Monday, August 20, 2007

Concerto Finale: 速度

Recollecting time is so hard. “Memories are fragile” indeed. It’s one thing to list memories, but to remember emotions…

Following Henan, HBA life resumed at its usual unpredictable pace. The new grammar and vocabulary got easier to learn and harder to remember. Hot and humid mornings, rainy afternoons and cloudy nights make going out to explore a luxury.

The essay I wrote about my experience entered a speech contest that pitted my Chinese level against other international students from other summer programs, like Princeton-in-Beijing, Northwestern, Duke, etc. Preparation was heavy – class as usual, but when others relaxed during the afternoon, I found myself constantly editing and practicing my speech and criticized by my speech coach, Liu Laoshi, for not having a strong fourth tone. I would begin homework at 10 during the night, hobbling up to the 8th floor to bed by 1 AM if I was lucky. The results of the contest were pleasant and fruitful – 3rd place, with 200 Renminbi prize money, and increased Chinese fluency.

The weekends after the contest weekend were far more relaxing. I visited the fake Disneyland in west Beijing. China has gotten a lot of crap for developing its economy by copying foreign trademark goods, like Swiss knifes, American films, European clothing, but the Disneyland was a poor copy. Maybe Disney’s lawyers got to the place before I could see the Chinese Snow White for myself. The castle was a yellow ripoff from Sleeping Beauty, a miniature disco dome copy from DisneyWorld harbored “4-D” adventure rides (though not quite adventurous). No worries, however – in some ways, I suppose it’s a compliment to American ingenuity, because other countries want to copy it (China just has the guts (or is it lack of modesty?) to do so). 而且,the company was amazing.

What’s the point of being in China without a bit of shopping? And what’s the point of shopping without of a bit of bargaining? At the Silk Market, I bought about the equivalent of $800 merchandise with $100. Don’t ask me how I did it – I did nothing. Asian men are horrible bargainers – maybe it’s something with our facial expressions, like the my-word-is-final-and-I’m-going-to-squint-my-eyes-even-more-to-emphasize-that expression. The fun part for me was that a lot of the salespeople had no idea where I was from.
“You look Japanese,” they say.
“Do I?” I tease. “How about for every time you guess wrong, you take off 100 kuai off the price you’re giving me.”
That conversation didn’t go for long. But, the occasional ability to pass for an overseas Chinese, a pissed-off American jackass, the clueless American, the French-speaking Asian, or the omnipotent handsome-like-the-guy-in-that-TV-miniseries Korean helped to lower prices (just kidding on the last one….). Women are lethal bargainers. They have the endurance and willpower to get the price down to whatever price they see fit. Thank goodness I had one.

Before we could begin to count the days, the last week came. We had a performance called Beijing Night, where we danced, sang, performed skits, anything to enhance or ridicule Chinese culture. I sang Phantom of the Opera with Annika and Dani, two people who possess extremely different but seducing voices, the first soprano and angelic, the latter alto and jazzy (“It’s all musical theater, really”). I was the director of our summer program, Feng laoshi, Dani a frightened teacher trying not to get on Feng laoshi’s bad side, and Annika an excited soon-to-be disillusioned (haha.) student studying Chinese. We had a few technical difficulties with the music, but the entire act was so fun that they didn’t even matter. I also performed forms, flips and kicks with friends who went to the Shaolin Temple. Our movements were all beautifully synchronized, each block and punch released and snapped together. Liu laoshi’s front stage fan dance only added to the fluidity of our movements, 真好像波浪起伏。The raspberry something gelato after the performance was so wonderful, 非常好。(hahaha)

During the last week, I got to eat lunch with the writer of A Billion Customers, James McGregor. He talked about pretty much everything involving China, from cardboard dumpling hoaxes and recalled Mattel toys to imprisoned journalists and the fate of China after the Olympics. His insight about China made me wonder whether medicine and environmental studies are worthwhile career options. With all the economic development and globalization, which field will see the most excitement, the most change? Which path will I be more relaxed in, have more fun in, have a bigger impact on?

I was surprised how much my classmates had grown kin to one another, how much I had gotten close to the friends I’ve made at HBA. I’ll do my best to not forget the Chinese I’ve learned, but my friends,….很难忘。I will feel sorry for my Harvard friends for having to go back to Harvard. Don’t worry – The Game is at Yale, and I expect a reunion. I will dearly miss my teachers, who put in unbelievable effort to 提高我的中文水平。谢谢你们,我爱你们!




