2/24/17 – Warming up

The weather has been warming up, and that has made this week (particularly these last couple days) much more pleasant. Despite the warm weather, I did have some midweek frustrations, particularly with my lack of language skill. I know I’ve been improving, but it’s still incredibly frustrating when you actually try and talk to someone (outside of your teachers) and they can’t understand you, or you have a quiz on a word that, no matter how many times you repeat it, you can never seem to write correctly. My next language is definitely going to be one with an alphabet, because the disconnect between writing and speaking is pretty hard on me. It also doesn’t help it that my throat has been scratchy all week and I’ve started coughing a little, which means I am definitely getting sick – although I hope it goes away without getting much worse.

However, I am enjoying my improved abilities, even if they’re not enough to actually let me function independently in China. I’ve noticed more words that I know on signs and advertisements, and I can understand more of what people say, as long as they speak slowly. My teacher liked the story I wrote for my weekend homework, although she was frustrated at my cliffhanger, and said that this was the first time that she’s genuinely been looking forward to next week’s journals. We also played cards a few times in the breaks between class, and got everyone (teacher included) to play Go Fish together (because it’s a game that’s easy to explain even if you don’t know how to say a lot of words related to cards).

Also, this weekend has been wonderful. After doing relatively well (I hope) on my oral exam on Thursday, and hopefully as well on my written exam on Friday, I went with a smaller group of students to an orphanage to hear about what they do and play and sing a little bit with some of the kids. A lot of orphanages in China (according to one of the workers) have children with disabilities or other medical problems, because families (particularly poor ones) often don’t know how to take care of their children or don’t have the means to get the medical attention they need. I’m not the biggest fan of kids, but it was fun to go and play with them, and it was also fun to just hang out and be able to talk to some of the people I don’t usually see – in English!

Today we went to the 798 art district, which was a lot of fun. It was a very nice location, with a more Western feel (one friend said that it reminded her of parts of Manhattan, so she felt at home), and we walked around looking in galleries and shops as well as at the street art and stalls. For lunch, we went to a restaurant with some BeiDa students, which was very helpful as we didn’t have to struggle through ordering. The lunch was wonderful, with a variety of dishes, and I’m definitely going to look up how to cook green beans and eggplant (two dishes I’m usually not fond of) the way that they do in China. I was too hungry to stop and take a picture of the food, but it was all wonderful. I also got to experience haggling for the first time, although I wasn’t very active in it and mostly let other people do the talking, and I’m very happy with some of the things that I got. With the pleasant weather, it was overall a great day.

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The path along the walk from the office to the dorm – I could smell the pine sap starting to run, and it reminded me of home.

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Paintings done on the inside of glass bottles and beads, done by a man with a little street stall. He also writes names on the inside of these beads, for no extra cost than that of the beads themselves. 

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There were lots of statues all around, many with open mouths, so we had a lot of fun mimicking their poses and facial expressions.

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2/18/17 – Picking up the Pace

Time has been flying by, and it’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Beijing for over a month already! Monday was a rare day that was both clear and warm, which meant that Tuesday through Thursday the smog was oppressive. This week felt really good though, both because the weather has been warming up and because I feel like I’ve been doing better in class. Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, and it was also our calligraphy class day, which naturally meant we learned how to write 爱,the character for love. It’s a beautiful character, although I think the dots are my worst stroke, and again we had a good time hanging out and talking while we practiced writing. Of course we also had to talk about whether or not we were single, and, when asked if I was going to write anything for Jo, I said I couldn’t because she doesn’t have a Chinese name. Building off of Josephine, we decided on 周菲菲,Zhou feifei, which is a very cute name (although because of the way that Chinese names work, even though Zhou and Jo are pronounced almost the same, it’s her Chinese last name, so I don’t use it when referring to her much).

We didn’t have a written test this week, and, while I’m not sure how my spoken test went, my one on one homework went really well. Usually I struggle with it because I forget how to read so easily, but this week I only forgot how to say one or two characters, and I really did feel the improvement. We also got our second textbook (because we do 3 lessons a week and each book only has 12 lessons), and, because we liked writing fiction for our last weekly journal so much, from now on we can always write a story if we want to, as long as it uses grammar and vocabulary from the lessons we learned that week. I know that I and at least one other person are going to be writing one long story with new installments each week, and I’m really looking forward to it. I have a few ideas for plot, and, in addition, I think I’m going to leave off on a cliffhanger each week, just to keep my teacher and classmates on their toes.

