Sunday, May 3, 2009

Inner Mongolia

Sand dunes in the desert!
The view from my hotel room in Erdos
Riding horses on the grasslands

This week we went to Inner Mongolia. In Chinese it's called Nei Menggu/内蒙古, and it's one of I think 5 or 6 Autonomous regions in China. I'm not exactly sure what autonomous means in China, but I think it just means that instead of Beijing appointing their governor, they appoint it themselves. But don't quote me on that, I'm just purely guessing. Anyways, we went there because it was exam week at Jingshan, and every year the group takes a short trip around this time.

We visited the grasslands, Hohhot (the provincial capital, called Huhehaote/呼和浩特 in Chinese), Erdos, and the Gobi desert. The best parts were Hohhot and the desert.

In the grasslands we stayed in a yurt hotel, meaning that instead of a building with rooms it was a bunch of yurts with beds in them. That sounds really cool, except they were freezing at night. The grasslands themselves were also not so great. We rode horses to three different "sites" on the grasslands. The horses went no more than 2 mph, and the "sites" we saw were a lake that looked more like a giant puddle, some sort of delapidated Buddhist shrine, and a lake that had no water in it because it didn't snow last winter. There was also a killer goat that rammed us in the shins. Altogether a really awesome experience.

Hohhot was really cool. We were all anticipating an industrial wasteland, and what we got was actually a pretty cool, bustling city. We walked around after dinner, and Hohhot is a really cool place to see after dark. There was a large plaza right by our hotel which was full of people and activity. There was also a jumbo tron showing the new Wolverine movie, which as you probably know was leaked online a month or so ago and has since then penetrated every corner of China to the point where I think everyone has at least seen it being sold on the street for 5 yuan. I bought it, and I have to say, if you're going to pay anything, it's really only worth the $.73 I paid for it. Anyways, if you're ever in Inner Mongolia, I recommend spending at least one night in Hohhot.

Erdos was a different story. Apparently it's the richest city in the province because of the coal mines, but you wouldn't guess that from walking around. When we went walking around after dinner, we heard several screams and saw some really sketchy looking stores. Erdos really fits the definition of industrial/nuclear wasteland. I feel really bad for everyone who lives there. If there are a bunch of rich people there, they're not sharing the wealth very much.

The Gobi desert was a ton of fun. When I heard we'd be "playing in the desert" for a few hours, I was really curious what that meant. Afterall, how does one "play" in the desert? It's just a bunch of sand, right? Wrong! China has the savvy to turn the desert into a tourist attraction, full of fun things to do that you have to pay for. I rode an ATV, "drove" a stick shift go-cart thingy, slid down a hill of sand, climbed back up the hill, and saw a Mongolian wedding. It was all really fun, but in the end I had sand everywhere, and couldn't even shower because that night we got on the train back to Beijing.

All in all, Inner Mongolia was pretty cool. I really liked Hohhot and the desert, and although the grasslands and Erdos weren't great, I still had a good time. It's worth a stop the next time you're in China.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Great Wall, Take II

Today we went to the Great Wall. We went to the Mutianyu section (there are three sections in Beijing), the same one that I went to with my host family a few weeks ago. This time, however, I went with the Americans and the kids from Newton North who are here on a chorus trip. The North kids got here on Friday afternoon, and are staying with host families for the week, at which point they'll go back to America. Barely enough time to get over jet lag.

We met at Jingshan at 9am, hopped on a tour bus and were on our way. At one point our guide started talking about the history of the Great Wall and such, but I didn't pay much attention. I love history, I really do, but I'm getting kind of sick of ancient Chinese history. It's so far away that it doesn't really mean anything to me anyways, but I'm also currently living modern Chinese history. It just seems irrelevant to me to learn about Emperor Qin Shihuangdi for the 1000th time.

Anyways, when we got there we took the stairs up, the same as last time. It didn't take long to reach the Wall, but I've come to despise stairs since I've been to China. I think I was traumatized when we were on Huangshan.

I took some pictures, although it was so cloudy you couldn't see very far. We did go further than I did when I came with my host family, to a section that hasn't been restored. It was overgrown with small trees and grass, and the tower was crumbling. According to Gao laoshi, it was built during the Ming Dynasty, so about 500 years old give or take a century or two. Carolyn, Rebecca, Becky, and I took a "let's defeat the huns" (Mulan reference) picture. It was pretty cool. We went down on the slide like I did last time. It's literally a metal slide that winds down the mountain and you ride a little plastic thing with a handle on it to control your speed. It's really fun.

When we got down, we shopped. At the parking lot area, there are tons of little shops where tourists can buy souvenirs. I bought several things, but the fun part of it was bargaining. In many of the places I've been shopping, you can't really bargain. I'll try, and they tell me I can't. Here, however, you could bargain to your heart's content. I got a set of really pretty chopsticks in a nice box with a village scene on the front. The lady's starting price was 385 yuan. That's about $55, for something that is probably worth only a few dollars. I told her I'd pay 10 yuan for it. She didn't like that, but she lowered the price by 20 yuan. I raised my price to 20 yuan. She lowered again, but I insisted on 20. She kept lowering and lowering, while I stayed at 20 yuan. Eventually she agreed to 20, and that's what I paid. I lowered the price 365 yuan, or from $55 to about $3. It felt cool to have lowered it by that much, even though I knew that she didn't expect me to actually pay 385 yuan. I also got two magnets, an "I heart 北京" shirt, and a PLA hat. All in all, I spent about 20 US dollars. Bargaining for the magnets was funny. They guy said 25 yuan, to which I said 5. He lowered and lowered, and when he got down to 10 yuan he went "10. 9. 8. 7. 6. Ok, 5." So I paid $.73 for each magnet, which I think is a reasonable price.

The way home was interesting. The bus ride was nothing special, but the journey home was. When we were back in the city, I noticed that the surroundings looked familiar. I realized that we were passing by what I see everyday on my way to school, which meant that we were near my house. I told Gao laoshi, and she proceeded to ask the bus driver to stop and let me off. Before I knew it, I was off the bus walking on some random street. I knew generally where I was, and which direction was home, just not really how to get there without getting hit by cars. Luckily, I soon found a subway stop and took that to my house. All in all, an eventful day.

A classmate of mine tells me there will be a flea market at school tomorrow during lunch, so that should be an interesting experience...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mao's Body, The Science Museum, and Hutongs

This weekend I went to go see Mao Zedong's body and the Beijing Museum of Science. Today we went to the Hutongs.

Mao's body is housed in a building in Tiananmen Square, south of the Forbidden City. When Mao died in 1976, his body was immediately preserved (although he wanted to be cremated). When they preserved the body, they didn't really know what they were doing, so they pumped him too full of formaldehyde. They soon corrected their mistake, but not before they made a wax copy just in case. To house it, the leaders tore down a gate in Tiananmen Square and built a building to house his body*. 

The building itself isn't anything unusual, and the architecture is standard Chinese. There was a long line to get in, but it went quickly because you're not allowed to loiter when you see the body. The building has two rooms: an entrance room and the body room. The former was really big. There were flowers everywhere (which you could purchase outside in the line), and flanking the back wall was a mural of mountains shrouded in clouds. In the centre of the mural was a stone statue of Mao, sitting with his legs crossed. Then we entered the body room. The best way I can describe it was creepy. It was much smaller and darker than the first room. In the centre was a glassed in section where the body was, with two guards standing watch. Mao was laying in his box, wearing a Mao suit, and on the lower half of his body was a green blanket that had a big red square patch with a yellow hammer and sickle on it. I don't know if it was the real body or the wax copy, but it looked shiny. As we exited the room, we came upon the exit, but not before we went through the ultra-ironic capitalist souvenir shop. It cracked me up that literally right outside the tomb of the founder of Communist China was a shop selling souvenirs. But heck, that's China! (as a side note, there was even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City up until a few years ago) By the way, I'm sorry but I don't have any pictures of this experience. I didn't have my camera anyways, but no taking pictures of Mao's body. Also no hats and no noise.

