Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Final Countdown

I wrote my last exam yesterday, officially finishing my year of studies in China. I leave Chongqing on Monday to spend a couple days in Hong Kong and Beijing before flying home on the 13th. I have less than two weeks left in China. My little dorm room has been stripped bare, and my roommate and I officially “divorced” today after sharing these intimate quarters for nearly a year. My things are already packed in a brand new suitcase the size of a Volkswagen, and I’ve stocked up on enough bootleg DVDs, cheap sundresses and wild coloured tights to last me until my next trip to China, at least. Although this blog has clearly been a total fail, I figured I’d write one last post for…closure, or something.

I’d expected to be more reluctant to leave China every day as the deadline loomed, but I’ve actually found the opposite. Once I got down to the last few weeks, I started to feel that all I really had left to look forward to here was exams, packing, saying goodbye (permanently, for the most part) to all my new friends, and preparing for the daunting task of moving back to Canada and resuming an entirely different life. In the meantime, I’m stuck in this limbo, far from home in a foreign country and too stressed out to enjoy much. I just want to get this last push behind me. I’m exhausted. Having moved eight times in the past five years, with each time being more stressful than the last, the prospect of another move – compounded by the sheer logistics of moving to another country – has got me so paralyzed with anxiety that attempts to go out and enjoy my last few weeks here haven’t really been worth the effort. Not to mention it’s hotter than the pits of hell here now! I’ve pretty much been camped out under the air con in my room for the past few weeks. Once I’ve officially vacated my place – always the worst part of moving – I’ll be fine. When I’m all packed up and back on the open road I’ll feel a little lighter and get a bit of that travel bug back.

Last night I had a housecooling party to say goodbye to my friends and, hopefully, unload some of the stuff I’ve accumulated that couldn’t take back home with me. We had a great time, and I did manage to get some extra stuff off of my hands.

It's the dream team - me on the left, my roommate Bridget on the right, and our adorable friend Benson, who we met our first week here, in the middle.

So that’s me right now. What am I most looking forward to when I get back to Canada? Having my own bedroom. Cheese. Electric dryers. Not nearly getting run over by motorcyclists driving down the sidewalk every time I step outside. Democracy. Not having to deal with the incredibly obnoxious and pervasive Chinese habit of loudly spitting all over the street (or even indoors, on the floor). Not being stared at when I dare to go out in public. What am I going to miss the most about China? Every little thing being a novelty. Every experience being a challenge and an adventure. Being able to take off and stay in a hostel in a Ming palace or a 700-year-old traditional courtyard house on the canal for under five dollars a night. The local spots I’ve come to know and love, like the café just off campus where I took the barista class or the little shop where I get fresh-ground red bean milk every day. The openness and lack of reserve of the Chinese people which makes socializing so much easier than it is back home. Having fresh-brewed soymilk for breakfast every morning. Marking the passage of time by the constantly changing selection of seasonal local fruits and vegetables being sold by the roadside. Buying snacks like roasted chestnuts and yams or deep-fried stinky tofu cooked in a converted oil drum on the back of a street vendor’s bike.

Chinese word of the day:
lí kāi
(verb) to depart, to leave

Monday, May 9, 2011

Look! A new blog post!...With pictures!

Wow, time's flying by these days. My last post was seriously over a month ago? Yikes...

So, what are my excuses this time? Well, aside from the usual schoolwork, I've been busy taking a barista class at my favourite cafe (yes, in Chinese - it's a normal barista class for normal Chinese people, not just for foreigners) and tutoring a few kids on the weekends. I've also decided not to get fat while I'm here, which means instead of just eating quick, greasy veggies and fried noodles at the canteens and restaurants every day, I now spend a fair chunk of time grocery shopping, cooking and working out at the little gym in the basement of my dorm. The food here is delicious, but my god, is it ever fattening. Take Chongqing's favourite dish, hotpot, for instance:

That pot's probably got at least a half litre of chili oil floating on top of the broth. Raw ingredients are added to the pot, fished out, and dunked in a bowl full of soya oil before eating. The sheer quantities of oil consumed in a hotpot dinner are insane. And it's not necessarily just for "special occasions," either. There are lots of people here who eat it on a weekly basis. Hotpot's an extreme case, but pretty mush everything here tends to be swimming in grease. People here are always commenting on how westerners are all fat because of our unhealthy diets, but I don't buy it; I think even Ronald McDonald would be overwhelmed by the amount of grease and MSG in the local food.