P.S. 请你们找到我再Facebook网站。我会把我所拍的照片在我的网站。

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Broken Intermezzos: Henan and Shaolin Temple

Note: Written during the week of July 13th through July 20th, 2007

July 14th, 2007

We arrive in Henan Province about 5 o’clock. Through the window, I see real fog for the first time since I arrived in China. It hugs the earth, encroaching over the grasslands and seeping through the bamboo trees. After getting off the train, we take the tour bus provided by the martial arts school to the hotel. We get to the hotel around 7 AM – my legs are sore from the cramped seats. I’m worried about my left knee – it’s cramping easily. The rain isn’t helping very much either. Wang laoshi takes us to breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Some porridge, a couple eggs, too many salty pancakes, and I am back in the room for a nap. At 10 o’clock, we set out to buy our uniform pants and socks for tomorrow’s training, and get a feel for the school campus. Despite the sullen weather drowning us, the worn down buildings are alive with the unison cries of students going through morning exercises, kicking pads and punching air. Soon, we eat lunch. Some students are concerned about the cleanliness of the dishes, so Luo laoshi uses the boiling tea to sanitize them. The tea seems like something out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a clear green concoction still boiling out of the teapot. Still not completely rested from the rough morning, I retreat to my room for yet another nap.
At two in the afternoon, we hike the stone road to Shaolin Temple. The gray path is amazingly even; the stones evenly spaced, ancient bamboos and trees straight down along the path. At the temple, we meet our tour guide, an actual Shaolin monk. The man takes us through the architecture and charismatically explains the significance of the different statues of Buddha, and the relation (or lack thereof) of kung-fu. We go where normal tourists cannot enter – we stand right at the foot of the Buddha relics made thousands of years ago, wall paintings closed off because of public abuse. The monk and I share a little sparring moment, comparing the stances of Tae Kwon Do to kung fu. The rain has slowed down, and time has already flown to 6 o’clock. We follow the stone sunflower path out of the temple, where we gather for a picture with the monk next to the stone guardians of the main entrance.
Dinner is again at the same restaurant. The waitresses are absolutely zaogao. No matter – it’s the food that matters, right? Of course, when you find two flies in the vegetable dish and a strand of black hair that you know can’t be yours, appetite wanes. I finally take a shower before we gather once more for the night to watch the Jet Li movie Shaolin Temple. I smile to myself as I follow the dialogue with my limited vocabulary and knowledge of the temple. After seeing too many lambs killed by the evil goons, I excuse myself. I must wake up at 5 AM tomorrow to run hills, and it’s not going to be pretty. The green and purple hair bracelets on my wrist provide the only comfort for the night.

July 15th 2007

Harley wakes me up at 5:00 AM, as mandated by our martial arts teacher. I curse the weather for not raining. A quick splash of water on my face, and I leave the room. The rest of the group is already waiting for me outside. The teacher is late. We run.
We run through the tattered walls of the school. Already, young children in their school uniforms are crossing my path, heading to perform their chores. We run down the stone path. In the early morning, it is serenely empty of tourists. The calming green on both sides of the path make the run less of an eyesore. A couple runners dash way up ahead, but I stay with the middle pack. I see Harley with our teachers way in the back.
At the gate of Shaolin Temple, we wait for Harley and the teachers to catch up. While waiting, Wang laoshi suggests that I lead the group in learning a Tae Kwon Do form. After refusing, she makes me oblige – nothing really better to do. Teaching the form is hard, as many (if not all) have experienced martial arts. After teaching five moves, the teacher arrives.
First, plyometrics. Quick sprints and jumps are followed by light stretches. Finally, the teacher guides us through simple Taijiquan. The slow deliberate movements make me sweat faster than the everything else we’ve done. It’s nothing like Tae Kwon Do – everything is slow, each move taking time.
On the way back to the hotel, I talk to some monks. One is seven years old, a couple are teenagers, and one’s the adult guardian. They are on their way to spread their knowledge of Buddhism. The seven year old started studying when he was four years old. I ask the guardian if starting at such a young age is effective. “It’s not a matter of understanding, but getting accustomed to the life first.” 习惯.
After breakfast, we meet students from the Shaolin Wushu Vocational Institute. The school director and Feng Laoshi are friends, so we are fortunate to talk to some of the school’s best students. I’ll save the comments that were exchanged for my bao4gao4.
For lunch, we go out into the city. Wang laoshi takes us to a restaurant where we are provided soups in which we boil everything we want to eat, like thin slices of meat, potatoes, cilantro, lettuce, etc. While eating, Wang laoshi teaches me how to speak like someone from the countryside – “Za3 le?” – and Bo2An1 teaches me how speak like someone from Taiwan.(我有吃饭了!). Upon return, we begin our first Shaolin kung fu lesson. It is like the morning, but faster and sweatier. Harley, Bo2An1 and I learn how to back flip, and we learn a Shaolin form. The moves are supposedly simple, but complex. Because of the sweat, I place my glasses on the ground where I think no one will step on them, but the teacher accidentally steps on them. Wang Laoshi has sent them to an optometrist. I ate dinner with my face and the food about three inches away from me. I write this entry incredibly blind. My eyes are horrible – I really didn’t expect my eyes to be this 糟糕. Besides this unfortunate event, there is one point that I won’t forget – the after-massage. For the first time in my life, I get a massage to relax the muscles sore and worn from the training. It takes the teacher several “fang4song1”s get me to calm down, but I relent to the pressure relieving itself from my body. I intend to pass on this Shaolin massage, but for now, I need sleep. Those wishing this Oriental massage must at least a week.

