July 26, 2004

A Fine Day: July 26th

Hello friends and family,

Did I mention that you guys are my friends and family? And thank you for being such. Today, as I said, was a fine day. But instead of dwelling on it, let me tell you about my trip to Beijing.

Why did I go to Beijing? The President of Qinghai Unviersity originally came from Qinghua University, which happens to be the best or second best university in China. He was quite a famous professor at Qinghua because of being the youngest professor there ever, among other research accomplishments. He brought with him to one of the poorest universities in China a large wealth of Qinghua resources and a great deal of fame. So this past week he appeared on CCTV2 (in Beijing) on a program called 对话 (dialogue) to pull his weight and help bring talent and support into Qinghai Unviersity. Both Yiqun and I were to appear on the television show because we are another example of Qinghai's expanding list of collobaration with foreign universities, and well we are foreign.

So we had to take a train from Xining to Beijing, which passed through Lanzhou, Xian and a lot of other lesser cities. The whole trip one way took a little over 24 hours. The train ride over was quite fun because we were with nearly 20 other people from Qinghai University, and we felt quite free to dominate the train car with music, games and discussion. Usually people say not to be too friendly on the train because it could be dangerous, but we made lots of friends and talked with nearly everybody. Everyone on the train was so nice! I couldn't even buy my own food because people would buy food for me, or give their food to me. They were all very kind! Once everyone was comfortable enough, I set the ball rolling by singing 东方红 (dong1 fang1 hong2, "Red Quadrant Rises", a Chinese communist anthem I've committed to heart) and a Jay Chou song 简单爱 (jian3 dan1 ai4, "Simple Love"). Then I taught them to sing all sorts of English songs and they sang Chinese songs to us. So really, even though the train ride was long, it was quite enjoyable. Also, we had hard sleepers, which really arent all that hard. They turn lights out around 10:30PM. Almost all Chinese people go to sleep by that time, and then wake up extremely early at around 6am.

After arriving in Beijing, we lumber out of the train and are hit by a curtain of humid, hot, muggy air. It must have been 38 degrees Celsius that day, perhaps one of the hotter days this summer. Beijing is always overcast, except for a select few days during the summer. You cannot see farther than a few blocks because of smog. We caught our bus to Qinghua University. First things first, time to eat. We were taken to this cafeteria on campus that served noodles. I ordered this black-looking stuff to put on my noodles. As I took my first bite, my heart was filled with joy because I immediately realized that it was "Rou4 Zao4," the dish that Vicky's mom often cooked for us my senior year at UCLA. It was one of the best dishes in all of China that I had eaten! I was especially sweet because I was looking for the perfect noodle dish, since I was getting tired of rice and the same ol' same ol' while recovering from my sickness. Later we toured Qinghua University. Everybody has a bike there because the place is literally like 5 or 6 MIT campuses combined. It's huge. All for 16,000 students and a few thousand graduate students. That place has so much money compared to Qinghai University. I hope that one day, Qinghai can be as beautiful and presitigious as Qinghua. We stayed at the foreign student dormitory. We had our own rooms and sit-down toilets. I've grown to liking the squatters, and would prefer to call sit-down toilets splashers since they splash water everytime you use em =P.

The next day we had another tour of Qinghua in the morning and then the taping for the rest of the day. The taping took a little more than 4 hours. I had a throbbing headache throughout the show and was also really tired because of the excruciating heat and lack of rest. Basically I didn't understand anything that was said. One of the most difficult things to do is act like you are interested and energetic for four straight hours of something you have no idea whats going on. Ok well maybe not no idea, I understood some parts and had others translated, but even after that it was really boring. So I had very little idea about what was going on, and randomly all of a sudden I was asked to speak about my experience at Qinghai Unviersity. Of course I feel quite surprised, but I had prepared a little something to say the night before. I just hoped that it came out alright. I made a comparison between America's move west to California for opportunity of gold and China's development of the western provinces. I think they enjoyed it. I spoke in English. Unfortunately, we thought that they would want it to be translated. My translator, Yiqun, translated my words roughly and was at liberty to add in her own opinion. But apparently thats not what they wanted and got a little annoyed that she was talking. So even if what the both of us had to say was good, it just was awkward for them to include in the actual airing of the show. So basically in the actual airing of the show (July 25th, 10-11PM CCTV2), they have some good shots of me looking exhausted, but really determined to look interested in whats being said. They also had one 2-3 second screen shot of just my face, which was not too bad! But overall it was a waste of time and not worth a trip out to Beijing to try and be on. We thought that we would have much more say in the show, but we didn't. We had prepared almost 20 minutes worth of material to talk, and instead only had 1-1.5 minutes,
which wasn't even aired. Oh well! That night we pigged out and ate Big Macs and ice cream sundaes at 麦当劳 (mai dang lao, "McDonalds"). After that we headed to Qianmen square, which was the traditional southern entrance into the city of Beijing. We went to a very famous opera house and watched a show of different acts: traditional chinese singers and dancers, interesting sound impersanators, clowns, and the very very famous mask changing dance. It was extremely cool, even though it was rather expensive at 80RMB (~$10). Tea and random snacks were served.

