Wednesday, September 30

North Korea Impressions and the Ghetto of Rural-Ethnic-Minority China

Over this weekend some of our teachers accompanied us on a trip to Dandong, China. The appeal of Dandong is that it is a city on the Yalu River, a river that makes up the border between China and North Korea. And despite the close relations between the two countries (China is North Korea's biggest trade partner and provides pretty much all the food in that country), it is hilarious to see that China plays up that juxtaposition of immense development on it's side of the bank against the drab buildings and bare land on the North Korean side. And just to top it off there is a rotating building shooting out a green laser-like light at night circling, not only Dandong, but also spilling across the border into North Korea.

Despite this, the appeal of Dandong is questionable. It is a developing city, much more so than Harbin, but it doesn't seem to have an aim in it's development like other large cities apart from pissing off the North Koreans as they wallow in their miserable poverty and help stoke the Chinese sense of superiority (which is really just a facade based on a weakening foundation of power projection).

As far as ethnic minorities in China go, it is a huge joke that they think they can convince foreigners that China is a multi-ethnic society. China's 55 other races (non-Han Chinese), are a shadow of their former selves and have been so assimilated into Han culture that it seems shameless to begin to mention them. Even Han Chinese say that Man Chinese, a race considered large in China (3rd largest) coming in at around 10.2 million people, are virtually indistinguishable from their Han counterparts.

My challenge for China is to stop hiding behind the facade of an ethnically diverse and harmonious society while also claiming that you are less racist than the US because you don't have minorities to discriminate against. Frankly, there seems to be a lot of 自相矛盾 (self contradiction) that becomes more and more obvious the longer that I am here.

Also, sorry about the recent lack in posting. October 1 is National Day in China and this year is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and I think that is rendering the proxies I use to get onto blogger and facebook useless. Hopefully in a week it should be better.

And enjoy some pictures of North Korea.

Saturday, September 19

中国任何外国人的爱恨交织 - The Love Hate Relationship of Chinese People and Foreigners

China had had a pitiable/interesting relationship with foreigners, most importantly in the period from the 1840s to the present. The "Hundred Years Humiliation" is still fresh on the lips of 10-year-olds who would have to be more like 60 to maybe have seen the tail end of the kind of occupation that China was subject to by England, France, Japan and the United States. The worse relationship was that between England and China. England, unable to let go of it's immensely successful entry into China's opium market decide it would need to use force in order to show China who the barbarians really were, leading to the Opium War, the second Opium War, the succession of ports to Western nations and Japan and probably the reason for why China has such harsh drug laws today.

Then, on October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), fresh from running the Guomindang (GMD/KMT) out of the mainland and to Taiwan, declared the creation of the People's Republic of China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and with the support of China's 老百姓 - China's masses, China's everyday people.

Since 1979, China has been implementing Reform and Opening policies, allowing for preferential policies for businesses in cities on the Eastern coastal cities, and the aim of advancing technology and infrastructure in provincial capitals and the developing infrastructure, economic growth and job creation for ethnic minorities in the West. And with this opening up, Western companies with the foresight to see the potential of the Chinese market flocked and began investment projects in cities like Hong Kong (returned to the Chinese in 1999), Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Dalian, Shenyang. Of course all this foreign investment made the quick, and probably unsustainable growth of the Chinese market possible. Which means Chinese should love foreigners, right?

Chinese are a people of grudges and generational hate. You can ask any Chinese person our age what their feelings about the Japanese are and odds are they hate Japanese for their occupation of Manchuria, their militarism (although Japan currently has no military for their actions during WWII) and their attempt at hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, and probably the world. You can ask any American our age if we hate the Japanese for their bombing of Pearl Harbor and odds are we don't care because Japan has robots and that is so freaking cool. It's not because most Americans don't remember/know the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but because we Americans learn to forgive and to forget.

Chinese are also a people of gross stereotypes. While looking at exhibits in the Jewish Synagogue, Jarrett's roommate told me about how all Chinese people think Jews are so good at business and they make so much money because they are the smartest people in the world. Shocked and trying to suppress laughter I told him about how there were some Americans that shared the same point of view as the Chinese. Luckily there were enough stupid Jews in the world to keep those stereotypes at bay.

