Posts Tagged ‘Peking University’


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:


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:

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.


Margaret: 出轨了 – Chūguǐle – derailed

September 25, 2011

Yes, sadly Marg is quite derailed.  I’m beginning to realize that studying and working hard isn’t going to cut it with my classes.  There’s a huge gap in my education between what I learned at Minnesota and what I’m supposed to be learning here.  I can’t magically make up for the language foundation that I never had.  Taking this level of hanyu would be comparable to reading the Sorcerer’s Stone and then skipping to the Deathly Hallows.  None of it would any sense, and the reader would endure 759 pages of Avada Kedavra and Lord Voldemort!  I should probably change classes, however I’m not even proficient enough at the language to tell me my teacher my concerns.  I’ve been unmotivated and somewhat apathetic this week, simply going through the motions.  Let’s hope I can give tomorrow a renewed Margy try.

On the bright side, as soon as Friday hits, I get to temporarily forget about all of it in favor of food, dancing, glitz, and glam.  On Friday night, a few friends and I rented a paddle boat on Houhai.  The boys did all the work!

And now for the newest biggest news since I’ve been here: On Friday I bought train tickets to travel to the North Korean border for next week over a week-long holiday with two guys I met.  I promise there’s no need to jump on a plane and come kidnap me.  One is Keen, a thirty-something MBA student in Tiffany’s program.  He was born and raised in Chinatown in New York City before going to school at Cornell and then moving to Japan.  He’s really interesting because he was on the ground when the planes hit the World Trade Center and when this latest earthquake hit Tohoku.  Just hoping we don’t get arrested on the border!  His buddy is a tall, white excitable and eccentric Australian named Ben who’s in the language program with me, although he’s in nearly the highest level.  He and I packed into a tiny room to buy train tickets from the campus travel agency on Friday.  Everyone was frantic, pushing and shoving to trying to buy tickets at the last minute when most were sold out.  We arrived at the front, and out of this Aussie’s mouth came the fastest Chinese I’ve ever heard a foreigner speak.  The room fell dead silent.  I turned around as if I was on stage to see thirty Chinese people staring at us with big silly grins on their faces.  I burst out laughing, which only added to the spectacle.

On Friday after class we’ll take the Beijing-Tianjin intercity railway, peaking at 217 miles per hour, to Tianjin, or what I like to call Beijing’s brother on the ocean.  The trip is only about thirty minutes.  We’ll spend the night there, getting up on Saturday to take a train (soft sleepers!) to the city of Shenyang.  The trip one-way is $46 USD.  Shenyang is the largest city in northeast China with just over eight million people.  It was used by the Manchus in the 17th century as their capital and is now a major commercial hub with Japan, Korea, and Russia.  Traditional cuisine includes…wait for it…sauerkraut!  We’ll then head to Dandong, presumably by bus or train, which literally lies on the border between China and North Korea.  The main attractions here are the end of the Great Wall and the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge (lol) over the Yalu River.  Tourists can rent boats to get closer look at the border where the North Korean city of Sinŭiju lies.  North Koreans gather on the edge of the river, waving at foreigners.  We also hope to get to Heaven Lake, a volcanic crater lake within a mountain range, half located in North Korea and half in China.  In North Korean legend, Kim Jong-il was born near this lake.  Dalian, presumably our last destination, is a seaport famed for its beaches, although northeast China is not at all balmy at this time of year.  Ben has advised me to bring a multitude of “jumpers.”

I’m really excited to travel with them, and I think they really know how to do this kind of thing.  I may never have another chance in my life to travel to such a crazy place with two people I just met.  I’m starting to feel like a hippie.  We’re hoping that our destination is a bit off the beaten path as most students are headed to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xi’an, and Inner Mongolia for this Golden Week.  I’m sure I will have a plethora of crazy shenanigans to blog about whenever I return.

After a meeting with my language partner Q, a successful erhu lesson, and the purchasing of a new phone (squat toilets, skinny jeans, and a few drinks make for a deadly combination), I am hoping to be slightly less chuguile going into this week.  In any case, I only need to make it to Friday, and then the big adventure begins!  Gotta go email a professor of Marxism who wants to improve his English.  Zaijian!


Margaret: 手表 包 DVD – shǒubiǎo bāo DVD – watch bag DVD

September 13, 2011

It’s been a little more than three years since I first went to Tiananmen Square and the notorious silk street market, and I must say, not much has changed!  The weird bits are 1. I am no longer a tourist, and the fact that I actually live here gives going to both places a new feeling, and 2. I can actually speak some Chinese now, which made silk street a whole different ballgame.

