Archive for the ‘Margaret in China’ Category

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Margaret: 圣诞节 – Shèngdàn jié – Christmas

January 1, 2012

I am tired.  After a truly excruciating week of exams (one test had over 225 new characters), Michael and I headed to WuDaoKou last night to ring in the new year, albeit without plans or 150 RMB tickets to Nova, Beijing’s biggest New Year’s Eve party.  Before we knew it, we found ourselves in a bar surrounded by friends!  In a blur of colors, lights, drinks, and taxis, we were waltzing down the red carpet leading into Nova, housed in a giant, disused industrial gas tank.  Beijing nights…  Happy New Year!

And Merry Christmas!  Amidst all the exam and travel preparations, I haven’t been able to blog at all about my Chinese Christmas adventures, which I must say they were quite exciting!  Initially, my group of friends wanted to have Christmas Day brunch at a hotel in Beijing.  Most of the foreign hotels host lavish meal with free flowing champagne in thoroughly decked halls, so naturally they’re incredibly expensive.  At the last minute, Michael and I opted out and jumped in a cab on Christmas Eve heading to none other than IKEA.  Maybe a few years down the line when I’m a rich Beijing business professional (哈哈) I will wine and dine with Beijing’s finest at the Westin, but at the moment, you just can’t beat a 15 RMB plate of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes on Christmas.  We expected to see more but nonetheless spotted a few other foreigners who had had the same idea.  On the way out, we stopped by the Swedish food mart for some ginger snaps – a real treat!

Although I no longer consider myself a Christian, I was raised Catholic and have gone to church on Christmas every year since I was born.  Over the past few months I’ve been interested in attending a Catholic church here to see what it’s like in Asia but never got around to it.  What better day to go than Christmas, right?  Wrong, but I’ll get to that later.  After gallivanting around IKEA for an hour or so after dinner, it was still several hours away from the 11 o’clock midnight mass.  We headed to the church via subway but got off one stop early at Xidan, a popular commercial area in Beijing that I had just done Christmas shopping at the night before.  The square was full of young people laughing, holding hands, and, funnily enough, wishing others a Merry Christmas.  

The trees were beautifully decorated in gold Christmas lights, and a section of the square had actually been fenced off and lined with hundreds of thousands of white lights, giving the illusion of snow.  We spotted a Santa promoting a nearby blood bank, so naturally I made Michael pose for a photo!  It was a lovely evening, and the joy of the holiday could literally be felt in the air.  A young man approached us to sell us apples wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper.  Earlier in the day I had gone to WuDaoKou to do some last minute Christmas shopping.  Around every corner, vendors could be found selling Christmas hats, cakes, and even Santa suits, but by far the most commonly sold items were apples and oranges.  I bought a huge orange in an elaborate pink Christmas box and asked the girl why Chinese people eat apples and oranges on Christmas.  She said it’s because the word for “apple,” 平果, has the same character as the word for “peace,” 平安.  This struck me as beautiful, and when I peeled into my orange, I reminisced nostalgically about Christmas mornings past when my brothers and I would run downstairs to our stockings to find big apples or giant oranges placed there by my mother, who had done so just like her mother before her.

Finally it was time to head to church.  Beijing has four major Catholic churches: a north church, south church, east church, and west church.  I chose the south church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for midnight mass even though it was perhaps the farthest from IKEA.  The foundation of the original cathedral was laid in 1605, making it the oldest church in Beijing, but the current building dates back to 1904.  I chose this church because the present archbishop, Joseph Li Shan, was presiding.  Interestingly, he is one of only a few bishops recognized fully by both the Vatican and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church.

When we exited the subway station, we entered into the church’s pseudo front yard.  We immediately encountered long tables lined full of creche figurines and framed holographic pictures of Mary and Jesus that were being sold.  People were everywhere, and we were hassled into a line by men with megaphones.  I asked a woman behind me what the line was for, and she responded, “圣诞节礼物!”  Christmas gifts.  Umm what?  Red candles in the shape of apples were shoved into our hands before we were quickly shuttled off.  It was absurd but nonetheless a heartwarming surprise.

