The Great Wall Pt. II

8 Apr

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

25 Mar

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

11 Mar

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!”

4 Mar

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

26 Feb

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

19 Feb

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!

Forbidden City: Group Picture!

19 Feb

The program emailed us the group picture from last weekend’s trip! Time to play where’s waldo…

just kidding. i'm on the far left. :)


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