Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Lied about the Last Post-How I Fell in Love

When I wrote that last post, I had every intention of it being my last Light Fellowship blog post. However, I was asked to write a little something on Hangzhou as the only Yalie there, so I’m happily complying. I’d like to preface this post by saying that I really did fall in love with Hangzhou and China this summer, and wish I were currently on a plane back to 浙江工业大学 (Zhejiang University of Technology) right now instead of a train back to Yale (I love Yale an unbelievable amount, please don’t think otherwise).

When I first decided that I wanted to spend my summer in China, I wanted something completely new. I had already gone to Beijing a couple of times to visit my grandparents so Beijing was off the list. Of course, this meant I only had two options—Harbin and Hangzhou

Both of which are home to CET programs. Ultimately, I decided that the Hangzhou program was a better fit for me and enrolled. And then a few months later, got on a plane with little knowledge about where I was going: all I knew was that Hangzhou was beautiful, hot, humid, and what little else there was in the Light Fellowship Guide on Hangzhou (very little since very few Yalies have participated in the CET Hangzhou program).

Nothing could have prepared me for Hangzhou’s beauty, and its endless supply of things to do. Located just an hour south of Shanghai by express train, Hangzhou has been rapidly developing, but has also managed to preserve much of its authentic Chinese feeling. It’s also the place where all of the Chinese tourists in China go, so naturally it’s an exciting place to be.

The two main places where all tourists will go in Hangzhou are Xi Hu (West Lake) and Lingyin Si (Lingyin Temple). West Lake is a massive lake, surrounded by pagodas, forests, restaurants, shops, and tourists. In the summer, you can find endless patches of lotus flowers. Boats drive people around the lake, passing by the famous floating stage and other small docks. Despite it being a tourist-filled area with overpriced restaurants, walking along the lake is a calming experience. Just as how West Lake is filled with beauty, Lingyin Temple is filled with history and culture. Considered to be one of the wealthiest Buddhist temples in China, Lingyin Temple is filled with pagodas and Buddhist grottoes. Ducking into dimly-lit caves, you’ll find smiling stone Buddhas and intricate carvings all along the walls.

Aside from these two major attractions, Hangzhou has numerous other fun places to explore. Longjing Road plays host to the famous Tea Museum and Green Tea Restaurant, and you can climb small mountains filled with tea bushes along the way. Yuhuang Shan Temple is another great mountain, complete with more Buddhist temples and a great view of the bagua below. Along West Lake, there are numerous pagodas with stories, and other small mountains, like Baochu Mountain, that can provide you with a great view of the city. For good souvenirs, head over to Hefang Street for traditional Chinese medicine, custom carved stamps, and other small antique-like goods or Silk Road for some of China’s finest silk-manufactured products.

Aside from the tourist areas, Hangzhou is just a fun place to be. There’s day-markets and night-markets everyday for the shopping-aficionados (bargaining definitely required), smaller Buddhist temples, myriads of hiking paths, and delicious food all around. Even after exploring Hangzhou for six weeks, I still had uncharted territory to cover.

Of course, no city is without its flaws and Hangzhou is no exception. As I’ve mentioned before, Hangzhou has hot, humid summers, and when it’s not one hundred ten degrees outside with the blistering sun beating upon you, there’s probably torrential rain that soaks through all of your shoes and drenches your clothes that had been drying outside in the sun. Mosquitoes don’t just come out at night. They will bite you at any hour of the day, even during 6 AM gongfu classes if you forget to spray bug repellent. Despite my use of bug spray, I was still bitten, constantly. On the bright side, I eventually learned to get used to and ignore all of the bug bites.

Despite the city government’s best attempts to reduce traffic congestion, Hangzhou roads are overcrowded. Hailing a cab is near impossible during the day, especially around 3:30 PM when all of the taxis decide to relocate to one end of the city and refuse to take you anywhere else, no matter how much you beg. Getting on buses can often be a struggle: finding a seat is even more of a struggle. Hangzhou pollution is not as bad as Shanghai or Beijing’s, but blue skies with fluffy clouds are not a common occurrence.

Despite its flaws, Hangzhou wooed me and loved me as much as I loved it. And now, as I gaze outside my window at the clear, blue sky, I can’t but daydream about the day that I will be able to return.

