A brief recap of my life since last I wrote, in no reasonable order:
1. I'm researching the desertification of Inner Mongolia. The fifth week of every summer program, HBA plans 'social study' trips to several locations - most notably to the Shaolin Temple (in Hunan Province) and to Inner Mongolia, but students and teachers will also be in places like Qingdao, Shanghai, Beijing, and the Hebei countryside. Each student picks a topic, and I chose desertification because someone last year did it/it seemed interesting/I don't know nearly enough about Inner Mongolia to pick my own topic. I never really intended to take the social study project very seriously, as I'm pretty sure the reason why Louis has repeatedly described last year's trip as "the best week of my life" had more to do with riding horses and sand-surfing than with writing the report at the end. (And after all, at this point 1,500 characters, or ~900 English words, seems like nothing given an entire week to produce. More on that later.)
It appears, though, that forces completely within my control have another fate in store for me. Last night I was doing some really quick background research on desertification and Inner Mongolia (another reason why the social study project shouldn't be a big deal: we don't have the time to do any solid, objective research to supplement our interviews), and I came across an article (in English, of course) that mentioned a 60-some-year-old artist named Chen Jiqun. Apparently he, like many young people at the time, was sent to the countryside (for "re-education," "learning from the people," "gain agricultural experience," etc.) instead of attending college as part of the "Down to the Countryside"/"Work in the Fields" Movement (上山下乡运动) of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Chen ended up living in Inner Mongolia for over 20 years, and upon returning to Beijing has in recent years published a few articles on desertification in Inner Mongolia; besides this, he has also started an NGO (not exactly the most common practice in China) with the aim of educating Inner Mongolian herdsmen and helping them to protect the few areas of grassland that remain.
I didn't know if Chen was still in Beijing, or even still alive, but last night I found his old art web site with a Google search and decided to e-mail him. Surprisingly, he got back to me this morning, and we've set up an interview for tomorrow! I'm incredibly excited and also very nervous. I will definitely be bringing my iTouch and its lovely Chinese-English dictionary app for all of the complicated words he's bound to use, along with the hope that he's patient and speaks clearly. (On the phone, my greatest weakness, I could understand him very well, so I think the odds are good.) In truth I have my doubts that he is a true expert - in the sense of the science of desertification, the broader significance for China, etc - and I'm also worried that because the HBA trip will be heading to a different part of Inner Mongolia (which is vast), our focal points will be a bit mismatched; that said, I'm really looking forward to getting some background from him, and to conducting my first legitimate Chinese interview, with a pretty legitimate guy to boot.
2. We went to see Peking Opera on Saturday. Bright, funny, acrobatic, and musical, Peking Opera is very much a performance for the common people, which I had heard but never really internalized until I finally saw it. Thankfully they had both the Chinese and English text on digital screens to either side of the stage. I'm told that as foreign interest in Peking Opera is waxing, Chinese interest is waning. Although it was definitely fun, I can understand that: I have to say that except for the old man and his elaborate pantomime of tying up a boat (on stage, he carried only a paddle), I was more impressed by the incredibly talented guys who poured tea for us before the show began, and if you're paying top dollar for what has historically been the entertainment of the lower classes then it may just not be worth it. If I can borrow pictures from someone, I'll post them.
3. On Friday, I went out with the local girl I had met a few weeks back and two of her friends; it was my first time singing karaoke on the mainland. It's little different from Taiwan, except that in Taiwan it's more expensive but nobody tries to give you an unwanted backrub while you're in the bathroom and then demand payment. I also learned a very simple drinking game, played with dice, called 七八酒, which I played with my apple vinegar instead of actual 酒. (Note: the first two syllables of the game's name are the words for "7" and "8," and the last syllable, "jiu3," is a pun in that when spoken it can mean either "9" or "liquor"). More importantly, I put my new knowledge of Chinese songs to good use - I'm learning about one a week - as well as my ability to read traditional characters, as the lyrics of nearly all karaoke "MTV"s (i.e. music videos) are written in traditional characters.