The Science Museum was slightly less interesting. Carolyn and I were bored on a Saturday, so we decided to go here. I'd wanted to go for a little while, and it seemed like a good thing to do. It was mildly interesting, and at least it wasn't a showcase of how amazingly awesome and superior Chinese technology is, which I have to say I was kind of expecting. There were sections that felt like commercials for Lenovo and BMW, but what are you going to do? It turned out to be okay. There was a section on how we need to ween ourselves off fossil fuels, which was cool. There was a thing on the Olympics and the Olympic torch, which of course left out the part about the protests in London, Paris and San Francisco. Other than that, it was basically your standard science museum, although I think I like the one in Boston better.

The Hutongs were really interesting. If you didn't know, the Hutongs (literally "alley") are one of the last remnants of Old Beijing. They're low lying buildings with courtyards that people live in. A better description of them can be found here. The controversy surrounds the fact that the government of Beijing has become infamous for tearing down these historic alleyways in favor of high rises or shopping centers, often while giving residents little to no advance notice or without adequate compensation. This is what we went to today, and it was pretty sad. The word "demolish" was spray painted everywhere, and you could see that the process was already underway. Several walls had whole sections that were on the floor, and by that I mean the bricks they were made of were on the ground instead of in the wall. It's sad because these dilapidated buildings are peoples' homes, not just cultural relics (the favorite word in China for anything and everything ancient and historic). I wish the government would treat the Hutongs with as much respect and admiration as they do the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, hopefully before it's too late.

*I find it a common theme in the history of Communist China that they really love to tear down old buildings in favor of new things. The city walls, that building, the Hutongs, all were/are being torn down to build more modern things. Even the Forbidden City was at risk of being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Le Shan Giant Buddha (le shan da fu/乐山大副

This week I accompanied my host mom on a business trip to Chengdu. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, and is known for its spicy food. I had a great time there, even if internet access was spotty.

While there, I went to see pandas, hiked up a mountain to visit Buddhist temples, and saw the Le Shan Giant Buddha.

The pandas were really cool. I saw toddlers and teeenagers, and both were huge. The toddlers were eating, and they basically just shove a bunch of bamboo in their mouths and chew on it.

I hiked up Qingcheng Mountain, which had a number of Buddhist temples on it. The temples didn't really interest me much, since I've seen so many since I've been here and they all basically look the same. It was really cool to look down the mountain and see all the green scenery. 

The Le Shan Giant Buddha was amazing. It was carved out of a mountain in I think the Tang Dynasty because the monks thought it would help stop the river from flooding (apparently it worked). It's gigantic, and it looks out onto the convergent point of three different rivers, with the city off in the distance. It was really cool.

The Earthquake: As you know, next month is the one year anniversary of the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. The epicenter was only about 30 or 40 miles from Chengdu. I saw some buildings that had damaged sections, and even an entire street where all the buildings were empty. In the countryside, there were some buildings whose bricks were laying in disarray on the ground, but I'm not sure if that was from the earthquake. The point is, almost a year later there's still a lot of work to do. Many people who lost their homes and/or businesses still have not regained their losses. It kind of reminded me of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I've been down there several times since the Hurricane because my brother goes to Tulane, and there are still a lot of damaged houses and many people sleeping in tents under overpasses. I guess China and America have that in common.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Beijing Huanying Ni!

Here's a video of our performance. I'm the one to the right of the kid in the red shirt, the one who's short standing between two tall kids.

Last Tuesday was the opening ceremony of the cultural festival at Jingshan. Every year around this time, they host a festival where people from all over the city can come to see culture. Usually this ceremony is held in the auditorium at the school, but apparently there's a big anniversary coming up, so this year it was held in the Forbidden City music hall.

There were several amazing performances. Our kungfu/tai chi teacher led a group of students in taichi, a group of girls did what I'll call an interpretive dance inspired by the Sichuan earthquake last year, and then there were the Austrians. They came last Monday specifically to participate in this festival, and boy could they sing. They sang a bunch of songs in what I think was German, mostly because I couldn't decipher anything they were saying. One song was about Macbeth, and they had three people put on witch masks and act out some scenes. They went into the crowd and scared all the little kids. It was cool, but it lasted about 45 minutes, and my attention didn't. 

Becky and Elias MC'd, and to their credit they memorized a bunch of Chinese. Assisting them were a few Chinese kids, including one guy who's going to St Mary's in the fall. He speaks English with an Australian accent, and it was funny to listen to. 

Then comes our singing. The school wanted us to participate, only none of us has any musical talent whatsoever. We can't sing, dance, act, nothing. Nevertheless, we sang "Beijing huanying ni." It means Beijing welcomes you, and it's a song that was made in the runup to the Olympics. 100 days before the opening ceremonies, they came out with this song, which is sung by 100 famous Chinese stars (including Jackie Chan). The real version is on youtube, but youtube's blocked at the moment, so I can't give you the link. Just put 北京欢迎你 in the search engine and you can find it easily. Then you can see how it's supposed to sound.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Random bits of Beijing

For this post, there won't be a specific theme, I'll just talk about several things I've done in the past few days.

Yesterday the Americans went to the Temple of Heaven (tiantan/天坛). It's a famous temple in Beijing, and it's one of four (the others being the temples of earth, sun, and moon). In imperial China, the emperor came here just once a year to pray for a good harvest, and now it's a tourist attraction (naturally :P). You've probably seen a picture of it before, but just in case I have this picture above for you to awe at. It was okay as temples go, at this point in the trip we've all seen more than our fair share of temples, and they all look relatively the same. Our guide, Wang laoshi, was wonderful. She came to America last fall so we know her well, and she has the amazing quality of always being chipper and positive and smiling. She's really great. After the temple we went out to lunch, where we ordered everything we've come accustomed to eating here in China (eggplant, sweet and sour pork, beef and noodle soup, fried noodles, etc).

After the temple, I went with Ms Richard, Ms Kamerik, Carolyn, and Rebecca to the clothes fair. It was a fair that was running through March 31 at Ditan Park (Temple of Earth Park). The best way to describe it was the Chinese version of a flee market. There were stands everywhere selling all manner of goods, from clothes to jewelry to Santa Claus pottery and nativity scenes. About 98.5% of the clothing was so ugly I had to laugh at it, since I've grown used to seeing people wear things I wouldn't be caught dead in. The one thing I did buy were silk scarves. My mom told me that the one thing from China she wanted was silk scarves for every adult female in my extended family, and when we were in Shanghai I forgot to get some. Luckily, they were less expensive here, and I hope I chose nice ones.

Saturday night I went out for Mexican food. This may seen like an unremarkable thing to say, but it isn't. America has a long history of immigration, and with it a long history of ethnic food. Immigrants came, and with them they brought their local cuisine. China's very different. There is no real history of immigration here, and 95% of the population of 1.3 billion is Han Chinese. There are about 50 ethnic minorities and different cuisine in different regions, but everything is relatively the same, with not nearly as much variety as we have in America. Lately I've been craving Western food, so we did some research and found that there are two Mexican restaurants in Beijing (yes, only two in the entire city). My host mom found the address of one of them, and Saturday night we went. It was a small restaurant, and I noticed two things as I walked in: the staff was entirely Chinese and there was no one there. Nevertheless, we sat down for a meal of quesadillas, fajitas, and nachos. Considering it was Chinese Mexican food made by Chinese people, it was amazing. It reminded me of home, and satisfied my craving for Western food. Perhaps I can go back.

