Wednesday, July 31, 2013

No VPN, No problems

Departing from Peking Capital Airport, flying over Northeastern China then arcing over Russia, the Pacific, Canada, down to Toronto with a speedy transfer over to the U.S. gate, hopping Lake Ontario in a tin-can plane to Rochester.

Sunday night, 16 hours and several reverse time zones later... Home.  

It's familiar, and extremely comfortable.  I'm not as jarred as I imagined, but drained from my off-schedule sleeping.   The sun rises through a clear sky, but a bit later than it would in China.  No smoke.  No smog.  Traffic is sparse.  No one honks.  Sometimes the roads are completely abandoned.  Silence aside from the birds.

Water from the tap has never tasted fresher.  My dogs happily snuggle.  I can lay on my carpeted floor.  I can walk barefoot around my backyard.  I need the gears on my bike (like, a lot).  I don't need a VPN to check my e-mail or post a blog.  I'm fully literate again.  Please, sorry, excuse me.  I have to remind myself that it's pleasant to smile at strangers again, and engaging them doesn't have the potential of a cultural misunderstanding.  I love catching up with family, and friends one by one; they lead the conversation with questions and reactions, while I can probe into their lives these last several months.

My closet is brimming with clothes, the floor scattered with amassed stubs, receipts, books, and souvenirs.  I've stocked up the kitchen with a much-needed trip to Wegmans: baby spinach, tomatoes, orange juice, fresh mozzarella, blue corn tortilla chips and some Chinese touches like chili sauce, tofu, noodles, and those little koala-shaped-chocolate-filled cookies.  I don't have all the equipment or ingredients to truly recreate Chinese cuisine, so I'm doing my best not to abandon the exciting flavors I've grown so accustomed to.  All of these foods can actually be found in China, especially at high-end grocery stores like my guilty pleasure City Shop, but now they don't cost an arm and a leg.

The greatest drawback is my resumed lack of mobility; the hills of the Finger Lakes aren't efficiently navigated unless you have a car.  This is to say, I'm basically a hermit at home.  It's a beautiful region, yet with different points of interest than a city.  Nevertheless, I've missed this dearly and embrace the wide, untamed space with happiness.

(Un)fortunately I have a lot of cleaning and purging to do, particularly a closet overhaul that doesn't just include my clothes.  After living for a while within the confines of 2 suitcases, I've realized that all the stuff I own is not necessary, that you can where the same shirt or pair of shorts a few times a week, and that collecting more just holds you back.  Much as I love my things, memories do not need tangible connections.  A lot of sentiment and recollection has faded over the years, so I'm trying to ditch that stuff.  When I come to live on my own, I'll need a small dwelling-- that should be the physical restriction on my possessions!  My brain still isn't in full gear, but I think there needs to be a Memory Management class for all the experiences I never want to forget.

Upcoming post: Chinese food photos I've collected on my iPhone :)
Listening: "The Night Out" by Martin Sloveig

Saturday, July 27, 2013


It’s 6 PM here in Beijing, and in 22 hours I’ll be on a plane heading back to the United States.  These last 5 months have felt like a lifetime, an alternative reality I never imagined living but am craving to experience again.  It’s incredible that I had the opportunity to live in two of China’s largest cities, while engaging new people, places, lifestyles and ideas.  The age old question, do I like Shanghai or Beijing more? – I can’t quite answer.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and I think it comes down to what you want out of the city. 

The goodbyes are always weird, and I really dislike them.   I said goodbye to my roommate yesterday because he’s headed south to Guangzhou and then to Hong Kong to renew his visa.  It’s been a pleasure living with Tom, and this hutong apartment has been integral to my time here.  
Although my internship had moments of office drudgery, I appreciated the change from working at a café.
  I really enjoyed my colleagues, especially the lady lunch group and exchanging different cultural lessons.  It’s been a good test for a potential future in the professional world, and I was able to interact with a different ex-pat community here, rather than just students.  I passed my bike keys to Fang Fang, said good bye to each of them quietly with a slight lump in my throat, then left the office yesterday for the last time.
One of my teammates from frisbee, ZeFang, is a native Beijinger but goes to school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  I instantly bonded with her over the fact that until middle school, my family went to Lancaster every Thanksgiving to visit Hershey Park and the tax-free outlet malls.  Sometimes we’d make the trip during the summer to utilize the Amish talent in construction, horses harnesses, carts, delicious jams, and dogs.  Anyway, ZeFang and her parents took me out for a feast on Wangfujing Street, and I just am constantly amazed and appreciative of the generosity shown by my Chinese friends.  Even though society is experiencing disjuncture between the old ways of life and the post-reform, capitalistic life, this kindness to share the best of China with new friends seems to be a backbone.  ZeFang and her dad are even going to drive me to the airport Sunday!  I told her that she has to come to my house this coming  year, or we’ll have to visit Lancaster (about a 6 hour drive south).

