Friday, February 29, 2008


I don't often talk about Chinese directly, but I had a funny breakthrough recently that I want to lead up to. I've made all the characters pictures, so it messes up the look of the line, but even if you don't have character-viewing enabled, you should still be okay.

I am about to start unraveling the mystery of Chinese characters for you. Chinese characters are organized by their components. For example, (mom) (older sister), and (younger sister) all have the same first half. It looks like two Pac-men eating each other. That part is called a radical, and it tells you which category the character belongs to. This radical means "woman", which is why all three of these relationship words have that radical.

Different radicals signal what kind of topic the character deals with. With the two characters for "mom", for example, replacing the woman radical with a small square (a mouth radical) changes the meaning of the word to a particle that makes a statement a question. Most particles have a mouth radical, so seeing that radical can help you figure out what the character means. If instead of a small square you draw a diagonal line downward from the right and then a vertical line downward from the middle of that (like this: ), then you've made a different radical and the word means "to scold." If you take away that radical and don't replace it with anything, the word now means "horse"!

This whole thing with radicals has upsides and downsides. On one hand, by learning one character and knowing a few radicals, you can really know several characters (horse, mother, to scold). The downside is that you have to be sure to get the right radical, because Chinese people laugh at you if you write the wrong word.

There's another interesting part about radicals, and that's how they relate to pronunciation. The word for mother is pronounced mama, the word for horse is ma, the word for scolding is ma, and the word to make a sentence a question is ma. They're all the same! (Now, keep in mind that Chinese is a tonal language and all four of those are different tones.) The pronunciation of some characters doesn't change very much no matter what radical you use. The word (pronounced qing) is a fairly simple character to memorize. And then you can add on various radicals: , , , , . They are all pronounced qing (again, not all the same tone, but the same sound). Sometimes when you have never seen a character, you can still guess what the pronunciation might be because you've seen characters like it.
Other characters are notoriously slippery, though. This basic character is ye: . Add a person radical to it, though, and it's now ta: . If you have a different radical, then it's di: (or de; did I mention that some characters have multiple pronunciations--the Chinese version of "read" and "read").

When you don't know how to pronounce a word, you have to figure out what radical it has and look it up in the dictionary that way. Sometimes that can be frustrating. Look at ju: . Is the radical the top right half? Or maybe it's the top left half. I haven't seen the bottom very often, so it's probably not a radical. There are about 200 radicals, though, so maybe I should try that. Or maybe it's the whole top part. And in this way you've tried to look up the word four times before you learn how to pronounce it.

So that's a primer on radicals. I have tons of characters that I have to learn here in China, so the more I work with characters, the more I develop a feel for what radical should go with what word. Sometimes it's a stretch: "jian ("gradual") has water, obviously, and then a car, and then what... oh! Then 'then', or at least half of it." I have to go through such tricks to remember characters this complicated: . Other times, though, it just clicks, and that brings me to my funny moment.

I had been memorizing characters in my room for half an hour or so, when I came to a phrase that literally translated means "plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum." Apparently it has something to do with a person's integrity, but our book doesn't give the best definitions sometimes and I don't really understand it. Anyway, I'm slogging my way through these characters and get to "chrysanthemum." It's ju: . I looked at it, and totally in Chinese mode thought to myself: "Well, it has the flower bit at the top, and then that nice curvy part, and then inside it has a full cross just like the word for beauty, which makes sense. If I were Chinese, I would definitely write the word for chrysanthemum this way." I copied it one or two more times, and that was it. I had it memorized. How? Well, that's just how a chrysanthemum should look.

I'm at the point, I guess, where Chinese characters are looking less like gobbledy-gook and more like logical representations of words. Isn't that crazy? All those lines and I think it's a good way to write chrysanthemum.

So basically I'm becoming Chinese.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pre-Birthday Shopping Expedition

Actually my adventure today had nothing to do with my birthday. I just felt sick of Chinese after class and wanted to do something that wasn't memorize characters. So I got on a bus and started toward the middle of the city. When I got off that one I happened to be on the street devoted to safe deposit boxes. I had heard that in Chengdu shopping is organized by what you're buying, so if you need a door, you go to door street, or whatever. I had never seen it before, though. At least 15 stores in a row had rows of safes:

Those shops didn't perk my interest much, though, so I got on a few more buses and finally found myself in Tianfu Square, the huge plaza in the middle of Chengdu. I was looking for the walking street--a street that has shops on both sides with no cars allowed--but didn't know the name of it in Chinese. I wandered through a few department stores, and saw that blue was in this season:

Then as I was headed to one store, I saw that I had found walking street. It was a beautiful day, and several other people were on their way there:

I started checking out all the shops and let myself be lured into the back rooms by the guys wanting to sell me fake Adidas. (Really, I think they should save that for people who have never seen real Adidas gear.) I looked at a few shirts, and then finally found a nice stall with a nice lady. She suggested whatever I was looking at, but after trying on one shirt that I liked but was too thin, I tried on a different one that I really liked.

