Monday, May 31, 2010

To Sail Beyond the Sunset

My flight to China is fast approaching - less than 48 hours! - and although it feels like I've been out of school for months, I'm still having trouble thinking of my looming departure as a real, upcoming event. I imagine I'll only start to feel the transition when my backpack is on, and then on the plane as it fills with Chinese people. (If my flight to Taiwan was any indication, there are always a lot more Chinese and Chinese-Americans going to China than there are white guys like myself.)

Maybe one of the reasons why this doesn't seem real yet is that I don't have a visa. I was supposed to get some documentation from the Chinese university so that I could apply for a student visa. I waited, and waited, and it simply... didn't come. According to the secretary of the Harvard program, I'm the only one she knows of who hasn't gotten the paperwork. Perhaps it's because I originally tried to send over my Spanish passport information to save money (note to future Light Fellows: don't do this. Just don't.), but I later sent in my American info and was told that they sorted that issue out before any of the paperwork was sent to the university... So maybe it's because my town's post office is horrible, or because my parents lost the letter when it arrived (I've been away from home for a few days at a time in the past weeks), or even because I've been to Taiwan and that requires further review. I don't know. All I know is that I'm taking the earliest train to New York tomorrow to try to get a tourist visa at the Chinese embassy, and that there are a few potential issues that could come up. I'm trying to keep a positive outlook, but I can't help dreading the possibility of missing out on Shanghai and Jinan and having to pay $300+ extra to change my flight if my visa isn't in hand by tomorrow afternoon.

How do you prepare for a year abroad? I'm sure everyone does it differently, but here's what I've been up to:
  1. Spending a lot of time with friends. Maybe a year isn't all that long, but I intend to "go dark" to an extent while I'm away (deactivating facebook, lengthening my characteristically excellent response time to e-mails, etc), so I've recently been doing what some might call an excessive amount of camping, board games nights, and ice cream outings. A group of us from high school are still very close, and I definitely don't want to lose that.
  2. Putting my house in order. E-mails, letters, paperwork... a lot of things piled up over the past year, including messages to people (the foreign-language ones are the worst; I'll put them off for months and months at a time), and I wanted to get through all of them. Also, to be honest I just don't want any unpaid debts from the U.S. haunting me while I'm abroad.
  3. Making bank. I've worked 50 or so hours, some at Yale and some from home, to make sure I have some cash to pad my trip.
  4. Gathering supplies. All you used to need on the Oregon Trail were bullets and food; but traveler's checks, a Bank of America debit card, and prescription drugs are some of the new must-haves for this particular journey.
  5. Reading. I'm in the middle of Out of Africa, which happens to be a fantastic book, but more topically I've also been checking out some news sources and blogs on/from China, most of them English-language because that's much more efficient for me right now. Probably my favorite to date is ChinaSmack (for an absolute gem of a Chinese internet sensation, watch this video), but there are plenty of others and I can't possibly keep up with all of them. I've also borrowed Spence's Search for Modern China, and I was hoping to read it before I leave to solidify a semester of 'History of Modern China' learning, but tragically I don't think I'll even get to crack it open at this point.
  6. Telling myself I'll review my Chinese but never really getting around to it. I'm kind of hoping to place down a level at my summer program anyway, to build my base.

Assuming I do get my visa in time, here's my itinerary for the coming year:
  • 6/2: Wheels up in NYC.
  • 6/3-6/5: Shanghai. World Expo (?) (I might not actually go. My friend Shaun tells me the lines are super long and it's kind of expensive.); visiting some places I've read and written about in my second essay for 'History of Modern China.' I'll be staying with David Demres, an excellent cook, traveler, and blogger who was also in Taipei with me last summer.
  • 6/6-6/8: Jinan, a city in Shandong province. I'll be couchsurfing with someone I don't actually know, but this is actually the most exciting part of my pre-Beijing plans so far: staying in a random city with someone semi-average, and speaking Chinese.
  • 6/9-6/10: Beijing, pre-program. Just walking around, staying in a hostel for two nights, etc. I'd like more time to get to know the city a bit before I get cooped up in the (luxurious) dorms offered by HBA (the Harvard program), but I had to make some compromises.
  • 6/11-8/13: Beijing, HBA.
  • 8/14-9/6:  A hitherto unplanned trip to The West (TM): Shanxi, Shaanxi, maybe Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai, and finally Xinjiang. My two requirements are that I 1) cross at least part of the Gobi Desert, and 2) take the 2-day train back from Urumqi to Beijing.
  • 9/7-12/10: ACC in Beijing. (ACC = Associated Colleges in China, the Chinese language program run by Hamilton College.)
  • [11/11-11/14]: vacation and visit to Laiwu No. 1 Middle School, a (high) school with which my high school in CT began a 'sister school' relationship during my senior year.
  • 12/11-12/20: Travel toward the southwest somewhere. Very unplanned as of yet.
  • 12/21+: Back in Taipei! attending ICLP (International Chinese Language Program), which I also went to last year. (See earlier entries in this blog for details.)
  • Summer '11: I hope to secure an internship in Taiwan, ideally placement by the State Department at the AIT (American Institute in Taiwan) in Taipei.

And finally, a note on this blog's content: My posts are going to become somewhat less kid-friendly this time around, not so much in terms of language but rather in terms of content. I've made this decision mostly because of my increasing desire to link things, some of which may not be appropriate for children (some of the ChinaSmack content, for example, isn't). Also, I definitely want to self-censor a bit less this time around - maybe I'll put the Light Fellowship staff's claim, that we can write anything we want, to the test one day. This doesn't mean that it will become unreadable by any means, but it should probably be given a quick once-over (mostly the links) before any little cousins/etc are allowed to read/click.

My next update will either be from China (if I do get my visa), or my house (if I don't). Let's hope for the former.



  1. I know what you're going through concerning visa issues. My Mumbai program started yesterday, and I'm picking up my visa tomorrow. On the downside, I'm sad to have missed the first week of the program, but on the upside, it makes for an interesting anecdote. Don't worry, things will work themselves out.

  2. Ethan,

    I had the exact same problem last year with the visa letter. It somehow got lost in the mail and it was a shitshow trying to get everything worked out before the plane took off. Two things which might help:

    1. Try and call the people who issued your letter directly; have them fax you a copy of the letter or email you a scanned PDF.
    2. If you do get a faxed copy, just present it to the workers at the window. I asked the person at the information counter whether they'd accept a copy, and she said no, but then I just went to the actual window and they took the form without asking questions.

    Good luck!

  3. Good luck with the visa, Ethan. In the meantime, yes, post whatever you want! Good list, by the way.