Monday, August 8, 2011

Ending an Era; Going Home

It's been fourteen months - fourteen months of living, learning, working, playing, loving, traveling. Fourteen months of seeing, experiencing, and I daresay growing.

In the scheme of things, a year and change is hardly a long time to be abroad alone - in my travels, I've met tanned, wizened Chinese men working in Africa on 3-year contracts; a red-bearded Israeli fellow in the process of biking around the world; and one very wild-looking Frenchman who had been out for a year and was just getting started.

That said, it feels like an age has passed - a "life of Men." Since leaving the U.S., I've been to eleven countries (or will have, after my Cairo stopover tomorrow morning), though I've only stayed in six of them - China, Taiwan, Philippines, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa - for more than 24 hours. I have enjoyed Taipei at Christmastime; spent my birthday on a trip to the frigid Mongolian border; climbed and camped among the dunes of the Singing Sands in western China; been intimidated by policemen on the southern coast; been welcomed into the "expatriate" Uighur community of the coastal provinces; and lived in Beijing through the extremes of all four seasons. I've fallen in and out of love, and various other relationships; made several friends, and many more associates; promised dozens of people that I will meet them at the airport if they ever come to New York, and sometimes meant it. I have lived at times in palatial arrangements, and at times like a pauper. I have enjoyed several of the major vices, and refined them all back to moderation. I count among my new skills bargain-hunting, bottle-opening, and bag-tying -- oh, and my Chinese has also improved enough to be useful in both professional and social environments. I have grown more confident, less credulous, and maybe even wiser. I have seen a little bit of a few facets of the world, and in doing so come to realize how little I actually know about my own nation, let alone others.

But it's high time to be headed home, to the friends and family who speak my language and know me best. I'm looking forward to everything from my grandmother's cooking to the pressure and rewards of life at Yale.

This will be my last update from the Great Abroad: I have a plane to catch. But it will not be the last post to this blog. While at home and at Yale, I plan to flesh out some notes I've taken over the past year - thoughts I never got the chance to blog about. So check back every week or two, if you're still interested in my ideas on some of the things I've learned and seen. It's not over yet -- I'll tell you when.

See you in the world.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

arrived safely

I’ve arrived in my hostel. I’m a bit tired for the Recap Update (TM) that I was planning, so I’ll save that for tomorrow.

What’s blowing my mind tonight: 3 deaf backpackers, two Brazilian and one French (so they can’t even lip-read English). Now THAT takes guts.

Tomorrow, a new update; the day after, home!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Heading Out

As usual, I’m in a rush to leave, so this is going to be short:
I’m leaving Zambia, headed through Zimbabwe to South Africa. When I get to my hostel in South Africa (sometime tomorrow afternoon) I’ll update again.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Updates & More Photos

[Written Saturday, July 30]

Only one week left for me in Zambia; 10 days until I’m back in the land of the free and the home of the brave. 4 days until said land defaults on its debts.

What I’ll miss most about Zambia may well be the (winter) weather. I woke up at 6:30 this morning – I had gone to bed around 8:30 last night after getting too much sun and eating too much junk at the Agricultural Expo, which is supposed to be one of the country’s biggest events but frankly didn’t even measure up to the NY State Fair – and my first reaction was, of course, that it was too early for human beings to be out of bed; but once I actually got outside, I found that it was cool, crisp, clear, sunny, and generally a fantastic morning to be alive. And it’s like that every morning – not to mention toasty during the day and cool in the evening. The only thing is that it’s a bit dry, but I’d be willing to pay that price for a permanent Zambian winter.

But things change, as things are wont to do. The day before yesterday, I was summarily evicted from my room and told to move into a room upstairs. The move itself wasn’t much of a bother – after all, I don’t have many things – but my new bathroom has no mirror and no door, so I wasn’t particularly happy about that. I figure that if I’m going to move, I’d much rather that it be over a long distance, otherwise it just doesn’t seem worth it.

The reason for the move has also been the water-cooler gossip of the company for the past few days: the arrival of 3 teachers for the Chinese school that our boss also runs. Most of the talk has revolved around how cute they would be – not outstanding, though much better-looking than the last group, as it turns out. But in two weeks they’ll be moving into the school’s dorms, and anyway most of the men here are married, so any talk of the new kids is punctuated by a lot of good-natured finger-pointing and head-shaking.

The boss liked my masterpiece, so this I’ve been working on a second publicity video, this time for one of the subsidiaries; and this coming week, I’ll be making a third. Although I’d really like to share them, especially the first one, unfortunately I won’t be posting any links: I’ve said whatever I’ve wanted to about the company so far and I think it’s good policy to make sure my comments don’t show up alongside anything that might link to the company’s name in an online search. Besides the videos, I’ve also been some on-the-spot oral translation lately; today, for the first time, I’m going with the construction company’s boss to meet a potential customer.

Yesterday I was thinking about what I should include in my Zambia Kit: a transformer, a visa receipt, etc. When I get back home, I’ll have three Country Kits (TM) - the other two are for Taiwan and China. They usually fit in a Ziploc bag, and include things like business cards, SIM cards, cash, school/library/etc IDs, metro passes, and address books. (Throw in a pistol and a few passports, and I could pass for CIA.) They’re a huge help in readjusting, and can save a lot of hassle – one of the nicest surprises in Taiwan this past winter was when I arrived in Taipei and found that my half-price student metro card was still valid.

And that’s all in today’s news and ruminations. Now for...

Photo captions!

1. Lusaka’s Tuesday produce market. This picture doesn’t necessarily show it, but the Tuesday Market is surprisingly diverse – Koreans, Japanese, Indians, Pakistanis, white people, and (I’m told) a lot of regional expatriates as well.
2. Preparing 40kg of rice – a week’s supply for about a dozen people.
3. Our brickyard. The ones laid out on the ground to dry are for paths; the rest are cinder blocks for warehouse-building.
4. Speaking of warehouse-building...
5. Some of the guys who work in materials/construction having fun.
6. My (now former) housemate at the Kariba Dam, which draws hydropower from the world’s largest manmade lake. Here I should mention that, of the three people I have lived with since leaving for college, not a single one of them has been anything less than 100% cheerful and 110% fantastic. And next year I’m living in a single, so I’m not worried about that changing any time soon.
7. Water flowing from the Kariba Dam.
8. Even more water.

This weekend is a holiday I had forgotten about – aren’t those the best? - so a few of us are hoping to get together for some LAN Counterstrike (I’m rusty but I fully intend to kick ass), and maybe some Harry Potter (finally!). I’ll do my best to update once more before I leave, and then again before I leave Johannesburg. Lately I’ve been hearing a ton of stuff about Jo-burg being pretty rough – and this from Chinese, Americans, and locals – so as soon as I get my bus ticket sorted out I’m going to try to arrange transport with my hostel there.