And do you know what the most amazing part was? I could understand the saleswoman's patter. "Oh, yeah, that looks good on you, don't you think? You know, we have it in pink, too, if you'd like. Although this blue is good, too. Do you like it? As the weather gets warmer it'll be good to have a shirt this weight because you can wear it just how it is, although if you want to put a sweater back over it you can too. So? I'll give you a good price, what do you say." When I was in Shanghai bargaining before the semester started, I would nod to all of this and just imagine what they were telling me. Now I was nodding with comprehension.

I decided that I would see how bargaining went. She started at 110 kuai, and I was proud that I actually thought that was too expensive instead of just knowing that that's what I should think. I had in mind 50, and after she came down ten or twenty, she asked what I wanted it for and I told her. She acted a little exasperated, but it was just part of the act. She tried to convince me the price she had was a good one--the tag had twice her starting price! she said--but I wouldn't be persuaded. Eventually she came down and I was extremely satisfied. I knew what the price should be and got it for that price. And spoke Chinese.

Here's me wearing the shirt. What do you think?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Sidewalk

Yes, things in China are so exciting that even the sidewalk gets its own entry. That, and I use this website to track how many people come to this website (1,000 unique visitors exactly, for the interested), and I've noticed that a few people have found this blog from random searches on Google: "how much is 1 Kuai worth"; "chinese family dinners"; "what are the importances of fireworks in china"; and so on. I'm really hoping someone searches for "sidewalks in China" or maybe "how not to build a sidewalk." This would be my corresponding lecture.

This picture that I took today shows everything I want to talk about. There are 8 things you should notice.

1. It's sunny. Depending on where you're reading this from, seeing the shadows might not make you that excited, but you should really appreciate how significant this is. Today the weather was fabulous, and the sidewalk shows it.

2. The colored strip of sidewalk running into the distance. It's for the blind. Why is it colored for people who can't see? I have no idea. It's textured, though, so you can feel it if you use a cane and don't wander into the road. It also feels uncomfortable through your shoes, so you walk on one or the other side and always feel weird for not using the space you have. This strip is everywhere.

3. The sidewalk is made of tiles. When it's rainy and we feel like we're going to fall just by walking, we wonder why Chengdu made its sidewalks out of really slippery material.

4. The random blue tiles. Things get switched up occasionally, although they aren't always precise about patterns. It's like they think the color is variety enough and where the tile goes doesn't matter as much. I saw a stack of tiles today walking home from dinner, and was tempted to take one, but I didn't know what I would do with it.

5. The tiles that aren't firmly set. When it rains, they get water under them and if you walk the wrong way it splashes you. You have to be on the lookout for tiles like the one where the orange and blue tiles intersect. (Coming from UF, I'm also going to mention that where there's orange and blue, you always need to be on the lookout.)

6. The dotted tiles when the blind path changes direction. It's really useful, and in most cases Chengdu has that kind of tile to warn you that the sidewalk is ending. It's a different color, though, and I think it looks ugly. Speaking of which, though...

7. The dirtiness. Public cleanliness is not a high priority for Chinese. They prefer to have their own private space that they can control and abandon public spaces for the public. I find this ironic considering China's governmental structure.

8. The car on the sidewalk. Sidewalks are so spacious here that restaurants use them for parking. It drives me crazy that at night there are cars that get in my way as I walk home.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Getting a Letter in Chinese

During my break every time we have language class, I go buy breakfast and chat with the cute pastry girl. I'm already in Chinese mode, I figure, so I might as well practice what I'm learning. Most of the time our conversation is pretty mundane. If there are other customers there it might only be saying hello. Sometimes we talk about something a little more substantial, like when she explained why I had two Chinese dimes that were worth the same amount but were different sizes. ("This smaller one is newer," she said, "see? 1990. And this bigger one is newer, from 2003.")

A few weeks ago I was buying some rolls when she started telling me something about her friend, practicing English, and writing letters. I didn't understand everything she was saying, and Sol, the guy I was with, wasn't much better. He did make sure to ask if her friend was pretty. The pastry girl's answer was, "She's a little fat," but I'm assured that in Chinese that's not a really mean thing to say.

Nothing really happened after that, and I figured that her friend must have found some other American to write letters with. Just this last Friday, though, when I came in to the bakery, the girl said, "I have something to give you." She handed me a note and said that it was from her friend. It was all in Chinese, and I was really excited to see that I could read about half of the characters, even though the characters were kind of sloppy. Basically the girl had to leave on the 21st to be with her family, but when she got back she would bring me some jam. I didn't understand the jam part until my teacher explained it to me. In the bakery the girl was explaining to me that those characters had to do with a name and a fruit, but I didn't really get what she was saying.

I've taken a picture of the note so you can see how fantastic it is to be written to in Chinese. (And to marvel at how much I "can know above".) I hope the girl isn't a stalker, like some girls the people we've met have turned out to be, but this letter doesn't have a marriage proposal in it, so I think I'm still safe. And I might even get some jam out of the whole thing.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Riding the Bus to Anywhere

After class yesterday I started to take the bus home, but got too impatient and took the wrong route. I thought about just getting off at the next stop and walking back onto the right path, but I had a huge package of candy with me that I had just picked up from the post office (mailed all the way from America for my upcoming birthday). I decided to just stay on the bus and see where it would take me.