We finally arrived in front of the church, but when we tried to enter, another megaphone blared in our ears telling us to get in line.  And then we saw it.  A line a mile long!  We started walking.  And walking and walking and walking.  More men with megaphones kept yelling something about having a 票, a ticket.  My heart sank as I looked down the line at the green tickets in everyone’s mitts.  I had read something on the internet about how church goers were required to buy tickets for midnight mass in 2004, a policy met with outrage that was subsequently revoked.  Eventually I decided to stop walking and ask someone in line how we could buy a ticket.  The magic of the evening was truly heavy the air that night because I somehow managed to stop and ask probably two of the only people in line with extra tickets.  I grappled with my language as I tried to express my delight for their graciousness, eventually blurted out “Merry Christmas” as Michael and I headed away to the end of the line.

While we were waiting, a couple in line in front of us turned around and asked in broken English, “What will happen inside?  Will we eat?”  Umm no?  I quickly discovered that the large majority of the people who had come to attend mass were not only not Christian, but they had no idea what Christmas was.  They were simply curious and had heard that you were supposed to go to church at midnight on Christmas Eve.  This little gem of Chinese culture drove me crazy when our section of the line finally arrived at the doors of the church and they stopped letting people in.  Michael and I were confined to a jam packed square out front of the church.  Two huge television screens showed the happenings inside, and familiar carols sung in Chinese spilled out the wide open doors.  As we waited for mass to begin, none other than Santa came tearing up the aisles of the church, tossing candy into the crowd.  How Catholic, am I right?

The only good part about standing outside in the freezing cold in poorly selected tights and pumps was that the procession came right through us.  People all around us were pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the action.  Amidst the chaos, archbishop Li Shan looked simply at peace.

Right after mass began, we left.  It was simply too cold to be standing out there any longer, and the mass was entirely in Chinese save for an “amen” here an there.  It would have been cool to hear it though.  On Christmas day we headed to the east church for an English mass, and I was surprised that I still knew almost the entire mass word for word.  It would have been very easy to follow along.  In the cab on the way back to Zhongguanxinyuan, Michael and I agreed to open one Christmas present each.  We both outdid ourselves and had a plethora of wrapped gifts under my six inch Carrefour Christmas tree.  My gifts consisted entirely of chocolate, as I had requested.  We fell asleep watching “Miracle on 34th Street,” a tradition my family usually practices on Thanksgiving, although I had had exams the Friday after this year.

The next morning, Michael and I were joined by two of our friends, Megan and Angus, for a delicious breakfast of pancakes, sausages, home fries, scrambled eggs, and hot chocolate before heading to the east church via cab.  We arrived about fifteen minutes before mass was scheduled to begin, and we joined the mob of about fifty or so foreigners and Chinese outside the locked front doors. We waited and waited and waited.  All of asudden it was 4:00, and then 4:15, and then 4:20.  Finally someone came around and said the side door was open.  Michael and I and a few others ventured over and went in.  To our surprise and frustration, mass was already thoroughly underway with about eight hundred people already in attendance.  We stood in the back.  The mass was exactly the same as a Christmas mass in Minnesota.  The songs, the prayers, the giving of people, all the same.  The only difference was the old white minister stopped and asked in truly the worst Chinese I’ve ever heard for more volunteers to help administer communion.  It was pathetic…

Michael and I had dinner at Subway (our favorite!) after trying and failing to locate a quality Chinese restaurant in a nearby new glitzy shopping mall on Wangfujing.  After a stop in the foreign bookstore, we strolled up and down the decorated street of Wangfujing, veering off down the snack street before heading home.  We passed on the star fish.

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Margaret: 青岛 – Qīngdǎo – literally “green island”

December 16, 2011

Wow, what a fantastic weekend in Qingdao!  Not only was my seaside getaway refreshing, but it also reminded me just how much I love traveling, and I’m more pumped up than ever for my trips to Yunnan Province, South Korea, and Vietnam in January!

Qingdao, population just under 9 million, is a mere 5 or 6 hours away from Beijing via bullet train.  It hosted the sailing event during the 2008 Olympics, was voted China’s most livable city in 2009, and is home to none other than the Tsingtao brewery, the maker of China’s most popular beer.  It’s a popular destination for Beijingers due to its close proximity and gorgeous beaches, though the wintertime is definitely the off season, and my friend Michael and I set out Friday to reap the benefits of it.

