The Great Outdoors

In this episode I get in touch with nature (:

Spring Showers Bring May Flowers

At Peking University, students in the school of Chinese as a Second Language are taken on one expense-paid field trip per semester. Last semester our teachers took us to the Summer Palace and out to dinner. This semester we went to the Beijing Botanical Garden so I hopped myself up on allergy pills and took a lot of pictures. I’d never seen so many flowers in my life.

 

The Russian Embassy

I don’t have any religious background and in fact have never even attended a regular mass. However, my friend Oleg let me know he was going to the Russian embassy’s Orthodox Church on Easter (which is on a completely different day for them).  I would have liked to take pictures inside but I think it’s important to always err on the safe side when it comes to rules you are not familiar with. Recently North Korea has been detaining western tourists and sentencing them to years of hard labor for pretty ridiculous reasons. No matter where you are in the world, don’t be that guy who makes himself an easy target.

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Mountain Climbing

I’ve always wanted to go mountain climbing! There are lots of mountains around Beijing so if you’re into the outdoors I highly suggest this. Oleg and Chelsea took me to this one pretty close to the school. Our other American friend Andrew came along and we got some pretty awesome views.

Criticism of Your Own Country

This year is an election year and obviously the topic of politics has come up a lot lately. Thankfully I have been abroad for the majority of it and it hasn’t been nearly as annoying as I think it otherwise would have been. However, from being over here I noticed something interesting. In China, I actually often feel more at liberty to criticize the United States than I would at home. America is a very nationalistic country, and I often feel like my fellow Americans are very quick to pull the you-are-not-patriotic card just because someone pointed out something we could do better at. I made this video on a whim to address that feeling and what I think the appropriate reaction is to criticism of America regardless of whether you are abroad or not.

 

 

 

Spring Adventures

I’ve been going on lots of adventures! Most notably, I visited a portion of the great wall in Tsingdao. People were shocked when I told them I had never been to the great wall, considering I’ve been here for eight months now. The reason is actually deliberate.  In general I don’t enjoy tourist attractions, especially those set up for foreigners. I think in order to experience the real China your time is better spent elsewhere. I am saving the touristy part of the great wall for when my girlfriend comes to visit me, but this part was actually just a small, restored part by the beach. In the video you’ll see some footage of me at the park and with the Jones family at the art district which I talked about more in detail in my last post.

 

A Russian Dinner

This week I had a lot of midterms. I added up how many words I actually needed to study and it amounted to somewhere around 2000 not even including grammar and all the words I have just learned on my own time. When it was all over and done, Oleg and the other members of Beida’s “Russian mafia” decided to reserve some tables at a restaurant that serves Russian cuisine. There was some interesting entertainment.

 

Results Driven Speech

In this video I also talk about my method of talking to strangers in every-day speech. When I first came to China, it was really frustrating being unable to say what I wanted to say in the same way I would say it in English. I think sometimes we don’t realize how complex our thoughts are until we have to say it or understand someone explaining them in another language. I give the example of getting a haircut. In English, I would sit down in the chair and give the specifics of everything I wanted. In Chinese, that can be a bit more complex. I mean, how often are you going to refer to the different parts of your hair in daily speech (how the heck do I say widows peak)? Sometimes it’s just easier to say “I haven’t been here for X amount of months. This is rather long for me”. By telling them how long it has been since you last got a haircut, it is not only assumed you don’t want anything changed, you have sidestepped the majority of questions regarding your haircut.

I do this on a consistent basis and it makes my conversations much more efficient regarding topics that I already know my vocabulary is not prepared for. When I’m asked for “directions” to my dorm, I simply tell the driver my dorm is across the street from Peking University’s east gate. Everybody knows where Peking University is and thus I avoid actually having to give directions and know all the street names involved. When I ran out of data on my phone and wanted to add more, I didn’t necessarily need to explain that I knew my phone was out of data to the guys at China Mobile. I felt uncomfortable  with the vocabulary I may encounter explaining my data plan and wanted to avoid questions about it. Thus, I started the conversation off with “I have your phone card, but recently have been unable to use the internet. What should I do?” This resulted in the employee checking my balance and sure enough asking me how much RMB I wanted to pay. I made an arbitrary guess of how much would last me that month, paid and left. Forward thinking can drastically limit the variability in responses you will receive to your questions, which in turn cuts down on the amount of strange vocabulary you will encounter.

Chinese Culture Shock

In my last post, I talked a bit about reverse-culture shock. Soon after I’d written the piece, I realized I never took the time to explain the culture shock I experienced here upon my arrival. In this video I don’t go on any adventures. I just talk with you about the biggest things I’ve found culturally shocking since arriving in China.

 

 

A New Semester

Chunjie

Before I came to China, I heard a lot about the spring festival.  It is the most important holiday in China and equivalent to a lot of western countries’ emphasis on Christmas. During this time Chinese go home to spend time with their families. It also acts as the break for students between the fall and spring semesters. Though all of my friends had left campus, I originally planned to spend this time working and doing some site-seeing.

Something I didn’t know about this holiday is that most companies close down for an extended period of time. This is why I was a bit surprised when my boss came into my office the first week of the break and told me not to come in for the next three weeks. With the sudden realization I had almost four weeks with no work and no school, I did the first thing that came to mind. I called my girlfriend and told her I was coming home.

