27 February 2007

The Dining room Proudly Presents... Your Dinner

And now, finally, in the post you’ve all been waiting for, I present to you my first big(ish) foodie post. Yvonne, this one’s for you.

Last night I went back to the jiaozi fanguanr. It’s good. I’m glad it’s so close to school. But anyway, I went with seven other people, one of whom is a Chinese roommate. Since none of us know what to order, she did all the ordering, and my mouth and stomach are grateful. I forget the names of pretty much everything I eat, so I will instead describe the pictures and then let you lick the computer screen and get a taste for yourself.

With Chinese meals, first you have the liangcai, the cold dishes that are like appetizers. First we had this slimy noodle-y thing. I’m not sure if they’re actually noodles, but they’re clear and slimy and very hard to pick up with chopsticks. There brown stuff is a sauce that’s a bit salty with a hit of peanut. Quite good.

Next liangcai was this tofu, served cold with what I believe to be garlic and gelatinized soy sauce. Also quite good, also quite hard to pick up with chopsticks. I’m sensing a trend.

We also ordered this egg soup, but since I don’t do eggs, I didn’t eat it. It looks pretty though (doesn’t it Yvonne?). It's probably also rather hard to pick up with chopsticks:

Look, I found a fellow food voyeur! (His name is Jason. Later that night we had a conversation about film and cameras and computers—in Chinese, by the way—and I found out that in Chinese, when you develop a picture, you ‘xi zhao pian,’ which means ‘wash a picture.’ Makes sense in a strange way.)

Then came the jiaozi. Here’s our fuwuyuan (waiter) bringing them to us.

We had four kinds: jirou (chicken), qiezi (eggplant), one with eggs and spices, and another with eggs and carrots.

We also had these. I’m not sure what they’re called, as they are also dumplings however they have a more bread-y skin and have some oil in them. Also very good.

Tonight Tianqi is taking me and a few friends to her favorite Sichuan fanguanr, and she says that the food is especially hot, meaning, made for ellis.

The other night, Tianqi and I played cards. She taught me how to play some games, and then I taught her how to play Spit. It was so difficult to show her how to play, since I don’t know how to stay “stack in ascending or descending order then slap the pile with the fewest cards.” However, since I’m good at making charade motions and she is very smart, she picked it up quick and loves it now.

I’ve also figured out how to send text messages in Chinese. It’s fun.

Yesterday I went with a friend and her roommate to Xidan and into this big building.

Inside there are infinite floors of infinite cheap tchatckas and low-quality clothes. There were tons of people there (of course).

I saw this sweater with a picture of the Olsen twins on it. I tried to take a picture but was thwarted by the woman who owned the stall. It was really quite amusing.

During a class yesterday we had a debate about marriage and having kids and whether it’s an individual problem or a societal problem (think over-population, single-parent homes, government regulation of children etc.). The teacher seemed rather taken aback by the fact that we all thought that these were individual issues rather than societal ones. All of us agreed that the government shouldn’t say who can marry and how many kids one can have or who can have kids. I guess when you live in China where there’s a single child policy and a horrible overpopulation problem, you’d be used to that kind of control. It’s interesting how the students and teachers can relate so well, and then you talk about policy and societal issues and suddenly our differences become very apparent. We as students and Americans think that our teachers seem rather westernized, and I think they think they are too, but really their values are quite Chinese, and it’s a little surprising for the people on both sides when that’s realized.

That's China for you-- full of surprises.

26 February 2007

Your Mom

CET Chinese roommate (to me): ni jidlfkjw;oiaehrouhg?
Me: Shenme? (What?)
Tianqi: She’s in the 300 level class.
Aforementioned Chinese roommate: How can she be in 300? She didn’t even understand my question.

And so goes my life. Thanks a lot, by the way, Mr. Chinese-roommate-with-a-heavy-Beijing-accent-who-likes-to-mumble-and-slur-his-words-and-whose-mouth-I-can’t-see-because-it’s-dark-outside. You do wonders for my confidence.

I know that my listening skills are sub-par to my reading and writing skills. I can actually speak fairly well when I am either talking to people who know less Chinese than I do or when I have time to prepare what I’m going to say. I can also usually carry on a conversation with a professor, because professor-Chinese is much easier to understand than real-people Chinese.