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Final Light Fellowship Post-Top Tens

It's been about a week since CET Hangzhou ended and while I'm slowly adjusting back to reality (relatively speaking since I'm still in Europe and on summer vacation so not quite reality) and life away from China and all of the wonderful people I met there. I realize that my blog has been overwhelmingly positive (because my experience was incredible), but for fairness sake, my last post will attempt to be a little more balanced.

With that said, I've painstakingly created two top ten lists about my experience. The first list is things I missed while in China and the second, things I will miss about China. The order doesn't reflect importance. I can't include everything here, but hopefully it'll give you an idea of some of the lifestyle differences.


Things I Missed While in China
1.) Salads (I definitely started to eat cucumbers mixed with vinegar everyday when I got sick of stir fry.)
2.) The ease of lining up (or rather, the existence of lines)
3.) Fair and consistent pricing by shop vendors
4.) Clean air and less-congested roads
5.) Not having to use VPN to get on Facebook and other sites
6.) Not going overboard with blunt honesty (at times, Chinese honesty can be too much)
7.) Having 9 AM classes at Yale (8 AM everyday and then 6 AM gongfu?)
8.) Not having to worry about food sanitation (not that I really worried, but you know that food is much cleaner in the US)
9.) Napkins (such a small thing, but the cafeteria rarely had them and at cheaper restaurants they just give tissues)
10.) Finding places to recycle (granted when you throw your bottle in the trashcan, it's going to be picked out a few minutes later by someone who will sell it for money, but still)

Things I Will Miss about China
1.) Cheap food prices (and yummy food!)
2.) Night markets, day markets, and stores where bargaining is routine
3.) Majiang
4.) The nightlife (Chinese clubs are definitely more fun, less sketchy, and open longer)
5.) Milk tea (so I'm still not a tapioca person, but you don't have to be in China!)
6.) The ease of public transportation
7.) Tip does not exist (not even for takeout) and food comes out extra fast
8.) The ease of paying for bills (family style makes for extremely easy bill-splitting)
9.) All of the fun places to explore!
10.) Using Chinese all the time and fitting in

Playing majiang!

Culture meets city. It's definitely an experience living in such a rapidly developing city with so many scenic and historical sites.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Without Freedom, But Free

As the Light Fellowship has dearly reminded me, I have completed my program, but have yet to fulfill my blogging requirements! I’m blaming it on the fact that I was so busy studying and immersing myself in Chinese culture, and attempting to rectify my mistake with a few last minute entries. Hopefully this will do.

Because of my parents’ Chinese background and my limited exposure to my Chinese relatives, I always had a conception of Chinese students: hardworking and no fun. Oh how little I knew then, and probably how little I know now.

Upon arriving in China, I realized that my roommate and I weren’t from completely opposite worlds. We went to bed around the same time, had an unhealthy addiction to Facebook (or renrenwang in my roommate’s case), liked the same music, enjoyed shopping, and had generally similar personalities. Perhaps the only glaring difference is that I can run around for days on end and never tire while she needs lots of sleep (including midday naps) and easily tires in the heat. And with this epiphany, all of my preconceptions vanished.

The first week in China, my roommate showed me her old dorm room. At Zhejiang University of Technology, all of the students live four to a room (two bunkbeds), with boys and girls separated into different buildings. Boys aren’t allowed in girls’ rooms, and all students must be back by 11:30 PM before the ayi locks the door. If the ayi locks the door, you can pound really loudly and scream and hopes she wakes up and lets you in, or wait until 6 AM when she wakes up. Luckily for us international students, our building was never locked. When I first heard this, I assumed Chinese students just never went out, but as one of my friends informed me, Chinese high school is all struggle, but Chinese college is mostly play. While it differs by student, my friend said that whenever he and his friends go out, they often rent cheap motel rooms together and just all pile in, or just return at 6 AM and wait for ayi to wake up (unlike Toads, most of the clubs are open until 5 AM).

Chinese people love karaoke and other random games!

We made a bonfire with one of the roommate's parents! And then danced around it!

When it comes to using the internet, websites like Facebook, Blogspot, and Youtube are blocked, but students use proxies, VPN-like software, and other means to access these websites. Every so often these sites are blocked, but there are always more proxies than the government can control. Sensitive words like Tibet are often censored and replaced by symbols, but web-users always find a way around the censors.

And the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s philosophies? Not very influential. Mao’s old policies have become a laughing point, and the Communist Party is more of a network. Several of the roommates are members of the Communist Party (an arduous process filled with years of essay writing, interviews, and events), but none of these believe the party’s principles. For them, it’s more of a box they can check off when applying for jobs.

