Sunday, September 26, 2010

Getting to Know You....

On Friday, the rest of the Beijing Civ students got to Beijing for orientation, which excited me to no end. After the Center opening, I had a pretty quiet week- writing a lot of stuff for Model UN, skating, making sure I had enough money to survive in China, etc. As nice as it was to get to sleep in and not be running around constantly, I was excited for everyone else to get here and to start classes (TOMORROW!!!).

On Friday night we had a meeting at the center, which included a lecture on the Forbidden City, which we visited today (Sunday). However, the highlight of the evening was likely the announcement from Mr. Yuan, who works at the center, that we would have access to free coffee at the center during our entire quarter abroad! Coffee here tends to be a bit more expensive than in the States (it's still a novelty), so getting it free makes my cheap little soul immensely happy. :) On Saturday we had an orientation to the campus/center/neighborhood, and we got to have lunch with our Chinese language teachers (who are from Renmin, our 'hosting' institution here) and our language partners. The language partners are provided for us to practice conversing with, which is actually going to be tremendously helpful - I'm reluctant to randomly engage anyone in conversation, just because I can't have a full fledged conversation in Chinese yet, and they may not be able to understand my English substitutions. The lunch was great, and I spoke Chinese for probably 90% of it, which also made me happy. :)

Also on Saturday, I got a Chinese phone! Since I'm only here until December, I got the bottom-of-the-line model for 200 RMB, roughly 30 USD. It's actually a cute little phone, about the size of my palm, and I like it better than my phone at home. :) I also have texting, which is cheaper than calling here, something that I know will make my sister insanely jealous.

The other highlight of Saturday was getting to eat a banana split at one of the cafes on campus after the tour. Chocolate ice cream never tasted so good! :)

Today we went to the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Even though I'd been to the Forbidden City before, it was nice to go back and see it again. Every time we visit a historic sight, I always wish I could be there either 1. when it was completely empty (no tourists) or 2. During its heyday, when the emperor still lived there and everybody was running around on official business. I love learning the history, I just wish I could actually be there for it. Same thing for the Temple of Heaven, which was also really neat - I wish I could be there when the emperor was giving the sacrifices, rather than learning about it hundreds of years later. That said, they didn't have banana splits or coffee (free or otherwise), so maybe just learning about it isn't that bad. Random fact of the day: The emperor had roughly 3000 concubines that lived in the Forbidden City.

After the Temple of Heaven, we went to the Pearl Market, which is right down the street. As its name would imply, they do sell pearls there, although I didn't buy any. They also sell a ton of other things, including electronics, clothes, and random little trinkets (such as mini statues of Chairman Mao). It was set up much like the electronics market I visited, complete with aggressive salespeople. They had everything from "Rolex" watches to "Puma" sneakers and "Louis Vuitton" bags, as well as supposed iPod Nanos (though the box said iPod Shuffle) and "iPads". It seems like a place a lot of Westerners go, and consequently you have to bargain down the price, which is fun to do and watch. I only bought a gift for my mom (can't say, since she might be reading this!), which I bargained down from 680 RMB to 100 RMB. When I named the price, though, the lady agreed instantly, which makes me think I probably still could have gone lower. But mom will like it, so it's ok. :) I think I'll go back in the future, though - I'd love to get a 'Burberry' scarf, and maybe some 'Puma' sneakers. They also have really cute coats and jewelery, too, so thank goodness I didn't have much money on me, otherwise I would have spent all the money I'm saving on coffee there!

Overall, it's been great getting to know all the other students in the program and our professors. It's also been nice knowing that I'm already over the jet lag, and watching/helping everyone else adjust to life in Beijing reminds me that I've come a long way since I first got here. I think my Chinese is most definitely getting better, and I know my way around the city pretty well, too. Tomorrow is our first day of class, I'm so excited to get back into a school routine with papers/readings/assignments/having to think! Our first course will focus on Ancient China and its development - did you know they used to use elephant carts as a means of transportation!?

Wishing I was taking an elephant instead of a bus to the ice rink,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Skating Simon Says

This morning, I went skating, as I often do. (Landing double salchows, for those who care!) I was expecting it to more crowded than usual, since it's mid-autumn festival here, which I believe is a national holiday. (Everyone gets Wednesday - Friday off from work, but then they have to work Saturday and Sunday to make it up, which seems to defeat the purpose?) Fortunately, it wasn't much more crowded than normal; but since there was no school, the average age of those skating dropped significantly.

There were two younger  girls skating who were both working on single jumps and basic spins, although I don't think they knew each other. Anyway, about halfway through the session, I began noticing an interesting phenomenon - whenever I worked on a specific element, all of us ended up working on that element, to  the extent that at one point, the two girls were actually doing synchronized side by side camel spins . Taking note of this strange coincidence, and realizing that I was likely viewed as the most experienced/most advanced/ most knowledgeable-because-I'm-from-America-and-so-is-Michelle Kwan-and-a-million-gold-medalists, I tested a hypothesis.

I did a sit spin.
They both did sit spins.