Of course when I woke up this morning, it was pouring rain, so what better activity to do on a rainy day than going to Tiananmen, right?  There was something glorious and whimsical about being there, splashing about in the puddles in the midst of Communism Communism Communism.  I was actually really happy to be there in the bad weather and found myself singing “Singing in the Rain” on the very pavement that the gate to the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in 1420, thousands of students were murdered during the 1989 protests, and five Falun Gong members light themselves ablaze in 2001, though there is some speculation that this incident was a hoax instigated by the government to turn public opinion against the banned spiritual movement.  Sorry Minneapolis, your history just can’t compare.  

Silk street is a giant multi-level shopping center that is a popular tourist attraction due to its wide selection of counterfeit brand name items.  You will find everything from Chanel to Dolce and Gabana to Nike to Abercrombie to Prada to just about anything you could ask for.  However, you can usually find something about the products that makes it just a little bit off.  For example, we found one coat on which the tag read something like Budurbarry, a far cry from Burberry.  The quality of the clothing and shoes and actually just about everything else is especially poor.  It may look nice on the hanger, but once a sweater is examined more closely, one will notice that the fabric is extremely thin.  Skirts and dresses may be unlined and completely see-through.  

That’s why it’s incredibly important to not pay too much.  However, this is the hard part, especially if you have baise de pifu, or white skin.  The stalls are arranged in seven or eight foot cubes, each with one or two clerks, 95 percent of whom are women.  As a white woman, I will walk down an aisle and from every stall I hear some combination of “Hello pretty lady, want to buy?  How are you?  We have bag-es, you want to buy?  Good price just for you.  I give you good price.  Come see, come in.  Watchbagdvd.  For your mother, for your sister, you need earrings?”  Sometimes they will grab at my arms or hands.  If I see something I like, I will first inspect it for quality and then decide on my starting price.  Let’s just say I’m going to buy an I ❤ BJ tourist shirt.  For something like this, I would want to offer 10 RMB, less than $2 USD, as a starting price.  The clerks usually make you punch your numbers into a calculator even though most speak English.  Often times, they will give the price first, and more often than not, they will ask for 300+ RMB, upwards of $50 USD.  I figure they do this with the idea that foreigners don’t understand the exchange rate.  If I bring a Chinese friend, they are inclined to discount their starting price because they know I have someone who can tell me if I’m being ripped off.  When they suggest the first price, I usually laugh or shake my head or something and then offer up my price of 10 RMB.  The theatricals ensue.  Some of them pretend to cry or they scowl or they say “Oh my gawd” in their most American English.  The bargaining begins.  Their prices drop, and depending on the item, my prices go up because I usually start with a lower price than I actually intent to pay.  When they offer up their “minimum price,” I then walk away saying it’s too expensive.  They always call me back with a discounted price, and if it’s low enough, this is when I will buy.  I bought a tourist shirt today for 20 RMB, or just over $3 USD.  It’s a game that always leaves me feeling awful after (which I attribute to my Minnesotan upbringing), and I don’t intend to return to the silk street anytime soon.

This journey down the street was so very different from my experience in 2008 because this time I could do all of my bargaining in Chinese.  This would usually anger the clerks.  They insisted on speaking English to me.  In their head I am a foreign tourist with no idea of the exchange rate who they intend to rip off as bad as possible.  I insist on speaking Chinese with them.  It’s a bizarre flip flopped scenario, the Chinese person speaking English and the white person speaking Chinese.  Little do any of them know that I study Chinese at BeiDa, China’s premier university…

Although I had what I would call a “good day for Chinese,” this week was not without extreme frustration.  My kouyu class has made absolutely clear to me that I never learned how to speak Chinese.  Back home at Minnesota, any time we had to speak in Chinese class, we were given the prompts ahead of time.  I could go home, write my piece, make sure all the grammar is correct, make sure I have all of the tones down, return to class the next day and spit everything back mindlessly, word for word.  Does this help in having conversation in the real world?  Heck no.  I struggled struggled struggled so much in class this week, at times wanting to cry.  It’s one thing to sit in an organic chemistry lecture and have no idea what the prof is talking about.  It’s a completely different ballgame when you can’t understand the professor’s language!  It’s been embarrassing, and at the end of class everyday I worry that I didn’t even hear and understand that night’s homework assignment correctly.  However, I’ve talked to a few other students who have done this before, and they all say that they, like me, drowned for a little while until BAM!  They one day begin to have long intricate conversations in Chinese all the time.  Here’s to hoping that moment comes soon. Read the rest of this entry ?


Margaret: 机器人 – jīqìrén – robot

September 10, 2011

I survived hanyu!  I felt much better about it today, although it is still extremely challenging.  The tough part is that everything is explained in Chinese. The trouble is that many Chinese grammar patterns are entirely nonsensical in the first place, and some can be difficult enough to understand in English as it is. My laoshi also loves to tell us other words that mean the same thing, oh but they can’t exactly be used in the exact same way. Here’s five words and how they are the same and how they are subtly entirely different.  It’s chabuduo (almost) impossible. You can’t miss a beat in hanyu!

