Spring Festival, Part I

After 15 full days of festivities, the Spring Festival (春节) is finally coming to a end. The businesses on my street are slowly reopening and the shopping district near my house is swarming with “after festival” shoppers looking for a good deal. However, to my dissatisfaction, the fireworks will continue to go off all hours of the day and night for at least another week.  Looks like I will have to postpone a good deep sleep for a while. I have yet to spot the return of my favorite malatang (basically vegetable soup) guy on my street but with witnessing all the dramatic changes taking place on my grungy Guangba street, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t coming back. As Leslie Chang writes in “Factory Girls”, “The holiday is a hinge on which the whole year turns–it is the time to quit a job, take a rest, get engaged, start again”.

Spring Festival 2010, my first Chinese New Year, has been a perspective changing experience. I was invited to spend the Festival in a small city in Henan, Jiyuan, with my favorite Chinese roommate from Hae’rbin and her family. I arrived in Jiyuan on the night of February 10th and left early on the 16th. After about 5 full days of eating way too much, watching a lot of tv, and huddling next to the stove (the only source of warmth) in her grandparents old-style house, 老房子,I had really gotten comfortable in Jiyuan. Xuefei’s family welcomed me, the best they could, and by the end of the trip were welcoming me to come back whenever I wished. To say I got close to her family is stretching it, but I at the very least got comfortable. By the third day, her family had finally loosened up to me. The cousins were acting more rambunctious and chatting with me more and the grandparents on her mother’s side began to try and communicate with me.

The language was a huge barrier. The town of Jiyuan, which oddly enough has an equal population to Nashville, has their own dialect. I have encountered dialect obstacles in the past, especially when I first arrived in Wuhan and met my landlord (who only speaks Wuhan dialect), but this experience was a bit more frustrating. Most of the elders’ Mandarin was dramatically out of practice, which is understandable since aside from my roommate (Xuefei, who attends University in a faraway city) they rarely if ever leave the city or encounter outsiders who do not speak their dialect. The younger generation and Xuefei would speak Mandarin if they were talking directly to me, but if they were all talking amongst themselves I could rarely understand. Speaking to Xuefei’s parents’ generation was sometimes possible, with Xuefei translating a bit, but speaking to the grandparents on her mother’s side was nearly impossible. However, surprisingly enough, her dad’s parents spoke incredibly clearly. I sadly only got to interact with them for about 30 minutes, but I was shocked at how open they were with me and how effectively we could communicate. I was incredibly surprised how much my Mandarin had improved after speaking 5 days of pure Mandarin, I even managed to pick up a few Jiyuan phrases.

All the women on my first day in the hold house working hard making steamed bread (mantou). Xuefei’s sister, whom I called Meimei, is in the foreground.

Spring Festival, Part II coming soon!

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Ambassador Meet-n-Greet

Well into my second month in Wuhan–only 8 more to go!–and settling in nicely. Mary, Bo, and I (the 3 Wuhan Fulbrigh-teers) had an amazing opportunity this morning. The newly appointed Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, stopped by Wuhan to give a talk on water conservation, which was followed by small round table discussion hosted by the newly established American Consulate. The Consulate General, Diane Sovereign, was gracious enough to invite us to the event and even organized a small meeting between Mr. Huntsman and the three of us. Huntsman was incredibly down to earth and casual and really took an interest in meeting us. Unfortunately so, I had no such expectation and failed to even ponder what kind of questions he might ask, let alone worthy answers. So of course, in all my trying-to-be-cool nervousness I came out with absolutely nothing worthy of remembering. No big deal, right? Lets just hope he already forgot.

I certainly did learn from this experience, as I try to do with all experiences whether awesome or awkward, and most importantly I realized I need to construct a well-thought-out and intelligent response to the question “And what will you take away from this experience?”. I am sure I will be asked that a few more times over this year and should probably not respond with “a lot of soul searching and improved Mandarin”. The pictures turned out great and pictures are supposedly worth a thousand words… That makes up for it, right?

Anyways, to the more interesting content. We were able to sit in on the round table discussion with the Ambassador and about 10 reporters. Some (fairly) interesting and touchy questions were posed and it was interesting to see how he diplomatically responded to them. Most of his answers were centered around the importance of both nations’ youth and how language and cultural exchange are crucial to future Sino-relations– and he even pointed to us Fulbright-ers as examples. It was sure nice to get a shout out. I was quite fond of the way in which he referenced his adopted 10 year-old daughter from China, Gracie. He used her rather skillfully, and I would even say beautifully, as a metaphor for US-China relations. He described her as being smart, enthusiastic, and optimistic about the future and while they may occasionally run into disagreements, they always manage to work out their differences in a peaceful manner. I would say that is a fine example of American diplomacy; demonstrating his close familial ties to China, while throwing a few compliments China’s way.

