Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sarah's Moving

Hi guys this is Dan posting for Sarah. She has not been able to access this site since being in China so she has moved her blog to . She has also started a flickr account so go check out her pictures.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Orientation week

Thank you to everyone for reading and following this blog! I know I haven't been posting here much- the fact is that I have not been able to access blogspot from my internet connection. The Great Firewall apparently hates all sites that contain the word "blog" in their address. The last post was so long because I hadn't been able to update for a week! I actually ended up sending it as a document to Dan so he could post it. But I'm not sure if I want to do that long term, as Chinese internet also seems to dislike uploading and my email account. Right now I'm sitting in Starbucks on a friend's computer. She has a Mac and has installed a program that creates a fake IP address in the US for users. Alas, however, said program will not work on my PC. Next I'm going to try a hack I found on Lost Laowai, but knowing my wonderful luck with computers and Chinese internet so far... well, we'll see. If all else fails, I may be moving my account to a different blog that the government has not shut down yet. I'll try to keep everyone posted. Hopefully soon I can upload some pictures!

This week, unlike the last, has been rather busy and tiring. On Sunday we registered at Peking University. I didn't have very much trouble, as my visa is in order, I didn't forget any of my documents and I'm only staying for 6 months rather than a year. Some of my friends were not so lucky and have had to endure several trips to hospitals and police stations on top of all the other things we need to do.

Yesterday we had our placement test at 7:40 in the morning. It was ugly. There is no other way to describe it. I felt like I was trying to retake the SATs, but in Chinese. At one point in the reading section I gave up, marked all A's and moved on to the writing section to write a funny story about a snake. Later in the day we were shepherded, along with every other foreign student on campus, to the ID office. We stood in line for nearly 2 hours to have them take one picture and mark down our ID number. Today we went to get the results of our placement test- I was placed in the second of the "pre intermediate" levels for grammar/writing and the first intermediate level for speaking. Tommorrow I go back and find out whether pre-intermediate is a beginner level and therefore I have to take a listening course, or whether it is considered intermediate and I get to take an elective. The whole process has been confusing and frustrating. I can't wait until classes start on Monday and I actually start to figure things out, although I am worried that I put myself in too easy of a level. But that's just me, worrying as usual.

There have been several bright spots this week too. On Sunday night our program director took all fifteen of us out to eat in a private room at a fancy restaurant. She told us all the details of our program, gifted us with spending money, bus/subway cards and antibacterial soap and mask from Dickinson to guard against the swine flu. I swear, Dickinson is just as paranoid about swine flu as the Chinese government (who pointed laser thermometers at our foreheads as we entered the registration building and gifted us with thermometers when we bought our books). But anyway, the wonderfully tasty 15 dish dinner was on Dickinson's dime, including Chinese beer and shots of baijiu- the local favorite liquor which has an alcohol content comparable to nail polish remover. Take that, DPS! We also found out we have many more dinners and excursions like this to look forward to with our Chinese culture class.

On Tuesday we went to the Beijing Zoo to see the pandas. Totally worth it. They were adorable. I will try to post pictures soon- I got several good ones. Then we moved on to see the other animals, including the elephants, giraffes and the squirrels. Yes, squirrels. They really do keep them in zoos. Along with rabbits. Funny, isn't it? Throughout our trip, however, I felt that people were taking as many pictures of our group of waiguos (foreigners) as of the animals. But all in all, it was fun. Even better, on the way back to the Subway station we found a street vendor selling cheap English language novels, a few of which I immediately bought several. I was in desperate need of reading material! The only difference is that some of the print on the pages is slightly askew, but I can live with that for 2 dollars a book.

On Saturday or Sunday we plan on going to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I also want to visit the Summer Palace- I can see it from my window, after all. There are also plans in the works for a Dickinson group trip to a KTV karaoke bar, which should be interesting.

Last but not least, I miss everyone from home terribly. If you haven't already, please add me on skype- I'm the only Sarah Hutson listed in Beijing China, I'm relatively sure!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

First Week Impressions

So here I am, in China. I’ve now been here about 1 week. This week has mostly consisted of getting oriented, exploring my neighborhood and district and hanging out with friends from Dickinson. I got here early, so I don’t actually register and start orientation at Beida until Sunday and don’t start most of my classes until the next Monday. But its actually been nice to have this time to ease into life in Beijing.

Its funny, but Beijing is much less different than I thought it would be. I expected major culture shock, but for the most part I haven’t really experienced it- I’ve been uncomfortable at times, especially in the first few days. Setting up a bank account, registering with the police and getting a cell phone on the first day were very stressful in a different language. But it got much better once I met up with other American friends, some of whose Chinese is much better than mine. I’ve been trying to take my cues from them and now Beijing is in the process of morphing from a big scary intimidating place to just another city.