Although it's kind of a shame to have to limit my consumption of the local cuisine, I'm getting all the fresh, local, seasonal produce I can eat! Since I started cooking for myself more, I've probably been eating healthier than I ever have in my life. Street vendors are everywhere with their locally grown sweet potatoes, greens, cherry tomatoes, and fruits. And the fruits! I'm eating fresh pineapples and Asian pears and watermelons like it's my job. I will really miss all this when I go home.

Anyway, as you can see, I've finally got a reliable enough connection to support the photo uploader, so I'll get on that and brighten up this blog a bit.

Coming up soon: my Chinese barista class, durian season, travel plans, and more pictures of Chongqing!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

School Daze

Ok, so I'm a terrible blogger. That's not news. I guess I've learned that there's no point in promising makeup posts, 'cause I just can't seem to bring myself to write them!

Anyway, I did end up switching to the upper intermediate classes, and I'm so glad I did! My new classes are great. The content is challenging - especially the volume of new and increasingly obscure characters I have to learn every week - but we spend enough time on it that I'm able to absorb at least some of it. The classes themselves are actually really fun, as we're all at a high enough level that the teachers can chat freely and naturally instead of spoon feeding us.

On top of the brisk classroom pace, they've also added a composition class to our curriculum. I now have to write an essay of 500 characters or more every week. It's exhausting, but it's also kind of fun trying to put your thoughts together using unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar structures, like a puzzle. I also find it liberating to focus on just getting words on the page, hopefully in the correct order, without getting bogged down by flow and balance and other details that plague perfectionists like me. I actually remember reading somewhere that Samuel Beckett used to write his poems in French and then translate them into English to keep them pared-down and pure. I thought it was a cool idea at the time, but now I really get it.

The fact that a class that was way too hard for me just five months ago is way too easy for me now is a real milestone. Immersing yourself in a foreign language is an utterly bewildering and overwhelming experience. Boxed in on all sides by a towering language barrier, the new skills you learn every day seem completely insignificant in comparison; no matter how quickly you learn, the progress feels maddeningly slow. I remember feeling pretty confident when I came to China - I was at the top of my class, after all - and arriving here and finding out how little I really knew was a pretty rude awakening. I despaired that my dream of becoming bilingual was just a delusion. The simplest things became difficult or impossible. For months, I felt like I was making only minimal progress. It wasn't until I started finding myself coping easily with situations that had previously stumped me that I realized how far I've come.

Chinese word of the day:
chéng gōng
Success (n); to succeed (v)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hitting the books

Classes have started, and my classmates and I are now at lower-intermediate level. During my month of travels, when I went days at a time without speaking a word of English, my spoken Chinese improved a lot, so I’m currently trying to decide whether to stay at lower intermediate or switch to upper intermediate for more of a challenge. Without a challenge, I tend to get lazy and do things like surf the net on my phone during class, which I can actually afford to do here. The upper-intermediate class also has no native English speakers, so even with my classmates I’d be exclusively speaking Chinese. I sat in on a class this week and I felt ok with it, but the teacher doesn’t seem to think I can handle it. I’ll try again next week and see if he’s right.

In the meantime, I’m still studying from the lower-intermediate textbook. I’ve not had a particularly productive week and I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone tonight and study while blogging; the following is a translation of the first lesson in my new textbook. I find it very interesting. Forgive a little awkwardness in the structure – I tried to keep it as parallel as I could, and some things don’t make for smooth translation.

“After graduating university, I wanted to go to China to teach English, but my parents didn’t approve. Because I live in a small town, there’s not much information about China, and my parents thought of China as undeveloped; moreover, the place I went to wasn’t very well-known and they were worried that it wouldn’t be safe for a girl to go there alone, so they advised me to find work in my own country. But my curious heart compelled me in spite of my parents’ opposition, and I resolutely chose to come to China to work.

When I came to China, my luggage was over 50 kilos. My parents were dying to give me everything they could to bring with me; they’d even packed a bunch of instant noodles.

When I got to China, I was very surprised. Beijing, so grand and and imposing; Yantai, so beautiful. Especially last October, when several of us foreign teachers and students went to tour a small fishing village. I say it’s a fishing village, but what we saw was a bunch of red-tiled, white walled little houses. Walking into this tiny little fishing village, I saw nothing but the green trees, flowers and lawns in front of each house, and the streets were clean and orderly. It was very pretty. In the afternoon, my colleagues and I went to a fisherman named Chen’s house to have lunch. The Chen couple and their daughter warmly welcomed us. The family had a small house with five or six rooms – bedroom, kitchen, drawing room, and washroom. They had a colour TV, fridge, air conditioner and stereo. Everything they needed was on hand; it was just like a luxurious hotel. Their peasant cooking smelled really good. There was roasted sweet potato, boiled corn, cornmeal cakes, and of course seafood – fish, shrimp, crab, absolutely everything. As we were leaving, our hosts couldn’t let us go without a big bag of sweet potatoes and cornmeal cakes. Later, I wrote my parents a letter telling them everything I’d seen. But they thought I was deliberately lying to them because I was afraid they were worried about me. Half-believing, half-doubting me, they decided to come see for themselves.