A reporter from the China Daily was brave enough to ask the question everyone in the room was wanting to pose: “How do you view the US-China disagreement over the Taiwan arms issue and do you find this year’s disagreement to have any important differences than previous years?” Huntsman began his answer with a reference to history with Nixon’s first visit in 1972 and the signing of the Taiwan Straight Relations Act, emphasizing the point that America signed this Act with the understanding of a “One China” policy. He also highlighted both Taiwan and the US’s role in creating a more stable and peaceful Taiwan Straight than 30 years ago. As for the difference question, he sees very little. He claimed that this issue is the same issue we encounter nearly every year and will probably continue to be over the next decade unless China and Taiwan can reconcile their differences. It’s pretty clear that the US will continue to refuse to succumb to the pressure from the mainland to forgo their arms relations with the Taiwanese and I’d say Huntsman did well with reemphasizing their stance.

Me, Mary O’Loughlin, Jon Hunstman, Bo Peng

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On Culture Shock

My two weeks vacation back in the good ole’ reliable U.S. of A. proved to serve a purpose other than some quality relaxation time away from chaotic Chinese life. The trip facilitated some worthy reflection time and helped me realize how living in China has impacted my life. First things first: culture shock, which definitely caught me by surprise. The abundance of white people, actually to be more precise, an abundance on non-Chinese people surrounding me was startling. I failed to realize until this point how accustomed to living amongst a nearly homogeneous Chinese community I had become. So much so that in my eyes, each Chinese person undoubtedly has their own unique and distinctive features. I was quickly reminded of everyday American fashion: the college girl, the southern boy, the business man. Waiting at the airport for my flight from Newark to Nashville I felt like I was in an American sitcom, which is understandable considering TV and movies were my escapism destination of choice over the last 4 months. The availability of food that I recognized was startling and the selection in the grocery store was utterly overwhelming. Driving was an adjustment, but not the driving part. The isolation and peacefulness of driving in a car, alone, without people touching me or spitting on the floor next to me was awe-worthy. I was so alone with my thoughts my mind almost didn’t know what to think.

After a week of adjusting, I had a week of feeling comfortable living in the convenient and quiet life I once led not so long ago in America. I was sucked back into the fun and exciting, yet dramatic and stressful social circles of the summer and re-realized how many people in Nashville I share commonalities and common interests with. I, for some odd reason, began to act like a true 22 year old and neglected to take care of responsibilities by allowing my free time to be consumed by worrying about petty and unimportant banalities characteristic of young adult life. The lack of an inclination to over-think and overanalyze these very banalities is one thing that I have come to love about living abroad in China. Life here is simple. I have my friends here who I share commonalities with, but on a completely different level than my friends in the States. I spend my days trying to be productive and even though many days I don’t reach my goals, I am nonetheless at least 3 times more productive that I would be if I were living back home. I use my nights to do crafty things and try to nourish my creative streak or to socialize with friends over dinner, drinks, or laughing in Chinese clubs. Weekends are reserved for days of exploring and familiarizing myself with this ridiculous city I am living in. My thoughts and anxiety about the future are quieted by the loudness of the present and I am finally able to live during the day and leave the dreaming for the night.

In college, in all my misery, I often pictured that I would have to live somewhere completely different for me to overcome my personal strife and finally appreciate life. However, I always pictured this imaginary place I would live to look more like the bush in Africa or South America, in a community where the frivolous worries that consume my American self will be washed away from the realization that there are so many more important things in life. I never pictured living in China, at only 4.5 months so far, to be that experience for me and to help me see how much time and emotion I have been wasting. While China is rapidly industrializing, and the culture is slowly being consumed by the same frivolous things that I am attempting to rid myself of, the foundations are still present enough to have an impact. The importance of family and friendship is as bright as ever and the entrepreneurial attitude of nearly every person you encounter on the street is inspiring. Chinese people stop and watch the most ridiculous things (most often some form of construction project) and I didn’t understand it until a friend of mine stated, “If your country was rapidly transforming before your eyes, wouldn’t you watch?”. I found this observation to be astounding. Life for the Chinese is exciting and vibrant, they see everyday as an opportunity to stride forward and get closer to achieving their dreams.

I read an article a month ago in the NYT that was quite fantastic entitled “The Nation of Futurity” by David Brooks. Brooks compares Chinese society today with American society in the time when the American dream was at its brightest and claims that we should, in America, look to the Chinese to remind us of how passionate and entrepreneurial we once were. Today’s America is increasingly becoming more and more negative. We are focusing on our problems and rather than trying to do something to fix them, we are relishing in them and looking to the higher-ups to take responsibility. In China, you cannot rely on anyone but yourself. The government will not protect you, let alone help you. Strangers are not accustomed to helping out strangers. They have themselves, their families, and their determination to see them through. We can learn from the Chinese. Just because we are nearing the end of the era in which America was on top doesn’t mean American is ending. We all have to fight to keep what our parents and grandparents have worked their entire lives to build.