I think that listening and carrying on a real-life conversation is the hardest thing about Chinese. Most people think reading and writing is the hardest, but I guess I’m different. This happened to me when I was in Shanghai—it just takes forever for me to adjust my brain to listening to Chinese. I’m sure it doesn’t help that I write a blog in English.

Speaking of speaking English, the reason I chose this program is because of the “strict language pledge.” Well guess what—they say it’s a strict language pledge, but really, people don’t stick to it. The past two nights when I’ve gone out to dinner, people have been speaking English (or really bad Chinese) or some Chinglish. I don’t get it—you sign up for a program knowing full well there’s a language pledge, so why the hell don’t you adhere to it? When I was walking out of the restaurant today at dinner, one of my classmates spoke to me in English, and I answered in Chinese. It was a rather short conversation, but I refuse to speak English. Sure, I’ve slipped up with a word or two, but that’s pretty much unavoidable. You’re here to learn Chinese—USE IT.

I’ve also noticed that here, I try to be around guys more than girls. I think it’s because when I’m at Wellesley, I don’t have the option to even see a guy, let alone eat dinner with six of them. In my opinion, guys are better at having fun because it’s less structured. We all know I’m a big planner, but it seems to me that if you had a room of guys and a separate room of girls and gave each one a balloon and a rubber band, I guarantee you that the room of guys would be laughing in no time. This is not to say that I don’t have fun with girls, because I do. Quite often, actually; it’s just that it’s a different fun, and since I don’t get that fun at school, I have to get it here. But since I’m socially awkward, it’s hard work for me to have fun either way.

I have finally learned how to swear in Chinese. I wanted to learn when I was in Shanghai last June, but when I asked one of the students to teach me he just blushed and shook his head. Luckily, Tianqi is awesome (in many ways) and taught me how to say, “What the fuck are you doing?” That would be:

Ni ta ma de zai gan ma!

“Ta ma” means his/her mom. Isn’t it interesting that on both sides of the Pacific, referring to one’s mother is considered an insult? There are a lot of differences between cultures for sure, but the similarities are always rather unexpected. On the differences side, I think it’s notable that the Chinese don’t consider it taboo to comment on one’s appearance. Tianqi and other Chinese people frequently celebrate the virtues of my height, figure, and ‘beauty.’ Tianqi calls me ‘meinu,’ which means ‘beautiful girl.’ She also doesn’t hesitate to tell me how thin I am, or to pinch my sides and tell me that that’s where I have comparatively more fat.

Speaking of fat, I think I’ve ingested more grease this past week than I have in the past seven months. Chinese food is oily already, and I though Shangai food was oily, but here our dishes arrive literally drenched—swimming—drowning!—in oil. By the time I finish eating it seems like spoonfuls of oil are left on my plate. But last night I had probably the best meal I’ve had so far in Beijing. I went with Tianqi, two guys and their roommates to the famous (in the CET circle) jiaozi fanguanr ( dumpling restaurant). I’m not a huge dumpling person, but these were good. Plus, Tianqi ordered this spectacular dish called basi digua. Essentially, it was sweet potato deep fried and then coated with a sweet glaze and then served hot. Kind of like yam donuts. Oh, they were SO good I almost died. Of course, I ate too much and proceeded to eat ice cream afterward. The flavor was sunnai binggunr, a sort of yogurt-y milk flavor that kind of reminded me of yogurt gelato. CET also gave us a famous roast duck lunch yesterday, so it was a good food day.

Anyway, long update. Hope you read it all, because I think it’s interesting, and you should too. Happy 21st birthday shout out to my hao pengyou (good friend) Rachel. Wo ai ni!

24 February 2007


I don’t know how I could have so much to say after only four days here. Every day is such a challenge, and the language pledge hasn’t started yet. I haven’t really encountered anything ultra-new or different yet, but just the process of trying to remember English and Chinese names, make friends and get my bearings around a city that feels like it’s the size of Connecticut is such an involved process. Add to that the fact that I can’t understand a lot of the Chinese people here because of their heavy accents, and we’ve got ourselves a good time.

