Friday, July 19, 2013

As an American in China

Though I wrote the majority of this post before leaving, I was undecided whether to include it at the end of my blog, as I did not want to end on a negative note.  Looking back on China now –from almost a year ago–, I have extremely fond memories, but believe it necessary to include the following.  On a side note, please excuse awkward tense shifts, as I am writing in the present about the past, and combining these ideas with subjects written already. 

Having safely returned to the land of the free, I intend to comment on subjects that could have drawn the attention of China’s “proofreaders”.  Before seemingly bashing the society that I lived in for four months, I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed studying abroad in China.  I do wish to return to China, but only to explore smogless landscape, not to live. 

Although one of the first words that comes to mind when people think about China is communism, the first time I even considered China a communist country was a month into my trip.  Around the (fiftieth?) anniversary of the school at which I stayed, a few students with red armbands were stationed at its entrances to welcome visitors.  I saw the same red armbands on random individuals through the city during the transition of China’s highest officials.  The armbands are supposed to signify that the wearer is some form of volunteer that is in touch with government officials. 

From simple observation, I would assume China was communist in name only, but after getting to know my teachers, my impression changed.  One of my teachers never intended to become a teacher, but was told to become a teacher.  Although he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, he simply had no other choice than to teach; however, I do not believe this is as common today.  From a political perspective, China may be rather communist, but from an economic standpoint, the country is slightly more capitalist.  [That being said, I am almost as far as one can get from being knowledgeable about both political systems and economics.  These were just my impressions from both my observations and from a single sociology class.] 

Although communism was not obviously present, nationalism (coupled with racism) was overt.  From the few conversations that I either participated in or overheard in the company of native Chinese students, the students were willing to yield that China has issues with the environment and human rights.  However, their first attempt at rebuttal usually involved pointing out the problems of other nations, accusing the US of doing the same, or underplaying the issue within China.  Although this is my subjective opinion, I think even world-conscious individuals are influenced from a young age.  I cannot say whether the people are fed distraction, or whether “leading by example” means significantly more in Chinese culture. 

Moreover, I have heard some of these students admit that they take most of what they learn in school about government with a grain of salt; they accept that censors play a role in most everything they encounter in the news and historical texts. 

The activism surrounding the F!@#ing Islands epitomizes the nationalistic nature of China.  [And in hindsight, I do not believe this subject means anything to the American public anymore, nor did it at the time, but it was a heated topic during my stay in China].  In order to use the internet in my dorm, I had to go to a site to log on.  On said website, a rather large picture took the place of what would have been an advertisement on an American website.  The picture displayed an overlook of the Diaoyu Islands, and was accompanied by the bolded words, “The Diaoyu Islands is forever Chinese territory” [please note their grammatical error]. 

One could interpret this statement as propaganda, or as the internet sellers’ support of the China’s side of the controversy.  It is interesting to note, however, that this statement was in English, not Chinese, and was viewed by all of the international students at the university trying to access the internet.  I can only speculate the intentions of the statement, but it certainly made me feel uncomfortable because many Chinese held hostilities against the US for siding more in favor of Japan on the controversy. 

Around one month into my stay, when I was in the car with my martial art instructor, we saw a sign on the back of the car in front of us calling for war with Japan and the US.  Also around this time, my language partner’s father’s car was keyed simply because it was a Toyota. 

Although there are (or at least I hope they are classified as) extremists, everyone I’ve spoken with, including my martial arts coworker/instructor, does not care at all about these islands.  In addition, the consensus is [or was, at the time] that the Chinese government itself will prevent the situation from escalating because of economic relations with the US. 

That being said I also saw iPhone cases with nationalistic remarks on the Diaoyu Islands and coin purses with racist anti-Japanese slang, akin to the n-word, sold in market places. 

Concerning the government’s influence on the people themselves, the subjects for our research projects had to be approved by the teacher and the director of the program to avoid attracting the government’s attention.  Typing certain subjects into a search engine triggers programs by censors, [the internet is set up in China in such a way that there really is no such thing as an anonymous internet use] and the school does not want to be known for housing dissenters. 

Someone told us that his internet was shut down for several hours because he was unintentionally directed from one site to another that discussed forced abortions.  At one point during the semester, one of the students in my program could not access facebook despite having a VPN that should have allowed her to get around censorship. 

Because I did not know much about China before studying abroad, was unaware but only heard notions of how there are many human rights issues within China.  I witnessed the discrimination and maltreatment firsthand, however, of nomad minorities during an extended trip to rural China.  China’s government, in an attempt to feign an interest in environmental protection, recently quarantined a family we met to a reservation.  It reminded me of the relocations of Native Americans in US history.