My parents arrived in China in May of this year. They felt the same way I did when I’d just arrived – as soon as they got off the plane they said “Oh! This is China?” They simply wouldn’t dare believe their own eyes. I took them sightseeing in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Guilin. Besides touring famous scenic and historic sights, we also went to all kinds of markets. My mom thought everything was really cheap, so she bought tons of stuff - so much so that, when she went home, her luggage was way overweight.

When we got back to Yantai, I took them on a special trip to that fishing village for a peasant-style meal. Only then did they believe that what I said in my letter wasn’t untrue at all. When they were about to go back home, my mom said: “travelling in China was the most interesting experience of my life – I really am enlightened. This trip was both a treat for the eyes and a treat for the stomach. China is indeed developing fast, your choice is correct; your father and I both support you.”

Through a year’s work, I’ve developed even deeper feelings toward this place. I feel that China has a lot of potential for development, and later will associate more and more with countries around the world. If you can proficiently grasp China’s language, you will definitely have a favourable position to use your skills in the future. Thus, after my year’s teaching job finished, I decided to stay in China – but this time as a student, from the start, studying Mandarin.

I think my choice this time around is just as correct. If you don’t believe me, let’s find out.”

Chinese word of the day:
xuān chuán
To disseminate, to give publicity to (v); propaganda (n)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Back in Chongqing

Well, vacation's over, and I'm back in Chongqing now - broke, exhausted, and thrilled with my travels. I've got a lot of catching up to do, so I'm going to continue chaotically adding new posts out of order. My apologies for the mess; hope it's not too hard to keep up.

After a month on the road, returning to my foreign home of nearly six months was utterly surreal. I couldn’t figure out if it felt more familiar or more foreign than ever. Arriving at the airport, I had the same problem I always seem to have figuring out which bus to take and where to catch it. Eventually I made it to the right bus, and we set off for downtown Chongqing just before dusk. The route we took seemed strangely indirect, winding through industrial areas and backstreets for nearly an hour before reaching the first stop, where I was to transfer to a bus into Beibei. It was great - I saw parts of Chongqing I’d never seen before, and I felt like I was on another trip instead of on the way back home. As night fell I became aware of the elaborately arranged strings of lights and red festival lanterns that lined the streets and hung from every tree and building. I’d come back just in time to catch the Lantern Festival (元宵节, Yuán xiāo jié) – the first full moon of the year, falling on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, that marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations.

Finally arriving back at the dorm, I gratefully ditched my bags and ran off to get a very late dinner with only my wallet in hand, neglecting to bring either my camera or my phone. After a quick tofu hotpot at the Korean place just off campus, I followed the sound of fireworks into downtown Beibei to find it festively crowded and filled with lights. Couples twirled to tinny old ballads in the central square, lit by hundreds of red lanterns and white string lights. I cursed my camera-less state and considered running back to the dorm to grab it, then decided to just try to enjoy the moment without it for once. A corridor of lights led down the street toward the river, so I followed it, stopping at a crowded bakery for a hot cup of fresh soymilk and some sticky rice cakes (元宵, yuán xiāo), which I later found out are the traditional snack of the Lantern Festival. The streets were lined with snack vendors taking advantage of the crowds – I almost regretted eating at a restaurant as I walked past the tables of veggies, tofu, noodles, seafood and meat being stirfried and grilled over charcoal fires.

I reached the promenade alongside the river and wandered the tent city of snack stalls and mah-jong tables for a while. The sky was dotted with the warm glow of drifting sky lanterns (lanterns that work like miniature hot air balloons, floating into the air with the heat from a candle or wick fixed into the wire frame at the bottom) while fireworks blossomed from sidewalks and balconies all around. I went down to the pitch-black riverbank and ate yuán xiāo, watching the groups of people that gathered around the lanterns as they filled with light and air and floated eerily off into the sky like celestial jellyfish. Eventually I remembered that I was on a hot water schedule again and tore myself away from the hypnotic scene, picking my way through the sky lantern carcasses littering the now-deserted streets and back to my dorm for my bedtime shower.