Today I went to Chinese Whole Foods. I was bored, so I called up Carolyn and suggested we go to an American food market that Hannah told me about. We hopped on the subway and went. It was in southeastern Beijing, the same area as the Mexican restaurant. According to my host mom, this area is the best/most expensive shopping in Beijing, and boy was she right. The market was in a shopping mall that housed brands such as Gucci, Versace, and Bvlgari, basically really really really expensive stuff. These malls are not China, they are America. If it weren't for all the asian people, I would forget I'm here. We walked into the market, and looked in awe at what they had. There were many products that you can't find in regular shops in China, and even things that didn't have any Chinese on them except for a small label the supermarket put on them. The highlight was when I spotted the brownie mix. I haven't had brownies in two months, so I went straight for them. I was told before I got to China that Chinese people don't have ovens, but my host parents said that we did and I trusted them even though I haven't seen ours. Jimmy says that it can get up to 350 degrees F, and I'll take his word for it. I can't wait to make them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of a cultural festival that Jingshan's hosting. Becky and Elias are MCing the event, and the Americans are singing "Beijing huanying ni" (Beijing welcomes you, one of the anthems of the Olympics). They wouldn't listen to us when we told them we can't sing, so it should be interesting. The other exciting piece of this week is that the Austrians are here. Jingshan has a relationship with a school in Austria, and every year around this time a group from Austria comes to participate in the cultural festival, and they arrived Saturday. I'm so excited to have other foreign people to talk to, especially Europeans. Apparently they're only here for a week, but that's okay. I just need to get through this week, because next week I go to Chengdu, and that's going to be awesome. I can't wait. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Half Way In/There: The Review Post

It's March 23, 2009. I've been in China for exactly two months, and I'll be here for two more. This is where I reminisce about everything that's happened and everything that will happen.

I'll start off with what I miss about home. It probably says something about me that what I miss the most is not my friends or my family (though I love you guys a ton), but the FOOD. I have spent the past few days fantasizing that I could go back to America for just a couple of days, eat, and return to China. In no particular order, I want: a bagel with lax and cream cheese (or lax spread), pepperoni pizza, pasta, jambalaya (my mom makes a killer one), a burrito, a pastrami sandwich, buffalo wings, french onion soup, and clam chowder. Just this morning, I had a conversation with Carolyn in which we talked about all the things we want to eat. I told Jimmy about this conversation, and he told me that the Chinese kids had the same talk in America. I guess it's normal to miss your local cuisine.

I've done so much so far that it's impossible to remember everything. I've taken about 1,000 pictures give or take (a completely random estimate. let's just say I've taken quite a few) of everything and everywhere. I've experienced first-hand what it's like to go to a Chinese school, and let me just say that it's not any better than an American high school. For one thing, they don't believe in heat. As long as it's not raining or windy, they have to go outside and do exercises in the morning, even when it's freezing out. In class, the teacher mostly just talks without much participation from the class. The uniforms are cool. I think the top by itself with jeans looks fine, but with the blue sweatpants it looks kinda ridiculous. There's always debate going on in America over whether we should have school uniforms, because it eliminates the pressure to dress well. After wearing a uniform to school for a month, I can say that I like wearing my own clothes to school everyday.

There are several things about China that are completely different from the US. Some things I heard in the run up to the Olympics that China/Beijing was trying to eliminate are still going strong. There's the spitting for one. People spit constantly, usually preceded by a loud clearing-of-the-throat sound that I've come to cringe at. The driving is insane, but I've gotten used to that. I've had to hone those look-both-ways-before-crossing skills that I've let slide since 2nd grade. Here, cars won't really stop, so if you don't look, you're dead. The shoving isn't so bad. If you're not careful, someone may take your spot or run up ahead of you if you're not paying attention, but other than that it's not a huge problem. The subway is always crowded, and the only time I can ever sit down is on Friday nights past 9pm. It's like Boston's rush hour, but all the time.

I've found myself thinking anything priced over 50 yuan is too expensive, even though that's only about $7. I've been to "America" a few times, and by that I mean gigantic ultra-capitalist style shopping malls. I don't generally buy anything because I've come to the conclusion that any article of clothing a Chinese person will buy is ugly. Most of the things they wear I wouldn't be caught dead in, and sometimes it genuinely makes me gag. It's also expensive. Anything you see in the big Western malls is marked up so that it's basically as expensive as it would be in the US. For example, a sweatshirt that would be $25 in America is 170 yuan here (divide{¥-$}/multipy{$-¥} by 6.84 to convert).

My goals for the rest of the exchange are to improve my Chinese and to explore more. I haven't been speaking as much Chinese as I'd like, although I can understand people pretty well now. Reading and writing's a whole different story. I'm learning more grammatical structures and useful things like conjunctions and prepositions in our Chinese class. There are also parts of Beijing that I still haven't seen, since it's such a huge city. I virtually never go to the western part of the city, and I'm not sure what's there. I've also never gone north of the Olympic Park, or much futher south than Tiananmen Square (though we're going to the Temple of Heaven this weekend, which is further south than that). I haven't seen Mao's body, which I definitely will do at some point. There's so much I want to do, but I have no idea where to start. I just hope the next two months will be as fantastic as the last two. At least it'll be warmer!!!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Forbidden City (gugong/故宫)

This is the perfect example of the contrast between new and old in modern China. Ancient buildings in the foreground, modern cranes building skyscrapers in the background. Thank you Clala.

Yesterday we went to The Forbidden City with the school. It's free for students on Tuesdays, so that's why we went during the week.

First off, the weather was spectacular. It was in the mid-70's (today was mid-80's), with mostly clear blue skies. Nothing really falls from the sky here, at least not this time of year, so the only thing obscuring the sun and the sky is generally a hazy layer of smog. It sounds worse than it is. You don't really notice it, at least I certainly don't (at least I mean in terms of difficulty breathing or anything like that. The level to which it disgusts me on an emotional and ethical level is an entirely different story). Anyways, It was great to be going on a day like yesterday.

I'd love to tell you that it was the best experience of my life, but it wasn't. It was interesting, don't get me wrong, but in the end it was just layer after layer after layer of really old buildings that all look the same. It was cool to think that centuries of emperors once ruled all of China from where I was. The school got us audio guides to help us appreciate the site more. Mostly it told us stories like "This is where the emperor housed all his concubines. He slept with a different one every night. One emperor even, according to legend, died from over-excitement with his concubines." Lots of stuff I really would rather not know. Interesting, but a little creepy (don't forget the eunuchs too).

Overall, I'm glad I went. The Forbidden City is like the Great Wall, one of those things that if you come to Beijing (and frankly any part of China) you have to go to, if not purely for their I've-been-there story value. If you ever find yourself in Beijing, I highly recommend you visit it.

Tomorrow we're going to an exhibit on Tibet that my host mom told me about with our geography class. I'm really excited, because anything about Tibet interests me. I'll write about that probably this weekend at some point.

One last thing. I haven't seen Mao's body yet. It's housed in a building to the south of the Forbidden City, in Tiananmen Square. I'm not sure if/how you get tickets, but I'm definitely going to try before I leave China. Because that's also something you have to do when you come to Beijing. I'm positive you can't take pictures of that though. Darn!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring in Beijing

Sorry I haven't written a new post all week. I've been otherwise engaged, and just generally lazy. What can you do.

The only thing I can remember that happened last week was our presentation to the sixth grade, which basically means that last week was pretty boring.