Despite the horrific smog in Beijing where I studied, the Chinese government wishes to preserve the grasslands to convey an interest in environmental protection (likely because environmental protection is a growing issue in the US and other developed countries).  This is one of the more mild instances of a lack of human rights, but is similar to the others in the way that these issues simply are not discussed.  In China, the people may know that there are significant human rights abuses, but the government does its best to hide the details, and the people do not feel they can make a difference.  

Because of this mentality –the general acceptance that nothing can really be done so why not save the trouble– I have gained a greater appreciation for America.  

I have never been so proud to be an American. 

Concerning random people that I met that were unjustly treated, one was an English teacher that was put under house arrest for a month because his student attended a protest and wrote on a sign in English.  (The student is presumably still in prison).  Another individual was tortured for over a month for attempting to enter Tibet.  (He was assumed to be a spy, but actually just wanted to visit family).  I was informed by another individual that if I wore all white (a symbol of mourning the loss of life) in Tiananmen Square as a sign of protest around the time of the appointment of the new Chinese president, I would have been shoved into an unmarked van in less than a minute. 

While discussing China’s history with a different Chinese individual, he mentioned that he was at the Tiananmen Square protest, saw the tanks, and knew classmates that died there.  Although I wished to learn more about his perspective, I do not think it appropriate to ask.   I think it would have been akin to asking a Vietnam veteran about war stories before he or she had time for the scars to heal.

Honestly, I was taken aback, if not awestruck, because I never made the connection that those individuals around me had personal connections to major, tragic historical events.

On a side note, this man said casually in an appropriate juncture in the conversation that he is a socialist –a word that is thrown around far too much in the US in my opinion.  

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to learn from him.

Another tangent that I did not necessarily feel appropriate to address while I was in China involved the subject of medicine.  It was my impression, mostly imposed upon me by a close Chinese friend of mine, that old-wives-tales are accepted as legitimate forms of care.  When faced with a serious medical condition that could easily be remedied in the US, she was given old-fashioned Chinese medicine.  In addition, in our Chinese language textbook, we were taught the distinction between Western medicine and Chinese medicine. 

Another side note:  This same close Chinese friend told me that she knew she was studying hard because her teeth were bleeding after brushing them.  I tried to understand, and believe what she meant was that significant mental effort/exertion can manifest in physical form. 

For my capstone project, I dissected a number of scientific articles about acupuncture.  In summary, I do not believe there are proven conclusions on the subject to validate its implementation as a legitimate treatment.  There are apparently benefits, but nothing conclusive about the origin of the benefit has been found. 

Moreover, all the articles that supported acupuncture employed deductive reasoning instead of inductive.  This is a huge distinction, not like old and modern, but more akin to medieval humorism and current empiricism.  Instead of being able to create predictions (theories), I received the impression that acupuncturists put pins in peoples’ backs and tried to draw conclusions on why it helped.  I could not find any research that related the layout of acupoints to the physiology, such as nerve or muscle arrangements, of a person. 

What bothered the hell out of me on the subject was an article published by a renowned research facility in Beijing.  Not only did it lack (inductive) evidence and proper methodology to back its conclusions, but it was also highly subjective, even mocking western science in its introduction. 

All of the aforementioned material aside, I find myself squashing the negative preconceptions people have of China in conversation.  It is NOT a backward place (in parts).  I will also, however, disagree with people that believe China is a “sleeping dragon” that will eventually rule the world. 

Moreover, I abhor generalizations about China because, frankly, no two places in the US are very similar.  I believe China is a land where there is no black and white, but a mosaic of grey.  Even the majestic and celebrated Great Wall has a backstory of travesty.  I have learned to appreciate further the understanding of context and background. 

I will NEVER consider myself an expert, let alone someone proficient in understanding Chinese culture. 

I have learned a ton from this whole experience, and am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity.  Although one inevitably uncovers things one does not like anywhere one goes, I maintain that China is not a bad place.  That being said, I do not want to live there.  I made friends with the American students I traveled with and with locals alike, and intend on staying in touch with them for as long as possible. 

Despite that almost a full year has passed since I left for China, I still relish in the memories, occasionally bring up my experiences and observations in conversation (hopefully only when appropriate), and continue to appreciate and reflect on all that I have learned. 

I will always continue to appreciate and reflect on what I learned. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Last Week in China

[This post will be written in the past tense because I was too busy to write this at the time]

With only a week left and occupied almost entirely with schoolwork, I was ready to return to the States.  Although I tried to appreciate every moment in China, the new and exciting nature of the country when we arrived was beginning to fade. 

The week was full of lasts.  We had our last meals at our favorite restaurants: the noodle-, dumpling-, angry lady-, and spin table–restaurant.  We had our last weekend excursion experiencing Beijing nightlife (which was awesome mind you).  I taught my last kung fu class of little Chinese kids.  I found it nigh impossible to avoid becoming sentimental at times. 