Chinese word of the day:
piào liang
(Adj) pretty, beautiful

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Letter From a Cafe in China

It’s pouring rain and I’ve got a cold, and my feet are killing me from three weeks straight of walking on stone and concrete, so my ambitious plans for a day trip to Hong Kong have been abandoned in favour of a cosy afternoon at *coughStarbuckscough*. I know, I know. Supporting globalization, western colonialism, the evil coffee industry, etc, etc. And I’m in China! I should be sipping green tea and listening to some screeching Chinese opera in a grimy 800-year-old teahouse somewhere, or at least getting my caffeine fix at a Chinese-owned cafe with more local flavour - not basking in the safe orange glow of those arty blown glass lights surrounded by familiar cookie cutter faux-hemian décor with Ella Fitzgerald crooning softly in the background, right? But here I am.

So why am I at Starbucks instead of soaking up some culture somewhere more “Chinese”?

To be honest, Starbucks has become something of a safe haven for me here in China. Kind of like a west-coast Canadian embassy. In a country where the most mundane things like ordering and paying for food and drinks can be utterly confusing and awkward, prices fluctuate wildly, and wi-fi and real coffee are often difficult to come by, Starbucks is an uncomplicated, reliable oasis. I know exactly what to expect when I come here. Starbucks’ western prices appear brazenly expensive in cheaper cities like Chongqing, but in more metropolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai the prices are about on par with the other cafes and teahouses, and are often cheaper. The menu and prices are the same no matter where you are, likewise the payment method, and there’s no risk of accidentally ordering (or “accidentally” being served) some outrageously expensive specialty item which you’ll have to pay for later – a common occurrence in China. There’s always free wireless (when it’s compatible with my computer, which is not the case today), the coffee’s good, and foreigners are a common sight so nobody stares. Oh, and the bathrooms are clean, with western-style toilets.

Teahouses are noisy and intimidating, especially if you don’t know a thing about tea, and are frequented mainly by older people. Chinese-owned coffee shops tend to be super fancy, catering to chain-smoking middle-aged business men wishing to show off their status by blowing up to 200 RMB on a pot of coffee. Starbucks does have a large clientele of homesick foreigners, but it’s also very popular with Chinese people, particularly young people.

As I’ve discovered in so many ways, an experience doesn’t need to be traditional to be authentic. What is "authentic," anyway? Maybe Chinese people do come here for a change of atmosphere, to have something foreign, like when we go for Chinese food in the west, but they still come and hang out here in droves. This is a part of life in China, with a uniquely Chinese aspect to it. The fact that it’s a western place doesn't necessarily "dilute" my experience of China. It’s not like Canadians have high tea with the queen every day or survive on a diet of poutine and maple syrup - foreign things are a part of our lifestyle, and what's a part of your lifestyle is essentially a part of your culture.

So, while the anti-corporate coffee snob in me still balks at the idea of saying I’m proud to hang out at Starbucks…I guess I’ll just say I look at it with a gentler eye now.

Chinese word of the day:
wén huà
Culture (noun)

PS: here are some of last week's photos of Suzhou, as well as the black and whites from Tongli!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


So I've just arrived in Shenzhen, the final leg of my trip. I have to go explore now, but I thought I'd do a quick post to rave about the hotel/hostel I found here: The Hanting Hi Inn. It was the fist time I'd booked a hotel online and I was a little worried I might show up to find a roachfest or no hotel at all, and from the outside the place certainly looks dubious, but the rooms are very comfortable and clean. What the place lacks in character it makes up for in comfort and privacy. My tiny room has a spotless little ensuite bathroom, an excellent shower and western toilet (as opposed to the Chinese squat toilets which are common here, just a hole in the floor), air conditioning, a little flatscreen television on the wall in front of the bed, a desk with an adaptable electrical socket, and free wireless. The place seems quite secure, with every door and elevator locked with electronic keys. There's a cute little cafe/common area on the second floor with foosball, TVs and computers, and a canteen on the third floor that delivers freshly cooked chinese food to your room for a decent price. And apparently it's walking distance from a great pedestrian shopping/snacking street and a subway station. All for the low, low price of 118-180 RMB (20-30 CAD) per night, depending on holidays/weekends.

So I'm absolutely delighted and relieved right now, and very grateful that this little place exists. Especially after pulling an all-nighter at the Shanghai airport last night.

Chinese word of the day:
xiǎo chī
snack (noun; literally, "small eats")