July 17th, 2007
Yesterday was gongfu training all morning. From five o’clock to about one o’clock in the afternoon, we practiced wushu and shaolinquan. We performed flips, kicks, stretches and punches beyond our comfort zone boundaries. In the afternoon, we visited a Taoist temple. The biggest difference between the Taoist temple and Buddhist temple is the abundance of trees. The trees are old and bountiful, hundreds taking up an entire courtyard and beautifully lining stone paths. However, I really couldn’t wring myself to gather much interest for the religion. It’s very…mortal. Kings from ancient times are posthumously worshipped for their wisdom.
I don’t worship other people. I may love, I may infatuate with, I may idolize, but I do not worship a fellow human being.
说实在的,the entire temple felt rather fake to me, renovated for the sake of tourism. But, millions of Chinese people still make pilgrimages to this temple every year to respect this statues and enhance their Taoist belief. From an ideological standpoint, Taoism sounds fascinating, and has many honest values, but the temple feels flamboyant.
I got about five hours of sleep… not enough.
Today, some students didn’t wake up for the 5 o’clock morning run and wushu. No matter – the morning jog helps to clear my mind. The final steps of the wushu form are complex, and I still do not comprehend some of the movements. I hope that the laoshi will give a better explanation tomorrow morning.
At eight o’clock, we went to visit Songyang Academy, the oldest and the most famous Buddhist-Taoist-Confucianist Academy in China. For a sense of the school’s elitism, the Academy in ancient times is like Yale today. The school grounds harbor beautiful stonework, including famous stonework of 95 Buddhas and stone calligraphy. Also, the oldest 白术in China, estimated to be older than 4500 years. If looked at very carefully, one of the aerial stumps resembles Confucius holding up his hand in prayer form.
Afterwards, we climbed Song Shan, the geographical center of the Chinese universe. The experience is hard to describe in words, so I shall save descriptions for the video I have made and pictures I have taken. All I can say is, my legs 疼得厉害.I must sleep. Tomorrow will be gongfu all day long, and I haven’t rested decently.

July 18th, 2007
I haven’t rested as well as I wanted to. Cold sweat and a couple of mosquito bites greet me when I wake up. The falongshui seems to have no effect on Henan’s mosquitoes. No matter – another 5 o’clock run awaits. Today, I get to teach some of the students that didn’t wake up yesterday how to perform the next few steps in the form we are learning. Teaching the form is tiring, but it feels great to see my limited Chinese and body motions passed on to and understood by another being.
After breakfast, we’re back in the training room. Today is all tumbles, somersaults, and aerial flips. I seem have mastered cartwheel with two hands, and have accomplished one hand cartwheels. No hand aerials are, at the moment, impossible for me. Maybe by the time I tried to do aerials, my body was already too tired. After accomplishing a high one hand somersault (but nearly running into the sharp tables on the side of the room), I stop. “Fang4 song2” is heard a lot from our teacher.
Lunch tasted great, but the service was as crappy (if not crappier) as the first day. Our room has no hot water (it’s been about three days now), but the cold water showers feel great after sweating out gallons. I’m supposed to work on drafting my investigation report, but I’m too tired. Nap is essential.