Here is a photo I snagged under a bridge in Shanghai. The most adorable migrant children and their mothers, who very well could be living under that bridge. They were quite the pose-ers.

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Explosions on my Roof

On a quiet Christmas Eve in Wuhan, alone in my apartment on the 32nd floor, cozy in my bed with a novel that I will never admit to reading on something as public as a blog, and I SUDDENLY hear and feel this huge explosion. I jump out of bed and just stand there with my phone in my hand, frozen. It felt like someone was bombing the top of my building, no joke. I run over to my patio, open the door, peer out, and then close it and step back, all the while the explosions proceed. I frantically call my friend Mary who lives on the 29th floor and no answer. So I go and look again and I realize there are FiREWORKS being shot off of my roof. Not just any fireworks, HUGE fireworks and not just the roof of my building, my ROOF! My apartment is on the top floor.

Fireworks scare me. Not only because they are dangerous, but more so because I don’t understand them. I don’t understand how they don’t start fires, and blow up the people who set them off. Last night scared the cr*p out of me. I was preparing in my head to grab my computer and start running down 32 (!) floors to safety. I was convinced my building was going to set on fire.

About 10 minutes later my phone rings and Mary is returning my call. I ask her if she heard them and she replies “are you kidding? I immediately went downstairs. Fireworks freak me out”. We discover through minor investigative work that it was a few foreigners who live in this building–we think (hope) non-americans and apparently the security guards were pissed. Come to think of it there is clear access to the roof of my incredibly tall building (which seems a bit dangerous?) and probably little or no consequences in sight in the mind of the people who set them off. My only response… This is China. My friends and I here say this over and over again. When we see something ridiculous, dangerous, or something we just cannot begin to understand we say…well, This is China! Anything goes, really.

This situation brings up a few issues I do have with living in China. Especially living in Wuhan, on my own. I am deathly afraid of having a fire in my home/building. Frankly, when I walk around China, experience the safety standards people abide by, and consider the lack of regulation in so many aspects of Chinese life, I cannot begin to understand how buildings aren’t set on fire every other day. But they aren’t. I was running on Wuhan University’s campus yesterday–beautiful 100 year old campus set on two mountains a 5 minute walk from my apartment–and I was looking at the old houses and apartment buildings. They appear to have survived without burning down but i am not sure how. Thankfully the 32 story apartment building I live in here is made almost completely of concrete block (as Mary often reassures me). How is it any different than NYC, where everyone lives in tall buildings and fires do often break out? Maybe its the lack of fire escape plans, fire detectors (!), and other safety precautions that comfort us in the States. Safety and China…I will get back to you with my conclusions at a later date.

To make my Christmas Eve even MORE eventful. As I am chatting with Mary on the phone about the ridiculous turn of events, she shares an even more shocking story with me. Upon returning to her apartment after running downstairs, she hears some commotion in the apartment below her’s (which doesn’t have a patio, just windows and a little platform that is part of the building structure). She peers out her window and to her surprise, she sees a Chinese boy in his 20s squatting on the ledge outside the window! She listened in and overheard a female and male voice from inside the apartment trying to convince him not to do it, to come back inside–which he did, thank god. i could not believe it. First, we are afraid our building is being attacked in the middle of the night and second, Mary witnesses an attempted suicide from the 28th floor!

As it turns out, the people from last night didn’t finish their batch of fireworks! I can hear more going off as I am sitting in my living room writing this on my Chinese Christmas morning/afternoon. Fireworks are something I apparently have to get used to…especially with Chinese New Year quickly approaching, but I can say for sure my fear of their uncertainty will never subside!

Merry Christmas to everyone in China and in the States. 3 days till I land on American soil!!

Here is a photo of my landlady’s grandson and I in my apartment. It took him a while to warm up to me, but he did after all! Freaking adorable.

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Quickie

As i finish hand-writing my 3,000 character essay…it has dawned on me that my time here in Harbin is nearing to a bitter-sweet end. Finals start on Wednesday, our graduation ceremony is on Saturday, and I will be on my way to Wuhan by Sunday where i will begin the search for my new apartment. On a SUPER exciting note, only about 3 weeks till i will be back in Nashville for my two week holiday! Do expect more, and more interesting posts once i arrive in Wuhan. I will have plenty of time to think and write since i won’t be attending classes regularly.

