Category Archives: Pitzer in China – Fall 2011

Posts relating to my study abroad at Peking University from August to December 2011.

I owe you a post…

That’s right. I do. I haven’t written anything here in quite some time. This is not, however, attesting to my experience here. It is not that I have nothing to write about, but the contrary: I’ve been doing so much, I haven’t had the time to digest everything, let alone writing about it. So, I am going to make time.

It’s amazing to me that the program is already beginning to wrap-itself up. Days go by feeling as if its only been a few minutes.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is a lot of important movements occurring around the world right now, especially in America. Reading the news, I have been both shocked and inspired by the latest news surrounding Penn State, the Occupy movement, and the 2012 Presidential campaign, among many other events. I hope that I will get a chance to write about those things when I get back to the U.S.

For now, a quick plug.

For the last few months, I have been developing a independent study project here in China entitled “Pillars in Motion,” examining migrant workers in the country. I was recently featured on the Pitzer website here, and you can check out the blog for the project directly by heading to http://pillarsinmotion.wordpress.com.

Take a minute to peruse, provide some feedback or leave a comment, and enjoy.

Thanks as always!

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Life in the village

Only 45 minutes from Beijing, life is at a different pace. In between the bouts of Chinese tests and procrastination, I spent the last weekend on another “rural” stay. Earlier in the semester, our program visited this small village outside of Beijing to meet families and lay the foundation for future research. We returned to this same village over the past weekend, staying with our same families and conducting research.

Life in a village, even such a short distance from a major city, is slow. The village has only 19 families, the majority of whom are subsistence farmers. While at the stay, we got a taste of what their daily routine consists of, what food they eat, and a general idea of how the rural village fits into China as a modernizing nation.

The family I stayed with run their home as a bed and breakfast, so the accommodations were very nice: the bed was much larger than the one I have in my University dorm. The pillow, on the other hand, was stuffed with rice, which created a big crick in my neck in the morning. Most of our time was spent eating, observing, or sleeping.

Food is a big part of life in China, but even more so when you reach a village. Our most social periods were meals, prepared by our host grandmother in a wok. Watching her make a huge variety of dishes, all of which were delicious, I have come to realize that learning to cook basic Chinese cuisine is infinitely more difficult than cooking Western food. Before one meal, our host grandmother offered to show us how to make tomatoes and egg, a traditional Chinese dish. Stir-frying egg, ginger, and scallions in a wok, she added fresh tomatoes and covered the pan, which intensified the flavors. This was probably the first dish we ate which I could confidently try to make at home. We also had a delicious dish of cabbage, which we had harvested from the family’s farm plot, and onions.

The bad? Chinese food, as is common knowledge, often has a lot of MSG added in. Even at our home’s kitchen this remained true, sending the majority of our group into a food coma after meals.

Observing, we mostly noted the patriarchal structure most families organize around. There were, however, a few “this is China” moments. The most disturbing image by far occurred while we were shopping at a small “market” set up in front of the village committee complex. In the distance, we heard a recording of a man shouting some unintelligible Chinese. After a few moments, a truck with a very creepy man in it pulled up and stopped in front of our group, staring blankly. In the back of the truck were cages filled with emaciated dogs. As he drove away, we asked one of our Chinese helpers what the man had been doing and what the recorded message said.

“He’s selling dogs for meat,” replied our teacher.

There are times when I love China, and then there are times where some of its practices surprise and nauseate me. I may eat meat, and I know where my food comes from, but I don’t think I will get used to thinking of dogs as a source of meat for a while.

Our family also had a two-year old girl, possibly the cutest toddler ever. She, however, did not embrace us as much as we did her. On our final day, our teacher recounted what the parents had said to the baby when she was crying:

“Quite down, or we will send you upstairs to the laowai

Translation: We will send you to the foreigners.

The worst fate imaginable, of course. She warmed up to us a bit by the end of our visit, but I think it will take some time before she gets used to Americans….

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.

Wo xi huan Xi’an!

Xi’an is an incredible city. With a population of about 6 million people, it is considerably smaller than Beijing, but it more than makes up for that in character.

The connection to the past combined with its modern pulse make it an incredible place to visit. Peking University, where my program is based out of, is far from the center of Beijing. Sometimes, this can make life feel quite isolated. We are surrounded by students and academics 24/7, and I would venture that they are not fully representative of the rest of China’s population.

Last weekend, we took a group trip to Xi’an, a once capital of China. Although now mostly known as the city to stay in if one wishes to see the terra-cotta warriors (often referred to by our tour-guide as the eighth wonder of the world), it is an amazing place within itself. Our hotel was blocks away from the center of the city, and it afforded us some amazing opportunities to explore.

If there was one thing that stuck out about Xi’an, it was the food. While there, we did try the city’s famous yangrou pao mo, which consists of small pieces of heavy bread torn into small pieces with lamb meat and broth ladled on top, but it wasn’t very tasty. The consistency was glue-like and the meat was minimal. What made up for this was the street food: walking along one of the market streets in the Muslim quarter, I was surrounded by amazing different dishes being prepared. From the Chinese sandwich, a piece of heavy pita-like bread split open and filled with cooked beef, to the chinese tostada, fried in a giant pan of oil filled with pork and vegetables, it more than met expectations of how amazing Chinese food can be.

Across the street from our hotel was a small restaurant which was quiet during the day. At night, however, the sidewalk filled up with tables, where one could order a number of different dishes: delicious meat skewers, very spicy noodles, and a type of fried eggplant. The variety and quality (especially for the price) could not be beat.

The rest of our time in the city was spent touring around the famous sites. Our excursion was led by the most tactless tour guide I have ever encountered: although polite at the beginning of the tour, within no time at all she was very disagreeable and just overall seemed to dislike the group. Nevertheless, we saw some pretty amazing things.

The Terra-cotta warriors

I won’t give you the entire history, as wikipedia does a much better job, but these stone guards for the Emperor are a sight. It’s almost eerie as they stand in their rows, life-size, all with different facial expressions. We didn’t spend a ton of time at the site, but enough to see how extensive the set-up is. There are approximately 6,000 terracotta warriors, ready for battle.

We also spent some time checking out the city wall. Built as protection for the city, the wall is about 15 miles long and well-preserved. Within the city, there are many large skyscrapers, shopping malls, and other buildings, most of which light up at night.

Xi’an was a vibrant and exciting place, and definitely my favorite place I’ve visited in China thus far! It was also nice to sleep in a bed with real pillows and just be in the center of things for a change.

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Tomorrow, I’m heading to Shanghai with my friend Mitchell on the high-speed rail, the second-fastest train on earth, for national day. We have a week off from classes, so it’s going to be a nice change. Now, off to prepare an essay and study for a Chinese quiz…

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