July 20th, 2007
I’m on the bus. I’m going back to Beijing.
Since the afternoon of the 18th, I’ve had precious little time and energy to use the computer. The afternoon workout that day wasn’t as intense as I had expected, but still exhausting. After working out, we all succumbed to dinner on the first floor of the hotel, still sweating in our uniforms. Showering was a bit of a joy because hot water was finally available. Harley and I rested on our beds with our laptops on our laps, trying to figure out what to prepare as drafts before Wang laoshi dropped by to check up on our progress (what progress….). I’ve decided to comparison, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m writing. I’ve forgotten so many words, I’m afraid I may have to write my essay in English, then translate into Chinese.
Yesterday, we visited the Longmen Caves. Against the wall of mountains, Buddhas are carved. Words are not enough - I hope my pictures help. We also visited the first Buddhist temple built in China, called 白马斯,or White Horse Temple. There are still monks using the temple to this day. I’m confused by all the Buddha statues I’ve been photographing. They all have different faces. One monk told me that the different faces signify the omnipresence of Buddha, another told me that whoever made the statue picked a famous contemporary person to create Buddha’s face. I like the first explanation better, but frankly Buddha looks better when he has a feminine face.
In the evening, we went karaoke-ing. It was nice to really relax for a change, Beijing style. The beer tasted funny, but we trusted its cleanliness. Wang laoshi let us sing a few English songs, but the karaoke system was horribly outdated. I ended up singing 98 Degrees’ “I Do (Cherish You),” but it was still fun to kneel in front of Wang laoshi to make her blush.
This morning, Kaiyue and I woke up at 5 AM to take in the sights one more time without sweat on our brows and tourists in our faces. We talked about the difference between traveler and tourist – the tourist is led, the traveler leads. I’m not sure if I was led much during this entire week. I’ve talked to so many kind kungfu students, heard first-hand perspectives, eaten first-hand food (beware) – I don’t want to define myself as a tourist.
Parting with our teacher was hard. I was surprised when Harley pointed out on his business card his birth year was 1987. He’s just one year older than me, two years younger than Harley. The girls said they wanted to marry him. I can’t stop them. Even I think he’s hot.
The bus in shaking the laptop a lot, and my hands are getting sore from typing in this uncomfortable position. We still have quite a few hours until we reach Beijing, but there is always this report to write, and classes to prepare for. I’m not sure what I want more – to return to an old life of repetition, or to constantly experience something new, no matter how painful or strenuous it is. But, then again, I’m in China. I’m always experiencing something new. Every word I study, every breath I take (Chinese air pollution, whoo!), is something new.

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Saturday, July 7, 2007

Friday Night Musical: 天安门和故宫, 在一次 (Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, Again)

The beauty here cannot be replaced,

and the Chinese understand.

On honoring the past through museums -
Americans honor by elevating an artifact's importance through glass walls. A wall of polyglass and laser security sensors makes something important.
Chinese have very few, if any, glass walls, and no security sensors. As I walked around the Forbidden City, I could only summarize the behaviors of tourists with this Chinese proverb:

"Tell me, I forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand."

The serenity of Beihai Park. Lakes on lakes, green on water.

We were slightly late for the flag ceremony, but no matter. For the five minutes that those soldiers took the flag down, the soldiers' faces said nothing but grave honor as they saluted to the falling flag. If their crisp marching, every person's step exactly 75 cm per step, is traditional dancing, it makes walking seem like contemporary expression.

Following the fall of the flag, Tiananmen and the monuments illuminated like a ride from Disneyland, complete with different colored lights. "Welcome to Beijing. There are no Fasttrak lines here - that would be unfair to your fellow citizen. However, enjoy your stay, and don't forget to take a picture of Mao!"

How can I resist Tiananmen while it looks like Christmas?

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Etude - 习惯 (getting used to it)

4 months later (technically 3 weeks, but considering each day's like a week) . . .

Through my window, I look over the tall trees of the university at never-ending construction in Beijing. The sky deceivingly looks to be covered by fog, but the locals are kind enough to tell the stupid foreigner that they are blanketed by polluted air. Inside my dorm, the air conditioner is always on, but outside the temperature spikes several tens of degrees, the humidity getting inside your shirt and shorts. As much as I relish the comfortable conditions of my room, my lessons demand my full attention.

The process is simple, but tedious - for every character and every new word, I write it over and over while pronouncing it correctly until I can remember it without sweating. The Chinese education system calls it 死记硬背 (rote memorization). I call it masochistic learning. After the second week, the process didn't torture as much as the first few days, but there's always that occasional character that looks ridiculously hard to remember.

With each new day, the grammar gets tougher, the characters harder to remember along with all the characters that I already had to learn. The phrase "越来越多" (more and more) is heard amid complaints from students, but this is what we signed up for. This upcoming week, we will finish one semester's worth of Chinese, and have our midterm exam. Oh joy.

Chinese food is good. Really. The only problem is, when you start to detect MSG (monosodium glutamate - makes food taste good, but gives killer headaches when too much is digested) in your food, or you wonder what your meat would taste like without all the oil, other cuisines start to look delicious. I forget what a burrito takes like. I crave bacon. A couple Chinese yogurts and stuffed buns in the morning, fried rice in the afternoon, and oil-laden meat and vegetables in the evening doesn't exactly bode well for the stomach. Thankfully, my Chinese has improved enough to request the cook to not add MSG and sparingly use oil, and I can eat without feeling too guilty after every meal.

After our midterm is our society survey week. Students will disperse throughout China and study the local culture, development, and economy. Some will go to Shanghai, some to Inner Mongolia, some to Shanxi. I will go to Shaolinsi in the Henan province to study gongfu, Eastern religions, and hopefully get a chance to talk with the locals. According to my teachers, Henan is one of the poorest regions in China, and is the home to a substantial percentage of Chinese with AIDS. It'll be nice to get out of the city.