I realized at my tutor session that the University of Minnesota did not teach me how to speak Chinese. Every speaking opportunity I ever had gave me the prompts ahead of time so I could rehearse what I was going to say. Helpful in the real world? Absolutely not. However, what they did teach me how to do was to understand grammar patterns and become really good at taking exams without actually having a real grasp on the material. As a result, my laoshi gave us a minute to complete a few sentences using a new, confusing grammar pattern and when he came by to check my answers, “dou hen hao,” or they’re all perfect. Today was a mixture of pride (because I think I may actually be able to survive hanyu if I study six to eight hours a day), frustration (because there is still so much of lecture that doesn’t make any sense to me either because I don’t know the vocabulary being used or because everything is being explained in Chinese), and disappointment (because after two entire years devoted to this language, I can’t speak it!).

What I really want to talk about is the dinner I had at the kuai can, or fast food (it’s really just a dining hall). My friend invited a Chinese student she met in line to sit down with her and I. I haven’t had too much direct interaction with Chinese students, and it seems the university has tried their best to keep us separate, so I was excited to chit chat with him.  He seemed very nervous to be sitting with foreigners and was eating speedy fast, even faster than the crazy fast speeds that everyone eats in the dining halls, presumably in order to get back to the books. He said he is a physics major from Shanghai. He takes thirty (yes THIRTY!) hours of class per week of physics, which he finds “interesting.”  When he is not in class, he “rests” for one or two hours, spending the rest of the time studying or “doing exercises.” Must be some kind of magical powers or an insane amount of caffeine…  When asked what he would like to do after graduation, he replied, “It depends on my mark.” Basically, if he scores high enough, he will get to go to graduate school. He feels lucky to live in a dormitory where there are communal showers because in some buildings, students must walk outside in the dead of winter to go to another building where they have large gym locker room-style shower rooms. These, he complains, have no place to dry your hair.  I cringed at the thought of just how many girls have their hair freeze every single night on the way home before bed. He told us he lives in a room with three other people. When asked if his room is large or small, he said the most distinctly Chinese thing I’ve heard since I’ve been here: “It is enough for four people.”


Margaret: 超声波 – chāoshēngbō – ultrasonic wave (This is one of my vocab words.)

September 6, 2011

Today was day one of classes!  I was like a kindergartener, up early and all excited for the first day. Last week all the international students sat the Chinese placement exam. Let’s just say it was absolute death.  I was lucky if the listening passages went too quickly in one ear and out the other. I would say I was guessing on 95% of the exam. The reading passages continued to get longer and longer, followed by fewer and fewer questions. I struggled through the essay in extremely elementary Chinese. There were many many moments when I wanted to give up and turn my exam in, but I wouldn’t allow myself to do so. After the exam, I found out many people had done just that, not even attempting the essay. I was proud of myself for finishing.

The next day I arrived outside the Russian building to a see of foreign students all flustered and pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the bulletin board where the results had been posted. I was relieved: Intermediate hanyu or intensive Chinese level 16 and intermediate kouyu or speaking level 14. I will have hanyu four days a week for two hours at a time, and kouyu three days a week also for two hours at a time. Next week we will begin electives, and since I am an intermediate student, I can take between four and six hours of the following:

  • Intermediate Chinese characters
  • Intermediate business Chinese language
  • Intermediate writing
  • Home with Kids – A Multi-skill Chinese course (uses a comedy series to teach Chinese and about Chinese daily life)
  • Pronunciation correction
  • Intermediate Chinese grammar
  • Intermediate listening comprehension
  • Intermediate newspapers and periodicals reading
  • Series lecture on Chinese culture

I know which ones I am tempted to take, but I think I’ve narrowed it down to Chinese characters and pronunciation correction as I believe these will help me the most in the long run.  The nice thing is I can choose two more next semester, so maybe then I can take business language.

Flustered and sweating profusely already at eight this morning, I found my hanyu class and took a seat. Out of fifteen people, there are four girls including myself. Five of the guys are from Norway and seem to all know each other. How did that happen? There is one other American, who is half Japanese and half Chinese. My teacher, Zhang Laoshi, is very happy and kind, but I could only understand about five percent of what was said in the entire two hours of class.  It sounded something like this:

Jing chang ling zhuan ye shi hao de bu jue guan yi di zhen dao yao Mao Zedong ti zhong da yuan qi qu di nong shui ba er li tian tun bo dun man dan zen cui dui gan zao kuai gai gao goose zi zui ming hu he ping gui mei he fu gu hua lan jiu la le si xi xue lao she qiong mao tai xiong yun huai huan nin zhuang ying gei wo xiao chu shao mai le wan hai liang dou ge jian men gu cheng gong dong you xi ren bie shu wang quan bag liao shi nan di ai hou qian jie ken man.

