Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I hate to admit it, but my blogging ambitions have been falling short of their goals recently. The longer I’ve been on this trip, the harder it seems to keep an up-to date journal. I’d like to think that this is a reflection of my adaptation process – the more I get used to life in China, the less interesting my writing material seems to become…to me, at least. Regardless, looking back on the last five weeks, since the Carleton seminar began, there have been quite a few noteworthy experiences. I’ll do my best to recount the highlights and get us up to date here.

After meeting up with the Carleton group at the Beijing airport, we moved into what amounted to a hotel at Tsinghua University, the number two university in China. The four days we spent in Beijing were meant as an acclimatization period for the group, to get everyone’s feet wet in a somewhat stable environment. For me, however, it was a chance to meet up with every one I had met who was still studying in the Capitol. This didn’t afford me much rest, but it did mean getting to see Claire and her mother at a Hunan restaurant, my old roommate, who is now Ashton’s, and all the old CET people still studying, as well as some random people from high school whom I haven’t seen in a few years.

We then set off northbound on a huge double-decker bus for a tour of Chengde and Inner Mongolia. This was the “greeting the dragon” portion of our program, as termed by our ever-poetic program director (and my academic advisor), Zhao, in honor of whom this blog was titled. We stopped halfway on the ride to Chengde to see a portion of the Great Wall. After seeing one of the more touristy restored sections at Mutianyu, I was a bit wary of just how much else this section at Jinshanling had to offer. As soon as we were given the option to explore the restored sections or venture into the crumbling remains of the old wall, I was proven wrong. Luckily, only three of us decided to take the wall-less traveled, and it was definitely a highlight of my trip so far. We walked for about 1.5 hours out, and then back, negotiating steep, overgrown sections and stair-less entrances to guard towers. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by a sign notifying us that we were entering a “military restricted zone,” but we pretended not to notice and pushed onward The scenery was absolutely beautiful, and having the wall all to ourselves for a few hours was quite an amazing experience.

We continued on to Chengde, home of the Imperial Summer Lodge (a misnomer – it is several times larger than the main palace in Beijing, the Forbidden City). The night we arrived, we were treated to our first formal banquet of the program. I had heard from many past Tianjin Seminar participants that this program was notable mainly for the seemingly endless guanxi network of our leader, Zhao, and for the baijiu-saturated banquets that came along with it. Guanxi refers to one’s connections between other people. If someone has guanxi with another, it means there is a strong, favor-based bond between the two. More specifically, apparently, it dmeans that 26 foreign students will be greeted by a room full of local Party officials and a crew of media correspondents for dinner at the Summer Lodge. The mayor of Chengde, among others, were in attendance, which made for an interesting speech (in Chinese, of course) on my part in front of flashing cameras and videocameras. I didn’t have much prepared for the event, but I somehow pulled it off, and I’ve now developed a sort of routine for this sort of occasion.

We spent three days in Chengde before moving on to the remote province of Inner Mongolia. The excitement was palpable on the bus during the 6-hour trip north to the grasslands, and the two days we spent in the area were, although brief, as fun and bizarre as expected. The first night, we stayed in a hotel that transformed quite nicely into a bonfire-lit karaoke party. We knew they were preparing roast lamb for us, so no one was too surprised upon seeing a whole, skinned animal sizzling on a massive spit. We did not, however, expect the hotel staff to set up a massive speaker system, blaring Chinese/English line-dancing songs, and a full karaoke catalog (with a TV for the words, of course). That night, 26 foreign students danced, sang, ate and drank late into the cold, steppe night by the glow of a massive bonfire.

The next day, driving further into the grasslands, we made a stop to have the requisite Mongolian horse riding experience. Ours was brief and fairly contrived, but fun nonetheless. We ploughed further yet, eventually arriving at our home for the night: a small village of yurts. These were tourist yurts, and were thus equipped with a limited supply of electricity and running water, but real, felt, Mongolian yurts nonetheless. We spent the afternoon walking around the grasslands, meandering from one hilltop to another. This was definitely the Inner Mongolia I had in mind, and it was very refreshing to breathe unspoiled air after a summer of city-hopping.

