Settling in Beijing and Television

It has been little while since I last updated. After my Harbin pictures refused to upload, I decided to wait until I had some stable Internet. And then I waited a little more just for good measure (read: I am lazy).

These past few weeks have mostly been devoted to figuring out classes, settling down, and talking with more people about how to figure out my classes. While I am successfully enrolled in my language classes, it turns out that due to changes in the Department of Chinese Language and Culture (where I should be teaching English), there will not be an English class for me to teach this semester. We are still figuring out all the repercussions of this (as in the nature of my work for the department, or if I will do any work at all), but it certainly means I get to spend extra time and effort on my Chinese classes.

My classes are all Chinese language classes divided into several categories. There’s Listening, Reading and Writing, Conversation, and Newspapers. All of my professors seem very knowledgeable and very kind. It seems like it will turn out to be a great semester for learning Chinese. Though there was for a time a guy from the States in our class (who asked all the professors to call him by his nickname, Black Dragon), he seems to have left, leaving me the only person from west of Slovakia. And apart from the Slovakian girl, the rest are all Korean or Japanese. The class is so Confucian. I had forgotten that while this program is for international students, it is not by any means a program geared for westerners. When the professor walks in and says hello, everybody responds in unison: Laoshi hao. When the professor calls roll, everybody sits up straight when their name is called, raises their hand, and says, “Dao.” At the end of every class, the Korean students especially will thank the professor for today’s lesson. While I’ve never been a particularly sloppy class go-er, and none of these are requirements, nor are they difficult to replicate, it’s certainly a reminder of where I am and who my classmates are.

Another “hobby” that has kept me from writing these blogs is my newfound love for Chinese television. There are two shows in particular that I find to be especially enthralling. The first has the English title Splendid Days. It is a drama that puts all other dramas to shame for not having a high enough drama/minute ratio. I will give away the pilot here. If you feel like you’re up to watching the show: SPOILERS. In the first 2 minutes a woman in her mid-20s or so is betrayed by her secretly horrible best friend and boyfriend, as they dump her for each other. While she is sobbing by the river banks (the show takes place in Shanghai), the ex-best friend looks at her and says something similar to: “You have no job, no husband, and now no face as you sob. You’d be better off dead.” The dumped woman is so distraught that she walks to the nearest bridge and jumps off into the water below in an attempt to kill herself. Some people who can swim of course rescue her, and an old lady tells her that she is pregnant. As it turns out, she is pregnant and so is her ex-best friend—both with the same father! They give birth in the same hospital on the same day!! The dumped woman is distraught and set to give her child up for adoption so it won’t have to face life growing up as a bastard with a single mother. But instead she at the last minute decides to switch the two babies (both girls) so that her daughter will have a great life with her wealthy parents and non-bastard status. She then in turn keeps her ex-bfs’ baby girl in order to make sure that her real daughter has a better life than the child she stole. The rest of the show follows the two girls as they grow up and all the drama that follows them around. The dumped woman/baby snatcher is of course terrible to her snatched daughter until at some point she realizes what she’s doing (I forgot the catalyst) around age 10, and becomes an okay mom. The rest gets even more complex (if you can imagine), and I won’t spoil it for you because it is excellent.

The second show, while not lacking in drama, is certainly a step up in quality of story line and actor performance. Its English title is Little Daddy, and don’t let the first episode fool you—it is not a comedy. It’s another case of downright wretched parenting, but thankfully around episode 5 or so (right when you think you can’t watch this poor child grow up with these terrible people anymore), the father has a breakdown and decides to be a real father. It has one of my favorite actors in it: Wen Zhang (although I just baidu’d his name and there are plastic surgery claims!!? The article title is: 文章整容了吗!?!?妈妈密呀!整容整容整容!!!Which roughly translates to: Wen Zhang got plastic surgery?!?! Mamamiya (←pinyin version of Mama mia)! Plastic Surgery Plastic Surgery Plastic Surgery!! ! I believe I’m reading a Chinese Perez Hilton. Oh, it looks like the article is from 2012. And while before and after pictures do make a convincing argument for a nose job, as one commenter posted: (roughly translated) “there is this thing called Photoshop…” Lol oh man.) The relationships and characters are complex and not unordinary. There is of course comedic relief in some of the less than developed stereotyped characters, but I personally think it’s well done. There is also some very flagrant homophobia. But they are some strong female characters (who ride motorcycles and aren’t worried about being left-over! But also are caring and not secretly weak inside! Okay, it’s actually only one character, but she’s a great character.), and some that are there solely for comedic relief or a point to start added drama. While easily the show’s least developed character, the best stereotype character is a “second-generation wealthy” girl (fu’erdai). She squeals, acts like a child, repeats “taoyan” incessantly, pouts, and the set for her bedroom is stuffed with an impressive amount of hello-kitty merchandise. The actress who plays this character seems to get this kind of role quite a bit, as I’ve seen her playing essentially the same person in different productions. She has the perfect voice for whining.