Up to the end, my language teacher always made jokes to keep his two students entertained.  I honestly think he was one of the best teachers I ever had because he was always positive, energetic, had high expectations, came to know us well, and eagerly dove into class every day.  I will miss him and his long, wise eyebrows. 

Surprisingly I found it far more difficult saying goodbye to my American classmates than the people in China that I left behind.  I think it is because from the beginning, I knew my stay in China would be short.  It almost came as a surprise, however, to realize how difficult it would be to see some of the other students in my program ever again.  In a country where literally everything is foreign (and I hope I accurately represent the thoughts of my classmates because this is something I wholeheartedly believe myself), you come to depend on people that share culture and language with you.  We often just walked down the hall of our dorm, knocked on each other’s door, and hung out to take a break.  We were there for each other when the weight of being on the opposite side of the world, far from what we grew up with, was beginning to wear us down. 

I use the expression wear down because the fact of the matter is that a foreigner in a different land cannot fully assimilate; because individuals feel naturally comfortable in the culture that they grew up in, the process of getting used to another culture takes effort.  Although there are obviously differing degrees of how comfortable one feels in a foreign land, I couldn’t see myself actually living in China, and toward the end of this trip, I was quite eager to return home. 

I have learned so much from this experience.  Not only about China, but also what makes me an American (and frankly, why I prefer American culture to Chinese).  Moreover, this sabbatical from science classes gave me a better appreciation for the effort it takes to master a foreign language and the difficulties of modifying business presentations to accommodate differing cultures. 

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this semester abroad.  I have no regrets about my decisions to focus less on immersing myself in Chinese language, and more on learning as much as possible through my relationship with my martial art instructor, who was more accurately my business partner and close friend. 

Sometimes people wonder if studying abroad changes you a lot.  Frankly, it does, but not in necessarily noticeable ways, such as by gaining perspective.  Hence, in conclusion, I thought it would be appropriate to end this post with a quote about change from the Shaolin Grandmaster’s Text, which likely put the idea of someday going to China into my head. 

“I am not the same person I was yesterday, but neither am I someone else”

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fulfilling my Bucket List

I guess I ought to apologize to those of you who check this on a regular basis.  Having completed everything on my bucket list, I have been incredibly busy and have been traveling all over the place over the past three weeks.  During this time, our program visited the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the following weekend my roommate and I went to the Shaolin Temple to train with a few masters (no big).

In summary, the Great Wall is big, there are a lot of Terra Cotta Warriors, and Shaolin IS THE COOLEST PLACE EVER (if, and mind you this is a rather large stipulation, you know someone that can match you up with a guide and arrange for you to meet some of the masters). 

As one walks along the Great Wall for a while, one can easily take for granted the splendor of the monument, finding the size of the wall impressive but somewhat less grand than previously conceived…until one walks over the next hill.  The Great Wall is HUGE.  The scenery is nice, very nice actually, but I think the coolest part of the Great Wall is its immense nature.  Because it rolls with the hills, the Wall provides new angles and perspectives as you go along, and in my opinion, keeps things interesting.  I honestly think I might have gotten bored with it after the first half hour if we hadn’t kept walking.  The farther you go, the more you realize how frickin’ big it is and appreciate how much effort must have gone into making it.  [I used the word hill, but it’s more accurately part of the mountains so be prepared for one hell of a hike if you wish to save money by not using the lifts]

The following weekend, our program travelled to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.  Seeing several thousand (practically) unique  statues was pretty damn cool [they were all constructed from a set of variable moldings that were later modified by the sculptors]. 

Apparently, a group of farmers digging a well found the buried warriors.  I cannot imagine unexpectedly stumbling upon something so monumental.  Unfortunately, the farmers reported the paint on the warriors started to fade as soon as the air hit them (oxidation can be rather toilsome in this regard).

Both the Great Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors are extremely impressive, but both have somewhat dark histories.  The construction of the Wall led to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.  In addition, it is said (I do not think it was necessarily confirmed) that the Emperor who ordered the construction of the Terra Cotta Warriors had all of the workers killed after their work was finished.  There is a lot to Chinese culture that is nothing like the black and white / good versus evil culture that Americans grow up with (such as republicans and democrats, or the Empire versus the Alliance in Star Wars) [Though I’m not saying we Americans only live on extremes].
*please disregard the excessive (and likely, misuse) of parenthesis and brackets

The following weekend, my roommate and I found the Shaolin Temple to be just as touristy as the other sites.  Everywhere one goes, one should always expect to see stands and small gift shops with fervent shopkeepers, eager to make a profit from inexperienced shoppers.  I had been expecting the commercialization from the get-go, and honestly, it didn’t bother me.  For me though, this experience was far more than just another tourist stop.  I shall start from the beginning…

My roommate and I had to leave our program’s belated Thanksgiving dinner a little early to jump onto an overnight train to Zheng Zhou. [Side note: the food was awesome and it was very nice to celebrate something purely American after being away for so long]. We arrived at Zheng Zhou’s the train station at about 6:30 the following morning.  From a single point on the open square outside the train station, we counted 4 KFCs and 4 McDonalds…

With the help of my roommate, who is actually competent in Chinese, we traveled to Deng Feng (the establishment outside of Shaolin) via bus.  Upon arrival, I called my martial arts instructor, and he had his master pick us up to take us to a Kung Fu-themed hotel.  The hotel was probably better than most I’ve stayed at in the US. 

