Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why I'm Here

Another week's gone by. This week I simply muddled through -- 得过且过 in Chinese, in case anyone was interested -- as I was sick with a cold for most of it and didn't have much opportunity to get better due to HBA's ridiculous policy: "If you're not in the hospital, you're in class." Anyway, I'm now on the mend and all is set aright, though I'm not sure how much I'll retain from these past few lessons. More on my recent adventures after I treat with the topics at hand.

Why I'm Here

I'm taking an entire year off, and when people hear that they often ask why. There are a lot of answers that I can and do give depending on the situation and how much time I have to explain (and what I'm applying to - say, the Light Fellowship), and they're actually all true. In fact, it's hard to describe how crushed I would have been if this year-long plan, whose idea was hatched not quite a year ago as I was finishing up studying Chinese at ICLP in Taiwan, had for some reason or another not worked out. I'm not going to try to list reasons in order of importance, because I would give them all a rating of 'very high.'

  1. I've started Chinese, and I'm going to finish it. "Finish" means different things to different people, but I simply can't imagine bowing out now as some of my classmates are doing. A weird combination of the ability to order food and get around, plus the ability to talk more in-depth about very specific topics of politics/economics/culture, just isn't enough for me after putting so much time and effort into this language. And believe me, I have: for those who know me from yesteryear, I just realized recently, and belatedly, that Chinese is my new Phoenix.

    Back when I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I was already interested in languages, and I was completely blown away by the idea of an old man who could speak twelve language, and a young Count who learned them all to the point where - and I still remember the gist of this line - 'When he spoke Spanish, Spaniards believed he was born in Spain; when he spoke with Arabs, they believed he was one of them' etc. I resolved to match that, and though I've now set my sights a little lower (six languages, 'relatively fluent but not to be mistaken for a native speaker'), I still think it's something I can do before I die.

  2. I need to learn other things while I'm at Yale. At some point, this become a serious problem: I always put Chinese first, and because it was so time-consuming (for me, at least, as I'm clearly not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to learning Chinese), I often ended up shunting other, perfectly good courses off to the side. Fortunately "East Asian Philosophy" in the fall was a joke, albeit a somewhat perverse and twisted one, and it turned out that one could get by handily in the spring semester's "East Asian Capitalism" by only reading two weeks' worth of the readings. (Oh dear, that doesn't reflect well on our EAS department, now does it?) My point is this: When I get back to Yale for my junior and senior years, I don't want to be studying Chinese. I might make an exception for classical, or an easier lit class, but I want my focus to lie elsewhere.

  3. I have Chinese-speaking friends, and I want to meet more. Not so secretly, my biggest reason for picking Chinese as my 'non-Romance language' of choice when I got to Yale was that so many people speak it. I want to talk to those people. In particular, I want to go back to Taiwan and hang out with Jun Xiang (my former language exchange partner; we still keep in touch regularly) and his friends, talk to his older sister about health insurance, actually have conversations with my buildingmates, etc. Here, I want to be able to have a relatively unbroken conversation with the girl I met at Vic's (more on that later), go back to Jinan and eat many wonderful lunches and dinners with Chengliang, etc.

  4. I think I want my career to involve Chinese. I'm looking at the State Department right now -- I'll be trying for their summer internship again this year, hopefully in Taipei as I'll be there anyway -- but I also really love translating; besides those two, there will also be plenty of NGO/BigBusiness(TM) opportunities for Chinese-speaking graduates of a place like Yale.

  5. My academics will be so much more interesting if I can read Chinese sources. The Yale library alone has a ton of untranslated Chinese texts, and they could be fantastic for my thesis research or even for East Asian Studies courses in general, particularly the grad-level ones I plan to take while pursuing the simultaneous BA/MA.