Until next week,

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lusaka Photos, Part I

Lately my connection speed has been picking up, probably in part due to internet rationing, so this weekend I’m posting Part I of my set of favorite Lusaka photos. I’m making this update by e-mail, so I can’t do anything fancy with the picture placement/formatting; if they all ended up in the order I wanted them, then the brief captions below should make sense:
  1. The company dorms. I live on the second floor, farthest door on the left.
  2. My room! To the right is a table and chair; to the left, out of sight, is a wardrobe and set of shelves.
  3. My desk. A coworker just left today, though, so soon I’ll be moving to the one visible off to the right.
  4. A view of the courtyard and offices, taken from just outside my door.
  5. A group of the younger folks sharing dinner.
  6. Cola chicken wings and super-awesome fish. And drinking red wine out of bowls.
  7. The company’s other courtyard – more of a homey feel, though not as modern or spacious as ours.
  8. The Company Baby (TM)... driving a forklift.
  9. Where Chinese workers congregate, there will be Chinese-style entertainment...
  10. My favorite picture of the summer – a beat-up 4WD littered with a mix of Chinese and African bumper stickers, seen outside a nearby Chinese-run lumber yard. Just looking at this car, I feel like it must have a ton of history behind it, and at least a hundred interesting stories; even more so as it was probably originally bought (and used) in a nearby country, as the steering wheel looks to be on the left and neither of the flags are Zambian.

Brief weekly recap:
 - This week was full of meals and toasts, as the company’s translator (the aforementioned coworker) has fulfilled the two years on his contract and is going back to China. I’ve also been working on a 3-to-4-minute min publicity video for the company, which I’m doing with an excellent video camera (I want one!), but editing 1) in iMovie and 2) without any experience... Anyway, fingers crossed and we’ll see how it comes out.
 - Yesterday my friend Thomas invited me and a few other folks over for the evening. We ate some dinner, played some games (it turns out I’m still a Battleship champ), and eventually headed out for what was my first real casino experience. I pretty quickly lost about as much as I was willing to lose in one night - $30, as I’m on a tight budget after Victoria Falls - but in my defense, I never really understood all the rules of blackjack before yesterday, and I think I handled the learning curve pretty well. (Which I suppose is just another way of saying that I lost the vast majority of my money almost immediately.) It was also a pretty laid-back environment (unlike, I’m told, casinos in America), on all sides; I misread my cards one hand and asked for a hit when I was already at 20, and instead of finishing me off the dealer just sort of looked at me with eyebrows raised and waited for me to reconsider.
 - This morning I went for a game of Ultimate (frisbee), which was also a ton of fun. I’m no good, particularly at offense, but there was a mix of skill levels and a good amount of people (~20), so we all had a good time. I spent a lot of time guarding a Marine who’s stationed at the U.S. Embassy; he was massive and willing to lay out/etc, but not very skilled, so we were about even. Having forgotten all about sunscreen, I also discovered that I don’t even burn under a few hours of full Zambian sun any more! I had a great time; I think that living (almost) exclusively in the expat community within a larger society definitely keeps you from understanding it and ultimately being a part of it, but I absolutely love getting together with expats now and then, as they’re usually really interesting and a lot of fun – and I think that becomes more true the farther you get off the beaten track.

Less than 22 days – and, I’d guess, about three more blog entries – until I’m on the plane home. Hope you haven’t missed me too much.

Monday, July 11, 2011

this week

News is slim, so I hope you’ll settle for a few highlights and a few more thoughts about Sino-African relations.


 - I can’t believe I forgot to mention this: the 90th Anniversary Celebration of the Chinese Communist Party went off swimmingly. Our company’s group piece was so-so at best, but I pulled off my solo (with – did I mention? – three backup dancers) without incident and it was very well received. I had a chance to meet the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, as well as the head of the embassy’s Council on Commerce; however, they didn’t seem terribly interested in meeting with me. My only good lead was a reporter for CCTV and former Chinese teacher, so we’ll see what happens with that. After the event, we all went out for a delicious dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, paid for by the boss, and were informed that two karaoke machines had been ordered in the hopes of keeping the workers amused during their free time. (I guarantee they’ll still get bored and sneak off to the casinos.)

 - I’ve been slowly meeting people from other Chinese companies: a girl at a gas(-canister) company; a guy at a paper factory; and a project manager at a small construction enterprise, who was able to invite me to dinner and then charge it to the company, and whose compound I’ll probably be visiting next week.

 - Reckoning by the amount of malaria prophylaxis left in my cupboard, I’m already more than halfway through my stay in Africa – in fact, the halfway mark was Friday.

 - I’m still waiting for a breakthrough before I can improve my ping-pong... and new ears before I can improve my listening comprehension. Am I destined to be mediocre at everything I do no matter how hard I try?

 - Today I helped make baobab fruit juice! It’s certainly not the new pineapple, but it’s actually pretty good if you add enough sugar.


This past week, while renewing my visa (and, harrowingly, having my business ties exposed by a local coworker, who was so bent on being helpful that he didn’t heed my warning that we should do our visa business separately), I had a chance to talk privately with our Zambian HR Director about how he, and other Zambians, see the Chinese. Our offices are adjacent so we see a lot of each other, and he didn’t need any urging to speak freely with me.

His views on expatriates in general seemed passively negative – he blames high unemployment on a population boom brought on by an influx of refugees from less stable area regimes, though he doesn’t seem to blame the people themselves for their actions. His views on local Chinese-run companies were mostly couched in general terms, but he made it clear that his own views were only slightly more positive.

When he tells people he’s working for a Chinese company, he said, they ask him if he’s crazy. Chinese companies are known – especially in comparison to the more deeply rooted British and Indian firms – for trying to turn over a profit at any cost. This means, in his words, taking advantage of the high unemployment to pay low wages and  inhumanely disregard workers’ religious/family/rent situation. In this respect, he sees our company as occupying the middle of the spectrum in relation to other Chinese companies – and the lower end overall. Zambia’s business and labor laws are fairly comprehensive, but he says that some Chinese companies (not ours) will even pay “slave wages” because 20 people are clamoring for the same job. His own salary, he says (which is about the same as my subsidy, though the man is a full-time employee with a college degree and work experience) is just enough to cover his gas to and from work every day; he makes his real money off of the farm he owns, and is mostly here because he likes working HR and wants some experience under his belt. I don’t think he’s putting on airs – I’ve seen his enrollment certificate for the six-year correspondence program in HR at a local university.

Another problem that locals have with the Chinese, he says, is that the latter are seen as irresponsible investors (or, as the HR director calls them, “so-called ‘investors’”) - people who will drop in for a few years, make some quick cash, and go home, leaving behind nothing of lasting value. He doesn’t think that our boss falls under that category; on the contrary, “Mr. Li” has been here for 13 years, built a villa here, sent his daughter to school here, and is even rumored (incorrectly) to have received Zambian citizenship. When speaking with local workers, I’ve found that despite the scarcity of his smiles, the boss seems very well-liked for his understanding of, and especially investment in, Zambia.

Another issue is that locals want foreign investors to come and do things that Zambians themselves don’t do very well (e.g., construction or manufacturing), not to add yet more competition to already crowded markets (e.g., farming). Frankly, I myself don’t see this as the responsibility of an investor in any sense. For instance, I know from the Economist that farming – one of the biggest industries the Chinese engage in here, after mining and construction – has a long way to go in terms of efficiency, and I say that that if any investor sees an opportunity (particular a technological one) to produce more efficiently, then more power to him or her. The real enemy is still the massive set of  American and European subsidies that push down global market prices... but that’s a discussion for another day.

Another thing I take issue with is that our HR director at no time recognized the fact that, well, employment is better than unemployment. We can agree that each company should pay the minimum wage; we might even be able to agree on a higher amount, as a humane or living wage; but I’m not buying his higher standards of long-term investment and the like. Most investors are not philanthropists: they come to make a profit. And from a more long-term viewpoint, even lacking a minimum wage, any employment is good for the country – it lessens the pool of workers competing for each job, and strengthens competition by employers for labor. Have enough companies looking for workers, and wages will rise, while unemployment drops to a reasonable level. This is, of course, ideal... but I return to my point that, executives’ individual moral imperatives aside, employment is better than unemployment.