For two hours. Two hours! Everyone else was nodding and asking questions, so I deduced that I might in fact be the worst in the class. The only time I spoke was to introduce myself, which I handled fine. However, I couldn’t even understand what the homework assignment is! As I result I learned to recognize, write, pronounce, and use in a sentence all thirty-five of the vocabulary words in the first chapter tonight. This was no easy feat. The professor also said something about a mingzi de gushi, or literally “name story,” but I have no idea what a name story is! I may take a stab at it and write an essay tomorrow, but that’s the problem, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be written or spoken or what! We shall see how class goes tomorrow when the professor actually begins teaching out of the book…

Kouyu was much more heshi, or suitable, to my level. Lu Chen is my laoshi, and she seems very sweet and easygoing. There are many Americans in this class, but unfortunately they all seem to be from the same program and therefore know each other already.  It’s amazing how small of a world it is. In my kouyu class alone, there is a guy from Florida who graduated from St. Olaf College. Another guy who goes to Madison tapped me on the shoulder and said he and I have a mutual friend from the U of M.  Funny thing is I never told him my English name or where I was from.  Quite creepy.  A group of my friends met up with another group to eat dinner tonight, and one of the girls said she recognized me.  She asked me if I went to Minnesota and if I lived in Middlebrook Hall on the eighth floor my freshman year.  WHAT!?!?!?!  As it turns out, we had lived on the same residence hall floor for a year, and we had even had a conversation. She had taken a gap year to attend the University of Minnesota in order to set up a chapter of her student group, the Silk Road, at Minnesota before starting her undergrad at Cornell. We had discussed how difficult our Chinese classes were in the Middlebrook study lounge. And now we were in the basement of a Korean BBQ restaurant in Beijing, China. Nuts…

Anyways, I am worried about how my classes are shaping up. As it turns out, nobody tried on the placement exam. I am in the highest level of all of my friends, most of who speak proficient to even fluent conversational Chinese. Oh shoot, I tried too hard. I am somewhat regretting trying so hard now, but no matter what I’m not going down without a fight. I am a student. I came here to be a student, and I will always be first and foremost a student. This and working are what fulfill me in life. I studied Chinese for two years, I filled out all the applications, I tracked down all the scholarships, I wrote essay after countless essay, I made all the connections, sent all the emails, filled out all the visa documents (a special thanks to Mom who helped me schedule appointments and mail things while I was working out in the fields during the workday).  I covered every square inch of this entire process, and often my parents didn’t even know what was going on behind the scenes because I was simply taking care of it myself. To be here now, living this wonderful life, it’s just crazy to think about all of that and know that I made all of this happen. I have had a certain amount of luck, but I’ve fought for so much.  Looking at all of it now, I’m going to give hanyu everything I’ve got, and I know that that is a whole lot.  And when I come out of this, not only will my Chinese be amazing, but I will also have more discipline than anyone else I know.

Okay, so I feel like I’ve spoken quite a bit about how awesome and cheap and convenient everything is, so here the major frustrations I have been grappling with since day one:

My dissatisfaction with my interactions here with other expats has been growing exponentially since day one.  Why?  I have had the same conversation about 109,204,382 times already.  It goes as follows:

  • Are you American?  (If yes, the conversation continues.  If no, the conversation only continues about half the time.)
  • What state are you from?  (Number one answer is California, followed closely by New England states.)
  • So what are you doing at Peking University?  (This is one of three answers: Studying Chinese, getting a Masters in some kind of business-related program, or “ON VACATION DUUUUDE!  YEAH MAN IT’S TOTALLY BALLIN’!  I BASICALLY JUST CAME HERE TO PARTY.”  The latter is exclusively Californian, but not all Californians answer this way.)
  • How is your Chinese? (This is also one of three answers:  very buhao, conversationally proficient thanks to Asian-American parents, or “So I taught English in ______ Province this past summer.  I guess you could say I’m pretty good.”)
  • What is your major back home?  (This has several answers: business, international business, business strategy, business management, business, business, and business.)
  • What do you want to do with your life?  (This is a Margy question. People are either taken totally off guard and can’t answer it, or they say entrepreneurship or investment banking.)