Will just one year in China put me where I want to be? I really don't know.  When people ask, I tell them that I hope to come back "proficient" - I hope to be able to hold regular conversations without getting a blank look on my face every 30 seconds, and I hope to be able to read books and articles, albeit probably pretty slowly. Writing is something I care less about; I believe that's a skill that comes with a lot of reading. Which brings me to my real benchmark for success: When I leave China, will I be an independent learner of Chinese?

When reading, I want to be at a point where word banks and lists of grammar/sentence patterns are efficiently replaced by context clues and/or some flipping through a (Chinese) dictionary. When conversing, I want to be able to pick out the words and phrases I don't know and ask people what they mean (as opposed to giving them a "huh?"), and I want my spoken Chinese to be good enough that I can correct a handful of misused words and grammar every few days. I don't know that these goals are attainable, but I also know that I'll be pretty crushed if I don't get there. Unfortunately, it turns out that a year just isn't a lot of time: I've been here over three weeks already, which is something like 6-7% of my total stay... Time marches forward and I'm afraid that my Chinese won't be able to keep up.

Well, this has gotten fairly long-winded. An HBA critique will have to wait for another time. I'm also going to stop promising photos, as I don't have Facebook any more (with which to steal others') and I've been too lazy to borrow an adapter to recharge the batteries for my camera (with which to take my own). Light Fellowship, I know you require photos every week for blogging to replace the end-of-year report, but  I'll be writing one anyway so I'm not worried.

Weekly highlights:
  • I've figured out how the tests work. Despite only semi-absorbing this week's material, and a conspicuous lack of studying, I landed a solid A on this Friday's test, up 3 points from last week.
  • Been watching some of the World Cup, when I can. Ghana's victory over America was well-won (an amazing feat of energy at the end there), and though it was kind of expected sooner or later, I'm pretty disappointed that we're out of the running. In other news, Brazil plays beautifully; their ball handling is really just amazing to watch. Defense proved pretty weak against Portugal, though (the latter had way too many break-aways), and Brazil never seemed to rally enough when it came down to it to actually get the ball in the Portuguese net. (A beautiful header came oh so close, though. Oi!) Also, dear Miguel: Ronaldo didn't kick a single good post-foul shot that entire game; he was all showmanship and no results.
  • Went back to Vics (the club) last night with some 3rd-year folks. Enjoyed talking with the taxi drivers but didn't find them particularly hard to understand, so I'm thinking the writers of the SAC guide had been pretty sheltered in terms of their Chinese interlocutors when they warned about taxi drivers' Beijing accents being very thick, etc. Then again, maybe I just got lucky.
    • The girl from last week wasn't there. I did plenty of dancing anyway and had a reasonably good time. Drinks were ridiculously expensive, though, and I'm also ashamed to say that I bought a 30RMB glass of milk because I was seriously worried about getting dehydrated and I just couldn't bring myself to buy a 35RMB bottle of water.
    • Upon leaving Vics at 3:00, I made the questionable decision to call the aforementioned girl. Fast-forward to today: we had lunch at a perfect little Japanese/fusion restaurant and then walked around the BeiYu campus for a while. She also rode on the back of my bicycle. She's almost exactly my age, but graduated from college early (surprise: an English major) and works as a receptionist at a hotel. There were a couple of frustrating points in our conversation (she has a Beijing accent and talks kind of softly), but she seems to have fairly simple interests and I think we actually got on pretty well. I'm very excited about her offer to call me next time she and her friends go to KTV (karaoke). Anyway, it was fun, and she's all-around quite cute... we'll see!

So th-th-th-that's all, folks. My date and blogging have together taken up an alarming portion of the afternoon, and I'd best move on to clothes-washing and lesson-preparing.

Hoping that everything stateside is going swimmingly,

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Life at HBA

Assuming that Week 1 has been fairly typical, which I think it has, here's what my life at the Harvard-Beijing Academy is going to look like for the next two months.