I met my roommate on Friday. Her name is Bai (her surname) Tianqi. She is so nice. She is a biology major at a nearby university. She speaks some English, likes to eat spicy food, play sports, and go for walks. She also lives in Beijing, so Friday night after we ate some tasty Xinjiang food with everyone, she took me to her home. Here we are by Tiananmen:

This thing counts down the time until the olympics:

Her home is a small but nice apartment where she lives with her mom and dad. It definitely feels like a home. I only met her dad, and he is so nice! Once I came in the door they offered me juice, tea, candy, apples, some huge large grapefruit-y thing, and apples. Tianqi’s little cousin was there practicing her instrument for a competition the next day, and I got to hear her play. Tianqi’s father even made her call me Jiejie, which means big sister.

One thing I found really interesting about the apartment was that the bathroom was the shower. It was just a small bathroom, and then on the wall there was the shower spout. In Beijing every little square foot counts. There are so many people that eventually just in the building, all the space that could be showers adds up to so much that it’s better used as apartment space.

Then we all watched a TV show in which waiguo ren perform Chinese songs or martial arts or just perform in Chinese. It was so strange—it even had American hosts speaking really good Chinese. Chinese television is so much campier. The people in the audience were waving around those glowing light sticks that look like toy light sabers!

Yesterday CET held a scavenger hunt sort of thing so we could better get to know our roommates and the city. Tianqi and I were in a group with three guys, Ian, Ian’s roommate Liu Qi, and Peter. Liuqi kind of took over, as he should since he knows the city, but his accent is so heavy that when he spoke, I felt like it was almost a totally different language. That’s another thing about trying to speak with Chinese people; I feel totally stupid on a regular basis, which isn’t really a feeling that I’m used to.

Anyway, our group totally lost the competition. We came in sixth out of six, but we didn’t really care because we had fun. I even learned a Chinese tongue twister:

Chi putao butu putao pianr, bu chi putao daotu putao pianr.

It means, if you eat grapes, don’t spit out the skin, if you don’t eat grapes, spit out the skin. We taught Tianqi and Liu Qi to say a few English tongue twisters as well. Great fun.

This is a lake at a place called Houhai. Very pretty:

The other day I also bought a cell phone, which was a rather humbling and arduous experience. in total it cost around 60 USD, for the phone, SIM card, and minutes. But talking to the salespeople was nearly impossible. Not only were their accents thick, but the music in the store was so loud that I just couldn’t hear them. That happens a lot actually. If I’m in a place where there’s a lot of extraneous noise and I’m trying to understand Chinese, my comprehension level goes way way down. I’m constantly shaking my head and asking what everything means.

However, on the happier side, last night Tianqi and I went for a walk around the neighborhood and had a good, long, interesting conversation in Chinese. I understood almost everything she said despite the traffic noises in the background. She also speaks very nice, clear, lightly accented Chinese, so that helps.

Today we have class orientation. I got placed in (what I believe is) the second highest level, which is good, but I feel like I’ve forgotten so much that I’ll be really behind. Then, come noon, the language pledge begins. Oh, boy. And so begins my slow and painful mental breakdown.

22 February 2007

Let's Get This Party Started

This post is now confirmation that I am alive and in Beijing. Yesterday (which was really yesterdays) was long, though the traveling part of it went rather smoothly. I arrived on time to LA, hauled my baggage to a different terminal, met some people from CET, and flew with them to Tokyo. That’s where we encountered the only travel wrinkle, as when we got to the gate for our flight to Beijing, Japan Airlines politely informed everyone that due to “bad weather” we “may” be diverted to Kansai. That’s right—“may.” In fact, even after they delayed us for 40 minutes, boarded us on the plane, and got us in the air, they still insisted on alerting us to the possibility that we may or may not be diverted to Kansai, which is in Osaka, and clearly, not actually in China.

But they finally made a decision, as we arrived in Beijing to find that the bad weather that had the potential to divert us was actually rather dangerous. I don’t know how (or why) the landed the plane, because the whole city was enveloped in a fog roughly the density of yogurt.

