Friday, October 29, 2010

The Skating Regulars

A cold rink, with garish lighting from the children's play area above. A 30 minute music CD on repeat, with the 24 minute mark belonging to Shania Twain's "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!". A sheet of ice, scratched with the tracings of hundreds of blades, with pictures of coaches past and present staring down on it. A slight chill in the air, almost unnoticeable with the movement of skaters, circling endless around the too small surface.   In this setting, skaters come and other skaters go, but a core group of determined souls skate on forever, circling the rink and then leaving, only to return again, observed by huddled parents and the rink staff. And so I present to you, The Skating Regulars:

One of the coaches at the rink, with Bieber-like hair that he frequently flicks back from his eyes ever so genteely. So named because, in the course of instructing people how not to fall over, he frequently becomes bored and launches into advanced footwork sequences, generally consisting of a series of super fast turns called "Twizzles". And thus a nickname was born. Not much personality evident from a distance, unless admiring one's posture in the rink glass could be considered a personality.

Crazy Dancing Guy:
Skates to the beat of his own drum. Listens to his MP3 player and "dances to it". His moves are not what would fall under the category of conventional skating movements, but he makes it work. He is a skater's worst nightmare, in that he is simultaneously not terribly in control (too much crazy dancing, I'm afraid) and completely unpredictable, swerving as the music moves him. Combined with his frequent haphazard stops in the middle of the rink to change the song, and you have recipe for potential disaster. No camel spins when he's around!

Figckey Guy
Crazy Dancing Guy's figurative cousin (I've seen his hip wiggling and quasi-Irish jigging to "Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend was Hot Like Me").  So named because he attempts to complete figure skating moves whilst wearing hockey skates, which both hockey skaters and figure skaters will tell you is impossible. Still, he attempts to spin and jump, and has a fairly decent spiral.

Little Boy Blue
Wears a blue silk shirt to practice every day. Also wears black pants and black padded shorts, which combined with his stick skinny legs makes for an interesting silhouette.   A good little skater with nice stretch, but unfortunately it seems his father wants him to be a figure skater more than Little Boy Blue himself does. This leads to long discussions at the board as the father tells him what to do, dilly dallying tying the skates, and a wrinkly forehead and teary eyes after missing a couple lutz jumps in a row.

The Erudite
A completely unremarkable skater, one of the many older people who comes to the rink to skate around, practice two foot spins and waltz jumps, and get their daily exercise in. However, her knowledge of the Chinese skating is spectacular, and she is more than happy to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of having a national training program, why a former World Bronze Medalist coaches in a private rink, and to tell you where the national team practices are held and that they are open to the public.  A very valuable resource who speaks English.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things

- Watching Winnie the Pooh in Chinese

- Being able to read an entire sign without having to ask someone what a certain character means.

- Field trips to archeological museums

- The pop music that plays over the campus loudspeakers at the end of the day

- Dumplings :)

- The happy-glowy feeling of success when I say something in Mandarin and people actually understand me. (Related: the euphoria of realizing I'm able to survive in a foreign country by myself)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Discourse on Food

I am currently in the midst of a "I am so over Chinese food" phase. Even before coming here, I was never a huge fan of Chinese food, and while it is good, it's just not my favorite. Except crab rangoon, which I absolutely love, although I've never seen it here, and I'm not even sure it's even Chinese food. (A quick wikipedia search tells me that it is not; apparently, crab rangoon was invented in San Francisco in 1952.) Which brings up another point regarding American Chinese food: while I knew even before I came to China that fortune cookies were entirely an American invention, there is still a little piece of my soul that dies whenever I finish a meal here and don't get a completely generic yet uplifting prediction of my future. (The Sunday before I left for China, my family went for Chinese, and my fortune was: "You will soon go on a great journey.")

Compounding the above disillusionment is the discovery that Chinese Hot Pot (one of my favorite dishes) is actually not Chinese; rather, it's Mongolian, and was imported - along with the Mongols- when they took over the country for awhile a couple centuries ago. (Sorry, don't feel like looking up the specifics).

China is known for having specific foods coming from it's different regions, I guess in a somewhat similar way to how the US draws on lots of different countries' dishes (long ago, the provinces were separate countries, anyway). Hunan and Szechuan food is known for its spiciness, which I discovered my first week here. Which is spicier is debatable - some say Szechuan, some say Hunan. Shaanxi province, which is where Xi'an is located, is known for its "paomo", which is a noodle/meat/soup dish, with little bread pieces scattered in it, too. I'm not sure if there's a specific flavor they're known for, but based off my limited experience, it would likely be spicy, too. My tolerance for spicy foods has gone up exponentially since coming here, that's for sure.

Anyway, I'm going to try and do a post or so each week on food- just a picture and description of some of my favorite dishes, so you all can get a feel for what 'normal' Chinese food is like. We can't all go out and eat hot pot or Beijing Roast Duck (sooo expensive) every night! :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Day in The Life

{In the spirit of starting classes today, I felt a sample day of what classes and life are like for me was in order. Compiled over a series of a few days during our last session}

(Proof that I actually WAS up that early!) 

