Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Yankee Doodle Theme Song from Barney: Let's go to Class - Everywhere

This cold is not going away. Runny nose, fever, hoarse voice complicated by constant Chinese practice everyday, has made the cold drag on.

The first week of Chinese was appropriate for my sickness. The first two lessons basically covered health. By the end of the week, I was able to tell everyone exactly what symptoms I had, the details of a restless sleep and my sensitivity to light.

IUP is thorough. At HBA, I remember covering hundreds of words, knowing definitions of characters but glossing over usages. Here, the teachers grind each word's usage into you. For example, I know about ten ways to express going to sleep. Each term is used in a slightly different way. While the locals will understand what you want to say, they will not correct your words with the correct synonym. Fortunately, all the IUP teachers are patient and eager to help, whether I take their class or not.

Yesterday, a group of students and teachers went to a village preserved since the Ming Dynasty called 爨底下, or Cuan Di Xia. The village is shaped like a round bowl filled with rice, with the landowner's house on the highest spoonful. Most of the structures were maintained for more than 400 years. Tourists come to eat the local cuisine, which is supposed to be unique. My hunger didn't detect anything outstanding, to the cook's disappointment. However, I saw an old lady making cornbread in a great big metal bowl over an open fire. Her hands must be like insulated gloves - she would touch the bowl to flip the patties with her bare hands! Although the fresh bread was meant to be served to the awaiting customers in her restaurant, she sold a couple for the IUP troop to share. The unsweetened bread was the best thing I've had since living in China. The American southern cornbread cannot compare.

Everyone explore the town on their own. I found myself with the teachers, talking in Chinese throughout the day. Had I been with the other students, I don't think I would have appreciated or understood the town's culture, religion and geography deeply. The local geography is confounding - some places are labeled "Eight Mysteries Pool" and "Nine Meditation Stones," but when I actually hiked to those areas, all I found were cesspools dark with algae and nine boulders. I bet if I made a sign that said "Tree of Richard" next to anything resembling a branch, someone would take a photograph. Others areas were breathtaking - river-cut passageways with caves and cavities, single bell temples surrounded by vast green mountains.

Back in my room, I can only imagine my hike through fading memories preserved by these photographs. Outside, I hear American students in drunken stupor. There are a lot of foreign students on campus now as the actual university students leave and summer language program students move in. My opportunities for a Chinese-only environment dwindle in Wudaokou - with English in one ear and Korean in the other, hearing Chinese is a luxury. Maybe if I willingly try to not understand English and Korean, I can get by. Realistically, however, I have told other Koreans and Americans who see me as foreign that I am Chinese. It works - unless I'm talking with another Chinese.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Etude: Nuts and Bolts

Finally I am able to log onto my blog. I wrote a test message lest my entire entry gets deleted by clicking on "Publish Post."
The Ministry of Public Security in China has changed their internet traffic monitoring methods over the past year. I am not only hopping over the Great Firewall, but over three other hurdles, collectively coined "The Golden Shield Project." From DNS address redirecting to mirror sites to site-by-site regulation, the government is really bottlenecking the flow of information. I can't help but think of Professor John Wargo in the School of Environmental Sciences ingraining the adage "Whoever controls information controls fear and security" when I think of the measures that the MPS has taken to prevent me from accessing this blog.
For any Light Fellows and Yalies in China, this is how I am accessing the internet:
1.) Download and install the Cisco VPN Client (Ver from the Yale Software site.
2.) Connect to "Yale resources and home networks." You may have to log onto your school's network site before you connect through the VPN Client.
3.) In the statistics box, you should see no packets discarded under "Packets" and Transport Tunneling "Active on UDP Port xxxxx."
To test, I've tried Wikipedia, BBC, NYTimes, Facebook, Youtube and other sites traditionally blocked. I haven't had a hiccup.
This entire week I've been in transit or in bed. My flight, though long, was merciful. Every few hours, I looked outside the window to see the world below - Canadian forests, Alaskan mountains, Siberian tundras, Japanese islands, Chinese farm fields - and looked around the plane, which was filled with anxious high school students wearing bright orange shirts reading "Explore China Camp" and sleeping tourists from Philadelphia and San Francisco.

