The Great Wall Pt. II

This weekend, as a “treat” for immersion students, the office put together an immersion-only trip to a different section of the Great Wall. My roommates and I were excited, because it’s hard to see everyone frequently when we live in the one apartment that’s in a different neighborhood than all of the others.

On Saturday morning, we all met up to take a series of buses to the Wall.The place we went was definitely not city, but it also wasn’t exactly rural, either. My roommate called it the “tourist nongcun” or basically a more rural area built largely around Great Wall tourism.

The place we stayed the night was very cool, and we took up almost the entire compound. We settled in, and wandered around a bit before dinner.

compound is really the only word I can think of to describe this place.
Roommate Grace!

Wandering about.
The dinner spread.
We were all really confused about these “games.”

After playing a few program-organized “games,” we planned to go out exploring again, but our plans were foiled. The whole trip was like being on a middle/high school field trip leash again. We were scolded about wandering off on our own, so instead of making that poor decision, we were heartily encouraged to go buy some liquor and hang out. Which, basically, was what happened.

So here’ a side note about liquor in China— It’s not good. Chinese wine is not good, and good imported wine is absurdly expensive. Anyone who knows me know I couldn’t tell you anything about the beer, although apparently that’s nothing spectacular either. I don’t see many other liquors in the grocery stores in our neighborhoods, not that I’m particularly inclined toward any except for vodka. Plus I’m not one to hit up the foreigner bars on the weekends. But what China does have is bai jiu. If you haven’t met bai jiu, don’t be too curious. This stuff is the definition of wicked awful, and they always have it fully stocked. I had never had it before, and I’d be happy to never have it again. All in all, it was good to have the chance to hang out with the immersion group all together and get to know everyone a little better.

The next morning we woke up to do what we had gone there to do, which was explore a section of the Great Wall. Unlike the last trip to the Wall, this section was almost completely unrepaired. It was straight-up hiking and climbing just to get to the Wall, and then scrambling along the crumbling wall. This was, by far, my favorite trip so far in China. Pictures can do better to describe…


Photo from Zoe.

With Dereck.
Alex on the edge.
With Liu Laoshi
Trekking! Photo from Zoe.
Roommates! Grace and Zoe.
With Max. Photo from Zoe.
The fateful, but delicious, lunch.
Lunch says hi.

After coming back down, we headed back to Beijing. About 30 minutes away from our destination, my stomach got uncomfortable. About 20 minutes away from our destination, I had a full case of food poisoning. So all-in-all, I’m sorry the post is mostly pictures, but it’s the most I can manage at this point. The pictures are better, anyway.

I hope all is well with everyone, happy Easter!!

Shanghai and back

Hello again! Sorry for the hiatus.

Last weekend was our program’s spring break. After some disastrous attempts planning with some of the nicest (but most indecisive) guys I’ve ever met, Grace and I decided just make our own way to Shanghai. So Wednesday night we made our way to the Beijing train station, and took a 13-hour, overnight sleeper train.

I was slightly concerned, because even on short U.S. domestic flights I usually am completely unable to nap or sleep—too wound up. No such problem here. It was kind of like sleeping in a tree house. Each compartment housed six beds, stacked three-high. Grace and I bought the higher-bunk tickets, because we thought we’d feel safer. The other four bunks ended up being taking by two older couples, with whom we didn’t interact with too much, but were very nice.

Shanghai itself was kind of confusing.  In many of the cities I love—D.C., Dallas, New York City, Reno—something about the city just makes you feel like you’re in the city. It has a kind of spirit that distinguishes it. Shanghai kind of felt like what would happen if you just told someone to throw together a city. It was beautiful and interesting, and has its requisite share of tourist attractions, but I didn’t really feel connected to it at all.

there are buildings somewhere in there through the fog/rain/various chemicals

That observation aside, I really did enjoy being in Shanghai. It was nice to have the time again to get a little lost, wander, and discover a new place. As busy and hectic as everyday life in Beijing gets, it’s easy to forget on a daily basis, ‘Holy crap, I’m in China. This is really the coolest thing ever.’ Thankfully Shanghai slapped me out of it a little bit.

Some of the places we went:

Yu Garden

Jing’An Temple

We got off at the Jing’An subway station, and walked around for awhile looking for the temple. It looked like the rest of Shanghai (that we had seen), with lots of malls and shopping and crowded streets. We saw a bunch of shops built into the bottom of what looked like a very traditional larger building that could have been the temple, but I thought no, they couldn’t possibly have built shop fronts into the bottom of a landmark. Oh, but they did. Once we found the entrance to the temple (the inside is intact and has been renovated) was hard to enjoy with Burberry billboards looming in the background. Crazy, confused place.

Nanjing Lu and People’s Square

Our hostel was very close to Nanjing Lu, a very, very famous shopping street.