6:35 AM – I wake up at an entirely too early hour to go for a run before classes. Asta, one of the other study abroad students, meets me in the lobby, and we head to Renmin University's outdoor track. By the time we get there at 7:00, there's already 40 or so elderly people running and walking, including a group of old guys walking in a group that I see everyday. I think they come to socialize as much as they do work out!

 (Renmin's gym and track - the gym was used as a practice facility for the 2008 Olympics!)

7:55 AM- Back in my dorm, I take a quick shower and then get on skype to talk to my family back home in Montana, where it's 6pm. They update me on how many new calves have been born (7 this week!).

8:45 AM- I leave for class, stopping to buy a package of little bread cakes for 1.2 RMB, roughly 18 cents USD. They go great with the (free!) cup of coffee I'll make at the center!

8:57 AM – After walking for five minutes on the streets of Beijing, I take the elevator to the 20th floor and step onto the University of Chicago's campus. The Center in Beijing is brand new and absolutely beautiful - a UChicago oasis in the midst of bustling Beijing. I make myself a (free!) cup of coffee before class starts.

9:00 AM- First class of the day, which is a lecture on early diplomacy in China with Professor Tamara Chin.

(If it looks a little empty, it's because I took the picture before class actually started)

10:30AM- After a ten minute break, we re-convene for our next class, which is a discussion of the lecture and readings for today. We spend a lot of time discussing marriage diplomacy and the role of ritual in diplomacy, as well as on an extended metaphor comparing a kow-tow to a handshake.

(Again, before class started. Excited to discuss the use of Han princesses as diplomatic currency!)

 11:30 AM- After class ends, I head with a bunch of other students to the dining hall on campus, which has a lot of different selections. They had plain broccoli once, and it tasted so much like it would at home that I hold my breath hoping they'll have it again. No luck, so instead I get a big bowl of noodles with eggs and tomato sauce for 4 RMB (60 cents!)

12:30PM – After lunch, I head to the bus stop, where I take a 355 bus. Beijing's bus system is insane – they have over 800 different routes, and one day I plan to ride them all, but not today. Instead, I head to the ice rink, housed in Jinyuan Shopping Mall, the world's second largest mall. 

1:00PM- I greet the staff at the ice rink, who are getting to know my face pretty well at this point. Skating has proven a great way to meet Beijingers; today, I have a three minute conversation (all in Mandarin!) with a little girl who wants to know if I'm a teacher and where I'm from, and a longer conversation in a mix of Mandarin and English with another skater, discussing the pros and cons of China's national figure skating system (great pairs teams, not-so-great single skaters). She tells me where the national team trains, and that practices are open to the public. I feel a field trip coming on... :)

5:00PM- Back on Renmin's campus, I drop my skating stuff off and check email and Facebook, which although blocked in China, is accessible over my Chicago VPN connection. I begin writing this blog post, and then contemplate doing Chinese homework – ultimately, I decide to put it off until after dinner.(yay procrastination!)

(My room, in a picture taken when I first arrived)

 6:15PM – I meet up with a classmate, Kimberly, for dinner in the dining hall. Despite the absence of steamed broccoli, I enjoy my meal of rice with green beans in soy sauce and some kind of meat in some kind of sauce (I opted not to ask) very much. Kimberly recounts her adventures going to get a coat tailor-made for her, and we discuss our plans for the weekend, entertaining the possibility of going to the Beijing Zoo. (They have pandas!)
 (Kimberly with another of our classmates - this picture was actually taken at lunch)

7:30PM – After a quick run to the campus convenience store for chocolate milk (better here than at home, I think), I'm back in the dorm. I settle in to do my readings for tomorrow.

8:40 PM- I read the discussion questions for tomorrow online, and post a paragraph on the discussion board for the readings, getting distracted briefly by skating blogs and picture of LOLcats. I finish up my Chinese homework for Thursday, since we have a test and will turn in the week's homework. Not recognizing a couple of characters, I leave a section blank and finish everything else.

9:30 PM- Having finished everything except that section, I head over to Kimberly's room to get help, since she's in 5th year Chinese. She recognizes the characters, and I finish my homework. Watching her paint her nails, we end up talking for awhile about studying Chinese and life in general.

10:45 PM – I head to bed, since we have a class trip to the Great Wall tomorrow morning. One of the best parts of studying abroad is the field trips, and getting to hear your professor say that she'll be holding office hours on the Great Wall. :)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Various Sundry Notes

- For those of you you may have found my last post a little bit too contemplative and self  indulgent (I genuinely hope it wasn't), I promise to do something exciting soon, so I can blog about that and not just my own thoughts. :)

- Apparently the China diet works. My hotel room in Xi'an had a scale in the bathroom, and it would seem I've lost somewhere between 7 and 10 pounds. Considering the carb-based diet here, I'm not sure what this says for Dr. Atkins?