 

Reverse Culture Shock

I can’t really describe what I felt as I stepped off of the plane. It was the first time I had been in America in five months. I remember walking up the ramp and into the terminal and there was a blonde woman there in an airport uniform speaking to everyone. She was telling us to line up and to begin preparing to enter customs but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention to that.  I was too preoccupied with the warm hum of native English speakers passing by. It was like suddenly a million conversations were going on around me that I could hear and understand perfectly. My brain’s selective hearing had gone so long without practice that it was a bit overwhelming.

I walked through the airport with the biggest grin on my face and picked up my luggage. When I finally got outside to wait for the bus, I witnessed a Chinese man pound on the back of a taxi’s trunk in order to tell the driver to open it up. People often do this in China. Sometimes taxi drivers would rather finish their cigarette than take a new customer and unless you are aggressive about things, they’re not going to help you. In this case, the taxi driver got out of the car and started yelling at the guy. It made me feel bad because all I could think about was all the times I had made mistakes in China. People have gotten upset with me and made me feel stupid over really small things I didn’t understand. I think this happens to every foreigner every now and then, but nonetheless I felt a personal sense of embarrassment for the way the American had treated him and got on the bus hoping it didn’t affect his impression of my country.

Being home was great. I finally met the foreign exchange student my family is currently hosting from Spain. I went sledding with my brother and his friends and finally got back to Minneapolis. Some roads had changed and a couple restaurants had been replaced. I felt a tinge of remorse about that. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you return to your Lego set and someone has made changes to whatever it was you last built. It’s all still there but something about it just kind of irks you. I ate so much Chipotle. I ate so much Taco Bell. I got pizza from my favorite pizza place and drank IPAs all week. I went to a Reel Big Fish concert in Milwaukee and finally spent the night watching Netflix in bed with my girlfriend. Everything was even better than how I remembered it. I definitely have a new appreciation for everything I have at home and leaving it all a second time was really hard.

Tiananmen

WordPress is blocked in China and I don’t see any point in dancing around this. Yes, Tiananmen Square is where a peaceful student protest became a military-instigated massacre. No, you will not be able to research the topic in China unless you have a VPN, and yes Taylor Swift encountered numerous problems with her world tour in China because of its name: TS 1989. If for some reason the event comes up in conversation here (which I would advise foreigners to avoid along with topics regarding Taiwan) you will be promptly corrected on your usage of the word massacre.  This was an incident. It was really peculiar for me to be corrected on this even by my Chinese politics professor. I mean, I think it is rather silly to try to tell a native English speaker they are using the wrong word to describe something. Some of these people who have corrected me have trouble forming basic English sentences, yet somehow have developed a strong opposition to this word.

Regardless, if you want to read up more on what actually transpired there, you can perform a quick wiki search. Today China has developed a different way of dealing with protests. First of all, it is illegal to attempt to produce large public gatherings without approval of the government, so most things get shut down before they ever have a chance to start (including religious proliferation). From what I gathered through class, the CCP’s other method is using free apartments and properties as negotiation. Sometimes small protests will start up and in order to shut them down the people involved will be given a handful of government-built apartments. Property is extremely expensive in China, especially surrounding the cities so if you are given a couple of these by the government, you can effectively become rich overnight. Regarding Tiananmen as a whole, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the area. There didn’t seem like there was much to do and there weren’t any good restaurants nearby to eat at afterward. However, if you are a history enthusiast like me it may be worth your time.

 

 

Western Restaurant Recommendations

I visited a couple new western restaurants. I’ve written about western food before but I want to provide an actual list here of my favorites. I will update this as I find more.

  1. Laker’s: This one is in the Beida/Wudaokou area and has become our go-to restaurant on Friday nights. They have beer and burgers at a very reasonable price and lots of great deals. I wouldn’t go here if you are looking for the best burger in Beijing or anything, but it’s an okay chain restaurant I approve of for your weekly western fix. They deliver and have lots of different sandwiches including BBQ chicken (my favorite).Laker's
  1. Grandma’s Kitchen: Another chain restaurant that you will find around many cities in China. I like this one because they have lots of dishes other than burgers and fries. They have home-cooked style meals like meatloaf, lasagna, and smothered mushroom chicken. There was a Grandma’s Kitchen in Wudaokou during my first semester but it mysteriously disappeared leaving me sad and hungry.
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An exterior view of North American style diner, Grandma’s Kitchen in Beijing, China Friday April 18, 2008. Photo by Natalie Behring/Bloomberg Photo
  1. Slowboat: This is my favorite burger in Beijing (and they have won the award for best Beijing burger several times). We found this place near Beihai Park. They have a good selection of IPAs and imported brews which you can’t find at places like Laker’s. It’s a bit expensive so I would only come here for a special occasion. Don’t go here with tons of friends because the space is quite cramped and tucked away in an unlikely alleyway. Apparently they are opening a second one in Beijing and hopefully it is bigger!

Slowboat

  1. The Great Leap: This restaurant is everything that is Slowboat, but bigger and further along in growth. I don’t think I would ever be able to try all of the beers they have available no matter how long I spent in China. If you want to attempt that, get the sampler platter. You can come here with a big group because of the space but keep in mind it is a really popular spot and very crowded. Unlike Slowboat, this restaurant is actually on a bar street so once you leave you don’t have to stumble far. This one has several locations; I’ve visited one a bit north of Beihai and another out in Sanlitun.

Great Leap

  1. Little Wudaokou Pizza: This one is right past the subway stop in Wudaokou. It’s actually Korean but they have great pizza. I suggest calling them and getting delivery. There’s no delivery fee and it comes with a soda which is nice.

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  1. Sugar Shack Pizza: I don’t think pizza here is all that great, but they deliver (for free) and have an English website where you can order online. Instead, order the sub sandwiches. They may be a bit overpriced but it’s really hard to find sandwiches anywhere else. They are located on the bar street in Wudaokou.