I don’t know the name of this set of particular set of alleyways, but there are many of these kinds of areas in Shanghai.

“We’re all in this together”

I don’t know if this is true of abroad in general, or particularly of being in China, but for whatever reason, I have gotten closer to my roommates and other friends in the immersion program at a freakishly rapid pace. This place leaves no room for anything else. From everyone’s regular “la duzi” episodes,  (stomach troubles that come from just not being totally accustomed to the different bacteria and foods here) to the inevitable slight breakdowns that come from being cut off from your native language five days out of the week, I know things about these people, especially my roommates, that I don’t know or share with even some of my closest friends I’ve known for much longer. We figure it’s by necessity. At the very beginning of the semester, somehow the theme of our apartment was deemed “We’re all in this together,” (Yes, the high school musical song) which is both unfortunate, and also incredibly accurate. It’s a crazy, wonderful, weird, insane, fun place, and a truly crazy intense program, and we’re all in it together.

This weekend we went to Tea City in Beijing– the most perfect place in the world. There are small shops where you can buy tea, small multi-level shopping malls with just tea and tea sets and anything else concerning tea. You walk into any of the little shops, and you’re welcomed in to sit at a table with a full tea service. I thought I was tea-spoiled before, but now I’m really in trouble.

So this last week has just been trying to shift back into class/immersion mode. At this point there’s only about a month and a half until I make my way back to D.C. for graduation. I’m not by any means wishing away this experience, but when the time comes, I am definitely excited to make my way home to all the things that I miss.


The Great Wall

The week was another predictably heavy week of class, but the weekend was great fun.

I think partially as consolation for how large and horrific our midterms next week are, after class on Friday the program took all interested immersion students to the Capital Museum. The museum was very beautiful, but very odd. Where most museums I’ve been to stress the importance of something being original, or untouched from its original state except for some restoration, things in the museum were either complete replicas or completely restored (meaning fully repainted, etc). It also felt kind of like an aimless accumulation of a great many random things from a great many places. It’s like someone found a bunch of interesting things, and said at random, ‘I think I’ll put this here!’ The building itself was beautiful, and the things in it as well, it just didn’t feel like any museum I’ve ever been to.

On Saturday morning, all interested students (aka everyone in the program) met up to take a bus to the Great Wall. After arriving at the base of the mountain, we hiked up 30 minutes of stairs to get to the Wall. It was at this point that most of us realized exactly how unkind the Beijing pollution has been to our lungs.  As all the European tourists fresh from areas with breathable air hop-skipped past us, our 50-strong band of American college students heave-ho’ed our way up.

Upon reaching the Wall itself, we were immediately prodded into taking a group picture. As you can see, we’re all looking our best.

The group, at our finest. (taken on Zoe's camera)
from the other side: the teachers (and other random people) taking pictures of us.
Credit: Zoe.

The thing you don’t know (or at least I certainly didn’t) about the Wall, it’s that it’s not a long, snakey structure that smoothly rises and falls. It’s a long, snakey structure that rises and falls with the most ridiculous stair steps you’ve ever seen. (My pictures do no justice to explain this).

credit: Zoe

Even though it was still wintertime, the view was beautiful. The best view to be found was past the point where the Wall has been restored. A sign notifies visitors not to pass the point of restoration, but with a shrug, our group leader led us on through. Thankfully so, because there we found the best view, by far.

The way back down the mountain was much easier, and way more fun. A metal slide that snakes down the mountain has been built so that after you’ve hauled your butt up the mountain, you can toboggan your way back down.

After reaching the bottom of the mountain, we still had time before the bus was supposed to leave, so we had time to haggle with the souvenir vendors. My roommate and I both bought immensely fat, tiny stuffed pandas, which we named 胖 and 胖, or fat and fat. By their powers combined, they make Fat Fat.

The ride back was the quietest experience I’ve had in the presence of 40 college students.

Today was much less exciting. Playtime was over, and I had to keep preparing for my midterm on Tuesday. Now, all that stands between me and a five-day spring break in Shanghai with the roommates is the giant written midterm and the slightly less giant but no less intimidating spoken midterm. We’ll see how that goes!

“I like to think it’s just cloudy!”

Happy March! I can’t believe it. I really used to think that adults were out of their minds when they always said that time speeds up– but god, it’s definitely true.

Unfortunately not too much time for pictures this week– this week was especially school-heavy. On Friday my class finished the textbook that the Level 3 (my level) non-immersion students will finish at the end of the semester. This program really has lost its collective mind. The pace is utter insanity, but it’s definitely effective.