The conversation usually ends there.  Rachel Dewoskin speaks extensively about this in her book Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. I wish I had it now so I could get the direct quotations, but even before coming to China, I had an idea of what expats would be like.  When you meet an expatriate, it’s exciting because there’s always this hope that you’re going to make some kind of meaningful connection as two outsiders in this massive city.  And then you have the same conversation, asking the same questions, find out the same information, and there are you’re left, as lonely as when you began. For Rachel, it was loneliness, but I think for me, these conversations leave me entirely intellectually dissatisfied.   I can’t even stand to listen to entrepreneurial mumbo jumbo anymore because it’s all the same!  These white kids want to make some business venture with China, but they don’t know what it’s going to be yet.  I think I need to start trying harder to dig deeper initially with these people in attempts to make a lasting connection.  Hopefully now that I am in class, things will improve. Read the rest of this entry ?


Margaret: Fun and random items

September 1, 2011

Here are a some random items from the past few days I thought I would share: 

1.  I met a girl from Austria today while I was trying to figure out where to purchase a fan ka or meal card.  She asked me what I was studying back in my home country.  When I told her my major and that I had done corn research in Iowa this past summer, she said, “Oh, so you worked for Monsanto?”  She is part of an organization in Austria that is somewhat similar to Greenpeace.  She, like many many other Europeans, believes that plants should “be kept the way they are.”  Gotta love when things get that awkward within the first two minutes of meeting someone…

2.  In America, one of the chapters in my Chinese text was about apartments and apartment hunting. My friend Tiffany from Los Angeles is doing her PhD in business strategy at Peking University. She’ll be here for four years, so she’d like to move into a more permanent apartment than Zhongguanxinyuan. I’ve accompanied her to look at several apartments, and the conversations had are literally straight out of the cheesy situational videos we watched in Chinese class back home. I almost burst out laughing while she was meeting with landlords.

3. At the Great Wall, countless vendors dot the streets below selling fans, fake jade, Communist party hats, and other crap. However, among these are a few gems. During the election, a red and blue poster depicting presidential candidate Barack Obama by artist Shepard Fairey became an icon of the campaign. Some genius decided to take the image, print it on a dark green shirt, and dress up face and shoulders in a communist getup, looking scarily similar to the way Mao often looked in pictures.  The vendors would run after us with the shirts in hand yelling, “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma.”  We nicknamed them the “Obamao shirts.” An even smarter genius was inspired by the ubiquitous I ❤ NY, I ❤ DC, I ❤ etc. t-shirts in the United States and came out with a shirt reading I ❤ BJ, presumably for Beijing, however while walking on the wall, I noticed all the buyers of these shirts were American “bros” with ear piercings. Surely the guy who designed this shirt knew what he was doing, right?

4.  While spending the summer with my tobacco chewing, country music listening, truck driving coworkers, I felt incredibly un-American and too worldly for my own good.  However, here in China it’s the total opposite; I almost feel, well, country-bumpkin? Maybe it’s in the way other Americans react to the fact that I’m from Minnesota.  Tiffany can’t believe that I’ve never had sushi or Korean food or even shrimp thanks in large part to my dad’s exclusive Midwestern diet of meat and potatoes. She’s also confessed to never having seen a cornfield.  After all the trials and tribulations of this past summer, I just can’t even fathom that. I think most people probably think that I come from a rural area or that I like to hunt and fish.  Other Americans often make fun of my Minnesoooota accent.  Like I said, I haven’t met any other Midwesterners here yet, much less anyone from Minnesota.  Beyond that, I know for a fact that I am only one at this entire university studying agricultural science. It’s funny because this lends even more to my country-bumpkin status. Little does everyone know that I’m from a big city and as girly as the next Cali girl. Before this past summer, I never even thought of Minnesota as a major agricultural production area. Sometimes I feel down about not having anyone else here to relate to, but I think it’s important for me to embrace my Minnesota roots and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. I think my obscure field of study and the even more obscure idea that I’m also studying Chinese and have taken a year off to move to China at the age of twenty makes me unique, sets me apart, and most of all, makes me crazy employable.  In a few weeks I hope to find myself at the doorstep of Monsanto’s Beijing offices and laboratories.  I’m going to say, “Hi, I interned for you in Iowa this past summer and now I’m here learning Chinese.”  And that might be the first and last time that ever happens. I might be country-bumpkin, but honestly it’s pretty cool.