While we're here, we have to give several presentations to various people/grades on America culture. When the Jingshan kids were in America last fall, they gave the same kinds of presentations on Chinese culture. We gave this one to the sixth grade, which is about 100 kids (I think). We made a massively large powerpoint presentation, in which we talked about various aspects of American culture, such as school, food, hobbies, TV/movies, etc. My topic was TV/movies, so I made a short slideshow with pictures of different genres of movies and TV, including The Dark Knight, Grey's Anatomy, Law and Order: SVU, Gossip Girl (at the urging of Hannah), and Slumdog Millionaire. I simply explained each type of movie or TV show, and asked the kids which one they liked the most.

The funnier parts of our presentation were as follows: Elias "singing" the YMCA song, teaching the kids the wave, teaching them "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", and mistakenly writing in Chinese next to the picture of the swimming pool "swimming car" instead of "swimming pool" (the word for pool and car sound the same, but are NOT the same character). It was overall a really fun/funny experience and I'm psyched to do it again this Friday, this time with the 8th graders.

This week will definitely be an eventful one. Monday, we go to Beihai Park which is a little NW of the Forbidden City. On Tuesday, we turn in our first paper (yay!) of the trip and then venture to the Forbidden City. I'm really excited for that not so much because we're going to the Forbidden City, but because we're going to the Forbidden City in 75 degree weather!!! Thursday we're going to an exhibit on Tibet at the Nationalities Center, and Friday we give our second presentation. Hopefully it will be a fun week.

On another note, Spring has arrived!!! In Beijing, it switches from winter to spring almost overnight, with no real transitional period. One week it was cold and cloudy, the next it was warm and sunny. Today it was a balmy 65 degrees!! I'm loving the warmth, after what seemed like such a snowy winter (in Newton, I mean. I didn't even get half the snow, after I left Boston got hit with a few more feet of snow!). It's great to feel spring in the air again, though it makes me miss home a bit. I always love the way spring smells in Newton, especially right after it rains. That's what I miss most about home, the feeling I get after a spring rain, when you can smell the flowers blooming and the warmth of the sun and that nice breeze just take you away.

Enough daydreaming, I'm off to bed. I promise I'll post more this week, as I'll definitely have more to talk about. Zaijian!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Olympic Park

The seats are designed like they were in the water cube, though I'm not sure why. After all, earth doesn't splash up, unless it's lava I suppose.

Today we went to the Olympic Village. It's not the first time I've seen the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, since I walked around them about a week after I got here. This time, however, we got to go inside them. The Jingshan School takes every exchange group on several outings to all the really touristy places in Beijing, like the Forbidden City, Great Wall, and the like. Our group, being the first to go after the Olympics, is the first to be taken to see the stadiums by the school.

We arrived at the school at around 9am, and hopped on a bus to take us to the village. When we got there, we walked to the Forest Park. The Park is at the northern edge of the Olympic Village (called ao yun cun, 奥运村 in Mandarin), and I have to say it isn't very exciting. It's called a "Forest" Park, but there's not that much forest to speak of. It's more like a lot of brown grass with a tree planted every few meters or so. We found a coffee shop near a lake, and got lattes. Then we went back.

Walking down from the Park to the Nest/Cube, there are these really funky looking lampposts everywhere. Each of them is outfitted with speakers, and they kept broadcasting the same three songs over and over. It was a little weird to be hearing music outside like that, but it was fun to dance to it.

The Water Cube was our first stop. You've all seen pictures of it, so you know that the outside looks like bubbles. When we first stepped inside, it was very bluish-white looking, which I guess you'd expect. What made me laugh was that they were selling bottled water. It seemed somewhat ironic that bottled water was on sale inside a giant "water cube". Anyways, we promptly walked into the room with the pools. It looked just like it did during the Olympics and in pictures online, though today it was noticeably more serene. The seats are colored so that towards the pools there are more blue seats, and the farther you go up the less blue there is. It's designed to look like splashing water. Becky and I decided to sit down and absorb the atmosphere for a while. We sat and listened to the music, which was very peaceful and relaxing. After we were finished taking pictures (literally everyone had a camera. Usually I feel too touristy in these situations, but everyone else was taking pictures, so I didn't feel weird) we sat and almost fell asleep it was so nice. I kept thinking to myself, "This is where Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals. Here he defeated that guy by 0.01 seconds. That actually happened in this room. Holy crap." It was a somewhat surreal feeling.

Next stop was the Bird's Nest, site of the opening/closing ceremonies and the track and field events. I'd read before that during the Olympics it had a seating capacity of 91,000 people, although post-Olympics it has been decreased to 80,000. That's still a ton of people, and for some regional perspective Fenway Park had a capacity of around 35,000 (granted, that was built in 1912, when I'm sure attendance at sporting events was smaller. If only Boston could ever make plans to rebuild that darn thing. That's another tangent altogether). As we walked towards the main field, it looked to me a lot like the stadium for the Washington Nationals in DC. That is until we made it onto the field. My first impression was that it was gigantic. I mean like epically big, so huge you can't imagine it. We walked around the stadium, where there were the Olympic Mascots (called Fuwa). There was a jumbo tron playing the same sort of video as in the Water Cube. The Olympic torch was noticeably gone. On one side, people dressed up in the mascots put on a little show for the audience. It was hilarious, because the music was really funny and those poor people could barely move in their costumes. As we exited, we walked through the gift shop where I considered buying Olympic paraphernalia, but reconsidered thinking what my host brother brought to me in America was sufficient.

After that, we had lunch and went home. It was a really fun experience and I'm really glad the school took us.

One last thing. I was talking with my mom (my real mom) last night, and she said she saw a news report by one of the networks about how Beijing is struggling to find a use for the Bird's Nest and Water Cube post-Olympics. I can attest to that. The city spent millions of dollars on these facilities, even building a 3-stop subway line for easier access to them (although I'm sure the subway was extremely packed during the Olympics). Now, however, they lie there more or less unused, their only purpose being to charge visitors to see them. I really hope the city finds some use for them, since it would be a real shame to let such fascinating and amazing facilities go to waste.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Morning Exercises and Teaching 6th Graders

Today was a fairly eventful day in my life here in Beijing. Several things happened for the first time, and they're all at least mildly exciting.

First, today was the first day that we did morning exercises. Every morning since we've been here before the first block the entire school goes onto the track area. However, up until today it's been too cold in the morning (we do this at around 7:45, the first block starts at 8) to do the classic morning exercises, so the school just runs around the school and the track several times. It's cold, but it's nice at the same time because it wakes me up, which is necessary after waking up at 6:20. This morning the school administration decided it was warm enough to do the real morning exercises. Every class lined up single-file next to each other (with 50+ kids in each class, they were long lines) and waited for instructions. A male teacher got up to a microphone that's on a raised podium in the middle of a wall fence that faces another school next door. He talked for a minute or two, and I didn't understand anything he was saying. Then, we started the exercises. First, he told us to spread our legs and link our hands behind our backs. Then he told us to go back to our original position. He told us to do this about five times, and then he had us raise our hands in several different positions. Then we turned to the right, took a step, turned right again, did a 180, then repeated the same thing. That was about it. It wasn't what I expected, but I'm guessing that once it gets warmer out we'll do the full exercises I've heard so much about (and I'll get a chance to make a bigger fool out of myself :P). I'll bring my camera to school this week and film it, because seeing it for yourself is probably better than my terrible description. It was almost 12 hours ago, and my brain can't remember. Sorry :(.