At Tsinghua, I've run around all over the campus, the Haidian area, and Wudaokou to get a cell phone, books, toilet paper, medical checkups and a bike. Yes, a bike. Last summer, I thought bike-riding was suicidal in Beijing because of everyone's disregard for traffic regulations (imagine a taxi skimming your back wheel while a pedestrian walks across you and a bus honks at you to get out of the legal crosswalk area). However, Tsinghua's campus is at least five times the size of Beijing Language and Culture University's, which hosts HBA. Granted, I've gotten the cheapest strolling bike I could find and had to repair it twice already (the damn seat kept bending and pushing into my thighs). I've been hit by a taxi and hit a few old ladies because the brakes are a joke, but the bike is wonderful. I'm not quite ready to hold an umbrella in one hand and talk on the cell phone with the other, but I'll get there.
The students at IUP are all, to some degree, crazy about Chinese culture, philosophy, history, literature and/or food. I'm one of the very few who's interested in public health in China and North Korean refugees, but even so I find myself enlightened by conversations with my classmates over meals. Almost everyone has just graduated college, is pursuing a M.A. or Ph.D., or already in the workforce as a journalist, film critic, historian, lawyer or consultant, looking to refine their Chinese skills. Though we are all united by our love/hate relationship with China, our life experiences define us individually. One guy who was in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan had to work at a U.S. Air Force Base as a head chef when the government failed in 2003. He didn't have to know how to cook - he just had to keep the Kyrgyztani ladies away from the American soliders, and vice versa. Another classmate, a recent graduate from Georgetown's famous International Relations program, has traveled the world, has no upper tolerance for spicy food, and knows more about the Korean media star Rain than most Koreans know.

For now, I can't wait for classes to start. My textbooks, called Thought and Society and Frankly Speaking, seem very interesting. My room still needs some furnishing, but whenever I'm in here I feel like I'm in jail, with the cold floor, hard bed and stale air amplifying the sense of entrapment. I'd rather be outside, bike around town and breathe in polluted air. Unfortunately, a sore throat from the pollution and a night of karaoke with Yalies leaves me no choice but to watch some Chinese soap operas and chew Vitamin C pills.

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Cisco VPN Client

Connected to "Yale resources and home networks"

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Second Prelude: 机不可失,时不再来

My flight leaves for Beijing in about seven hours.

I had hoped to spend the days leading up to today thinking about where I would like to visit, what I would like to experience. I had a taste of Chinese culture by trying to rent an apartment close to Tsinghua University through emails with the landlady. My Asian neighbors offered contact information of their relatives in China and bordering countries. I perused through the Lonely Planet travel guides and Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China as much as I could. However, I'm still clueless. Perhaps I'm better off not planning at all. After all, I made my goals - to master the Chinese language and to understand Chinese society and culture - purposefully broad in order to force myself to travel and try everything while I am abroad.

I wonder what the next twelve months will bring. Will the silver iodide pellets bring clear skies on 8/8/08 for the opening ceremonies? Will Liu Xiang, the reigning world champion in the 110m high hurdles, take the gold again? Will Beijing change drastically after the Olympics? Will I drastically cut my hair? Will the winter snowstorms and spring snowstorms be short? Will Wenchuan and the surrounding areas recover from the earthquake by next May? Whatever happens, I hope I'm there to witness it.

The sun is rising.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Techno Rave: Shift Happens

I remember having a conversation with a few Light Fellows about why we applied for the fellowship in the first place. Yes, it's an all-expense covered study abroad session - yes, the Olympics are happening - yes, Japanese pop culture is amazing - yes, Korean boys are cute (not really) - but everyone agreed that East Asia was the new metropolis to experience, that it was important now to understand the cultures, politics and economies there while we are still in college to prepare ourselves for a globalizing world. "The West has shifted"... East Asia is the new "West," as hackneyed this phrase is getting nowadays. After a summer in China, a semester's worth of writing about globalization and cosmopolitanism in China and a couple years of Chinese language, I'm still confounded as to what this shift is. I found this slideshow and TED video appeasing (and aggravating, ironically) my confused mind. I hope you enjoy.

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A Poorly-rehearsed Musical: Love during Earthquakes

I was perusing my feeds on Chinese blogs, and came across this post by Mr. Wang Xiaoshan on a love question made by one of the entertainment section editors of a newspaper.