The next morning we woke up early to drive out to the Great Wall, 长城, at Badaling. Unfortunately, the place and timing of our trip was planned by Qinghua, so they took us to the most popular, most crowded tourist trap spot of the great wall. There were so many people there you'd be appalled. Well needless to say, the great wall is amazing. It is not what you think. The part we went to is about 1 hour drive north of Beijing, in the middle of a mountain range. The wall meanders through these mountains, without any care to the height or steepness. Hiking the great wall is a difficult task within itself. It is more like a climb. Some of the steps are 1.5 meters tall, and some sets of steps are
extremely dangerous. We walked until we reached a part of the wall that was closed off. One of the most interesting parts of the great wall was not the restoration that had been done, but the actual destruction of the wall. We really wanted to walk on the destroyed section of the wall, but it was off limits. I'd heard of people who have hiked the entire length of the great wall in 3 months. Now that is a serious trip. After the great wall we went to the Summer Palace. You thought the Polish summer palace was cool, this place is gigantic littered with huge pagodas and tunnels and a HUGE lake in the middle of Beijing. The
emperor must've had a grand old time here. Speaking of litter, some little kid just finished his drink and then chucked it and the cap into the lake. I was so pissed because the trash can was like a couple of meters away. I told him in Chinese where the garbage can was and that what he did was extremely uncool. We wanted to paddle-boat a bit, but it was starting to rain and they wouldnt allow anyone to paddle-boat a bit. We took an allowed boat ride across the lake and then hung out in pagodas. It was an amazing sight. The rain was clearing up all the smog and for the first time I could see a huge strip of the skyline of
Beijing from our hilltop pagoda. I have some cool pictures of this day that Ill try and show you. After the summer palace, we headed back to Qinghua and bought some souvenirs and picked up another friend from MIT. We all went to eat at this amazing restaurant tucked away in a hutong (alley-way). It was in a traditional Chinese house, but we ate in the courtyard. The food was absolutely excellent, and we had to pay handsomely for it (100RMB each, or about $11-13 each). The most expensive meal I had in all of China. Now when you thought that this day couldn't get any longer, we all went bar hopping until 4AM with other foreigners that we knew through the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Finally, the next day, we ate an American breakfast with the friend from MIT and another exchange student from UC Berkeley. I had two sunny-side up eggs with ketchup, sausage and freshly squeezed orange juice. Mmm mmm good. The university arranged rides for us to the train station to catch our 2:30PM 24-hour train ride back to Xining. We picked up some KFC chicken burgers and wraps to go and some other random foods to eat on the train. The train ride back was more quiet because it was just me and Yiqun, and we didnt want to make a big scene. Most notably was that there was the most annoying kid i've ever met. He complained and whined the whole train ride. He screamed at his mom and hit his mom to get what he wanted. She quietly complied. I wanted to smack that kid so bad. Also, two things on Chinese beauty. For some reason, a large number of
Chinese women find it very fashionable to wear panty hose, but instead of it going all the way up the leg, it stops right above the ankle like a sock. If you could have seen it, it would make you keel back in disgust. Its so ugly! AND EVERYONE WEARS IT!!! Secondly, Chinese woman feel that they have no need to shave their leg or armpit hairs. It is disturbing when you see a friendly nice girl lie down on her bed to reveal a huge amount of armpit hair!!! I was so shocked, I couldn't bear to look anymore. Maybe something is wrong with Americans, and wrong with the way that I react to this... because I react the same way in Europe. Maybe its just us Americans who are weird. In any case, I still cannot stand it =P.

Well sorry that this is an extremely long edition, but I do owe everyone a holla!

Posted by peter at 02:27 PM

July 18, 2004

A Short Wish List

Right now I am starving. The medicine that Im taking is tainting my taste for all Chinese food. In particular, I feel like everything is caked in animal oil (lard) and thats all I can taste. I can hardly eat anything anymore. It also tends to make the nasty taste linger forever. Im going to stick with soupy noodle type foods for now, those that are not sauced up in so much oil that its dripping off the plate. After tomorrow the medicinal (and sickness) effects hopefully will have subsided.