Thanks for reading, I'm gonna get this thing up to date real soon, so check back!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

After an all too brief 3-day stay in Hong Kong I was off to Singapore to see my roommate of two years, Reshad. I never know what to expect from this kid, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after greeting me at baggage claim, his next words were, “Dave, my football team is short a goalkeeper Today, do you think you can fill in? I brought you shorts, we’re going straight to the pitch.” Despite the unexpected jumpstart to my Singapore experience, I had a great time in the city and had some much needed time to relax a bit.

During my first few days in the city-state, I found myself drawing comparisons between Singapore and South Florida. Between the tropical climate, wide, palm tree lined streets and general sense of newness pervading the city, I half expected to see lines spilling onto the streets outside of early-bird special diners and discount movie houses. In reality, this comparison was ill fated, as the city is, not surprisingly, far more dynamic than Ft. Lauderdale. Orchard Road, the main shopping area in the City’s heart, which teemed with multi-racial hordes of well dressed teens and twenty-somethings, and the city’s downtown skyline confirmed my stateside Singaporean friends’ claims of living in a legitimate International city. The city’s clean, orderly reputation certainly proved true as well. Street cleaning crews abounded and a complex network of speed-regulating cameras and tolls on downtown streets were surprisingly effective at preventing congestion.

Just as I was getting used to the smooth efficiency of Singapore, I left with Reshad and his family for a three-day trip to Bangkok. After adapting to life in notoriously chaotic Beijing, I didn’t expect to blink an eye at Thailand’s population size, cleanliness or traffic problems. But I did. Bangkok honestly makes Beijing look like Singapore. The amount of effort required to move from one point to another was unlike anything I’ve seen before. One’s options are to A) take a cab and be taken advantage of, B) take a “tuk-tuk” or motor tricycle and be taken advantage of, or C) walk and be subject to the less than ideal street conditions and “lady bar” hawkers on every corner. We eventually settled on the Skytrain as our preferred method of transportation, and set out to see the city’s notable sites. The food was great, especially the seafood and pad thai (the latter of which became a part of every meal) and there were great deals on clothes everywhere. By the time we left for Singapore, I had started to see a bit of order amidst the city’s craziness, but it still appeared to be a far cry from any Asian city I had previously visited.

Back in Singapore, I was lucky enough to spend a good amount of time hanging out with Reshad’s family and friends. As I’ve written before, visiting tourist sites and the like can be very interesting, but I’d much rather get a local perspective on an area from those who know it best. Whatever I missed by not visiting the Merlion statue-fountain and the Night Safari was more than made up for by the hours I spent trying to pick up some Singlish from Reshad’s hilarious friends during late-night food runs (as it turns out, oyster-omelet is particularly amazing after a night of clubbing).

So that about wraps my end-of-summer trip south. I’m back in China at Nankai University in Tianjin with the Carleton in Tianjin Seminar, and I’ll get the blog (and my photos) caught up once I get my internet connection established here. I have some interesting stories to tell from the steppe in Inner Mongolia, hopefully they'll be up in a few days. I want to sincerely thank everyone I stayed with during my trip, Claire, Lena and Reshad, and their families for so kindly putting me up and showing me around their cities. I certainly couldn’t have gotten to know each place’s authentic character in three weeks without the aid of their endless energy and generosity.

More to come on Inner Mongolia soon!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Claire's mother in Wuhan assured me that I wouldn't soon forget the city, and she was right. Between my arrival in a state of feverish delirium and culinary delights of south-central China, my stay in Hubei was definitely a memorable one. Aside from the food and sightseeing, a highlight was the long overdue chance to play some real, organic music with living, breathing people...that is to say, not Karaoke. After a few days in Wuhan, another Carleton classmate (and the bassist in my band back at school), Ashton, arrived with his father. There had been some mention of playing a few sets in Claire's restaurant, but I didn't really know whether it would happen, or what to expect. As it turned out, the three of us (Ashton on electric bass, his Dad on Keys and myself singing)ended up playing for three consecutive nights in the restaurant. Claire's well-connected mother found us some rehearsal space in a friend's bar, God's Music Bar, housed in a converted church, complete with vaulted ceilings and cross-shaped drink menus. This place was a trip, and it definitely wouldn't make it in the States. I guess Wuhan's Christian population is either non-existent or apathetic, because this might have been one of the most blasphemous sights I've seen. In any case, we ended up putting together a repetoire of about a dozen jazz standards, a few of which I had a chance to sing on (think "you are so beautiful," "on a clear day," "route 66," etc). Performing in the restaurant was great fun, and it was great to have a chance to play some music again. The crowd wasn't particularly responsive, but we didn't hold it against them - jazz isn't exactly popular in most of China.