  • 6.40 AM: Wake up. The sun's already been out for a while and it doesn't actually feel all that early.
  • Get ready for the day, and do one last round of vocab review for the day's lesson. (Each lesson is an article of a few pages long with an attached list of new vocabulary, plus explanations of new grammar and sentence patterns. We prepare each lesson (mostly the new vocab) the night before.
  • 7.30: Eat breakfast on the first floor of the Conference Center (basically on on-campus hotel, where we're all staying).
  • 8.00-12.00: Class, with roughly a 10-minute break every hour. We summarize the article during lecture (15-20 students) and go over new grammar, then split into smaller classes (4 students) to practice reading the text aloud and using the new grammar/sentence patterns.
  • 12.00-1.30: Lunch, usually in the student cafeteria - cheap, decent Chinese food. A few classmates will usually share some dishes, family-style. On Tuesdays and Fridays, we have 'Chinese table,' where the teachers will eat with us at a slightly more upscale place around campus and order a combination of foods we already know we like and foods they want us to try.
  • 1.30-3.10: 50 minutes of one-on-one class, and a nap; the order changes every day.
  • ~3.10-5.00: Something extracurricular. This past week, that mostly meant buying things I needed and exploring the campus. This coming week, the official 'extracurricular activities' will be starting, so I'll be singing my heart out in Popular Chinese Music on Mondays and doing some skill-building in Chinese Cuisine on Thursdays. Other extracurriculars of mine include watching the World Cup and Chinese soap operas (or Korean soap operas dubbed into Chinese), meeting with my tutor (3 hours/wk), and sending e-mails.
  • ~5.00-6.30: Do review homework based on the day's lesson.
  • ~6.30-7.30: Eat dinner with some classmates. Some of the fourth-year folks are a lot of fun; in particular I've been hanging out with a small group of Yale and Harvard 2013 kids.
  • ~7.30-11.00: Prepare tomorrow's lesson.
  • ~11.00-11.40: Shower and get ready for bed.
  • ~11.40: Sleep. This is, of course, the ideal, and I didn't get to sleep until much later in the first few days. I think I've pretty much adjusted at this point, though.

The weekend:
  • Friday is test day, the material being everything we've done throughout the week. The day itself consists of a 2-hour written test, a 5-minute out-loud reading, and finally oral reports based on a 700-character essay that we've had to write for homework on Wednesday night. We finish at 12:00, go to Chinese table, and then have the rest of the day to ourselves to sleep, watching TV, explore, etc.
  • Saturday is Adventure Day (TM): HBA takes us somewhere fun. Yesterday it was the Great Wall, which involved about 4 hours of bus riding (all of which I spent sleeping off Friday night; see below) and 4 hours of some really fun walking/hiking. (The Great Wall, it must be noted, is not by any means flat.)
  • Sunday is Pull-It-Together Day (also TM): Sleep off the weekend, review any weak spots from last week, wash clothes, buy essentials, and do the homework + lesson prep due Monday. My thought is that on weekends when I don't spend Saturday night out and about (also see below), Sunday can also be Explore-Beijing Day. That said, ACC (my fall program) will probably end up being much more suited to that, and I'm here for another six months so I'm not in a huge rush.
  • At night (Fri and Sat), most people go out. Some head to the 五道口 (Wudaokou) area, which is a 15-minute walk away over by China's top universities (Qinghua/Tsinghua and BeiDa/Peking University), and has a KTV (for the uninitiated: karaoke) and a few bars. Another popular destination is 三里屯 (Sanlitun), about half an hour away by taxi and the home to many a bar and club. (And thus many a foreigner: although bar/club culture is growing among the locals in places like Beijing, your average Chinese youth still won't "go out" for fun on weekends.) Instead of going right to the bars/clubs, you're actually better off doing what I've seen among the savvy in Taipei: buying at 7/11 and hanging out on the sidewalk for a while (drinks at the bars and clubs are ridiculously expensive in Chinese terms, and there's no open-container law here), then heading inside for the last drink or two and the dancing.