Some of the stops have maps on them, so I knew that I was going south. The stops kept coming and gradually the people thinned until it was just me and an old lady who had missed her stop. Eventually the bus driver ordered us off, so I guessed we were at the station. It was right by a residential area, so I walked over to a nearby park (wearing my backpack and carrying my package) where lots of mothers had their toddlers out to enjoy the sun. I watched a couple of guys play Beat the Landlord, this really cool card game. I'm working on my strategy so eventually I'll be able to play it and gamble with people.

There were old people playing cards there, too, and they might have been homeless, but I couldn't tell because they looked like typical Chinese to me. They were playing a game I didn't already know how to play, and there was no hope of picking it up from just watching them, so I gave up and ate some candy out of my box.

Finally I decided to move on, so I walked back to the bus stop I had come from, took the next bus, and then, when I saw we were at a stop that other buses came to, got off and got on a different route. I rode for a while until it looked like a busy part of town, and then got off. I started wandering around some, looking at all the people who were selling stuff and whatever. Eventually I came upon more old guys playing Beat the Landlord, and was still intrigued.

The game only takes three people, so everybody else who's interested stands (or squats, Chinese are good at squatting) behind them and watches their play. When the round is over, everybody starts debating how they should have played as they deal out the next hand. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what happens. Old people here don't often know Mandarin and only speak the local language. Plus, they're just talking about cards, so I can't expect to hear any enlightened discussion on politics standing around. It's more conversation like, "Why didn't you play all those cards?" "I couldn't, I thought he still had the joker." "Still, if you had done that, then I could've played my JQKA and we would've had him." "Psh." "I don't like it when you're on my team. I always lose money." By that time a new hand has started and everyone considers the cards.

I must've spent about an hour there before I decided to go back. Everyone who knows me knows that this is the most amazing part of my whole adventure: I got back to my apartment without getting turned around. That's right, I saw a map, knew where I was and where I needed to go, recognized a bus route and figured out which way was which, took the bus until I got to a specific stop, changed routes, and ended up just as planned two minutes from my apartment.

I was feeling a little stressed out during the day and really enjoyed all the time I spent by myself just absorbing China and not having to worry about my pronunciation, or my impending final, or conflict with friends. And now I know where bus route 19 ends up if you take it south.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Heat versus Health

Yesterday was the warmest day since we got here. When we doing tai chi, not only did I take off my coat and scarf, but I also felt ready to sweat by the time we were done. Afterwards, we went to dinner, and I left my apartment for the second time without my coat. (This time I remembered my wallet.)

My luxuries have carried over into today. This morning my two roommates were gone, so I could turn on the heater in the main room. I still wish our heater could work in conjunction with other appliances, but at least I was warm while I was doing homework all day.

The heat has not made everything perfect. In fact, it seems like nature is playing a zero-sum game in which it has to even out the nice weather by making everyone and everything break down. One of the USAC guys celebrated Chunjie at our USAC intern's house in the countryside. When he came back he was sick and had to go to the hospital for a night. When he came back he didn't get better and is now back in the hospital. On a more minor level, everyone in my class has been feeling sick, which is bad for them because we have our first final on Friday.

Our apartment has not missed a chance to break down. I mentioned that the heater was working, since I carefully kept everything else turned off, but last night our shower didn't have hot water. In fact, our shower and Traci's shower weren't working, so our whole apartment was shower-less. Our toilet won't flush. Our washing machine works, though, which is more than the other apartments have.

It looks like my Internet situation has settled down. Our apartment does have Internet, but for some reason my computer won't connect if it's through a cable, so I keep my computer at the apartment with wireless and hope that they're home when I want to go online.

Oh, and the ATM won't give me any money. It says my card is not authorized for that kind of transaction, except that it is and I've gotten money before.

All this complaining is just because I studied for hours today and made sure nothing exciting was happening while I was figuring out the eight famous styles of Chinese cooking, and how to write them. I'm doing work like crazy; it's awesome.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Going to the Gym

Before I get to the story today, I would just like to mention that it's been two whole days and almost no one has asked me for the recording of me reciting a Chinese poem. My pronunciation is bad, but not that bad. All I've gotten is one request, and one unsolicited offer for online Chinese lessons. To make my inbox problems worse, I still have not heard back on my application to the summer Chinese program I want to do. I'm thinking more and more about a sentence that said roughly "CET reserves the right to withhold a decision on borderline applicants."

Last night coming out of my stifling Chinese literature in translation class I learned that half of USAC was going to the gym. I'm generally not into that kind of thing, but on their way out, all that talk about releasing endorphins made me really want to run. It was a cold, rainy night, and if I tried to go running I'd be more worried about being nailed by a taxi than I would be about my pace, so the safety of a gym sounded appealing.