I did a loop jump.
They both did loops.

I did a lutz.
They both did lutzes.

It continued on this way for most of the session, until one girl left and the other's coach showed up.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. ;)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Center Opening 4, or, Economics and Lunch!

On Thursday, I had been asked along with one other student to take notes at the International Symposium on Family and Labor Economics, sponsored by UChicago and Renmin University. It was an all day event held on campus, where different academics from the US and China presented their papers on – you guessed it – family and labor economics! The day included plenty of free food and coffee, which was good- by the end of the day, I needed it.

The first paper presented was presented by James Heckman, one of the Nobel Laureates in econ that was in Beijing for opening. Another Laureate, Gary Becker, was also at the conference and the opening. Although I'm not an econ major, the papers were pretty interesting. Many of them, Heckman's especially, had a lot of equations, and I love the idea of being able to explain human behavior in terms of mathematical equations, even if I can't do it myself.

When we broke for lunch, Sidi (the other student) and I got to accompany the VIPs back to the center for lunch. I don't know whether or not to make a big deal out of eating lunch with Nobel Laureates – before Monday, I had no clue who they were, and they're just people who got awards for their work. But at the same time, it is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity, so while I don't want to brag about it, I guess it was pretty cool. :) The only problem was that lunch involved noodles and watermelon, which greatly enhanced the possibility of me screwing up eating and making a mess of everything. Fortunately, no catastrophes occurred, and my only etiquette error may have been cutting the watermelon too loudly. The discussion focused primarily on economics, and was largely over my head, but what really impressed me is how passionate they are about their work and are still working, when most Americans their age have retired. It makes sense, though – you don't win Nobel prizes for a job or research you're ambivalent about.

The afternoon portion of the conference started to drag a little bit, although some of the works were interesting. One of the papers studied the effect of the Cultural Revolution on children's education (it was bad, fyi), and another covered the gender wage gap in China (getting worse, it seems). It struck me that thirty years ago, these papers likely could not have been researched or presented in China – since both ultimately came to negative conclusions, they probably would have been censored. It's s testament to how far China has come, though I'm certainly no expert. That one of the presenters was able to make a slight joke about the Cultural Revolution, and that people were able to chuckle, seems to me to be a very good sign.

That's it for my updates on this week, I'm sorry it's been so long since I've written, and that what I've written is so long! I hope you enjoyed it. :) If you have any questions or things you'd like me to discuss in an upcoming post, please let me know, either through comments/email/facebook. Also, assuming my internet connection lasts (it's been spotty recently), there should be more new pics up on Facebook!
Zai Jian!

Center Opening 3, or, A Climatic Day

On Wednesday, I took a bus to the Shangri-La hotel, which is much closer to Renmin, which meant I didn't have a long trip. The benefits of a shorter trip, however, were counteracted by the fact that I was there at 7 in the morning, since guests and breakfast would be there at 7:30. During breakfast, I helped alphabetize nametags (for 600 people, which can get messy) and greet guests. Once the first forum of the day started, I got to eat breakfast (From Monday until Friday, I didn't have to buy myself a single meal!) and then go sit in on the panel discussion. It continued this way throughout the morning, and in between panels I helped set up the next one, and met another Nobel Laureate in the VIP room. Just prior to lunch, all the student volunteers got to meet President Zimmer, which was neat – he's a very nice guy, as was everyone I met this week! At lunch, student volunteers again joined tables (thankfully, not planned seating this time, so everyone sitting down was less of an event). I ended up sitting next to a doctor and the head of the humanities division at school, and as throughout the week, had a great conversation about Chicago and life in general. One of the things I enjoyed most about the event was that I got to meet so many people – so many of them know so much and have such great stories, I would love to be able to take each of them out for a one on one lunch to get to know them. But with budget and time constraints, this was the next best thing. :)

The food at the lunch was a combination of Western and Chinese, with nothing terribly exotic. The dessert was divine, and I realized it was a very good thing that Wednesday was the last official day of the opening – otherwise, I'd be fat by the end. After lunch, there was another panel, and then I took the first shuttle over to the Center. At that point, exhaustion was starting to sink in, right up until the point we got to the Center. I was so excited to actually be in the Center and have everyone get to see it, that the adrenaline kicked right back in and carried me through until the evening. There was a string quartet playing in the lobby, and waiters circling with appetizers and drinks, with more free coffee in the reception room! Once guests started arriving, I ended up giving tours of the center, since I was one of the few people who had already been there. I got to meet someone from the Consulate in Hong Kong (though I forget his title, though he was really nice!), and the former party leader of Taiwan was there, as well, replete with a pretty heavy security detail, who all looked terribly official with the ear wigs and pins. (It made me wish I was important enough for a security detail!)