Here is my rough translation of the question:

"An earthquake can test how you express your love. When an earthquake first happens, what is your first reaction?
A: Hide under a table in panic
B: Open a window
C: Drop everything and run outside
D: Stand in place out of fright.
Analysis: Individuals who selected A are rather alert and protecting of their love. If their love is revealed, they become nervous. They get so nervous about their individual partner's devotion that if they can't relax, they'll just get weary. Individuals who select B are stable, steady lovers. After they fall in love, they become more steadfast and more confident about their charismas. For those who select C, once they fall in love they are crazily filled with energy, as if everything on their minds has just been liberated. For those who select D, they fall in love like diving into a river headfirst. Other than their significant loves, they don't think of anything - their grades and work all suffer, and everything else is just in an awful mess."

So, since we students across America are taught to hide under their desks to protect their spinal cords from being severed by falling debris, are we protective nervous lovers?

Mr. Wang notes that the editor was sacked. "I don't think he should have been sacked," he argues. "This editor was just more heartless than the others."

How can any newspaper try to comfort its readers by comparing love to tragedy? (Unless you're one of those melancholists in a permanent pre-Juliet Romeo state or Peter, my friend who has given up on dating) A disaster and loss of life calls for grief and support, not amateur psychology. Since China has an unprecedented amount of domestic press coverage on the earthquake in the Sichuan area, it has been amazing to see the solidarity of the Chinese people in pictures of bright-eyed children holding candles and volunteer workers digging through rubble. Now is a time to connect broken families, through radio programs like "Phone-in for Peace"; to reestablish the education system and get students back in school; to get to rid of earthquake side-effects that threaten more lives, like quake lakes. Albeit the question's attempt to distract worried minds from the death and destruction caused by the earthquake, its humor points only to remind its readers of lost love and unnecessary self-criticism.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

New (or should it be old?) Sounds: Chinese Neighbors

I don't talk to my neighbors. Actually, all the families in my neighborhood are fairly self-contained, limiting all communications between houses to formal greetings when a couple neighbors coincidentally check the mailbox at the same time, or when one walks by another mowing his or her lawn.
I live in those edge city phenomenon houses built by KB Homes, in the planned labyrinths of suburban houses that look identical every two or three doors down. My community is ethnically diverse - white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Russian - but before I digress I'll focus back on the theme of this entry - my Chinese neighbors.
The Chinese neighbors coagulate. When I leave the window open, I can hear them from as far as five houses down. Before I studied Chinese, I subconsciously blocked out all the raucous unintelligible gossip out of my head, but after finishing Chinese 150 at Yale, their furious shouts started to make sense:
"Wife, you've cut the bushes too much!" says a husband.
"Just go to work, I know what I'm doing," replies the wife, the sounds of bush scissors snipping.
I worried that I would have to resort to textbook recordings and Youtube videos in Chinese to consolidate my Chinese before going to China, but listening to the everyday conversations of my neighbors, at last understandable through all the tones and phrases, I decide to venture out of my room and talk to them.
Fortunately, I don't have to initiate the awkward hello, knock on their doors or wait by the mailbox until they come out of their houses. My mom, being the ideal neighbor, actually talks with them, so she just calls one, relates my desire to speak Chinese and sets up a date for me and a neighbor.
Jenny, a middle-aged Taiwanese mother, lives next door. The first part of our first conversation together consists of my apologies for not even saying hello after living next to each other for more than three years. Jenny, instead, just waves it all away and compliments the fact I could express apology in Chinese. After her first flattering statement, I just start from Chinese 115's "您过奖了" and enjoyed our talk.
While she was differentiating 丢掉,失去 and an assortment of other synonyms related to "to lose," she teaches me "丢掉脑袋." These characters mean, literally, to lose your brain. If you say something that's considered offensive towards the government, you can 丢掉脑袋. It was a pet phrase in Taiwan when Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-Shek) was still around, censoring the media and the press. I'm not sure if this 俗话 is used on the mainland, but still a useful colloquialism, no?
Hours go by in a flash, and soon she has to pick up her daughter. She criticizes her daughter's poor Chinese, wistfully voicing her regrets, "If my daughter can at least recognize characters, I'll be happy!"

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