Studying all the time sucks. I missed some instrument to relieve stress, so I went out with my friend to Xinjiekou and bought a guitar. After some bargaining, I got one for about 70 American dollars. The street was littered with every kind of instrument, from saxophones to clarinets, from trumpets to trombones, from violins to erhus. I'm tempted to buy a saxophone here - the best tenor saxophone in one of the stores is only $300. Ridiculous.

I don't think I'll ever get used to a daily routine at HBA. Everyday there's something new to take care of, whether it's buying groceries at the local supermarket or trying Chinese-made McDonald's. Not that I want a routine, of course.

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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Weekend Concerto 2: 天安门和京剧


"This is the 4 o'clock early bird economy news! In national conc--" screams the radio before my hand slams a few buttons.

I quickly shower, dress, and meet LeVan (fellow classmate) . We rush to the University's main gates and grab the first taxi we see. "Tiananmen Xi," LeVan says to the driver. I look outside the window. The sun doesn't seem to be up, but I can't be sure. I just hope we're not too late for the flag-raising ceremony.

Twenty minutes later, we are at Tiananmen Square, and already we see thousands of tourists crowded around the flagpole, but they're making way for a sharply dressed brigade, marching 105 beats per minute, 75 cm per step. I sit up in excitement, and get my camera ready.

But the brigade marches away from the pole. A glance up at the pole, and the great Chinese flag laughs at me, the red cloth fluttering in the light breeze and morning shower. I try not to say anything, as LeVan gasps and shakes her head, wondering why she woke up so early. The flag still taunts me, and I can't do anything but stare at it. If it weren't for the guards at its base, the Square would see more red than back during the mass revolt of the 1980s.

The throngs of tourists have retreated to the comfort of their tour buses, feeling satisfied for watching the rare spectacle at the center of the Chinese universe. I stare at the flag, swearing in English.

But of course, being a tourist myself, I feel obligated to take the risen flag.

With nothing else to do, we head for the Forbidden City. The entrance features the smiling face of Mao Ze Dong, and at his portrait's foot are smiling tourists, feeling obligated to take a picture with a picture of a man that launched China into cultural chaos. LeVan asks if I want a pose with the man, but I spare myself.

The Forbidden City, so-called because it was closed off to the public for 500 years, features the living quarters of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The roofs are exquisite, every ornament overdecorated, every dragon sparking gold over the ramparts.

We get as far as the meridian gate, and we are stopped by a ticket booth that will not open until 8:30. It is only 5:30AM. I look up at the buildings. The living spaces are built on large blank red walls. The royal families must have thought walls would stop assassins. I'm not so sure about the walls, but I want my future house to have these palace roofs. The oriental beauty is astounding, the corner ornamental dragons majestic, guarding the dynasties from ancient spirits.

We walk along the outer walls, and find ourselves bordering the palace moat, yet another man-built defense of the long-gone dynasties. Old men cast fishing rods into the green water. I wonder if any fish can survive in such polluted water, but they know better than I do. As we stroll, we pass by elders singing with deep long vocals, swinging their bodies in beat to their music, synchronizing to the commandments of their taijiquan.

The gray sky overlooks the palace, but the palace's fierce colors seem to challenge nature's hues. However, tree and water make the color fight serene, their green soothing the eyes.
(Same day, evening)

Recovering from the early morning trek to Tiananmen takes nine hours of sleep and a cold shower. Tonight, the HBA is going to see Beijing Opera, or Jingju.

The first act is entitled, "The Goddess of Heaven Scatters Flowers." After the overture, featuring Chinese instruments such as the erhu and Chinese flute, a piercing, high-pitched note screams out over the audience. The goddess comes out from stage right, holding that same note. She stops. Now, the small pit orchestra joins her as she wails high-pitched notes that sends shivers down everyone's spines. My ears hurt for the initial few minutes, but after getting accustomed to the strange musical style, I can bear to look at the goddess, twirling the long rainbow silks across the stage. According to my teacher, Beijing Opera traditionally starts with an introduction from the goddess, her flowers scattered throughout different worlds. Our mortal minds can only see the growth of one of her flowers - in this case, the story of a nymph who married a scholar.
The story is of two warring factions - that of the scholar and that of the nymph. The two decide to marry on first sight because the nymph thinks that scholar is smart. Seriously.
But of course, the general of the nymphs is not happy with such a rash decision. He sends out troops with a warrant for arrest, but Chinese nymphs don't go down as easily as the Greek counterparts. She calls up backup, featuring her maids and an incredibly agile turtle (the green-clad man on the right).