The following day, we toured the Shaolin Temple.  I was impressed by the size of the grounds, which I had presumed to host only a few hundred monks.  When we walked down the road after going through the beautiful entranceway, we saw a massive expanse (more than a few football fields) filled with monks practicing.  I later found out that the Temple houses several thousand monks. 

My instructor called a friend (one of the masters at the Temple) to have him find us a personal guide.  The monk that showed us around was 15 years old, very friendly, and apparently knew my instructor.  I didn’t realize –rather foolishly– that the Shaolin Temple actually has a large Buddhist temple on its grounds.  Many Chinese Buddhist practitioners come to Shaolin for religious purposes instead of to see martial arts performances. 

After our tour, our monk guide snuck us in the back way to the performance hall so we didn’t have to wait in line, and so we could have the best seats.  During the performance, monks of various ages (ranging from about 10 to 18) performed acrobatic stunts, martial art forms, and at one point, a monk broke a metal bar over his head to demonstrate the power of qi.  The best part of the performance, however, was when they asked for members of the audience to volunteer.  Since I kind of knew what was coming, I didn’t raise my hand. 

Three audience members were paired up with a monk and asked to mimic the actions (in a rather humorous manner) of the monks.  One man was rather large, and his replications of the monk’s kicks and tumbles were hilarious.  He was far more capable than I would have expected. 

After touring the grounds for a little longer, we headed back to the hotel.  The Kung Fu-themed hotel also had a performance theatre, where we saw a second performance.  Although there were only eight people in the audience (there aren’t that many martial art enthusiasts that come during the winter because it’s freezing cold), there were about three dozen performing monks.  Not only did they demonstrate how to use a larger assortment of weapons, but there was also a contortionist, a monk who was suspended off the ground only by spears, and an eight-year old monk that could do things that I would still argue are humanly impossible.  It was insane.

The following day, we met up again with my instructor’s master at the elementary school that he runs (I found out later that my instructor’s master is the vice president of the area’s beauro).  My roommate and I then received personal training for two hours from one of the teachers at the school who was also a shaolin monk. 

Afterwards, the teacher brought us to train with a group of two dozen elementary school kids (ranging in age from about 8 to 16).  They were very polite compared to what I would have expected of elementary school kids that have to share a class with intruding foreigners.  We did a bunch of drills, and at one point, were asked to perform what we learned in front of the kids.  I don’t do so well under pressure like that, so a lot of mistakes were made.  When we finished, all of the students began clapping for us (which admittedly made me feel awkward). 

These were probably the toughest kids I’ve ever met.  They train in freezing conditions every morning, their dorms lack heating systems, and from what I saw they weren’t fed enough for having to survive the cold.  Despite all this, they were still very friendly, fun to talk to, and very polite. 

We later had lunch with the teacher, and then received another hour of training.  My instructor’s master came in at that point, and he took great pleasure in teaching us the applications of each move. 

Leaving around midafternoon, my roommate and I headed to the train station for our overnight trip home. 

Although I really loved my experience, I do not necessarily suggest Shaolin as a place to visit unless you have a passion for martial arts because there are a few things that detract from the experience.  Shaolin (like everywhere in China) is commercialized, and now, in addition to being a school, functions as a tourist site, not a training camp for anyone who comes to visit.  Moreover, Hunan province has the worst pollution in China.  Said pollution and seemingly endless construction will promptly disillusion anyone with preconceptions of lush bamboo forests or other Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-esque scenery. 

There isn’t much to do in Shaolin unless you are a practicing Buddhist or have previous arrangements.  Moreover, it is not easy to find Shaolin unless you can navigate both train and bussing systems, which are in Chinese. 

I have fulfilled everything on my bucket list in China.  It was good timing as well because on the Monday following our weekend Shaolin excursion we took our Sociology final.  How dare school ruin my vacation…

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Some would call it Fate

I have been here for two and a half months and at times lost sight of why I came here in the first place.  I tried to appreciate and take advantage of every opportunity that I could, and because of this, ended up working with my instructor after my kung fu class to help with his business.