- What I mean by class "sessions" : Our classes run back to back, rather than simultaneously, in three week long 'sessions'. After this first session, we had our week break, and now we have 2 more back to back sessions, this next one on Chinese science and medicine, the final one on the evolution of Beijing/Beijing architecture.

- Thanks to the international skating season starting, I've had an enjoyable weekend doing Chinese homework and watching skating on television. (it seems like that's pretty much the summary of my entire life, skating and doing Chinese!). My Chinese vocabulary is now beginning to encompass skating terms, too -  I can now say double/triple axel in Chinese. Useless if I end up working for the State Department, but useful if I ever compete here or coach their national team! (Which both seem equally unlikely) :p

Crescat Scientia...

...vita excolatur. Let knowledge grow from more to more, and so be human life enriched. As most of you know, it's the motto of the University of Chicago, and I figured that as I move into the second session of my study abroad classes, it was worth reflecting on it, especially in light of studying abroad.

Truth be told, I had never really contemplated the motto deeply, or even shallowly for that matter. But during this past class session, I drifted off a little bit, after my professor mentioned in passing the ancient Greeks, leading me to think about how cool it would be to really study them for awhile - not like skimming history studying, but an in depth study of them. I then started contemplating how short a time four years actually is - not nearly enough to even come close to studying everything I want to. This contemplation was followed by the realization that a lifetime is a very short amount of time to study everything I want to, which in turn made me slightly depressed and wishing I was immortal.

In my class notes, I frequently make sidebar notations of things the professor mentions in passing or that pique my interest. These little notes range from book titles (The Monk and the Monkey) to subjects (Art History) to people (Alexander the Great). All are things I want to either read or study more, and I'm beginning to compile a list for when I have some elusive free time. Now, I've done this in all my classes (not so much in Chinese) throughout college, meaning that with roughly 4 notations a week in each class, 3 classes meeting twice a week, 10 weeks in a quarter, 4 quarters I've been in school =  960 subjects I want to study in more depth. Grant it, some of those things might overlap, but most of them won't, meaning I've got a lifetime of studying cut out for me. Suddenly, four years seems like an even shorter amount of time. Sure, I can still 'study' them once I graduate and have a job, but it won't be the same as having world class professors share their knowledge with you while you study full-time.

The growth of knowledge seems very tied to connections; my studying ancient Chinese civilization and how it interacted with ancient Rome made me want to learn more about Alexander the Great and read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for instance. Even a small connection like that between the two can lead to the exponential growth of knowledge. And in the same way, living in Beijing provides me with a set of observations and experiences that I can connect with the readings and lectures in class - for example, the most recent reading for tomorrow mentioned the cosmos vs. the microcosm, which made me think about how much of Chinese culture is in relation to the microcosm, from the hutongs in Old Beijing to the iPod Shuffle  sized ancient pots we saw in the museum. That's one of the benefits of studying abroad to me: being in the culture enhances and solidifies learning; it allows you to make more "connections". Being here just makes everything more relevant - having been to the Forbidden City and discussing ancient court life lets me imagine it in more detail, or at least historical accuracy. (Though that's actually debatable, though that's a different topic - see, another connection!) Being here just offers my imagination a million different paths to considering a topic, and that's one of the things I've enjoyed about being here.

Crescat Scientia, vita excolatur. Let knowledge grow from more to more....exponentially through sidebar notes made during class....through connections made from living in a completely opposite encountering different perspectives on the same topic.... and even from thirteen weeks straight of Chinese food. And so be human live be enriched. :)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Life in a Police State

Perhaps the most well known manifestation of the Chinese government's control over daily life is the "Great Firewall of China", which I talked a little bit about in another post. It took me a little bit by surprise my first time getting online that the when you try to access a blocked page, it just says "The connection was reset while the page was loading", the same mundane message I occasionally get at home. I suppose I was expecting something more like "The Chinese Government Bureau of Security has blocked this webpage", or some official message like that. Twitter, Blogspot, and Facebook are all blocked, although US news outlets aren't. Some random websites that I wouldn't anticipate being blocked are as well, although an example slips my mind. Getting around the firewall isn't exceptionally hard, especially for foreigners. I use my UChicago VPN, which causes the internet to recognize my computer as being back on campus in Hyde Park (I think that's how it works, anyway). From what I've heard, it's somewhat expected that foreigners here will bypass the firewall,so I'm in no danger of being arrested. :)

More surprising to me, however, was the sheer amount of security they have here. There are security guards at virtually every business and entry to campus, which made me skittish my first few days here - I was scared they were going to ask to see my passport/visa and I wouldn't be able to understand them.  They are especially present in the subway system, and whenever you  enter a station your bags have to go through an x-ray machine. I've thought in the past that implementing such a system in the US would be wise, since our public transit is generally unguarded, but after experiencing it here, it feels a bit oppressive. I grew up around the military, and I live in Montana - as far as guns go, I'm about as comfortable around them as you can get. But even then, having SWAT teams with automatic rifles on the subway platforms or outside the station makes me nervous. Maybe it's just because I'm a foreigner that these things stand out to me- I guess I'm likely to assume that the guards are there as the face of the Chinese government, not of just public safety.