So what’s the point of all this control? In a country fueled by economic growth and Westernization, how much longer can the government control the people? How many more websites must the government shut down? How can outdated politics move a country? The government can no longer brainwash: the people are already free.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Goodbye Hangzhou!

After six arduous, yet delightful weeks of intensive Chinese language study, it is finally time to say goodbye to Hangzhou. Upon reflecting on my time here, I can honestly say that I've loved every second of my time in China. At times there was miscommunication and culture shock, but never was there a moment where I wanted to leave...looks like I managed to avoid that stage of my international experience, cheers!

I came to China to learn a language, but more importantly, to learn and be a part of a culture that's subtly pervaded every aspect of my life. After 50 days, I can proudly say that I've accomplished this goal. I may not have improved my Chinese as much as I would have liked, but I've traveled every inch of Hangzhou and built long-lasting friendships.

Because of the language pledge, I found myself spending most of my free time with the Chinese roommates, and really absorbing Chinese culture as a result of it. I've mastered the art of bargaining (to the point where the Chinese roommates want me to bargain for them), played tons of Hangzhou majiang (yes, like an old lady), learned shaolin gongfu (at 6 AM twice a week), dabbled with Chinese calligraphy, went to a Chinese movie theater to watch Tangshan's Big Earthquake (where I bawled like a baby and the Chinese roommates have yet to let me forget), explored explored explored (I've been dubbed the crazy girl who never tires and always wants to play by CET), learned a lot of not so kosher language, read Chinese newspapers, sang Chinese songs in KTV (most of which was my mom's 90's music to everyone's amusement), went to a Chinese hospital (an experience on it's's only about 3 RMB to see the doctor so people go for colds and all need for prior appointments, just jump in line and wait a few minutes), and so much more.

It's hard to say goodbye to everyone, but like that cheesy saying goes (popularized by Facebook bumper sticker?): "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." I've grown a lot from my Chinese experience and am so grateful to everyone who made it possible and incredible.

And now it's that time hour to go until I leave campus. Who knows when and if I'll return? I hope I will, but now is not the time to think about it...magical packing must happen.

At Yuhuang Mountain: One of the many caves that can be found in Hangzhou

Lotus flower and leaves at West Lake (incidentally, my Chinese name means lotus leaf)

Hangzhou, I will miss you!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Palm Reading and Seeing into the Future

Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in Beijing. One day, she went to a well-respected palm reader. He looked at her palm, thought for a while, and then told her in Chinese: "You're very close to your father, but you're going to marry someone who will take you far far away from him." A few years later, after this girl became a woman, she fell in love with a man who shortly after went to the US. After a couple more years of letters and expensive long-distance phone calls, they got married and the prophecy was fulfilled.

This is the story of my mother and father, and the mysteriousness of palm reading. In the US, seeing into the future is a cheap show: crystal balls on the beach, fortune dispensing machines, and poker cards, but in China, it's a science, a tradition, and often times, scarily accurate.

Ever since my mother told me about this palm reader, I've always been curious about how palm reading works. Luckily for me, I spent Sunday in the ancient town of Anchang, a small place that most people (including Chinese people) have never heard of. Resting next to a heavily polluted stream, where the water is this mysterious mutant green color and small boats slowly row across, Anchang has managed to preserve its culture and old town feeling. Aside from small shops and restaurants, there's not too much there. But to my delight, there were many palm readers.

Upon crossing the first bridge into Anchang, there was an old man looking at another's palm, making periodic declarations like "Your daughter will get a small illness in 2 years." At first, the old man seemed to be pretty legitimate so I'd figured I'd give it a try...and then I discovered that quacks aren't unique to the US. According to him, I'm going to get married at 28, become a government official at 31, have a husband who is also a government official, have two sons and two daughters, retire at 79, and die at 91. Unconvincing, only to be exacerbated by the fact that he then said I should go to school in the States as a foreign exchange student. Case closed.

My friend and I then undertook the mission of finding a legitimate palm reader. After asking around, we ended up in a small room with a younger-looking man who palm reads only on weekends. Upon my expressing trepidation and skepticism, he offered to read my palm and tell me about myself for was legitimate. And so, I then let him do ba zi (8 words), which delves into your life via date and time of birth. He spent a lot of time so I'll neglect the little details but some highlights: The most lucky times of my life are 12-22 and post-32, I'll marry around 32, my first child will be a son, my brother has more potential to be successful than me, my health will always be good, the more I pick the worse the situation will become so I should stop being a perfectionist, and so on. I can't say I really believe all of these predictions, but we'll just have to wait and see...

