heart rate for one, height and weight for another, EKG (or a similar acronym that involves simulating the electric chair), vision, and so on. At each station the doctor takes one of your stickers to show that you've been taken care of. It felt strangely like a carnival. When I ran out of stickers, it was time to go.

I'm still healthy enough to not have China reject me. At the vision booth, though, they had the color-blind dot-test. On one of the circles the hidden number was perfectly clear, but the other one took me several minutes before I mostly guessed that it was 5 and ended up being correct. It reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine when the kid who's hasn't talked for several years to show his dedication to being a fighter jet pilot, and then realizes that he's disqualified because he doesn't have perfect vision. But being a teacher, a writer, and Supreme Court Justice don't take perfect vision, so I'm still safe.

After my physical (which, if anyone is curious did not include turning my head and coughing), I climbed a mountain with Suzie. And took pictures.

I think speaking in Chinese the whole way up and down a mountain must count for something, right? Because tomorrow's the last day before our finals, and I'm pretty sure I haven't done enough normal homework to make me feel comfortable. But at least now China is reasonably sure I won't die of discomfort. It's a reassuring thought.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I've been in China six months now. Officially it might have been yesterday, but with the time difference between America and China (and the fact that I didn't blog yesterday), today is just as good. Six months is a long time. It's one fortieth of my life, and that's counting baby years that you don't remember.

Today was an encouraging day to hit my six month mark at, though. As I've been relating, I picked a class that was over my head in the hopes that I'd grow and have been discouraged that I'm not a giant yet. It's a rare day that I don't look like an idiot in class. And yet...

Our homework was to memorize the three sections in our lesson text to be able to recite them in class the next day. I knew that since more than half our class had been absent because a school field trip to Inner Mongolia returned late, that they would be exempt. That meant that I would definitely be called on to recite the lesson. I also knew that our teacher takes volunteers for each section, so if I could memorize the first section really well, then I would be able to have some hand in my own execution.

The urgency of knowing that I would have to speak combined with the strategic knowledge about only needing to know the first section really well and got me in a decent mood for class.

Sure enough, the field trippers were off the hook. Sure enough, he asked for volunteers. And then I recited my passage. Don't think that this was a marvelous memorization feat. I plowed through it, had a slightly embarrassing dialogue where I confessed that I messed up a phrase because I didn't really understand what it meant, and deviated at the end to give only the general idea instead of the exact words. But when I was finished, my teacher had an expression approaching a proud smile and said, "Not bad."

Then when we were discussing the topic "generation gap" in small groups, I think I accidentally said my sister was retarded. Progress is slow. In some ways, I wish I was here for longer, because I feel like just when I've gotten the hang of my teacher's expectations, the "term" is over and we have to change to a different teacher for the second four weeks.

We start discussing our last chapter tomorrow: Environmental Pollution and Protection. And as I've found out during my night of looking things up, I'm only 87 words short of being able to discuss it. Those words range from "carbon monoxide" and "erosion" to more innocuous words like "plant." You ask me how I could have taken Chinese for so long and still not know the word for plant, but I'll just tell you that I'm not surprised. When it's not "tempuratura" like back in the easy days of Spanish, which takes about ten seconds to memorize, learning 温度 and the corresponding pronunciation leaves less time for words like "plants."

However, if anyone would like to discuss air pollution in China in Chinese, give me a few days and I should be able to talk like I know something. Or at least I'll be able to recite my part of the lesson.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

China Controls the World

I went to the Great Wall of China yesterday.

You can't look at a wall that used to stretch for over 4,000 miles and not be impressed by China's dominion. But we were more amazed at China's control over the weather. Look at the blue sky. Marvel at the lack of pollution. I'm pretty sure on a normal day I wouldn't even have been able to see the wall from where I took that picture.

I'm not kidding about China controlling the weather. The Olympics are coming, and China isn't going to let little things like nature get in the way. They've been closing down factories outside of the city, and taken measures to reduce the number of cars on the road, and so on. What I just learned yesterday is that they can also control to some extent when it rains. Anyone with real scientific knowledge should feel free to comment here. Apparently, they can shoot chemicals into the air and make it rain, which improves visibility after that quite a bit. And it just happened to be nice weather on a Saturday, when all the visiting foreigners were free?

By the two hour ride to the Great Wall, my impression of China's ability to control the world was probably far higher than it actually is, but still. I didn't know anyone could make it rain when they wanted.