A few quick bits:

-Elise of Halcyon Bike Shop just informed me she posted one of my China photos on the bike shop site. Do check it out! Pretty exciting. http://halcyonbike.com/

-Due to the China firewall which blocks Facebook, i am unable to post any of my fun/social photos. As a substitute, i have uploaded a fair bit to a Photobucket account. The link is included in my links section to the right, but i will also provide links to the specific albums below.

http://s920.photobucket.com/albums/ad42/alwaid/?newest=1

http://s920.photobucket.com/albums/ad42/alwaid/Halloween in CHINA/

http://s920.photobucket.com/albums/ad42/alwaid/Half-way There/

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Thanksgiving in 中国

While Thanksgiving in China is missing so many of the things that make it my very favorite American holiday, I must say my heart was as full of warmth as it would have been if I was with my own people in my own comfy home. The language program here organized for all of us students, Chinese roommates, and all of our teachers to go to the Shangri-la hotel here in Harbin to eat a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner. To my surprise, most of my Chinese friends knew all about Thanksgiving, considering it was a topic in their English courses, and really made the night full of friends, fun, and lots and lots of photo taking!

To top it off, this very Thanksgiving afternoon– after a month of waiting– my teacher who taught me how to make my very own red wine came over to my dorm and helped me complete my last step in the process. It was perfect timing since i do love my red wine on Thanksgiving and leaves me about two weeks to drink it down to the last drop. Speaking of, i am sipping on some right now as i write this very blog post! There is nothing like drinking my very own Chinese-grapes red wine on Thanksgiving weekend. I sure am a lucky gal.

Here is a photo of me and my wine:

Me and my two lovely gal friends Lauren and Belinda at dinner:

Love and miss you all! Hope you had a fantastic thanksgiving and hope to see as many of you as I can on my two week holiday in late December.

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Evolutions

I studied Chinese culture and politics fairly intensely for two years before my first trip to China and those two years enabled me to be somewhat well-versed and strongly passionate about the problems of today’s China. I distinctly remember my first trip to Beijing to visit an old friend from London last March, who prior to my visit had been living in Beijing for about 8 months. Half-way through the trip i found myself in a huge argument with him about the Chinese government and their actions at the time. I was doing what the western media does nearly every day, highlighting the problems; and he was defending the government, stressing how large scale the problems they are facing and how they are dealing with their problems in their own way. I couldn’t understand at the time what had happened to my friend. His opinions had completely changed and I was flabbergasted that he could stand there and defend the Chinese government. After living in China for merely three months, I have already begun to understand. Living in China changes a lot of things. My perspectives on world politics, pop culture, and Chinese politics, in addition to my ideas concerning what is safe, comfortable, and socially acceptable have all been radically transformed. Life in China is different–I expected that–but I didn’t expect living here to change my personal world so dramatically.

It is easy to forget how strongly access to information affects our understanding and can limit the scope of our knowledge of an issue. Only so much can be observed, calculated, written, and disseminated and every piece of information is influenced by the messenger’s bias. While the recent blog phenomenon has increased the range and scope of information available, we are finding ourselves in a new predicament: too much to read and not enough time and/or free brian space to absorb it all.

Before moving to China, my opinions and perceptions of Chinese issues were strongly influenced by academic sources and mainstream media, more specifically, those which heavily focused on the chronic problems in China’s current system. While I made an effort to credit China’s numerous areas of success, I definitely focused on the areas that needed work. The majority of news easily available to Americans regarding China is negative. I have yet to truly discover wether this is out of fear, jealousy, or concern for victims in the many human rights stories but putting that aside, since arriving in China i have seen that Chinese people, and China for that matter, are determined to prove us wrong and show us how much they want to and are succeeding at making economic and social progress.

Chinese people are, as far as countries go, incredibly nationalistic. Since reform and opening they have seriously begun to care how foreigners view their country and for the most part, go out of their way to show foreigners who visit China that what the media reports is not the whole story. I have begun to sympathize with the Chinese. Chinese people, especially those 40 and older, have a very dynamic view of contemporary China. They see how quickly their standard of living has risen– through better housing, healthcare, abundance of food and job opportunities. They remember what life was like under Mao and they lived through the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, which starved 30 million Chinese to death. If you look at China’s history–recent history at that– life in China has improved by leaps and bounds. However, as we know very well in the west, development does not solve all problems and will inevitably create new and unforeseen ones.

I have been hard on China since the beginning, in some cases too hard and i am not saying we should stop critiquing China; rather, I am saying that maybe we should move away from the harsh criticism and reprimanding that we have grown accustomed to and look at China’s problems from another perspective other than our coveted western-centric one. All I can say is inform yourself, make your own opinions, and if you are really that curious about China, join me!

Photo by Al Waid(me): Taken in Dandong, China near the North Korean border. One of my top two favorite China shots so far!

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