The general sends his best marshals against her. One marshal can't stab her down - she merely kicks the spears back to the marshal. (Literally kicks the spear.) So another one joins. Two can't get her down, so three. Then four. Now each of these marshals has two spears. She only has one. But they can't get that nymph down - she's too agile for these pure earthly beings. In the meantime, the turtle fights off the rest of the troops. The maids show up for one fight and run.
The story nearly ends in failure, when the scholar is nearly stabbed by the general, but the nymph saves the scholar in distress, waving her magic amulet. The couple chases the troops away, the nymph waving the magic amulet and the scholar waving his long ponytail. The end.
A bit too Americanized, methinks. A glance over the crowd, and I see more Europeans and Americans than Chinese locals. Perhaps the locals wanted to spare themselves of the goddess's lovely high-pitched eardrum-breaking voice, or perhaps they knew that the Opera was geared for American idiots who are used to Hollywood-style action, expecting nothing less than a good dose of martial arts and a simple plot from Chinese entertainment.
Nevertheless, we really enjoyed the spectacle, for what it was worth.
(I know, my face looks noticeably boney. I've lost considerable weight since I've been in Beijing. Blame the food, not me.)
After the show, we furiously making plans for the night. Some are heading to Latino, a dance-bar club feeling (surprise) Latino music. Some are heading to Houhai, the scene of music and alcohol debauchery lasting into the night. Some are headed to sleep. As for me, I'm getting ready for singing karaoke for the first time. I don't know any Chinese songs, but whatever. It's always the company that I seek...though, it would be nice to sing something I know. Afterwards, my friends and I will go to Vic's, the hottest nightclub in Beijing, to dance the academic stress off.

Oh, it's been two weeks, but life is going so fast. So much change already - I like it. I only fear the consequences on my mind of trying to live a year in nine weeks.

("Weekend Concerto 1: The Great Wall," will be written at a later date.)

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Song Number 2: "Wo bu neng shuo Yingwen"

Feng Laoshi told us that in one day we will study one week's worth of Chinese. He forgot to tell us that each day will also feel like one week.

At Beijing Language and Culture University (Beiyu) tall trees and bamboos are everywhere, with scatterings of raw stone tables and boulder chairs. Students from all over the world make the campus a global microcosm. One ear picks up West African French, the other Korean, blurred by Chinese dialect. I haven't found the mass of homogeneous black hair that I expected. Students sport the latest hairstyles, complete with red streaks, brown highlights, and perfectly uneven lengths. I feel somewhat at home, surrounded by fellow students and friends.

Outside the University, the scenery is different. Taxis and local buses crowd the streets, driving in lanes, on lanes, between lanes, whatever is necessary to go forward. American traffic control would probably have run of ticket paper by standing just at one intersection. The ever busy Chinese start their days early with sun, which brightens Beijing through the omnipresent gray clouds as early as five o'clock in the morning. A ten minute walk toward the Wudaokou train station already shows early-bird street sellers and buyers, bargaining for fruit, underwear, toys, books - five more minutes of strolling reveals Korean restaurants, karaoke bars, and Pizza Hut. The intersections are always busy, a crossroads for bikers, wagoners, walkers, drivers, and the occasional mule.

Before the first day, Feng laoshi, the program director, has the students sign the Language Pledge, or as we are now limited to calling it, "Yu yan shi yue." Chinese is our language. We know nothing but Chinese. We talk in Chinese. We listen to friends using Chinese. For the next 8-9 weeks, we know nothing but Chinese. English is nonexistent, except when we write emails, talk to our parents, and are in life and death situations. When talked to in English, we respond, "Wo bu neng shuo Yingwen" (I can't speak English). Chinese is our language.

The school day is busy, starting at 8 o'clock. For me, it starts at 6 AM. Despite setting the alarm clock to 7 AM, Beijing sun brightens the room and spikes my biological clock. After quickly getting ready, I sit down at my desk and quickly write down the characters I will be tested on for that day. Immediately after, I'm out of the dorms on the way to the classroom building. On the way, I'll pick up a couple baozi (steamed meat-stuffed buns) for breakfast. From 8 to 9:15 is DaBanKe (Big Class), where we are lectured on that day's lecture. Following DaBanKe are one Reading Class and two XiaoBanKe (Little Classes), where we are drilled on our understanding of the grammar and pronouciation of the text. Then, lunchtime. Finally, there is my favorite class, DanBanKe. During DanBanKe, students engage in one on one conversations with the teachers, the teacher giving out the frequent corrections to our sentences as we struggle to express thoughts with limited vocabulary. My conversations have ranged from love and women's rights to Chinese politics and linguistics. At 2:20PM, I return back to the dorms and unwind, relaxing by working out or browsing the extracurricular activities provided by Harvard, from wushu to Chinese cooking to calligraphy. However, relaxing doesn't last long. I'm back in my dorm, sitting at my desk, doing homework and memorizing new characters. In the past week, each day has averaged about 80 words a day. By midnight, I try to sleep, lest a character still hasn't stuck in my head, or I just have a big enough headache.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. On Thursday, I furiously review all the vocabulary and grammar in preparation for Friday's kaoshi (exam). Following the written exam, I must recite the essay I finished writing on Thursday, memorized. At last, the weekend has started. I am in safe haven.