We weren't complaining. The weather was fantastic. I got a lot of good pictures.

The Great Wall of China:

And the Great Wall of China:

And the Great Wall of China:

The most amazing part is looking at one part of the Wall and wondering how in the world they kept building it over the mountains farther than the eye can see. In all of these pictures, you can see the towers where guards could live--and light the torch to stop the invaders, of course. But I think everyone knows how that works. Who hasn't seen Mulan?

There were surprisingly few people to share the Wall with. Here's one, though. Some people in my program are the ones trekking up, the people in Chinese bamboo hats are the workers who collect empty bottles (since it would look tacky to have trashcans along the way) and sell you souvenirs, and I don't know what the umbrellas are about.

And that was the Great Wall. I pass by the bird's nest (the Olympic stadium) every day on my way to and from school. I wonder if China will dominate the world in a throw-back to the good ole days of its powerful reign? At least we'll be sure to have good weather watching them try to make it happen.

*EDIT* Of course they're my pictures! The official ones aren't as good. Seriously, the picture on my entrance ticket is a close-up shot of the Wall shrouded in fog. The pictures in this post are the ones you get when China's steamrolling the world for the Olympics.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stress Reliever

I made it through another week of class and decided to go shopping tonight to celebrate. Girly? Mabye. But I've figured out that China is the best place for me to buy shorts. I'm skinnier than almost everyone in the States, but here I'm about average. Then I paid a ridiculous amount for Häagen-Dazs, and finished by buying a few DVDs.

I'm sad to say that the online high-five I offered yesterday for figuring out how to translate a number from the Chinese to the American way of organizing them goes unrewarded. You guys left me hanging? David was close, but missed a zero. (A "wiggety" is 10,000,000, which has eight zeros. Subtract one to get rid of the decimal and you should be left with seven zeros, not six. See yesterday's post and the comments.)

Today in class we talked about putting emotion into our Chinese. I found it really fascinating, because I've always wondered how to be sarcastic in Chinese. I'm not very good at it. Speaking of sarcasm, a little treat for you all: the video I promised several months ago of the sports day at my school in Chengdu. I think my tone of voice was a little over-the-top, but you still might enjoy watching my little documentary.

I'm going to go marvel at my new pair of stress-relieving shorts.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Progress

I'm killing myself to learn Chinese (it's probably bad that I've proudly noted the 1/4 mark of my 8-week session), I should at least be giving progress reports.

They say that you should take foreign languages to understand a different way of looking at the world. I think Chinese is so different that it should count as three languages. For example, in Chinese, they don't even divide numbers the same way we do. Those crazy Europeans mix up their commas and decimals to end up with numbers like 533,8 for the number close to 534, and we Americans think that's pretty off the wall. China kicks it up several notches.

In English, we make a new unit every three digits: after tens and hundreds we get a thousand, after ten thousand and one hundred thousand we get a million, after ten million and one hundred million we get a billion, and so on.

In Chinese, they divide things into groups of four digits. The first digit is the tens, then the hundreds, then the thousands, then the new unit, which in Chinese is called a wan but what I'm going to call a jiggety. Then you have ten jiggety, one hundred jiggety, a thousand jiggety, and then a new unit: in Chinese, it's yi, but I'm going to call it a wiggety.

For relatively small numbers things aren't too complicated. You get used to the idea that one hundred jiggety means a million, that houses in the States cost tens of jiggety, and so on. But then you read an article about GDP in China (in Chinese, after your reading teacher has given you a crash course in vocabulary related to business), and you're suddenly hit with huge numbers that are difficult to translate. If you hear, for example, the number "five thousand seventy seven point four wiggety," how much is that? An online high five for the first person to comment the answer.

Speaking of the words "how much," I had an embarrassing encounter today. I was outside of my apartment juggling when a bored security guard realizes that I have skills. I pause my music when I see he wants to ask me a question, and respond based mainly on hearing "how much" in his question. I'll relate our exchange the way an impartial Chinese observer would hear it.

Guard: "How much time have you spent practicing all that?"
Foreigner: "Mm, each of these juggling clubs costs about $30, American."

My poor conversation skills didn't stop him from calling over his buddy, who was drunk on duty. The two guards spent several minutes protecting the apartment complex a few feet from me and distracted me a lot with their interest.