The next thing that happened in our English class. We Bounders (the term the program uses to refer to the Newton kids who go to China. I think it's because we're "bound" for China. Don't ask me, I didn't come up with it) have this English seminar so we can get our final 2.5 credits in English and graduate. I think I've mentioned it before. Anyways, every Tuesday and Friday, we have one block where our teacher chaperones facilitate discussions on China, based on what we've read and seen. Today, they gave us our first real assignment. We each chose pieces of paper out of a hat, each describing a person. Our assignment was to answer a list of questions about that person in a creative format (i.e. dialogue, journal entry, interview, etc). Mine is "You are a 13 year old girl in the 12th century. You are the daughter of peasant farmers (tenant farmers) in the Yellow River basin." This basically means that I have a pretty crappy life. I'm a girl, which in traditional imperial China is never nice. I'm poor, which also isn't great. And I'm 13, which means I'll be married off soon. My feet are also bound, a particularly excruciating process (ever read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?). I got frustrated when I was told I couldn't do a powerpoint or a video diary because computers and powerpoint didn't exist in the 12th century, but I'm sure I'll think of something. Feel free to give suggestions.

The last exciting thing that happened today was I got to help teach a class. Our teachers each assigned us a block or two during the week when we get to assist in their class. They teach English to the middle schoolers, and it can be especially tiring for them. We want to get taken out of class, so it all works out. I'm helping Ms. Richard teach a 6th grade class. It was really fun. They read these really thin (like 40 pages) books about different people and topics (Prince William, Surfers, MLK, The Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick to name a few). Today she taught them about Leonardo DiCaprio. She had a timeline of all the movies he's been in (I didn't realize it was so many), the only one they knew of was of course Titanic (which I believe is still the top grossing movie of all time). She then had them write details of DiCaprio's life, the ultimate goal being to write their own autobiography. She had me walk up and down the ailes, making sure kids were doing what they were supposed to be doing and such. When they started writing their autobiographies, I noticed they were all born in 1996/1997. This surprised me because while I know 12 year olds exist, it didn't dawn on me that there are people born in 1997. It was a little weird, perhaps my first "mid-life crisis" of sorts. Who knows. The class was really fun, and I'm looking forward to getting to know some of the kids, rather than sitting in Chemistry class.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More Pictures from the Museum

This is the plaque that was at the entrance to the Propaganda Wing. I know it's annoying that it's in three images, my camera couldn't take one that was readable. You really should read the whole thing, even if it takes a minute. It's really interesting and enlightening.


Pictures from the Military Museum

The Military Museum

Yesterday we went to the Military Museum of Beijing. It was one of the most fascinating museums I've ever been to, and you'll see why.

At first, we were only really going because of Elias. He had wanted to go the previous weekend, but we ended up getting sidetracked with lunch (it seems like we're always eating over here), and so it was postponed to this Saturday. The only reason I wanted to go was to hang out with the Newton kids, because my relationship with museums has always been strained and I usually end up being bored out of my mind. This was different.

We got to the museum, which is conveniently right next to a subway stop (called Military Museum, easy enough) at around noon. The museum's free as long as you don't want to go into a boat that's on display near the entrance, in which case the cost is 5 yuan (about $.73). I went, and it wasn't all that remarkable. As you enter the museum, you're greeted by a stone statue of Mao that stands about 30 feet tall, with chambers to his sides. The first one we went into was the one dedicated to the early history of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) during the Chinese Civil War. There were lots of statues of revolutionaries cast out of different medals. In the display cases were artifacts such as letters, rifles, and paintings commissioned later to depict certain important events. It was all set up very neatly (in both senses of the word) and was interesting to look at.

The next wing we went to was the one dedicated to weapons. I'm not sure whether what we saw was real or fake, but nevertheless I wouldn't want to face it in combat. There were tanks, planes, missiles, and guns of all kinds. Some were made in China, others in Japan, and others in the USA (I know this because the signs describing them were in English and Chinese, although I can read all three in Chinese. That's very common throughout all of China). The fact that they displayed weapons made in Japan surprised us, for China and Japan have not had a history of good will. Outside they showcased more weapons and tanks, and Elias had fun playing on some of the weapons (it was really for little kids, but we're all 6 at heart :P).

The last wing we visited was by far the most interesting. I'm not sure what it was really called, but for our purposes let's call it the Propaganda Wing. At the entrance, there was a plaque describing what the wing was about. In it, it described how the Chinese people and their civilization are amazing and that all they've done has contributed invaluably to the advancement of mankind. It even mentioned Hu Jintao as "comrade," something I haven't seen since arriving in China, and a term that has fallen out of common use in the past few decades. As we made our way through the hall, we saw many very interesting things. There was a wall dedicated to Hu Jintao (as a side note, my host brother's real name, Hu Xinyuan, is the same Hu (胡) as Hu Jintao), with pictures from recent meetings with world leaders and his accomplishments since becoming Party Chairman. They showcased China's pride in being awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, which pictures of people cheering in the streets and waving signs. There were plaques commemorating the return of Hong Kong and Macao ("wiping out the hundred-year humiliation of the Chinese nation"), and the overall accomplishments of the Chinese people/nation. 

There was an entire section devoted to the Communist Party and its achievements, along with all the good things it did/has done/will do for China. This wing was extremely interesting because of just how blatant and obvious it was that it was all propaganda. Ever since coming to China, I've been keeping my eyes open so I can recognize when something has obviously been censored/Party approved, but never before has it been so obvious and in-your-face as it was here. Looking at all of it, I was thinking of how the Party controls information and tries to have people think in a certain way. Everything I saw was somehow either positive about China, or ridiculing something negative. Don't get me wrong, of course China has done many good things for its people and the world not only over the past few decades, but for thousands of years (they did invent paper, the compass, gunpowder, etc). But that doesn't erase all the bad things they've done and the bad things that have happened to them (the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, and their continued destruction of the environment), none of which got a single word of mention in the entire wing. This museum was a wonderful example to me of how the Communist Party controls what its people see and how the Chinese people perceive their nation and the Party. As we walked through this wing, we discussed how in America, if the government ever tried to create a wing of a museum that only showcased its positive accomplishments, there would likely be such an outcry from the public and the media that any plans would have to be abandoned. In China, that's not the case because the Party's word is law, but also because the Chinese people generally don't want to talk about the negative aspects of their society they know exist (the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward aren't taught in schools), and would rather flaunt the positive elements.

I'm going to post several pictures of the museum here and in other posts, including all the plaques I described above. I encourage you to read all of them so you can see what I'm talking about with your own eyes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Makes a Great Leader?

This week we finally began our special classes. For the first week of the semester, we sat in on all the classes our Chinese classmates had, and as I said before, it was extremely boring. Beginning this week, however, we only sit in on some classes with our Chinese classmates and take our own classes with just the American students for the other periods. We have Martial Arts/Tai Chi (MATC), Chinese, Brush Painting, Calligraphy, Geography, Chinese History, and our own English seminar to satisfy the credit requirements of NPS. Monday we had MATC and Chinese, and today we had our English class and brush painting. 

MATC was really fun. Our teacher was extremely nice and very patient with us, because it took us awhile to learn how to do what she was teaching us. We learned some basic martial arts poses, like how to punch and block (although I doubt these kind of skills would come in handy in any real life fight). For tai chi, we just learned the basics as well, but we did them to traditional Chinese music that was so soothing I started falling asleep while standing. In our English class today we had a quiz on the first three chapters of our core textbook for the course. It's called CHINA: Empire and Civilization, and it's one of the driest textbooks I've ever had the misfortune of reading. It's the kind of book that once you've read a sentence, you forget it immediately. It's very useful when I'm having trouble falling asleep though (which causes problems when I read it during school here-not supposed to fall asleep! {I haven't, though I've come close on several occasions}). The quiz was fairly easy, just a standard answer 3/5 questions in paragraph form thing. The main problems was that I haven't written anything more than e-mails, journal entries, and blogposts in a month, so it took some adjusting to write school-quality work again.