Later, I met a someone at a birthday party, who lives 15 minutes from Honeoye in Canandaigua!! I have found a few people from the North Country, Syracuse, and even suburbs of Rochester, but this was simply fantastic.  She’s just begun 5 weeks out of a 2 year stay, so how bizarre it was to relate about a place that she’s said goodbye to for a while, and I will be say hello to again. 

Then this afternoon, I played with my Beijing summer league team Crazy Bad for the last time, and hopefully imparted enough spirit that will carry them to the championship at the end of the summer.  Frivolous as it may seem, playing Ultimate has had an immense impact on my perspective here.  The cultural differences fade away when you're diving for the same flying disc down a grassy field.

Life here is by no means perfect, but I already miss China.  At the same time, I have to go and finish my time at St. Lawrence, which is another mind twist I haven’t processed.  I’m already envisioning the shock of return, after a 15-hour flight that launches from one side of the world to another without much time to process in between.  Though I don’t leave with any strong regrets, there is still so much to do here.  

China, I’m not done with you yet.  I know I'll be back someday. 

Listening: “Here’s to Now” by Ugly Casanova, from the deliriously wonderful soundtrack of 180 degrees South
(the internet is slow today, so the photo vomit will come in another post)

Monday, July 22, 2013


Temple of Heaven Park (天坛公园) is by far my favorite imperial monument in the immediate city of Beijing.  Granted, I haven't had a chance to scope out the Forbidden City/Palace Museum (let's blame it on work), but this enormous park and its buildings are breathtaking.  The walkways are wide and cement-paved, but there are also packed dirt trails that weave between junipers and cypress trees that are hundreds of years old.  Amidst the clamoring tourists, clicks of Chinese checkers being moved across playing boards, spontaneous chorales of hymns, there are even chattering birds and gentle zitar music, resonating between the trees.  Chinese parks as a public space are utilized so well, between visitors, strollers, activity-doers, photo-takers, and sleepers.     
 The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) is the iconic image for the park, with its three-tiered gables and circular construction.  The emperor would go here to, well, pray for a good harvest for China.  The number nine is present in most of the construction as it is a sacred symbol for the 9th level of heaven.

 Apparently if you stand in the center of the Circular Mound and speak, your voice will echo and resonate for eternity.  As you can see, I wasn't quite able to squeeze myself in.  No worries though, most of you can hear my voice within a good 100 meter range!

And this is what I do when I'm not at work ;).  I begrudgingly refused to move for a solid half an hour to sketch this out, which allowed me to truly see the monument and understand its magnificence.  Straight lines and proper angles still escape me.
If I could come here everyday, I would.

Listening: My roommates watching The Walking Dead in the background!

Sunday, July 21, 2013


你不能来中国然后没有过去长城!You can't come to China without going to the Great Wall -- you're just robbing yourself of an amazing experience.  
Fortunately, Beijing is within periphery of many sections of the wall.  In order to avoid navigating Chinese tour buses and overwhelming crowds, I signed up with a group called Beijing Hikers.  They lead several trips every week around the city and across Mainland China that are very-well organized and rated according to difficulty.  Last Sunday I joined them for a level 3+ 'Great Wall Spur' that was an unrestored section of Mutianyu.
 I was up at 5:30 AM, on the metro to meet the group, then we rode a bus for a few hours north.  We were out trekking by 8:45.  We ascended a mountain for nearly an hour and a half through foliage that made me think we were bushwhacking through Vietnam!  The air was very heavy so I was drenched in sweat, and unfortunately the mist limited what would be incredible views.
 A small cave on the trail up that was great for a cool break.
After the trail we entered the wall through a fortress.