So when you look at the history and the current state of Chinese people in regards to their relationship with foreigners you can see why they would be appreciative of the foreign existence in China however, due to generational hate against foreigners, particularly Japanese/Westerners there is a gross lack of understanding and that void is filled with stereotypes that would get all the windows in your car knocked out if you based your opinion of someone based on them in the states.

And where do I fit into this? I am just a confused Westerner who spends most of her time giving dirty looks to the people pointing at me and laughing at the sight of me from behind my back or right in front of my face, not realizing that I can completely understand what they are saying. But upon entering and leaving St. Sophia's Cathedral I encountered a different kind of response: Chinese that were so completely happy to see a Westerner that they just had to get a picture with her, while interested Chinese that realized the Black girl was actually a nice person and not going to bite them in the face gathered round to get pictures and just enjoy the spectacle. I'm not sure whether this goes under the ignorance category or the acceptance category, but it was pretty freaking funny.

(Pictures Coming Soon.)

Friday, September 18

The Day I Ate Dog and Chicken Hearts

One of the punchlines I constantly heard over the summer in response to hearing of my impending trip to China was "So, are you going to eat dog?" As some people know, I have been begging a certain someone for a puppy for a long time, so the thought of taking a precious animal out back, killing it, slicing it up and serving it to people barbeque-style was, and still is, stomach turning. Just a point to make, they usually cook the big, ugly dogs that look almost like small bears (puppies or other dogs don't have enough meat on them to make it worth the kill). But it's still like taking the-cute-dog-with-floppy-ears' uncle out back and shooting him, hence it all traces back to the cute ones, making it a sick, sick idea.

But how does this trace back to me eating a dog? A week ago I took a trip to Yagou (see post below) and since they weren't going to provide lunch so a couple of us decided to get baozi (big balls of bread with meat and vegetables inside). My friend Jarrett and I decided to get the second one on the list. I asked him what was in it and he said he thought it was pork (the standard answer in China if you don't actually know what it is as it is most likely pork). The name was something like "香菇...包子". The first two characters mean something like fragrant mushroom. However, what made me nervous hours later and stopped me from eating any more after the one in the morning before the bus ride to the mountains was the fact that the Chinese like to shorten names of things a lot, meaning 香菇 would be lengthened to 香肉蘑菇 meaning fragrant meat (the unsuspecting and unassuming codeword for dog meat) and mushroom. (I won't even get into the implications of calling dog meat fragrant meat.) After making my case to several friends I, unfortunately, got several responses. Jarrett seemed unsure and was just glad that he ended up not eating any. Laura told me I didn't eat dog meat and to stop worrying. Andrew told me he thought it was a type of mushroom and to now worry. Charlie seemed to think it was sadly funny and that I had eaten dog.

But then later that night, after a long hike up the mountains, they took us to a German-themed, Brazilian steakhouse-style Chinese restaurant (As weird as it sounds). One of the guys with spears of meat came around and pulled off 3 small pieces of I didn't know what but looked like very small, burnt sausage. My roommate leaned over and asked if I knew it was chicken hearts. I gave her one of my over-the-top of my glasses looks and thanked her and let her know that if she hadn't told me I would have eaten it. "They make you healthy since it's a heart," she told me. And then I did what I didn't expect. I covered it with some Chinese barbeque sauce and ate one. And then I ate another. And then I told her I couldn't eat the third. But I felt something change at that moment. I'd spent so much time fearing what I had eaten to even care about the fact that for them this is life. They eat dog, they eat chicken hearts and they don't care. So why should I? I don't have to like it but I should at least respect it and not feel so disgusted when I'm put in a situation where there is simply the possibility of something a little less than kosher could end up on my plate.