Somehow I have come within five minutes of missing every single train I’ve ever taken in China.  This go around was no different, and Michael and I found ourselves stuck in the back of a cab in gridlock traffic, eventually getting to the station in the nick of time, running down the platform at lightning speed as if we were on the Amazing Race.  A plush 5 hour train ride later, we had arrived in Qingdao.  I somehow managed to miraculously find our hostel using a measly map in Lonely Planet without getting lost once!  Props!!  We got ourselves a room and headed down the street to a barbecue place where we met a huge group of German travelers.  They had each already downed a few Tsingtaos made some smart alec comment about American republicans before inviting us to drink with them!  We eventually found out they were also staying at our hostel, so we all returned and finished off the night with yet even more Tsingtao, guitar, and pool in the hostel bar.  Our hostel, called KaiYue, was an old converted Baptist church and still looks like it, so I was quite worried I’d be haunted in the middle of the night for drinking alcohol in a church!!

The next morning we headed to the beach.  Qingdao is beautiful.  Unlike Beijing, the city is quite hilly, and the roads twist and turn and jut out every which way.  We walked down the hill from our hostel into a place I will never forget.  Our neighborhood had come alive.  Birds hung overhead in rusty cages,hooting softly up above will mangy dogs meandered in between stoneware and piles of fruit, licking their chops at the meat sellers nearby in hops that they just might slip, leaving a freshly-killed blood red shank to whomever is the quickest.  Fast paced bargaining for giant bags of oranges, for live chickens, for every kind of fish and slimy squid imaginable filled the air as Michael and I squeezed through the Saturday morning market masses.  There was an unkempt aesthetic to the market that is perhaps one of the things I love most about China.  I would move to that neighborhood in a heartbeat and will never forget it.

The beach was lovely yet cold thanks to a ocean wind.  We didn’t stay long before heading to an aquarium followed by the Tsingtao brewery.  The Germans invaded Qingdao in 1898 and brought their beer with them, establishing in the brewery and building the city’s distinctly German architecture.  The brewery was established in 1903 and has been function ever since.  On the tour, we received a free sample of the beer fresh from the brewery!  After that, the coolest bit was most definitely the modern packaging facility.  Michael made fun of me as I stood mesmerized by each and every machine, turning out hundreds of bottles in mere seconds.

Sadly, most cities outside of Beijing and Shanghai don’t have well developed nightlife scenes.  I experienced this first on my trip to the border of North Korea, where we spent most evenings in the local movie theater catching the latest Hong Kong films.  Michael and I took the same approach and tracked down a theater.  Without my trust Chinese-fluent travel companions, Michael and I had no idea what the movies were.  We could tell, however, that two of them were in English.  We bought tickets to the one of the two that was in 3D, and afterward I used my iPod Chinese dictionary to look up the obscure characters in the title.  “Expel” and “the devil.”  Oh god…  I braced myself for a horror movie, but rather it was a wacko sci fi vampire film called “Priest.”  Time to improve your Chinese Marg….

The next morning we got up and took a cab to the city’s main park.  “Hello, where are you from?”  Umm what?  This was the first English speaking cab driver I’ve ever had in China.  Beijing even hosted the Olympics for crying out loud, and yet, there I was in the back of a cab in the seaside city of Qingdao discussing the intricacies of tai chi with my cabbie.

We wanted to go to the park because it was home to a traditional Buddhist temple.  I’m embarrassed to say that I had not yet been to a temple in China and even more embarrassed to admit that I had NO IDEA what a temple is.  I thought temples in China were all tourist attractions that look something like the Forbidden City and that all Buddhist monks and people who practice the religion live in Tibet.  WRONG!  Robed monks on cell phones scurried around the place as young and old went from building to building, offering fruit, burning incense, and kowtowing.  I was rendered speechless by the beauty of the place and the practice.  Unforunately, in addition to my lack of understanding of what a temple is, I also didn’t have a clue about temple etiquette, and the nearby elderly Chinese burst out laughing when I reached into my purse and pulled out an orange, leaving it at the feet of a great big glistening golden Buddha next to very kind of fruit imaginable.  Maybe it’s because I’m white?

