Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Catching Up Part 2: Fantastic Conversation, Famous Ice Cream, Puppy Farms?, and Buluosi Jiuba

My memory of this weekend has already become a little fuzzy, which is really disappointing, but I will do my best to capture what I can remember. I can't remember what was going on Friday evening, but sometime Friday night I happened upon our activities room full of people. I sat down and ended up in an hours long conversation with 白凯丽, 文博's roommate Weiqiang, 余休's roommate Bingnan, and 丽莎. We talked about so many things that I made sure to write myself a list right afterwards so I wouldn't forget: minzhudan/gonghedan/lvsedan (otherwise known as the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Green Party), America's indian problem, American names, airplane companies, conspiracy theorists (Bingnan said "不相信别人," or people who don't trust other people), and religion and marriage. Bingnan kept surprising me with how much American culture he had familiarized himself with; 凯丽 and I were glad to help him fill in the holes. The most interesting one came when we were talking about minorities and - though it took us a bit to realize it - Bingnan was operating under the assumption that American Indians and African Americans face exactly the same problems in American society. We spent a while after that trying to explain reservations, poor political representation, obesity, education problems and the like. But I have to say, I was as amazed by the breadth of our conversation as the depth. Being able to flow from one topic to another without any huge drops in my level of understanding made me really appreciate what the past weeks of living in China had done for my listening ability, and more importantly, my ability to ask the key questions that lead to understanding of a topic or a word I don't understand. I am absolutely not yet perfect at that - I wouldn't even say I'm great at it - but I'm very glad it's developing.

On Saturday, we went to Old Harbin, a district of the city where the old-timey, turn-of-the-century Russian architecture has been preserved (as opposed to the newer Russian architecture up and down the streets...everywhere else in Harbin). Have some pretty pictures and then I'll talk about it:

Mosque in Harbin
The sign said girls in shorts/skirts weren't allowed, but they didn't stop us from coming in to look.
This local Muslim was very glad to talk with us.
We went to a famous dessert place to get ice cream. So. Good.
The market street was packed
An outdoor pet market. All I could think about were American puppy/kitten farms... But they were all so adorable...
The woman put bow stickers on their heads because she said it was good-looking. They are pretty cute.
丽莎's roommate Fengyue (so unbelievably sweet) and fish!

After wandering in this part of the city with 丽莎, her roommate, and 国勇, we went to eat in a Muslim restaurant - it was delicious. I think I've been very spoiled by food in China, actually.
Everything was always so tasty that I think I was desensitized to just how tasty everything was. Going back to the Yale caf will be a little difficult - not that Yale food is bad, just often bland.

That night, I had an adventure of adventures. I finally decided to go out with the group of my classmates that usually went out to bars every weekend - 梅择儒, our elected leader on the weekly quest for bars (we joked about him having a bar-radar), promised me dancing, so of course I was going to go out. And I have to say, I had so much fun I only wish I'd gotten up the effort to go out sooner. We started out at Earth, the bar we'd all gone to together during our first weekend in Harbin. I chatted with two of the new Fullbright student's roommates and had the interesting experience of watching inter-cultural drinking games at the bar - the bartenders filled a bunch of shotglasses lined up along the bar full of beer and then everyone crowded aroudn cheered and counted as the contestant tried to drink as many as he could as fast as possible. There was a lot of spurting beer, but Korea came out on top. Also caught sight of the only gay (possibly) couple I've seen in China - after the victorious Korean guy retreated to the bathroom, he was met on his way out by another guy and there was embracing and talking with faces very close. One of the roommates I was talking to was amazed; he said it was the first homosexual action he's seen in public as well, despite living in China all his life and also having decided he himself is bisexual. As a huge sidenote, I am very, very interested to know about gay culture in China. We had a few gay Americans in our group, and most of the roommates were surprised and interested by it. There wasn't any real prejudice, I don't think, just simple curiosity, or the shrug-of-shoulders, I'm-not-offended-but-I-don't-understand kind of reaction, from what my friend said. I could go on a huge tangent here and talk about our discussion (in English, after the language pledge was over) of Chinese sexuality (another thing I wonder about), but I'll save that for a later post.