At any rate, Chinese companies are a huge force in Zambia right now – Chinese citizens or their representatives must have accounted for a third of the business in the Immigration Bureau when I was there, and 80% of the non-African. But, given the politically influential anti-Chinese sentiment that I’ve heard expressed from locals and the media, it will be interesting to see what the new government’s policies will be like if there is a change in power. I would predict a lot of rhetoric and a few symbolic gestures, but nothing significant: employment aside, Chinese contributions to local manufacturing and technology are too great to casually toss aside. It’s also worth noting that a lot of money is flowing into Zambia in terms of Chinese government-run enterprises, government investment, and government loans (notably through the Chinese Export-Import Bank [Ex-Im]), and I’m sure that the Chinese government will have plenty of leverage if it feels that the Zambian government has turned against local Chinese businesses.

That turned out to be a fairly long treatise; I hope it interests at least a few of my quasi-loyal readers.

Until the weekend,

Friday, July 8, 2011

Howard, David, and Me

1. My Chinese is better than Howard French’s!

I was talking to our CEO in the car on the way to his house, and he mentioned that a few months back he was interviewed by a professor from Columbia, who was doing research for a book on the Chinese in Africa. Unless there are two Columbia professors simultaneously working on the same type of book, I’m guessing that it was the man himself ( I’ve mentioned him in an earlier entry, and I’ll once again suggest his article from the Atlantic on the topic ( for those interested. But to get back to my point, I’m happy my boss thinks my Chinese is better than French’s for two reasons: First, French spent three years as the Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times; second, he completely blew me off when I e-mailed him earlier this year about contacts in Zambia.

2. I’ve decided that I will spend time over coming month interviewing and surveying as many of my company’s employees as possible for my senior thesis.

Partly because of the sudden intrusion into my life of Howard French, and partly because I’ve started plugging away at some of the scholarly (or at least quasi-scholarly) articles that I tend to set aside “for later,” I’ve started to think a bit more seriously about my senior thesis. I’m beginning to come around to the idea that a case study – or, a broader thesis grounded in or complemented by a case study – could have a lot of value, especially given the tendency of many academics to paint things in broad strokes and lack deeper practical knowledge of the situation on the ground. I’m also running up against some personal constraints: notably, a lack of focused knowledge about anything in particular, and the fact that I already have plans for next summer and will thus not be using it for research. Add that it’s a current topic which I find interesting, accessible, and relevant (both to my major and as a major force in international relations), and it seems like a done deal. My thesis will have to be one of the many things I discuss with my academic advisor when I return to Yale, but I hope I can take advantage of my time here to lay a little groundwork..

3. Something you’ll all be much more interested in, and the reason I didn’t write this weekend, is my visit to Victoria Falls.

The Falls are very difficult to capture by camera in all their glory – looking up at them from below – for three reasons. First, the sheer amount of steam and condensation kicked up, even at the beginning of the dry season, obscures most views from below, even from dry land and at a distance. Second, the aforementioned water is absolutely pervasive near the lower edge of the falls: they rent large raincoats and waterproof bags for a dollar near the entrance to Victoria Falls Park, and I’m glad I took the latter because the bits near the lower falls are in a state of permanent precipitation. Third, and not least: How do you get a good shot of a waterfall that’s over a mile wide?

Just as I was getting over the sheer volume of water careening over the precipice, my mind was set reeling by another thought: When the explorer-missionary David Livingstone ( first reached and explored the falls, he did so without the aid of roads or bridges. He just... walked, and boated, and tried not to fall over the edge before he moved on. He spent decades on various expeditions around Africa – including eight years “opening up” the Zambezi River, and seven searching for the source of the Nile. Noble ambitions, insufferable faults, and everything else aside... Who today, not fleeing from something at home, would have the sheer guts to attempt that kind of venture? It may be generations before that breed of man is once again called upon, perhaps to plumb the depths of outer space.

The ecology of the Falls took me off-guard. The upper section and surrounding areas are typical Zambian bush: green trees, green shrubs, green grass. But I took a trail down to the bottom of the falls, and when I got there I suddenly found myself treading on sandy river-bank with what exactly my conception of rain-forest-type jungle all around me. There were also baboons! - cute, funny, and also pretty menacing when irritated.

I only spent a day in the area – a shame, considering the money and time I spent getting there and back – but it was a day well-spent. After seeing the Falls from all angles, I watched a few folks bungee jump, walked onto the border with Zambia for the second time so far, had a delicious burger, and headed back to my hostel just in time to catch an evening river cruise. On the boat and afterwards, I finally got to meet the other three Yalies in Zambia (Yes, there were four of us, in Zambia, at the same time.), as well as a brigade of Irish medical students bent on taking full advantage of the cruise’s open bar. We all had a blast, deep into the night, and went our separate ways in the morning. By the time I got back to my dorm the next day, I was tired, happy, and broke: of the $150 I had brought with me (my stipend for the month of June), I had approximately $.25 left in my pocket.

And that’s all I’ve got for tonight; I’ll try for another update on Sunday. It’s pretty late and the internet’s been alright lately, so I’m going to try to attach a few photos as I blog via e-mail – here’s hoping it worked.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Week 2: Being Chinese in Zambia

A quarter of my internship, and a third of my time in Africa, is already behind me.

This week was spent translating company workflow/operating procedures for Human Resources, watching and analyzing “Rain Man” in my English class (not a big hit with my students, as it turns out), and tagging along on a few outings with co-workers (vegetable market, container pickup at the Zimbabwe border). Last night we had another delicious party: massive crayfish, shredded potatoes, boiled dumplings, and chicken and onion stew, followed by plenty of toasting and several rousing games of ping-pong. Experts agree: if Brian Jacques had spent any significant time in China, his books would have had to be banned for excessive epicurean sensuality.

The trip to the border turned out to be a lot of fun. There was a miscommunication and it wasn’t until we got there (after waking up at 5 AM in order to arrive on time) that we found out the container had already been sent up to Lusaka. It was a beautiful drive, though, and on our way back we took a clandestine detour (shh, don’t tell the boss) to Lake Kariba, the largest man-made lake in the world. The only way I can describe to you how big it is, is to say that from the mountain road overlooking the lake, it looks like you’re looking down at a bay and out across the ocean. The Kariba Dam is, as you might expect, similarly massive. I have some great photos of the froth, steam, rainbows, and general impressiveness made by the cascade of water down from the dam… and at the time we went, they had only opened one of the six gates in the dam. (Apparently on the rare occasion when the water level is high enough to warrant opening all six gates at once, the President often comes down to see.) And although the dam was originally constructed by the English, we also ran into some Chinese workers from SinoHydro (
中国水电) doing expansion work on it.

Chinese companies, it turns out, are everywhere, at least in Lusaka, and are into pretty much everything industry can legally be a part of. There are so many of them that there’s a whole subset of them dedicated to providing things for the Chinese community: you can buy your favorite snacks or spices after a meal and maybe some karaoke at one of the more authentic Chinese restaurants in town; every week a guy comes around delivering high-priced Chinese-brand cigarettes; and there’s even a huge, Chinese-run “Great Wall Casino,” which I’m told is the reason behind my company’s strict anti-gambling policy.