Upon leaving the temple, we were approached by a Chinese man who began talking to us in English.  There seemed to be something a little bit off with him, besides the fact that he was speaking fluent English, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was until an older man and woman approached us.  The older man explained in Chinese that he is this man’s caretaker and the woman is his mother.  The man, named Robert, had a disability.  Amidst his perfect explanation of the body’s interaction with the solar system through the practice of Buddhism, he said something I will never forget.  “My major at Qingdao University is English.  I study very hard, but I have no opportunity in China.”  After saying goodbye, I clutched to Michael’s arm as we walked away.

We climbed higher than the park’s TV tower to the very top of a small mountain, which gave us a beautiful view of the city.  At the top, we briefly chatted with an older man and presumably his son.  Upon telling them we were American, the old man quickly responded, “世界是你的。”  The world is yours.  We climbed down but couldn’t find a good place to catch a cab, ending up at a section of the beach we hadn’t yet explored.  It literally looked like Southern California.  The streets were perfectly paved, lined by squeaky clean sidewalks decorated with planters.  We walked along a boardwalk over a beautiful sandy beach as the sun began to set over the water.  It must have been over 40 degrees F, and in that moment, I forgot completely that it was December in China.  The scene was sublime, and although Michael and I had to hurry and catch our train, we stopped for a few moments to take in what couldn’t possibly be China.

I hope I get a chance to go back to Qingdao in the spring during beach season, although somehow I know that it won’t be as beautiful or have as much character as it did this past weekend during the off season.  I am so very grateful for the colorful memories I collect this past weekend, and I’m even happier to have spent them with my cool Nebraska guy.  And now, I’ll leave you with this:

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Margaret: 兴奋 – Xīngfèn – excited

December 9, 2011

I have ultra exciting news times about five and only about five minutes to write, so here’s the scoop:

1. After class today I’ll be jumping on a five to six hours train ride to the coastal city of Qingdao, we’re I’ll be spending the weekend with Michael, my cool Nebraska guy.  Qingdao is perhaps most well-known as the home of the Tsingdao (pronounced the same as Qingdao) brewery.  Tsingdao is the most exported Chinese beer, and apparently the street just outside the factory, literally called “Beer Street,” has some of the best beers in China, purchased in bags of course.  I’ll save the details for when I get back, but we’re looking forward to the brewery tour, the coastline, German architecture, and POLAR OCEAN WORLD OMG!  Going to see me some beluga whales.

2. Last night I just purchased airfare to…….. SEOUL AND HO CHI MIN CITY!  My friend Megan and I spent most of yesterday trying to figure out where it would be most cost effective to go during our break in January, and after many hours of trying to find cheap flights to Phuket, Thailand, we booked for South Korea and Vietnam.  As soon as we hit the button on my computer, we just turned to each other and said, “Oh my god, what did we just do!?”  It had only then occurred to us that we don’t know anything about either of these countries, only that South Korea has probably the best food in the world and Vietnam is that place the U.S. went to war in that Forest Gump movie.  At least I think it was Vietnam…  But anyways, I’m sooooooo excited!  Yesterday morning I could have told you with outstanding confidence that there would be no way I’d ever get to Vietnam in my life, and a few clicks later, it looks like I’ll be laying out on beaches and hiking through jungles in none other than Nam.  Wow is all I have time to say!

3. I finally went to see Peking Opera!  While I was on top of ChangBaiShan mountain on my trip over the National Holiday in October, I briefly met two young French guys who were doing stem cell research in a northern Chinese city.  We hit it off for a few minutes and decided to swap contact information.  Two months later they’re visiting Beijing and called me to hang out!  I took them to Quan Ju De, a famous Chinese restaurant founded in 1864, where I introduced them to Peking Duck.  Then it was off to Peking Opera, which is very strange to say the least.  It was the most touristy thing I’ve done since I’ve been back in Beijing.  The theater was literally in a hotel, and most of audience were either rich Japanese or what seemed like incredibly inept old rich white couples who obviously didn’t know anything about the culture and were just here to have the “Orient experience.”  The opera itself, if you ever get a chance to see it, is very strange.  The singing is extremely high pitched and odd, and the English translations splayed across screens at the edges of the stage too often do poor justice to the story.  I’m really glad I went with the French guys though.  They’re really entertaining and they asked me lots of questions about America, where they will be doing research next semester.  I’ll probably never see them again in my life, but it was fun to just connect with interesting people for a day or two just to enjoy the company.