Moving on, I shall now explain the title of this post. Today during English class, Ms Kamerik taught my class. From now on, she'll do this one block every Tuesday and Wednesday, and today was her first day. She gave us a powerpoint introducing herself (where she's from, where she teaches, that kind of thing). She then moved on to a powerpoint on Abe Lincoln titled "What Makes a Great Leader?", in honor of his 200th birthday. She described the basics of his life, and then when on to say that he's considered a great leader in America. She asked us to work in groups to think of qualities great leaders should possess. The class thought of all the usual ones such as honest, courageous, dynamic, that sort of thing. Then came two unusual ones. The first was sexy, which came with a collective laugh. Ms Kamerik thought it best to not write that one down, because, let's face it, that's not always a quality a great leader possesses :P. But then came an interesting one. Someone said autocratic. Ms Kamerik wrote it down, but said "let's come back to that one." The class found that to be a somewhat strange choice as well. I found it fascinating. In the US, if we ever do this kind of exercise, people come up with the obvious qualities, and not much else. If anyone ever proposed adding autocratic to the list, it would be laughed at as ridiculous, and tossed aside. Here, however, it's not cast aside so quickly. While it wasn't embraced by the class as an essential quality a great leader must possess, it wasn't branded as insane either. It definitely interested me as an aspect of Chinese culture much different from my own.

As a side note, Ms Kamerik also asked the class to list people they thought of as great leaders. The first person mentioned was, you guessed it, good old Mao Zedong. I've noticed so far that here most people are more concerned with studying or shopping to give much thought to Mao and what he did for/to China and how he affected the country.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tiananmen Square

This afternoon, Becky, Rebecca, Carolyn and I went to Tiananmen Square. According to the guidebooks it's the biggest square in the world at 3,000 square meters. We walked around, taking pictures of all the buildings and things. There's a large tower (I think it's a monument to something) in the square, with several government buildings on the sides. They're all called The Peoples' something something. All around the square are guards dressed in long green coats. These guys are all over the city, but apparently here they carry guns (I don't know if that's particular with these guys or if it's true all around the city. Probably best not to test it :P). At the far end of the square is the iconic building with Mao's portrait hanging in the center. The left side says "Long live the People's Republic of China (zhong hua ren min gong he guo wan sui)". I'm not sure about the right side, but I'm sure you could look it up. This is where the gate was, because I think they tore it down to make way for this monument to Mao when he died. Tiananmen literally means "Gate of Heavenly Peace" (tian天-heaven, an安-peace, men-gate). It's the southern gateway to the Forbidden City.

First Week at Jingshan

This past week was our first week of school at Jingshan. While I definitely enjoyed meeting new people and seeing how school is conducted in China, this week was marked by my being extremely bored for five consecutive days. Now don't get me wrong, we were expecting this and were even warned by Wang laoshi to hang in there because this week wouldn't be very interesting, but it is always one thing to know something's going to happen and an entirely different thing to actually experience it.

Each day my class has seven classes, five before lunch and two after (that's for the middle school. all the other American kids besides Rebecca and I have eight classes, meaning that I get out one period earlier than them. YAY!!! :P). I say my class because in China, you stay with your classmates the entire day and the teachers move around. Every day we also have one, two, or even three classes that are double blocks. These are different from long blocks at South. While at South a long block is just one block that has 15 extra minutes, in China double blocks are two normal blocks back to back with a 5 minute break in between. This makes them much longer than long blocks, and if it isn't English class, much more boring. In China lunch is also much longer than it is in America, and we get about 1.5 hours to eat and chill in the middle of the day. This is great, but it comes at the cost of ending school later than in America, at around 3 or 3:30 rather than 2 or 2:30.

The classes I had this week were (in no particular order): Physics, English, Chemistry, Politics, Math, Chinese, and PE. In Physics I recognized an equation or two, mostly because they were doing circular motion which is what we were learning before I left. English is my favorite class because I can understand everything, but also because it is the one class where there's a good amount of student participation and group work. The normal Chinese style of teaching is teacher talks and talks and talks and student listens/spaces out. If it sounds boring, that's because it is. In English class, however, the teacher wants the students to practice their speaking skills, and the only way to do that is through group work and to have the students participate in the class. In Chemistry, I could vaguely follow what they were doing from my junior chemistry course, but mostly I didn't know what was going on. Politics I got none of. In Math I only understood one equation, and in Chinese again, nothing. PE was second best to English. We went out to the track area and played basketball or just walked around. It was nice to stretch my legs and do something physical.

After school each day I would get home at around 4:30 or 5. I take the subway home each day, and it's 8 stops. The annoying part of it is that I take one line for 7 stops, then transfer and go 1 stop. I walk home from the subway because there's a public bus that goes from my apartment to the subway, but not the other way. It's about a 10-15 minute walk, much closer than the T is to my house in Newton. When I get home I get on my computer and just spend time doing what I feel like. This is the most enjoyable aspect of my stay in Beijing. The only "homework" I have is for our English class with our two teacher chaperones, but that's it. Talk about slump. That's it for now, coming up next- our trip to Tiananmen Square!!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Getting Lost in Snowy Beijing

It snowed today! When I walked out of my apartment this morning, there was a slim coating of white on all the cars. The snow was nothing like it is in Boston, it was just flurries. It was still exciting though. My host brother Jimmy told me Beijing gets 1cm of snow the entire winter, and this was about that. Luckily, the Jingshan kids were in America for that huge snowstorm in December, so they got to see what real snow looks like. 

School today was less exciting than it was yesterday. My first period was math, and again I didn't understand anythg the teacher said. I did recognize an equation he wrote on the board though. It was x^2+1=0, x=i. I do remember something from high school math!

The American students then went on a tour of the school while my class took a 1.5 hour long chemistry test. We walked with Ms Zheng and Wang laoshi (Wang laoshi came to America last semester-she worked at North). They took us to several places. We went to a relatively small computer lab where they use the internet to communicate with students and classes from around China and the world. She told us that sometimes a classroom in China won't have enough resources, so the Jingshan School will include them in their classes to give them the resources they need. It was very cool. We visited a biology hallway full of gourds on the ceiling and butterfly carcasses on the walls. We saw elementary schoolers learning how to write characters-they were so cute! We went to the swimming pool. It's olympic sized, so it's very very large. Wang laoshi said the swim test is to make it across four lengths of the pool anyway you can (doggy paddle allowed), so I'll obviously pass. We went to a gym area where there's a rock wall and badminton courts. It's where we'll have our martial arts class.

After the tour we returned to our classes. My class took an English test while I read a book (they had two tests in a row on the 2nd day of school-ouch!). After that was lunch, which wasn't very remarkable. We did meet another foreigner-a woman named Maggy (I think, I know it started with an M) who's from Maryland. She's been here since 2008 and she'll be here till July. I know she was here for last year's Newton group. She lives at school along with a few other people. It's nice to know we're not the only non-Chinese people at the school.

Next came physics, which was extremely boring. At this point in the day I'm sick of doing the things I have been doing to keep myself busy, and I just want to go home. The teacher talked and talked and talked to the class non-stop. I think even when I'm not paying attention, just having my brain hear Chinese makes me tired. For the last block of the day we had a "class meeting" with our homeroom teacher. He talked with the aid of a powerpoint. One of the slides had a picture of Michael Phelps posing with his 8 golds on the left side, and a picture of him smoking marijuana on the right side. Another slide had pictures of movie posters for the Shawshank Redemption. I have no idea what the teacher said about these pictures, or why he talked about them.