Two weekends ago, I taught my first class almost completely independently of the other instructors without messing up (partially because there were only five kids in the class).  I was more than somewhat concerned beforehand because the six-year-olds only understand a few words in English.  In summary, it was a success and a large confidence booster.  

Afterward, the head instructor took me to dinner and I informed him that I would be free this coming week because my program provides the students an independent travel period.  He asked if I would be able to help flush out some ideas and polish the English for his new business campaign. (Although my instructor taught himself English, he is almost completely fluent in speech).  We then spent several hours brainstorming the way to phrase certain concepts, such as mission statements and summaries of his program, which he plans to present to the physical education programs of international schools. 

I decided to help him during the following [last] week.  In exchange for my help in polishing the brochures, letters to international PE directors, English curriculum (more on that later), website, and PowerPoint, he has offered to teach me traditional Shaolin Kung Fu.  

We began with the brochure, and spent two days fine-tuning the details.  Although the task sounds somewhat easy, the goal for his program and his philosophy are rather complicated and inseparable.  One of his goals (note: only one of) is to teach children the morals, values, and characteristics that the schools and parents usually fail to teach. 

Hence, the new slogan we came up with being “More than Just Kung Fu”. 
He uses the five characters from Kung Fu Panda as a model for teaching values.  For example, Master Crane exemplifies confidence.  We designed simple phrases for the children to remember and recite, and rules to follow based off the aspects of (or what constitutes) confidence.  

There are 5 Masters (Crane, Tigress, Viper, Mantis, and Monkey), each having 5 Secrets (confidence, discipline, etc.), 2 rules accompanying each master, and a phrase that exemplifies what each secret means.  The most time-consuming part of this entire process was writing phrases; even though my instructor included the Chinese equivalent underneath, the phrases had to be extremely simple and clear in explaining concepts like perseverance.

At this point, I would like to point out that another important goal of his program is to teach English.  The instructions are taught in English, as are the directions.  Although the children barely spoke ten words of English to begin with, by incorporating movements and gestures into explaining what each word means, we have taught numerous verbs and adjectives. 

We warm up each class with an activity that teaches certain commands, directions, verbs, and adjectives.  The activity is very much like Simon-says, but Simon never tries to trick the children.  I shoot my hands in the air and tell the kids “gen wo yi qi shuo” (speak with me), then shout “Up!” and the kids shoot their hands up in the air and shout “Up!”  After doing this with several words, I mix them up to see which ones they actually recognize.  Later in the class, I include these words in giving directions for teaching the form.  From three classes, we have taught at least 30 new words that the kids recognize and can recite.  (One parent was debating whether her child should keep taking their extra-curricular language class, or to continue attending our kung fu class.  She chose us and dropped the English class.)

Toward the end of the week, my instructor and I developed a curriculum of adjectives, verbs, simple grammar, and simple phrases for the kids to remember (that explain the values we wish to instruct).  We will soon include them in class once we have all the papers printed so we can stick the corresponding word-pictures on the walls. 

I was gone at least seven hours each day (twelve hours on a few days), two of which were due to the commute.  Although I only received a few hours training, he covered all my meals and my taxi fare.  Moreover, he has offered to help me plan a trip to the Shaolin Temple, where I will be personally received by one of the masters residing there (one of his friends).  I have heard that the Temple has changed drastically over the past fifty years due to commercialization, but I still want to visit it because it is the origin of Chinese martial arts.  Ironically, a book that I read about Shaolin Kung Fu was the initial reason why going to China was on my bucket list at all.

It’s funny how things work.  My first interest in China at all stemmed from martial arts.  I came here not knowing what to expect (and trying not to anticipate anything, lest reality fall short of expectations), but ended up working with a Shaolin Monk, learning the most authentic (or historically foundational) martial arts.  This is the first time that I have been pursuing an interest that I could never explore in the US.  

Although I can no longer help him for such a long period, I still want to continue my involvement with his business.  I intend to help him with his plans to create a language workbook for the children to take home during the week. 

He is preparing to move to the States either next year or the following.  Another one of the biggest coincidences of my life: he’ll be in Pittsburgh, about 15 minutes from where I go to school.  I have a feeling (and sincerely hope) that I’m going to be in touch with him for a long time.  