Nevertheless, I think my Chinese is getting better. My preparation, if not my skill, now exceeds a few people in class who love Chinese partying more than Chinese vocab. Almost every night I'm convinced that it's too hard and that I can't possibly finish everything. Then I go to sleep and it usually works out the next morning.

My Chinese family rounds out my learning. Often I get frustrated when I can't understand what my Mom says, because I'm spending so much time in class and still see no progress with her. But when I think about it, in class I'm learning expressions like "a long night means lots of bad dreams" (to convince people not to put things off) and not "when you take a crap, you don't need to throw the toilet paper into the trash can because we have a fancy toilet that can handle it."

I'm really excited that tomorrow is Friday.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Forbidden City

I don't have anything exciting to say about Suzie (even the most enthralling text message conversations are limited by my time and Chinese ability), and I'm not sure that that kind of information is what people are interested in when they read this blog. So I'm going to talk about the Forbidden City.

It was a cool idea. "Let's make a city, but then decide that we're more special and live in a special inner city with our own walls and moat and not let anyone come in for hundreds of years." But then the exclusivity is over and everyone realizes that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil only features fruit.

There were some buildings. People used to live in them, like most old places I've visited in China. That's really all I got out of it. And Tiananmen Square, which is adjacent, was unrevolutionary.

They did have a garden there, where I posed.

And there was an artificial little fountain, with a sign on the side.

But this is the worst translated sign in all of Beijing, since they've gotten it together for the Olympics, and it's not even that bad.

I guess I should have one picture of the actual Forbidden City itself, though, so it looks like I've written a detailed review of the place.

It's a pretty popular spot for people to visit. But if I were a travel guide people trusted, I wouldn't recommend it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Date? Or Two?

When you only have two months, you gotta act fast. Friday after class I met a girl, Sun Wei, on the bus. After my Chinese Mom was worried that she was a prostitute, I bluntly asked her, "Are you a bad person?" She didn't appreciate my thoroughness and we had our first fight--by text message, because with background noise, reception problems, and my bad Chinese, I couldn't understand anything she said by phone.

We were back in the green by Saturday, though (and Mom said that after considering, she mostly just wanted to make sure anyone I met on the bus wouldn't be escorted into the house, which was fine with me). I decided that since it was the weekend, I should make a move and invite her to come do karaoke with the people from our program. Miraculously, I communicated where to meet, we met, and arrived at the apartment where we were all hanging out before going karaoke-ing. All my friends thought she was a cool girl, and we spent several minutes lovingly brainstorming an English name for her: Suzie. My closest friend, Emma, speaks hardly any Chinese, but really wanted things to succeed for us, so she spoke some horrific Chinese and I translated between them a bit.

It must have been boring for Suzie, since she doesn't speak any English, and most people in our program speak worse Chinese than I do. She pulled me aside once and said she felt--something, I didn't fully understand the word--and that she wanted me to try to include her more. She ended up having to leave before we actually left for karaoke, but that worked out well because we only sang songs in English. So the time went pretty well.

The question mark in the title of this post, though, reflects that I don't really know what this time meant. I'm hardly capable of a relationship in America, let alone in a culture I have little experience with. I don't know what her expectations were, and I don't have the language skills to ask very well. We were definitely together at the party, but we were with lots of people, and that was the lowest level of interaction we could have but still see each other.

Whatever Suzie thought, I had a pretty good time, and was glad that other people who haven't been deprived of Western beauty for several months still thought she was pretty.

This is all further complicated by what I admit have been mixed messages from me. I get her number, then question her integrity, then ask her to come to a party--then I freaked out afterward and said that since I thought she probably wasn't a Christian, I just wanted us to be friends. Then she replied with something that seemed like she was a Christian? I kept asking questions to figure out what she meant, and finally she asked why I was so inquisitive about that. "Well," I said. "I don't want to have a girlfriend who's not a Christian."

I sent this message off without much thought, and then realized that looked at a certain way, it might imply that we already were going out. She didn't answer for several minutes, while I thought about how I was flirting with a culture in which relationships are so unspoken that just asking a girl if she has a boyfriend can be considered asking her out. Suzie finally replied: "You're only here for two months, right?"

So then it seemed like I was the impetuous one and she was the reasonable one, but I quickly texted back (using a recently learned vocab word), "I think I spoke too candidly... sorry." She laughed it off, text-message style, and we said goodnight.