There are some things that are different, of course. One thing that really struck me the first day, and still does actually, was how I will never be able to blend in here. I mean, I did know before I got here that Beijing was full of people who looked different than me and that I, with blonde hair and white skin, would stick out here even more than I do at college in PA (not even counting Scandihoovian Minnesota- I really think the fact that there is a whole state full of people who look just like me would be beyond the people here’s grasp.). But its one thing to know, and another to be here in a sea of Chinese people, being stared at, called at in horrible English and even asked to take pictures with strangers on a fairly regular basis. It’s really strange. One sort of nice thing about it is that people don’t expect me to know anything- any cultural mistake I make or language mix-up is written off: oh, she’s a foreigner, she doesn’t know better. Right now that’s ok, because I really don’t know better. But I imagine it might get annoying if I ever spoke Chinese really well to have people constantly talking down to me. Even now when I’m walking with friends people on the street will whip around and gape at me if I speak Chinese. I feel a little like a carnival sideshow. Look everyone at that weird ghostly thing! Ooooh and it TALKS! And I have to keep in mind that this is the University district in Beijing, flooded with foreigners. If I ever visit the countryside, it would probably get a million times worse. I’m not sure if the constant scrutiny and the surprise that I’m not just another stupid tourist is something that I’ll ever get used to or not.

Another place its easy to forget I’m in a foreign country is in the shopping mall district near my house called Zhongguancun. The newest malls are filled with western shops and Western ads. Its sometimes easy to make believe I’m in Mall of America or King of Prussia. But then, inevitably I am confronted with something than jars me into remembering where I really am. Billboards and t-shirts that try to have English, but often end up with unfortunate meanings or really bad spelling. Beijingers seem to think T-shirts with English are fashionable (along with a lot of other questionable things, like lots of sequins, moon boots, mismatched camo and matching outfits for couples and friends) even if the English makes absolutely no sense. For example, I saw a shirt today with “Bathing” and “Bath” scrawled all over it and another with We live Amerika, Sometimes War and Under the Red flag on it. Just odd, but mostly resembling the English of an average Beijinger. There’s things like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen (which, no, I haven’t visited but are popular) with strange quirks like ice cream mooncakes and McDonalds delivery men (the only bikers in the city who wear helmets!). Anything that truly resembles home is, of course, 10 times more expensive. Coffee shops, pizza places and any drink that’s not Chinese beer or baijiu (vile Chinese drink like vodka) are common enough, but almost not worth the extra kuai (money). Which I suppose is good, because those of us with smaller budgets will get weaned from American things faster. And then there are the things that are really out there and make me think “Oh, Sarah you’re not in Minnesota anymore.” One really interesting example: Today at the mall my friends and I kept seeing a certain stuffed animal/character in kitschy cutesy kind of shops. It was a three brown fat lumps on top of eachother with googly eyes. In other words, it looked like a googly-eyed, cutesy, pile of poo. But it couldn’t be. Or so we thought. But sure enough, we saw the same thing, on a pair of slippers no less, which were labeled “Excrement slippers” and identified the googly-eyed poo as “Poo poo the mascot.” Only in Asia would something like that fly. Completely bizarre stuff like that spice up the days quite nicely.

Wow, this post has become a novel. Anyway, the most important thing is that I’m having a good time so far. Thanks for reading!

Things I really like about Beijing so far/ things that amuse me:

-Street vendors and small hole in the wall restaurants. Somehow the food here is just as good as, or better than, the food in fancier restaurants. Before someone jumps on me- I’m being careful. I haven’t gotten sick yet. And anyway, I tend to think that these kinds of places couldn’t afford to have substandard products, because they’d be giving food poisoning to their neighbors, who then wouldn’t come back the next day. Any business like that would fail. I tend to think the places where normal people eat less often are more suspect!

-Chinese bakeries. Cheap, nice and quiet and very very good. A potential stop for breakfast on my way to class.

-The Peking University (Beida) campus. Its absolutely gorgeous, with tons of green spaces, trees, lakes and temples/statues. I’ll try to put up pictures when I can.

-Along the same lines, Chinese parks. There are lots and they are big and beautiful, decorated with small lakes, rock formations and temples and pavilions sumptuously painted. It’s just so nice after walking in the city all day to relax at one of these, watching kids play on the playground or older people playing checkers or cards. I haven’t yet seen anyone practicing martial arts or tai chi but I look forward to it! There are few tourists, so you meet the most interesting people who want to practice English or talk to you about America.

-Chinese markets and prices. The other day we visited the silk market (partly by accident) and at first were pretty overwhelmed by all the people yelling at us (keep in mind I was with my other blonde friend at the time) but then we met our Chinese American friends who helped us navigate it all. The selection was huge- any knock off you could ever want. After a while my eyes were tired from looking at all the beautiful, colorful things. I bought a “Jimmy Choo” purse for under 20 American dollars. I probably would have been able to get the price lower, too, if I had been able to speak to the vendor in Chinese. I’m definitely going back there to buy souvenirs.

-My host family, who are very welcoming and are making a lot of effort to make me feel comfortable and to communicate with me. I also love the fact that their house is both very close to Beida and close to a lot of other people from Dickinson’s host families. Zhen fangbian, a!