The only problem, I realized vaguely when I headed out, was that I didn't know where I was going. In fact, I didn't know how to say "gym." All I knew is that everyone was headed to a place "really close to Carrefour." When I got to Carrefour and started looking at all the buildings, I understood how insufficient this description was. Carrefour itself, as a mega-sized Super Walmart (yes, it gets bigger than Super Walmart. Carrefour has two stories: everything non-edible on the top, any food in the world on the bottom), took five minutes just to walk around. I decided that I would ask someone.

I picked out a guy who was selling knick-knacks and looked like he could handle a foreigner. Our conversation was more like a game of Taboo: "Excuse me," I said to him in Chinese. "I'm looking for a place... I want to go running..." No response. "And--" here I lifted imaginary weights. "If you want to go on a diet, you go to a..." I went back to my simulation of bench pressing, feeling totally ridiculous as this guy stared at me with a blank face, until finally he must have figured out what I was talking about. He said some name for "gym" in Chinese, which I repeated the best I could in case I needed to ask other people, and then said "third floor" and "Carrefour" and pointed. I thought that wasn't a bad start, thanked him, and started walking in the direction of his finger.

I got to the plaza that I thought likely held the gym and asked a worker. Armed with the word I almost knew from my first encounter, it took less acting to get directions this time, but when I got to the third floor I was on a terrace that only had restaurants. I asked another person, who said he couldn't help me, and as I wandered back to the stairs, I saw a sign with a woman working out. That looked promising, but the closer I got, the more pictures of women I saw, until I was at the entrance and convinced that I had come to a place that was only for women. When I asked the woman working there if she knew of a gym (For men? she asked. Yes, for men.) she told me the third floor of a different building really close by.

I only had to ask two more people before I found the elevator for that building and arrived. And I was worried about not using my Chinese enough recently. The people at the gym wanted 80 kuai, but when I showed interest in a membership plan and said I wanted to try it out first, they lowered the cost to 50 and introduced me to my personal Chinese trainer for the evening.

Zhang Hong let me run on the treadmill for a while, then started me on a full body workout, and my language skills were not up to refusing. We had a surprisingly good conversation for me concentrating on doing the exercises. I tried to tell him that I was just a skinny guy who couldn't gain muscle, but his wrists were about the same size mine were and he was buff. In fact, by the end of the workout I had him ask how much a membership would be, but compared to UF's free gym (that I never use), I couldn't justify spending a lot of money.

I felt so hot afterward that I actually went home in my shorts. I didn't mention it before, but going there I was wearing long underwear with bright light blue sports shorts over, and looked absolutely ridiculous, so letting my legs cool off while I took the bus home wasn't as crazy as it sounds.

I enjoyed my endorphins for the rest of the night and went to bed early.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reciting a Chinese Poem

I worked for several hours trying to upload the recording of the poem Rebekah and I recited, but have in the end given up. If anyone is interested in listening to it (it's about a minute long), just email me at and I'll get it to you within a day or two.

The recitation itself went really well. Rebekah and I were part of a Chunjie celebration at Du Fu's Cottage. Du Fu was a really famous poet in the 700s, and he lived in Chengdu for a few years, so there's a whole tourist attraction to memorialize him. The feature is a renovated version of the thatched-roof cottage he lived in, but the park itself is huge and really beautiful.

I put some pictures online which you can look at here:

And here's a translation of the poem. It would've been cooler if I could have provided the sound file of me saying it in Chinese, but that's how things go, I guess.

Welcoming Night Spring Rain

Du Fu

Good rain knows when to come,

when spring is here it arrives.

It silently slips into the night with the wind,

silently making the soil fertile.

It covers the countryside with dark clouds,

only from boats by the riverside can you see light.

At daybreak you can see red wet things:

bright flowers all over Chengdu.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chinese New Year, part 5

I was finally on my way back to Chengdu, in the car with Shawna and the wife’s cousin and brother. The problem, though, was that her brother was some kind of electrical maintenance guy, and with the amount of fireworks people were setting off with no concern for little details like other buildings or power lines, we hadn’t gone ten minutes before we had to pull over so he could call somebody about a power outage he had seen.

Shawna and I got out of the car to stretch our legs every time we stopped and it looked like a war scene. Every building in China maximizes capacity by having at least ten floors, so your view is restricted to the street you’re on, and a few degrees of sky right above you. I heard booms coming from every direction. All I could see was an occasional burst of firework tendrils coming from behind one of the surrounding buildings. The sky would light up blue or pink, and then I’d hear another boom. I’d turn around and see a kid off the sixth floor with what looked like a rocket launcher firing out of his window. There were discarded boxes all over the street, people running around shouting things—the only thing the war scene was missing was dead bodies strewn on the floor.

Later when we got onto a main road there were people setting up massive fireworks in the street, and one time I heard the firework remnants rain down on our car we were so close.

After stopping a few times, the brother started vigorously talking to the cousin about how he wouldn’t be able to leave. The cousin was saying that they had told me I could go back, so they had to get me back. This was the time when it was good to sit back, be the foreigner who didn’t really understand what was going on, and let them figure things out. I think I heard brief talk of how much a taxi would cost, but eventually we stopped in front of some building, the brother got out of the car, and some other guy got in. I still don’t know who he was, but apparently he was there to replace the brother.