But then there's laundry.

edit - Complaints of no photos coming in. Technical difficulties have been overcome as of Sunday, June 24, 2007. Please stay tuned for pictures of HBA life, shopping in Beijing, the Forbidden City, and Beijing Opera.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Song Number 1: Chasing the Sun

Simply put, the plane ride to Beijing was not pleasant. Sitting in one spot for half a day is painful. Thankfully, I had Chinese to take my mind off things. A man from Chengdu sitting next to me was so kind to help me review vocabulary and grammar. I heard myself using the basic dialogue responses that Zhou laoshi had prepared. Chinese 115 at Yale is amazing.
Every so often while I studied, I looked outside the window to enjoy the scenery. The plane took me through every possible geographic region - I saw the Pacific, the Canadian mountain range, its forests, the freezing waters of the North Pole at noon (icebergs included), Chinese desert, Chinese tundra, Chinese farmland... all under the sun. I moved with the sun, rotating around the Earth, casting my shadow 30,000 feet up in the air, my orange round ball of a friend some 65 million miles away.
The humidity hit me like a batting ram when I got off the plane. After customs and baggage claim, I saw thousands of Chinese teenagers crowded around the entrance with orange balloons, waiting for some celebrity to come. I felt pairs of eyes follow me all the way out of the airport - why do they make it so evident?
I took a bus to Wudaokou, thankfully met up with a senior Light Fellow called Jason, who helped me get a taxi to my couchsurfing host's address. My host was really relaxed - an Austrian native, he makes his living taking amazing photographs and teaching English. He's pretty good at Japanese, but his Chinese is not up to par, yet. Like me, he said that he came to China to see it before the Olympic Games' tourists do.
The first afternoon and night there I felt myself blending into the crowd, joining the Asian mass. Occasionally I found myself gawking (though subtlely) at other foreigners, but I think I looked at them more to hear a bit of that comforting English language than for their foreign appearance. The only people who know I'm a foreigner are the waitresses. I'd spend too long poring over the menu while others know immediately what they want. Despite my language barrier (for now), the waitresses were really nice, speaking broken English and unbroken Chinese, while I made sense of them with broken Chinese and unbroken English.
People don't sleep very early in Wudaokou. I took a walk after a much needed shower, and night life is bizarre here. On the main street where everyone from the nearby apartments gather, groups of anywhere from five to fifteen sat in a circle, eating meat kabobs, noodles, and drinking huge bottles of beer. I walked a bit further down to the park, and saw old couples practicing how to waltz to some Chinese singer out of the '80s. After dodging incoming waltzers, the big street was filled with teenagers and other foreigners, some going to nightclubs, some to bars, some to karaoke, some to their homes, some to join their friends for a usual nine-o'clock-meat'n'beer-meal. The drivers liberally honk horns, groups of friends yell raucously into the night, and I lied on my host's couch, overcome by fatigue and jetlag.

edit 8:40 AM BST
I ate xiao baozi and ma2la4mi3sian4 (small meat dumplings and spicy noodles with vegetables) for breakfast. I must pack now, and go to Beijing Language and Culture University to register with Harvard.
note: Nobody seems to cook themselves breakfast in the morning.
note: Drink lots of water. Liters and liters more.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I'm sitting on those un-welcoming drab gray cushion chairs at the airport, waiting for my 8:10 AM flight. Waking up on time to get to the airport was actually pretty easy - I guess some of the post-Yale test anxiety still lingers. Or maybe I'm just excited.

I'm not sure how to define my excitement. According to my parents, I generally contain any sort of enthusiasm with some sort of "Korean" dignity, whatever that means. On the way to the airport, my dad went on about how East Asian people know etiquette better than Westerners. But isn't etiquette relative? Take the Eastern and Western approaches to drinking soup. Western manners insist on no slurping noise, whereas in Korea, Japan, and China, slurping one's soup is considered perfectly acceptable - how else would the soup cool down? I'm guessing my dad meant that I take the unexpected on with a cool head with common sense, and, in his own words, "You're neither too happy or too sad." I see some truth in that. I'm happy that I'll set foot on new ground, but I'm not hyperventilating, "I'm going to China! I'm going to China!". I'm curious to see what the country's like, and how people are there. On the other hand, I'm sad that I'll be missing the chance to see my best friends, who will come after I leave. I'm sad to leave my family, and Willy. But I know that when I come back, they will be there, and I'll bring more stories to the dinner table.