(Disclaimer: The cat (xiao bai) was not hurt.) My main teacher, Chen Laoshi, with Ben during his pronunciation class. Chen Laoshi hates the cat (the cat's name is xiao bai -- little white-- but she thinks it's fat and dirty), but we all like to let it sit on our laps during our one-on-one pronunciation classes. There is pretty much nothing I don't find funny about this photo.

So, not a particularly eventful week, but here’s a sampler of what the air has been like. Spoiler alert: not fit to sustain life. On one particularly bad day, as I walked to class, I asked my roommates how they thought you could tell the difference between a cloudy day, and just a really disgustingly polluted day. No answers. I got to school and asked the same of Chen Laoshi. She considered for a second before cheerily coming up with, “I like to think it’s just cloudy!” As I am here for another two months, with no choice but to breathe this air, as far as I’m concerned that might be the best way to think about it.

out my apartment window. sometimes photos distort, but this is actually pretty much exactly what it looked like.
In case you hadn't had enough, this little lovely is right near the Beida campus.
The sun is often mostly hidden by the pollution, and is sometimes red. I don't want to know how it makes the sun look like that.

798 Art District

Living for the weekend! The weekly pattern is quickly settling into: cram as much as you can into the weekends, because lord knows nothing is going to happen on the weekdays besides class and homework. Therefore: This is mostly a photo-post of my weekend.

On Friday, me and my roommates met a new friend for dinner. I met Myra at the program mixer last Saturday. As we are foreigners with no idea of where to go for good food, we asked her to recommend one of her favorites. Same goes for the cuisine, so we asked her to just order some of her favorites. So to add to my tally of strange foods I’ve only tried because of my strange conviction to try basically anything, I’ve now had: frog, eel, blood. The frog was strangely delicious– it actually, literally kind of tasted like chicken. The eel was interesting, because I’ve never had it outside of sushi– it was like a very substantive, chewy pasta. The blood was another story: It was not liquid. It looked like a dark piece of tofu (I’m not drinking blood and turning into a vampire). I took one piece, but I can’t say I’ll ever go there again. Yet again, oh my pride…

Myra and Grace! (photo credit: Zoe)
Me and Zoe
The frog dish
Eel and vermicelli-- spicy good!
Serious damage to be done. Delicious meal.

On Saturday, we had another program-wide trip, this time to the 798 Art District.

Outside the 798 art district (photo credit: Cicily)
Zoe, Cicily and me
Sun salutations. Sort of.
Serious face is not serious. No can do.
An art installation with a constant line of people to take pictures. Everything fit but Zoe's hair!
"Grace, pose! ...Oh, that's cute..."
I'm still not sure why so many of them were so enormously fat.
Crazy-sideways-baby version of crazy-fat-people.
Dusty crazy-fat-woman, heavily commented on. (literally no pun intended! sorry!)
Small child sitting on one of the wolves. There had to be a hundred of these wolves in the middle of an open square. Many of them were being used as a jungle gym by children. Zoe took blatant shots of all of the adorable kids, I could not muster the nerve. (photo credit: Zoe)
Random shots walking around.
This was an art installation called "Happy New Year"

A building covered in pipes.

Yet another montage of the details. Indulge me.

The way they play with characters here is intriguing to me. I’ve always analyzed and played around with letterforms, but this is something completely different and new.

Saturday night we came back to a nice surprise at the apartment: Shi Wei said she and Chen Laoshi were making dinner and asked if we wanted to eat with them. We had a nice meal, and then a very long conversation about American/ Chinese cultural differences. Next semester, Chen Laoshi will be teaching Chinese in Minnesota, and Shi Wei will be teaching at AU, but Chen laoshi has already visited the states. She thought that one of the most surprising things about the states was the super friendly relationship between boys and girls. She found it incredibly surprising and strange that most of my friends are guys.

On Sunday, Zoe introduced me to bargaining at the silk market. She warned me beforehand, but the amount of stuff and the number of people there were absolutely overwhelming. The people who work the shops are incredibly forward, and very pushy (if not aggressive). Lessons learned: 1) Look at what you want to, and pretend you can’t hear them. 2) Walk with someone to hold their arm, lest you get physically pulled into a shop. 3) If you walk down one aisle, and later walk down the same aisle, they’ll all remember you. 4) The initial price is always, always, at least 4-5 times higher than what they’ll happily sell it for. 5) If you walk away, they’ll give you the real price. 6) I am a terrible bargainer. 7) 6 is forgiveable, because Zoe is a master, but 8) I can never go alone.

Sunday night, we met two new Chinese friends for dinner. All of the Chinese friends I’ve met like to be called by their chosen English name– so we had dinner with Major and Abigail. Their English was not as strong as Myra’s, so I was very pleased to find how much easier I’m finding it to understand Chinese speakers, and also to respond.

Sorry for the haphazard post, quick post! Thanks for keeping up with me here, and as always I love to hear from everybody! Everyone have a great week!