So, after a little drive and a lot of luggage hauling (now I know why it’s called luggage), I arrived to my humble dorm room. I was and am happy to be here, though last night I admit that I went through a small crisis in faith. Having been awake for close to 40 hours in a strange place with bags to unpack at midnight, I questioned just what the hell I thought I was doing, moving to a strange country with no friends. I couldn’t even take a shower, because, oops, I don’t have a towel. (I didn’t forget it, because they told us to buy them here. I just didn’t account for the fact that maybe I would want to take a shower.)

This morning was much brighter. I took a placement test, which I feel just serves to remind me of just how much Chinese I have forgotten. In my oral exam, my teachers/testers complimented me on my speaking. That’s a nice feeling, but I can’t be sure that it’s true, because Chinese people say that to any foreigner who attempts to say nihao.

After the test, I returned to my room to decompress before lunch. I put my key in the door, gave it a turn, and whoops! it broke off in the lock. This really underscores my assertion that nothing in China, no matter what it is, is actually made to be used more than a few times.

So then I had to walk down to the shifu (literally “master,” but really just like an RD) and tell him that my key had broken off in the door, which proved interesting as I know the words for neither “key,” “lock,” nor “broke.” So I walked into his office, held up my key, and told him my room number.

After he couldn’t fix it, he called another shifu, who was supposed to come then but didn’t show for awhile. So my shifu and I had a nice long chat. He is the nicest guy. He also complemented me on my speaking skills, and I am so proud that I actually carried on a conversations. I didn’t even have to say “I don’t understand” or shake my head in confusion. And I actually said things and asked him questions and had a genuine conversation. And then, he gave me candy! He gave my two pieces of White Rabbit candy, which I love. And now I have a new key, so I can actually access my room.

Now I’m working on the whole socializing aspect. Lots of people here were here last semester, so they all know each other and know the way things work and such. But I’ve only been here a day and it’s so interesting, the way the dynamic here works. My neighbors are males, clearly notable due to my usual single-sex living conditions. I’m branching out and leaving my door open when I’m in my room so that people will talk to me, but it’s something I never did at Wellesley that maybe I should have done. Two people have already stopped by. It's quite an effective strategy.

Since people are still celebrating the New Year, the city is practiacally deserted, and there are nonstop firecrackers going off. It sounds like gunfire and it is so loud and annoying. I feel like I’m living in a ghetto or some war-torn country, but then I remember that people are celebrating, not warring. Happy year of the Pig, everyone!

19 February 2007

God I hope I don't lost my passport.

In just about four hours, at 4 AM, I will wake up and be on my way to China. I have spent the past three days doing what I like to call "strategic packing." I don't want to bring too much, but I don't want to find out I don't have enough. I have a limit of two suitcases at 70 pounds each, which is quite a load, but I don't really know if I'll have space for that amount of stuff, as I anticipate living in a sardine tin. So after three arduous days of analyzing whether this sweater will be better than that one, I am proud to say that my suitcases weigh 37 pounds and 43 pounds. Both of them still have ample room left.

For me, the hardest thing about travel, especially international travel, is that there's just so much to keep track of. Money, passport, traveler's checks, plane tickets. It's an anxious nightmare in my head. Not to mention when the plane makes a funny sound and I think we're going to crash. (Incidentally, if my plane should crash into the Pacific, please eat Ethiopian food at my wake.) --I'm sorry, was that morbid? Just pretend I'm on "Lost." Or, even better, finally achieving my life-long dream of being on "Survivor."

I know this sounds cliche, but I really can't believe that I'm leaving tomorrow. This whole 'semester abroad' thing has seemed so abstract and theoretical that it kind of seemed like it would all just happen in my head. Everyone keeps telling me to have a good time, and I know I will, but it's likely that I won't even know I'm having a great time until the end (because that's how it always goes).

Along the way, I anticipate rather extreme highs and lows. I may post one day on my blog about how I just want to go home. And I'll mean it. But I also know that that feeling will go away in a few hours or days. I have a feeling that overall, this will be one of the best decisions and experiences of my life. I hope I'm right.

Enough of that boring stuff. I can't wait to start updating with the exciting stuff. I just gotta get through about 30 hours of flying first.

