Monthly Archives: October 2011

Chilly toes and cultural lows

The current state of my room...

Let me preface this: It’s not winter. It’s not even really cold yet. Yet, as the amount of daylight shrinks with each day and the leaves start to change, I’m feeling a strange mix of reactions. Going to school in California for two years certainly changes your perception on weather. I’ve always appreciated winter, but I would not be surprised if someone classified me as having a little seasonal affective disorder. The months of warm sun and west coast living have made my disposition towards winter a bit delicate. I do enjoy winter weather when it fits the context, however; in the last two winter breaks, large snowstorms have hit within days of my arrival in D.C. But here, I can tell already that this is going to be different.

Culturally, I’ve been hitting a bit of a low-point in the last few weeks. I quantify this with a bit because, well, I certainly do not hate Chinese culture. In fact, I would probably argue that I have been embracing myself in the environment more than ever. In the past week, I’ve interviewed a migrant worker, visited a school for migrant children and, of course, spent time studying mandarin. But in all of this, I’ve felt some need to be around English-speakers, eat western food, and, essentially, lead some sort of cultural double life.

The Pitzer in China program is also highly academic, especially when compared to what I’ve heard about other study abroad programs. I spend a fair amount of time studying and worrying about grades, trying to fall into a solid routine. Most of my cultural exploration occurs in a quite structured manner, whether that is on program research trips (which have a written component) or through my formal independent study project.  This makes the next month or so fairly intense: we don’t have any full breaks or extensive trips.

So this brings me back to my feelings on the weather: with the days getting shorter and the work becoming routine, I am acutely aware of the differences between here, Pitzer, and my home in Maryland. Being in cold weather without all of the east-coast trappings of fall is difficult for me to accept.

The weather also makes it difficult to wake up and get going in the morning. This past week, I started a class on Tai Chi. It’s from 7 am to 9 am every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The teacher very much has the qualities of a stereotypical Zen master character, offering many pieces of sage advice as he instructs us in the calculated movements. A lot of the time, the courses just remind me of dance rehearsal for the winter musical back in high school, but it can be a little therapeutic. Mostly, it’s just nice to get some movement.

Calligraphy has been a mostly positive experience, especially considering my atrocious handwriting. The teacher is very patient, and has excellent English. I’m hoping that by the end of the class, I’ll have a few pieces of my own work. It helps with characters immensely as well….

So as I enter the middle-end of October in Beijing, I’m trying to stay optimistic through immersion in my study abroad project (first interview going up tonight!), and having a healthy balance of work/play.

Time for a core lecture on Traditional Chinese Medicine…naturally, I’m pretty skeptical of such notions, but hey, when in China…

Shanghai: Why China does the big city better

View from the lobby of the Park Hyatt Shanghai

After spending the last week in Shanghai, I’m absolutely convinced that China feels, at times, more American than America. Simply put, it does it better. What is it?

Consumerism.

Before I get into exactly why I’ve come to this notion, I’ll back up a bit.

On October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China officially came to existence. To honor this occasion, October 1st and the week around it have been declared the national holiday. Considering that breaks such as Christmas are not observed widely, this week-long holiday is often the only time that Chinese can travel to see their families and not have to work. It becomes quite hectic as people from around the nation wait in long lines to get train tickets home, schedule special group events (such as weddings) and prepare for vacations. Naturally, this means that we get a vacation from school.

Arriving in Shanghai was an absolute shock compared to the political center that is Beijing. I traveled with my friend Mitchell on the Beijing-Shanghai Express, the second-fastest train in the world, cruising at a cool 305 km/h. In five hours, we had arrived in Shanghai. Considering that our living accommodations at Peking University are fairly simple and, at times, downright uncomfortable, we decided to live it up. We spent 5 nights in Beijing, the first four at Hyatt on the Bund, and the last night at the Park Hyatt Shanghai. All in all, this trip proved to be not only stunning, but also enlightening.