Since I've been here I've spent more time complaining about this place than embracing it. And it's not that I want to be bitter. The Chinese, in their prideful arrogance, malice laced with a lack of proper education, and ridiculously impolite and frankly disgusting habits make it very easy for a person to become disillusioned with this whole environment and want to jump the next plane back to the West. And all of these bad habits combined with simple ignorance diminishes their ability to accept and understand other cultures. And that is the reason why people stare. That is the reason why when you are speaking perfectly understandable Chinese they will turned glassy-eyed and pretend that they don't comprehend. That is why you will innocently be walking down the street and if the one old lady walking in the opposite direction doesn't cross the street to avoid passing you, the two walking behind you will burst into laughter at the thought of foreigners casually walking in front of them. It seems that it will take a while for the 老百姓, regular Chinese people, to learn to do their part in any genuine sense of a cultural exchange/dialogue. But that doesn't mean I can't do mine, because, while the people of China may not be invested in the world beyond copying all the other products made in every other part of the world, the people of the world are invested in China. Even if it means they have to eat the occasional dog and chicken heart.

Thursday, September 17

The Humbling Experience of Hand-washing Clothing

It seems almost comical that all of the washing machines here seem to rip your clothing apart while dryers are simply nonexistent. The first time I washed my clothes I enjoyed the first 10 minutes. I haven't been exercising since I got to China so it felt good to do something even remotely related to physical activity. Unfortunately, after that 10 minute mark, the romanticism and old country flavor a hand-washing clothes disappears and it becomes an annoying, messy process.

Steps for Hand-washing Clothing
Step 1: Fill a large, plastic basin with water and tide powder (they still make powder for washing clothes???) or pull out your tide detergent bar (a soap bar for washing clothes??? Only in China). Don't forget to put your pretty, yellow, plastic gloves.
Step 2: After filing the basic with soapy, bubbly water, place your clothes in the water and allow to soak for 5-20 minutes (the tougher the stain, the longer the soaking period).

Step 3: Fill a separate basin with clean water, pull out an article of clothing from the soaking basin and scrub it in the clean water
Step 4: Rinse the article of clothing with clean water until the water runs clear, wring out excess water and hang to dry.
*Repeat steps 3-4 until you are looking at an empty basin and a bathroom full of your clothes hanging on what in America would be a shower curtain, but what in China is purely decoration; in it's most practical sense a place to hang clothes.

When I get back to America I promise never to take for granted amazing technology, like washing machines and, even more so, dryers. I will also slap the first person in front of me who complains about the laundry services at Georgetown. Because, laundry, much like many things we take for granted, should learn to be appreciated and it shouldn't take a semester in Ghetto, Harbin, China to figure that out.

Saturday, September 12

Yagou:We Have a Meeting With Shangdi (上帝 ) at the Top of that Mountain

Yesterday morning and afternoon (based on China Standard Time), my group took a trip to Yagou, a town in the mountains about an hour and a half outside of Harbin. IT was fun, scenic and made up for the fact that I haven't exercised since I got to China almost 3 weeks ago.

When we first made it to Yagou we were welcome by a scenic lake with picturesque mountains lining the background. "那么漂亮," "how beautiful" was something to be heard for the rest of the afternoon, particulary as we began to ascend the mountain and get an amazing view of the the surrounding area and the coal-powered factories in the distance.

We first spent about 45 minutes climbing to the top of a smaller mountain to look at a rockcarving of a man and a woman who I'm sure used to actually exist but instead our leaders pointed to a wet spot on the rock and told us that she was in that vicinity. When we climbed back down we hoped back on the buses for a 3 minute ride and then were kicked off again in the front of what I assumed to be a house on the edge of this lake with donkeys, cows and two rabid-looking dogs.

The climb was long and sweaty and for the majority of it were were pretty sure that they had no idea where the trail was and in fact, at one point when we had made it to the top of one mountain they turned to another mountain across the way, pointed and said "那时我们的目的," "that is our target."I'm pretty sure those words struck fear into the hearts of every Chinese roommate as the guys were having their own trouble (brought on my being pretty much the antithesis of a macho man) so imagine how the girls were doing. Luckily my roommate is a good sport and I think she enjoyed the hike. But I digress... (when you look at the picture you'll see a tiny, little thing sticking up out of the mountains in the middle. That was our "目的" and it was really far away.)
Unfortunately you can't even see it in this picture (it's that far away) so here is a closeup.

So after forging our own trail through the countryside, and hilariously running into some of the locals, we made it to our target, the top of that mountain. The air was light and crisp, not like the heavy, coal laced air of the city, and the weather was to die for. I'm pretty sure when we made it up there we met Shangdi (上帝, God) and gave us the privilege of a spectacular view of the real China.