I have yet to find a way for you Americans to watch these shows if you were interested, as I can’t find a way to get the show to you. Amazon doesn’t sell it, but TaoBao does. But I don’t believe there is an edition with English subtitles yet. Therefore, I recommend you all learn Chinese and start pinching pennies to get the complete box set of DVDs sent to you across the Pacific.

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Journey to Harbin

I got on the train around 1:30pm with a huge mass of people.  The crowds at the Beijing Train Station are truly impressive.  It’s sort of like an angrier version of New Years at Times Square, except everybody has luggage and are trying to squeeze through a single person door.  Apparently the slow train to Harbin is a very popular ride, and every car had many, many (I wish I could estimate numbers) people crowding the aisles with their standing room only tickets. The general train survival guide seemed to be this: bring as much snack food as you possibly can.  Most people had whole suitcases devoted to snacks—most popular included of course instant noodles, sausage-like tubes of pureed meat/seafood shrink wrapped in plastic, little crème-filled pastries, sunflower and similar seeds, and unidentifiable to my eyes animal parts also shrink-wrapped in plastic.  If you were fast enough, you could buy fruit at the various stations during the day.  The general concept seemed to be eat constantly while you’re awake, then sleep as much as possible—usually taking turns with your traveling mates. 

I don’t think I’ve ever made more friends instantly than on this train ride.  The first 4 hours or so of the train ride were similar to an interview.  Within 30 minutes of introductions, I was asked what I thought the main differences between FDR and Obama were, and what I thought about both presidents.  Around 2am (12 hours in) a few of the other passengers had a very intense debate about whether free thought/independent critical thinking was a good thing to include in education (especially early education).  IT was mainly one 2nd year college student arguing against everybody else.  I felt bad for him, but  a) I didn’t feel like I should really join in a discussion that is essentially East vs West and say that I agreed that the everybody else in the train was all wrong and b) it was 2 am and I was exhausted. Though I could understand everything, if I tried to speak Chinese in that moment, I probably couldn’t have even said my name properly. 

One of the best parts of riding a train in China is the great display of kindness.  Everybody squeezes together to make room for a standing ticketed rider to perch, food is shared, and the general theme around the car is genial cooperation.  My bench made for 3 hosted at various times a very small, very fashionable young woman from Beijing (standing ticket), a very old, very deaf, possibly blind man (standing ticket), a male college student (standing ticket), myself (seated ticket), an impossibly tiny female college student headed to XinJiang (seated), and various silent gentlemen who never stayed for long.  The small, fashionable woman also had a fashionable friend, who wasn’t quite as nice, and quite a bit more whiney, who stood the entire way to her destination (only around 3 hours).  I would whine too if I had to stand in the crowded aisle for 3 hours.

Additionally, rather than suffer in silence, we trainmates formed a strong bond.  The outgoing father of the family across from me asked me if I was too terribly uncomfortable (as the thought of somebody actually being comfortable was just impossible).  I told him it wasn’t too bad, and he smiled and said I should think of this as an “experience”.  I wasn’t miserable though. Those who made the entire 18+ hour train ride standing were the miserable ones.  One young couple one row up from me started the ride standing, and by the end had collapsed on the floor, clutching each other and patting each other’s heads.  It takes a lot to make you accept lying on the train’s floor, since the train floor is essentially one gigantic trashcan.  Various liquids, spit, dirty tissue, food wrappers and sunflower seed shells litter the floor.  This seems to actually be the system, as the conductor/service men come through at every stop to sweep the floor/mop up the liquid stuff.  Still, lying or even sitting on this floor isn’t something most people in a good state of mind are willing to do. 