4. We had a party in kouyu yesterday.  Many of the American students at BeiDa are here through a program called CIEE, which is a third-party, for-profit study abroad program organizer that sends about thirty students to BeiDa each semester for a whopping $20,000 a semester (I KNOW!  RIGHT!?)  Well, since it’s an American company, obviously it’s going to have its students home for Christmas, so they’re all leaving this weekend, despite the fact that our final exams aren’t until the 30th.  The assignment was for everyone to bring a food item to share that represents our home country.  I went to the Carrefour down the road and bought Twizzlers.  I thought they’d be a hit, but everyone in my class really went over the top!  We had Australian wine, homemade Japanese rice balls, really expensive New York-style pizza.  One kid went to his favorite milk tea shop and bought everyone individual milk teas, which was probably really pricey as well!  My teacher made a homemade pork dish, and my California pal Sam made his famous banana pudding.  I was really hoping my Icelandic classmate would bring something, but then it occurred to me he probably can’t access anything related to home while in Beijing.  We all sat around drinking, eating, and conversing in Chinese, English, Japanese, etc.  I love that class and those people.  None of them are my best friends, but I’ve seen them everyday and we’ve struggled through this insane language together, joking all the way.  It’s been an incredible experience, and it feels strange that some of them are already leaving.  I am insanely grateful that I am here for another semester, as I know that I am on the very brink of going somewhere with this language.  I really feel like I’m just about to be on the other side of a major hump with this, and I can’t wait for next semester to get me all the way there and to meet more amazing people on the way.

5. I bought fake Uggs for $5.  Any of you would swear they’re the real thing.

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Margaret: 宜家家具 – yijiā jiājù – IKEA

November 30, 2011

After a rough week of exams and an even rougher weekend, Megan, my Jersey girl, and I set out for some therapy that only the Swedes can provide.  IKEA, or 宜家家具.  I adore this Chinese name.  宜 by itself means “suitable,” but it is more well-known as one of the two characters that make up 便宜, the word for “inexpensive.”  家 refers to anything to do with “household” or “family,” and 家具 means “furniture.”  Thus, we’re left with “suitable household furniture.”  When read aloud, it sounds something like yi jiā jiā jù.  Genius.

Our first stop, obviously, was the restaurant.  Two plates of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes later, my stomach was full but happy.  For the record: everything tastes the same as IKEA food in the United States and presumably the rest of the world.  Somehow I’d really like to go back there for Christmas dinner.  After about two hours of pushing through 人山人海 (rénshānrénhǎi – mountains and seas of people), I had about 580 RMB worth of necessary materials to IKEA-ize my room.  As usual, I felt a twinge of guilt spending that much at IKEA of all places, but that changed this morning: I woke up warm for the first time in many weeks, the harsh overhead lighting in my bedroom will never taunt me again, my feet didn’t go numb this morning on the ice-like tile, and I had a buddy to spend the night with.  I’ve named him 大王 (Dàwáng) or Big King.  I’ve known a few Americans with this Chinese name.  The English translation in itself is quite ridiculous, but the sound of the second Chinese syllable is really the entertaining bit.

IKEA is a phenomenon in China.  Many urban Chinese go there just for fun, and it isn’t uncommon to see people laying in the showroom beds asleep, with a book open, or cuddling with a significant other.  If you’re interested, check out this LA Times article: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/25/business/fi-china-ikea25.