Margaret: 灯红酒绿 – Dēnghóngjiǔlǜ – the high life

August 30, 2011

The highlight of today: IKEA!!! The university provided a few buses to take the international students across town to IKEA. I got a few essentials and nonessentials, but I tried to limit myself because the prices weren’t cheap like the rest of China and were more similar to those back in the states. Inspired by my girl Alicia Gruenwald, my room now has a color scheme! This IKEA was very similar to thoseback in the United States, however in China it’s very common to see people literally under the covers of the beds in the bedroom section fully asleep. Strange perhaps, but my Taiwanese-American girlfriend Tiffany pointed out an interesting insight to me. While China does not have the same freedoms and rights distinctly spelled out on pieces of paper, the Chinese people are in essence more free than we are in America. Why? I have been here less than a week, and I’ve witnessed little babies peeing on the streets, groups of young people sitting together on the sidewalks just hanging out, and foreign students on the floor just outside the dormitory cafe mooching off the free internet. Would any of that happen in America? Probably not because in America we hold ourselves to a strict social code for free of what people are going to think of our actions. This is also some ways shaped by capitalism. We can’t just sit on the sidewalk. Instead we’ll go buy a cappuccino at the coffee shop down the way and sit at a table on the sidewalk. And we can’t just sit there and sip the coffee.  We have to be chatting with someone or reading a book or working on the computer.  We all do these types of things in some way or another.  But in China, anything goes and nobody cares. And it feels strangely wonderful to know that the next time I buy a mattress at IKEA, I can try out FINNVIK, FJORDGARD, and FLORVÅG to find the best one.

While at IKEA I met Till from Germany, who is doing a masters in Chinese law and is interested in intellectual property rights, and Vladimir from Sweden, who is doing a masters in psychology. Vladimir felt right back at home in IKEA and was eager to go to the cafe. He explained to me that the names on all the IKEA products actually do mean something that has to do with what the product is. I purchased a duvet cover with green rectangles all over it called GRÖNKULLA, which he says means “green hill.”  These cute block-shaped candles are called FYRKANTIG, meaning “square.”  We had a great time going through all names of all my purchases. Vladimir and Till were both excited to hear that I have Swedish and German heritage. However, when I told Till my last name, he was beside himself with laughter. Apparently we Americans don’t know how to pronounce our own German last names. Oh the things you learn while abroad…

Yesterday the university took the international students to the Great Wall, or chang cheng.  Most of the students elected to take a cable car to the top, but I was adamant about climbing up on foot.  There’s an old Chinese saying that goes, “You’re not a man untilyou have climbed the Great Wall of China,” and besides, the idea that there’s a cable car going to the top made me a bit sad and took away from the beauty of the area.  This was probably a mistake.  There were well over a thousand steps just to get to the Wall, and once on it there are many segments that are made up of stairs, sometimes especially steep ones. I’ve already climbed it once before in 2008, but this time we were on a different segment of it.  The air quality was pretty poor, so most of my photos look quite gloomy.  That’s not mist you’re seeing.  The best part of the day was the alpine slide.  

Rather than having to climb down the from the wall, we paid about $6 or $7 USD to take a sled down a metal track.  You weren’t supposed to take pictures and there were employees positioned every few hundred feet who would yell at you through megaphone if you tried to or if you were going too fast, but I managed to snap a few.  It was a blast!!!  The whole experience is awe inspiring, and the only thing I could think about the entire time was how entirely lucky I am to be here.  The amount of people in the world that get this chance…  It really is amazing and I feel so blessed.

Each and every night has been some combination of eating amazing food and dancing. I’ve had incredible meals at two of the best restaurants in Beijing, only paying between $20 and $30 for each. Bus fares are $0.17 and $0.06 if you use a prepaid fare card. A cab ride to the expat student hangout spot, WuDaoKou, is about $1.50. A meal at on-campus restaurants is somewhere around $2 and $3, and a sub at Subway might set you back $4. This truly is the high life here. Last night I found myself eating the most beautiful food I’ve ever seen at a swanky Thai restaurant in a high rise on SanLiTun, a popular bar and shopping street, looking out at Beijing’s architectural wonders. 

I thought to myself, “Is this seriously my life? How did I get here?”  I’m so incredibly lucky to be having this experience.  So many people in the States told me they could never do this, but right now I’m asking myself how anyone could pass this up.  Sure, there are minor irritations – the power in our bedroom shutting off automatically whenever it feels like it or the squat toilets or the necessity of buying bottled water or the idea that I can buy Skippy peanut butter and a loaf of wheat bread at the convenience store but I can’t buy a knife to spread it with because Chinese people generally don’t need knives. But I think the amazing things far outweigh those, and I think the ultimate challenge for foreigners in China is to patiently accept those things for what they are and just go with the flow.


Margaret: 混乱 – Hǔnluàn – chaos

August 27, 2011

By some miracle, I am alive and in my room at Peking University’s Zhongguanxinyuan Global Village. It is 6:47 am and I am writing this at my desk next to my open window, outside of which a thunderstorm is absolutely roaring.  My plans to hunt down some wireless Internet have been foiled yet again as the streets outside are quickly becoming canals.