A man named Fish

Another week gone already! Time continues to pass in this weird way that it feels like I’ve been here for awhile, but at the same time it feels it’s passing so quickly. While my Chinese continues to improve in stops and starts, I now speak a highly entertaining and mostly functional mix of Chinglish with a side of charades.

On Saturday, there was a get-to-know-you event for students in our program, and Chinese students in a different program at Beida. Of course the first girl I got to know was the one cradling a Canon DSLR. I was so glad for the opportunity to meet Beida students; There’s so much to get done during the week that it’s already easy to fall into only doing things with people in the program. Embarrassingly, the Chinese students’ English was, in general, far superior to the American students’ Chinese, but they were very patient with us.

After the event, I and some other program students had planned to go to Wangfujin. It’s known as a touristy, more expensive area, but it’s also known for this snack street that we had to see. At the event, we met a man named Fish who was very interested in accompanying us. (Yes, Fish. Fish was the ‘English name’ he had chosen, in the same way 安丽 is the ‘Chinese name’ my AU teacher gave me.) We found a tiny place to stop for dinner—the eight of us took up half the seating—and because Fish was with us, ordering was, for the first time since I arrived, mercifully easy. Aside from noodles, which are usually a safe bet, Fish ordered a few sides for all of us to try, including sugared tomatoes, duck eggs and duck eggs and tofu.

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by some of my American companions’ obvious unwillingness to try even a bite. So far, my resolve to try pretty much anything once has only disappointed a handful of times (more on that below…!)

Afterward we wandered to the snack street, for yet more food. This place had an especially large share of culinary oddities. One of the first places we wandered by had scorpions, live scorpions, on a stick. (They fry them up to order, you don’t eat them live!) Try pretty much anything once, I said? Alright.

as betsy looks on in horror... (photo credit to Jill Hyman!)
oh god, I just ate a scorpion? (photo credit to Jill Hyman!)
roommate Grace conquering her fear (photo credit to Jill Hyman!)

I have to admit, it wasn’t bad. It tasted kind of like a funky potato chip. I wouldn’t eat a snack bag of them, but it sure wasn’t terrible. Then Fish insisted that I had to try chou dofu, otherwise known as stinky tofu. (Disclaimer: Stinky tofu REEKS. There’s a street vendor that makes it on my walk to school, and covering my nose is half the reason I wear a scarf, other than the cold.) Try pretty much anything once? Oh my pride…

Chou dofu takes exactly as it smells (gag-worthy), and I would not recommend it to my worst enemy (if I had one!) I was so desperate to rid myself of the taste that I ate another scorpion—funny how our spectrum of what we think is weird shifts so quickly.

There was also tanghulu, which is really everywhere. It’s sugar-coated Chinese hawthorn (or miscellaneous other fruits) on a stick. That was delicious too, but you could feel your teeth rotting in real-time.

the group, with our main man Fish out front.

When we were either too full or too overwhelmed to go on, we wandered back out onto the main street and found a bookstore. I had wanted to go buy Chinese books, so I could try to read something that wasn’t newspaper articles (definitely can’t do that!) or my textbook. I meant to walk out with a book or two at a very, very young, simple language level. What I walked out with was 1) Grimm’s Fairy Tales (granted this one is indeed meant for children. And 2) Harry Potter. Yep. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s going to mean quality time with my dictionary, a giant headache, and it might take me forever, but I swear I will somehow finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese.

So, what else… Well, as everyone knows, this past week was Valentine’s Day. I was a bit sad to see girls carrying Valentine’s Day things like roses and chocolates. My teacher Chen Laoshi actually saw a girl with a giant broccoli head done like a flower bunch—though to be fair she said that’s also considered strange in China.

Larger events like the Spring Festival and Valentine’s Day give us an excuse to discuss different topics in discussion class, other than the strange textbook topics. Result: Discussion class is a RIOT. Now that my class has gotten to know each other a little better, we grow increasingly less timid to contribute to discussion class, and it gets more and more entertaining. This past week, I had the pleasure to try to discuss/argue about both pollution and different romantic customs… in limited, stunted Chinese. During the Valentine’s Day conversation, our teacher, Liu Laoshi asked us to talk about another famous love story, and a guy in my class was apparently completely in love with Romeo and Juliet, so he proceeded to try to explain the entire plotline. When she asked him why they did the silly things they did, all he could say was, “怎么说 ‘hormones’?” (How do you say ‘hormones’? Silly.