And now for some assorted pictures from the trip.

1. Me and my roommate, Song Yang 宋洋
2. Chinese motorcyclist in the mountains
3. Puppies! Their parents were a little camera shy and too busy growling at us to go and away and looking emaciated.
4. View of cornfields while descending the mountain

Friday, September 11

First Week of Class Review

(The changing around of my schedule, both voluntary and involuntary makes this title a little less than accurate.)

I'm currently signed up for 4 classes, totaling what would be about 20 credits at Georgetown (though they only think this is worth 15 credits toward graduation and my degree). My 4 classes are Business Chinese, Conversation, One on Two Drill, and One on One Tutorial. I also attended one day of Composition and can give some remarks concerning my short-lived time in that class.

Composition (写作): This class is only useful if you are planning on going to grad school for East Asian Studies or Chinese and you need to do lots of writing in Chinese. For the most part, punctuation is the same as English, not counting one unusual comma. Otherwise, its practical application for the average student ends with the class.

Business Chinese (商业): This is a relatively easy class with a manageable level of vocab and grammar patterns each week. The teacher is also very sweet and invested in making sure everyone understands a concept before we move on, even if it's just the Chinese name of a company (Windows -> 微软, Apple -> 苹果, literally apple). What annoys me about the class is that with each chapter she gives us a supplementary list of vocab, just using the words from the book but putting them into phrases that we have to have memorized. The problem is that, while in the scope of the chapter these words go together, there are also other words that are suitable and appropriate and it's annoying that we have to limit ourselves to the answers that she likes/thinks are correct. Otherwise, I think it's a useful course and have some capacity for practical application. We also get to have some interesting dialogue: Do you think the Chinese Government's reform and opening policy in the West is destroying the lives of the ethnic minorities?

Conversation (口语): Very useful class. I think that most Chinese students would agree that speaking Chinese is a little bit easier than writing Chinese. But then they open their mouths and you wonder if there are a 5th or 6th or 10th tone that no one every taught you (Mandarin Chinese has 4 tones). That is where this class is helpful. We read a lesson text then spend two days discussing it and learning relevant grammar patterns. It's great for vocab and also for learning to pay attention to the way a question asked and then formulating how you respond to it. The teacher is very nice and so far I'm enjoying this class.

One on Two Drill (一对二): My easiest class. I already feel like my tones and pronunciation are already pretty good so my teacher is relatively easy on me, unfortunately at the expense of reminding my classmate how unprepared he is for class. But even if you're tone deaf and you can't seem to get yourself to pronounce that ubiquitous u with an umlat, just show up and look like you're trying hard and I'm sure you can expect to see an A+ on your transcript when you're back in the states.

One on One Tutorial (一对一): This is easily my most interesting class. My topic is China-US Relations and over 12 weeks we will cover the three communiques, Taiwan, Economic/Trade Relations, Ethnic Minorities, Security and U.S.-China's Role in Leading World Organizations. I like my teacher and I feel like he enjoys coming to teach me and hearing about my life back in the states and my other opinions on things, like health care reform or the importance of Congress. And these materials he gives me are interesting. Such as how Congress took advantage of the Tiananmen "event" to punish China by imposing sanctions. I'm sure that this is only the tip of iceberg of Chinese perspective on important events and topics within China-US relations.

And those are my classes for this semester. This morning we are going on a day trip to Yagou for a hike and some BBQ so I'll have some pictures from that when I get back. Also look forward to a post on hand-washing clothing. All coming soon!

Thursday, September 10

Language Pledge, also known as how to make study abroad a legitimate learning experience

Some people study abroad looking for a chance to see the world, add perspective to their studies, or experience new culture. Then there are the contemptible few who look at study abroad as a chance to extend their summer vacations, taking trips to private beaches and eating sumptuous, multi-course meals as the rest of the country's people starve themselves, or jet setting to nearby countries with beautiful women. Then there are the valiant few who are willing to cast themselves in the far reaches of a foreign country, denying themselves proper bathrooms, clean water or the convenience of English, in order to have a truly foreign experience from anything that one could come in contact with while in the states (unless you happened to drive through West Virginia or upstate New York).