    Personally (and this will probably surprise you), I've had a blast going out both Friday and Saturday. On Friday, four of us did Propaganda, the Wudaokou bar that's been most popular among the HBA folks. I tried some actual bar drinks (a 'B52,' it seems, is lit on fire and then drunk with a straw. Who knew?), and we ended the night dancing together on their mini stage at the end of the dance floor. It should be noted that I was also wearing my 老外 t-shirt at the time, which is surprisingly effective even on the 北语 campus; it should also be noted that Coca Cola's World Cup promo song is apparently a staple anywhere there's a dance floor. (Ana: You win. I still don't think it really fits the World Cup, and the original version is better, but I now love it anyway.) Last night (Saturday), Harvard had an event at Vics, one of the Sanlitun clubs, and a bunch of the HBA folks went over together. I basically danced for five hours straight (feel free to exchange shocked looks with your computer screen), about two of which were spent with this fairly cute Chinese girl whose obvious shyness (her friend had brought her) I found incredibly endearing. I got her number before we went our separate ways, which may or may not have been around 3:30, but I don't really have any particularly good reason to call her, and I don't even know her name as it was so loud down there that my ears have only just recovered. So I don't really want to call, and instead am hoping she'll heed the note I scribbled suggesting that she come to Vics again next weekend. Best use of the Light Fellowship- provided notepad ever; don't leave home without it. Also, possibly the only time that knowing how to write characters has ever been really useful to me outside of my studies - the deaf guy in Taipei doesn't count because he ripped me off.
    Classic Ethan? I'll let the audience to decide.

So that's daily life. Time has been very strange here - the first few days felt like they took a month each and by Wednesday I was sure I had been here forever, but now things are speeding up and I'm already kind of sad that an eighth of the summer is over. There have been some special events, but I haven't much to say about them so I'll just summarize: meeting my 'Chinese mother,' riding with someone on the back of my bicycle for the first time (Beza, I now completely understand your bike-riding struggles), and hiking a part of the Great Wall.

That's all for now. I'll add Great Wall/etc photos later. Next time (and this is mostly to remind myself), I think I want to talk about HBA strengths and weaknesses, and also why I've taken this entire year off.

Be well,

Friday, June 11, 2010


Since last I wrote, I’ve been to two more cities; spent 21 cumulative hours on trains; decided that hot water is just as good as cold; stayed in a hotel room where I had two beds to myself, and on the floor of a cheap apartment; and met the Marxist, the democrat, and the apathetic. Thus I have a good deal to say, and even a few pictures to share. Feel free to break this up into more than one sitting, as I probably won’t write until next weekend.

To begin where I left off: I spent my last day in Shanghai with David, Lisa, and David’s roommate Will. I have no photos, but here are the text highlights:
 - the weekend Marriage Market in the central square of Shanghai, where residents (mostly parents, it seems) post brief, 1-page personal ads and look for possible matches. Most of the ads (which are simple, and look like they were done on Microsoft Word, 60-point font or so) list height, weight, occupation, and skills, and they generally seem to be for men and women in their late 20s or 30s – which makes sense to me as I’ve noticed a lot of young couples with children, and it’s probably around that age that people (especially girls) start getting worried that they won’t be able to find a partner.
 - the Bund, the riverside portion of what used to be the old International Settlement (late 1800s to World War II) . A lot of the “colonial” architecture has been preserved, and it’s a beautiful area. When I was there, though, I was also imagining how it looked in the early ‘40s, after months of fighting with the Japanese in 1937. The Settlement itself was generally spared (partly to avoid angering the western powers and partly because the majority of its population was Japanese), but the area around was completely devastated by bombing; W.H. Auden once described it as “a watch stopped in the desert.”

Then began the 14-hour journey in a “hard seat” (fortunately it was in reality soft, this time) on the slow train to the city of Jinan.