I had an interesting conversation on Tuesday with Liu Laoshi about the differences between English and Chinese. With English, there’s this striking clarity and precision. It’s very exact. Chinese is more vague, more general. From her side, as a Native Chinese speaker who’s studied/is studying English, it was interesting to hear her point on learning English. She said that many times, she’s worried she won’t understand when we ask her how to say something—there are so many words for every tiny single thing in English. She said that basically, at the level my classmates and I are at, we have the vocabulary and basic grammar to talk our way around most things (granted that they aren’t super technical topics, etc) but English speakers tend to over think everything. I told her how I in general try to translate my thoughts from English to Chinese. I first have to break down a thought into the simplest English sentence I can manage, without losing essential meaning. Then I take that stripped down English sentence, and see how I can translate it into Chinese. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher here told me I was over thinking a sentence…


  • I miss sink disposals; Loose-leaf tea is driving me crazy.
  • I can’t allow myself to think about the pollution. I’ll fix my body later. My throat is always sore, and the air has this icky taste. Headache always. It seems it affects some people more than others. One girl in my class has been sick almost since day one, though others seem unaffected. (Not sure how much is a mix of the pollution and the Chinese) HOW DO BEIJINGERS LIVE HERE? I like it here, but for my body’s sake I certainly won’t be unhappy to leave. Chen Laoshi: “We get accustomed to it.”
  • I don’t truly realize how little the teachers speak English. When they do, I’m almost surprised at how broken it sounds. It’s of course nothing close to the way I sound when I’m speaking Chinese—they are far, far more proficient—but after listening to them in only Chinese, and then listening to them speak English, it’s a surprising feeling.
  • My roommates and I also had an interesting “body image” conversation with our teacher/roommate. We invited her to have dinner, and she said thank you but no, she was fine with her apple. We asked if she was feeling sick, and she said no, she was a little too fat. Context: I easily—easily—have 25-30 pounds on this woman. We asked her—if you’re too fat, then what are we? She said, “No no no, don’t’ worry! You’re American!” And then made a gesture as wide as a 400 pound man. In the words of Zoe, “如果她是胖,我是非常obese!”(If she is fat, then I am super obese! It sounds funnier in Chinese…) Finally we convinced her to try a tiny bowl of what we had made. As Zoe scooped her a small serving, she said “一点儿!一点儿!我是中国人!”(“A little bit! A little bit! I’m Chinese!”)

I miss all of you guys at home! Thanks again for sticking with me here! I love hearing from all of you, too! Til next week!

故宫: The Forbidden City

春节快乐!Chinese New Year is officially over, which for my daily life basically means the end of the setting of an unholy amount of fireworks. From the time I arrived in Beijing until the end of the festival, each day’s end meant a chorus of popping fireworks wherever you go, and it sounds like a warzone. They’re incredibly cheap, and people set them off in the middle of apartment complexes, on the street, anywhere. During the New Year people have to keep their windows closed, or risk a firework through the window—I did see one hit the side of an apartment building.

The Terra Cotta Lantern Soldiers

On the last night of the New Year celebrations, or 元宵节 (the Lantern Festival), There was to be a traditional lantern show in 前门(Qianmen), but it was apparently cancelled for some reason. So, we ventured instead to 三里屯(Sanlitun), where there was to be a more modern lantern show themed “Terra Cotta Army in Air.”

(On a side note: Upon returning to DC, I will never feel quite right paying for a cab again—together, the twenty minute cab ride to, and the twenty-minute return trip from Sanlitun totaled just over eight dollars, split between three people.)

We wandered rather lost for around a half hour, because the taxi driver’s vague, unintelligible directions and waving failed us immensely, but eventually found the lanterns.

In this time abroad in Beijing, mine is primarily a linguistic adventure. The non-immersion students go out all the time, and have significantly less work, which I look on with some jealousy. Added to that, the language pledge necessitates a certain degree of separation between immersion and non-immersion students, at least with the non-immersion students who have never taken Chinese before. All that being said, I don’t think I would be quite satisfied with non-immersion. In my program I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated and determined as I am to improve their language skills, and work hard to do it. It is, however, a relief on the weekends to be able to hang out with non-immersion a little more. Everyone I knew from before coming here is non-immersion, and seeing them on the weekends is a nice change of pace; During the week, I spend several hours a day with the exact same people (my class has three other people in it), and even in English that would get a little old fast.

This weekend, all of us in the program (immersion and non-immersion) went to the Forbidden City. I cannot communicate the sheer size of this place. We unfortunately didn’t have near enough time to explore, but just walking around was incredible.

There were so many beautiful details and textures.

Before coming here, pretty much everyone had told me that people in China would stare at me for being a foreigner. But honestly, since Beijing is such a large city, with such a relatively large number of foreigners, I’m honestly surprised to find that it’s true. Pile on top of that the fact that we, with varying degrees of success, are speaking in Chinese, and you become a super-curiosity. When I walk down the street with Zoe, and people see and hear her speaking Chinese, and me attempting to respond, the double-takes are incredibly entertaining. A few times people, most often younger kids, have run up in front of us to take pictures. So I’ve decided that when carrying my camera, upon encountering an especially interesting stare, I’m going to blatantly capture the best “you’re-a-foreigner” expressions while returning with my own best, “I-know-I’m-a-foreigner!” face.