Funny and Insightful Stuff of the Week:
  • ·        Seeing my instructor pose in a Tiger Stance with a cigarette in hand as we developed the terminology for his combat forms
  • ·        Getting a break mid-week because he could [paraphrasing] see my energy in my eyes
  • ·        Sitting on the floor at Starbucks while working at a short table, and not caring because we paid so much for the coffee
  • ·         Meeting a woman from Spain because my instructor taught her kids and “she has a good camera” (We were posing for a photo book of the forms to be given to the kids)
  • ·        Being invited to a dinner where I was the only foreigner, but everyone still spoke English (The host toasted everything imaginable)
  • ·        Learning that passion should be the driving force in everything you do
    • o   You should never do anything unless it makes you happy
    • o   Never be content with suffering, else you boil to death like a frog, unaware that he sits in water that’s getting progressively hotter
    • o   “You have to fight for life”
  • ·        Marketing yourself and your skills without compromising your purpose or your self-value is the key to success
  • ·        Realizing that my instructor is one of the wisest people I know despite swearing like a sailor and only being 25 years old (totally fulfilling the Kung Fu Master stereotype)
  • ·        He walked back out into heavy rain after we found cover to break bricks with his hand “because it’s fun”
  • ·        We had street food instead of hot pot so I could experience real China (but he insisted on taking me to hot pot later)
  • ·        He took to heart the expression I told him that I learned from my English teacher in middle school: to lie, cheat, and steal in writing
  • ·        Finding how easily everything in his program fell together perfectly into one place with a simple “Furious Five” theme based his philosophy
  • ·        “Even with all my Kung Fu, I can’t open this bottle!” –Master Xie

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thoughts I've Been Eating

(The title is based off the expression “food for thought,” isn’t that so clever?!? …I really ought to keep thoughts like that in my head if I want actually anyone to read these posts…)  Anyway, these are a bunch of random thoughts I’ve had over the past week or so:

I reside in an international dorm, and often hear several languages on my way to class.  I found something rather interesting, though not necessarily out of the ordinary: international students from different countries often speak together in English.  This made me feel somewhat better about the fact that I am very likely never to be fluent in any other language. Moreover, it made me think that the world is so much smaller than I thought. 

Random factoid: my language partner is studying English, Japanese, and Spanish.  I received sufficient kicks from helping her with her Spanish homework.

To go on a brief tangent on the language barrier since I haven’t written about it seriously in a while, I would like to say that things here really aren’t that bad.  I’ve been learning Chinese for about two months now, and can walk into any restaurant and can order food rather easily.  Of course, if I am in anything other than a dumpling restaurant, I’ll require a menu.  Pointing and nodding are universally understood.   It’s been rather humorous seeing new words in each day’s lesson that are actually applicable. On more than one occasion, I’ve flipped to a page and found the English equivalent to a word I’ve heard over fifty times in restaurants or other places in Beijing.

[Insert your own transition here]

Ever since my trip to Qinghai, I find myself considering the outrageous differences in costs of living between certain different parts of the world.  For example, I was told that the workers at the monastery in Qinghai that we spent two hours helping in construction were only paid 18 kuai each day (about $3 US). 

An average meal in Beijing (or at least on my budget) is about 15 to 20 kuai, but if one wanted to buy a pizza, composed of imported ingredients like cheese, one would have to pay between 70 and 160 on a single pie depending on the size and number of toppings.  Now I understand why in so many countries’ histories have rural people flooded cities: for a chance to make a decent living.  The income inequality disgusts me (and there’s probably a similar problem in the States).   

Not going to lie, the first meal I want when I return to Pittsburgh is a Milano’s buffalo chicken pizza. It costs $20 (US) which, I admit, is terribly expensive, but I’ve been craving this pizza like a pregnant woman; however, this makes me feel horrible/makes me put things in perspective because it costs approximately 128 kuai, which is more than I spend on food in two days in Beijing.  

I do believe I have learned a lot from this trip, but I want my buffalo chicken pizza…

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Back to a Routine

In my last post I mentioned that I was going to talk more in depth concerning certain subjects; however, I intend to save a more deep and critical analysis of my observations for a time when I’m no longer in the country (I’m not worried about censors, but the topics I wish to write about are still sensitive).

Now that I’ve fully recovered from that vile assault on my immune system, life is returning back to its normal self in China.  I am again attending classes by day, and prepping for more classes by night. Truly, a thrilling cycle…though admittedly I have had some leisure time, and enjoy the routine since I haven’t had a consistent schedule in quite some time.

I’ve tried to keep up with my rereading of the Hobbit so I’ll be finished before the movie comes out.  I cannot express how much I enjoy leisure time, though it will soon disappear entirely once I start working on my Capstone project.  

As a physical therapy student, I figured I ought at least to attempt to learn something related to health sciences while on this trip.  I intend on working on a research paper discussing acupuncture and how it can be used as an alternative form of treatment for certain diseases or disabilities. Although I haven’t selected which diseases or disabilities to focus on, I am certain of the topic.  Now I just have to do research and write an abstract before the due date sneaks up on me…

After our return from Qinghai, many of the students have become eager in preparing for our next extended vacation.  We are given a period of about a week and a half at the end of this month for independent travel.