The girl explained the situation to him for a while, as I’m sure he was rather unhappy about driving an hour and a half just before the biggest celebration in China, but he finally was satisfied.

We passed most of the ride in silence, just looked out of the window at our 360 degree fireworks show. At all times you could see two or three fireworks shooting up from various parts of the city.

When we came into Chengdu itself, I realized that neither the driver nor the cousin knew how to get to my apartment. I actually have a reasonable knowledge of the city, and knew that we were in the right sector, but wasn’t sure whether our turn was in front of us or behind us. Their solution to this was to stop in the gap between the off-ramp and the highway while they called someone to get directions. This gave me lots of time to imagine a drunk Chinese car ramming us from behind right into the partition and all of us being smashed to pieces like human fireworks.

The calls went smoothly, though, even though they still didn’t know where to turn, but as we drove I recognized a street and got us home from there.

And then, at 2:30 in the morning, a little more than 24 hours after I left, I got back to the family’s apartment with Shawna alive and healthy. What an adventure.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Chinese New Year, part 4

After we shot off fireworks, we went back upstairs and the adults finished their game of Mah Jong. It was now about midnight and I didn’t know where I would sleep that night. I had been with Shawna the whole day, though, and for most of the evening she was contentedly sleeping on my lap while we played cards, so I wasn’t that worried any more. We weren’t being attacked by wild animals or falling into ditches—well, when we took Shawna for a walk late that night, she did fall into a duct that carried water to the house, but she wasn’t injured—and we were warm enough, especially with the long underwear the wife’s mom had given me that morning. I was to the point where if I really couldn’t get back for a few days, I thought it might be okay.

When everyone was done, though, the mom told me that some of the family members were going back to Chengdu, so if I really needed to, I could go with them. By this time everyone had fallen in love with Shawna, even her son who a day before was terrified of dogs, so everyone was willing to take care of her during the nights if I still wanted to stay. I actually thought about it for a few minutes, but decided that my adventure had lasted long enough, and that although I appreciated her offer, the best idea would be to go back.

I thanked them, and started thinking about all the Chinese experiences I had had in the last day. There’s a tradition of giving kids money for Chunjie, similar to how we give presents, but the agonizing of wondering what to get people. It’s called hongbao, which means “red envelopes” because of the standard containers for the money. So through the day, the relatives would give hongbao to the little kids, and I learned how you were supposed to accept it: adamantly insist that you didn’t want it. The little boy is six, so he had his technique perfected. As soon as he saw the red envelope, he would shout “I don’t want it!” and fall on the floor hanging onto his mom’s leg like someone was going to drag him away. Then the relative would whisper something to him about how they really did want him to have it, and after he shouted his politeness a few times, his mother would tell him to say thank you. He would, then would hand the money to his mom for safekeeping and go back to playing. When the mom gave me honbao, I was tempted to be as dramatic, but let only two “Bu yao” suffice.

I had also had my first experience being made fun of by a little kid in Chinese. We were playing cards, the boy wanted to lay down a fantastic move, but it wasn’t quite allowed, and he got really angry. The niece, the cousin, and I thought it was a little ridiculous, and after a few minutes of him acting up the cousin told me the name for his behavior in Chinese. I said that the closest thing we had was the word “temper tantrum,” but that it usually referred to two or three year olds. When this was translated with great amusement to the little boy, he felt insulted and had to retaliate, so he said in Chinese, “Pan Wei (me) is zero years old!”

My time with the family had finally come to an end. I said good bye, and got in the car with the cousin and brother, and we started driving. But I wasn’t home yet.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chinese New Year, part 3

On the morning of Chunjie Eve, I woke up around 9. The grandparents made me a traditional breakfast with these ridiculously sweet balls of glutinous rice called tangyuan. After eating a few, I gagged twice getting the next one down and stopped after that. I watched tv in Chinese for a while the wife’s son and niece woke up.

Then the mom told me that she was going to—something—and that I should just watch tv until she got back. I said sure. I watched tv for quite some time until I asked the little boy when his mom was coming back and he said he didn’t know. Eventually the grandparents said we were going to have lunch and that’s where I would see Shawna. I thought that was a good idea, since it had been almost 12 hours since I last saw her.

We went to another relative’s house, where I was briefly introduced to everyone and was very relieved to see that Shawna was still alive and coaxing food out of everyone. As we ate lunch, I talked to the wife’s cousin who speaks pretty good English. She didn’t know anything about going back to Chengdu that day, but I figured she was just out of the loop since the plans had changed pretty fast. Gradually, though, I realized that going back to Chengdu was not on the docket for the day. I told the mom that I must have misunderstood, because I thought that when she said we would only be here for one night, that then we would leave early this morning. She said that of course that wasn’t the plan: it’s Chunjie Eve!

We all got in the car, then, and drove another half hour to the countryside. The house we went to was more like a Chinese villa. It was surrounded by fields of some Chinese vegetable, and had a massive gate that led up to the four-story stone house. We went to the third story where there was a heater and a sliding glass door, so Shawna could relax. I took my mind off of thinking about what in the world was going on by learning Chinese card games.