I don't mean to entirely de-legitimize other peoples' reasons for study nor the other places people choose for their study abroad experience. I personally hold the opinion that study abroad best lends its usefulness to people looking for an authentic environment to learn a language. But there are even those who take advantage of larger, more Westernized cities (for example, the students in Beijing or Shanghai) so that they don't have to worry about the shock of being in an environment where a little bit of English will set you further back from where you started. Thus, I propose for all study abroad programs to adopt an environment that does not let students treat it like an extended vacation where grades don't count toward your GPA. This can be done through the language pledge.

At CET Harbin, the day before classes start we recite and sign a language pledge stating that for the length of the program we will only speak in Chinese. They mention listening to English language music with headphones and even go so far as to suggest reducing the frequency by which we contact family and friends in the US, as the slightest utterance of English could corrupt the precious language environment for our fellow students. While this seems extreme, I think that in the week and a half that the pledge has been in effect, my Chinese has already improved. I'm excited to see the point that I'm at by the time October rolls around.

CET Harbin is a tough program. I probably spend about 8 hours every day looking up characters, writing oral reports, which our teachers seem to assign daily, memorizing dialogues and vocabulary and grammar patterns, and trying to do readings on Chinese-US relations that are entirely in Chinese and don't have an English version or a convenient list of vocabulary words in the back. But despite the enormity of my work, if we had not had a language pledge, I most likely wouldn't wake up every morning wanting to bang my head against the wall (unfortunately that would wake my roommate and every other person in this dorm). The work load would be tough but manageable and it would be easier to explain the ridiculous run-ins I have with the real Chinese out on the streets of Harbin. But then it wouldn't really be studying abroad. It would be like I was displaced from Georgetown and the registrar has mistakenly put me into four Chinese classes (something I'm sure that Georgetown could manage to do).

I think the most important part of study abroad is adopting the environment that you are in and allowing yourself to become a part of it. And in this case it means that you need to take on all the difficulties of the language and the language pledge and start defining yourself and your experiences within it and through it.

To me, this is a legitimate study abroad experience.

Tuesday, September 8

Why Bathrooms at Elite Colleges are Still Worse than the Ones You Come Across in the Ghetto

(Unfortunately I couldn't get a picture of a ghetto bathroom because China decided that my search for "bathrooms ghetto" on Google images was probably subversive toward the central government)

Everyone knows that China has a rather large population, in fact I think it might be fair to call it a problem. Its One-Child policy is ubiquitously known throughout the West, though many fail to recognize that it only applies to Han Chinese living in cities, particularly the overpopulated cities that dot across East China. This lends it hand to a large pool of college applicants every year, some going so far as to avoid such petty luxuries like food and sleep for a month in order to test well on the gaokao (Chinese university entrance exams), often times undermined by their richer more well connected counterpoints who can steal their records and enter university on another student's credentials, but that topic is for another time. You would think that the level of competition and the amount of prestige that surrounds China's top universities would encourage adminstration to put a little effort into having as good living facilities as lab facilities, but instead the students live in the same squalor as that of the lab rats which they perform tests on.

My point is that the bathrooms are ghetto as hell. It's such that I would be more comfortable in Southeast DC than in Northeast China. The bathroom set up seems to defy not only feng shui but also Western/Modern (I can't help but use these words interchangeably in this respect) health standards.

The bathroom is a rectangle and looking into it from one of the shorter side you can see the awkward water heater, placed somewhat close to the ceiling (which is not very high) jutting out of the opposite wall beckoning you to slam your head into it. Unfortunately, this is not difficult to do as the awkward placement of the fairly large sink and relatively long counter top right across from the shower head cuts down the area of shower space to what feels like one square foot. Then you have to find a way to keep all of the water from the shower head within your square foot of showering space, out of your mouth and away from the toilet area.

It literally is a toilet area. Basically what the Chinese did was take that rectangle/bathroom and put the toilet (one that you best not flush toilet paper down) on the shorter side of the rectangle/bathroom, right against the wall.