The wall is overgrown with years of packed dirt that has birthed its own small forest!  I was pleasantly surprised by the numerous wildflowers (giant bees and horse flies weren't that great).  

The Great Wall stretches back nearly 2,000 years, with the most recent construction between 1300-1600 during the Ming Dynasty.  I can hardly conceptualize the millions of lives, whether forced or not, that partook in the immense construction-- by hand!  It is truly a vestige of humankind.
It was fun to look back every now and then to track our progress.  Let's just say I'm glad we took this trip with the mountain first, because the rest of the wall was mainly going downhill.  Some portions were a bit treacherous, with crumbling stones and no support.

Our awesome BJ Hikers guide, Milly, explaining how different generals were in charge of building sections of the wall.  She's worked in Beijing for three or four years now, but spent years living in Nepal and guiding treks across the Himalayas-- northern Pakistan, Nepal, southern China.  She had a sharp sense of humor, great stories, and spoke English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and probably a few other languages we didn't hear.  Simply put, Milly is a professional badass (my conclusion was also affirmed when she mentioned that she played ultimate frisbee in the eighties).

We didn't hike the wall pictured here, but I just wanted to point out how absurd this hairpin construction is.  There had to have been a better way..!
I met some interesting travelers so conversation made the hike pass quickly.  We ended with a big lunch in a village before heading back to Beijing.  I wish the hike was longer, or that I had time to go to another section.  Beijing Hikers was a bit more expensive than I hoped (this is the frugal student whining), but I can't recommend their staff or trip-planning enough.  If you're hoping take more obscure nature adventures, they are the ones to work with!  For more information click here.

 嘿你好! Pants were a good idea for protection from the brush, but it was really hot.


So it's my last week in China.  I'm already behind on blogging for this past week, but I'm aiming to do some guerrilla posting through the madness of the coming days because I have more photos to post and stories to share.  Life has this tendency to move a little too quickly..
Listening:  The Nightbeds 

Thursday, July 11, 2013


 So what’s it like celebrating the birth of your nation while halfway around the world in another?  Actually, a lot of fun, and more patriotism than I ever imagined!  Maybe it’s the vacuum effect of being a minority expatriate; we've come to China seeking something different, but the U.S. is our commonality.  Thursday on the 4th I was acquainted with a lot more ultimate frisbee players at a friend’s rooftop cookout, while venues around the city had drink and barbecue deals and live music the rest of the weekend.

When in rains in the city, I can’t help but cringe and veer away from puddles, not quite sure what it’s washing away.  But summer storms are still welcome; on the 4th of July, a menacing storm from the north blustered through the city and took the pollution with it!  Peter’s new apartment had jaw-dropping views of the northern mountains, meandering clouds, a saturated sunset, and even stars later into the night.  Apparently this only happens, like, once a year—so I was thrilled to be a witness.  It did pain me a bit though, knowing that this is how it should be but now is only experienced rarely.  I can understand why Beijing was chosen as an imperial capital.

We donned our red, white, and blue, waved garden-sized flags, and someone brought a kiddie pool (it was 8 feet long and a logistically humorous to fill up).  There were grilled vegetables and meats, pasta salad, home brewed iced tea and lemonade, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and desserts: I savored the joy of stuffing my face with frosted banana bread and carrot cake, with vanilla bourbon frosting.  In a land of sketchy meat and very few ovens, it couldn’t get any better.  The only things missing were fireworks and a rousing rendition of the national anthem (which occurs at least once at every frisbee party I’ve ever been to).   Happy birthday, U.S.A.! 
A kiddie pool, barbecue, clear skies and good company -- what more do you need?

In the spirit of the holiday weekend, other events also included an Independence Day-themed Food Club at Justin's house.  He's another frisbee player who's been living in Beijing for a few years, and each month he hosts a themed meal and brings friends, neighbors, and people he just met off the airplane (literally though) together to enjoy the food.  He used a sous vide method in his bathroom and cooked a pork shoulder, made his own barbecue sauce (heavenly), mac and cheese with a thick roux and crusted top in a toaster oven, coleslaw, potato salad, and one of his roommates contributed a peach pie-- another case of food-induced coma heaven.

 Justin, demonstrating how the pulled pork sliders (on baguette) should be eaten.  He was also quite proud of the bacon jam.