“Made in China” takes on a completely different meaning here. Not that there aren’t cheap, low-quality goods coming in from that country – I’ve heard businesspeople and ordinary consumers alike complain about that, though some say it’s getting better. But in a country without much of a manufacturing sector of its own, it’s often just not economical to buy local. At the Chinese compounds, it’s understandable that a lot of things would be made in China – and most are – because they fit Chinese tastes, habits, and requirements. But go into the warehouses of any of my company’s three subsidiaries – machinery, department store, construction – and you’ll also find that most products, even large building materials that I imagine must be difficult and costly to transport, are imported from China. I asked about these latter materials in particular, and I was told that either they don’t make them (up to specifications) locally, or they do but it’s actually cheaper to import (probably because production is done on a small scale). I finally understand a bit better how, in a country whose standard of living and wages are clearly not equal to China’s, the cost of living in Lusaka can be significantly higher than the cost of living in Beijing.

The Chinese-Zambian relationship within the company seems, at its core, pretty strained. On the Chinese side – to which I am unavoidably biased, since I’m really not “in” with any Zambian workers – it’s mostly a question of theft and diligence. Theft is the biggest complaint, both from my co-workers and from my boss: supplies like cement and paint often go missing (so often that one of the construction company’s supervisors now lives on site), and valuables will sometimes disappear from rooms that are cleaned by local housekeepers. I have no idea whether this is accurate, but the more forgiving long-time Chinese employees have described it to me like this: “They don’t see it as stealing. It’s just taking. And a lot of them think that if they go to church the next day and confess, then it’s fine.”

The second-biggest complaint is always diligence: that local workers take thrice as much time to complete a task than Chinese workers would. I suppose that on the one hand it’s important to know that, in a country with a higher cost of living than China, the construction workers only make around 1/5 of their overseer’s salary. But I don’t think that negates all expectations of efficiency, especially in a country with sky-high unemployment – and when the tan, leathery construction site overseer tells me that he had to train all of them himself and that a Chinese crew would have gotten the new warehouse built twice as fast, I absolutely and without reservation believe him. I know his type. He came from a family with no money, quit school after the ninth grade, and worked years of day jobs, night jobs, and weekend jobs to get where he is today: spending three years living in a shack on a construction site in a faraway country, away from his wife and child, so that he can make a better wage and support his family. He is a Chinese laborer – that same, dying breed of man who built railroads in the American West in the 19th century; worked the sugar plantations of Hawaii into the 20th; built subway lines and high-rises in every burgeoning metropolis of China in the early 21st. He looks down on men who were unemployed last month and yet are already starting to show up late for work or refuse to come in on Sundays.

And that’s it for this week’s notes and observations. It’s taken me quite some time to write even these few paragraphs, and I want to start reviewing the second half of last semester’s vocabulary today.

Until next weekend.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tazara and Lusaka

This part of the story starts where the last left off, in Dar es Salaam.

My last two days of wandering the city were interesting but don’t bear a whole lot of description. Most people were in Dar to catch the ferry to Zanzibar, the predominantly Arab Muslim set of islands off the coast. So I wandered, which anyway is what I like to do best in a new city. I prowled the neighborhood; walked along the beach; decided that, sunburn notwithstanding, I was going to get completely toasted (the other kind) if I stayed out in the open for too long; happened upon the main fish market, which was bustling even late in the afternoon; ate some delicious fish, rice, & beans; met some interesting foreigners (a handful of Canadians, several groups of Scandinavians, and very few Americans; stumbled upon one of the five Chinese clinics in Dar; got lost in the auto parts/repair section of the city (this section exists) and couldn’t seem to get out; and bought provisions for the next leg of my trip – a loaf of bread, 4 liters of water, a half-kilo of peanut butter, a large package of raisins, and a few tomatoes and bananas.

Here I want to mention a happy discovery that I made while in Dar: I discovered that, after many years of refusing to eat bananas, my dislike for them has suddenly disappeared. I won’t eat them by the bunch, and I won’t rate them as delicious, but I would definitely call them an acceptable snack.

That Friday, I left my hotel for the 2-mile, hour-long trip (you read that right: traffic and terrible roads) to the Tazara Railway Station. (Tazara: TAnzania-ZAmbia Railway Authority.) I arrived at noon and had the good fortune to run into a few of those characters that one always seems to meet while traveling: a Ph.D candidate whose research topic was, in fact, the Tazara line; and a super friendly/easygoing couple (of travel partners?) from Sweden & Denmark. When it turned out that I had been booked into a compartment with three women and I was summarily kicked out, the Scandinavian couple took me in, which I’m pretty made sure the journey about three times as fun as it would have been otherwise.

The Tazara experience, was, in a word, fantastic. The company was fun. The food was good (and a lot less expensive than I had expected). The scenery was gorgeous: partly forested countryside, similar in some ways to more sparsely populated areas of New England but reaching a whole new level of greenery and vastness. Busy scenery-watching, which is made much more fun by leaning out windows or even doors, I ended up doing a lot less reading than I expected – and even by the third day, I still couldn’t get over the trees. I took a few hundred photos, but you’ll have to wait on those: the Internet here is, on average, even slower than it was in my Beijing apartment. On the first afternoon, we passed through the edge of a Tanzanian game reserve, where I saw my first (wild) giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, and impala. But I don’t have photos of any of these, because the encounters were too fleeting – and to my infinite regret, I was reading on my own and completely oblivious when we passed the elephants.

Tazara was made by the Chinese in the early 1970s – partly to rival the Soviets’ dam-building up north; partly in a spirit of brotherhood with the new socialist countries; and partly to win African backing in the UN for international recognition of the Communist Party as the legitimate government of mainland China. Traces of Chinese workmanship can be seen everywhere, if you’re looking: from the bilingual electronics controls to the plates in the dining car (they still have originals?!) to the classic Chinglish sign (also on most trains in China) informing people that they should not use the bathroom while the train is stopped: “No occupying while stabling.”

When we got to Mbeya, a few hours away from the Zambian border, the Scandinavian couple got off and I was kicked out of my compartment on grounds of taking up too much space. I ended up with a couple of Zambian businessmen who work importing luxury goods for customers in Lusaka. They struck me as a bit hypocritical (I can’t really explain this), but overall seemed to be good people, and also quite helpful. The train was delayed for seven hours the first night (something about pieces of another train on the tracks? encouraging.), so we ended up reaching our final stop, the Zambian town of Kapiri Mposhi, at around midnight of the third day.

It’s usually not very safe to go out at night in Africa. But when several of the other foreigners who had been on the train with me tried to bargain for a minibus to Lusaka (200km or so distant), the two Zambians I had been traveling with told me that it would be better to get a taxi to a bus stop and wait for the public buses passing by on their way from the Tanzanian border. I hesitated a bit but decided to throw my lot in with them. There were definitely a few hairy moments: the “bus stop” was really just a gas station where buses might or might not stop if someone flags them down, and I turned out to be justifiably nervous about the young guys hanging out by a charcoal fire outside when one of them started throwing cinder blocks at another’s head and then pulled a knife and chased him away. But the men I was with knew what they were doing – they just kind of shrugged and said, “probably a turf conflict” - and we eventually all bundled into a taxi and drove to Lusaka. At between 100-150 kph, we managed the distance in just a few wild hours, and even stopped for tomatoes at a fruit stand along the way. I slept a few hours at the house of the brother of one of the Zambians – who, as it turned out, is an insurance broker for a firm whose clients include the company I’m interning for, so it was easy to arrange for one of the company’s drivers to pick me up and take me to company HQ.