4. Also on Friday, I got the first of a 3-part rabies vaccine series, which will 'hopefully' immunize me for life. It's kind of a strange vaccine to get because it's not actual immunization - one still needs treatment very soon after being bitten or scratched by an animal. However, it does remove one of the post-exposure treatment requirements, immunoglobulin, which is apparently fairly hard to come by on short notice, particularly when you're coming from rural China. (Even the U.S. had a shortage a few years back, and it's not like we've had nationwide rabies outbreaks recently.) At the hospital, an English-speaking establishment staffed by Western-trained doctors and recommended by the HTH Worldwide (my insurance carrier this year), I noticed that some of the patients were Chinese, which I thought was a bit surprising. When I asked the nurse, she said that 90% of the patients were foreigners and the other 10% were wealthy nationals; apparently good Western-trained doctors are also hard to come by in China. Mine happened to be Mr. International: from Iran, studied in the U.S., lived in Haiti/Dominican Republic/Honduras, and is now here; speaks Spanish, English, and (I assume) Farsi fluently, and sounds like his Chinese is good enough to at least pass muster in daily life here.
5. Happy 4th of July: Our program secretary made Friday's 'Chinese table' into a pizza lunch for us, and I ate some surprisingly delicious slices of yummy... this following Thursday's embarrassing but satisfying trip to McDonald's. On Sunday, I had a mini-fete in my room with a cake I had ordered at the campus store - shoutout here to David Demres, who did the same on a much larger scale last year in Taiwan - and the cake, too, was surprisingly delicious.
6. This weekend, I had a few hours to kill and wanted to get out of the room, so I visited Peiking University, known to everyone here as BeiDa. It's really an amazing sight, and I can also see why it's said to be home to the most lovers per square mile in all of Beijing: the campus is 1/10 beautiful buildings (china-style; pagoda roofs and all) and 9/10 gorgeous grounds, something like a 15,000-student version of the "small liberal arts college" model. If the campus itself isn't park-like enough, you can visit the large Yuanmingyuan Park just to the north. What most impressed me, though, as I walked past the massive library to and down toward the lake, past graduation photos and small tour groups and students studying on rocks, was the sense that this place trains the best of the best. By some measures BeiDa is one of the hardest schools in the world to get into - everyone who takes the national test has a shot, and even if you discount the poorly educated competition you're still left with a huge pool of well-trained competitors who have been studying 8 hours a day outside of regular class time for the past four years. When I wasn't aimlessly leaning against a staircase and thinking about the movie "Summer Palace" or how I would get to the roof of the library if I had some guts/parkour skills, I was busy being so impressed that I've even started to regret, a bit, turning down the opportunity to study at BeiDa for the year in favor of what I hope to be better language programs at other universities in Beijing and Taipei. But then again, perhaps - either because of my Chinese ability or because of the program itself - I would never have actually gotten to integrate into the BeiDa community, and it would have been a waste to attend; I'll never know.
7. To get to BeiDa, I rode my bike; this is the second trip I've taken of any length, so like everyone else I must of course offer my two cents on Chinese traffic. It's not that there are no rules, per se, so much as it is that different modes of transport bend/break those rules to varying degrees. Cars are the scariest (the whole 'turn whenever!' policy is, I think, the one good example of a lack of traffic laws, but I'm not 100% sure of this), but they're also the most likely to follow the rules of the road, most notably not going forward through a red light. Now and then, a car will use the bike lane, but hey. Mopeds, motorcycles, and motor scooters, on the other hand, often do whatever they want, including using the sidewalks and driving the wrong way down the bike lanes. Bikes always do whatever they want, weaving through traffic like it's nobody's business, and pedestrians are the same but with more mobility. No one group really yields to another - on a bike or on foot one watches traffic, not the lights or pedestrian crossing signals - but nobody really wants to kill anyone else either, and they won't run you over if you're assertive enough and give them enough time to stop. It's actually, perversely, a lot of fun, and not that much of a step up from someone who cut his teeth biking like a madman on the mean streets of New Haven; the only thing I regret about the situation is that I can't spare enough concentration to read most of the Chinese signs that I pass so I'm not getting a very good idea of what businesses are lining the streets that I'm biking.
8. Speaking of traffic, here's the list: i.e., the set of calamities that, given my absentminded nature, I've been expecting for some time now.
Lock self out of room. (check) Bicycle breaks down. (check) Lose a lot of stuff. (check: hat on day 2, something else I can't even remember on day 5 or so.)
- Crash bicycle.
- Get sunburned. (It's been over 100 semi-regularly this past week.)
- Oversleep --> late for class.
- Think I boiled the water when I really didn't --> diarrhea.
Anyway, on Friday afternoon we leave for Inner Mongolia. I'm pumped! Un(?)fortunately, that means I won't be blogging again until I get back the following weekend, but fear not: I'll probably double-blog it up (I've been saving a few special topics for such an occasion) to meet with Light Fellowship reporting requirements, and of course the petitions of my many fans.
In the not very relevant words of Gandalf: "Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east."
Until then, most truly yours,