There are also security cameras everywhere, too - I counted eight on a light pole on Tiananmen Square. I didn't realize just how used to them I had become until I was in the UChicago Center one day, and noticed a camera in the large lecture room. I instantly assumed it was a security camera - it took my brain a minute to remind me that it was the cameras used to record/broadcast presentations to other parts of the center, like we used during the opening, when there were too many people to fit in that one room.

When foreigners enter the country, they're obviously required to have a visa, but the stewardesses on the plane also handed out arrival/departure cards. The arrival portion, which included flight info, planned place of residence, and reason for visit, was handed in to customs when I arrived. The departure half I keep with me, and will be turned in when I leave. Customs also apparently assigns everyone a "police number", although if it's actually used and what for, I have no idea. The airport also has a health check station, although it was closed by the time I got in around midnight (maybe they assume people getting in late can't be sick?).

While I don't doubt that I have an immense amount more freedom than the first students who studied abroad in China, there are still slight differences in the way we're treated that give me the sense they are trying to make sure we have a good opinion of China. For instance, our dorm is all single rooms; most students share a room with 5 other students. Our dorms also have unlimited electricity; in the other dorms, it gets shut off from 11:30PM to 6:00AM. There have been times when I've been waiting to order food at the cafeteria, and I've been helped before other students- whether that's an official school policy or just the noodle guy's affinity for foreign girls, I'm not sure. I've also gotten that sense from individual people - several times, someone has told me that m family should come visit to "see the real China".When my friend Charis was visiting, her friend from Beijing University came along to visit, and mentioned that foreign students always get the nice dorms. He also noted, flipping through one of my textbooks on Beijing/Tiananmen Square, that it was a really good book-  it had some of the pictures which are still blocked in China.

Of course, these are all my individual impressions, and some processes may be similar to those in the US - I have no clue what kind of visas a foreigner visitor needs to get into the US, and we of course have security and police officers and cameras everywhere, too. Maybe it's just my perception of the Chinese government that causes these things to stand out, and maybe if this were the US I wouldn't think twice about most of the stuff above. And I do hope that this post doesn't portray China in a negative light; I've loved my time here, and the Chinese are some of the most generous and hospitable people I've ever met. (Although the Singaporeans still take the cake, refer to my posts on the Center Opening). A friend here told me that the Chinese people don't care about their freedom as much as Americans do, and I would guess that to be true - can you imagine the uproar if the US government tried to block a website, no matter how mundane?

Perhaps I should note, too, that in a country with as many people as China, I'm not sure how effective the security measures are - there are huge holes in the firewall, and I don't know anyone who's ever had their bag searched at the subway station.


The other night, I dreamed about the Seattle Airport (the point of departure/arrival in the US for me on this trip, a point that will make sense in a moment). I was standing in the middle of their food court, trying to decide what to eat in celebration of my return to the US. I glanced at Pizza Hut, but it was really crowded, so I decided against it. I turned to my right, and there was a Panda Express, and I thought "Woah! Don't want that my first day back!". I distinctly remember they had kung pao chicken on the menu, as well as beef with green peppers. I then stood in front of Wendy's, debating whether I wanted a frosty or a piece of chocolate cake from the place across the food court.

I woke up, and the first thought that came to my head was how ironic it was that I was dreaming about being in the Seattle airport eating, when the name of my blog is Dreaming in Chinese, and I'm supposed to be dreaming about China, right?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Home in Beijing!

I'm back at my home away from home, cozy Renmin University in Beijing. :) It is actually really nice to be back, sleeping in my "own" bed and being in a familiar setting again. Beijing had a significant temperature drop while we were gone, probably from the 70s down to the 40s. It's beginning to feel like winter! It's kind of cute how always says it's "foggy" in Beijing; if it sticks around 24/7 except when it rains, in a city known for its pollution, I'm betting it isn't "fog". We have a week long break now, so no classes until next Monday. Most everyone is travelling (Daping is biking to Inner Mongolia), but I'm staying here, filling up the time with skating and Model UN/Other RSO/Summer Internships stuff. Not so exciting, but things that have deadlines and really need to get done, so it's nice to not have to worry about school, too.

Our last day in Xi'an was fun, as we spent several hours on the bus to visit a couple mausoleums of emperors. It was a 2 hour ride to the first one, and while I primarily did Chinese homework, Kimberley, Louis, and Alex were playing poker with Mao Zedong cards, which was amusing. (Kimberley ended up winning 12 RMB!). The first tomb we visited was Emperor Wu's tomb, who was an emperor in the Han dynasty which we  studied extensively in class. There wasn't too much to see there, but they had some large stone sculptures that show a horse crushing the barbarian Xiongnu, which was representative of his reign. The funny thing about the ancient emperors is that they created pyramids for their tombs, except unlike the Egyptians, they made the tombs out of earth, which puzzles me to no end. Emperor Wu was particularly concerned with his own immortality, so although his design of his tomb is him conceding to death, it seems like he'd want something glorious to be remembered by, not just a big pile of dirt. But they were buried with a lot of pottery soldiers, animals, chariots, etc - pretty much everything needed to rule in the afterlife (ie, 8,000+ terracotta warriors). I guess I would just expect them to focus on being remembered, too - I mean, they didn't even find the burial pits of the one emperor until they started digging to make the Xi'an airport.