After class, we had a paper cutting activity, where we learned how to cut out 喜喜, the double happiness. After that I went to hang out at the immersion apartment, because last night a big group of people went to karaoke. I knew that if I went home, I’d have a hard time making myself go out again, and I’m really glad I decided to go. We found another Chinese movie on TV to watch, and then I agreed to become everyone’s doll as they put makeup on me in preparation for our night out. It was a great night, with not too many people (but enough so that the room only cost each of us around 30 kuai), and afterwards we went to a club (which someone got us free entry to) to dance. I was surprised at how unsurprising the club was, for someone who doesn’t go out much – it was basically like a frat party if a frat party had more budget and a bar. At one point I wanted to go grab a drink, and just happened to be at the perfect time to see the bartender start juggling bottles with lighted sparklers jammed into the necks, and then he built a tower of glasses, lit some liquor on fire, and poured the fire over the tower. Then he handed out a bunch of drinks, and so, while it wasn’t what I’d been planning on ordering, I got one of the drinks. Afterwards I stayed at the apartment, because I didn’t want to go back home by myself at 1 am, and this morning one of the girls decided to make eggs for everybody.

Since getting home, I’ve mostly been resting, and reflecting on the week. I’m glad I went out, although I definitely won’t be doing that with the frequency that some people did, and I’m glad that I got to spend some time with people that I don’t normally get to spend time with. My throat kind of hurts now (it’s impossible for me not to sing a song if I know it, or, occasionally, even if I don’t), and I need to wash my hair again to stop it hinting of smoke, but it was a great experience. I’m looking forward to more great experiences in the months to come!

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My classmates and I taking a communal nap during our break – aka what gets me through my last class of the day.

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My work in calligraphy – Jo’s name isn’t very pretty because this was the first time I had written it (no practice beforehand), and the third character of my name has interesting proportions, but I’ve never been very good at writing that, and the rest I think looks nice.WhatsApp Image 2017-02-18 at 6.58.23 AM.jpeg

My paper cutting – because double happiness is often used as a wedding decoration, people also turn the boxes into hearts, and so I used my leftover Valentine’s Day feeling to make this.

2/11/17 – Branching Out

So this week we went back to class, and it was amazing how quickly I reverted to vacation mode. I managed to stay on top of things, despite varying amounts of sleep during the week, but overall I had a pretty good time.

This week I also started to branch out a little. I went to my first calligraphy class on Tuesday, because I’d had so much fun at the language activity, and it was a great time. We’d learn a new stroke, and then while we practiced it we could talk and basically hang out, with the teacher and with each other. There were a couple non-immersion girls in that class as well as a friend from my class, so it was fun doing things with new people as well. I’m glad I got most of my homework between the normal classes ending and the calligraphy class beginning though, because I definitely didn’t want to do any by the time I got home. Next week we’re all gonna go out for hotpot after class, and I’m pretty excited.

We also had our second test of the semester. We have them every two weeks in comprehensive class, but we had one the first week as a way to test whether or not we’d been placed in the right classes for our levels. It was pretty rough trying to remember vocabulary that I hadn’t used since before the break, and I’m pretty sure my grade is going to take a hit from that, but I know it’s my own fault for not studying as much as I could have. This week I also had some problems just getting my thoughts in line with words that I do know, so I think it was just kind of a rough time in general, as far as my language is concerned. Still, I’m pretty okay with it, I know I can’t be speaking perfectly all the time.

The nice thing about Friday was that after the test, all the immersion students went back to the apartments to cook food and make 汤圆, or sweet dumplings. A funny coincidence that on Thursday morning, in the middle of the night, my dad had asked me if I’d had scrambled eggs and tomatoes yet, a dish he’d never quite been able to replicate. That day, my teacher told us that one of the dishes we were going to be making was scrambled eggs and tomatoes. And that night, guess what my host parents made for dinner? You guessed it, scrambled eggs and tomatoes. It was a highly amusing coincidence. So of course, even though I don’t like tomatoes, I was the one who volunteered to cook up the eggs and tomatoes. I really like eating the eggs in that dish, because I love dishes that tomatoes are in, as long as I don’t have to put a big chunk of one in my mouth.

After we cooked and ate our food, my friend who lives in the dorm and I decided to hang out in the apartment with the other immersion girls, and we had a great time. We played Just Dance using our phones, ate leftovers from lunch, and also played Honey I Love You, which was markedly different than when I played it as a kid, seeing as I was playing it with a bunch of adults. We also made a quick outing to get some wine from a store that sells international food, and there I bought it. My first bottle in four years. A little overpriced, but worth every mao – kriek.

For those of you who don’t know, kriek is a lambic cherry beer, very popular in Belgium. It’s very fruity, but not actually all that sweet – in fact, when I was in Belgium the brand I had on Friday was my least favorite, because it felt so much sweeter than some others, but compared to some American sweet drinks, this was just fruity and very tart, not sugary at all. I’ve literally had dreams about this drink, in which my sole objective is to obtain some of it. My mouth is watering as I write this right now. It was a wonderful experience, and if I could go out and buy a rack of 24 right now, I would. (There are other Belgian beers that I haven’t seen much in America at this store, and I’m tempted to get some of those as well, but honestly every time I go back I’m probably just going to get distracted by the kriek).

Finally, we also watched a ridiculous Chinese movie on TV that we managed to understand thanks to its relatively simple plot and our basic Chinese knowledge. It was an action comedy, titled Mission Milano in English. I highly recommend this strange and amusing film to anyone who can find it with subtitles.