Which brings me to my life as an intern.

It’s a busy job, but not hard. This first week has been mostly about getting familiar with the company (job shadowing), translating some documents into English, and holding intermediate-advanced English classes. I’m also practicing a folk-”red song” for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, a move that’s sure to kill my 2028 run for President 17 years before it starts.

Company HQ is split into two major locations, just down the road from each other: one for the company’s agricultural machinery and department store subsidiaries, and one for its construction/contracting subsidiary. I live in the latter, which is very new and thus nicer in some ways – I have my own room, and it’s more than twice as big as the Beijing apartment I rented last semester – but lacks the homey feeling of the older one. The machinery-and-department-store area is comprised of a set of small office buildings, a machinery exhibition room, two large warehouses, and a square courtyard in the back around which the Chinese employees live. The construction company’s base of operations is a single large courtyard abutting the road, with offices on one side, 3 floors of dorms on the other, and a brickyard and warehouse in the back. There’s also a construction site further down the road, where the company is building several warehouses, a workshop, more dorms, and a villa (for the bosses).

 We work from 8:00-5:00 Mon-Fri and 8:00-12:00 Sat, with an hour each day for lunch. I also give English lessons for an hour each evening, Mon-Fri. There are plenty of times when people aren’t busy – for example, there are no orders from the warehouse, or no machines need to be fixed – so the employees often have time to talk, which has been very conducive to getting to know people and coming to understand how the company works. In principle, main job over these 8 (now 7) weeks is to work on company publicity: the idea is that I take a lot of photos, capture people hard at work on video, interview happy workers and knowledgeable bosses, and eventually put together a brochure and add a lot of content to the web site, both about the company itself and the situation in Zambia. (Many potential employees back in China – and, as I have discovered, plenty of Americans as well – see all of Africa as one big, hunger-stricken war zone.) The company already has a translator, but he’s abrasive and busy and his English is far from perfect, so I’ve also been translating a few odds and ends into English when needed: a certificate of government approval for a new product being imported from China; a quality inspection report for a different product (insanely difficult), a list of job responsibilities and best practices, etc.

Socially, things are going really well. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by most of the folks here – partly because the Chinese are just friendly like that, partly because I speak enough Chinese to get along with most of them, and partly because a lot of people here have something of an “us and them” (Chinese and Africans) mentality and I seem to fit in better with the “us.” This area of Lusaka is not exactly the most thrilling of environments to be in – for safety reasons, we’re not allowed out past 9 at night, and most people just want to sit down and relax anyway – but I have my own things to do during the week (reading, watching movies, reviewing Chinese), and on Saturday nights we have Chinese-style parties, which I have to say are far superior to most similar Yale events. At our courtyard, Saturday night basically involves getting some friends together, cooking some food, cracking open a few beers, and when everyone’s had enough of talking and eating, heading upstairs to play ping-pong, Chinese chess, and mahjong. People slowly head off to bed, or movie-watching, or watermelon-eating, and we wake up on Sunday morning ready to take advantage of the only full day we have each week to go out into the town.

And that’s just about it, in a nutshell. I’ve got a lot more that I want to add, but this has already gotten quite long and I’m sure there will be time over the next few weeks to go into specifics.

Hoping that you, too, are enjoying your summer,

Monday, June 13, 2011

Arrived in Lusaka

I've arrived at the company dorms in Lusaka, settled in, and done my first day of "work" - which today mostly consisted of taking a tour, getting settled, and leading a short informal English class. Which is great, because I only slept about three hours in total last night. I'm going to bed right now, because we have to be up early for breakfast; more to come later about a fantastic two-and-a-half-day train ride and my new workplace, with a harrowing experience or two thrown in for good measure.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dar es Salaam: Impressions

I’ve been walking around the neighborhood where my hotel is located for the past hour or two, waiting for an internet cafe to open its doors. But apparently a lot of places don’t open until 10 AM, and we’ve just been accosted by a mini rainstorm, so I’m now taking refuge in the hotel, where I have a fairly luxurious room to myself.

Hotel & restaurant, viewed from the street
Hotel reception

My room. With a mosquito net!

Dar es Salaam is a colorful city. Buildings, signs, and especially women’s dresses are often done in bold, bright, contrasting hues. Add to that the low buildings, the popular rounded block letters (think MS WordArt) and the Anglicisms left over from British administration (1915-1960), and this neighborhood has almost a quaint feel -- surprising for a city of over 2 million.

There is a side of the city that isn’t so quaint, and I’ve felt it a few times. I went out early yesterday evening, looking for some dinner, but I only got a few blocks before I turned around and headed back to the restaurant attached to the hotel; maybe I was just being paranoid, but there was something I didn’t like about the combination of the shadows, the number and look of the people on the street, and the fact that, being white, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Beijing is a city where I could walk home alone at 2 AM and not worry about a thing; in Dar es Salaam, foreigners would do best not to go out past dark. Even this morning, as I was cutting through an alley in the full light of day, I became very conscious that the street was the nearly exclusive province of young men sitting on the curb with nothing to do. There seem to be a lot of those men in Dar – sitting on street corners during the middle of a day in the work week – which is also a definite change from Beijing. Though to be fair, maybe that’s because the young Beijing men with nothing to do just stay inside playing video games...

Another change from Beijing is the street vendors: not that they exist, but what they sell and the way that they sell it. There seem to be a few common types of roving vendors. One sells single cigarettes, matches, and a snack (usually peanuts); he carries a basket in one hand, and jingles coins in the other to announce his presence. Another sells water and sometimes soda; he makes a hissing or squelching sound with his mouth as he walks. A third sells tea by the cup; he makes no particular sound that I can tell, but carries a tin pot or two and a small plastic container with water, which he uses in combination with his thumb to wash the cups between sales. I have yet to see a woman doing any of these three jobs.

The port of Dar es Salaam was founded by Arabs (1866), administered by the Germans (1891-1915) and English (1915-1960) and finally incorporated into the newly free Tanzania as its capital (1960). I haven’t seen any German influence so far – I read that it shows up in the buildings, but I could run face-first into Teutonic architecture and not know it –  but imprints of the other three administrations are pretty evident. The most obvious is skin color: alongside the charcoal of pure African blood is a swarthy Arabic complexion, and alongside that a grayer shade that you would almost swear was South Asian. And you’d be right: during British rule, large numbers of Indians were encouraged to settle in Dar, and you can see their influence in the food (I had a chicken tikki masala last night), the architecture (4- to 6-story apartment blocks that look strikingly similar to those of Mumbai), the businesses (“Taj Majal Sweet Mart”), the street signs (e.g., "Indira Gandhi Street"), and the clothing. A mix of religions is pretty evident, too, although I don’t know the proportions: I browsed through a stall of Qurans on one street corner and saw several copies of the Bible being sold on the next.

Well, it seems like the rain has abated, and if it hasn’t I may just need to suck it up and buy an umbrella. The power is out in this whole area of the city, which seems to happen fairly often (a shopkeeper told me, ‘Maybe it will be back on tonight? We don’t know. This is Africa!’), but maybe I’ll be able to find someplace with a generator to eat lunch.