Zoe with a fan of her red hair.

In my recent travels, my appreciation for teachers in general has gone way up. Between watching Jake prepare lessons, and now living with Shi Wei as she grades and prepares lessons while I’m doing homework, I have a new understanding of just how much work goes into it. A night earlier this week, Shi Wei had invited over a friend to make dinner at our apartment. That friend turned out to be my main teacher, Chen Laoshi, who, as it turns out, comes over a lot. I had the incredibly odd experience of staying up until 12:30 in the morning finishing homework, and preparing for a lesson the next day, ten feet away from where my teacher was staying up equally late preparing to teach the same lesson. Repeat situation tonight.

One of the most difficult parts of being here continues to be the clash of the language pledge with everyday interactions at stores and restaurants. Chinese isn’t like Spanish, where you can sound out what something says. If a sign or a menu doesn’t have pinyin or English on it, you just cannot pronounce it. It’s a hugely helpless feeling. I continue to look up words as best I can when I can, but on top of learning all the class words and grammar, it’s a struggle.

After a week of speaking Chinese-only, when we were allowed to use English again, I had a strange moment; I forget the situation, but my roommate used a fairly specific, generally uncommonly used, beautiful English word to describe something. This word was perfectly nuanced for what she was trying to describe, and after a week of not being able to say with any kind of precision exactly what we wanted to convey (me especially), that perfection was absolutely startling to both of us.

I have adopted a slightly odd tactic when it comes to my discussion and oral classes: I pretend I’ve had a drink or two. Everyone I’ve ever talked to, teachers especially, have said that having a drink or two helps get rid of your fear of making mistakes, and you’re more likely to try to say things you don’t fully have command of to try to get your point across. After the teacher puzzles out what you’re trying to say, they help you correct your grammar, you repeat the correct structure after them, and you move on. I’ve been far too afraid to make spoken mistakes, and so have been far too timid in spoken classes, and that definitely has to stop. This tactic, however strange, seems to be working so far. Less thinking, more talking.


  • Slightly bothersome: At least 90% of the advertisements here feature white models.
  • Ever seen those commercials with an unusually happy woman jumping on a bed with a red wine glass that miraculously doesn’t spill? I could do that, except it’s like jumping on a table instead of a cloud. Oddly enough, I sleep quite well on it.
  • Partially thanks to my roommate, I am newly obsessed with bubble tea. It was around in Dallas during high school, and more vaguely so in DC, but it’s literally everywhere here, and completely delicious. Also baozi and jianbing.
  • My roommate from Korea brought a veritable feast’s worth of Korean food with her, so we’ve all been sharing, and it’s a damn shame I had to come all the way to China to discover Korean red sauce. (So. Good.)
  • My roommates and I spent half an hour, in Zoe’s words, “Trying and failing to make fire.” No dice until Shi Wei came back: It turns out the gas lever lives inside the top cabinet, which everyone but me needs a stool to reach.
  • Re: Above—Have I mentioned I’m the tallest one in my apartment? And Chen Laoshi consistently refers to me as “tall?” This has never, ever in my life been something anyone has ever called me.

Sorry for the choppy post- no time to parse it together! Wanted to get it out before I head back into the language pledge this week. Thanks for keeping up with me here. I hope you’re all doing well and have a lovely upcoming week!

The madness begins

After only a week in Beijing, I feel like I’ve been here for much longer than I have, and at the same time I still have no idea what’s going on 99.9% of the time. I had a blessedly easy time navigating the airport, but I think that’s because in comparison to Russian (I took Aeroflot to Beijing via Moscow) Chinese was comfortingly familiar. I was late to meet the person picking me up from the airport because it took an hour to get through the passport line– of the 20-something queues, around 16 were marked for ‘Chinese nationals,’ two for ‘Foreigners’ and two were closed. After that my bag was already circling the baggage claim.

Shi Wei, or Shi Laoshi (teacher) was waiting for me outside the secure area. It turned out she’s both a teacher in my program, and a roommate—she’s incredibly nice, and very energetic and excited about everything. We ran around looking for the best opportunity to grab a taxi, and then we were on the way to the apartment. I was only slightly surprised at how minimal my comprehension of her conversation with the taxi driver was, but it was definitely an intimidating foreshadowing of language struggles to come. Every so often she paused to point things out to me as we passed them, including the Olympic structures (the ‘bird’s nest’ and ‘water cube’) from the 2008 Olympics. We arrived at our enormous multi-building apartment complex, and voila: home for the next couple months. I was surprised at how large the apartment was. Shi Wei lives there full-time, and students come and go by the semester. There’s her room, and two other bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. The best part: It’s surprisingly and thankfully well-heated. The trade-off: The next time I have a comfortable, relaxing shower will be a small miracle. My bathroom has a tub, set slightly off the wall, that has a showerhead (not mounted on the wall) and no shower curtain around it. Therefore, showering without flooding the rest of the bathroom is mildly difficult. The way to accomplish this is fairly uncomfortable, and therefore showering has become a 100% practical endeavor.