I didn't plan to go to China before I started college. It just... happened. I thought that I'd be sitting in some lab or hospital right now, volunteering and researching, making my resume pretty for medical school. But how could I pass up a trip to China, all expenses covered? My language lectors had been amazing during my freshman year, giving me hilarious and often profound insight into Chinese culture and its state today. I want to use my knowledge and to see the sights I had only glimpsed in history textbooks. I want to see China before the Olympics in 2008, and the infestation of the world population in China. Yes, infestation is a strong word, and I know China's already very developed, but I want to see the mass of heads with homogenous black hair for myself.

My first rest place will be at a fellow couchsurfer's place. I can't give his name for privacy reasons. What is a couchsurfer, you ask? Couchsurfing is an internationally known method of travel, where independent travelers can sleep on other traveler's couches... for free. You can contact a couchsurfer online, ask for a couch, and hopefully you'll get one to rest on. It's all a system of trust - you pray to whatever deity you believe in that, as you sleep, your host will not sell your organs to the highest bidder. I exaggerate - there have there been such a case, according to the site. Here's the site for all of you who are interested: This will be my first couchsurfing experience and I've never met my couchsurfer, nor do I clearly know how to get to his apartment, but it will be exciting to ride Beijing buses and taxis for the first time and meet completely random people. Stay tuned. I assure you, there will be a third post.

I just recently finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, so I am compelled to add this final note: I hope you have your towel.

edit, 10:47 AM, Vancouver International Airport
I feel too lazy to get food or browse the duty-free shops at the moment. Vancouver is a beautiful city, a lot like Hong Kong (said the person next to me). Lots of little islands, beautiful clouds, but brown murky bay. Pity I won't be here for long.While I was waiting in the Canadian customs line, I happened to talk with a lady who published a book on bribery, and was going to China to talk about it to a government committee. She told me we were lucky to be stuck with U.S. bureaucracy and red tape rather than have to deal with developing government corruption. For example, in order for one to obtain a driver's license in America, one simply has to follow a few set age and knowledge rules, paying set fees here and there. The worst nuance that the American can complain about is waiting in line. As she said, "My students in India told me that to get a license there (in India), one could go about it legally and wait for days, or they could bribe the person behind the counter, have the driver's license personally delivered to their door, and have a commercial trucker's license to boot." I asked her what the word for bribery in Chinese was, and she said "hong2 bao1." Isn't that literally "red envelope"? I'm puzzled by this conversation, and a bit nervous. At least when I was in Tunisia I had a sense of Western values despite the Islamic influence, but what set of rules (or lack thereof) have I decided to subject myself to?

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Thursday, May 24, 2007


I can't sit still.

I rarely drink anything with caffeine, I don't have A.D.D., and I don't do drugs. Maybe I need a check-up at the hospital. Maybe it's just been a hard adjustment from the fast-paced life at Yale to the tranquility of my hometown. Or, maybe all this waiting is messing with my nerves. Waiting for another parcel post filled with clothes and books that I couldn't take as flight luggage to come home. Waiting for friends to finish at their colleges. Waiting for my puppy to finish eating so that I could have someone to talk to (I do talk to my dog, as you do). Waiting for allergies to stop bugging me. Waiting for the tomorrow. Waiting for China.

I'm not sure what to expect when I get off the airplane at Beijing Capital Airport. All the demo videos of how to take a taxi, how to order food, how to find a hotel room, how to bargain for goods, all the little anecdotes from Zhou laoshi, all the days of studying Chinese into the twilight - I hope they pay off. I know China is developing fast, but I hope the globalization doesn't interfere my cultural experience.

Before I go off on my itinerary, some acknowledgements. Many thanks to the Richard U. Light Fellowship committee for providing me the resources to make my experience financially stressless. I'm sorry I missed the reception. According to a fellow classmate, Mr. Light was like a "jolly Santa Claus with a skill for story-telling." Adam and Kelly - thanks for all the presentations and walkthroughs to Traveling and Making the Most of China 101 - I won't forget the information you gave me. To Harvard-Beijing Academy - thanks for accepting me, but I'm not sure how much I'll love you after the first two weeks of studying. Finally, thanks to all my Chinese lecturers, who ignited my passion for the Chinese language and culture.

Now, down to the logistics.

June 13th - Off to Beijing, China
June 14th - Arrive in China, stay over at fellow Couchsurfer's place in Wudaokou
June 15th - Move into dorm at Beijing Yuyan Daxue
June 16th - HBA breaks loose
August 17th - HBA ends. Traveling China.
August 19th - Back to Pleasanton, CA
August 27th - Off to Yale

I think the hardest part of being back home is the lack of discipline to open the red Chinese book and review the characters. I find myself on Facebook, reminding myself of what I left at Yale. Or, I find myself reading books I didn't have time to read. But, now that I've stated the problem, I suppose I should open the red book now. I also need to apply for my visa. Eww...bureaucracy.

Ah, excuse me until my next entry. The puppy needs to go to the toilet. But please, comment away, for as soon as HBA starts, this is the only way I'll express any thought in English.

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