The trip back was okay, although I've discovered my love of overnight trains is diminishing quickly. This wasn't an express train, so we had to stop at practically every station, meaning that the return trip took about 13 hours. I was so happy to get back to my room and be able to take a shower and a nap in my nice, hard, non-moving bed. :) Since I don't have school, I'm going to try and update quite a bit this week, catching up on topics I've wanted to write about but haven't had the time. But now, it's off to lunch and the ice rink!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Halfway Point!

Today marks the halfway point between my arrival in China and my departure, which is simultaneously exciting and sad. It's hard to believe how far I've come since the first few days when I was so homesick I made this countdown, how many experiences I've had and unexpected encounters, and how fast it's gone!

One one hand, I'm really, really excited to go home. I'm loving China, but I miss the quiet of Montana and Chicago, the lack of people, and especially the food. I'm looking forward to being back in a place where I don't have to carefully consider my interactions with people; living in a foreign country can be tiring, because you have to think and be aware so much more than at home. On the other hand, I'm really going to be sad to leave China. I've loved getting to see a culture so completely different than my own, and I've had a ton of experiences I never could have had in the States. I've gotten to meet so many people, even some other UChicago students that I might not have met otherwise. I've loved getting to try authentic Chinese food, and I love that Chinese is beginning to roll off my tongue a little bit easier.

I think it's safe to say my departure will be bittersweet- I'm so looking forward to being home, both Montana and Chicago. But leaving will mean saying goodbye to Beijing Roast Duck and Hot Pot, too, and will mean my study abroad experience is over. Though at this point, I'm still only halfway, and talking about saying goodbye might be putting the cart in front of the horse. I've had a lot of great experiences, but a lot more still to come. What's that poem about miles to go before I sleep? :)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

How Many People Can Say They've Climbed a Pagoda?

Many, I'm sure. But I don't know anyone who can (at least, I don't think so!). Day 2 in Xi'an....

We started out the day with a trip to the Small Goose Pagoda and museum, which were both delightful. Xi'an used to have a ton of pagodas, but since they were big on using wood to build, only two have survived, and even these two are ones that have been rebuilt. Pagoda architecture was actually 'imported' from India during the Tang (?) dynasty, when Buddhism began to be prevalent in China. Xi'an (or Chang'an, as it was called then), as the capitol of China back then, was on the Silk road and consequently was exposed to many international influences - something they're still proud of today.

We didn't climb the Small Goose Pagoda, but we did go to a museum also on the grounds, which where absolutely beautiful. As expected, we saw lots of different artifacts and old pots, and a lot of really cool stuff - figurines depicting the 'barbarians', ancient coins that show the influence of the Roman Empire on China. For some reason I find museums absolutely fascinating, and it struck me how much history China actually has. I mean, everyone realizes China's been around 3000+ years, but there's just so much! Xi'an has a rather thick city wall, a kind of daily reminder of all the history contained in Xi'an, and it's crazy to think of people just going about their daily lives with reminders of all the history that came before them. I dunno, maybe this is a bit too dramatic, but I don't know if I would like living in a place where I was constantly reminded that my city used to be the capitol of China, used to be the center of the Silk Road, used to be the favored burial place of emperors. It just seems rather heavy to have all that history around.

Anyway, after the museum we went to lunch, which was a fairly unremarkable event, replete with delicious qie zi (eggplant) and a really good chicken dish. From there, we went to Xi'an's most notable museum, which I think is considered to be one of the best in China. The quality of the artifacts was really top notch (I'm taking my professor's word for it, as I'm not sure I could tell the difference!). Again, there were a lot of old pots and whatnot, some really cool figurines and metalwork. I took a lot of pictures, but I'm not planning on uploading them to Facebook - more for my own interest, as I think they'd be rather boring to look at if you weren't familiar with them (but if you want to see them, let me know). One notable display was of 40-proof alcohol, that had been excavated completely intact inside of a large vase. I haven't the foggiest idea how it survived that long, but it was pretty cool. Another one of my favorite things about Chinese artifacts/art is that it often features the phoenix quite prominently. UChicago's mascot is the phoenix, and I've always like the story of it, so I'm amassing quite the collection of phoenix emblems on bowls/silks/tablets/other artifacts.

From that museum, we ended up walking to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is, shockingly enough, bigger than the Small Goose Pagoda! This one we climbed to the top, only seven stories, and were rewarded with a fairly good view - the problem is, with so much pollution, anything more than a 1/2 a mile away is completely immersed in smog. Around the pagoda is a public park with fountains, and it was interesting to note the contrast between this public space and the one in Beijing: while Tiananmen is very somber and the emphasis is on the state, here, it was more like a party - fountains spewing water in time to music, vendors selling stuff from little booths, ice cream and cotton candy for sale, and a carousel. I bought a little dragon decoration; I'm not sure what it's used for, but I bought it as a Christmas ornament.