The front gate of An Chang.

I don't know how many tourists come here, but there's English!

Please note the heavily polluted green water. This old man followed us around and continuously asked us if we wanted to ride in his boat.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Chinese Face, An American Stomach

I may have a Chinese face, but I'm guilty of having a foreigner's stomach.

Sanitation standards in China are virtually non-existent, but since I'd come to China before, and frequently ate at the notorious street stands, my body had developed a reasonable amount of immunity to the food. The first week here, several students fell ill from eating the street stand food, but I was spared. Our director sent us e-mails warning us about the pervasiveness of digou you (literally, sewer oil) a cheap form of oil made by filtering out used oil from sewers and then treating it with chemicals. I'm pretty sure I've eaten copious amounts of digou you, but luckily, never fell ill.

Call it karma, but my American stomach finally protested. This past weekend, a group of CET students and roommates went to Zhou Shan, a beautiful island about 5 hours away by bus, where the sky is clear blue and you can watch the clouds on the beach. The thin layer of smog that covers Hangzhou does not plague Zhou Shan, I could finally breathe.

On Saturday, we spent the morning at the beach, swimming in the ocean, breathing fresh air, and relaxing. In the afternoon, we went little crab catching. While crab catching, one of the Chinese roommates introduced me to this tiny green slimy oyster-like thing that grows on the rocks. All you have to do is chip its shell open with a rock and voila, delicious slime! Being a huge fan of raw seafood and often judgement-impaired, I of course tried one, decided it was appetizing, and had a second one. So far so good.

And then five hours later, the green slime finally attacked, ripping apart my stomach, draining all of my energy, and leaving me profusely sick. Luckily, Chinese people always have heaps of home remedies for every disease possible in their homes so I was in good hands. After a wretched night, I woke up rejuvenated in the morning, and went mountain climbing. Everything was back to normal, though I did avoid all shell-like creatures for the rest of the trip.

So while traveling around the world trying all things new and wonderful, exercise caution. Green slime-like things, and less scary looking things, can attack. Lesson learned, and now for some photos!

The beach (the golden rod is Monkey King's weapon of choice)

The sunnier version

Delicious food!

Seafood galore!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I'm Not a Foreigner Anymore?

“上有天堂,下有苏杭。” -Above are the Heavens, on Earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.

The beautiful Xi Hu (West Lake)

It's been about 1.5 weeks since I've arrived in Hangzhou (Internet is often flaky so this post is a little late, sorry Light Fellowship!), and life here is settling down to a steady routine. Classes are going well, co-curriculars are fun, food is delicious, people are awesome, Hangzhou is beautiful, China is exciting, and I've somehow miraculously gotten used to the relentless mosquitoes, constant mobs of people, summer showers, crooked sidewalks, and extreme heat (or so I would like to believe).

I don't want to bore you with the mundane details of my daily life so here's a general idea of my typical day: Lecture and drill class from 8-10, Media Chinese from 10-11, Business Chinese from 11-12, and a 30 minute one-on-one in the afternoon. I have gongfu class twice a week at 6 AM (It's ridiculous how many Chinese people are awake, functional and exercising at such an early hour.) and calligraphy class once a week in the afternoon. Other than that, I've been busy exploring the city, hanging out with other students and the Chinese roommates, and of course, doing homework.

It's strange being and studying in China. I'm a foreigner, but simultaneously feel a sense of belonging. When I walk down the street, order from a restaurant, haggle with shopkeepers, or make small talk with strangers, no one ever asks me where I'm from or what I'm doing in China. I'm just here, just like everyone else. When a group of us CET students grab dinner, go running, or wander around together, people always gawk at us. But it's not really us since there's nothing special about me. For the first time in my life, I'm in the majority.

Like many other Light Fellows, for me, this summer is not only about mastering a language: it's about understanding a culture: a culture that pervades my life back home, whose flavor as I know it has been infused with American bits and distorted, but I want to taste the original thing. I don't know if I'll like it better, but I at least have to know. At the moment, I'm still in the infatuation stage and love it here, but we'll have to wait and see how I feel in a few weeks.

And now I'm off to explore the world, until next time!