Eventually it was time for dinner, so I put Shawna in the car and prayed that she wouldn’t tear up the leather seats. She was so exhausted from all the excitement, though, that she slept happily. Meanwhile, I ate all kinds of exotic foods. The cousin was there who could tell me some of what I was eating. Beef, pork, lamb, pig’s ear, chicken stomach, meat from something like a goat. The men tried to talk me into drinking tons of baijiu with them, but just wetting my lips with it was strong enough to last me for five minutes.

After dinner we played cards some more, and then it was dark and time to shoot off fireworks. I had heard that fireworks in China are more powerful than ones in the States, but I didn’t really believe the extent of it. I held Shawna in my arms so she wouldn’t freak out, and just twenty feet from us they set off fireworks that you would only see shot off by your city’s Fourth of July party. They were all the kinds I recognized from the States: blue, red, white, green, corkscrewing ones and ones that just made a loud pop, and ones that made a huge dome and ones that had the double explosion. They would go up maybe 50 feet and then explode. I’ve thought that I was close to some fireworks displays in America, but when you look up and the firework particles are not only in front of you, but also behind you, you know that you’re in China.

Shawna did remarkable well during all this, which even let me play with a few sparklers with the kids.

And then the fireworks were all over, it was dark and around 10:00, and I was still in the countryside with Shawna.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chinese New Year, part 2

The family that was coming to pick me up to celebrate Chunjie got lost on the way, so I waited outside the apartment complex for almost half an hour with a small suitcase and Shawna’s bed, trying to get Shawna to be calm. I thought I was stressed out.

The family arrived, we stuffed everything in their car, Shawna sat on my lap with her head out the window, and we started driving. And we kept driving for quite some time. I remembered from the first time I was at their house that it was pretty far away, so I wasn’t too worried, but then we pulled into this raggedy neighborhood and got out. We had apparently reached the place where Shawna was supposed to stay and it looked like a garage. Cement floor, unconfined space—which wasn’t going to be a problem because they intended to just keep her tied up on the leash all day and let her out a few times a day to take care of her business.

This seemed like a bad idea to me, since the apartment Shawna is used to staying in has heat and nice people and space to move around in. At just that time Mom called from home because she had just gotten an email in which I casually mentioned my trip and she was really worried because I hadn’t gotten the owner’s permission. The reason I hadn’t is that they were in Thailand on vacation and I didn’t have a number to reach them, but Mom knows people who know people, so she said she would work on it while I told the family to hold up.

It seemed we were at the husband’s family’s house, because he suggested we eat dinner and then talk things over. They started eating dinner, but Mom called back and said that she hadn’t been able to get a phone number yet and that I couldn’t do anything until I had permission. So I was in the middle of nowhere, in a situation I clearly didn’t understand, and was now convinced that even if Shawna could come to the mom’s family’s place despite her mom’s allergies, that the dangers of the countryside would do her in and she would be lost, stolen, or dead from disease. I’m a fairly conscientious person, and I’m in a foreign country and felt like I had practically killed Shawna already. I really started freaking out. Luckily Mom was on the line and calmed me down enough to figure out a plan. I would just have to tell them that I really wanted to be with them, but had a prior commitment that I had to take care of.

Shawna, meanwhile, was roaming around the husband’s family’s house being fed all kinds of exotic Chunjie treats. I went to join them, had my first taste of baijiu, the local wine which is too strong even for people who do know how to drink, and then told them as best I could that it wouldn’t work for Shawna to stay with that family. Like I said, though, I don’t really know how to say that I was taking care of the dog, so the best I could communicate was that it had to be with me.

Pretty sure that I had told them what was what, I got back in the car with the wife while the husband stayed at his family’s house. As we were driving, the mom said she had come up with an idea. Shawna could stay with her brother for that night, and then in the morning we would leave. This seemed like a really generous plan to me, especially since in the morning it would be New Year’s Eve Day and I didn’t think anyone wanted to be out carting around problematic foreigners, but she emphasized that it was only for one night, so I finally agreed.

An hour later we arrived at her mom’s place, dropped off Shawna with her brother, and then I went to sleep, eager for the morning because it was only going to be one night.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Chinese New Year, part 1

Chinese New Year, part 1

I'm back now from the craziest adventure I've had in my whole time here in China. And speaking of my time in China, I've been here a month from yesterday. It's a good thing I've had some time to settle in, because I don't think I could have handled all the stress before now. Here's the story.

Tuesday was our last day of class before our week-long break, Wednesday was Chinese New Year's Eve (picture the importance of family during Thanksgiving, the importance of tradition during Christmas, and the importance of fireworks during the 4th of July), and Thursday was Chinese New Year itself—the start of their lunar calendar. Before I went to tai chi Tuesday afternoon, I decided to call the Chinese family whose house I had dinner at and hope that they brought up again the idea of doing something with them during the break. As soon as they picked up, the wife asked if I was going to come celebrate Chunjie (aka Spring Festival and Chinese New Year) with them. For the Chinese Chunjie lasts almost two weeks, so when I said yes I didn't really know what they meant. They said that they would be celebrating Chunjie at the wife's family's house, at which point I tried to tell them that I was taking care of a dog while a family I knew was on vacation, so anything I did would have to be limited to one day so I could be back.