17 February 2007

The Hopeless Dream of Being

傅 德 曼
fù dé màn

This is my Chinese name. In China, you say family name followed by the given name. Therefore, my surname is Fu, and my first name would be Deman. This "de" means virtue, and this "man" means graceful, though my dad thinks it looks like a director's chair. The marks on the top of the words are tone markings, indicating how the voice should rise or fall with each word. There are five tones in Mandarin, and they are VERY important. Having bad intonation is like... well, there's really no English equivalent. I don't really want to give a long Chinese lesson, since that would bore most of you.

I had another Chinese name before this. It was given to me by my totally awesome professor in the first week I started Chinese. I decided to change it before I go abroad, because I wanted something more personal. I love my professor, and it's not like I didn't like my name, but I just didn't feel that it fit me.

So I contacted my (Chinese) friend's parents, Mr. Zhang and Mrs. Shuai. These are two of the most wonderful people ever. I love them so. Mrs. Shuai cooks the best tofu I have ever eaten, and both have them have always been so wonderful to me. So, though I think they were surprised and slightly confused to hear from me, they created a Chinese name for me.

Giving children names in China is a very long, complicated process. Most parents don't give their children names until a few weeks after their birth, and first names in China are much more personalized and numerous than in the US. So it was no small task for Mrs. Shuai to come up with a name. In the end, she chose names that sounded like my American one. The above name sounds like my complete American last name. It's a good name. I like it.

I think it's interesting that in China, people will know me by a totally different name. It's like I'll be another person, like I get a fresh start. At the risk of sounding flowery and overly prosaic, it will be like a second birth. I intend to experience this semester totally open to change and to changing. I think it will be hard to leave my American self behind. When I was in Shanghai last June, I was with some of my college friends, so resisting change was much easier than yielding to it. This time, I don't know anyone. At my core, I will still be the same person, I think. But isn't it exciting to split in half? It's rather like Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," a quotation from which is the title of this entry.

There will always be a part of me that exists only in China. Likewise, there's a part of me that exists only in the US. But I've lived my entire life with my US-self, and it's exciting and terrifying to think that as I go to China, I'm leaving part of myself behind, and I don't know if she will be here when I get back.

14 February 2007

Reduce Yourself to 500 words...

This is the application essay I wrote for the program I'm attending. It was basically an 'explain yourself in 500 words' type of essay, and what I've written was just straightforward and truthful. There's no BS, no clever comparisons or flowery language, just what I actually mean.


I am a cinema and media studies major. I want to write and direct my own films in Hollywood. Taking a semester to study Chinese in Beijing is not the standard path of study for a film major, nor is studying film usually accompanied with an interest in Chinese. But the opportunities that knowing Chinese provides are secondary to the desire of knowing the language for the sake of knowing it. My primary reason for studying Chinese is motivated by the language itself. In learning Chinese, I feel like I am becoming privy to a secret code. Inside the strokes of the characters are stories, meaning and pictures that are lacking in any of the Latin-based languages I have studied. For some reason, Chinese makes sense to me, a Caucasian girl from Arizona who grew up speaking only English.

I recently spent a month studying Chinese in Shanghai, and during my first week there, I was so confused that I felt as though the four semesters I had previously studied Chinese were useless. I soon realized that this was incorrect, but it took all four weeks that I was there to tune my brain to China, a frequency that now, upon my return to America, has been significantly muted. However, had I not gone to China, I would not even have such a frequency. I desire to return to China, regain that frequency, and keep it playing in my head.

In terms of creating a sense of belonging, China is not foreigner-friendly, a feeling I have experienced first-hand. Everything is different, and the physical similarities among Chinese people only exaggerate how different an American like me is. Everywhere I went in China, people stared. However, everyone I met was incredibly friendly, and especially impressed when they learned I could (more or less) speak their language. Internalizing the Chinese language and culture is difficult and terrifying, but it is also fascinating and incredibly gratifying. I feel that by studying in China for an extended period of time, something inside me will change. Learning about foreign cultures has always been an interest of mine, and I hope to emerge from this program with not only a working knowledge of the Chinese language, but also with a sense of identification with the culture and a change in world perspective. I could continue my study of Chinese in America, but it would be knowledge without context. Not only would my skill with the language be of a lower level, it would also lack a certain quality that can only be cultivated in China.