-Watching Chinese TV with my host family. I especially like dramatic shows and commercials, mostly because I can understand them at times and they’re funny. But the whole variety of Chinese TV is just fascinating. From a show where foreigners who speak Chinese to news-type programs that, as far as I can tell, focus on things like hazardous tree holes in sidewalks and how CNN is evil for 20 minutes at a time.

-The people I’ve gotten to know- mostly students in my own group or other foreign students. Some are from the U.S. but I’ve also met people from Argentina, East Africa, Nepal, and Korea and several from Germany. I’ve even been mistaken for German a few times, by both Germans and Chinese people. Which makes sense, of course, since I am a third German or something like that, but it still amuses me.

Things I don’t like so far (a little pessimistic I know, but also good to know):

-Pollution. The first few days we were here you could see the sky, but since then I haven’t seen it much. A fog of sand and smog and humidity seems to descend over the city on certain days, obscuring everything. And the water- there’s a canal by my house that apparently people swim in, but the thought makes me queasy. Oh, clear lakes and air of MN, I miss you so!

-The traffic. Nobody here seems to follow traffic laws- not pedestrians, cars, busses or bikers. Bikes are some of the worst. If I get through this semester without being hit by a bike (NOT a car, don’t worry) it will be a miracle.

-Trying to buy an English-Chinese handheld electronic dictionary. First of all, electronic stores are scary, with small winding halls in between brands and every employee yelling at you to come look at their product. Second of all, there’s not a lot of selection for dictionaries with English menus or instruction manuals and the ones that have them are really expensive. I’m planning on enlisting a Chinese friend to go with me to help me pick one out, because the sellers don’t speak much English.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

En route to Beijing

Well, I'm really at the point of no return now. I'm sitting in the Tokyo airport waiting for my flight to Beijing and using the Delta club's free internet, which is amazingly fast. Its weird to think that its probably the last time I'll have access to facebook for a while- its almost shameful to think about how much time I spent on that site this summer! Also, I'm still unsure whether this blog will work properly abroad, but I'll try to keep everyone posted somehow.

Impressions from today:
It was really difficult to leave my house this morning. I find it ironic that I really want to go on adventures and see new places, but I also get very settled wherever I am and don't want to leave. So I plan big adventures and push the limits of my comfort zone, but as this trip got closer my comfort zone (or at least my confidence in it) began to shrink rapidly. I hope this is something that goes away with time and experience, since I want to travel my whole life, and getting this worked up about it every time would certainly be inconvenient. Incidentally, I'd like to thank all the people who have been around me for the last few weeks for putting up with frantic, panicky me.
I have three legs to fly today- the 3 hour flight from Seattle was the shortest. However, at the end of it the man sitting next to me exclaimed "Oh, what a long flight." And I couldn't help but laugh. I told him I was going on an 11 hour flight next and he looked at me like I was crazy. Well, on second thought, maybe I am.
However, the flight from Seattle to Tokyo was really not that bad, considering. I was in business class (THANK YOU AGAIN DAD) which is altogether a completely different experience from coach. The seats are huge and automated- they even lie almost flat and have a massage option. Then there's a personal tv, free blankets, pillows and slippers, and a flight attendant asking you how you are every 10 minutes or so. But most of all they just keep feeding you constantly. I was stuffed- still am- and they just kept bringing out more things. Dinner was the best I've ever had on an airplane (which, mostly wouldn't be saying much, but it was actually really good). Once again, Dad it was a really great flying experience and infinitely better than coach.
On the flight to Tokyo I sat next to this very friendly Japanese man. At first he seemed awkward and I thought it would be a long flight, but soon enough he opened up and even started showing me pictures of his family, including his 103 year old mother in law. Crazy. He also helped me with luggage and gave me advice about China- "Don't drink the water" etc. I was glad to meet him. It seems that Midwesterners aren't the only people who are friendly to strangers.
Watching Japan through the window as we were landing was really cool. Even from the air you can tell its a different country. Its a patchwork of lime green fields, perfectly square with rigid borders, interspersed regularly with cramped housing and skyscrapers. It looks so distinctly different from the same kind of landscapes that exist in the Midwest and Europe. More manicured and deliberate. It was one of the first moments that I really started to grasp where I was and where I was going. I wonder how China will compare.
Lastly, the Tokyo airport is REALLY warm. No air conditioning. I hope that won't be the case in Beijing, but somehow I don't think so. Sigh. 

Now I've got to get ready to leave for Beijing and the great unknowns of my host family and arrangements. I hope to update again soon!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting ready to go

This is my first blog post in preparation for my trip to Beijing China on Dickinson's program this fall. I'll be there in a week, which is just crazy to think about. I'm definitely nervous about leaving- its been a great summer. I'm excited- it should be a great adventure. But I'm also nervous about what Beijing will be like, my host family, and the language placement test at Peking University, among other things. I hope that I can keep in touch en masse here and post updates about all these things later, after I figure everything out. To everyone who I won't see before I leave, thanks for all your wishes and prayers. See you next year!