The way home was eventful. While I do know how to get back to my apartment on the subway, today I did something different. Instead of transferring from Line 5 (the line to school) to Line 10 (the line with my stop on it), I continued on Line 5 to the station my host brother said had buses to take me to my apartment. I got on one of the buses he told me about, and saw where it would take me. After 15 minutes, I realized I had no idea where I was. I got out and hailed a taxi (getting a taxi in Beijing is as easy as getting one in NYC). I told him Shaoyaoju, which is the area that I live in. Several times he said something in Chinese, I think he was asking me which way I wanted to go. All I said was "correct, correct". After awhile he turned the mirror to make eye contact with me and said "Ni shi meiguo ren (你是美国人)" or, you're an American. It wasn't a question. I smiled and said yes. He finally got me to my apartment, and after spending 20.40 yuan (almost $3) I was home. Normally it costs just 2 yuan to get home ($.30). Oh well. Next time I'll wait for Jimmy before I take a different route home.

Monday, February 16, 2009

First day of School

To start off, I'd like to correct myself. It seems I need to go back to US History, for Nixon didn't visit China in 1977, since he wasn't president anymore. He went in 1972. Sorry for that mixup, and thank you Wikipedia.

Today was the first day of school. I woke up at 6:10 to the sound of my cell phone alarm, shortly after which my host mom knocked on my door to make sure I was awake. I ate a small breakfast of dumplings (jiaozi, my favorite food here) and Nescafe instant coffee and I was on my way. My host mom drove me, Jimmy (my host brother), and another boy to school. We arrived at about 7:10, and I sat down in my desk behind a kid named Ricky, and close to Victor. We then went outside for an all-school assembly, and it was very cold. All the students stood in neat rows, with the American kids standing separately. After about 15 minutes, we were called up to the stage to introduce ourselves. Elias and Becky (the ones best with Chinese in our group) took the microphone and gave a short speech. Elias opened with "Nimen hao!" or Hello everyone! The entire school laughed. It was great. After Becky and Elias introduced all of us, Ms Kamerik presented our gift to the Jingshan School to Principal Fan. It was a pewter bowl full of well wishes from Newton kids written on colored index cards.

After that, we went back inside to our classrooms to begin class. Since it was the first day of school, all the teachers just gave introductions to the curriculum for the semester, like they do in America. Our class had Math first, and I didn't understand a single thing. I'm not so great at math to begin with, but when the teacher's talking in Chinese I get nothing. Next came gym. We went out to the freezing cold track and ran about six laps. Then the boys played basketball and the girls stood around. I shot hoops with Victor, Miles, and a kid named Chen. It was really fun, because we were all equally awful. English was next. It was hands down my favorite period of the day for the simple reason that I could understand everything that was going on. The teacher (Shirley, like Shirley Temple!-that's what she said :P) spoke with almost no accent. After that was two periods of Chinese, where I looked up words in my Chinese dictionary and read the textbook we're being quizzed on next week. After that was lunch. Us Newton kids ate in the teacher's cafeteria, where we eat slightly better food than the rest of the kids. Because here we get 1.5 hours for lunch, after we finished eating we went to the track area, where all the little kids were playing. It reminded me of elementary school recess. After lunch came Politics. This was the most boring class of the day, probably because the teacher literally talked to the class for the entire two periods. During the first class I heard "Meiguo" (America) a lot, and apparently he was discussing the differences between Chinese and American education. By the last period I had run out of things to do and almost fell asleep. Thankfully the school day was over though. 

I went home on the subway (which is sooo much more convenient and useful than the T), grateful that I didn't have any homework to do. Tomorrow we're getting a tour of the school, so at least I'll have something to do during one of the periods. Ms Kamerik told Rebecca and me that she's teaching English to our class twice a week, which is great because we'll get to help out. I'm really excited to interact with all the students in my class. 

Everyone was extremely welcoming to me today, which was great. When we played basketball they made sure that I had enough opportunities to shoot. In class, they would ask me if I understood what was happening. They asked me questions about America. In all, it was a wonderful first day, if not extremely boring. I'm really excited to get to know everyone over the semester, and I think it's going to be a fun experience.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cultural Observations

The past few days here have been relatively low key. The weekend just ended, and for the past two days I just hung out with the Newton kids and hung out in my apartment. Like I said, pretty low key. The most exciting thing is that tomorrow's my first real day of school. When I say excited, I don't exactly mean excited. For the next week, all us exchange students are sitting in our classes with nothing to do. You see, the special classes that only our group has don't start till the second week of school, so this week we're just sitting in each of our classes with the Jingshan kids. It's going to be possibly one of the most boring weeks of my life. But at least I have a uniform (and I promise I'll post pictures of it soon).

What I wanted to write about in this post was some more things about China that I find interesting.

The first is another note about the driving. While before I said Chinese people can't drive, I think it's more appropriate to say that driving here requires real skill, and is almost an art form. Here, you have to have your eyes on the road 120% of the time, never wavering. Because everyone ignores traffic laws, you have to be constantly vigilant. Cars also have the right of way, not pedestrians. Cars and buses do not stop for pedestrians, pedestrians have to get out of the way. Drivers also do very crazy things you'd never see in America. For instance, one night I was taking a taxi home. The driver missed my exit, but instead of taking a different route like he would in America, he did this. He stopped in the middle of the street (we were on one of the Ring Roads, sort of like a highway in the city), backed up about 20 feet, and continued onto the proper exit. Surprisingly, at this point I'm used to this kind of thing, and it didn't scare me. By now I just laugh to myself and say "That's China."

President Nixon. This might seem like a strange thing to write about, but it's fascinating. In America, we all know how Nixon's remembered. We all know about Watergate and the debacle of his presidency. In America Nixon's seen as a criminal and a lier. Not so in China. In the late 1970s (I think 1977), Richard Nixon traveled to China. He was the first American president to travel to China since the Communist Revolution (I think maybe even the first period). While there he reestablished diplomatic ties, ties that were severed 30 years prior. In China today, everyone thinks of Nixon as a hero for establishing these ties. When they first asked me if I knew Nixon, I laughed and said he was a terrible president. They laughed and said they loved him. You may now be wondering if the same is true for former president Dubya. Not so. They hate him here as much as we do in America.

Dating. In America, many people start dating in middle school. In high school some people have serious relationships, and they may branch out even further in college. The point being that dating while young is not taboo in the US. In China, it's much different. Before college, dating (and frankly much interaction between the sexes at all) is frowned upon. Not to say that it doesn't happen, but much of that is in secret. When you're in middle or high school, you're supposed to study, not date. Once you're in college, however, if you're not dating someone you ought to be. I think many people actually marry the first person they publicly date. 

Cigarette smoking. Here's the one area where I'll say I think the US has it right and China wrong. I have seen so many people smoking in so many places here. It's disgusting. There are many more places where smoking is allowed in the US, for instance inside many private buildings. There are no smoking signs, but I've seen those be ignored. This isn't so much a cultural issue as it is a public health one. I'm scared that in 10 or 20 years, you'll see a huge epidemic of Chinese people getting lung cancer, emphysema, or any one of the other 1000 smoking related illnesses. It's the same with fast food. Sooner or later China's going to have a huge obesity problem on its hands (remember, China has 1.3 billion people. that's several US's put together).

Tomorrow's the first day of school, and I'll blog about how (bad) it was. I should go to bed now, have to wake up at 6:10 tomorrow morning (versus about 7 back home. OUCH!)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beijing Jingshan Xuexiao

Today we got our first look inside the school. It's on Dengshikou Dajie, right near the subway stop Dengshikou, so it's very easy to get to. It's inconspicuously tucked into the side of the street, with a 24-hour McDonald's right next to it. If you didn't know where to look, you'd probably walk right past it.