Sugar Shack

 

The U.S. Embassy Likes Beer Too

Every now and then the U.S. Embassy holds cultural events at the embassy center (a totally different location) to spread American culture. I went with Oleg and Chelsea and we watched a documentary about how beer significantly impacted a lot of different cultural phenomenon. I do think the History channel blew things a bit out of proportion by crediting written language to beer (why has the History channel turned into the new MTV!) but it was still fun to watch. Afterwards a couple of Americans with surprisingly good Mandarin taught our group how to brew our own beer. It was really fun and I suggest checking out the U.S. embassy’s events if you are feeling a little homesick. Oh, and people ate the hops.

 

The Beijing Observatory and More Summer Palace

Oleg and I have been rather busy with school this semester. This has kind of put a damper on my ability to make new videos and travel. He suggested we schedule a time to go somewhere new and that is how we ended up visiting the Beijing Observatory. We didn’t really do a lot of research on the place before we went, so we erroneously assumed it was going to be a modern facility. I actually think this was even cooler.

Afterwards we went to a really great Chinese restaurant we picked at random. Then we ended up splitting off from the rest of the group to visit the Summer Palace. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’ve already been there, but this time was different. I went in the winter so I never had the chance to climb the rocks or see the trees in bloom.

 

 

The Jones’ Visit

A family friend happened to be on a trip in China and we decided to meet up over here. Together we visited the Art District which has got to be one of my new favorite places in China! Afterwards we went to the Tiandi Theatre. There was a lot of crazy acrobatic stunts but my favorite part had to be the motorcycles. I really enjoyed spending time with them and it reminded me a lot of my own family back home.

 

At the Park

There is a really nice park a few steps away from PKU. Since things were warming up we decided to walk around. I explained to the group that I have a list of my favorite benches at the University of Minnesota and that a great deal of these put my previous favorites to shame.

 

Feeling Twenty Two

Last week was also my birthday. I’m now 22 years old (: It was also my friend Eugen’s birthday so we invited a ton of people out to Tube Station Pizza and ended up at Red House which is a cool bar in Wudaokou. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older and the fact that I’ll hopefully be in a full-time permanent career somewhere in just a few months (if anyone has any leads, let me know!). I’ve been reading a lot of advice regarding finding jobs and it’s gotten me thinking about what I personally learned over my college career.

If I could tell future students one thing it would be this: don’t spend all your days living for tomorrow. It is disturbingly common for me to hear students talk about how unhappy they are. When I ask them why they don’t do anything to change that, I always get the same excuse:

“I’ll be unhappy for four years and then after that I can be happy”.

Don’t do that. Don’t separate the life you are living now and the life you hope to live after college. If you think that way you are going to be really disappointed when you enter the work world and realize there is always going to be another test; they’re just different. This is your life, right now. Four years is a huge chunk of your life to just sign off, and it’s a really bad habit to get into. I vote to take a B on that test if it means you get to spend the evening with your significant other on their birthday. It’s okay to skip that one class you have on Tuesday to go to the fair while it’s still in town. Have a beer on the patio and spend a few hours talking to your roommate before you start your homework. I’m not saying school and work doesn’t matter, or that it’s okay to fail exams. My point is in my experience, I have always regretted failing to set aside the time to do the things I love, and only seldom have I regretted not spending enough time doing things I hate. Maybe I’m a bad influence to people who strive to be straight-A students, but that’s my advice and it’s worked out pretty well for me.

China is Obsessed with Walls

Holidays and Exams

Last week I finished exams and wow I am glad that is over. For most schools in China, the semester ends the first week of January. This means throughout Christmas and New Year’s I was very busy preparing. I actually had class on Christmas day but I opted to skip (sorry not sorry). Later we had a secret Santa exchange in class and I got the comic book on the right as part of my gift (thanks Bea!). Christmas is becoming a bigger deal in China. Shops and restaurants are decorated appropriately, but it is still not celebrated to the level of Christmas in the West. As for New Year’s, that is actually a pretty big holiday. I was given that weekend off of work and I didn’t have to go to school on Friday. Everything was closed which was a bit problematic when I needed to buy things, but nice nonetheless.

 

In this video I show a lot of things. If you are interested in seeing what an elective class in Chinese looks like, you can find that in the video. In order to enroll in this particular class you need to be an advanced intermediate (Peking’s level 7) or higher. I actually took a picture of my exam before handing it in. I chose to write on the topic of things that are taboo in China.

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The Silk Market Isn’t Very Silky

Near the end of the video I show you a small portion of the silk market. You’re not allowed to film there. I didn’t know this which is why the video is so short and you hear a woman lecturing me at the end. The silk market consists of fake products wearing the name of famous brands like Calvin Klein and Prada which is pretty illegal. Some of the products look questionably real, and its not a secret that every now then a few real (albeit stolen) ones will show up in shops. If you decide to go there (which I do recommend as something fun to do on the weekend) be sure not to use the ATM or exchange cash there. Chances are you will be given fake currency. Never pay full price. Don’t pay anything above 10% of what they ask. Check out this fake Rolex I bought for my brother.

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Footage of my Speech

Footage was released of the speech competition I participated in the month before. I have provided subtitles (to the best of my ability) for anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese.

 

An Essay on Walls

As I mentioned in China: Walls, below you can find my essay for my Chinese Politics class on walls in China. If you’d like to see exactly what I am talking about, watch the video!