After one final meal at Claire's restaurant, I boarded a train to Shenzhen on my way to Hong Kong. At over 13 hours, this was the longest train I've taken so far, but it was quite comfortable. Shenzhen is an important city in its own right, and a financial center of Southern China, but it also operates as the gateway to Hong Kong. Customs and immigration are housed at the train station, as is the light rail train to Hong Kong.

When I arrived in Beijing in early June, I was prepared for the worst after hearing many tales of the city's chaotic character. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, I was surprised to find myself experiencing a bit of culture shock. The public transportation was clean and uncrowded, streets were clean, I wasn't assaulted by mysterious, unpleasant odors or enterprising, small pickpocketing children, and western style (non-squat) toilets abounded. The English on signs was still quite humorous, although for a different reason. I don't think I'll ever get over British English. I mean, "alight on the right"? Come on, that sounds ridiculous.

In all seriousness, Hong Kong really reminded me of New York. For one, the city has a comprehensive and well designed public transportation system. It's not easy to admit, but Hong Kong's subway system is in many ways more efficient than NY's. During my three days in HK, I don' think I ever waited more than 30 seconds for a train to arrive. This convenience is, of course, largely due to the relatively small size of the system. Hong Kong Island itself is very small, but the city manages to avoid the overcrowded, hectic feel of Beijing, instead eminating what I would describe as urban bustle. For such a small island, Hong Kong also manages to play host to some very diverse landscapes. My lovely host, Lena, and her family kindly showed me a bit of Hong Kong's wilder side on my last day when we went for a hike in the "country park" behind their apartment. They live in a fairly busy residential location, so I was pretty amazed that only five minutes into the hike, there were nearly no remnants of the metropolis below. Once we gained a bit of altitude and had some views, we could see the whole of Hong Kong's skyline in front, and only tree-covered hills behind us. I was definitely grateful to see some greenery and dirt paths...somehow, climbing the steps (4-hours worth) up Mt. Taishan with a few thousand tourists fell short of the natural experience I was craving.

So I now find myself in Singapore, visiting my Carleton roommate of two years, Reshad, and soaking up the last few days of this vacation. I'll be heading back to Beijing on Thursday Sept. 7 for the start of Carleton's Tianjin Seminar. I'll be sure to post on Singapore and Bangkok once I arrive back in China. Thanks for reading, guys, good luck to everyone who's starting school!

Friday, August 18, 2006

After just over 2 months abroad, I've finally made it to my first Internet Cafe, the place of study-abroad legend. I'm in Wuhan now, staying with my friend Claire and her amazing mother, to whom I literally owe my life. I got off the train running a pretty high fever and a badly swollen throat, and she decided we'd head straight for the hospital. Luckily, she knows a few people around Wuhan, so I was whisked from one waiting area to another, getting blood tests and temperature readings along the way. I ended up in a private room with an IV in my arm for the rest of the day. Luckily, I felt a lot better by evening and they let me go home, as long as I came back for the next 3 days for treatment...this trip was clearly off to a great start. As it turned out, I really only had to go back for 2 days, after signing my (chinese) name and assuring them that I felt better. Now, I've never been admitted to a hospital back in the States before, but I'm pretty sure some things were a bit different here. The gossipping horde of 7 nurses standing outside of my door, alternately staring and whispering, for example, probably wouldn't have been a part of a hospital stay in New York. The health history questionaire-turned-vocab lesson was another twist...one that conveniently was timed right after my friend/translator left the room to get some food.

Despite my residence at Wuhan Number 6 Hospital, I've had a great time here so far. Wuhan is a city of around 20 million, including its suburbs, but it doesn't show. The traffic, air quality, and general crowding on the streets are all far better than in Beijing, which actually houses less people. The city is notable for its location on the Yangzi River, and I've been told it's one of the only cities whose urban area spans both banks. We went down to the park/esplanade area on the banks last night and actually found our way down to the water's edge. Some kids were swimming in water that is probably about as clean as the NY's East River's.

The food here is amazing, much better than Beijing, I'm convinced, and that's not just because I'm eating it free of charge at my friend's restaurants. So far I've sampled frog, turtle, and several different types Wuhan's famed freshwater fish. I'm told we'll be having some snake in the next few days, which is rumored to be delicious.