Although I want to travel to Shanghai and Hong Kong at some point or another with other students in this program, I intend on spending my independent travel period staying in the dorm and writing.  This sounds like a hoot and a half, I know, but I have always wanted to write a book, but have always been too busy to just dedicate several days to just sitting down and writing. [If you want to know more about the book I want to write, too bad, you’ll just have to wait till it’s published. In summary, I want to write an epic commensurate to, but different from, the Lord of the Rings, and have been formulating ideas for said book(s) over the past five or so years.]

Some of my friends are traveling to Thailand. I would like to have accompanied them, or to travel to see a friend of mine who is studying abroad in Japan this semester, but I lack the funds for either.  Donations are welcome and appreciated, and hell, I’d even write you a big’ol thank you note online to commemorate your philanthropy.

We went to the Forbidden City this past weekend.  Although this was the number one spectacle on my list before coming to China, once we arrived, I noticed it was somewhat similar to the rest of all of China’s other architecture.  There were some galleries that we could have seen, but our tickets only allowed us in certain areas.  I would say the best part of seeing the Forbidden City was seeing it from a height, as the buildings look alike in all of the courtyards.  It was still impressive due to its size, and had a nice garden in the middle.

The highlight of the trip occurred while we were walking out to our bus right outside the main entrance.  A man carrying a black trash bag was trying to sell us mysterious wares. He started off saying the statues he was selling were 180 kuai, but as soon as I told him I only had 20 in my pocket, he dropped his price immediately. I could not have found a better deal.  Spoiler alert: older brother of mine, this is where I got your present lol.  I honestly suspect the goods were stolen and he was trying to get rid of them as fast as possible, however, I’m not complaining because I purchased something for a pretty decent price.

On a more personal note, last week I was suffering from homesickness, but seemed to have temporarily filled the void for the time being with American food (no mother, not with ethanol), and by watching episodes of the kids’ show Avatar the Last Airbender.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Trip to Qinghai

Curse the loathsome prokaryotes who try the limits of my immune system! Only after several days of torment has my body been able to accept sustenance without almost immediately trying to expel it in the most unpleasant ways.  This quasi-metaphoric end was the final impression left upon me from my 9-day adventure to Qinghai.  I shall begin, naturally, from the beginning…

[On a side note: my geography is terrible, so please bear with me if there are any mistakes or confusing logistical portions to this tale]

Although this was the first time I’ve ever used Chinese trains for transportation, the trip began as all others in China start: in overcrowded, less-than-admirable conditions.  This mode in particular required our group of 14 separate among a few rooms, each containing two pairs of triple-stacked bunks.  At first, I lamented the thought of a 17-hour train ride because I was by myself with some of the locals on the top bunk, but after a nap and reunion with friends in an all-student room, I honestly had a good time (and was especially fond of the shrink-wrapped fruits purchasable a la cart).

Upon arrival at the city of Lanzhou (not yet in Qinghai province), our first impressions were foreboding, as the train unloaded next to a freight train, which had military vehicles as cargo. This in addition to a light rain and clouds elicited an ominous 1960’s feel.

We soon met up with our two awesome tour guides, who accompanied us for the remainder of the trip. One was from Shangri-La who went by the name Yak and oft demonstrated his Yak Dance in times of awkward pauses in conversation or when he wished to display his merriment. The other was Sonam, a famous writer (though I didn’t find this out till about halfway through the trip) who frequently told blatant but joking lies to see who would believe him. We then partook on a three-hour bus ride to Xiahe, Gansu (province?), during which we were given a Tibetan number as a name for convenience.

During the bus ride, we witnessed the most beautiful, rolling mountains of rural China that bore no trees.  Many were used for agriculture, which I have dubbed the Soy Mountains, where one could tell the farmers were taking advantage of all the available land.  I was immediately enthralled by this beautiful scenery upon waking from a nap.  The sectioning of the mountains resembled the layers of a cake, and barer, smaller hills looked like dollops of cookie batter… I must have been hungry…

To spare you the grueling detail of a daily account, I shall provide you a summary of the interesting, dangerous, and awesome things that we did (and if my notes are in proper order, these are also somewhat chronological).

I rode a horse for the first time, receiving some instruction from a man I did not share a common language with, who later thought me competent enough to manage on my own along a trail for about 40 minutes. The horse was a stubborn bastard, but we managed, and at times, I think he took offense to me swearing at him under my breath for disobeying my will.

We consumed anything and everything that is yak (excluding the tour guide), including, but not limited to, yak butter, yak meat, yak milk, yak eggs –more likely quail or chicken, but when everything else on the table was yak-related, one could only assume– yak tea, yak tendon, and yak yogurt, which I will honestly miss.

From visiting numerous monasteries, we were introduced to the basic concepts of Tibetan medicine and Tibetan Buddhism.  Not going to lie, I was almost hoping for an existential crisis in one of the monasteries where I would have met a monk from a past life, but Tibetan Buddhism (I may not be entirely correct) seems to lend heavily from polytheistic Hinduism and I was not as fond of it as I had thought I would have been.