The ribbon cutting itself was really cool – there were roughly seven ribbon cutters, and the ribbon was held by several girls dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. I don't have any pictures of the cutting itself, but it was really cool, even if slightly anti climatic. After the official opening, I just wandered around talking with different people, getting to meet more alumni and administrators. One of the administrators was telling me I should make a career out of opening things, since the new UChicago library will open the spring after I get back. He was saying that he suggested to the committee that they have a parade/ ceremony for the first book placed in the library – while it's only a short walk from the old library, they could parade it around campus and have different VIPs carry it, kind of like an Olympic torch. The idea sounded so delightfully nerdy and in keeping with Chicago's character that I shall do my best to promulgate the idea upon my return!

Overall, Wednesday was less chaotic and just as fun, although I was sad to see it come to an end. I had such a fantastic time meeting so many different people, and I wish I could do it all over again!

Center Opening 2, or, Chaos

The staff briefing on Tuesday started at 9am, which meant I got to sleep in a little bit, which was very much welcomed. Again, there was free coffee and food , though all I had a chance to eat was a muffin and cookie, we where so busy. When I first offered to help on Monday, I was told that I wouldn't be able to go to the Great Hall of the People – the venue was capped at 600, and they already had a waiting list that included a lot of donors and other important people. I was disappointed of course, but still excited to be working on the Center opening – I guess I felt in some way that it was “my project”, since I'll be in the first group of students to study there. Besides, knowing my all around loyalty to the U of C, I wanted to make sure that anything regarding the University gave people a very good impression. :)

After the staff briefing, we went down to 'command center' to start stuffing programs and nametags with seating assignments. There was a slight delay on the nametags, because someone realized that morning that we couldn't use the number four at any of the tables. In Chinese, four , or si , is synonymous with death – if you change the tone, it can change the meaning from 4 to death, so because of that, four is unlucky in Chinese culture, and any number with it shouldn't be used at auspicious events (except 48, where I guess the luckiness of the 8 balances it out). In fact, for a long time, buildings would not have fourth floors, instead jumping from 3 to 5. Most new buildings don't do that, though, from what I've seen – I was disappointed my first night here when I saw that my building does have a fourth floor. :)

So anyway, on Tuesday morning, I helped out with envelopes for the VIP ticket delivery, and then helped staff the registration desk, where I stayed until 5pm. While Monday had been fairly slow, Tuesday picked up quite a bit, and we were swamped with requests for tickets for the media and dignitaries that someone had previously forgotten to invite – all this despite the fact that we had a waiting list already being kept. At about 2pm, though, I was told that someone had managed to get me a ticket, and I would be going to the Great Hall of the People that night! That made the afternoon more exciting, even as from 3pm to 5pm I was absolutely swamped, manning the registration table by myself. I did, however, get to meet a lovely alumni of the college who offered me advice on what to see in Beijing, and even helped staff the table when I had to run and get someone. Overall, the day was insanely busy, and fell somewhere along the lines of controlled chaos, although none of the guests could tell. By 4:30, things had quieted down, as all the guests had left for the Great Hall, and we just finished up a few last minute things/problems. The last shuttle left for the Great Hall of the People at 5 pm, and I was on it! :)

Walking into the building was incredible, knowing that so very few people ever get a chance to, and knowing that a couple of hours ago, I wouldn't have even got to. The building is absolutely huge, with massive pillars on the inside and outside. We went up to the third floor, where the Nobel Laureate forum had already started, being held in a large auditorium that likely fits 700 – 800 people (with 600 people, the place didn't look full). I sat in on a little bit of the forum, and then left to help out with seating assignments and nametags. The dinner took place in a hall right outside the auditorium, that had beautiful paintings of China landscapes on the walls and humongous pillars, with three glistening chandeliers hanging from the very high ceiling. (there is a picture on facebook). The scale of the building is immense, and the overall effect was awe inspiring. After everyone was seated for dinner, I got to join a table and talk with alumni, which is always a fantastic experience. We enjoyed a seven course meal, including Kung Pao chicken, steak, lamb, shrimp, and concluded with ice cream. Everything was delicious, and getting to have some more Western style food – as well as eat with a fork – was delightful (they had both chopsticks and silverware at the table, and I wasn't certain which to use ). After the dinner concluded, with remarks from President Zimmer and a member of the Board of Trustees, I got back on the bus, and took the subway back to Renmin, becoming just another American studying in Beijing again. :)

Center Opening 1, or, Nobel Laureates and Singaporeans!

On Monday morning, I woke up early to take the subway downtown, to the Grand Hyatt Beijing, which is right by Tiananmen Square. Charis had told me that there were about 10 Chinese students who had volunteered to help with the Center opening – herself included- and figured I could probably help out, too. The first all staff briefing was that morning at 8 am, so I had to leave Renmin pretty early. However, the hotel had free coffee, which made up for it entirely! The staff briefing was primarily just to give us an idea of what would be happening the next few days, and I very quickly realized that the opening was going to be intense – the staffing guide was 29 pages long, and the event had three different venues over the course of three days. Compounded with the fact that one of those venues was the Great Hall of the People (China's Congress, essentially, though they have no real power), with all the security measures that come with it, and you have a crazy week ahead of you.