Until next time,

P.S. ...Bonus photos!

Outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopian countryside

Iceberg in the sky

Sailing on top of the world

Approaching Dar es Salaam; I'm staying off past the left border of the photo

Flying over Dar

Tin-roofed houses near the Dar es Salaam airport

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Goodbye, China

As I start writing this from the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the African adventure that has been many months in the planning is finally starting to unfold. But I realize that I haven’t updated my blog in almost two months, so I want to look back before I look forward.

The final chapter of my China experience was a whirlwind. First I was preparing a tour for Michael (my old brother) and Cat (his girlfriend); then I was giving them the tour, often to places I had never been; and then I was juggling homework (I had to finish that TV show), preparations for leaving China/going to Africa (I spent four hours just setting up an international wire transfer at the Bank of China), and spending time with my increasingly-unhappy-about-parting girlfriend (more on that later; I have a half-written post that I’ll work on again when I’m in the mood).

Now I finally have time to take a breather and look back.

I spent over a year in China – June 3, 2010 through June 6, 2011. I passed through Shanghai (twice), stayed in Shenzhen, made a place in my heart for Jinan (Shandong province), traveled to the grassland and desert of Inner Mongolia (summer and winter), saw the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’An, entered the Thousand Buddha Caves in Dunhuang, climbed the highest dune in the Singing Sands, got food poisoning in Kashgar, ghosted through Urumqi (also twice), got chased by an angry toll collector in Turpan...

That said, the great majority of my time was spent in Beijing. I made friends (some of whom I might see in the U.S. this August), ate delicious food (how will I live without it?), saw the sights (Great Wall x3, and the third time was the best), met women (one of whom was fantastic in many ways; but The One still eludes me), accumulated some work contacts and experience (I hope to never be part of the Beijing English-tutoring industry again), and generally enjoyed a lifestyle very unlike the one I had at Yale.

And yet, most of my time was spent studying, and almost all of it was spent improving my Chinese – so (surprise!) that’s what I really want to talk about.

As Kelly from the Light Fellowship once said, “‘Proficiency’ is a moving target.” My goals, strengths, problem areas, etc have definitely all morphed throughout this year, so to get grounded I want to look back at the objectives I set for myself during the second week of HBA last summer.

From this very blog:

“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.”

So am I an independent learner of Chinese?

From a reading and writing perspective: Pretty much. When I get back to Yale, I plan to read newspaper articles and continue with my translation of that history textbook that I started in January. I might have to ask some questions now and then, but by far most of the new material will be vocabulary that I can simply look up. I don’t know how “efficient” that is – I think I may have been envisioning reading books the way I did when I was in elementary or middle school, often picking up words from context without having to look them up in a dictionary – but it’s acceptable, and Yale will be a good place to improve my reading/writing further.

From a listening/speaking perspective: yes and no. I understand much more than I used to, and I can hold my own in a conversation depending on my interlocutor, but even as I finished off the last few episodes of 蜗居 I found that I still needed help with the meanings/shades of meaning/implications of a handful of words or expressions each time – and for that I need a teacher, or at least a native speaker with whom to consult. As for listening comprehension in the real world, in many cases I can now pick out words that I missed, just as I envisioned; but in many others, whether it’s because of speed, an accent, or a higher concentration of words I have yet to master, I have to say “come again?” and wait to be given the redux version. I’ve been having reasonable luck with the Chinese in the airport and on the plane – I was particularly proud of understanding one businessman when he told me that his company makes water pumps, a word I learned while watching Chinese news reports about the Fukishima reactor – but I’ve had to ask them to repeat themselves quite a few times already, too.

How should I summarize this?

I guess I should say: I’m satisfied with my gains, but I think I need another year. I would love for that year to be spent as a student directly enrolled in a Chinese university (i.e., not as part of an “international exchange program” or “language and culture scholarship”), but given certain realities (scholarship issues; 1 year max on leaves of absence from Yale) that seems unlikely to happen.

I’m also very interested to see how well my Chinese will hold up in a work environment; I’ll be finding out pretty darn soon.

A farewell to China shouldn’t just be a farewell to the Chinese language. Here are some things I’ll miss, and things I won’t miss, from day-to-day life. In no particular order:

1. The food. People name this as their #1 regret pretty often, and get laughter or disrespect or sometimes even feelings of offense in return... but I really will miss Chinese cuisine. I’ll miss the price – I ate three square meals for $4.50 every day – but most of all I’ll miss the countless delicious dishes. I won’t expound too much in this category, but I will say that 1) the selection of Chinese vegetables is so much more varied than your classic choices in the U.S.; 2) lamb is, after pork, a meat of the everyman; and 3) the Chinese mastery of spices and sauces is utterly unparalleled. [It took me three tries to spell that word right.] HOWEVER (and, to be fair, there must be a ‘however’), I’m absolutely pumped for Italian food, simple dishes (boiled vegetables!), decent-tasting sweet things, dairy (especially CHEESE), and a juicy Prime 16 burger when I get home.
2. I’ll miss the dining culture. (Yes: food again.) When Chinese people get together for dinner, it’s always loud, meals are ordered together and eaten together, family members or close friends will place tasty morsels on each other’s plates/bowls, and someone will often stand up and take the check for the entire table. There’s a certain amount of pressure involved in every one of these aspects of the dining culture, but I also think they make for an incredibly communal experience.
3. My status as a foreigner. By the end of my stay, I felt like I was fitting in fairly well with my environment – that, partly because people got used to me and partly because I adopted the speech and attitude of one who belongs, I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I went. (A little secret: You know your Chinese has progressed beyond a certain level once people stop complimenting you on it and start conversing with you.) But foreign nationality – more specifically, white skin – gives you some extra padding. The fact that you stand out keeps you relatively safe from certain vicissitudes (e.g., government employees abusing their power), and the fact that you are clearly from far away invites feelings of hospitality. What I won’t miss is white skin equating to an invitation to a) be ripped off, b) become Random Guy X’s New Foreign Friend (TM), and/or c) be cast into a mold of preconceptions and stereotypes.
4. I’ll miss the ratio of my wages : prices on the street. Enough said.
5. I’ll miss, and not miss, the stereotypical Chinese girl. The fashion that borders on, and sometimes is, ridiculous... the (sometimes literally) unbearable cuteness... it can get obnoxious but it’s usually just great.    I will NOT miss the alternately faux-sensitive (feminine) and faux-macho (obnoxious) behavior of the stereotypical Chinese man.
6. I have a love-hate relationship with the Big City. Beijing, like any big city, is definitely a land of opportunity – a place where a friend of a friend can introduce you to your next employer, or you can come out of the subway station and run into an activity being run by a guy who is from your next destination. It is a place where everything is (relatively) convenient: of roughly 15 million people in the city center, any two of them can probably meet up within an hour. There are stores and services for everything you need, and plenty that you don’t. But it’s a horribly polluted city – my sinuses felt it every time the pollution got extra bad – and transportation (especially surface transportation) is horribly overcrowded. If I could choose a medium/long-term workplace anywhere in China, I’d definitely settle on a smaller city, preferably somewhere with a better climate.
7. I will not miss... THE INTERNET. In the weeks before I left, I would go through long periods of inability to connect to any foreign servers whatsoever, and the majority of my time online was spent with a download rate of 20 kbps (5-10 if I was using my VPN). Goodbye, Great Firewall; I welcome the slow connections of Africa with open arms.