Not only will you invariably miss the drain, the one that is half closed/clogged, placed against the opposite wall from the shower in between the shower space and the toilet space and underneath the sink (I know it's awkward), but you will come to accept that any and all of your attempts to keep that water within your one square foot of space are in vain. So water that should go down that curiously-placed drain will instead flow freely across the floor of your bathroom for the next 3 hours. And let's not forget the wonderful mildew-y smell that can result if you don't realize that the small white box on the wall with the string hanging from it is the ventilator.

China is a curious place with curious customs and curious bathrooms. And it is curious how they think that they can be the world's most powerful nation with bathrooms that, in my opinion, rival those of the 1900s America and fall far behind those in 2009 Compton.

Also, the mirror in the bathroom is too low so I can only see the bottom part of my face. It's annoying.

Friday, September 4

Initial Reactions and Future Outlook

Since I have been in China for about 9 days, have had a language pledge for 5 1/2 days and finished my first week of class yesterday afternoon, I think it might be time for an initial reactions post.

China is China. That's really the best way to describe it. Because it doesn't completely suck, but it's not completely awesome. The best way to describe China is to just say China because only on its own does it totally embody its idiosyncracies and cultural schizophrenia.

As far as the people are concerned, they are shameless in their staring, they love meat and they drink me under the table. Some people stare for so long, as you are walking toward them and pass them you see their heads turn around to get the last fleeting glance of the "laowai" walking down the street. Or, if you are just enjoying a meal with a couple of people at a restaurant, an entire table will shift its attention from whatever they were discussing before to looking at the "laowai" ordering their food, eating and enjoying a couple of bottles of Harbin Beer.
Speaking of Harbin Beer, the Chinese are very proud of this brewery. It's the oldest one in China, opened by a Russian man who wanted to be able to liquor up all the Russians living in Harbin while working on the Railway leading to the Northern Manchuria Railway. It's good and it's cheap (3 kuai for a 500 mL bottle). That seems to be the trend as far as food is concerned in China, and I'm not complaining.

Right now we have the opportunity to sign up to return for the second semester. I have to make that decision by the 14th but as of right now I can confidently say that I won't be returning to CET Haerbin in the spring. I definitely don't see myself regretting the decision to come here but it takes a special kind of person to be able to spend an entire year away from friends and family and any sense of comfort, and it takes an even more special kind of person to spend that year in Northeastern China. I thought I was that kind of person but certain things have made me realize that I might be more of a homebody than I thought I was.

As for what to look forward to over the next week or two:

Language Pledge, also known as how to make study abroad a legitimate learning experience

Why Bathrooms at Elite Colleges in China are still Worse than What You Come Across in the Ghetto

First week of class review!!! (Changed my schedule slightly so it has to be postponed to the end of the second week of classes)

"Lao Wai!", How to go from Being Judged to Being the Judge

Tuesday, September 1

Mini Blog Post

I just experienced my first taste of good, old-fashioned Chinese censorship over the internet. I was doing some research for my one-on-one topic with a Chinese professor out of the government and history departments (let me add that my topic is US-China Relations from 1979-2009, including the contentions period in mid 1989 that we Americans like to call the Tiananmen Square Massacre) and after a minute I realized that I was staring at a blank page. I pressed F5 a couple of times, thinking my browser was just acting stupid. Then I looked at the url and saw ""

I also want to share the story of how I had to sign up for internet because I feel like it will make any web proxy that exists impotent. First you go to a building to sign up to use the internet on one of their computers. Then you stand in line so they can look up your application, make sure you filled it out correctly and then have you pay for opening an account and getting access for a certain number of months. If you application was filled out incorrectly in anyway, as mine was, you will have to wait for a computer to open up so you can fill out the form, again, then stand in line, again. When you get past hurdle #2 you have to go back to those computers and register again for internet using a special password they give you. Then you return back to your room, hope someone you know has software called "ruijie" that you install on your computer (they call it a support program, but it's just extra censorship support for the government), then you put in your id and the password that you chose when doing the initial application. And when that's all said and done, you have internet! I think an interesting point to make is that most of the censorship technology used in China comes out of Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), so you better not send me anything subversive to the government or they'll find me and look me up. And who honestly wants to be locked up in a Chinese prison...

Btw, pictures coming soon!


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