Being packed like a sardine into a Chinese train is an experience everyone should have before they die.  (Disclaimer: You will not feel this way when you are trying, to no avail, to get some sleep at 3 AM; instead, you will be thinking, “Why oh why didn’t I spend the money for a sleeper?”) I drew a lot of stares as I boarded and wove/pushed/excused my way through the packed aisles (“no-seat” tickets are sold all the time, and trains to and from Shanghai are especially busy now because of the World Expo), and eventually found myself sitting across from a student. He was a nice guy, quite willing to talk, and after the preliminaries we got down to what he really wanted to discuss – the quality of the Chinese educational philosophy (high), the truth of certain of Marx’s words (obvious), etc. He was a nationalist but not a particularly angry one, and he forgave me a faux pas which I will not soon make again (“How long will you study in China?” “7 months; then I’ll go to Taipei for 7 months.” “Taiwan is part of China.”), taught me a card game, and now keeps in touch by text far too often.

In Jinan, a city of a few million (not large by Chinese standards), I was received by Kaili, a girl with whom I had set up a meeting on Couchsurfing. Kaili is a lovely girl but simply can’t find it within her to speak at a reasonable pace; the phrase I heard most often from her was, “You still don’t understand, do you.” For all that, we got along shockingly well but the best of Jinan was yet to come.

It turns out that Chinese ho(s)tels need a special permit to house foreigners – and as Jinan, unlike Beijing, isn’t a particular tourist destination (there are no hostels), only the larger and more expensive hotels hold such a permit. So since Kaili couldn’t actually host me herself (her parents, she had informed me when I first contacted her, wouldn’t allow guys to stay over) and neither of us had anticipated the permit situation, I ended up in a two-bed room at an unnecessarily pricey hotel - $25 per night is painful when you were expecting to spend that amount over all three nights – and was clearly not very happy about the outcome. She made some calls on my behalf throughout the day and eventually found me a male friend (though I found out later that she had never actually met him in person) to stay with for the next two nights.

 my room at the hotel

Lv Chengliang lives with his friend, and his friend’s girlfriend, in an apartment that’s worlds away from anywhere I’ve stayed before, and of a type that’s much more common in China than any given hotel. Below is the 2-minute video tour, which I think you’ll find interesting. (Disclaimer: I was under the impression that my camera didn’t record sound.)

Things to note:
 - the very simple bathroom: combination shower, water heater, and squat toilet. In China, sit-down toilets are reserved for nicer hotels or places that cater to foreigners, but I’ve found that I really don’t mind. When the whole apparatus is set up right and kept reasonably clean, squat toilets are both more sanitary – you’re not sitting where someone else has just sat – and, apparently, may also better for the prostate, some preliminary research shows.
 - the food left out in the kitchen/washroom. I didn’t see a single fly while I was there, though; I’m not sure how they do it.
 - the water heater (not cooler). In China, cold water is for noobs and generally considered less healthy; also, tapwater that hasn’t been boiled might well give you diarrhea. Hot water (but not cold) is free at restaurants, hostels, and even available from a spigot on every train.
 - the lack of air conditioning (or heat). When I was there it was already regularly above 90 degrees, but they make do with a fan, when need be.
 - rent per month: ~$120. This is considered semi-steep because the apartment is well situated in the city.

Chengliang's apartment: main entrance, 4th floor on the right

The three of them “很会过日子”- a phrase that basically translates to “really know how to live life,” and includes the concept of saving money to be used at the right time instead of spending it on frivolities. (For example, Chengliang’s passion is travel, and hiking; he recently returned from a six-month tour around much of the country and is now looking for a new job.) We did a lot of walking around “Old Jinan,” including the semi-famous, potable (gasp) springs during the day, where the elderly all come to fill large jugs of water for tea, and the Great Ming Lake in the evening, where we saw someone throw a huge fish on the ground until it expired and met a friendly old man practicing the flute. We also hit the alleys a little bit, and Chengliang showed me a loud, merry little hole in the wall where people eat and drink outside and the old men clamber over the barricade to swim in the freezing cold water at dusk.