Afterward, we took the bus back to the hotel - or tried to, anyway. Traffic was rather terrible, in part because it was rush hour, and perhaps in part because there were political rallies going on. It was a pro-China march, apparently in response to the continuing tensions with Japan (over an island?), and they were marching in the street. After about 1/2 hour sitting in traffic at a stand still, we just walked about ten minutes back to the hotel. From there, a group of us went to the Muslim district, where we ate dinner (beef skewers and noodles). Interesting fact: China has the ethnic majority (Han), and 55 official minorities. One of the minorities are the Hui, which is what the Muslim district in Xi'an is. However, they racially aren't different from the Han, and they speak the same language; unlike other minority groups, the distinction is made only on religion. They're essentially Muslim Han Chinese. Just an interesting note I learned on our way back.

Going to Emperor Wu's tomb tomorrow, and we've read a lot about him, so it should be fun. Back to Beijing tomorrow night!

Friday, October 15, 2010

In Xi'an!

Last night we left Beijing for Xi'an, where we'll be staying until Sunday night. If you recall from my previous post, this was met with much excitement on my part, as most things usually are. :) We took an overnight train from Beijing to Xi'an, and this was my first experience with an overnight "sleeper" train, which was immensely exciting.

We got to the train station about twenty minutes before the train started boarding, so most of us students wandered around for a bit. There was both a KFC and a Mcdonald's in the station, and I was tempted to cave in and buy some, despite the fact that Western food is way more expensive than Chinese food here. (A value meal will set you back 20 RMB, roughly 3.5 USD, as opposed to a big bowl of noodles, egg, and tomato for 4 RMB). I ended up not buying anything, although I had a few of Asta's french fries; they were good, but still a little bit different.

The sleeper train was, as previously mentioned, exceptionally exciting. We were in what are called hard sleepers, which means it's a little room with bunk beds 3 high on each side, and leads directly to the main hallway (no door or private bathroom). I was on the tippy top, so I had a nice view of the ceiling, though you couldn't see anything outside of the window, anyway. Overall, it was about a 13 hour train ride, so being able to sleep was great, and travelling with so many other people from UChicago is lots of fun (we watched a bit of Star Wars on the train).

We got to Xi'an about 9 am, and went to our hotel and checked in. Unlike the dorms, we're sharing rooms here, which is absolutely fine, since I don't hate anyone (yet, anyway!). The hotel and the rooms are really nice - it's apparently a 4 star hotel, although I think the standards are perhaps a bit lower here. At first glance, it was impressively swanky: free slippers/combs in the rooms, free internet, a pool and gym, and a restaurant on second floor. After returning from sightseeing, however, I discovered the slightly more ghetto side of it: the television doesn't work, the lighting isn't fantastic, and only one electric socket works (which means I can't have my laptop and the lamp plugged in at the same time). I don't mean to complain, though - breakfast is included, and it's a good hotel. Goodness knows I've stayed in worse. (coughcough, Mount Tai, coughcough).

After getting lunch (nothing too exciting, but delicious baozi, which are like bread dumplings), we went to see the Terracotta soldiers,  one of the things China is most known for. Similar to the ancient Egyptian's beliefs, the soldiers were constructed to aid Emperor Qin in the afterlife. They were discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging for a well; had he dug four feet to the left, they would never have been discovered! There are three 'pits' that have been - and are still being-  excavated. The first is the largest, containing an estimated 6,000 soldiers, though only 1/3 of those have been unearthed. The other two are smaller, though still containing an impressively large number of the life sized figures.

That place was insane! The soldiers are all about 6 feet tall, and there were just so many of them; it's crazy to imagine all the work that must have gone into getting them into the underground tombs. I think what I found most interesting is that they're still in the process of excavating; it isn't just some old soldiers people found awhile ago and put on display. While we spectated, there were archeologists dusting off pieces and trying to piece soldiers together again; or, as I put it, "putting together part of the world's largest puzzle". It was just so crazy to think about how much work there is still to be done - there's still at least 4000 life size soldiers waiting to be put together, plus horses and chariots. It's also hard to believe that the construction of the tombs and soldiers took roughly four decades. Basically, no sooner had Emperor Qin united China then he said, "Ok, time to get started on my tombs, I guess...".

Sorry for such a long post, but just a few more notes: We had discussed in class the concept of invisibility surrounding the emperor. The Forbidden City is so huge in part so that no one ever knew for sure where the Emperor was, something that is also seen in the tombs - to this day, no one knows exactly where in the massive tomb structure he's buried. Just an interesting fact for you. :)

On our way back we got stuck in a traffic jam, apparently caused by an accident. It was interesting that after about three minutes, all the drivers shut off their engines and jumped out to talk to each other. The groups of drivers just standing around chatting reminded me of the news story a few months back about a nine day traffic jam outside of Beijing - they're so used to it that it doesn't bother them, it's just a chance for socialization. Thankfully our traffic jam was much shorter, only about thirty minutes.