So before getting into what I actually did, a little background on the opening: It was set to take place September 14 and 15, although staff arrived in Beijing by Saturday and was working the few days prior to the 14th. On Tuesday the 14th, the only event we had was a Nobel Laureate forum, with four of the UChicago Nobel Laureates) and a dinner. However, the forum and dinner took place at the Great Hall of the People, which complicated matters. Because of security measures, every guest had to have a literal golden ticket – a gold colored invitation that permitted him entry into the Great Hall. These tickets were distributed to the registrants the day before and the day of the event, with VIP's tickets being delivered to their hotel rooms. We also had planned seating, which also made things more complex. On Wednesday, events took place at the Shangri-La Hotel, closer to the center. In the morning, we had breakfast and a couple panel discussions with Nobel Laureates and other dignitaries, followed by lunch, a few more panels, and then shuttles over the the new Center for a reception and the ribbon cutting. With three different venues, we also had shuttles to and from each location for the guests, making things even more complex.

On Monday, I helped out primarily with registration, and ensuring people got their golden tickets. We had a pick up booth in the lobby of the hotel, which was great for several reasons – I got even more free coffee, and also got to see a lot of foreigner/important people from the University in Beijing. A lot of alumni in the area had come for the event, as had many professors and administrators from the University, including President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees. While my work on Monday consisted primarily of checking people off for their tickets and stuffing folders, I also got to take James Heckman, one of our Nobel Laureates in Economics, down to the press conference, which was kind of cool – we talked a bit about the museums in Beijing and China's history. He was a really nice guy, and it me realize an obvious fact – Nobel Laureates are people, too! :)

As I worked the registration table that afternoon, I got to meet a couple of the administrators from the Booth School of Business campus in Singapore. They were quite possibly the most jovial and friendly people I have ever met, and it was a ton of fun getting to know them! We staffed the golden ticket table until 7, during which time I got to crash the faculty only reception (I only stayed long enough to give a professor/surgeon in the med school his tickets, though). After finishing up there, we went up stairs to the business lounge, where they had appetizers and drinks (While I am of legal drinking age here, I stuck to fruit punch). It was great to get to eat some more Western-style food (by which I mean, cheese and crackers), and talk more with the Singaporeans, who are again, the friendliest and nicest people I have ever met. They ended up taking me out for dinner that evening, giving me lots to eat and good advice on life, as well as encouraging me to come visit them in Singapore (an offer which, if my budget allowed, I would happily take them up on!). I got back to my dorm room around 10 pm, and fell into bed so I could do it all over again the next morning!

Jinan Part 2, or, Climbing Mountains

So our last full day in Jinan, Bob, Charis, and I decided to go climb a mountain – more specifically, Mount Tai, located in the town of Taishan. Initially, I hadn't realized that Mount Tai was in a different city, so looking around Jinan and seeing only small mountains, I was anticipating this to be more of a long walk than actually climbing a legitimate mountain. However, after an hour and a half bus ride, I woke up to look out the window and see what was in fact a very legitimate mountain. At the bus station, we got a taxi to take us to the base of the mountain, and the climbing commenced.

At first, it was easy going – climb a flight of stairs, walk twenty feet, then climb another flight of stairs. It continued on this way for much of the trip to the top, about three hours. Halfway up, we stopped and had snacks at the Middle Gate to Heaven. The views were gorgeous, and we got to see the sun setting, which I got a nice picture of. It was starting to get dark as we left the middle gate to keep climbing, but we were far from the only travelers, and Bob had brought a flashlight, too. Still, living in Montana has made me healthily afraid of climbing mountains in the dark, but Bob and Charis assured me that there were no mountain lions.

For awhile, the stairs weren't too bad. I discovered that it's far easier if you keep a rhythm, and I tended to get ahead of Bob and Charis, who were walking a bit slower (Charis was getting a bit tired at that point). Finally, after about an hour and a half of climbing in the dark, I wondered aloud if we were almost to the top. Bob said, “Almost, but we haven't reached the 18 twists yet”. Now, considering that I had started this day thinking we were climbing more of a hill than an actual mountain, I had no clue what the 18 twists were.

Turns out, they're the steepest part of the climb.

Also turns out, I have an extreme fear of steep stairs.

My active imagination had no problem contributing to my thought of what would happen if I slipped. I'd fall down roughly a hundred stairs at a very steep angle, cracking my skull open on the rock below. Being in a remote area, it would take forever for a helicopter to get me out, and I would end up dead in a small Chinese hospital, only making it back to America in a coffin. Entirely unrealistic and entirely too morbid, but such was the picture my imagination offered me.