 filling my bottle with water from the Jinan springs

One of the things we talked about was why, although they’re friends on Couchsurfing and live in the same city, Chengliang and Kaili have never actually met up. Class is clearly an issue: Kaili is studying music, took me to some pretty trendy/expensive places, and didn’t bat an eye at the same hotel fee that made Chengliang blanch. Beyond that, though, Chengliang seemed to put a lot of stock in the idea of the ‘decade gap,’ saying that at 24 he wouldn’t have much common with a 20-year-old like Kaili, which surprised me. Apparently, conventional wisdom on birth year in China goes like this: Those born in the ’70s reaped some of the fruits of Reform and Opening prosperity but still do things the traditional way; those born in the ’80s are more capitalist and outward looking, borrowing money, traveling, etc; and those born in the ’90s are kind of coddled and just spend their parents’ money.

My favorite memory of Jinan will always be our lunch together in the apartment: eggs, sausage, beer (you get it measured out into a plastic bag, ~$.10 per mug, and take it home), salted peanuts (to encourage imbibing; apparently the men of Shandong Province are formidable drinkers), and salad with a little bit of everything in it. Just eating, talking, drinking (the rule: you say ‘cheers’ whenever you drink, and you don’t drink alone), and making merry. Then a siesta so that your body can comfortably digest everything you’ve just put into it.


 beer in a bag

 from right: Chengliang, his friend, his friend's girlfriend

I’m tired of writing, so photos will have to suffice as the main diary of my two days in Beijing. The traveling is over, though, which is tragic. Now, I’m now happily in my Beijing Language and Culture University dorm room, forced to focus on practical matters – room key, internet, notebooks, which Chinese level I want to take, etc.

 the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, view from the Forward Gate

Tiananmen: the actual Gate of Heavenly Peace, looking north from the Square. "Long live the People's Republic of China. Long live the great solidarity of the people of the earth."

Tiananmen Square, from the northwest corner. I imagined the 1989 protests and felt cold all over. Note the massive TV screens occasionally flashing direct propaganda: "Remain committed to putting people first," etc. Another one I saw was, "Continue to support the unending liberation." Most Chinese nowadays, though, tend to be apolitical, and participation is no longer required.

The gates, palace, and in fact the entire old city are aligned along the north-south axis according to fengshui principles. The south is auspicious because it represents light and the male; the north, much less so for its association with the opposite.

the mouth of the large, touristy Qianmen Street leading south from the southernmost Archers' Gate

"We humbly wish Chairman Mao long life without end." Found on the wall of an alley.

 we all have our minorities to represent: a piece of the massive Chinese Museum of Women and Children

"As cranes fly in pairs, so humans walk hand in hand. Love deeply, and a hundred years will bring no regrets." Wall in an alley. 4x4 symmetry; end rhyme in all four lines; each line ends with a different one of the four spoken tones. Curious mixture of traditional, simplified, and archaic/alternative characters.  

And to end with, a few lists and some miscellany.

Happiness and Victories:
 - my discovery that all of my ground travel so far, plus my World Expo ticket, fits into the amount that the Light Fellowship provides for a taxi to and from the airport
 - getting through my three days in Jinan, quite comfortably, using only Chinese
 - buying $10 sneakers at a supermarket
 - finally finishing Out of Africa on the curb outside of Chengliang’s apartment
 - while finishing Out of Africa, being approached by one of the adorable little girls playing outside, and given a teddy bear bookmark. “This is to put in your book so you can remember your place.” So cute I almost died.
 - bargaining. Mostly I just do it for fun – I especially love pretending I don’t speak Chinese, getting offered 4x the price I just heard a vendor offer a Chinese person, and then bargaining down to a quarter of the latter – but I did get the Little Red Book, with both Chinese and English text, for $1.50.