Anyway, we left Earth at about 2 am to head to Buluosi (Blues) Bar, which apparently gives free beer to foreigners in order to entice an exotic clientele. They certainly succeeded - at the bar, there were barely any natives, it seemed. We had a booth on the second floor, and my first real impression of the place was amazement at the intercultural minglings on the dance floor. There were a lot of Russians, some Koreans, some Africans, some Indians, some Spanish-speaking peoples, a few English-speakers (I think I heard an Irish accent from one guy?) and probably more. Watching the different dance styles was fascinating. Indian-guy backing off Spanish-speaking-sexpot trying to grind on him, Russian dudes awkwardly bouncing or throwing themselves around on top of the speakers, Russian girls...well, if regular Russian style weren't flashy enough, this bar did a lot of Russian prostitute business, so most of the Russian girls were in stilettos and super-tight/skimpy outfits. A super-short, flowy dress with only a thong underneath? Yeah, bad idea, especially if you let yourself get thrown around on a pole by some drunk Irish dude. There was a stripper pole right in front of the DJ booth, and this one drunk and rather unattractive Russian chick was hanging on it for most of the night. She also kept trying to get anyone and everyone to put on a show with her. I loved the super-young Chinese barkeep who clearly didn't understand her advances at all - everytime she grabbed him, he sort of tolerated it for a minute then moved off to his own corner of the stripper-pole-platform to just bounce happily by himself. Yay innocence?

I had a great time dancing my heart out despite the fact that the DJ only played about 10 or so American songs - and repeated them several times - in addition to weird Russian techno and some good Korean songs. Discovered a great dancing buddy in my friend 英杰 and I plan on going to visit him in New York and go clubbing. Got to laugh at one of the Fullbright roommates who obliviously kept interrupting 梅择儒 and the Russian girl he was dancing with. We danced until the sun came up, literally, although that's not hard at all to do in Harbin, where the sun rises around 3 am. A little past 5 am we had a problem, though. 梅择儒's Russian chick had a boyfriend, apparently, and he was none too happy with her flirting with 梅择儒 all in his face. He kept grabbing her and trying to make her leave, and she was obviously unhappy about it. 梅择儒 wasn't about to let the boyfriend just drag this girl away, so he, the boyfriend, and the boyfriend's much more aggressive friend left the dance floor to exchange words. Sensing a barfight, we all followed, not wanting to leave our buddy alone with these guys. We'd heard stories about nasty Russian barfights and were not eager to leave him prey to whomever wanted to get upset. The chick's friends got involved, the like 5 other people left in the bar came to watch, and the bartenders were unhappy. After making sure that the girl wasn't going to be taken against her will, we all bounced quick at the bartenders' insistence (Fullbright roommate this whole time was still very oblivious to the situation. It was less funny than before, considering). On our taxi ride home in the bright, bright sunlight we passed morning markets already open - old people and their early rising, you know. I passed out for much of Sunday, but it was such a fun night overall. I love dancing.

And that was weekend #...6? Terrifying that school (like, Yale school, sophomore-year school) is starting tomorrow! But I won't abandon this blog for at least two more entries. I need to finish the story!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Catching Up Part 1: Babies, Old People, KTVs, and That-Low-Point-The-Fellowship-Warned-You-About

Edit 8/12/09: pictures added!

I have been (exceedingly) lax in blogging the past few weeks, and for that I apologize. I've been keeping notes though, so I 'll try to go in order of things that have happened since I last posted. Also, since Picasa (the place I've been uploading photos) has also been censored in China since entering into partnership with Blogger, I'll have to add pictures later. Check back!

First, and most importantly, as of July 22nd, 2009 I am a big sister for the second time! I am, of course, very sad that I couldn't be home for her birth. Buuuut I will be home in less than a week! With gifts! I can't wait to meet you, baby sister!

New baby celebration!
Too cute for words.

Next up, the weekend of the 26th-27th. Our planned activity that weekend was called "Lunch with Old People" and consisted of us interviewing retired Hagongda professors over lunch. It was an alright activity - good food, and the professors were nice and all - but the location was poorly chosen. It was dark in the restaurant even in the middle of the afternoon, and because we were all talking at the same time and many of the professors had quiet voices, it was harder than it should have been to communicate. I assumed it was the combination of dark + no breakfast + lack of sleep that made me very dizzy sitting there in that restaurant, but in retrospect it might have been the cold that manifested itself later that week.