This afternoon she didn't have work so we went to an arcade and had a lot of fun. As we were leaving, she told me that I'm way more reserved than Americans she's heard of. In fact, I'm worse than Chinese people at looking like I'm having a good time. I tried to tell her that I'm not good at smiling, but I don't know if she believed me.

I feel like this is all kind of insignificant relationship stuff to be talking about, but maybe the fact that it's with someone I can barely communicate with makes it more interesting?

Friday, July 4, 2008

4th of July in China

Happy 4th of July! Coincidentally, this is my 100th post, so there's a double celebration in order. My day had a lot to it, so I'll move quickly to fit it all in.

Maybe I had so many things happen because my day lasts so long. I woke up at 6:30 to be at the bus stop by 7:00, wasn't late for school, and only made a fool of myself in class the first time I answered questions. ("I don't understand what you just said," my teacher told me frankly after my attempt to make a sentence didn't fit the realities of Chinese grammar. "Are you even speaking Chinese?" He doesn't play around.)

It was only during one of our breaks that I realized it was the fourth of July. I tried to get in a patriotic mood, but it was difficult when most of my classmates aren't American.

After lunch I got on the bus to go home. It was the hottest day of the week plus that I've been here, and more humid than any day I've seen in Orlando--and that's saying something. I could see the humidity. So when I got on the bus, I wanted a seat but I also wanted to be near an open window. I shifted chairs once when it was available, and then the girl next to me noticed that I was eager to cool off. She offered me a tissue to wipe my face with, I said thank you, she said you're welcome.

That normally is about the most interaction I have with people on buses. You just don't talk to people on a bus in China. So me and this girl next to me sat there for a few more stops until I realized that the booklet she was perusing was the book of all the bus stops in Beijing. "That looks really useful," I said to her. "Where can you buy one?"

She told me, insisted that I take her copy of the bus stop book, and we started chatting. She's about my age, working now after she came to Beijing from somewhere else in China. I think, based primarily on the anti-cancer pink ribbon she had on a flyer-turned-fan and how much she said the word "doctor," that she goes around convincing Chinese women to get mammograms. I think.

I tried to tell her about myself, but often my reach exceeds my grasp. "Sorry," I said one time when I couldn't put together a sentence. "I speak so badly."

"You don't speak badly," she insisted. "I just can't understand what you say a lot of the time."

She was actually a pretty girl, so I enjoyed talking to her for the rest of my ride. Right before I got off, she realized that she was riding the wrong direction, so we happened to get off the bus at the same stop. "Here, take this," I said to her in what I hoped was a playful tone of voice. I offered her the bus route book. "It's very useful." That's right, I made a joke in Chinese. When we got off the bus, I started to walk away, kicking myself for not asking for her number in awkward Chinese. Then she called me back and asked me for mine.

We exchanged numbers, got our names straightened out (hers is Sun Wei), and then I came back home feeling pretty good about myself.

And then I tried to get advice about the situation from my Mom. "What?" she says as she cuts up vegetables to make jiaozi. "You met some girl on the bus? What are you thinking? You don't just talk to people on buses in China."

I was thrown off that she wasn't congratulating me on my prowess.

"She could be a prostitute! And now she knows where we live!"

I said that actually she only knows what bus stop I get off at, but that didn't help very much.

Mom continued to tell me why it was a horrible idea, and I understood practically nothing she said. "Get it?" she would say. I would say no. She'd rephrase and I wouldn't understand that either.

I got really frustrated and confused because I really thought this girl was nice, but the vocabulary I've been learning doesn't include words to discuss the probability that someone is or is not a prostitute. I could only say that there are good people who ride buses, too.

Our conversation was left on that unclear note because I had to leave to hang out with my friends. By the time I got to school, all the precipitation that had been building up during the day was being poured out. I felt like I was in a movie walking from the bus stop to the rendezvous apartment, holding my umbrella in front of me because of the wind, getting the bottom part of my pants soaked and risking my umbrella ripping.

Eventually, a soggy group of eight of us went out. We ate dinner, then went to a bar and tried to play a drinking game in Chinese, then went to a club.

"You know," I told the taxi driver on our way there. Today is an American holiday."

"No, I didn't know," the driver said.

"Yeah, it's when we broke away from England." Somehow that didn't satisfy my need to proclaim America's greatness like fireworks would have.