On Sunday, we had one last hurrah for the U.S.A. by taking over a Xinjiang restaurant's sidewalk and hung flags, played Americana music, drank more PBR, and gave them good business by ordering a lot of chuar (roasted lamb skewers).  Like I said, who knew the 4th of July could be so exciting in Beijing :).


 It’s events like these, and subtleties in our behavior and language, I think, that construct our appearance to others.  Since being abroad, I’m acutely more aware of how identifying your origin influences how people perceive you.  We all have stereotypes, or at least ideas, about a person when they tell you what country or region of the world they’re from.  Most Chinese natives’ reactions range from surprise, to curiosity, to confused, or impressed when I say that I’ve lived in the U.S. all my life (meiguo 美国).  Just like in China, you say you are from the North, then you probably have a very hardy personality; from the South, you must have a great penchant for eating (whether that’s biological or socially learned or not is another story, but I’d like to think as being born in a southern city, I certainly uphold this trait haha)!

I remember my freshman year of school, I was in a Race, Culture & Identity class and we were discussing labels.  Someone pointed out that saying, “I’m American” is a lot less descript than us, er, Americans (U.S. folk), would like to assume.  ‘America’, to the rest of the world, is a set of two enormous continents!  The Canadians, they’re American, they’re from North America; Hondurans are Americans from South America… you understand my point, right?   It’s a language subtlety, and an indicator of power, that struck a chord and hasn’t left me since.  Just because the U.S. dominates these two continents, does not mean we can make claims on being more ‘American’ than anyone else that inhabits them.  And while I’m still guilty of saying, “I’m American” (especially with an obnoxious twang), I make a conscious effort to identify as citizen from the United States.


The first full week in my apartment was a good time—I’ve smoked out the place by not plugging in the stove fan, disconnected one of the kitchen sink pipes by removing the drain, couldn’t figure out how the breaker box worked to repower the electricity—the place has a few charming, dysfunctional quirks.  My roommate Tom has been there for nearly a year and he’s worked out so many of them, and my mistakes tend to be a reminder of issues he can smooth over without a second thought.  I also have a bike now!  It’s a creaky single speed with scarlet red frame that’s a bit too small, but silver wheel fenders, and a black seat and back rack.  The best part is, my co-workers helped me locate the bike online and we went to the vendor together.  She wouldn’t negotiate the price down, but for 220 RMB (about 33 USD) I received the bike, a lock, and a basket.  What’s more, my co-worker FangFang bought the bike, and is simply letting me use it for the rest of the month!!  It’s so generous of her because now I don’t have to worry about reselling the bike before I leave. 

Some photos of my Beijing home base:
 The apartment is right around the corner from Nanluo Guxiang-- one of the most bustling streets in the city -- but because it's set back, we have quietness and privacy.  Well, aside from the construction that usually starts at 7 AM all around us.  My roommate speculates that they other proprietor is turning the surrounding apartments into a big hutong hotel, though we'll be gone before it's finished.
 My room!  Simple, yes, and the comfortable bed (thickest mattress I've slept on in China) takes up about two-thirds of the room.  Can't complain.

FangFang has also enlisted me to help her learn English.  She’s aiming to take the TOEFL next winter to boost her resume and accreditation, and I happen to be her most accessible candidate as a language partner.  Much to my resistance, she’s treated me to dinner twice now, even though I’m more than happy to talk through her lessons for free.  So for a few hours after work we enjoy delicious food together and tackle general topics in English (with some Chinese lessons thrown in for me), then review the TOEFL text.  

Chinese hotpot (above), where you're given an individual pot of the broth of your choice -- like vegetable stock, meat stock, mine was tomato-based -- and it's placed on an electric heater.  Once the broth is forming, toss your food in until its cooked!  We ate heaps of vegetables, lamb, and small dumplings.
This quaint Japanese restaurant, Suzuki, is a complete hit in Beijing.  We just went to their newest location down the street from the office.  The interior has dark wood, clean lines, and charming rabbit-themed decorations.  We shared a huge tuna salad, Japanese hotpot, and a tofu-egg rice bowl.  太好吃了!

I'm actually feeling settled in, which is a lovely realization indeed.
Listening: the drills, hammers, and scuffles of the construction