Sorry that my posts are more like epistles than just updates, we're headed to museums tomorrow, landmarks and tombs on Sunday!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It's Beginning to Feel a lot like Finals...

Because my classes here are back to back for three weeks each, not running simultaneously, I have a final paper due tomorrow.

Prior to now, it hasn't really felt like being at school/UChicago - more just a vacation where I'm having fun and messing around taking a class on ancient China for the heck of it.

The language, the city, and the class itself may change, but the feeling doesn't. It's that choking feeling of the stress mounting, realizing that you are utterly and completely out of ideas for the final paper due tomorrow. It's the rushing to scarf down lunch so you can get back to work, though it's a little more difficult when you're eating rice with chopsticks. It's buying dinner now so you don't actually have to stop work to eat, and it's the feeling that if you can just make it until Thursday night you'll be okay. It's only compounded by the fact that I have another project for one of my extracurriculars due on Friday, so I definitely feel like I'm at UChicago, just with slightly poorer air quality. Oh UChicago, how I've missed you. :)

We leave for Xi'an tomorrow night, so between that and the final paper/other project, I likely won't update again until next Monday. Now, about that paper...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Playing with the Great Firewall of China

As you may have heard, yesterday Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After reading about it on Time's website (via my Chicago connection), I decided this was an opportune time to see just how great the Great Firewall of China actually is.

The Great Firewall of China refers to the Chinese government's attempts to block certain websites - anything that might be politically touchy, for instance, or social networking sites. In general, it isn't too big of a hassle, if only because I can get around it with my Chicago VPN connection, but I'll write more about day to day use of the firewall in a different entry.Since I had only ever run into the firewall while trying to access Facebook, using a political event to see just how vast the firewall actually is seemed like a fairly good idea. (Until the police show up on my doorstep tomorrow....)

I started by going to Google, which redirects to Google Hong Kong, and typing in "Liu Xiaobo". I hit enter, and "the connection has been reset" webpage popped up. Funny, that's the same one I get when I try to access Facebook over the Chinese connection. I went back to the Google HK homepage, and searched Mao Zedong. Immediately, the Wikipedia link popped up along with numerous portraits of the glorious leader. No problem with the connection there, I guess.

I then went to Baidu, which is the Chinese-government approved search engine. Searching his name there, I was able to find links to some online forums apparently discussing the event. However, my computer can't display Chinese characters, so I had to use Google translate to translate the page for me. I copied and pasted the forum text, but again, "the connection was reset". I was mildly impressed that the Chinese government was thorough enough to block political messages even from Google translate, which was confirmed when I tested "hello" both ways in google translate with no problems. Point 1 to the Chinese government.

I then reconnected to my Chicago VPN connection, which basically identifies my computer as being on campus. Translating the text there, I was able to get only some gibberish about cheap plane tickets and a user comment of "Haha, sensitive words.. No [don't use?] Yuntai forum". That's not an exact quote, but the gist of it, seemingly implying that the author of the post was well aware of the censors. Through the VPN connection, I also got the Chinese characters for Liu Xiaobo's name, and after I disconnected, went back and typed them into Baidu. This time, all it brought up was press releases from the Chinese government berating the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for awarding it to a Chinese dissident. I'll include the text below - the contrast to the reports I read on Time and CNN was surprising.

While the China server blocked me from searching/translating things about Liu Xiaobo, it didn't "reset" the connection when I went to Time's website and brought up the story there. I searched for it, and was able to access their story as well, despite the fact that when they broadcast the story on the news, China blacked-out the station. (BBC also reported a blackout in China during the broadcast). So while the Great Firewall is comprehensive enough to block politically-charged messages from being translated on Google Translate, it wasn't comprehensive enough to block CNN or Time's online articles of it. I was surprised they were sneaky enough to block the translate tool, but apparently the Great Firewall still has some gaping holes in it.

Text from the Chinese news release is in the post below this, if you're interested.

Chinese Press Release on Nobel Prize Winner

It's an online translation, so not great, but enough that you can get the contrast w/ other news releases regarding the event:

Xinhua Beijing , October 8 - Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said , the Nobel Committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize this year, Liu, completely contrary to the purpose of the award and also the desecration of the Peace Prize.

8, the Nobel committee this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese "dissidents," Liu Xiaobo. Jiang Yu said in reply to the question, the Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded "to promote national harmony and promote international friendship and to promote disarmament and peace for the convening of meetings and promotional efforts of the people", which is Nobel's wishes. Liu is in breach of Chinese law by the Chinese judicial organs of criminals sentenced to imprisonment, and its behavior and contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize. Connaught Committee awarded the Peace Prize to such a person, completely contrary to the purpose of the award and also the desecration of the Peace Prize.