It was my first time going out in Beijing, and we had a really fun time. It's exhausting to have no idea what's going on all the time. Even when I understand things in class or at home, I still don't really understand what people mean when they say things. My mom had some final injunction about the girl I met before I left, but I hadn't understood that either. It was nice to be with a group of English-speakers dancing to songs in English.

There were several Americans at the club, and one of them finally took it into his own hands to celebrate the Fourth of July. In one of the most awesome, vulgar displays I've seen, this guy taped a small American flag to his crotch, stood on the edge of the second floor overlooking everyone below, and started dancing in the style popular these days where the main component is hip thrusts. All the Americans cheered, and once I figured out what he meant by it, I felt surprisingly patriotic. Now that's prowess! I thought.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I figure if I'm studying Chinese all day, and this blog is supposed to describe how my life is (although how much of an "adventure" studying is, I admit I'm not sure), then I figure writing the title of this post in Chinese is also appropriate.

The words come from the lesson text which we've all memorized and mean "His demands are really intense." In our lesson, it relates to how Chinese fathers place a ton of pressure on their kid, because they want them to make something of themselves and have only one kid to do it. But in our class, our teacher's demands are pretty high, too. Our teacher explains that if we just paraphrase the text then it doesn't help us very much. Our working vocabulary will only increase if we can actually use the words and grammar patterns in context.

So without saying "memorize these two pages of really tough Chinese sentences," he's said "memorize these two pages of really tough Chinese sentences." Yesterday I spent all night from dinner until about eleven o'clock memorizing the passages so when he called on me this morning I would be able to live up to his standards. I think I actually wasn't too far off from that.

This week so far, though, I've spent so much time on that lesson that I've ignored my listening and reading classes. It's not a lack of effort--it's a lack of time. I'm getting more accustomed now to being in Chinese mode for four hours every morning, but it still tires me out so that I can't think about Chinese until several hours after lunch. And by the time I look up words for several hours (no exaggeration), I don't have any more time to go over the words we're supposed to be learning for our other class.

Almost everyone in my class grew up speaking Chinese, so for them memorizing in Chinese comes very naturally. Not so for me. Our teacher is really intimidating, too. The only example I can think of is one that no one but my brother and sister will understand, but I'll give it anyway. When we were little we took swimming lessons in the summer, and the way Mrs. Graves talked is the same way my teacher does, except he's not fat and he talks in Chinese.

But things are getting better. I broke down and bought an electronic dictionary yesterday, like everyone else in my class. I must be a serious Chinese student now. It cost about $125, and is amazing. I'll show it to you when I get back to the States. The definitions are really good, the stylus works well for writing characters, the interface isn't too bad. It's almost a pleasure to use, which is good since I'm going to be spending so much time with it.

If I haven't already explained the traditional way you look up a character yet, let me do so. Let's take the first word of the title of this post as an example.

First, you have to find what's called the "radical." I wrote a whole post about radicals a while ago, so I won't cover them again, but sometimes it's hard to say which part is the radical. In our example, is it the top half with two vertical lines coming from one horizontal line into a box? Or is it the bottom half, with three strokes that make a triangle in the middle? In this case, the radical is the top half.

Then you count the number of strokes the radical has. Here, to make the top half it takes six strokes.

Then you open your dictionary and find the number that corresponds to your radical. There are over 200 radicals, so that's why the radicals are arranged by number of strokes.

Then you count how many strokes are left. Here, the bottom has three strokes left.

Then you turn in your dictionary to all of the words that have your radical and your number of remaining ("remnant") strokes. So here we'd be looking at a list of words with this certain 6-stroke radical and three more strokes.

Then you find the word and turn to the page number where the definition is given.

It's only at that point, after six steps, that you discover that the word is pronounced "yao" with first tone (although, you will read, it's usually pronounced with fourth tone).

Now, with my sweet electronic dictionary, I just pop it open, write the character, and despite my sloppy, non-native handwriting, the dictionary will recognize what word I've written and display it. Click on the entry I want and I'm there.

Here's a picture of me in my Chinese house playing with it:

The reason I don't have a shirt on is because it's really hot and when my Mom said, "Why don't you take your shirt off? You're inside; you don't have to be so formal." I couldn't resist.

Have to get back to my homework. Looking forward to the weekend.