I don't really know how to say that I'm taking care of a dog in Chinese, though, so the wife said something about calling me back and a few minutes later I got a call from her cousin who speaks pretty good English. I explained my situation again and she told me that what they had in mind would be for up to ten days. I said that as much as I wanted to come, I couldn't abandon the dog, so the cousin said she would talk to the wife and call me back. The cousin called the sister, who I'm sure called her mom and possibly her husband, then called the sister back, and eventually I learned that they still wanted me to come, but the wife's mom was allergic to dogs and her son was deathly afraid of them, so how big was the dog I was taking care of?

By this point I was in a taxi on my way to tai chi and was trying to figure a more precise way to say that it was a small dog than saying "It's a very small dog." The taxi driver and I had been chatting a bit before my call came in, so he tried to help me say "knee" to let them know how tall the dog was, but I'm not sure he didn't give me the word for "thigh" or "leg." Regardless, when they were still unsatisfied and wanted to know how many kilograms the dog weighed, I was out of my depth. I suggested that since I had made it to school, I would just run up to my Chinese teacher's office and ask if she could help. I explained the situation to her in thirty seconds (since I still had tai chi to go to) and handed her the phone. She explained that the dog I was taking care of was very small and would not kill her son, and after a few minutes they had hit on a plan. So with our program director acting as mediator for a situation she had no information about, it was determined that the wife knew a family that could take care of the dog while I went with them.

Now, this family lives in a pretty swank apartment, and I figured that any family they left Shawna with would be fine. Moreover, the USAC director is standing right there negotiating the whole thing and saying that it sounds like a fine plan.

From there we worked out what time they would pick me up. They didn't want to run into New Year's Eve traffic, so the earlier the better. They finally asked if I could just leave then. That sounded fine to me, so I skipped tai chi, took a taxi back, and packed my things and Shawna's thing in the next fifteen minutes so a family I barely knew could come pick me up, take me to a place I didn't know to join people I had never met, and somehow handle the dog that I was totally responsible for.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

My other application essay

As part of the summer application, I had to write a page-long essay in Chinese. And so, as a companion piece to the first essay I posted here, this is my essay in broken Chinese trying to tell the story of how I bought a cheap watch in Shanghai. If your browser can't read Chinese fonts, I recommend that you Google "displaying Chinese characters" and download something so you can appreciate all of my Chinese knowledge. I know how to write all of this! And if you want to correct my grammar or word choice, I won't be offended. :)

 我不知道,所以就把手表给她,跟她说《我很不高兴。这个手表很不好,打破了。给我我的钱!》当然她也不高兴了,告诉我很多东西。虽然我一般听不 懂,可我知道我不同意,所以在那。我们俩大喊大叫。他认为我高兴地出去,在外面手表是我的保管,可能我自己打坡了。我告诉她我不打手表。我看要是手表不好,她不应该说《这好。》她说当然我买的手表不好,就是八筷!可是,我争论是我的第二天在中国,我不知道八好不好价钱。

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Summer program application essay

I changed a few phrases for the final draft, since I wasn’t allowed to copy-and-paste and ended up retyping the whole essay. The prompt was why I've picked China and Chinese, why this program (in Harbin), what are my goals for it, and how am I going to accomplish those goals. Hopefully it's not too bad of an essay.


Chinese has always attracted me. My parents worked in China before I was born, and then when I was two and my brother had just been born, we moved back for a year. I only have brief, little-kid memories of it, so whenever I heard things about China growing up, it made me imagine all the things I couldn't remember. Sometimes my parents would tell secrets over the dinner table in what was probably broken Chinese, but it sounded fantastic to me. That mystical aura extended into a deep respect for China: it was almost a part of me, and learning about it was like being introduced to a distant relative who I hadn't met yet.

It was still a long road from basic interest to actual application. In elementary school, I had an advanced class once a week in which we learned bits of logic, critical thinking, and foreign languages. With no application to real life, French, Italian, and Spanish all left a bad taste in my mouth. Then for most of high school I lived in Florida and had tons of opportunity to use Spanish, but my teachers were so bad that I can honestly say that the biggest regret of my life was taking a fourth year of Spanish senior year. But now not only am I taking another foreign language, I'm actually studying abroad and am applying for this summer program, too!