I awoke just a few days ago at around 6 am to a “last breakfast” of dad’s delicious pancakes before saying a tearful goodbye to him and my beloved Bentley.  Mom took me to the airport where she stayed until she could no longer see me on the other side of security.  A word on goodbyes: after saying so many of them, I’ve determined that they’re best done quickly and shortly, more of a “see you later” than a true farewell.  Nevertheless, leaving my parents and boyfriend Josh proved to be extremely difficult.

I flew United to Chicago O’Hare where I had a three-hour layover before a direct flight to Beijing.  At one point I was sitting next to a payphone at the gate and a little lady approached it with a paper full of Chinese and phone numbers. She asked me in Chinese to help her make a call. I understood every single thing she said, but a lack of confidence in my language abilities rendered me embarrassingly mute as I pointed to the “$0.50” sign on the phone. Never did it occur to me that I should just lend her my cell phone, and right as I was about to make the call her travel companion arrived, offering up her phone instead. It was silly of me, and so I decided regardless of my dismal tones and pronunciation, I need to be trying every chance I get if I want to make the most out of this year.

There was nothing about the thirteen-hour flight that “wasn’t that bad,” as I had been saying to everyone back home. I think I watched four movies, wrote ten pages in my journal, and scrawled probably over a thousand characters.  I was in the window seat and, as a result, I only got up once to walk around and use the restroom. Window seat + two sleeping elderly people + a thirteen-hour flight = a very bad combination.  All I could think about when I got off the plane was finding a restroom.

It took a long time to go through what I think was customs. I probably spent forty minutes with other expats waiting in a line that moved once every ten minutes of so. I exchanged my money ($1 = roughly 6 RMB) and loaded my two bags onto a cart, pushing it through a massive swath of people with signs written in every language waiting for arrivals.

I got in the front seat of a taxi with a driver who, despite his youthful appearance, had about three very yellowed teeth. I told him my destination in Chinese, and he immediately pulled out his phone to call his buddy who we soon drove up next to in the adjacent taxi. I don’t think he knew where we were going. We didn’t talk at all for about thirty minutes until he mustered up the courage to ask me if I spoke Chinese. I told him I spoke yi dian, or a little, as it certainly didn’t feel like I had studied Mandarin for two years now as I was sitting in a taxicab trying to talk to a native. I asked if he spoke English, and amidst unnecessary giggles I made out his response: yi dian dian. We spoke a bit more about Peking University and America, but he continued to use words I did not know. This is truly one of the most difficult aspects of the Chinese languages. There’s very little you can do when someone uses a word you do not know. No words sound the same as English, and there are no prefixes or suffixes from which to draw clues. It is essentially a dead end. He did know one translation for a word I didn’t know: traffic.

I didn’t realize it until later, but I had mixed up the words for “east” and “west” and, as a result, I was dropped off on the wrong side of campus. I began to pull my 80 lbs of luggage in what I thought was the right direction. Everyone was staring at me, presumably because of my unnecessary amount of luggage, and motorbike taxi drivers everywhere were yelling out at me, trying to buy my business. I would have obliged if I had know where I was going. Trees had been planted in a sidewalk that kept getting narrower and narrower until my bags collapsed into one of the planting cutouts. My luggage was too heavy, and I had no clue where to go. I stood there flustered for a moment before my savior, a student on a bike on the road next to me, offered me help in English, loading my two heavy bags onto a tiny rack on his bicycle.

Zhao Tiefu is a student. He kept talking about Peking University and it neighbor and rival, Tsinghua University, so I think he’s gone to both. His English is absolutely incredible, but several times he stops me to correct his pronunciation of “a little,” “air conditioning,” and “traffic jams.” He likes American culture and admires our “free creativity,” something he thinks China lacks. He would like to come to America (“Boston is my dream!”) so he can attend MIT or Harvard. He seems surprisingly unimpressed that my brother attended Yale, responding to my comment swiftly with “George Bush went there.”  He thinks Minnesota is “very famous” because of music he’s heard and movies he’s seen. He continues to joke about how handsome he is and is absolutely beside himself when I answer his inquiry that yes, American girls like boys who can play guitar. Most of our conversation is in English, however when I ask about the bar scene, jiuba, he is once again beside himself that that is one of the Chinese words I know. We walk for perhaps twenty minutes through campus with my bags.  He brings up again and again just how friendly people are and proves it to me by asking about fifteen different people for help finding Zhongguanyuan. We eventually find it, and he waits outside with my bags on his bike while I check in.

To my shock and surprise, the front desk did have my information and gave me the key. While in line, I met an American, management graduate student named Tiffany. I literally haven’t seen another white person since the airport, and although Tiffany is Asian American, she assured me she’s “white on the inside,” and so we were both very relieved to meet each other. She gave me her cell number even though I don’t have a phone yet and wants to meet up with me at some point so we can navigate this absolutely chaotic place.