This program offers a special chance for me to do this. There are so many study abroad programs, but this one promises intense language immersion. The language pledge, though daunting, is the most appealing aspect of the program. I am not looking for the easy way to learn Chinese, because I know that there isn’t one. I am looking for an experience that will challenge my brain, my tongue, and my sense of the world. The Beijing program will provide me with so many tools that I will not help but evolve, and I am ready to change the way I think and the language in which I do so.

11 February 2007

Wat's up?

From now until I leave on the 20th, I will be (over)indulging on all the foods that I love and likely will not get to eat for the next four or so months. This morning, that meant cinnamon rolls, of which I had six. Yes, that is a lot, but you must understand that I have no self-control. I also plan to not eat lunch. I would hope to have a small dinner, but in the fridge are a plethora of leftovers from last night's fabulous feast.

That would be a feast of Ethiopian food. If you know me, you know that my only true addiction is to Ethiopian food. Since none of my friends are here and my family is not as fanatical as I, I can't find anyone to go to Cafe Lalibela on a weekly basis to experience the gastronomical wonders of wats, injeeras, and heavy spices. So, I decided to make some at home. I made three dishes plus injeera bread. It took me five hours, five onions, and a head and half of garlic. Yum.

The first dish I made was the spicy lentils.

Then I made Doro Wat, a spicy chicken in a stew-like sauce.

I also made Vegetable Alecha, a mild vegetable stew with peppers, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and cabbage.
And here they all are! There's plenty more where that came from. Lots of leftovers. Mmmmm....

Next weekend I'm going to Lalibela, and I think I'll go to Soma before I leave, and fill up on some hummus. Had my last lasagna on Thursday, and I think I'll have to go out for one last Indian hurrah, but the Indian places here are no match for Tanjore in Boston or my beloved Ashoka in Firenze, Italia.

I've spent most of my day marking places I want to go in Beijing, paying special attention, of course, to the restaurants. I'll save that for a later post, but let's just say my mouth is already watering.

10 February 2007

Expect More

Today I went to Target to buy all the stuff I’ll need (or think I’ll need) for my 4-month stay in China. I’ve read in numerous places that in China, finding things like dental floss, tampons, and deodorant can be nearly impossible. Plus, since the Chinese gene pool yields very few curly-haired people such as myself, I doubt they’ll have my hair gel. I knew I would spend a lot of money. Since I’ve been to China twice before, I have some idea of what to expect, but now I’ll be spending a third of a year there. I never realized just how long 4 months is until I quantified it in hair products, hand sanitizers, and various implements for potential ailments.

Quite frankly I’m shocked at the amount of crap that I bought. It didn’t seem like much individually, but it added up really fast. Walking around the store, I was ashamed at how much stuff I had in my cart. I must have looked like someone stocking up for Y2K. I didn’t buy anything that I won’t use, but that doesn’t make me feel that much better.

So many people do not and never will have the means to just go into Target and spend $350. Yes, I spent that much. Disgusting, isn’t it? I worked about 45 hours for that money. If I actually had expenses, I could never, ever do that. I am too lucky.

Who am I to use all this crap? I always considered myself fairly non-materialistic and fairly non-consumer (if that’s a word). I don’t care about labels that I wear or owning the latest gadget or It bag or BS like that. But all this stuff, all that money, and especially those hair products really knot my stomach.

I shouldn’t care about my frizzy hair; I guess it’s my vanity. I hate that, as evidenced by the two shampoos, two conditioners, one deep conditioner, two gels and two hairsprays (4 months, people!), I care so much about how I look. As if it really matters.

I don’t like the idea of putting a ton of work into my appearance. Compared to a lot of people I don’t. But this hair product thing is making me look at myself a little harder. I don’t use that much gel on a daily basis, but looking at what is supposed to be a 4-month supply is rather humbling. I find myself trying to justify buying that much.

I am lucky that I can care what my hair looks like.

That’s the first thing I’ve learned from my semester in China, and I’m not even there yet.

And don’t even ask me how I’m actually going to get all that stuff to China.