Lately I’ve been falling slowly into the big black hole of a “Me against China” mood that swallows me from time to time.  Luckily, all of that changed today.  When asked if I feel I’m improving at Chinese, I always answer with a sharp “no.”  Frankly it doesn’t feel like anything.  I still can’t speak basic Chinese in simple situations, usually because I don’t feel confident enough to do so.  Today, however, my jaw dropped when laoshi handed me my intensive Chinese exam.  64 out of 70.  The high score in my class was 65.5.  I looked around at my class of Japanese and Korean students in disbelief.  How could this be possible?  I had always known I was the worst in the class.  My day got even better when I arrived at my speaking class.  Laoshi was rambling on about grades, but I was feverishly looking something up in my iPod Chinese dictionary, almost too distracted to hear 柯小玫, my name, in the same sentence as 听写 (tīngxiě).  So I had scored the highest in the class on my 听写, which literally translates into “listen” and “write.”  Nearly every night I sit at my desk with my book and whiteboard in hand, scrawling out each and every new character, stroke by stroke, and memorizing the sound.  The next day in class, the teacher reads the words aloud, and I write them.  It was no surprise to me I had scored so well on my 听写 – it’s the one thing I know I can do perfectly if I put the time in, which I always do.  I went back to my dictionary, only to hear my name again a few moments later.  I had received the highest score on my oral exam speech along with two other students.  Umm…..WHAT?  I can’t speak Chinese.  I had even awarded myself a 75% on my own performance of a five minute speech detailing the surprise I encountered when I arrived in China the second time to find out that actually not all Chinese people speak English, as I had stupidly and naively assumed after having my hand held for the entirety of my two week trip to China in 2008.  In true Chinese form, Peking University and presumably universities across China have an obsession with broadcasting who in the class are the best students.  Well, as of this point, 柯小玫 is number one, an announcement that was made all the more embarrassing by my loashi’s overly enthusiastic and my classmates’ underwhelming applause.

My exam results made me feel better and worse at the same time.  While it felt good to feel successful momentarily, I quickly reminded myself that I still don’t know how to order food without resorting to pointing at it, I still yell out “left” and “right” from the back seat of cabs because I don’t know how to say “turn,” and my eyes still glaze over blankly when someone tries to talk to me even when they say something that I’m perfectly capable of understanding.  Somehow I’ve managed to “try” my way around Chinese without learning it.  I’ve reached the top of the class with just enough effort to score well but not enough to actually have the language stick.  I guess it’s a good skill to have with regards to organic chemistry or physics exams, things that I will never have to use again, but it’s entirely useless when learning a language.  My test scores have left me feeling rejuvenated and with a clean slate, so these next few weeks, I’m really going to try to apply myself once more.  In fact, I think I’m going to start by looking up “turn” once this is published.

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Margaret: 朋友 – Péngyǒu – friends

November 22, 2011

Today I received an email from Yao Yao, one of the Chinese friends I met while visiting the “small city” of Loudi, population 4 million, in 2008.  It’s a strange reality three and a half years later, that I may so casually return to Nowheresville, China to run around with some very old friends in a place with a two-story Walmart but no white people.

It makes me think of when this all started during the spring of 2007.  A fifteen-year-old me was probably watching some crappy MTV reality TV show when mom walked in and asked me if I wanted to host a Chinese student at our house for a few weeks in the summer.  I was indifferent.  Nobody in my family showed any interest, but my mom signed us up anyway.  Peter was so friendly yet so foreign, breaking through my fifteen-year-old consciousness and making me realize that there is in fact a world beyond the chemical-drenched lawns of suburban Eden Prairie.  I remember grappling with it at the time though.  What does this really mean for me?  I’ll never have any reason nor opportunity to see this kid again, he’s as insignificant as I am.  Yet, the world works in mysterious ways, and here I am listening to pre-maturely played Christmas music in a Chinese coffee shop in the middle of Beijing while looking up train routes between here, Loudi, Kunming, Guangzhou, and a plethora of other places that are calling my name.  So thanks mom.

I really need to upload a video of my erhu.  Unfortunately it still sounds like the Chinese version of a bagpipe, so for the most part I don’t dare to play it in my dorm room.  Next weekend the erhu class is going to a park to play outside despite the freezing temperatures.  I don’t think anyone here has ever seen a white person play erhu before, so next time I post, hopefully I’ll have lots of funny pictures of onlookers.