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Our spread – broccoli, a cucumber celery salad, scrambled eggs and tomatoes, and stir fried chicken and peppers, with the sweet, red bean or sesame dumplings for dessert.

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The kriek. I prefer Morte Subite myself, but Lindemans seems to be the only brand I can find outside of Europe, and any kriek is good kriek.

Day trip to Tianjin

This post is long overdue (over a week!) but procrastination is the best motivator to get personal projects done, so here it is.

Last Wednesday (2/1) CSI took us on a day trip to Tianjin, which is only about 30 minutes away by bullet train. I had a bit of an adventure getting to campus where I’d meet up with the group, as I missed my bus and had to take a different one than my usual. I’d heard this bus mentioned as being one I could take home, so I thought it would be fine – and for the most part it was, although it didn’t stop at the stop I get off at to go to school! So I got off at the stop before, because I’d planned enough time so that a little bit of walking wouldn’t set me back too much. This walking turned out to be a lot more than I expected, as I’m fairly certain I could have gotten off one stop closer (a stop that the bus I usually take skips), and at one point the sidewalk ended, with a fenced off area that pedestrians and bikes could use. As I’m still afraid of the bikes in Beijing, I decided to walk into this other area next to the road, a parking lot – also fenced off. There was a minute as the road turned away from the parking area that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get back to it, but I found a way and was quickly on my way again. Finally, instead of stopping at the East gate of Beida, I stopped at a smaller gate just before, and luckily caught my mistake before I had to go meet with the group. It was an adventure getting there, but I made it!

At the train station, we had to wait some time while the teachers bought our tickets, and I was starving from my morning adventure with no breakfast, so me and a couple other hungry students went to one of the fast food places that was open. Fast food being a very American phenomenon, it was a Burger King. It was probably the most American thing I could do, having a burger for breakfast, but it made me less focused on my hunger, and got me through the morning. I’ve never loved a burger with mustard on it so much (I don’t like mustard, but this burger was wonderful). I knew the trip was going to be short, but I was still shocked as we arrived in Tianjin so quickly. On the way I was able to teach a friend rummy, as she’d reminded me to bring my deck of cards, and we played a couple rounds, but didn’t have time for more.

First we went to the Porcelain House, a French style villa that’s been covered with 4,000 pieces of ancient porcelain, 200 pieces of jade carvings, 20 tons of crystal and agate, and millions of pieces of ceramic chips. It opened in 2007, and it was pretty astounding. It was very crowded, but quite a sight to see. My favorite part of the house was the mosaics on the inside walls, which were quite beautiful. Next, we went to Nanshi Food Street, and left with our pockets very empty but our stomachs very full. The Food Street was even more crowded than the Porcelain House, but it was wonderful to walk around and try lots of local snacks and foods. Unsurprisingly, my favorite was the baozi, although reading the name of the stands gave us a moment’s pause – 狗不理 (literally ‘dog ignore’). Although we knew that there was no dog in the baozi, we still didn’t know why the stands all had this name. This week a teacher explained to me (one good thing about procrastination, I have more insight about my experiences) that the name comes from the nickname that people gave to the people making the baozi, which is 狗 (dog), and the fact that the baozi were so popular that the vendors had no time to talk to any customers because they had to keep making them. Thus the name has nothing to do with actual dogs, and I don’t have to feel guilty about eating so many of them.

Finally we went to the Ancient Culture Street, filled with small shops selling a variety of things in the style of the Qing Dynasty. This was absolutely packed with people, and as we explored we had very little room or mobility to actually go into many shops, but I had a good time walking around. We got a few strange looks in particularly crowded areas where we formed a conga line to avoid getting lost, but we all had a good time walking around and staying together, taking selfies at every opportunity.

Finally, we returned to buy train tickets, and had a good time hanging out and taking pictures in a charming square on the river with a lot of European looking architecture. Some people said they felt like they were in Europe, but, having been in Europe, the buildings felt far too new, although I could see the inspiration. It was a beautiful place, and I’m really glad we got to be there! On the subway back, I got to talk to some of the non-immersion students, who I really don’t know very well because of my somewhat isolated situation, and I’m glad I got to spend this time with some new people as well as my friends.

One thing about this day was that there were lots of people taking pictures of us. I’ve always wondered how many other people’s photos I’m in, but this time there were times that we were taking a group photo and a stranger would come and take pictures of us as well. It was a little off putting, honestly. Some people tried to be sneaky about it – in Food Street I noticed one man taking pictures and cheekily stuck out my tongue, and then later noticed him on the other side of us. Others were less so, and one student added a man on WeChat because he was taking so many pictures of them. Someone remarked that this must be what the Kardashians feel like, and, while I don’t think it’s quite on that level, it is really quite strange. I don’t think I ever want to be famous – I know I’m beautiful but please ask me first before taking my picture!

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A selfie with the emperor in Porcelain House

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Food street as seen from above

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Jam packed Ancient Culture Street