Pain and Defeats:
 - my discovery that I misread the price of a tea presentation/tasting at a pretty nice tea shop, and that I owed almost the equivalent of the aforementioned taxi budget. I’m still only 85% sure it wasn’t a scam – it had some of the hallmarks of one, but also various mitigating factors – but either way it was my own pride that got in the way. Well, live and learn.
 - being super proud of having given directions for the Beijing Railway Station to visitors from another part of China, and realizing the next day that I had made a mistake. Um… hopefully the made it to their train in time.
 - getting some kind of rash on the insides of both feet. The shoes? My socks? Well, 没什么大不了的。
 - Still being largely unable to understand what people are saying to each other, and what faster talkers or the older generation are saying to me. And don’t get me started on the dialects – China has 56 ethnic groups, and some cities even have their own way of speaking (for example, Shanghai… and Jinan.) Along with a host of things I already dislike about my Chinese, I’m suddenly acutely aware of how horrible my comprehension is – and I don’t see much hope for fixing it in the near future just by putting in a lot of classroom time.

Of interest:
 - All of the trees leading up to Beijing seem very young. A guy on the train said the oldest was probably planted 20 years ago.
 - Besides essentials like tonight’s World Cup and some random, insane Japanese channels, as well as channels in a whole bunch of languages (this is the Language Study University, after all),  my TV gets 光阴的故事. It’s this popular, melodramatic, and (I think) hilarious Taiwanese soap opera that my language exchange partner once told me about, and right now I’m watching this fantastic (and, to a lot of Taiwanese, very topical) episode where the daughter has decided to marry an American and the grandparents are all upset about it.
 - The closest that individual Chinese come to private land ownership, at least in this area of the country, is a 70-year lease; after that, it reverts to the government and it must be bought again. For this, I was given a reason I’ve heard for a lot of things throughout this past week: There are, I am reminded, a lot of people in China.
 - Jinan, not a particularly important or international city in terms of China as a whole, has an Alliance Française!
 - Speaking of the University of Shandong... I graduated, and have decided I don't need to go back to Yale.

Until next time.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Edited 6/7 for grammar and a French wedding.

Shanghai. In decades gone by, formerly known in the West as both "The Paris of the East" and "The Whore of Asia." Still arguably China's most international city - though Toby Lincoln (our "Urbanization in China" visiting professor this past year) makes a very reasonable case that no Chinese city can be considered international/global until the non-Chinese population actually becomes integrated into its fabric, which hasn't yet happened anywhere in China.

When I finally arrived at the city center after more than 24 hours of travel, the first thing I had to do was buy a train ticket for my next destination because travel to and from Shanghai is so difficult right now due to the World Expo. After a fairly harrowing set of interactions, during which I decided that the price on the automatic ticket machine was absurdly expensive for standing room only, I finally emerged from a different ticket window, the proud holder of a seat on a ~14-hour night train to Jinan. This is the kind of thing that my China compatriots had to do all the time last summer while I lived a fairly sheltered life in Taipei, I suppose; it feels like a great triumph to me anyway.

Then I stumbled across a public phone, called David, crashed at his luxurious Bulldogs-in-Shanghai apartment (do I have an entire two-bed room to myself? indeed I do), and made the most horrible Chinese phone call of my life to my soon-to-be host in Jinan. It involved multiple massive misunderstandings, but with a bit of help from David and a second phone call, we sorted it out. If nothing else, it rounded out the evening with a reminder of what every day in a Chinese-speaking country is like for me: a thrilling but nauseating roller coaster of peaks and drops, as my pride and self-confidence are continually shattered and rebuilt.