When leaving one of the temples, we saw a monk on a skateboard while eating an ice cream cone…I was thoroughly impressed.

In Lanzhou, a couple of friends and I walked through the less-touristy portions of the growing town to see the construction.  There is so much trash in China that it makes me sad, and causes me to think that there is little to no hope of recovering on a local (town) level.

We stopped at a man’s house during lunch in between our travel to the next hotel.  I intend to elaborate more fully in the following post, but to introduce the subject, he and his family are a minority group within China called nomads that are losing their way of life because of “conservational efforts” to protect the unused land they occupy.  They will soon lose their ability to live where they have for generations, and although I am rather fond of the environment, these nomads do absolutely no harm to it, and I believe the government should be focusing their efforts elsewhere.  I almost broke down on the bus once we left because I could not have imagined what to do to get unstuck from such a terrible situation.  This was the turning point of the trip where I know I’ve learned from my experiences; the trip did not necessarily change me, but without it, I would not be as aware of my feelings on such subjects as I am now.

Visiting a local school (observing a class equivalent to juniors in high school), we saw and learned how hard Chinese schoolchildren have to work in order to get into a half-decent college. We were welcomed into the class of 42 with loud clapping, and were applauded after each of us introduced ourselves. It was funny to hear the students make comments of admiration or surprise when they heard that two of our students come from Washington DC.

Before meeting the class, we met with the two American teachers who worked at the school, who explained that this school (though having chipped paint on the walls and concrete floors), was one of the best and most rigorous boarding schools, hand-selecting all of its students.  During class, we broke up into groups and just had conversations with the students. They were all extremely friendly and most were eager to practice English. Of the students in my group, one wanted to be a teacher, a translator (they have to study Tibetan, Chinese, and English), and a doctor.  

This was likely my favorite part of the trip.  I don’t know how the subject came up, but we were asked to sing a song for them, and thus attempted a Disney song or two, and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”  When it was their turn, a girl was voluntold (more prompted than volunteered) to sing. She sang one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, choosing a traditional Tibetan song.  At one point during our stay, our tour guide Sonam gave a motivational speech to the students. One student was translating it for me into English (as he told it in Tibetan), and explained that Sonam is a famous Tibetan writer. I had no idea at the time, and felt extremely humbled when one of the students asked if he was our tour guide or teacher.

We visited a Tonka master, a monk who specialized in crafting Tonka, or Tibetan Buddhist, paintings, often employing gold or other metals in the paint.  After having tea with the master and learning about how he made the paintings, we were taken to the gallery. The paintings ranged between about $100 and $10,000 US…Sonam took us to his friend’s house in a nearby town. Though his friend was not a monk, he also made Tonkas, and sold us his for less than half the price. On a side note, the Buddhist monk Tonka master wore a very nice gold watch…

In Gharong village, we broke up into groups and stayed with local families. Although our groups contained students of various levels of Chinese, the family only spoke Tibetan.  In an attempt to communicate in some way shape or form, I began to compile a dictionary of words we figured out (though whether or not we actually interpreted the correct meaning is up for debate). 

After meeting for tea, we were off to help in the construction of a local monastery.  Some students painted, others helped lay stones for outside flooring, and another group (myself included) helped build the exterior walls by hauling water, rocks, and concrete/mortar over two hours.

It was a rather interesting endeavor considering not all of the workers spoke Chinese, and even if they did, many of their words were nigh unrecognizable due to their accents.

Afterwards, we climbed a rather large mountain, where I tested my vocals (which were suffering by now from a cough from the beginning of the trip) in relative but appreciated isolation.

We returned for the best dinner I’ve had in China: the softest noodles in a wonderfully spiced soup/sauce with fresh vegetables. Although we did not speak the language, I’d like to think that we conveyed to the mother how much we appreciated the delicious food.  We stayed the night in the house, and despite it lacking most commodities of the present century, there was electricity and a faucet for cleaning. I will never forget the hospitality.

The remainder of the trip was mostly uneventful, involving either traveling or eating –which yielded unpleasant ramifications for me…The night before we got on a 27-hour train ride back to Beijing, I spent a relatively relaxing night in hospital to regain fluids that would otherwise refuse to remain in my system.

On the return trip, we stayed on a similar train, though the carts on this one sold bird appendages instead of fruit.  Because I slept for about 18 hours, the trip wasn’t that painful, but it certainly was not as fun as the trip up.

This 9-day excursion was insightful into rural China, especially how different Beijing (and it’s people) is(are) from the rest of China.  [I would come up with a more profound concluding statement but it’s dinner time and I’ve finally regained a semblance of an appetite. Moreover, although I believe I learned a lot, these kinds of experiences are not easily summarized…thus I won’t try lol.]