Jiang Yu Liu winning the answer will affect the question of bilateral relations, said that in recent years, Sino-Norwegian relations have maintained sound development, which is conducive to the two countries and two peoples interests. Connaught Committee Liu and Nobel Peace Prize award runs counter to the purpose, will bring damage to the Sino-Norwegian relations.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

China is Anti-Smurf

Apparently, anyway. Spotted today on my way to have noodles with tomatoes and eggs for lunch:

A guy wearing a shirt that says, "I am not blue!"

I am uncertain as to whether this is a protest against Avatar and Smurfs, or if this guy is constantly being asked to buy anti depressants and this is his way of telling everyone he doesn't need them. At least the English is correct!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

WE'RE GOING TO.......XI'AN!!!!!!

.The above title was meant to convey an Oprah-like suspense, similar to when she announced at the beginning of this season that the entire audience was going to Australia. Which I've only read about, but I imagine was quite suspenseful. At the end of this class section of the quarter (our ten week quarter is divided into three class sections of three weeks each, with a week long break at the end of the first), we were supposed to be going on a class trip to Chengde, but today that was officially changed to Xi'an!

While both have a ton of history (heck, all of China does!), Xi'an has the distinction of being home to the world famous Terracotta soldiers, which I am insanely excited to see. They're one of those icons of China that you hear/read so much about, and I'm excited to get to see them! I suppose the other famous icon is the Great Wall, which, coincidentally, we're going to tomorrow. I definitely think the best part of civ abroad is getting to go on field trips. :)

The trip to Xi'an is eleven hours by train, so we'll be leaving from Beijing at 9:30 at night and taking the overnight train. It's nice that we'll wake up and be there, but at the same time, I wish it could be daylight so I can see more of the countryside. We'll stay in Xi'an until Saturday or Sunday night (I can't remember which), and then come back on the overnight train. Overall, it should be a ton of fun - thus far, I've loved getting to go to museums and historical sites, and plus traveling with a bunch of other UChicago students is bound to be a blast. I'll make sure to update and take lots of pictures. :)

Random note: One of Xi'an's sister cities is Kansas City. Hopefully Xi'an will be more exciting. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

National Day and Other Observations

Today is National Day, celebrating the 61st anniversary of the country and the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It's odd to me that they don't consider the 1500+ years of China's history prior to the founding of the PRC - while I consider 1949 to just be a government/regime change, they consider it to be a brand new country's founding. Unfortunately, the 61st anniversary did not include major military parades or fireworks, and the Chinese most definitely do not follow the  American custom of grilling hamburgers and barbecuing, which made me quite sad as I ate noodles and tomatoes for dinner.

However, in commemoration of the special day, China schools are given the entire next week of off school, and most workers had today off, as well. Slightly defeating the purpose, there are extra classes the week after next to make up for missed classes. Us Chicago students were given the day off, but not next week, though we won't have Chinese class, since our teachers have off (Language teachers are Renmin University faculty). Let loose in a metropolis of 23 million, me and three classmates did what seemed the most logical idea: took ourselves to the Beijing Zoo, called dong wu gong yuan in Chinese, which literally translates to Animal Park. :)

Since it was National Day, the zoo was fairly crowded, although in a city the size of Beijing anything is crowded. I've heard it said about NYC that if you decide to do something, you can be sure at least 100 other people have the same idea; here, I think it's something like 10,000 people have the same idea. The subway line on our way back was absolutely insane, we probably waited in line for 10 minutes just to get into the subway station. Thankfully we were heading out of the city rather than into it, so the train itself wasn't too packed. There was also a stronger police force out because of the day - though why you need four police officers by the lemurs and marmosets, I have no idea. (I guess to avoid any monkey business!)

I've also read that a characteristic of  China is a pervasive belief that the rules were meant for other people, something that seemed to be verified today. Like most (all?) zoos, there were signs on every exhibit telling visitors not to feed the animals or throw anything in their cages, but people here did a lot of it. Especially at the monkey exhibit, there were several people throwing peanuts and other food over the divider into the cage - the elder monkey would chase all the younger ones away, and then eat all the nuts himself. At the gorilla habitat, several of the gorillas were handling and seemingly drinking from water bottles. I thought, since three of the gorillas had bottles, that maybe the zookeepers gave the bottles to them to play with. I realized I was mistaken when the person right next to me chucked his iced tea bottle in, too, though a police officer did come over and talk to him. And at the otter exhibit, the otter was putting his paws up on the glass, looking up at us, and then scurrying away and coming back. In order to get his attention, someone poured yogurt on the poor little guy. :( It made me think about how it's kind of funny that we follow the rules in the US without being forced to - a kind of self regulating society (?), where not bothering animals is normal enough that you get yelled/glared at if you do it.

Overall, the zoo was excellent, especially seeing the zebras, gnus, wildebeests, ostriches, and giraffes - I think God had fun when he made Africa! :) I'll likely update later this weekend, too, with some info on classes, maybe the food? Let me know if there's anything you want me to cover, or if you have stylistic suggestions to improve my writing. [criticism is welcome, too!] :)