There was even a peanut gallery of sorts. Around midnight (approx. 10 hours in), the conductors walked through the train offering coffee for 3 yuan/cup (instant coffee).  Not 10 minutes passed before they were walking back up the train yelling the same thing.  Somewhere in the middle of the car, somebody says loud enough for everybody to hear:  “You know what that means—nobody wants it!” People also noticed that though the train ride was in general freezing cold and uncomfortable (with patrons occasionally screaming at the conductor to turn off the air conditioning—to which he would respond, oh yes! I’ll do that immediately! And then continue doing whatever duty [usually pretty important, like fixing the toilets or breaking up a fight]), but right before they came around with popsicles for sale, the cars all became rather toasty. 

The row facing us housed a family of three.  The father was incredibly extroverted. The mother was shy for the first 10 or so hours.   And the 9-year-old son was mostly sleeping or eating for the ride, so he never said much.   They were returning home after a small vacation in Beijing.  They all took turns lying down on the bench/seat with the boy usually lying on top of the parent that got to sleep, with the other parent squatting on a mini collapsible stool.  The father’s feet stuck out in the aisle and the constant carts of food that passed by mercilessly ran into his legs as the cart owner would shout, “Pull your legs in!!! PULL YOUR LEGS IN PULLYOURLEGS IN.”

Over to my left across the aisle is another family of 3, on 2 seats.  The parents were both very young—maybe 20 or so? And the baby was actually 2 years old.  The child definitely is suffering from something.  He refuses to eat, cries constant, and as a result of his not eating, his head is gigantic (though still small for a 2 year old), while his body seems to belong to a much younger baby.  The end result was that the child looked very much like an alien.  The parents were extremely grumpy and exhausted, and were not very kind to the child at all, at times smacking its head with a fork (tines in), and hitting it with hard plastic toys with sharp edges.  I wouldn’t want to eat either, if my parents screamed “OPEN” every time it was feeding time, and then pushed food in my mouth.   

Riding the surprise! overnight on hard seats to Harbin from Beijing was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life.  Certainly not a “bad” experience, and one I’d prefer not to repeat.  Without steady internet, and without the guts to just ask, I climbed aboard the over-crowded, standing-room only (though I was lucky enough to have purchased a seat) train car expecting, worse-case scenario, a 10 hour train ride to Harbin.  I now wonder how I could have been so foolish.  I was sadly, unknowingly in store for an 18.5-hour train ride on hard seats without the proper clothing, food, or water.  I fortunately tend not to wear or even own uncomfortable clothes, but had I known I would be forced to sit in one position for such a long length of time, I certainly would have worn something else.  I also would have packed something ahead of time—enough to share with my trainmates.  I also would have remembered to bring my water bottle.  Also maybe a book.  Of course, as soon as I took out my journal/notebook, the crowd took renewed interest in me.  They all seemed very impressed that I was writing in English, even though I had already explained that English was indeed my first language.  And that I am American.  Eventually I put away the notebook as it was causing too much of a scene. 

At some point during the night, I attempted to sleep.  There wasn’t space to stretch my legs out, or even scoot forward in the seat to give me something to sort of lean into to support my head.  At this point I was still foolish hopeful that I would be arriving at any minute, so I wasn’t too interested in sleep anyway.  At some point (around 3 am or so), I began the open mouthed, mid-air, instant sleep, then jerk awake routine, and tried to find some way to arrange my body so that I could rest/relax.  Eventually I brought up my big travelling backpack, put it on my lap, and leaned over it for support.  Mostly, this meant my face was resting on my running shoes (like I’ve said—poor planning), and I couldn’t arrange my face so I wasn’t breathing in hot air (fun fact: breathing in hot air/just exhaled air makes me panicky. I always need a reliable air hole).  I slept for maybe an hour total between 3am and 6am when I gave up and focused on buying some food. 

Finally!! Arrived in Harbin.  Exhausted and so excited to get off the train, I set out walking in the rain (no cabs available due to the rain).  About 45 minutes into my walk, I realize that I’m heading south instead of north and cross the road so I don’t have to walk by the same policemen/shop keepers twice.  Finally, the rain clears up and I hail a cab, and after we figure out where the hostel is located, I get dropped off!!

I check in and then almost immediately fall asleep in my bunk.  I sleep for a good 4 hours, and then around 4pm make it out to Stalin Park by the river.  I also ate the best noodles I’ve had in China on my way to the park.  I was insanely hungry—having only had the instant noodles for breakfast in the past 30 hours—and the vegetable fried noodles were everything I could have ever hoped for.  I took a few pictures of Stalin Park and Stalin Road, which will go up sometime when other pictures go up too.

 My brain is still very much off/exhausted.  I’m looking forward to getting into bed early tonight.  We will see what tomorrow has in store for me!

Arrived!