Tiefu helped bring my bags up to my room and then said that he must leave immediately.  I tried offering to buy him dinner in return for helping me, but he wouldn’t allow it, giving me his phone number instead saying sometime we can get together so I can hear him play guitar and teach him American songs. Every once in a while in life, someone comes along without whom you would not be able to make it. Tiefu was just that. Read the rest of this entry ?


Margaret: 你好 – Nǐ hǎo – hello

August 24, 2011

Alas, my last day in the United States has finally arrived.  My flight departs at 8:57 am tomorrow morning with a three hour layover at Chicago O’Hare followed by a thirteen hour flight to Beijing Capital International Airport.  Shorter than you thought, isn’t it!?  Three years ago I flew from Minneapolis to Tokyo on the way to Beijing, and I recall being so excited that I didn’t sleep a wink!  However, this summer I perfected the art of sleeping while sitting up in the back seat of pick-up trucks while driving around Iowa during my internship, so hopefully I can save up the energy required to navigate Beijing when I land.

I’ve been “told” that students are allowed to arrive three days prior to registration which is on Saturday.  I’ve also been told the international student residence hall has my information, and all I have to do is show up and they’ll give me a room.  At this point, if I can fly to Beijing with no issues, figure out how to exchange money for the taxi, tell the driver where to go, arrive at the correct place, find the correct building in the residence hall complex, communicate who I am and what I need in Chinese, and get into my residence hall room on Thursday, it will be a miracle. I know of a few hotels nearby, and I’m almost expecting to have to use one.

I wish I could say I’m as excited as I was heading to Beijing the first time around, but truth be told these past two and a half weeks have really taken a toll. On August 5th I presented my summer intern project, “The GAD1 construct in transgenic corn: Nitrogen use efficiency,” to the site employees as well as some people who had called in from headquarters in St. Louis, picked a few final ears of sweetcorn out of the field, said my goodbyes, and drove back up to Eden Prairie.  Since then I’ve been ping-ponging back and forth between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, saying sad farewells to family, friends, family friends, high school friends, college friends, and of course my wheat lab favorites.  I was even feeling nostalgic and returned to the wheat field for the day to help with harvest.

I’ve also been squeezing in several “lasts.”  I’ve made sure to eat as much cheese as possible in the past two and a half weeks (lactose intolerance is environmentally induced during child weaning in many Asian cultures where commercial dairy products are uncommon), and I’ve also made stops at Al’s Breakfast, Annie’s Parlour, Punch Pizza, Tea Garden, Sebastian Joe’s, Freeziac, and of course Panda Express.  Fact:  I will miss Panda Express orange chicken and fried rice when I’m in China.  Call me out if you want.  It’s just that good.

Many people have asked me how I possibly packed luggage for a whole year abroad.  Well, I should first say that Beijing is an international city – there is a Walmart 3.1 km away from Peking University.  You can buy almost anything you need for a fraction of the United States price. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from stocking up on $115 worth of shampoo, deodorant, Pepto Bismol, mascara, etc. at Walgreens. Probably not entirely necessary, but it’s hard to say what they’re going to have over there. Eddie Bauer was having a great sale on duffels, and I am now the proud owner of a lifetime guaranteed Eddie Bauer Expedition Large Rolling Duffel Bag.  If you’re flying, don’t get the XL. I was able to fit everything I wanted to bring in the XL, however when I weighed it, it was a whopping 80 pounds! I figured I’d just pay the overweight baggage fee, but that turned out to be $400.  Instead, I downsized to the large, which holds you to about 45 pounds and packed a second duffel, both of which I’ll be able to check for free.  The key to the whole process is rolling everything and lining it up as tightly as possible.  About a billion too many clothes and shoes later, I’ve fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a magician.

Almost all of the loose ends have been tied up.  It was difficult to navigate the visa application process while I was in Iowa.  I was out in some tiny town in a cornfield with no cell service during the workday when I needed to be making calls. I now have in hand a multiple entries Chinese visa. All the copies have been printed out, the voltage converters purchased, the oral typhoid vaccine taken, and the power of attorney granted.  It’s showtime.

Tonight I sat down at the piano to clear my head after a day of really awful goodbyes.  Five for Fighting, Lori Line, Debussy – it was a nice collection.  My parents came in and sang “Falling Slowly” from the movie Once with me. We’re definitely not about to quit our day jobs, but it was special to be able to play some music with them amidst all these crazy emotions. I’m excited, but only so much. It’s hard to leave a good life and wonderful people behind no matter where your headed. Look for my next post from Zhongguanxinyuan Global Village at Peking University in Beijing.

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