I have the second set of midterm exams this week.  Tomorrow I’m giving a five minute speech, and on Friday I have a written exam with about 225 new characters I have to know how to write.  That’s roughly 2000 strokes, people…  Because of this, the thought of Thanksgiving literally hasn’t even crossed my mind, but I know there are several dinners being put on by restaurants in the Chaoyang District.  Sure, it’ll be sad not celebrating Thanksgiving, but the nice is, it’s out sight and thus out of mind.  My parents are hosting a few Chinese visiting scholars who are teaching or researching at the University of Minnesota this year.  A piece of advice: Don’t try to teach them how to play 31.  Bad memories of when Chinese people tried to explain a card game to me and Brian in a Loudi apartment one evening three and a half years ago.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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Margaret: 秋天 – qiūtiān – fall

November 11, 2011

Fall has finally arrived in Beijing, and the ginkgo trees on campus are nothing short of spectacular, lighting up the grounds like big golden suns.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d bring my camera to campus today to capture the colors before they’re gone in a week or so.  I figured my blond hair already attracts enough attention, so obnoxiously snapping photos on my own college campus wouldn’t really do all that much more damage in the staring department.  After class this afternoon, I set off to old campus for some photographic therapy.  To my surprise, every single other Chinese person on the north half of campus had a camera in their hands.  Students, frail old men, and even little kids were running around in pursuit of the angle that best captures the colors of the season.  It was like we were all paparazzi.  This was really one of the only times I’ve felt a sense of community on campus.

Apparently my photographing did attract the attention of one onlooker – Li Xizhuang, or Alec in English.  He tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Are you American?”  I then spent the next five hours with him in a coffee shop on campus helping him prepare for the TOEFL, the English exam foreign students have to take to go to school in America.  Li is 33 and holds two Master’s degrees, one from Harvard and the other from Tsinghua, Beida’s rival for the number one spot in China.  He lived for several years in Boston and then New York while studying and working.  He’s hoping to be admitted to a PhD program in executive business management in America so that he can become a professor and “have time to think and write a book.”  His spoken English is amazing, but, as usual with non-native speakers, he has many minute issues with writing.  I had never realized before tonight how many itty bitty English words like in, on, through, by, that, etc. are so interchangeable yet so not at the same time.  Li is perhaps the first Chinese person I’ve met here who’s really been able to stimulate me intellectually.  We discussed the role of Chinese parents in their child’s education, the differences between Chinese women and American women, why all Chinese people want to leave China, etc.  He was also very forward with me, talking about girlfriends and marriage and babies but then adding that I’m “too young,” and “just like his 15-year-old niece.”  I feel like I should start calling myself the Much-Older-Man Heartbreaker, as it’s unintentionally happened more times than I can count.  I probably jinxed myself somehow when that 30-year-old Hispanic janitor as my high school job proposed to me IN SPANISH when I was 16 and I said no…  Despite his restrained advances, I had a really great time with Li and left feeling totally refreshed from our conversation.  Although I said he didn’t have to, he paid me about $80 USD for my tutelage, which is a TON of money by Chinese standards.  I may go buy myself a $15 bag of Milanos tonight.  🙂

Growing up, during the peak of fall color my family would pack a picnic and go into to Chanhassen to Lake Ann one weekend each year.  There was never anything particularly special about this lake or this place.  I could go to it whenever I wanted and would frequently bike there in the summer to go to the beach.  Yet, I remember avidly looking forward to this one day each year, and my memories of it are vivid.  Somehow every time we’d go, the water, frigid by now, was always as still and reflective as glass.  Dad would prepare the charcoals for the hot dogs while mom unloaded the cooler filled with Pringles and green grapes and homemade cookies and if I had behaved that day, a caffeine-free Pepsi, my heart’s delight!  My brothers and I would play on the playground before all five of us would head into the woods.  The trail was probably no more than a mile, but it was perfect in every way.  The leaves in every shade of red and gold and brown would fall as if on cue like we were in a snowglobe of sorts.  When I was a bit older, puppy Bentley joined us, running like a cheetah up and down and all around and collecting a myriad of sticks and leaves and burrs in his fur that became the bane of mom’s existence.  The sun would set over the lake, and soon enough the fall chill permeated our sweatshirts, sending us home.

Feeling nostalgic and looking to recreate my fairytale fall memory, a few days ago I went to the Summer Palace in search of fall color and peace of mind.  Just two subway stops from Beida, the imperial gardens had once served as a summer resort for emperors of old.  To my dismay, I found neither color nor peace.  The ginkgos on campus had had me fooled.  They’d turned much earlier than anything else, and the Summer Palace hardly had any at all.  A bleak, heavy haze hung over the day and blotted out the sun almost completely.  What should have been beautiful was gray, and tourism had overrun the place with vendors attacking me around every corner in broken English.  I’ll have to go back in the spring or summer when everything is in bloom.