To start off, I’d like to say who I am and why I am in China. My name is Alex and I am from Wisconsin of the United States. I recently finished up my Bachelor’s in Political Science at the University of Minnesota and I’ve been learning Mandarin for almost four years now. Prior to this year, I had never been to China. I learned a lot about Chinese government at Minnesota but I felt the only way I could really learn Chinese culture and strengthen my Mandarin was to come here in person. I’ve seen a lot of things I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t expect, but what I really want to talk about here is a recurring theme I’ve found in China, or at least in Beijing. I want to talk about walls.

In the four months I have been here, I have become increasingly aware of what I can only describe as an insatiable affection for things that blockade. The first week I arrived, I ran into some foreigners and we all decided to find somewhere to grab dinner. We followed a path to the left of the dorm’s entrance and came upon a wall with a large metal door in it. We went through this door to get to a street filled with restaurants. After about an hour of eating and talking, we decided to head back. Naturally we decided to leave the way we came, through the big metal door. We were shocked to find the door was now locked shut. As a result we had to go around it, which was about 20 minutes out of our way, just to get home. Apparently the door closes at 8:00 p.m. every night.

This type of door is exceptionally common. Gates like this are everywhere and they are attached to some of the longest walls I have ever seen. In order to leave the general vicinity of my dorm you can choose one of four ways: North, South, East and West. After 8:00 p.m. you cannot choose to go North, South, or East. This means every time I want to go to 五道口 (a popular bar street East of Peking University) I have to walk in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes. At first it was kind of funny. A lot of the gates are so thin, fat people literally cannot go through them. I recall chuckling at this concept and jokingly saying it was another reason to stay fit during my time here. But the more I encountered them, the more frustrated I became. What if I was in a wheelchair? What if I was old and a 15 minute walk was a really big deal? Let alone all the reasons why a person may need to quickly get somewhere. I’ve asked my Chinese friends why these walls exist and it seems like the general idea is to keep out people who don’t live in the area. However, in my opinion these walls do nothing to achieve that. I can still just as easily waltz into the same areas; I just have to take a longer path. Maybe one could argue that the walls cut down on the amount of people walking through the areas at night. However considering nighttime is when the least amount of people are outside walking around; I don’t see any need for it.

I even need to go through a gate to get on campus. I guess I can understand this a little more than the other gates. In the United States, there is nothing stopping people from walking through our campus. It is just another part of the city which means you will find a couple homeless people sitting on benches and really pushy Christians handing out bibles in front of the science labs. However it also means musicians will play music in the grass together, families are commonly found strolling through with their kids, and I can seamlessly walk out of class and go get a burger at a bar across the street. The University is integrated into the community and it is very easy for me to get from point A to point B. At Peking, the University in contrast is hidden away behind its walls and every day I see more going up. There are currently multiple walls being built on campus and in my personal opinion I don’t think they add at all to the environment. The walls are made of concrete blocks, cheap bricks and sheet metal that is already starting to rust. A lot of the walls seem to have uprooted perfectly fine grass and foliage for no real reason. I could go on and on about physical walls and barriers I see that don’t make any sense. There’s just too many to list. The doors on the bottom floor of building four (the building this Chinese Politics class is in) have huge metal locks on them, narrowing your options to exit. The door to my dorm is locked from the inside. I understand not letting people in without a key, but not letting people out? What do I do if there’s a fire? Countless apartments I see have bars over their windows, even on the upper floors. I don’t think China’s crime rate is bad at all, and it seems like the risk of fires in Beijing strongly outweigh the chances of someone breaking into your home. Even the door to my own balcony is locked. I’ve heard it is to stop people from committing suicide but just like the other walls I’ve talked about, this doesn’t actually prevent anything. If I really wanted to kill myself I could just jump off the bridge that is less than five minutes away from my dorm. In fact, I think not being able to get some fresh air every now and then while you are studying probably makes people want to kill themselves even more.

The concept of walls is applied even in intangible spaces. For starters let’s talk about the Great Fire Wall. In China I am blocked from accessing the world’s best sources of information. Even completely harmless content, like my favorite cooking blogs, YouTube videos of people falling off skateboards, and Wikipedia articles on dogs are blocked. I brought an Xbox One gaming console with me from the states and I was really looking forward to watching Netflix with my girlfriend whenever we Skyped. Unfortunately, that too is blocked. What’s really strange to me is the fact that I can just get a VPN and walk around this wall the same way I walk around the physical ones. The wall does nothing to stop me; it simply inconveniences me. What is the point of this wall? I really understand wanting to keep children from accessing content that is meant for adults. I also totally agree a lot of content should be banned altogether such as videos of people abusing children or websites offering black market drugs. However, it simply doesn’t make sense to me that China chooses to block off information because some of that information could be negative. I think if you really want to improve your country, you look at the things your country does badly, not the things you are good at. As a Political Science major I can honestly say the things I am most interested in are things America is terribly, horribly awful at. A mechanic has no purpose if there are no cars that need to be fixed. I have no purpose if my country doesn’t have any problems. I think it is important to educate your students, your public servants, and the common people on things that need to be fixed so you can collectively work towards fixing them. I don’t understand this wall.