Shanghai is far more impressive than any American city I’ve ever been in. I’ve been to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and many others. Shanghai is on a completely different level. The amount of development and wealth in the city center is overwhelming. Just looking at the skyline tells you that this is not just in any metropolis; this is the mother of them all. On Saturday, we adventure around Shanghai including a lunch at Morton’s (courtesy of a friend), drinking delicious boba milk tea, meeting up with the girls at their hotel, the Astor House, and a much-needed meal at Boxing Cat Brewery. Cheesecake never tasted better. Additionally, if you can tell, much of the money on this trip was spent on food and drink; a good investment indeed. That brings me back to consumerism:  while exploring the Bund and the rest of Shanghai over the following days, I was amazed at the complete consumer culture. Now, I did stay generally in the downtown area, which is quite wealthy, but it rivaled even the fancy parts of Manhattan. At one turn, there was a Ferrari dealer. A short cab ride away, and there was a mall filled with every premium designer brand one could imagine: LV, Cartier, Morton’s, Apple, Ferragamo. People even seemed to be walking around just to show off their lifestyles.

China does the big city better than the US. This may be a first impression, but even almost a week later it is lasting. Another highlight was the art district; I am far from an art fanatic, but visiting the island6 collective’s gallery made my trip. Island6 specializes in interactive or mixed media art, such as static paintings with LEDs embedded, such as this one of the burning bush, or pieces which react to the viewers’ calls or texts. Easily the coolest art I have ever seen.

island6’s Burning Bush

Also, my stay at the Park Hyatt was out of this world. Obviously, I expected something pretty great (partially because it’s a Park Hyatt and the price tag) but it truly exceeded my expectations. The hotel is on the 79th to the 93rd floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. Generally, I have a pretty intense fear of heights, but the sheer magnitude of this building made it feel like I was in a plane, floating over Shanghai. Besides some rather rude hotel staff which refused to let us take pictures of the infinity pool on the 80-somethingth floor, it was the best. It was definitely difficult to return to Beijing.

Capturing Shanghai in a few hundred words would be a monumental task; the vibrancy and speed of this city was cosmopolitan and modern, but distinctly Chinese. Simply, it is so grand that no one else would be capable of creating such a place.  I felt slightly guilty as my inner-consumer emerged, but this trip shows the extreme range of lifestyles in China, for driving this city were the many migrant workers, building more extravagancies. Besides, I soon returned to my life as a student. Still, Shanghai is a city of possibilities…and expensive ones as that.

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After arriving back in Beijing, we spent the weekend on a “rural” stay. However charming this village was, it did not feel nearly as rural as the village we stayed near the great wall.  One key anecdote, however, was the feelings of our host family brother, David. As a patriotic Chinese man, he detested the “imperialist” ways of the American government. It was amusing to see this as CCTV News played in the background, reaffirming his views. At dinner, he launched into a discussion about the Japanese, saying that he would never let them into his home. Yikes. Definitely a shift from Shanghai. We will be doing a second visit to this village for research, and I suspect that I will write more about it then.

Now, onto the regular updates:

– I’ve launched my independent study abroad blog, Pillars in Motion. Check it out!

– This week marks the start of calligraphy and Tai Chi classes. Will report back.

– Working on uploading pictures.

As always, much love to you dear readers, and please send me any thoughts via email or leave them in the comments.

On Steve Jobs

I really thought that I would be writing about my National Day holiday trip to Shanghai for this post, but some news has given me something else to write about.

As you probably already know, Steve Jobs died today. He was 56.

When my Chinese roommate, George, told me the news, I was still in bed. I jumped up.

“What? Steve Jobs is what?” I said, not sure if I had heard him correctly.

“He passed away” said George.

And so I went onto my Macbook to check… Steve Jobs was an incredible innovator, salesman, and businessman. And everyone will be saying that today, tomorrow, and when reflecting upon him. But what made his work so amazing was not just his ability to reform the computer, but the way that he changed the entire modern perception towards music, film, and design. His ability to bring together the best minds and then force the best work out of said minds (in a sometimes harsh fashion) led to great innovations. He reformed the way sales presentations are done; what other company had every media outlet waiting for his keynote presentations?

And his insights on life were particularly fruitful as well; his speech at Stanford’s Commencement is by far one of the best I’ve ever heard. Google it.

A lot of people have a lot to say about the death of Steve Jobs, so I will confine my remarks to this so far. Let’s remember his life, his spirit, his drive and use that as inspiration to push ourselves to live our lives to fullest and to innovate for the world.

May your family and friends find comfort in this difficult time. Rest in peace, Steve.

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