Despite being sick and poorly medicated on Chinese “herbal antibiotics,” my heart has honestly felt like it’s going to explode these past few days!  Brian Krause is coming to China in January, and I am soooooo excited!  Now that I’ve gone on a backpack trip and know how to not get ripped off while bargaining for a room in a hostel, he and I are going to set off together on an China epic adventure.  Trains and buses go everywhere in this country, and hostel rooms are like $10 a night, so basically we can hop a train and go anywhere.  The idea that the WHOLE country of China is available to us is giving me absolute chills.  We could go to the Avatar Hallelujah Mountains:

Or Hainan, China’s Hawaii:

But where I really want to go is here, here, and here:

Yunnan Province near Tibet.  One of the cities I hope to get to actually changed its name to Shangri La.  I’m absolutely itching to get out of the city and off the beaten path.  Tiger Leaping Gorge, here I come.  I just can’t wait to do some hiking again and breath actual air.  And I couldn’t have picked a better travel companion.  I absolutely cannot wait for him to get here.  It’s literally going to be the trip of a lifetime, and it can’t some soon enough.  And let’s be honest, we all remember where Marg ended up with a backpack and ten days to spare this past October:

Amazingly excited to see where two weeks takes Brian Krause and I.

And then mom and dad come on February 5th!  I simply could not be more overjoyed to have my family come to China.  I remember this past summer when my mom came to visit me in Ames, Iowa.  I mean, I know I’m comparing Ames to CHINA right now, but seriously, the prospect of her visiting was all that got me through the two sticky, strenuous week prior.  I remember being so excited to take her to the gelato shop and the Stomping Grounds and Hickory Park and around the Iowa State campus.  I showed her around Des Moines, my weekend escape, with pride and even drove her all the way out to the research farm, where I had her walk in the corn a bit just to see how lovely corn leaves scratching your face feels.  It meant so much to me to have her support me in such a way.  It’s easy to think that relationships within a family are stagnant, and it was her visit that made me really realize how ever changing each and every relationship with my family members are as we move through different stages of life.  I am so thrilled to reconnect with my family in China, and the prospect of their coming has made me feel completely renewed and incredibly lucky to be here.

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Margaret: 万圣节 – Wànshèng Jié – Halloween

November 1, 2011

At long last, the Halloween celebrations having finally finished.  What a weekend!  I couldn’t stand the idea of not dressing up as anything for Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, so I embarked on the seemingly impossible quest of tracking down a costume in Beijing.  Carrefour, a French hypermarket, had all of one costume for females – pirate wench.  One size fits all of course.  Well, one size didn’t quite fit all, and I ended up making a few alterations that fell out throughout the course of the weekend.  And the hook was totally necessary, am I right?   A select few Chinese caught on to the amazingness of Halloween while the rest of the crowds out on the town were expats.  I dropped big bucks on some American candy, and I never thought I’d say this, but due to an extremely limited selection of sweets, Snickers and Skittles are getting old quite quickly.

Karen, a friend of mine from Chinese class at the U of M, is studying in the city of Xi’An this semester, and she took the train in with two friends to visit me in Beijing this weekend.  It was wonderful to see her yet odd at the same time to have someone who knew me before China in Beijing with me!  I took them to the Temple of Heaven, which I had been to back in 2008.  Ming and Qing dynasty emperors used this complex for annual ceremonies to pray for good harvest.  I guess we have GMO’s for that now…

My friends really wanted to go the China military museum, which I hadn’t been to before.  Every museum I’ve been to in China so far just hasn’t measured up to anything in the U.S.  Poorly light halls filled dusty cases displaying the bowl so and so ate his porridge out of during such and such battle or the socks some general wore fifty years ago are ogled by old, bent over Chinese men who probably predate the artifacts while screaming children play hide and seek, poking in and out of the legs of huge statues depicting men who at one point in Chinese history probably did something particularly Communist.  Poor translations adorn the walls, meanings sometimes lost yet other times exacerbated.  My day was made when some genius thought it would be a great idea to bring his art class of seven year olds to the military museum to gain inspiration from none other than the small arms display.  Priceless China.  Endless entertainment…

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