Bob, however, found it amusing that one of his climbing companions was wearing an oversized sweater and carrying a cane (Charis, who with the addition of the cane I started calling Grandma), and that the other was clinging to the railing for dear life. Halfway up the 18 twists, we stopped at a small platform house for dinner. Since food is fairly scarce this high up the mountain, we ended up getting big cups of Ramen noodles, which at that point tasted incredible, and helped warm us up. There were a lot of these small houses on the path up to the top, usually made up of a small family who sold water and food to people climbing. As you get further up the mountain, it also starts to get colder (obviously), so a lot of the 'checkpoints' have coats you can rent for the evening. The coats are huge army green communist style coats, and it felt a little surreal eating ramen noodles on a mountaintop in China, surrounded by people in Communist-era coats. It was as if I had gone back in time. :)

After making it to the top (with me clinging to the handrail all the way), we bought a bowl of porridge, which tasted like cream of wheat, except kind of chickeney, and played some poker. The views from the top were gorgeous, but because we were so far from the valley bottom, my camera couldn't adequately capture them. :( After awhile, we went to see about checking into a hotel for the night, planning on seeing the sunrise and then coming down the mountain the next morning. We went to a building halfway up the mountaintop village (which was awesome and adorable, by the way), where we were showed a room that had three separate beds. Charis seemed a little leery of it, but at that point, a pillow and a down comforter sounded fantastic. We paid, and apparently got the last room in the hotel, because a lady started screaming at the front desk; from what I understood, she had been shown the room first, but hadn't decided to take it when we got there, so when we made a quick decision, the staff gave the room to us.

After paying and getting a room key, I was excited to go to bed (silly me!). Going back into the room, it became a little too generous to call it a “hotel”, as that implies some kind of cleanliness to it. It wasn't until after paying that I saw the bathroom and smelled the mildew and realized why Charis had been uncertain about it. I sat down on the bed, and not only was it hard (which I've come to expect in China), but it was damp! You could practically feel the grime on the pillowcase, and the floor was in shreds. It was the first place I've stayed where I fully expected cockroaches to come crawling out and bedbugs to bite viciously. Climbing into our beds for the night, we all made sure we had as much clothing on as possible, trying our darnedest to avoid more contact with the sheets than needed. This made for some hilarious pictures which should be on facebook soon, but it did not make for a good night's sleep. We ended up not even brushing our teeth, preferring instead to wait until we got home to Charis's house. Moral of the story: if you're planning on climbing Mount Tai, just rent a tent at the top. Just as warm/dry, and far less bed bugs.

We woke up (although woke up might be a bit generous, as I think we were already awake) the next morning to go see the sunrise. Surprisingly, a ton of people who also climbed the mountain also decided to, which I wasn't expecting, based on the earliness of the hour. We climbed to the absolute tippy top of the mountain, where again surrounded by people in communist coats, we waited for the sun to rise. Unfortunately, there were clouds surrounding the mountain that morning, so we didn't actually get to see the sun rise; we just sat on a rock for thirty minutes staring into the fog. We opted to not go back to sleep, and instead took a cable car and a bus down to the base of the mountain. After we got out of the mountain top clouds, the view was again spectacular, making climbing 7,000+ steps the night before completely worth it.

We took a bus back to Jinan that morning, and left for Beijing that afternoon. Although we had taken a train to Jinan, by the time we bought tickets back to Beijing, they were completely sold out. We had to take a bus back instead, which was supposed to take 4 ½ hours. With all the traffic, however, it took eight. We got to back to our rooms by midnight, and then were up by six the next morning, to start helping with the grand opening of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing! :)

Jinan Part 1, or, Confucius and Dancing

Sorry it's been so long since I updated, I've been off having fantastic adventures with a lot of fantastic people! :) I may divide the catch up posts in to a couple different posts so they aren't terribly long, but that means they'd be chronological from the bottom up, so we'll see. But anyway, on to Jinan:

On Tuesday, Charis and I headed to Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, which is where Confucius was from. It's about a three hour train ride, the majority of which I spent sleeping. :) By China's standards, Jinan is a fairly small city, which means it still has more people than the entire state of Montana (several million, I think). We got to Jinan around lunchtime, and we ate lunch with Charis's mom and grandmother, who were both very friendly and offered me entirely too much to eat. (For some reason, I get fuller faster in China) That afternoon, we met up with one of Charis's friends from her high school in Singapore, and we went to Thousand Buddha Mountain, who's name will become fairly obvious momentarily. On the mountainside is a statue of a gigantic golden Buddha, probably 15 to 20 feet tall, and seemingly just as wide. After taking a picture with him, I was asked by a few locals if they could take a picture with me, since foreigners are more rare here than they are in Beijing. :)

After that, we went to the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, which is quite literally a cave with a thousand Buddha statues in it, maybe more. Some of them were absolutely enormous, Charis says 20 meters (longer than a limousine, that's the best comparison I can come up with). Additionally, the cave walls were just covered in paintings or mini sculptures of Buddha, rows upon rows of them, all about the size of an index card. There were Buddhas of all shapes and sizes - standing Buddhas, sitting Buddhas, even sleeping Buddhas! It was crazy just thinking about all the work that went into them.

Once we finished going through the cave, we walked back down the mountain into Jinan, and went to a little cafe called "Jenny's Cafe". It was an American style cafe (they serve burgers), but we just got coffee - lattes and mochas. (It was the first coffee of any kind I've had since I've been here!) Next door was a little sock store, and I almost bought a pair of chicken face slipper socks for mom - the face and beak are is on the ankle, and there's a little scarf, too! They were absolutely adorable, but I figure I should get China souvenirs that are more distinctly Chinese.