Of the apartments that immersion students live in, ours is the only one in this complex in the Haidian district—it’s only a 10ish minute walk to the Beida gate, and then a 5ish minute walk to our school building. The other immersion apartments are in Wudaokou, which is I think a little more than twice as far of a walk, and is where many of the bars/nightlife places are. Overall, I’m much happier to live in a more neighborhood-type area.

When we first arrived, and through the couple days of class, most people were still gone celebrating the Spring Festival. Arriving at this time was very deceiving: I didn’t realize how shut down the city was at the time. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way here. Walking to school is a battle, because the difference is: even if you have the green walk sign, the cars (and buses!) turning right don’t act like it. It’s only from living in DC that I’m not completely stressed out by it, but even New York traffic looks small-town friendly in comparison. The difference being that here, it’s just the way it is, and no one really yells or gets upset about it, except for the occasional “I’m coming, I don’t want to hit you” honk.

The hotpot place: Dingdingyang rotary hotpot

And dragonfruit for dessert.

The first two days of orientation we were thankfully still allowed to speak English. The second day was devoted to helping us figure out the subway, and running around a little bit. We went to this rotary hot pot place in the mall that was seriously delicious.

The Chinese-only pledge began the moment we woke up on the first school day. The schedule is incredibly intense: 9:00-12:00 we learn and drill the lesson for the day, 12:00-1:30 is a break for lunch, 1:30 – 2:30 is a discussion class, the topic usually pertaining to the lesson to reinforce new vocabulary, etc., 2:30 – 3:30 is oral, or kouyu, class, where we practice more everyday situations. From 3:30 on, everyone in the class takes a turn with a 30-minute one-on-one session with the discussion teacher. After the one-on-one is already mostly homework, finding/fixing something to eat, trying to converse with other immersion students in any way possible, and trying to get to bed at a decent hour.

The gate of humility: The back entrance to the history department building

I’m in Level 3 of 5. My roommate Zoe is in the Level 5 class, so conversing with her on the day-to-day basis outside of class has already been incredibly helpful for me. Even though she insists it’s not a problem, I do hope to improve quickly so she doesn’t have to explain quite so much.

Being deprived of English is incredibly shocking. My reading and writing is very good (for the level that I’m at, allow me to qualify), but my spoken, in my opinion, is horrendous in comparison. I’ve been dismayed by how slow my comprehension of Chinese spoken at a normal speaking rate is, but everyone assures me that’s the thing that improves the most quickly. It’s only the end of the first week, but I have already noticed a slight difference.

This struggle to communicate reminds me a lot of Caroline. It’s funny that I had to come all the way to China to understand a little better what she really goes through. What’s most frustrating about Chinese-only isn’t that Chinese is difficult (although it definitely is) but that you’re having deeper thoughts and experiencing feelings that you are literally unable to express to another person. Caroline’s intelligence and understanding of what’s going on far surpasses her ability to communicate about it, and I now understand slightly more how difficult that must be, not even just Monday through Friday, but every day of your life. On the other hand, it’s an incredible motivator to learn that much more quickly. Luckily my roommate is similarly motivated to make speaking as normal as possible, so we’re going to try as much as possible to speak Chinese-only, even on weekends. My goal after I leave here is to have the ability to hold general conversations with native speakers that are fluid and not complete linguistic warfare in my head.

Navigating foods I don’t recognize with only the meaning I can glean from a package whose characters I’ve never seen before is difficult. I knew my vocabulary was small, but I had no idea how small. The first day of school during the lunch break we went to grab food at one of the zillions of noodle joints near campus, and I couldn’t read a word of the menu on the wall. It wouldn’t be so bad, except everything moves so fast here: When there are twenty people in line behind you in a lunch rush, the last thing the person at the cash register wants to do is take an extra precious minute to try to explain a noodle or rice dish to a foreigner with the vocabulary of a three-year-old child. Because even if I asked, “What is that?” chances are I ‘m not yet able to understand the answer anyway. Thus far, the best I’ve been able to do is to point and hope. Embarrassingly enough, I did take one of the paper menus from a restaurant to “study” a little bit, in the hope that eventually I can ask what something is, and understand some of the response.