These are the foods that I am craving right now:
1. Bologna sandwich with sweet pickles lettuce, sweet tomatoes, mayo and mustard. Wheat bread. (never thought I would say that I craved a sandwich)
2. Jack in the Box Taco
3. Spaghetti with olives, capers and a marinara. Italian sausage optional.
4. A single slice of tuna sashimi, dripping with soy sauce and touched
with wasabi.
5. Mongolian BBQ --> Broccoli, Carrots, Beef, Noodles topped with a small amount of spice, garlic and "special sauce"
6. A Bagel with whip cream and lox

and a Pacific Passion Jamba Juice.

Enjoy them while you can ;)

Posted by peter at 02:32 PM

July 15, 2004

To Appear on Television

I will be flying out to Beijing next week on Tuesday to appear on a national television (CCTV2) show that is focused on the development of Qinghai University. They chose 2 of the 5 MIT students. They chose one of the two fluent Chinese speakers and one of the "American" looking ones. I was chosen because I teach with a partner, and if I left, she would be able to carry on, whereas if Sal (the other guy) went, the students would miss two of his lectures. The forum will consist of about 40 people, about half from Qinghua University, and half from Qinghai University, including some of our students. It is an opportunity for Qinghai University to gain some national spotlight, and also show their cooperation with MIT to encourage further resource collaboration with
other national and international universities. We can answer the questions in any way we please (apparently), so there is nothing staged, but they may ask some very difficult and surprising questions. I will try and get a copy of the TV show not only for you guys but also for MIT's sake. I'll let you know how it turns out!

Posted by peter at 02:40 PM

July 04, 2004

Happy Independence Day! July 4th!

I know that its a bit early for you, but its already July 4th and it is a cause worth celebrating. The United States of America gained its independence from England on this day and we plan to celebrate it by eating McDonald's. We've been eating Chinese food everyday, and we do feel that it is appropriate.

Yesterday was a HUGE day. First of all, remember that Xining is on a high plateau and is still surrounded by mountains. There are some portions that remind me of Los Angeles because there is a hill in the heart of the city. On all sides of the hill are huge developments and motian dalou (scrape-sky big-building). On the hill itself is a very nice park named 南山 (south mountain) with a new building that looks a little like Sydney's famous "sailboat" looking building. Inside they dedicate a sisterhood between Shanghai and Xining. They had pictures of one portion of Shanghai by the Chang Jiang (Long River) taken in 1900, 1990 and 2002. Surprisingly, the biggest difference was between 1990 and 2002. Where there was basically nothing, an entire skyline sprouted into
being. I think that they envision Xining to undergo (hopefully) a similar spurt in growth. But with a population of 1.2 million people, Xining is just not that big . Just a small town =) (according to Chinese people). There were also some very old traditional buildings that you might imagine in China. Well, the park was very nice and we walked around and had lunch there. This lunch was quite expensive, for 9 people we had to pay 140 RMB, which comes out to be about $18. Three of
us paid for the bill. Typically, for breakfast I spend about 1-2 RMB, for lunch, perhaps 5 RMB and for dinner, perhaps another 5-7 RMB. Total, thats about 12 RMB a day, or about $1.50 for food. I spend maybe another 5 RMB on bottled water and drinks. Very very cheap. Anyways, after lunch (which was already kind of late), we decided to just walk around Xining. Stopped at a Chinese Bakery, a bookstore (at which I bought a huge map of China, a children's book, and the Three Kingdoms). I hope to be able to read these books one day. I will try and study them when I have time back in the states so that I can improve my grammar and reading ability. I haven't been learning too many Chinese characters (just a few)... though I become very familiar with a lot (even though I dont know what they mean). We then went to this coffee shop that resembled Starbucks in brand. It was called something like Seinebucks or something ridiculous like that. But, anyways, in China coffee is extremely expensive and
still considered a western thing to drink. The coffee shops are extremely high class joints with huge plush chairs and live music. The coffee is about as expensive as in the US. Very few people inside. 3 of the students decided to leave and go home because it was already 8PM (we had started the day at 10AM). The four of us (Sal, Michelle, Yiqun and myself), all decided to go try a 90 minute massage for only 68 RMB ($8). In reality, they only massage you for about 30-45 minutes, because the first 30-45 minutes they just soak your feet in water and try to sell you drinks and snacks. But the massage was quite good: hands, arms, feet, lower leg and back. By the time we were done, it was already about 10PM. We took a taxi home and watched Chicago on a DVD that we had
bought. Final sleeping time: 1:30AM.

This is a typical day here in Xining. We work hard, we play hard. We hang out with our students until they are too tired to hang out anymore. I think they maybe think we play a lil too hard . All in all, times are good. I'm definitely enjoying myself. I'll try and keep you updated as often as I can! Let me know what you plan to do for July 4th and how everything is going!

Posted by peter at 02:43 PM