The last type of wall I want to talk about I don’t really know how to categorize so I’ll just call them process walls. Let’s say you are a foreign student and you want to work legally in China. Well, that is really hard to do. Prior to coming to Beijing, I did a lot of research on this topic because I wanted to find something small to help pay my tuition. Turns out, up until a year or two ago it was 100 percent illegal to employ any sort of foreign student in China. Apparently there is now a law that states foreign students may work only part-time and if the student is granted permission from both their school and their government. But these “permissions” have not been put in place. There is no way to request for these permissions so what is the point of having the law? Because of this it is very common for foreign students to just work for cash. I would estimate about a fourth of foreign students at Peking have some sort of job they are technically not allowed to have. This is another wall people just go around. Native English speakers are constantly being asked by companies to read their manuals, by students to read their essays, and by parents to help tutor their kid. These are jobs Chinese people cannot do so making them legal would have no negative impact on them. Moreover, if you could legally hire foreign students as tutors and language advisors, the government could tax their wages. It just seems like a lost opportunity for the government to earn extra funds and to allow foreigners to help their citizens.

Culturally I pick up on a sort of acceptance of walls in people’s daily lives here. Whenever I’m trying to do something painfully simple, like switch a class, use a facility or even just order a meal I encounter them. I once went to McDonald’s and tried to order one of the meals which came with a drink. When I asked if I could have Fanta soda as opposed to Coke I was told I could not change the flavor of my soda. Why? I honestly have no idea. I had to go to five meetings with the same two people over the course of a week to change my Chinese class and in the end I was only allowed to go up one level and that class is still too easy for me. If I had to pick the biggest difference between my country and here, I would say this is it. I grew up in a country that perhaps often over-emphasizes the value of choice and that is reflected in every level of its being. As a result, I’m really not accustomed to this.

I believe that the reasons for China’s walls are greatly influenced by cultural phenomena. The best argument for this hypothesis is finding consistency not only in China’s architecture, but in its government, business-practices and everyday social exchanges, each of which I’ve done here. I feel that the structure of the Chinese government especially reflects one that focuses on blockading the proliferation of power in the form of complete horizontal and vertical Communist Party reach.  It is easy to find examples of implemented blockading forces no matter which aspect of China you are looking at. In this class we learned about the metaphor of “touching stones to cross the river” which is applied by the government to create policy. Perhaps the walls I see are actually just stones. Maybe the reason why these walls are in place is an attempt to prevent chaos. They reflect the careful nature of the Chinese people in the face of a river. I feel like China has an immense desire for rules and order and this is what I have seen as a foreigner. Though I think China’s history and use of walls in the past would be interesting to analyze, (obviously there is something to be said about The Great Wall) I’ve chosen to ignore history here. I think as a foreigner I am only qualified to talk about things I have experienced. History is not one of them. However, in the future I would like to see someone do a more in depth analysis of these things and apply the past to them as well.

 

Pollutics

In this video I give a very brief overview of what politics is like in China today. When I say brief, I mean that this is at the lowest level of what I think a tourist should know before coming here.

Something’s in the Air

And it’s not Christmas spirit kiddos. These past few days, the pollution has been beyond 2010’s crazy bad. In fact, I had the not-so-pleasurable pleasure of experiencing China’s record breaking levels of smog on Monday and Tuesday.

 

For those wondering what it is like waking up to this, you simply have to experience it to truly grasp the horror. The air hurts to breath. The only thing I’ve ever felt similar to it was when I unintentionally breathed in some oven-cleaner mist during my first time cleaning the deep fryers at Dairy Queen. Days like these burn your eyes. People get headaches from just spending a few minutes outside unprotected and I have heard of several students being hospitalized.

The part that really kills me (literally) is that you cannot escape it. People seem to think they are safe inside but they aren’t. The other day I was in the work-out center’s badminton gymnasium and I had trouble seeing the court on the opposite side. Being within school hallways, classrooms and confined offices gives you the illusion that your immediate air is clean. It’s only when you enter a truly large room with a longer line of sight that you begin to realize “oh shit- I am having trouble seeing the opposite wall”.

Buildings in China are simply not built to be air-proof and you are kidding yourself if you think that any of them are equipped with purifying technology. This has resulted in me waking up in the middle of the night to sore throats and dry-nose bleeds despite being indoors. How can you combat something that enters the room while you sleep?

I Won a Chinese Speech Contest

Yeah, that happened. I received a rather expensive Peking University thermos and a shiny piece of paper to prove it. I talked about music, played a little guitar, and sang in Chinese.

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I want to make a small note here about a somewhat odd occurrence regarding the speech. Prior to performing, a teacher of mine “revised” what I had prepared. According to the revisions, I was supposed to say that Chinese music was my favorite music, and recite a couple sentences that were written for me slamming its American counterpart.

Needless to say, I didn’t do this.

I’ve encountered subtle things like this in China since being here. Random comments sometimes creep into conversations that are clearly aimed to knock other countries (especially those in the west) down a peg or two. I don’t think it’s a secret that Japan is a pretty big target of criticism here.  As for America I’ve heard some really crazy accusations, including us purposefully popping Japan’s economic bubble to avoid competition, attempting to invade China after the Korean war, and having inferior colleges to those of China. I do notice propaganda at play here pretty often. As a westerner, it’s right in your face and I still haven’t quite gotten used to it. As a matter of fact, when I hear these things they are not being said by people who do not like the west; they are simply repeating what they have been taught.

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A Russian Birthday

A few weeks ago I sat across from my friend Oleg in a booth at Laker’s. It’s a western restaurant we commonly go to that I showed in a previous video. We were discussing his birthday. Each of us ordered a beer and to our dismay were intently stared at for the following two hours by our waiter less than two feet away.

