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.


  1. Congrats on at least two things: 1. This epic blog. 2. Making awesome use of Light funds!

  2. Brother, this is an epic post. Those wall inscriptions are particularly interesting. It sounds like you're having a lot of fun--Props for couchsurfing with the cute girl.!

  3. Ethan, couldn't believe you got such a fantastic experience in China -- your trip to Jinan in particular. That's kind of real life in China for a normal family. I hope the "hard seat" trip and the days with Chengliang had offered you more concrete feelings of life in China. You've caught a lot of subtle details too. The 'decade gap,' for example, is one people talk about a lot. Even I feel it a little bit when I hang out with Chinese students of Class of 2013, who are usually born after 1990. A lot of interesting observations in general. Anyways, I couldn't image how you've traveled so far by yourself and met so many people -- I doubt whether I would be able to do that. I feel it's kind of wired that they put the hotel restrictions, but I think you have and will (you'll travel again, right?) cope with that well.
    Btw, you mentioned that you've got a SIM card. So what's your phone number? I shall call you after I get back home.


  4. Ethan, this is a 成语 that an absolutely amazing girl that I became close friends with last summer taught me:


    I think it's very romantic and idealistic--but I am a believer in the beauty of ideals