Highlights from yesterday:

  1. Obtaining a SIM card and a bunch of cash. All of this turned out to be much easier than in Taiwan, where you had to be 21 to get the SIM card and getting foreign currency involved a whole mess of obnoxious fees. Note to fellow students: Get a Bank of America account now, and withdraw from ATMs at China Construction Bank [中国建设银行] for no fee; traveler's checks are also fine but unnecessarily bulky and you get a teensy bit less bang for your buck.
  2. A lovely walk in the park at People's Square, some spying on the young men in fatigues drilling martial arts forms in the compound next door, and a tour of the Shanghai Museum. It didn't strike me as very impressive considering Shanghai's size and the English translations were surprisingly spotty, but it did have plenty of beautiful seals and paintings, as well as one of the famous oracle bones.
  3. A trip to the Shanghai Library - I can't be staying in a big city and not inspect its library - where I decided I simply had to get a library card (for <1USD, who can blame me?) and take a look at some old maps of Shanghai in one of the reading rooms.
  4. Running across the end of a French wedding as the group made its way out of the consulate and the groom executed a few worrying turns with his new bride on one of these funky little cycles with sidecars in the middle of the Shanghai streets. It turns out that this was the same wedding party that later ended up at the restaurant Lisa is working for.
  5. The World Expo. I had been considering not going after a pretty disappointing review by my friend Shaun, but I didn't have any particular plans for the evening so I got a night ticket (also on Shaun's advice) and checked it out. While it was reasonably fun, I'm glad my expectations weren't too high. The Expo is basically place where each country (and, in China's case, province) gets to build or rent a structure - the word "pavilion" is definitely an understatement for many of these places, and in fact the architecture of these buildings is one of the principal highlights of the Expo - and then fill the place with a description of why that country is awesome. This is often done by an impressive entertainment system (e.g., a movie that plays on all four walls and the ceiling) and some interactive/high-tech systems which provide the highlights (e.g., Shandong Province as the home of the appliance/electronics giant Haier). Some pavilions have particularly good reputations - Japan's is supposed to be mindblowingly high-tech, and Saudi Arabia's has had the most money poured into it, and France's houses seven nearly priceless works of art - but anything in the top 40% or so had a line of almost 3 hours long at the very least, and since I was alone I just wasn't prepared to stand there for that long. So instead, I spent the evening patronizing authoritarian regimes: I saw some beautiful metalwork at Anhui Province, wove a stitch into a Persian rug at Iran, bought "The Life and Writings of Kim Jong-Il" for cheap at North Korea (I have to save a kitten sometime soon to atone for that), and visited the (fake) snow-and-ice room at Kazakhstan.
  6. Getting home was an adventure. I decided I didn't want to take the bus out of the Expo (it couldn't be that far, right?), so I ended up being the only human being on a stretch of 8-lane parkway that had been shut down for the Expo. When I finally escaped, I let some random guy convince me that the nearest metro station was too far and I should take the ferry instead. That was actually a lot of fun, but I ended up semi-lost on a dark street and finally caught the last train to somewhere reasonably close to David's apartment.
  7. My t-shirt: Rewon Child, it must be said, is a genius. His "老外" t-shirt ("laowai" is a slightly disrespectful term for "foreigner") is now #1 on my list of 'Things I Would Have Regretted Leaving at Home' - followed closely by items like 'my passport' and 'money.' Chinese people, it seems, think it's hilarious, and if I measure my success by how much laughter I cause in any given day, then yesterday was an epic win. Moreover, it turns out that having people laugh at a t-shirt has two excellent results for the wearer. One, it allows him to start a conversation: if I had wanted to make dozens of Shanghai friends yesterday, I'm sure I would have filled my quota. Two, it loosens people up: even the military policemen and subway security, whose principal duty seems to consist of looking tough and surly, smiled more often than not. In fact, the only photo we may ever see of me at the World Expo (I brought my camera along for the day only to discover that I had left the batteries in my backpack) was taken by an older woman who promised she'd e-mail me a copy.

And that's all, folks. David's finally come back with food from my favorite store in Asia (i.e., Carrefour), so we're going to have brunch soon. Later I'll go visit the Bund - the eastern, riverside end of the former International Concession in Shanghai - and take another trip to People's Square (apparently there's a 'Marriage Market'?). After that comes my train ride to Jinan, the centerpiece of my pre-class summer travels.

We'll catch up in Beijing.