I don’t know how or why this young man decided on us, but it had become clear over the past few months that he really, really wanted to get to know us. In addition to trying on our hats while we were in the bathroom, he had gotten into the habit of randomly entering our conversation to repeat a English word we had said. When I ordered a pizza for delivery, he insisted on seeing my room, sitting on my bed, and asking me questions about America in Chinese for 30 minutes before leaving. I honestly have no idea what this was. A few days ago he mentioned he would be leaving Beijing for good but told us that he wanted remain close friends and even visit. Perhaps this is an isolated incident but friends from my classes have told me similar stories about random people telling them they were looking for “white friends”.

Despite feeling a bit awkward, Oleg and I continued our conversation. Oleg told me he was planning to go out on two separate nights with different friend groups in order to celebrate. I was confused when he mentioned it was going to be very expensive for him. I asked why; considering people were bound to pay for a lot of his drinks, I couldn’t imagine it would be too pricey. He paused for a moment, and in sudden realization of meaning asked me “are we really that different?”.

Apparently in Russia, when it is your birthday, cultural rules dictate you pay for all of the people who go out to celebrate with you. When I asked my German friend Nico if this was also true where he was from, he nodded in agreement. It was rather shocking to me. Still, I offered to pay for my own food. We also bought Oleg a cake and a nice bottle of German vodka. I think you should try to study up on things like this when planning to study abroad. In China for example, you can never invite someone out to eat without paying for the check. Things like this can lead to embarrassing moments.

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This is all I felt was really important to note regarding November. For thanksgiving I got a steak at (you guessed it) Laker’s. It was actually pretty good. Now the count down until Christmas is upon us and rather creepy Santa heads are plastered around Western bars and the international dorm.

 

 

 

 

 

Fall Goes Fast When You’re Having Fun

Halloween

So Halloween was a lot of fun. I was invited to a party by a friend of mine who is currently studying at Normal University through CET. The two of us were Chinese classmates at the University of Minnesota for the past two years so it’s been pretty crazy to meet up again on the other side of the Earth. I wish I had taken some pictures of the party but alas I was too busy having fun to remember! It wasn’t much different than parties back home; about 30 of us Americans rented out a private house for 100RMB each. There was a lot of good beer and the good ol’ American college party games I’ve already started to miss.

The Summer Palace

Yeah yeah I know, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I do not like tourist attractions. Personally, I have trouble enjoying myself at them because I am too focused on the fact that they generally represent countries in the way that foreigners view them as opposed to the reality. Moreover, I have never been a fan of crowded spaces or overpriced souvenirs. But when your teachers arrange an all expenses paid field trip instead of regular class, how can you say no? I am glad I went. Because it was snowing, not a lot of people were there. As for me, I would actually recommend going in the winter. It was absolutely beautiful.

Applying For Jobs

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time looking around at career prospects to pursue after returning to the states. I didn’t know this before, but I’ve learned in recent years that many corporations begin accepting applications near the end of seniors’ Fall semester and it is a good idea for you to start applying during this time (seriously, look it up).

I am not going to lie, it is very hard to find a job in the States that will utilize non-native Chinese speakers. Or at least that is my impression from countless hours of research and asking other Americans who have been in my position. It seems the reality is that your English is extremely valuable in China, but your Chinese is not very valuable in America. So if you learn Chinese, yeah you’re going to open the door to a lot of very high paying jobs, but the reality is they’re all going to be in China which is not where a lot of Americans want to spend the rest of their life (hence the demand).

I keep telling myself there is no way in hell I am not making something of what I spent the past 3+ years studying. To be honest it is a bit frustrating. On one hand I do wish someone had maybe made this more clear to me when I began learning the language… but on the other, I don’t think I would trade much for the wonderful learning experiences Chinese has brought me. It really, really has been quite a fun time. So I guess you could say I’m a bit confused with how I’m going to keep this ball rolling after my time here is up. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

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Tube Station Pizza has good pizza. It’s not as good as the pizza we found at Beihai park, but it’s only 15-20 minutes from Zhongguanxinyuan (our dorm).

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I bought a guitar for 450RMB. That’s around $75 and definitely worth being able to still play music during my time here.

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The North Koreans had cigars at their booth during Peking’s cultural festival. I don’t smoke, but these were just too cool to walk by.

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The gym here has badminton courts you can pay a small fee to reserve. We’ve gotten in the habit of playing after class.

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This stuff was pretty good but be warned, a little spicy does not seem to have the same meaning here in China. If you do not like things ridiculously hot, just order them without any spice all.

The Mid-Autumn Festival

In the previous post I talked a bit about how the beginning of September had been quite stressful for me.This is why the mid-Autumn festival (which takes place during the last week of September through the first week of October) was especially relieving. I was given more than a week off of school and this meant I had time to do some touring! In these videos, I go to Beihai Park, the Olympic Stadium, and Happy Valley (a theme park). I also receive a wonderful package from my girlfriend!



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A Time to Focus

Prior to taking up this beautifully silly language, I read an article by a man named Mark Rowswell just to try to gauge how hard Mandarin really is. Mark offers some great advice on how to approach what he calls the five-year lesson in humility. As for me, I would say it is important for you to count your wins and losses.

You’re never going to be happy with the ratio of wins and losses. This is because what you consider a win changes with time. Two years ago, I considered it a win when I finally established the difference in my pronunciation between the word Zai (at) and Cai (meal-dish). These days, wins are a bit more complicated. I consider it a win when a fighting couple passes me by on the street and I understand that the girl is upset because the boy is going somewhere with the guys and he didn’t invite her. I consider it a win when I watch a minute or two straight of a Chinese television show and suddenly realize that I haven’t been saying the English translation in my head but instead understood what was being said in real-time. And I consider wins the moments when I’m in the store and the clerk asks me what I’m looking for and the words just come out of my mouth before I even consciously think of how to respond. Most days feel like losses; I’m not going to lie. But when you win, the feeling is so so sweet.