And that’s all from me, for now. More coming soon on my last weeks in Beijing and my first weeks in Africa.

Good-night, now from Dar es Salaam,

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Short Story

I’m going to finish off a very English-language morning with a short story, about a phenomenon that I expect will surprise you.

This past summer, I bought the second season of “Chinese Family” (《中国家庭》), a not-outstandingly-popular TV drama from a few years ago. I only ever watched the first episode or two: the show is kind of depressing, and also massively ridiculous. The main character, adopted into her current family while very young, breaks down on her wedding night and refuses to marry her brother; her public refusal embarrasses and angers her father, who chases after her intending to beat her and ends up having a heart attack instead; he dies in the hospital, where the girl meets a handsome doctor who treats her very well; the entirely family blames her, and her adopted mother banishes her from the home; later her brother, in a fit of drunken rage, chases the girl from the doorstep of her friend’s house on a rainy night and in doing so gets hit by a car. All of this goes down in the first episode.

At that time, I dismissed the plot as the work of screenwriters attempting to toe the line between immense, improbable tragedy and physical impossibility. But while I still think it’s ridiculous and melodramatic, I recently learned that the basis for the story isn’t quite as far-fetched as I had thought.

Yesterday, I was eating a very late lunch of fried rice in a restaurant run by a couple from Fujian Province, and since we were the only two in the place, I got to talking with one of the owners. Judging by her son’s age and what she told me about their business and her life, she comes from a very poor village in the countryside, and she’s a lot younger than she looks.

At one point, I asked her how she met her husband. “We grew up together,” she said, and I didn’t think anything of it.

Later, when I told her I was one of three sons, she asked whether my parents had considered adopting a girl. I said no, I don’t think so – three was plenty for my parents to handle. Then she started telling me about a practice that’s developed in Fujian: Parents who have a son but who also want a girl will often adopt her from the parents of relatives or friends.  (They can’t have one of their own, or they will be fined heavily in accordance with the one child policy.) The families that give up their daughters for adoption usually do so either to avoid paying fines for having a second child, or because they had a second child legally (in the countryside, a family can have a second child if the first is a girl) but find that they don’t have the means to raise her.

Often, the adopted girl will end up marrying her new brother – just like, as I found out, the two owners of the restaurant at which I was eating.

The owner said that sometimes girls in that situation would refuse to marry, especially if they already had a lover of their own. She didn’t say what her own situation was before she married into her adopted family. But she was only half joking when she explained, “The family was really, really struggling. I didn’t want to leave my mother alone. And anyway, I grew up with him, so we knew each other completely... and I was worried that if he didn’t marry me, he wouldn’t be able to find a wife!” The wifeless man - “bare branch” - has become a phenomenon in China, where the ratio of men to women can get as high as 120:100 in some provinces because of a preference for male children, and men without means are often not even considered for marriage.

So maybe the “Chinese Family” storyline has something to it after all – though I’m sure that in real life any village family as good-looking as that wouldn’t exactly be short of marriage prospects.

Here today with your fun fact from China,

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Progress Report

I am 2/3 of the way through my ‘spring semester’ here in Beijing, and also about 2/3 of the way through the TV series that I’ve been using as my main course material throughout.

With this perspective, I can confidently say that I made the right choice in dropping out of ICLP (that sounds really bad, doesn’t it? for the record I never even started attending classes there this year!) and coming back to Beijing to study independently.

For one thing, I know that the content that I’m learning here is useful, and that I would have not come in contact with much of it had I stayed in Taipei. A lot of the credit goes to 《蜗居》, the drama I’ve been watching, providing a perfect mix of vocabulary: 70% is common colloquial dialogue, much of it dealing with everyday topics like houses, family, and money; 20% is literary or flowery narration; and the remaining 10% is business-related conversation involving members of the intelligentsia. 《蜗居》, which has been called “a series that slipped through SARFT’s [China’s media regulatory body] guidelines” ( is also a candid glimpse at modern social problems in the metropolises of China: official corruption, sky-high housing prices, and the widespread mistress phenomenon. In my own daily life, I’ve also been forced to deal with some problems that would either not have come up or would likely have been solved using English were I in Taipei: the details of housing rental; looking for part-time jobs; bedbugs (?); and the like.

As expected, I’ve found that setting my own pace makes my learning more efficient. At 30-60 new words per night, I’m slow (at least in comparison to the programs I’ve been at), but I’m thorough – including review, I’ve watched every episode at least five times. A key result is that, when I check back on my mastery of the episodes with less new vocabulary, I can get English-to-Chinese translation right as much as 80+% of the time. Perhaps even more important, I can remember context.

Less daily vocabulary (and no daily tests) has also allowed me to feel free to really put my notebook to good use. (Thanks, Light Fellowship: I’m on my second now, left by Trent when he went home in August.) Along with my keys, my phone, and my wallet, I also make sure I’m carry that notebook, and a pen, whenever I go out the door. When I run into a word I don’t know, or find that I’m struggling to say something, I’ll jot it down and either look it up or ask my tutor to help me with it later. It’s not perfect – after a conversation, I’ll often be completely unable to recall what tripped me up or what words I didn’t understand – but it’s been massively helpful. On my most recent page I have: “337. Health and Preventative Vaccine Clinic; 338. an article about...; 339. to lie around in bed and not get up; 340. pentagon; 341. router; 342. pictures of [person].”

I’m also has some slow progress at listening to the news – which, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is an entirely different animal than everyday conversation, to an extent that most people who haven’t studies Chinese or a similar language just can’t imagine. I’ve done this mostly by way of listening most nights, originally to a BBC podcast and more recently (when BBC slashed their radio programming in a ton of foreign languages, including Chinese) to the nightly Network News Broadcast. (The latter is state-run television, and can be so boring that lately I’ve stopped listening in favor of thinking of ways to kill the producers... I think I need to find something new.) I’m getting better at understanding the news, and building my practical vocabulary in this area too. (Guess who knows how to say “Cote D’Ivoire,” “Libyan militants,” and “the International Atomic Energy Agency”?)

All of that is to say, in comparison with what could/would have been, I’m doing pretty alright. In comparisons to my own goals, though, I have to say that I’m still falling far short.

 - Reading and writing: I don’t particularly care. I can, and will, work on these when I get back to Yale.

 - Listening: I still need to focus every ounce of my attention on every conversation, and I can be tripped up by the most innocuous things. For me, it’s not as simple as having learned a word and then being able to pick it out when it’s spoken. No. I need to have learned it; and then I need to hear it in context; and then I need to hear it again; and then I need to hear it spoken fast or with an accent; and then I need to hear it again... And only when I’ve heard it over and over again am I able to pick it out from among the words I don’t know, or in dialogue with an interlocutor who speaks fast or with an accent or unclearly; only when that word has really worked its way into my marrow am I able to count it as one of the pillars on which I build my understanding of a given dialogue, and around which I listen for new words. I am finding that this is a very, very slow process – particularly in a tonal language with so many regional accents and so few distinctive syllables. (“mei2” can mean petroleum, media, not, eyebrow, and I’m sure many more.) I can understand most of what’s said in《蜗居》but only about 30% of another series, 《奋斗》 (in the latter, they speak faster and the sound quality isn’t quite as good); I can understand some news reports but often can’t even keep up with the speed of delivery of words I already know; there are times when the simplest things are said to me and my mind just goes blank.