Charis friend's parents picked us up, and we drove to an exhibition of rock sculptures nearby. Like the Buddhas, the sculptures were absolutely incredible! Regardless of the size (and some of them were very big), they were all made out of one rock each - the rocks are from Southern China, and have streaks and veins of red and purple in them, which the artists utilized in the design of the piece - they don't sketch the design first, just imagine it and then start sculpting. The rocks are very valuable, and retail for thousands of yuan, so if a sculptor makes the slightest mistake in carving them, they're ruined.

After that, we left to go get dinner - Chinese hot pot, which I think I've described before. We met up with some extended family at the restaurant, too, and all around it was a great time! The food was incredible, and everybody was really friendly; any time I would say something in Chinese, I would first ask Charis if I was saying it correctly. She would confirm that it was correct, and then quiet the table so everybody could hear. After I finished whatever I was saying (like my chopstick ability has improved since I got here), it was generally met by cheers and the occasional round of applause. They enjoyed getting to hear an American speak their language, even if her command of it was lacking. :)

After dinner, the three of us younguns left to wander around, while the adults stayed and talked awhile longer. We ended up wandering into the parking lot of the old Jinan stadium, where a bunch of older people had gathered to dance. This is a phenomenon I've seen elsewhere in China, too - I'm not sure if the government encourages these evening dance clubs, to help keep an aging population in shape, or if they've just sprung up. Either way, we joined them for an hour or so until her parents were ready to go, and it was a ton of fun! {Side note, for those who want more info: the Jinan stadium is now called old, since a new one was built two years ago for the National Olympics. We visited that complex as well, and it was cool – the one building was designed to look like a lotus!}

The next day, we went sight seeing in Confucius's home town of Qufu. It was a couple of hours away by bus ride, so I got to see a little bit more of the countryside, although I slept quite a bit on this trip, too. :) His hometown is tiny by China standards, roughly 600,000 people, so I was finally in a place less populated than my state! We went to the Confucius Research Institute and Museum, where we got to see a lot of artifacts and some portraits of him (he was ugly, but in a cute way!). As we were walking around there, we passed a little pool with a lot of fish in it. I stopped to look, and they all swam over to me and starting doing that opening/closing thing with their mouth. Bob, another UChicago student who was with us, said they were hungry. However, I think they were staring at me because I was an American. ;)

After visiting the research institute, we decided to go get lunch at a little restaurant down the street. It was a small place, with a kitten on the doorstep and a pen of chickens out front that I stopped to say hi to. We went in, and after looking through the menu, ordered chicken as the main dish (you see where this is going, I'm sure). The lady left momentarily, and came back with one of the chickens I had said hi to moments earlier. She asked, "Does this one look good?", and after our confirmation, she took him back into the kitchen. We heard a few moments of squawking, and twenty minutes later there was a cooked chicken on our table. The broth he was soaking actually contained all of him, including the feet and the head (which I didn't try). I almost felt bad about his dying as a direct result of my actions, but he was delicious!

That afternoon, we went to the complex where Confucius taught, which was pretty cool - they had a family tree that traces his descendants down to the 49th generation! While we didn't go, you can also see his tomb there - but the problem is, with so many of his descendants also having the same last name and being buried there, they aren't entirely sure which tomb is his. :)

Also in Jinan, we climbed a mountain, but that'll be my next post!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Sorry for the lack of updates, but today and tomorrow is the grand opening of the UChicago Center in Beijing, so I've been swamped helping with that. Updates on Jinan/the opening will be up this weekend- until then, a delightful anecdote:

A lot of Chinese clothing manufacturers make clothing with English on them, because it's considered hip. However, their English abilities (much like my Chinese abilities) leave much to be desired, and the result is often nonsensical to English speakers. One such result, which is apparently pretty popular, since I've seen several around, is as follows:

What is the most valuable for

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Surviving the Bus System

So after being in China for almost a week, I successfully navigated the bus system alone today! The Chinese bus system tends to scare the bejeebers out of me, in part because it's so tremendously large (700 different routes) and because, unlike the subway, there isn't English. I had found an ice rink that was only a few kilometers away, and set out yesterday morning to find it. After some finagling with Google transit to actually get the right start address (my computer can't read characters), I knew it was five stops away on bus 365. Seems like enough information to survive on, right? The entire time, though, I was worried that I accidentally took the bus in the wrong direction, or that Google meant to go 5 stops and then get off, or did it mean at the get off AT the fifth stop? Thankfully, the rink is located in a shopping mall, so when we pulled up at the fifth stop, I knew I was in the right place. Getting of the bus, I was proud of myself for successfully navigating. Turned out the hard part was next - little did I know, the mall I was entering was the second largest in the world. Wikipedia tells me that it was the largest when it was built, but was since replaced with another one in China. Still, the place was really huge, and they even had escalators that were flat, so you can take your cart up them! Prior to finding the ice rink (down in the basement), I passed a McDonalds, a Dairy Queen, a Starbucks, and a KFC, so I guess I know where to go if I get homesick for American food!