I want more of these feelings. This is why I am putting my foot down and saying NO to English now. During the first three weeks, I admittedly spent a lot of time with Westerners. I’m not saying I regret this; I think it’s pretty normal. When you come to a new country, sometimes you just need to talk about it with people who are going through the same thing. It’s a way to combat culture shock and establish a sort of ground for you to stand on. I wouldn’t have found out how to use the subway, how to pick up packages, and where I could buy simple things like deodorant had I not done this. But now I am starting to feel comfortable with my surroundings and I think at this point it is necessary for me to let go of the West and get down to business. Thus I spent this week actively creating consistent opportunities for me to speak Chinese in the future. Thursday afternoons are now reserved for my language partner and I to spend one on one time together. One day out of the weekend is now reserved for going out with a friend group that predominantly speaks Chinese. And I am now holding myself to a quota of at three episodes of Happy Chinese a week.

You Should Be Watching Happy Chinese

Speaking of Happy Chinese, WOW is this a great show! I highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to learn Mandarin. While it is designed for students, it doesn’t feel like a cheap DVD that was just made to be shipped with books. In fact, I am enjoying this show as much as any other comedy show I have watched in English. It has several seasons and is for free on YouTube (this is where VPNs come in handy).


Personally, I think TV and movies are an excellent way to practice a language. When I ask my European friends how they got so good at English, their first response is always one word – Hollywood. This isn’t a coincidence and it’s why I suggest language learners to pick up at least one show that is in the language they are learning. Try to pick a show of which you can understand about 70% of what is being said. Make sure it has subtitles in that language. If it has them in English too this is even better because in worst-case scenarios when you can’t hear or read what was said correctly, you can refer to the English and back-track. I also suggest pausing frequently and repeating sections that tripped you up. A 20 minute episode should take you at least a half hour to watch.

How’s Classes Alex?

I’m going to keep this blog honest. I want to tell you about the good and the bad times I have while I’m here. As such, this post is going to be a mix of both.

Classes: The First Week

My first week of classes was not a good time. In fact, I would say it was a very very bad time.
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Students in China are not catered to in the same way as students are in America. This means if you have problems, it is a lot less the University’s responsibility to help you. It’s your responsibility to help yourself. Although I was able to switch into a more advanced Chinese class (I am now in upper level intermediate), the process was ridiculously difficult. Getting required materials such as my housing permit, health insurance, bank card, and doctor’s forms was extremely confusing and time consuming. Registering for electives was a nightmare, and the fact that most of these things took place at the same time as my Chinese classes (which started a week earlier than other courses) made things even harder. I didn’t expect this to be easy, but man. I guess the point is I got through it and you can too, but be sure to be assertive and have a sense of urgency about things if you come here.

Pizza Hut has Wine

So in this video I go to a Pizza Hut. I haven’t actually been eating much western food here; I just thought the fanciness of the place was really crazy compared to what we have in America and deserved to be recorded. We didn’t actually end up eating there because it was so expensive but I got some video of one of their menus.

Weiming Lake

I joined a language partner program and met a couple Chinese girls and a Japanese guy who all took me to the lake. It’s a really beautiful spot on campus that has a lot of history to it. “Weiming” means “no name” in Chinese. The lake is called this because the professors couldn’t stop fighting over what to name it; this was the final agreement. My friend Xiying was a great tour guide! She explained the majority of the statues’ history to me and threw in a lot of fun facts about the lake while we were there. Video of the lake is at the end of the Youtube video above.

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Arrival and Orientation

Hello again reader.

If my count is correct, today is my twelfth day in China. I was not able to blog during the past few days due to the extremely busy orientation schedule, and it hasn’t helped that my choice to upgrade to Windows 10 has effectively impeded my VPN from connecting. But I’m here now, and I’m going to talk about what I’ve been up to.


Health Forms and Move-in

I made this video the morning after my first night in China. I show what my living situation looks like (including the toilets), some video of the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of WWII, and I take a short walk to the gym across the bridge. In the video I mention I had to go to the doctor again to get all the tests done that I already underwent in the United States. It was rather annoying considering I don’t enjoy getting my blood taken, and foreign students were told that the only thing we needed to bring was the physical exam sheet filled out by our family practitioner. More or less every foreign student had to redo their exam for the cost of 400rmb. As such, I would actually suggest future CUEP students to not complete their physical exams in the United States, and instead only visit their doctors for vaccinations and other advice prior to departure. There is a whole day dedicated during orientation for the doctor visit and there are shuttles to take you there.

As another note, between August 31st and September 2nd, Peking University was running shuttles from the airport to the international student dorm for exchange and scholarship students. I didn’t get this email until long after I scheduled my flight, so a friend of the China Center booked a cab for me. If you have yet to book your flight, perhaps this service will be useful for you and you should try to arrive on those days. Also be aware you need to pay a 1000rmb deposit regardless of your scholarship when you arrive to cover any damages your room may incur during your stay.

Beer! Beer! Beer!

My first impression of Beijing is mostly positive. Everything is extremely cheap, which is pretty meaningful for a poor college student. A dish at a Chinese restaurant will cost around 18rmb. Currently, 100rmb = roughly $16 so you can do that math. For those who don’t know, I love beer and I was pleasantly surprised to find I really enjoy the Chinese versions of the beverage. Tsingtao seems to be Beijing’s equivalent of MIller or Bud and I highly suggest it for a casual beer with friends. I don’t suggest coming to China to find cheap alcohol (a good portion of it is fake and will make you sick) but the other night I spent 15rmb for a decent gin and tonic.