Other events that weekend: Friday night we went out to karaoke (or KTV, as it's called here in China)! I love singing, but the thing language pledges is one can't sing English songs, Japanese songs, or any kind of songs that aren't Chinese. And the thing about Chinese is, if you don't know how to read a character, it's difficult to even guess how it's pronounced. And the thing about KTVs is, 95% of the song lyrics are written using traditional characters, as opposed to the simplified ones I've been studying for 5 years now. Needless to say, I mostly enjoyed listening to our Chinese roommates sing that night. But I did manage a Jay Chou song ( thank you, 7th grade at Harvard-Westlake) and 老鼠爱大米 (thank you, Carter Chang). Saturday night I stayed in with 巴西, 文博, his roommate, 余休's roommate and 娜莎 to watch 《四个婚礼和一个葬礼》, otherwise known as Four Weddings and a Funeral. Yeah, I definitely didn't understand any witty banter that might have gone on, but that movie just made me angry and vaguely disgusted. The impressions I got: Hugh Grant is endearing but confused and rather inconsiderate, the old guy is vaguely amusing but mostly over-the-top, the woman is a maneater but that's ok because she's American and mysterious, and the one chick who seems sensible ends up with nothing in the end. Cool, movie. Excellent message. On Sunday, 文博 and his roommate, 慧英, 白凯丽 and I all went to see Wen Miao Confucian temple, which is apparently the largest wooden temple in the northeast. It was a pretty laid-back sort of day.

Wen Miao
独占鳌头:The saying roughly translates to "stand alone on the Ao's head" (an Ao[鳌] being a mystical tortoise thing), but really means to come out on top. Putting money on the Ao's head ensures good grades, good luck, etc.
孔子 himself
Another large university in the area. Yale may have beautiful gothic architecture, but it certainly doesn't look like this.
Mao and crew chilling in front of the college's supermarket.
Another temple we went to visit on Sunday
Praying and burning incense
Grandma teaching her grandson about religion
Temples were right next to an amusement park
The sky here is almost always gorgeous

I think the following week was probably my low point here in Harbin (for reference: the Light Fellowship required all recipients to attend a pre-departure meeting in which they went over important information about acclimating to life abroad. A key part of the presentation was the W-curve of cultural acclimation - I did a quick search and found a site that sums up the curve pretty well here). It wasn't a spectacular low - I wasn't inconsolably upset or anything - it was more like the creeping apathy one might associate with depression. I was irritated by a few of the people in the dorms but Hagongda's campus held no interest for me; I wasn't really in touch with anyone from home and the internet in the dorms was often frustratingly slow without even taking into account the annoyance of censorship; I got sick in the middle of the week; and struggling through my last class on Friday - which also happens to be my least favorite course here - it occurred to me that I didn't really know why I was studying the language. I looked at some character on the blackboard, and clear as day the thought "I refuse to remember this" popped into my head. It left my head as soon as it entered, really, but it left me wondering all the same.

How did I get out of that groove? To be honest, I ignored it. Classes couldn't be skipped, a plane ticket home couldn't be bought, and even if it could, I wasn't about to give up on this great opportunity. My reason for studying Chinese became "why not?" for a while, which, while a pretty weak reason, is better than no reason. To be even more honest, I can't really write eloquently right now about re-connecting with my love for Chinese culture because having to prepare for finals is obviously a downer and I really just can't wait to be home right now. But I will say that as more time passes I find myself wishing that China and the US were closer. If there were some way for me to attend classes on the weekdays and go home every few weekends, life would be perfect. I really do enjoy studying here and familiarizing myself with the culture, but there are just some times when no place but home will do.

Anyway, I need to study now, but since I don't have class anymore I should have time to update more often! Part 2 will be up very shortly.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Halfway Point: A Photo Essay

The fact that we're halfway done is nuts. But. More importantly, this past weekend we went on a three-day trip to see the border between North Korea and China. This will mostly be a photo-essay since I took so many pictures, so I hope you enjoy!

We started off with an overnight train ride to 丹东, with hard sleeper seats this time instead of soft sleepers - meaning no little cabins of four people, just a big open car divided into sections of 6 beds each. After playing cards for a bit with Jeff, his roommate, and 郭亭廷, we chatted for a long time before heading to bed around midnight. In the morning, we were in 丹东.

Hard sleeper cabin

From there, we headed to the local supermarket to buy lunch before making the two hour ride to a half-bridge to North Korea. We made a pit stop on the way and got our first look at 朝鲜.

At the supermarket...
Pitstop at 河口
A first view of 朝鲜

The half-bridge was also a memorial to Chinese involvement in the Korean War. While we were there, actually, a group of veterans from the Korean War and others came to visit as well. They were surprised by our group of Americans, but not hostile.