My first impression of the building itself wasn't all that remarkable. Not to say it was ugly or anything, because it wasn't. It's just what you'd expect out of your average urban school, which is fine. When you walk into the school, there are several hallways surrounded by a courtyard or two. The view wasn't all that impressive today because of the rain (it was the first time it's rained since we got here, and it's only because the government shot chemicals into the atmosphere to stimulate precipitation-my guess is to relieve the severe drought in Northern China, but who knows).

We were led into a meeting room with our host siblings where we were greeted by Principal Fan and several other important school officials. He proceeded to welcome us to the school, telling us how glad he was that we are continuing the 30 year relationship between our schools/countries, how communication has changed so much with the internet and such, and to enjoy our stay. We then introduced ourselves, in Chinese, to him and the other officials. My "speech" went like this: My name is Make (my Chinese name, 马克), I like to eat, and I love Chinese people. It was all I could think to say in the heat of the moment. I got laughs on the eating comment.

After, he invited us to have lunch at a restaurant near the school. It was a five-star restaurant, and may I say the food was AMAZING. I felt so grateful to the school that they welcome us with open arms and then treat us so wonderfully. During lunch, Ms. Zheng (the chairwoman of the exchange on this side. I'm not sure if that's the correct pinyin for her name) talked to us about some basic rules during our stay, and told us which classes we would be in for the semester. I'm in an advanced 9th grade class, with advanced students. I think they're actually in the middle school because they start high school in 10th grade and they wear green uniforms (we/the high school wears blue ones). I'm going to be with one other Newton kid, Rebecca Lo.

Tomorrow we're going to register for classes, get our textbooks, and introduce ourselves to the school (at least I think. I'm never quite sure of what's going on in China if it isn't happening right now). I'm really excited to meet my classmates, but I do know two of them already. They're English names are Miles and Victor, and they're hosting Ms. Richard (no relation) and Hannah Sieber. I don't really know them that well yet, but I hope to soon. They're hosting this year and going on the exchange this fall, so I'm sure they'll want to practice their already amazing English and ask questions about America. I just hope I can practice my terrible Chinese with them. Other then that, it was a relatively mild day.

Uniforms-I know you all can't wait to see me in my uniform, but there's a little problem. The school didn't have the right sizes for me, Rebecca, or Elias Menninger (the two shortest and tallest of our group, respectively), so we have to wait 2-3 weeks for our uniforms to arrive. I did receive the bottom, but it's bright blue sweatpants, so I'm waiting for the whole package before I wear it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Spring Festival Trip

First off let me apologize for not posting for so long. The wireless router in my apartment broke a few days before we left for our trip, and on the trip I had internet access only three times in a week and a half.

Our trip was amazing in just about every way. We went to Hangzhou, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Zhengzhou, hiked on Huangshan, and went to Shanghai. There's a lot I'm forgetting, I'm sure, since we did so much in so little time.

The first three or so days were characterized by the entire group being freezing cold. We put on several layers of warm clothing, huddled together, even slept several people to a bed in Zhengzhou, but we never ceased being cold. We saw some cool stuff, for sure, like the Longmen Caves, the Shaolin Temple and such, but it was just very cold. Nevertheless, we had an amazing time. Our tour guide, Mr. Lee, was very nice and accommodating. He spoke nearly flawless English, and informed sufficiently us of the history of the relics we saw. 

The second part of the trip was significantly warmer. When we got off the plane in Hangzhou we were simply stoked for the warmth. When we got to our hotel things got even better. It was a significant improvement over the hotel in Zhengzhou. There was heat in the room, the beds were amazing, and best of all the shower was heaven. We had a good time. 

From there we went to Shanghai, which was probably the best part of the trip. Again, our guide spoke flawless English, even though he claimed to have started just in 2000. We went up the Oriental Pearl Tower to take amazing pictures of the city skyline, went to a silk factory, and much much more. There's so much I know we did and so much I know I'm forgetting. One thing I really noticed about Shanghai was how European it felt. It was one of the major hubs for foreign powers in China (and is now the financial capital with much foreign influence), and you can really feel it. Sometimes I would think I was in England or France, and I had to remind myself I was in China.

Overall, this trip was probably the best I have ever taken in my life. It was great to spend a week and a half with 8 of my best friends, and it was just an amazing experience altogether. Top that with the fact that I can't remember what school feels like. One of the purposes of this exchange is to give me a preview of what China and Beijing are like, and this trip gave me a sense of what the rest of China is like, if only a small fraction of it. I would love to go back to all the places we visited, maybe just not in February (I'm not sure you can even fathom how cold it was. I swear, no one heats buildings in Henan province. It's ridiculous). When I come back to China (and I know I will eventually), I'd love to visit places like Tibet and Hong Kong, where we couldn't go on this trip. And even if I visited the same places with a different group of people or just a friend or two, I know it would be a completely different experience. I guess one of the main things I realized on this trip is how much I love China and love being here. It reminds me of why I wanted to go on this exchange, and why I know it was a good decision to go.

I'll post a few pictures here, but really only a few. I took around 800 pictures the whole trip, which would probably make the server crash. If you want to see them all, you'll have to ask me, since I'm not going to upload them all on Facebook either. Tomorrow I'm going to Jingshan school for the first time, and I'll most likely get my uniform. As they say in China, Mingtian jian! (see you tomorrow, 明天见!)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

China vs. America

Here are a few things I’ve already noticed about Chinese culture that are different from American culture.

People can’t drive here. When back home we say Boston drivers suck, compared to drivers here they’re angels. Traffic laws do exist, it’s just that no one really bothers to follow or enforce them. If you’re driving too slow, cars will swerve around you to get ahead, even if the road isn’t really wide enough. On some of the more rural roads there aren’t even lines painted on the road, so cars going in both directions just stay on their general half while avoiding people riding bikes or motorcycles on the side. Pedestrians don’t really have the right of way like they do in America. If you’re crossing the street, cars won’t stop for you-you have to stop for them or risk almost getting run over. When you want to stop for some reason, you just pull over on the side of the road, regardless of the traffic conditions, and if you want something on the opposite side of the road you make a U-turn into oncoming traffic. It’s ridiculous. Granted, I’ve only seen Shangdong province so far which is much more rural than Beijing, but I don’t think it’s any better there.

Television is much different. In the US, television is run by many different media sources like ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, etc. They broadcast what they like according to ratings, and have many different kinds of shows like medical dramas, crime dramas and such. In China, television is run by CCTV (China Central Television), a state-run media corporation. Everything broadcasted by CCTV is subject to approval by the government and boy do they approve some really weird stuff. There are Chinese soap operas which, like American ones, are terrible. They have some crazy Asian game shows that look and sound really trippy, and they have some other channels that mostly broadcast people yelling at each other and overreacting. There’s also NBA. They show replays of Houston Rockets games because China loves Yao Ming. All in all, I don’t think the Chinese are nearly as attached to their televisions as Americans.

Whereas back home my parents yell at me if I’m hungry right after a meal, in China they  worry if I don’t want more food. They keep suggesting that I eat this or that, and they get concerned if they think I’m not eating enough. When eating a meal, I eat until I’m full and then some. If I stop eating for more than a minute or two, someone’s there to offer me more food. They only stop once I tell them “bao le” or “I’m full”. At that point they seem convinced that I’m not just rejecting food to not impose.

Fireworks continue day and night for the Year of the Ox. In America around Chinese New Year, some of my Chinese friends will tell me happy new year (xin nian kuai le 新年快乐), but I’ve realized that the way we celebrate it in America pales in comparison to how they celebrate it here. For one thing, the government specifically makes home fireworks legal for the holiday. That means that everyone lights their own fireworks, which is so much more fun than watching organized ones. The Chinese have a different sense of danger too, and we’ll only stand a few feet away when things explode and make really loud pops. The Chinese did invent gunpowder after all.