All told, I'm healthy, well fed, and ready to see what else the South has to offer...more tales from the road soon.

Monday, August 14, 2006

CET's all over, and I'm leaving on an overnight train to Wuhan (Hubei province) in about 2 hours. Not too much to say right now, the weekend after graduation was kind of crazy, but I can't wait to start this 3 week trip south. I'll post soon once I get to Wuhan, but check out some of the new pictures I have up (the album's titled, "end of the summer")

Friday, July 21, 2006

I'm getting packed and ready to leave for our "historical trip," so I thought I'd put in a quick update before taking off. The plan is to leave campus at 8:30 (about an hour following this post) and take an overnight train to Jinan, a city of six million in Shandong province (south east of Beijing). The main attraction for the weekend is a visit to Taishan (Mt. Tai), a site made famous by Confucius. We'll be hiking up the mountain, and it's supposed to be a real hike, 3-4 hours, which should be nice outside of Beijing's smog. Taishan is a UNESCO world heritage site, which means it should be swarming with tourists...hopefully they all take the cable car to the top and won't clog up the trail too much. We're also visiting several other Confucius-related sites (birthplace, cemetary, temples, etc). We're staying in a hotel on Saturday night and returning by overnight train on Sunday night. Luckily, we have Monday morning off from classes, which resume again in the afternoon.

As I last posted, I did in fact make it to see Superman. I enjoyed it, sure the plot was a bit bland, but let's face it, we don't see summer blockbusters for their depth. The theater we visited is, or at least recently was, the top-grossing cinema in mainland China, so the quality was great. We even got sold out of a matinee show. It turns out you have to pick your seats when buying tickets, and the theater was packed...no room for the 7 of us. It was an experience, a little slice of Western luxury in the middle of Beijing.

That's it for now, my roommate is dragging me out of the room...he's very big on punctuality. Check my Webshots for some new pictures from the Forbidden City etc, they're under the "Beijing" album.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Everyone seems to talk about how getting sick in China is an inevitability, and they're right. Just as I was starting to think living with 4 other guys for a whole academic year had rendered me immune, Two nights ago, I was finishing up my homework and a fever hit me...hard. I got into bed shivering, and woke up in no shape to go to class. I now figure that out of the 24 hours that followed, I slept for 18. This weekend is our "travel weekend," so I had originally planned to go to Qin Huang Dao, a coastal town where the Great Wall meets the sea, with my roommate and 20 of his classmates. I figured that being in an exclusively Chinese-speaking environment would give my language an extra boost, if not frustrate me to death. Considering how rough this trip could be without sufficient enthusiasm, I pulled the plug this morning. Instead, I plan on seeking out a western movie theater to catch Superman and reviewing some shengci (vocabulary). Considering all the traveling I'll be doing over the next few weekends (all CET organized), and my three-week jaunt south, I'm not too bummed.

This week marks the half-way point of the program. It's going really fast, and it doesn't seem at all like I've been in China for a month already. Classes are going well, and we're moving at a very quick pace. Whereas at Carleton we learned around 60 words a week, here we routinely cover double that amount, sometimes more. In terms of grammar, we're covering an even greater amount, and without the help of English to explain or clarify, it gets a bit tough sometimes. The teachers are, for the most part, great at explaining grammar structures that often have no English equivalent. Our class schedule was a bit hard to get used to, since they didn't really explain it fully before we started. We basically have two primary classes each day, an hour-long grammar class followed by two hours of "drill class," in which four or five students practice the new grammar and vocab. The strange part is that there are two "lead teachers" who teach the grammar classes, who rotate each week between the two sections of our level. In terms of drill classes, there are five different teachers who rotate every day. On top of it all, we then have alternating "language practicum" and "supplementary" weeks, and a new one-one-one tutor each week. If nothing else, it breeds a lot of critical conversation between students about which teachers we prefer. There's a pretty strong consensus at this point about which teachers you want to have and which you don't. Almost all of the teachers are women in their 30s, and they are some of the most energetic, enthusiastic teachers I have ever seen. In the States, only a Kindergarten teacher could rival their upbeat approach. While this kind of smiley front can be clawing, I don't think any of us have minded so far, It's a great cure for our seemingly constant exhaustion.

I forgot to mention, I've been using Skype here (diban525) to make phone calls, so if anyone has a Skype account and wants to chat, look me up. New pictures of the Forbidden City and our campus are coming soon!