There were busts of soldiers lining one walk
Half-bridge to North Korea
Obligatory picture with me in it, and also 刘国勇 and 黄慧英

From there, we headed to our hotel for the night, 满家寨满清园景观区, featuring traditional 满族 decorations and clothes. There, we watched an ethnic performance and then had a bonfire to roast lamb.

Our hotel's interior
The exterior
大鸦, or opium

On this picture...迟小波 asked 巴西's roommate, Tengfei, whether it was a "fun activity". This was out of a lack of a vocabulary - "fun activity" was used to mean drug, because after all, what Chinese textbook would include a chapter on drugs? - but Tengfei was a bit ruffled. "No, no, no," he said emphatically (he uses more English than many of the other roommates, but the rest of this conversation was in Chinese). "Like marijuana," he said, "very bad." "So...a fun activity, right?" 小波 responded. "No no no no no," Tengfei answered. "From England, right?" I asked, and added something about war. Tengfei seemed relieved and 小波 understood why Tengfei had been getting upset. The conversation was neither very tense nor very long, but between a person less relaxed than Tengfei or less genuinely kind than 小波 I can see how this might have been a difficult interaction. My belief in the importance of history/cultural understanding was reaffirmed.

The show we watched that night was interesting enough - not spectacular, but pretty and short.

Traditional 满族 dress
Lion dance!
Was beautiful
I liked the flags

After the show, we had our bonfire under some trees in the courtyard to avoid the rain. We taught our Chinese friends how to make s'mores! They were amazed by the concept of roasting marshmallows.

Lamb + marshmallows
There was karaoke
Also spontaneous fireworks

And an impromptu dance party in the rain! But I was too busy dancing to take pictures. The next morning we got to boat, see a thousand-year-old pine tree, and look at a waterfall, all before lunch!

Our boat
On a boat
Me on a boat
Thousand-year-old pine tree
Making wishes
Excellent Engrish
Jeff and I, courtesy of his roommate Weiqiang
Chinese roommates having fun
These guys...

Afterwards, we returned to 满家寨 for lunch before heading to (a potentially fake) segment of the Great Wall/more looking at North Korea

North Korea across the 鸭绿江
Ali and I at the highest outpost
The very, very steep way down
North Korea as seen from under an overhang in the mountain
At the bottom, you could dress up in hanbok and take a picture in front of North Korea
It was only that far away...

That night, we stayed at a hotel in 丹东 proper, right near the banks of the 鸭绿江. We had an amazing experience with dinner. We went to a Korean restaurant right around the corner from our hotel, and got a private room because our group was 17 or 18 people strong. The room was beautiful. You had to take your shoes off in the entryway before stepping onto the raised platform that was the rest of the floor. The table was a round slab of wood over a sunken round cutout, and we sat on the floor with our legs dangling down into that hole. The windows of the room faced the river, and for some reason there was a great fireworks show on the banks of the river that night, as big as the ones on the 4th of July. We watched it for a while before indulging in delicious Korean food on CET's dime.

Afterwards, I ended up with a group of 8 male students intent on hunting down cold beer. There was none to be found, so they settled on warm ones from the supermarket before we all headed back to the banks of the river and met up with some other students. We hung out and chatted for a few hours, those who wanted drinking beer, all just enjoying ourselves. We Americans forgot that in the US one can't just drink in public until one of the Chinese roommates asked about it... I like the relaxed drinking laws in China. It makes for a much more laid-back dining.

The next morning, we took a boat ride on the river to look at North Korea again.

We're all 99% sure that ferris wheel is just for show
Note the North Korean flag being flown on these masts

Later, we headed to the city of 沈阳 in order to catch our train. With our 4 hours of free time before the ride back to 哈尔滨, we went to a big shopping street to look around. We ate at a famous dumpling restaurant and looked at the (already closed for the evening) 沈阳故宫.

So many peopleeee
老边饺子 were delicious, even if the service was terrible...

We found an arcade in a shopping mall to while away the rest of our time. Too much fun.

亭廷 plays "Tread Beetle"
慧英 plays air hockey
Tianbo races an armadillo?
And the most fun game of all, throw balls at things like cats on bicycles

The ride home was fine, although we arrived at 6 am. I feel very, very bad for the people who had 8 am class on Monday. I didn't and I was still exhausted enough to be needing naps Tuesday afternoon.

And that ends this monster of a post! Sorry for multimedia-overload. One month left. Hoo boy.