 - Speaking: Improving slowly but surely, but whenever I spend a significant amount of time with Chinese friends I discover that I struggle to express myself far too often. I am still convinced that speaking will follow from listening – the surest way for my tongue to master a phrase is for my ears to become familiar with it – but I’ve also just recently started working on some tactics that I hope will get better results. As I noted once or twice before in this blog, and has been pointed out to me a few times recently, I need to reject the feeling that because I can say a few things fluently, then I can say everything fluently. I need to backpedal to higher ground and start allowing myself to speak slower, louder, and with more thought behind my words. Accuracy first, fluidity second: I shouldn’t be putting the cart before the horse just because I enjoy overestimating myself, or because I’m insecure about sounding like a foreigner (which I will anyway, probably for my whole life).

And that’s where I am right now. I don’t expect any massive breakthroughs in the next month in a half (though, who knows? I may surprise myself), so consider this the authoritative, if tentative, summary of the results of my spring semester.

For now, it’s into the breach once more.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Translation, Now Recursive!

On Chinese online forums, blogs, and (beginning just last year) microblogs, one will find a lot of acronyms floating around. Some of them even appear in common speech, at least among the younger generation.

Many of these acronyms come directly from the pinyin Romanization of Chinese words – for example, FQ is the pinyin of 愤青 (fen4qing2), or “angry youth.” But other online slang, especially words originating in English, have taken a more circuitous route to today’s form, sometimes involving multiple translations and/or re-interpretations. Today I have for you a sample of some of the most notable:

1. PS
PS is straightforward and oft-used: have a photo that needs some touching up, or perhaps requires the removal of an ex-boyfriend? Why not “Photoshop” – PS – it a bit?

2. PK
My all-time favorite, “PK” is used in conversation comparatively often. It comes from English-language online slang meaning “player-killing,” and is an old acronym, in online terms: it originally described (turn-based) battles between human players in the world of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, or text-based online roleplaying games), which were mostly passe’ long before I started getting into WoTMUD ( in middle school. In China, which has a massive online gaming population (for reference, see, “PK” has come to refer to any time two parties “fight it out,” or more generally just “compete.” Whether it’s Google and Baidu fighting it out over the Chinese search market, or two admirers seeking a girl’s attention, you’re PK-ing to win.

3. Acting Thirteen
This one is interesting because it started as a Chinese word but wouldn’t be where it is today without going through an “English phase.” Online, you can call someone out as a wannabe or braggart by saying that they’re “装屄.” This is pronounce zhuang1bi1, and is almost never written that way, because the second character in the original version is quite indelicate... and also not even included in my computer’s input system for simplified characters?! At any rate, the phrase is most often typed as “装B.” But in some places the “B” has become a “13” (note the similarity in form), especially when spoken as it sounds less offensive that way. The final spoken product: “装十三” (zhuang1 shi2san1, “十三” being “13” in Chinese).

4. BL
Here’s where things really get contorted, almost like a real-life Translation Party ( When referring to homosexuality, most young Chinese either use the Chinese term (“同性恋”) or just say the English word “gay” - I’ve heard each about 50% of the time. Online, though, someone somewhere decided that when referring to men it should be called “boy love,” which someone else (I assume) shortened to “BL.” Then a third guy (or 腐女, i.e., “corrupt girl”) decided to take the final step to incorporate the phrase into the Chinese language, and in a process that is the opposite of abbreviating (is there a word for this?), the term morphed into one of the roughly 190 Chinese characters whose pinyin can be abbreviated into “BL”: “玻璃” (bo1li), which means “glass.” Which allows young Chinese people to say to each other, without fear of being misunderstood, “Those two guys are definitely glass.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Very Brief Update: $$$ and omnomnoms

A few days ago, a surprise source parachuted in to assist me with my monetary woes: the IRS. My mini bailout came in the form of a $400 tax credit, which was automatically doled out to eligible taxpayers this year. (The bad news is that I now know I could have applied for it last year too... Excuse me as I kick myself for insisting on doing the whole damn form by hand.)

This leaves me a bit more at ease about the whole Zambia thing, to the extent that I think I’m ready to start dealing with tickets and visas this weekend. After hearing in the negative from four of the scholarships I applied to, I’m still waiting on another three; if I don’t get those, then I’m going to kick it into high gear and secure myself some decent-paying work by fair means or foul. (Considering my visa, it’s all foul, isn’t it...) A total of 25 extra hours – and that isn’t much if you think about it – should be quite enough to allow me to take the hotel job offer, assuming I get things sorted soon-ish.

In other news, this week saw the opening of my “visit every shop and restaurant nearby” project, which I can proudly say has already resulted in the discovery of the best dinner deal in these parts.

Delightedly yours,

Sunday, April 3, 2011

maybe I had bedbugs, and maybe they went away?

Three days in a row this past week, I woke up with what strings of what seemed to be bug bites along various parts of my body. They were itchy, and seemed to be multiplying exponentially each day. Although my sliding window-door has no screen, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of a bug in my room, except for a small fly which I’m still not sure I killed. After doing a little research online, I decided on the third day that I probably had bedbugs, which only come out at night and are quite adept at hiding themselves away. (I am now a bedbug expert, so if anyone would like more information, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve even read a bit about the so-called “assassin bugs,” if anyone’s interested.)

Although bedbugs seem rare here and the problem could also have been an allergic reaction or that damn rogue fly, the latter two seemed very unlikely given the circumstances. Deciding to act quickly (one bed bug can lay 4-5 eggs per day), I went to Carrefour to get something to kill them. Carrefour having nothing appropriate and no one who knew anything about pesticides, I called my landlord for advice, who told me to come back to the apartment and borrow his magic spray bottle full of who-knows-what. As a firm believer in the secret weapons of grumpy old landlords, I followed his orders to the letter and essentially fumigated my room. One is supposed to wash linens in hot water and then dry them on hot in case any bed bugs have taken refuge inside, but since I don’t have a dryer here and I wasn’t even completely sold on the bedbug theory in the first place, I decided to take everything sensitive out of the room and go with the all-chemical procedure.

It’s tough to tell, but so far I think it’s worked. It’s not really clear to me whether any given bug bite is new or old, or just a delayed reaction, but at any rate I haven’t woken up with any new swaths of the stuff, and that’s a promising sign. I’m holding off on declaring victory just yet, and I suspect that what Wikipedia aptly terms the “psychological effects” of bedbugs will be with me for a while: let me assure you that the thought that there might be little creatures crawling over my body at night sucking my blood is not particularly comforting, and just writing this post makes me feel itchy. That said, I have to say that when put in perspective, it’s a far cry from worries about things like deer ticks in the northeast (friends from areas in which ticks are non-endemic: did you know Lyme disease, if undetected for too long, can permanently impair brain function?), or even poison ivy, which has been known to ruin months of my life at a time – while bed bugs can cause allergic reactions, they’re not known to carry any diseases.

Plus, I learned how to say “mattress,” “smelly bugs” (a general term for crawling, infestation-type insects), and “pesticide” in Chinese – brings back the oh-so-fond memories of summer 2009 and the never-ending battle against the mold in my bureau. I guess that when you’re studying a language, every infestation has its silver lining.

And if the problem still isn’t solved, well, I’ll have no choice but to bring this guy into the picture: Those bedbugs will wish they’d never been born.