The ice rink itself was a bit disappointing- it's only 1/2 a rink, so that makes things a little more tricky. However, there were only a few people there, which I wasn't expecting (considering the city has 23 million), so that's good. And since it's only 15 minutes away, that'll make things easier, too.

In the afternoon, I went with Charis and her business project (Uchicago) friends to give a presentation to a high school about the U of C. Even though I spoke mostly in English, I was worried that the students wouldn't be able to understand me, but luckily, they were. I guess now I can say I've given my first international speech. :) It was a lot of fun, and many of the kids were eager to ask questions about UChicago, which was great.

Yesterday evening, we got Peking Duck for dinner. It was by far my favorite dish thus far in China, and even though it won't be the same back in the States, I'm definitely going to eat it again! :)

Today I'm leaving for Jinan, three hours away. Charis is originally from there, so we're going to stay at her house and climb a mountain! I probably won't update when I'm there, but I'll be back in Beijing on the 10th.

Other Note: It's actually a clear day in Beijing - you can see the mountains in the distance and you can actually see the sky!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Forbidden City and More Food Adventures!

Yesterday Charis and I went to the Forbidden City, which is right by Tiananmen Square, where I had been a few days earlier. I'm not sure what I was expecting with it, but it was absolutely massive! We got there around noon, and walked around until it closed at five, and hadn't seen everything. It's insane to think about how long the Chinese culture has been around; all during the day, I kept wishing I could go back in time and see what it must have looked like during the Qing dynasty. :)

While visiting the Forbidden City, I also got to experience another first for me - a teenager asked if she could take a picture with me! I was a bit surprised, but it made me feel famous for a few seconds. :)

After the Forbidden City, we went to a street nearby (Guansomething), where they sell everything from fried scorpion to starfish. I had initially thought of trying a scorpion (after a conversation w/ someone at home), but ultimately chickened out when I saw and smelled them (all though the smell may have been the tofu). We did end up getting shrimp dumplings, some beef on a stick, and deep fried cream balls. While not as exotic as chicken feet, it tasted much better. :)

On Saturday evening, I met up with Charis and her business project team, who were also from UChicago. We went to a hot pot restaurant for dinner, which is where they bring boiling bowls of water and seasonings to your table, and you slide the food in and cook it yourself. We had two bowls- one spicy and one plain, and both were really good (again, nothing exotic). The restaurant was only a few blocks down from the Olympic Park, so after dinner we went and walked around, which was really cool. (But then, I'm a sucker for the Olympics!) The Bird's Nest wasn't as complex as I thought it would be - from what I had seen, I thought the strands were a lot smaller and more tightly woven. (If I remember, there actually were supposed to be more, but then they eliminated them from the plan to save money). Charis also said that the Chinese government has been holding that land for years (since the 80s) waiting to use it as an Olympic Park. Lucky for them, I guess, it all worked out.

On our way out, there were vendors selling little toys and flags/kites with the Olympic mascot on it. As we walked past, one of the vendors walked along side us, trying to convince me to buy a little kite. He said, "Hello! Very cheap, only one dollar!". His persistence was admirable, but as he offered it again for only a dollar, I told him, "Tai gui!" (too expensive). Everyone in the group got a kick out of it, and the seller left shortly thereafter. I guess my limited Chinese is good for something, at least. :)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

When in Rome...

So yesterday afternoon, one of my Uchicago friends from Jinan, Charis, came to Beijing for a business project she's working on. We met up in the afternoon, and I also got to meet her friend Xiyuan from Beijing University, which is only a couple blocks away from Renmin, where I'm staying. After getting lunch (qie zi, fried(?) squash with rice), we went to get me a new power cord for my computer, since the other one broke my first night here. We ended up going to the largest electronics market in Beijing – I'm not sure how many stories it was, but we went to three different floors. Salespeople in China tend to be more than a little aggressive, and as you walk by there are hordes of them gathered around their products encouraging you to come over. The place was absolutely packed, and we found an HP store on the first floor. After much discussion and examination of the power cord, Charis told me that a replacement would be 65 yuan, which she said we'd bargain lower. We then went up to the second floor (again, surrounded by eager salesmen), where someone at another HP store told us to go up to the third floor, where there was another HP store. Three in the same building!

Up to the third floor we trotted, where a salesman examined the cord and tried to tell me the whole thing needed to be replaced (at a more expensive price), not just the part that plugs into the power socket, which is what had broke. After much discussion and plugging the cord into an electric socket, showing that the rest of it did actually work, I got a replacement power cord for 10 yuan, or roughly $1.50. The only downside is I'll have to buy another when I get back to the States, since the prongs on the cord only work w/ Chinese sockets. But thus far, it's worked great! While we were there, Xiyuan also bought a plastic case for his iPod, which cost him 60 yuan, way more than my cord was – where we in the States, it would have been vice versa! On our way out, I was going to attempt to take a picture, but as we walked through the third floor, salesman started saying, “Ah!!! Camera!!!! Helloooo! Nihao!!!!!” and I didn't want them to think I was stealing it/looking for a replacement, so I tucked it back in my purse.