For me, learning Chinese is a reckless foray into the unconquerable region of foreign languages, and success in this area will not only give me confidence to pursue the rest of human knowledge, but will also feed itself, so that if I return to the States able to communicate in a way I had never before imagined--who knows where it might take me? As of today, I'd say my hold on Chinese is tenuous. I can't really get around in China, I can't really hold up a conversation in Chinese, and I don't really feel comfortable with Chinese culture yet. I've been planning on adding a major in Chinese when I get back to UF, but I'm wary of counting on that to improve my skills more than immersion. Moreover, I have to pass an equivalency test to get credit for the third-year Chinese which I'll cover here, and without a summer's worth of vocabulary, I doubt there would be enough overlap from this semester's words alone to make me pass. A summer term, as you can see, could be the tipping point from whim to major, and not just any summer term. I crave the rigor that CET's program provides. I enjoy my studies here in Chengdu, but compared to taking all AP classes senior year and being valedictorian or taking twenty credits freshman year of college, this semester feels like a breeze, even though I'm in China. Without an immersion experience I don't know if I could take myself seriously. I've been viewing this semester as a warm-up to the intensive language study that I'll be doing in the summer, and I think that if I were rejected, my disappointment would carry over to this semester too. I hesitate to put things in such strong terms, because I don't want to sound desperate, but at the same time I do want to emphasize how important for me this summer will be.

If I allow myself to dream of what I might be able to accomplish, my ambitions get pretty vague. I'm an English major now and could see myself becoming a teacher, or professor, or lawyer, or pastor. Adding a Chinese possibility doesn't phase me, but I don't know what that would look like. This semester in Chengdu I'm covering three semesters'-worth of Chinese, so I'm improving so fast that it's hard to gauge where I'll be by the end of the semester, let alone by the end of the summer. I think it would be amazing to be able to write stories in Chinese, or to translate for people, or to do some kind of intercultural relations work, but those seem reserved for speakers native to both languages. I told people before I left that it was my goal to be able to come back and say, "I speak Chinese." You don't have to be fluent to say you know Chinese, but if someone starts talking to you, you'd better be able to talk back. I think that's the most concrete my goals are at this point. As I develop relationships with Chinese people this semester, though, maybe I'll have more specific areas that I want to see developed. Right now I'm still trying to figure out how to order food reliably or tell the maintenance guys what's broken. Even when I don't know how to say "outlet", though, I still see the magic of Chinese, and think that this program would be the perfect next step.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Thinking in Chinese Money

I’ve noticed that all of us in the program have adapted quite quickly to thinking of our expenditures in terms of kuai (the casual word for Chinese yuan). The exchange rate from kuai to dollars is roughly 7:1.

Tonight we had dinner at the ritzy restaurant downstairs. I bought what I got last time, spaghetti with “bacon”—they mean “ham”—but Traci was undecided about whether to get her usual spaghetti with “meet” sauce, or to spend big money and buy two, like Sheyron does. Keep in mind, we’re in China where everything, in general, is dirt cheap. We’re eating at a restaurant that’s someone’s renovated apartment and we’re ordering the cheapest dish on the menu. Still, 25 kuai is pretty pricey for one dinner, but if you start thinking about it in American money, you’ll never stop spending. Traci wobbled between justifying that a second plate would only bring her total up to $8 US, but when I pointed out that you could buy eight clementines for a quarter, she gave up and eventually stopped complaining.

I’ve found that I spend less than $1 on breakfast, less than $2 on lunch, and less than $3 on dinner, and then another $1 on snacks.

The third day we were in Chengdu, I was so money-conscious that instead of walking to the convenience store a block away to buy an over-priced hand towel, I took the towel that somebody left in our apartment and cut a hand towel out of it. It probably ruined the knife I was using, but it saved me 4 kuai.

We all walk about half an hour to school every day. If we went in on a taxi, it would cost us maybe 3 kuai each.

Today Rebekah and I went to practice our poem for Chinese New Year, and were so excited that instead of spending 20 kuai each on a taxi like last time, there was a bus route that took us pretty close that we could go on instead.

I lost a 100 kuai bill of Rebekah’s, and instead of just paying her back, I’ve started paying for things for her. I’m down to owing only 97 kuai, thanks to her not having a 1 kuai bill on her when we got on the bus. It’s like I think I have to spread out my payment so I don’t strain myself.

I’m not traveling during the break we get for Chinese New Year, and since I’ve connected with some American families I was familiar with, I’ve taken on watching a family’s dog for the next two weeks. They’re paying me 700 kuai (including taxi fare to get to school), which is a fortune. Tonight I was just enjoying their Internet, and around 12:45 I went out to see what was still open this late at night. There was a café, which was actually a bar, but they had hot chocolate, and it tasted really good. They closed at 1:00, though, so I only had a few minutes, but I still enjoyed it.

Then I asked how much it cost. In Chengdu, the locals can’t pronounce the “sh” sound, it just comes out like a straight s. That’s really pretty important, because the word for 10 is “shi” and the word for 4 is “si”, so when they say one of them, you only have different tones to help you out—and Chengdu people are known for having horrible tones. So I ask how much my hot chocolate was, and she says “si si ba.” Well, I knew that ba was 8, but I was still processing the rest of the price as I nodded my okay. Hot chocolate usually costs 20 kuai, which makes it a luxury, but those two si’s didn’t sound like they had anything to do with 20. It turns out my drink cost 48 kuai. Whoa! No wonder they asked if I could drink it in ten minutes. I’d have to lounge on their couches enjoying it for a day and half to make it worth it. Even in the States that price would be expensive!

So I guess my strategy for how to think of money is to spend so much that it’s expensive no matter where I am.