These first few five days have been characterized first by relief, then worry, and finally frustration. 

I began my trip at 4:15am CDT saying goodbye to my family in San Antonio.  At this point, I still did not have my boarding passes for any of my flights, as there had been some complication in checking in.  After an embarrassingly tearful goodbye to my mother and Matt, I checked in for my domestic flights and headed to Dallas, then Seattle. 

At Seattle, I discovered my flight to Beijing was delayed 4 hours, and my 2-hour layover became 6.  To be honest, I wasn’t terribly upset. This meant 4 additional hours with high-speed-ish wifi, unlimited youtube, facebook, and other soon-to-be-banned sites.  Even knowing this, I don’t think I appreciated this miraculous 4-hour gift quite enough.

After touching down in Beijing around 8pm China-time, I exchanged money (my original 200 USD to exchange became 180 USD when the teller discovered a rip in one twenty) and caught a cab (only 84 yuan!).  Although I had no idea what to look for, beyond Beijing Normal University’s East Gate, the cabby was extremely helpful, and began (despite my insistence that I could walk) driving around campus asking people where a foreigner might find their place of residence.  He dropped me off behind a building that connects to my building, and I made my way to the front desk, completely exhausted.

The front desk was extremely helpful.  Despite not appearing on any sanctioned or unsanctioned list—they had no record of my name, of Shansi, or even the knowledge that a person would be arriving that night—they gave me a room (what looks to be the right room) and let me stay without any convincing on my part.  (I was exhausted and at the time did not even understand fully that they didn’t know who I was.)

I gleefully find my room (discover the glorious two beds, double closet space, desk, giant TV, water heater, and—best of all—a huge, beautiful bathroom all to myself), set down my things, and bring out my computer to connect to the Internet.  This is where this story takes a turn.

On campus, wifi is not free.  There is a monthly fee/subscription const, but there is an Ethernet cable that comes with the room.  I insert the cord, and nothing. I run downstairs to ask for help.  They give me a different cable to try and tell me to select: Using DHCP with Manual address.  Now, if any of you know anything about Ethernet cables PLEASE get in touch with me (email works best, though it barely works).  I have a late 2008 MacBook, running 10.6.8.  I plug the cable in, select DHCP with manual address and the connection status switches quickly (maybe less than a second on each station) between: Connected! and Cable Unplugged.  The IT guy came in, and after scrutiny of the connection, the port in the wall, etc we both agreed it had to be my computer.  While at an Internet café (purchasing expensive coffee to do this), I googled my problem, and I found a thread where late 2008 macbook owners who had recently upgraded to snow leopard (this thread was dated 2009…) had fixed their inability to connect via Ethernet by creating a new location under the network preferences and deleting the old ones.  I’ve done this to no avail.  I’m worried that this is a hardware problem, and that my computer’s Ethernet port itself is damaged.  This would be heartbreaking, as I’d need to exclusively depend on the paid wifi.  I have had success with Ethernet cables before—actually Chinese Ethernet cables—when I was here last a little over a year ago.  My next step is of course to go back to a café, order some 20 kuai tea/coffee (to put in perspective, on a cheap day, I could eat 2.75, 3 meals for that price—so basically one day’s worth of food), go to the apple support website, and navigate from there. 

On a positive note, I will be going to Harbin tomorrow! Where the hostel I’m staying in has free wifi 24/7!! Of course, Harbin has a lot more to offer than access to a search engine and my email.  I believe I’ll actually be staying in the synagogue of the town’s now historic/deceased Jewish population.  Harbin is also home to the famous Snow/Ice festival starting in January. 

To end this post on a positive note (in addition to the happy news of Harbin), I want to also mention the wonderful night I spent with Billy, Amelea, and Xenna and some of their friends the second night here.  While it was a bit too much of an adventure finding Billy and co. (my estimated 20-30 minutes of walking turned into 100—thank you, Billy, for your endless patience), it was so very nice to find myself in the company of other Oberlin students.  And a bit surreal.  I am all the way around the world, eating dinner with the same students I’ve taken classes with.  A few months ago there were similar nights in Oberlin, except at The Feve, speaking Chinese with each other and English to place our order. 

 Xenna was kind enough to invite me to her and her aunt’s place to use the Internet, and I ended up spending the night there.  The next morning we headed out early (still an easy feat for jetlagged me), as she had a flight to catch to Hong Kong, and I needed to get back to my dormitory.  

Feel free to contact me at 8658802273.  We’ll see if it works!