In the time I’ve already spent at supermarkets, restaurants, the subway and various other public places, it’s been very frustrating to realize how impractical my “textbook” Chinese is.  Yesterday my roommates and I went to a Carrefour, which I’d never heard of, but is apparently a European chain, and here is like a multi-level-Costco-sized Walmart. After walking around in a complete daze, looking like the completely lost foreigner that I am, and waiting in line for twenty minutes for a check-out stand, the cashier said, at the speed of light, “Ni yao yi ge daizi ma?” Of course that’s not what I heard, though. I asked her to repeat it, and I swear she said it even faster. She obviously was not planning to play charades with me to get her point across either. So we stared blankly at each other, meanwhile there are still a million people in line behind me, just wanting me to get out of the way so they could get on with their lives. Luckily my roommate lived in Shanghai for a year, so she knew what the woman was saying, and told me what she said—“You want a bag?” The word I had learned for bag was not “daizi,” so I had no idea.

Even though I knew before I came that this city is incredibly dense, and people, by necessity, have less expectations for personal space, the way they treat space is incredibly interesting. At the Carrefour, and in similarly jam-packed places, no one seems to notice that people are trying to get by, or that you’re in the way, etc. etc. While standing in that checkout line, my roommates and I were playing our own personal game of Frogger, trying to get out of people’s way. And somehow that created more disturbance than other people, who didn’t seem necessarily to notice or give way, but things still flowed around them. It’s incredible the way people here seem to find space where there is none, again I think because their expectation is lower. An opening I would neglect to recognize as a passable space is fully utilized here.

So, somehow I’ve managed to turn this into a short novel—apologies!  I guess it’s several days of pent-up English. Being here is crazy, and amazing, and intense, and ridiculous and great, but I miss all of you at home, both in DC and Dallas, and I hope you’re all doing well! Thanks for keeping up with me here!

But First, Austria!

Before heading to Beijing at the end of January, my 2012 has begun with a whirlwind introduction to international travel via Austria. I’ve been running around exploring and generally butchering the German language with my boyfriend, Jake, who’s working as an English teacher in Judenburg, Austria. So, before I get to Beijing, here’s a photo recap of my time spent in Austria!

First sunrise on the other side of the Atlantic. Almost to London at this point, on the way to Vienna.
My very first schnitzl! (We split). Still the first and only schnitzl I've had, but I had to try it.
Very first stop in Vienna: Stephansdom, St. Stephans Cathedral - A Vienna landmark and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.
Karlskirche - St. Charles Church - Built by Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, in honor of his namesake saint, Charles Borromeo.
At the top of the Karlskirche ceiling. The church actually has an elevator inside, and then several flights of rickety stairs, for tourists to be able to get to the top of the church.
Jake turning into a Manner zombie. Manner is another thing I was unfamiliar with, but it is apparently a perfectly acceptable obsession here. Justifiably.
The first "meal" I ordered by myself in German! The conversation went something like this. Ströck cashier: "Bitte?" Me: "Um.. eine Croissant und Verlängerten Schwarz..?" Ströck cashier: "...Bitte...?" We got it eventually.
At Schloss Schönbrunn. Schönbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the Habsburgs.
The Gloriette - This structure is across from the palace.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum - Built by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. Right across from the Naturhistorisches Museum, both nearly identical and built across from each other.
I was seriously obsessed with all the ceilings. Some of the museums themselves are even more breathtaking than their contents.
Two guesses what this is. Nope and nope. This is the LIBRARY.
Train leaving Vienna. Hard to capture the landscape outside of the train in photo. Other notable stops in Vienna that I couldn't get any pictures of were: the Globe Museum, the Jewish Museum of Vienna, the Sisi Museum.
To Salzburg! This is a sideview of the Salzburg Cathedral.
One of the main squares in the old city, Kapitelplatz: features large-scale chess, a giant spherical sculpture, and a view of the fortress above.
We visited Hohensalzburg Castle, the fortress from the top of the last picture, and this is the first of many pictures taken on the increasingly ridiculous view on the hike up to it.

A view of Salzburg from the fortress as night falls.
Moving on to the Mirabell gardens.
The cemetery at Nonnberg Abbey, where some of the filming for The Sound of Music happened.
The large chess board near the sculpture at Kapitelplatz.
Everything everyone says about the coffee in Europe is so absolutely correct.
And then to the Czech Republic to visit friends doing the program abroad in Prague! This is one side of the Charles Bridge.
More wandering around Prague at night.
A view of Prague from the site where the statue of Stalin used to stand. It's now home to a metronome statue.

So, just like that my visit to Austria is almost over– we left Judenburg this morning for Vienna, and tomorrow I head to Beijing via Moscow. Sad to leave Austria, but incredibly excited to make it to China. I’m so grateful that I get to explore all of these amazing places!