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Orientation was in English and Chinese.
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Beer bottles here are commonly enormous.
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Oleg and I took a selfie at a Chinese bar.
Oleg and I took a selfie at a Chinese bar.

Chinese Level (中文水平)

As for my Chinese, I was pleasantly surprised to find I don’t have too much trouble getting across what I want when I talk to people. Ordering food is a piece of cake. Asking for directions usually results in me picking up the words “across the street” or “that building” accompanied by a pointed finger and a slew of Chinese I don’t understand. I’ve been able to tell people where I’m from, where I go to school, and have the conversations I know I have practiced a thousand times in the U.S.. It seems my level of Chinese is about average for someone who has studied as long as I have outside of China, and quite a bit better than other foreign students I’ve encountered here. There are exceptions though, and it is pretty common for me to meet people who are doing their master’s at Peking (my Russian friend Oleg for example) completely in Chinese and have lived here for several years. I was placed in intermediate at the school of Chinese as a Second Language here. After looking through my level’s book, I’d guess I know about half of the vocabulary being presented. Some students have decided to jump up or down levels and to be honest I do worry my class may be slightly easy for me. But I also think intermediate is good because it will give me a chance to really ensure I know all of the most essential vocabulary. I’ve found the advanced books often deal with vocabulary that is rather specific to majors and career fields, as well as common metaphors and sayings in Chinese. I feel I will learn these things in real life situations more often than remembering them from books. Tomorrow I have my first day of class so we will see how things go. The registration system is sort of a mess so I’m not sure exactly which electives I will be able to take yet, but after I’ve gotten into the swing of things I hope to tell you guys all about classes at Peking.

Preparation: Applications, CUEP Info and More

I have one night left in the United States. A lot has led up to this… a lot. In this episode I show you how to pack like a pro, as well as some things you absolutely must bring to China with you. I also talk a bit about my plans to work and China and give some advice for gifts that you’ll want to bring with you on your trip.

In addition to this episode, I want to make a post today talking about the lessons I’ve learned regarding study abroad applications. I’m also going answer a couple questions I personally had about CUEP prior to applying; I’m sure someone in the future will be looking for the same answers.

Applying to Programs

The first lesson I learned is to apply to your program and for scholarships early.

Reasons:

  • Many scholarship application deadlines are actually long before program application deadlines. Don’t wait to be accepted to a program before applying. Honestly, just research these in tangent with your first inclination of studying abroad.
  • Most program applications require letters of recommendation, official transcripts, and a personal essay. Programs focusing on a language will definitely require some form of recommendation from your language teachers. Don’t put this stuff off, especially because recommendations have etiquette and expectations surrounding them.
  • I’ve been told study abroad programs often accept applicants on a rolling-basis. This means getting your application in earlier will give you a better chance at a spot in a program with limited space.

The second lesson I learned is to check if credits taken abroad in your program will count.

I was shocked to learn that the Asian Languages and Literatures minor at the University of Minnesota requires all classes to be taken in the United States. To be clear, this means students taking Chinese culture classes in the United States will receive credit for these classes towards the minor, but students who physically move to China and take the same classes abroad will not receive credit. If you can’t tell, I think this policy is pretty ridiculous. In my opinion, it undermines the purpose of such a minor. But hey, I just go here.

Notes on CUEP

If you’ve researched CUEP I assume you know this, but just in case you don’t, information about CUEP is found here. The information presented on that page will give you a general outline of the program.

Extra info and clarifications:

  • Historically, the program accepts one University of Minnesota student per year. Though it’s obvious in retrospect, during my initial research of the program I truly wasn’t sure how many students were accepted. The 2015-2016 school year (my year) is an exception to the rule. I am one of two CUEP students this year because the China Center was not able to send a student the year before and are thus compensating for that.
  • When I applied, the program fee was estimated at “about $7,000 per semester”. This is not a fee on top of University of Minnesota tuition. The way it works is pretty simple. You pay University of Minnesota tuition through OneStop (which is presently roughly $7,000 per semester hence the estimate) and that money is transferred to Peking University to pay for your tuition there including housing. As the site states, you will also “receive a monthly stipend”. For me that stipend is 1000RMB per month and according to my math that is about what would be left of that $7,000 after Peking’s tuition and housing is paid for.
  • You should know the Chinese Government Scholarship Exchange is a separate program from the Chinese University Exchange Program, but they share the same application form.
  • Your acceptance will come in two parts. First you will be nominated by the China Center for this program. That means the University of Minnesota has selected you, but Peking University still has to approve it. Next you’ll receive an official admittance from Peking University. After that, it’s official. I received my nomination from the China Center at the end of March and my official admittance letter the first week of June. Don’t let the small amount of students accepted to this program deter you. Most students apply to bigger programs through the Learning Abroad Center. This is mainly because of name recognition and I assume the fear students have of programs without a lot of hand-holding.

Other Things

  • Visa’s are acquired through agencies. I used G3 services for mine. Their application form was really easy and the only things you need to go out of your way to get is scans of you drivers license and passport, as well as a passport-style photo. You can get passport-style photos taken at CVS or Walgreens. If and when you do, I’d suggest getting at least four of them for future use once in China.
  • I discovered a phenomenal vlogger by the name of Serpentza on Youtube. His “China: How it is” series has really helped me gain some knowledge on what to expect.
  • Watch this video to see an amazing packing method that will help you bring all of your clothes.