After dropping the cord off in my dorm room, we met up with Charis's godfather and godsister, as well as several other people, to go to dinner at a restaurant. (I forget the name of it, something to do with a river) The restaurant served food from Hunan province, which is known for being spicy, which made me a little worried (silly, considering what would come next). After we were all seated in a private room, the waitresses poured chrysanthemum tea while Charis's godfather ordered. While we were waiting for the food to be served, I thought, If mom and dad could see me, sipping chrysanthemum tea in China! Oh, if they could only see what came next. The dishes were placed on a rotating circle in the middle, so everyone could serve themselves as the plates went around. As the waitress set a salad down, I (jokingly) asked Charis if there was anything in the dishes that I wouldn't want to know what it was. She looked at me and said, “You eat organs, right?”. With that, the meal commenced.

A toast was made, and we all clinked our glasses of watermelon juice and began eating. Watching a suspicious white dish come around the table, and remembering what I've read in books about people eating in China, I asked Charis,
“Do I want to know what that white stuff is?”

She glanced over at it, and lit up.

“Oh, only chicken feet!”, she exclaimed. “They're very good!”

Images of Gandalf and Henny, our chickens at home, danced through my head. Seeing the look on my face, Charis misinterpreted it.

“It's okay, they're clean!”

Not quite what I was worried about.

Following the images of the chickens at home, the next thoughts that ran through my head were: When in Rome.....Ellie did write on my Facebook wall, telling me to “go native!!”, and the natives are eating chicken feet.....screw it, it can't be worse than what McDonald's puts in their chicken nuggets...

Half of a chicken, the head sitting on the platter, eyed me as it went around the table.

The next time the chicken feet came around, I hesitantly picked one up with my chopsticks, and asked Charis if she had any tips on how to eat them. Her only advice was to watch out for the bones. I took a bite, if only so I can say that I've eaten chicken feet, and found the feet to be kind of tasteless, but salty and leathery. After that, I tried pretty much everything on the table, asking Charis what it was after I had swallowed it. What I guessed was some kind of organ turned out to be a duck's neck, and I also sampled strips of chicken skin (not bad, but waaaay too spicy), chicken blood, liver (of what, I didn't ask), and frog. I didn't ask what part of the frog it was, but it was actually pretty good, enough that I had more than one serving. Shrimp were also served, but since they weren't prawns, I figured they weren't exciting enough to eat. (Besides, I can eat them at home! I don't, however, plan on cutting of the chicken's feet when I get home and deep frying them.)

Overall, dinner was fantastic, even if it was a little spicier than I like. It was frustrating not being able to completely understand the conversation, and I could only pick up some tidbits here and there. Especially when they were discussing politics and history, I would have loved to be able to understand, which I guess means this will be the first of many trips to China. And I'm not ruling out eating frog again, either.

Friday, September 3, 2010

First Beijing Update!

Eeek, sorry it took me so long to actually write a post from Beijing, but the first night here, my powercord to my laptop broke, so I was internet-less. I'm using a computer at the new Chicago Center in Beijing, which hasn't officially opened yet, but it looks really nice! I think it will become a kind of oasis of English in the midst of China for me. :)

My flights here were good, I flew Bozeman-->Salt Lake--> Seattle--> Beijing, so that was kind of a pain. I was a bit surprised by how hard it was to say goodbye, I wasn't expecting to cry that much ( I cried when we left Bozeman, and then Seattle). On the bright side, sniffling during the flight from Bozeman caused the stewardess to call me "sweetie" and give me extra peanuts, so there were benefits. The flight to China was good, I was a little worried because it was 12 hours. I had a window seat, and no one took the seat next to me, so I got to sprawl out and sleep - 12 hour flights go faster when you sleep through 10 hours of them! (That turned out to bite me, though, since I got to my dorm at 1:00 AM, and couldn't sleep.)

My first couple of days have been basically settling in, nothing exciting yet, although my friend Charis gets to Beijing today, and then we'll be hanging out. I was surprised, too, by how homesick I was the first day (which wasn;t helped by the fact that I think I got food poisoning from the airline food). I don't necessarily think it was culture shock (Beijing is exactly what I expected it to be!), but I just really wanted to be home. So my first three days could be summarized as follows:

Day 1: Look up flights home (Yes, seriously.)
Day 2: Set up a countdown on my phone, and mark the halfway/three quarters points
Day 3: Finally excited to be in China!

The one thing I love so far about being here is that you have a lot more "Aha!" moments than you do at home. Every time someone says something to you in Chinese, and you figure out what it is, there's an "AHa!" moment. Anytime you say something in Chinese and people actually understand, there's an "Aha!" moment. Life is much more exciting when you're not sure people can understand you. My friend Charis gets here today (she lives three hours away), so hopefully she can help me figure out where to buy a replacement power cord.

I'll update more once I have a steady supply of power, and hopefully get some pics on FB, too!