Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Norwegian: Or, Yes, I'm Learning Another Language

I am a bit language-crazy.

I speak English as my native tongue. However, I also speak Mandarin quite well. My Hebrew and French are competent – my speaking is stronger in Hebrew, but my reading is stronger in French. I can survive in Spanish. I know basic Afrikaans and Cantonese.

I like languages. My grandmother, of blessed memory, spoke eight fluently and a ninth to a basic degree. I aim to imitate her.

I also like being able to switch my identity as I switch languages. I go from my normal, crazy Anglophone self to a chatty, laid-back Mandarin speaker, to a good Hebrew-speaking Jewish son…as I speak a language, I develop a part of my soul. It’s a form of spiritual growth, to embed oneself in more communities in the most basic way: learning the language.

And yesterday, as if I didn’t speak enough tongues already, I started Norwegian. I’m auditing Norwegian 101-102-103 this year, although I may end up taking one of the quarters as a credit class.

There’s a nervousness you have before you start a new language. “Is this the right thing to do?” “Why the hell am I doing this?” “Is the pronounciation devilishly difficult?” (For Norwegian, yes).

And then you take your first class. You learn the alphabet and basic phrases. “God dag! Jeg heter Jonathan. Jeg bor i Chicago. Jeg kommer fra New York. Hva heter du? Hvor bor du? “

(For reference, as I wrote this on Word, my spell checking switched from English to Norwegian. Win for Microsoft.)

And then you relax. You realize that it’s going to be awesome.

Norwegian is the first language that I’m learning for specific reasons. I learned Hebrew and Afrikaans as a family affair, although I did buy grammars and textbooks to improve them. Chinese was something that just happened, and pulled me in for what is now over seven years. French and Spanish happened in high school – there was no specific reason, I just wanted to learn them. Cantonese happened for similar reasons.

Norwegian seems awesome. But I know what drew me in. Years of Scandinavian mystery books definitely played a role (you get written Danish and Swedish for free with Norwegian, and a good understanding of spoken – dialect continuums rock). The quality of life in Norway is a bonus. The sheer amount of amazing and diverse travel opportunities in Scandinavia are an attraction. But most of all, my continued interest in the changing Arctic necessitates the knowledge of either a Scandinavian language or Russian. I’ve chosen the former. As the Arctic grows more important for so many reasons, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (by virtue of Greenland) will grow more important as well. Whoever thought thirty years ago that Chinese-Norwegian and Chinese-Canadian relations could have such complex manifestations? How do we take what we learned before elsewhere and apply them to the unique problems of the circumpolar world?

Norwegian is a doorway to a world for me, and I hope that I can learn enough to go through that doorway well. This is a language I’ve looked forward to learning for a long time. Here we go.

The Norwegian alphabet in sign form. The three extra letters are basically unique to Scandinavian languages. Copyright deafblind.com.

Addition to the blogroll:

Semester in Londontown: My friend Lisa, an amazing and intelligent student at Hampshire College, is spending a semester abroad in London. She has a blog to document her experiences in the UK, and she’s a terrific writer. It’s up in the blogroll.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I’m home again

I realized I was home several times in the past thirty-six hours:

1.       I know it, because I’ve got my communities here with me again.

a.        I realized it when we were singing V’Shamru (one of my favorites) at services yesterday. It’s good to be singing with people who I can connect with, and who I do connect with, and it’s awesome to welcome new friends to Egal! Welcome to the newcomers!

b.      I realized it as I’ve run around in my dorm and elsewhere hugging my friends again.

c.       I’ve got the crew back; I had a great Middle Eastern dinner with four close friends, and spent a good long time with four other close friends in their dormitory. I’ve been hit by an avalanche of hugs.

d.      It’s great to see people in person again. It’s one thing to talk to Douglas or Hillel or Scott or Katie on Facebook. It’s another thing to talk to them face-to-face. It’s great to see you guys.

2.       I know it, because the white noise is the white noise of home. I’ve got the truck-chuck of the commuter rail outside my window. I know the voice on the bus announcements. I know the beep of the scanner at the libraries. I know the voices in the hallway.

3.       I know it, because I can tell someone that I’m interested in China’s role in circumpolar affairs and they won’t think I’m weird. I just agreed last night with someone that ancient Middle Eastern tablets are awesome. The nerd is coming out to play!

4.       I know it, because there’s that endless Chicago sky soaring above and the wind blowing in from the lake.

5.       I know it, because I’ve relaxed. This is home. This is my room. This is the view I know. This is the door that goes between my dorm and home and the outside world. This is the sidewalk I know so well, the walk I could do blindfolded to the center of campus. This is my world again.

It’s awesome to be home.
Other than kitsch, adds to the blog roll:

1.       An anthology of visual pleasures: Douglas, a friend of mine, has an artsy blog that’s really fascinating. Also, tons of wonderful art.
2.       Momenergy: two students of mine run a mathy-economics-random notes blog. It’s cool.
3.       Are We Feminists?: three wonderful ladies have a blog covering life as women and feminists in the 21st century, with some brilliant pop culture analysis and great adventures. Comment anonymously, please.
4.       Nachamu Ami: a friend of mine from my Jewish life has a blog in which he writes about adventures and intellectual questions within his colorful Jewish life. It’s a good read.
5.       Foreign Policy/Arctic: so besides being a China nerd, I’m a total nerd for the Arctic and circumpolar affairs (I can explain that, as needed). This blog is really good for keeping abreast of politics and hullaballoos in this surprisingly hot (pun totally intended) region. I’m planning an Arctic-themed post later this year.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Autumn takes the throne: Or, I wax poetic on my favorite season

Note: Unlike most Americans, I'm way more accustomed to using Celsius temperatures. Sorry if my conversions are off. 

One of the big differences between Shenzhen and the Northern United States (both New York and Chicago) is temperature. The Pearl River Delta is oppressively hot for most of the year. Humidity hangs in the air like an unwelcome houseguest, and the heat constantly crushes...over, and over, and over. Most days in Shenzhen were north of 30C (86F), and days hitting 34C (93F) were not uncommon. This is in tandem with crazy humidity and smog unknown to almost anywhere in the United States. Shenzhen is a giant oven.

Chicago and New York are already entering the autumn. When I landed at Kennedy Airport at 6:45am last Friday, the temperature was a brisk 10C (50F); it shall be a cool 15C (60F) for a high in Chicago when I land on Friday. It's quite a difference. During my jetlagged times, I went outside at 5:30am to enjoy the brisk, Northeastern night air.

Autumn is coming to knock Summer off the throne. I can't wait.

The fall has always been my favorite season. Perhaps, as a late summer birth, the season has always been inextricably linked to the start of a new year for me. The two times I've moved house, I've done so in September. Autumn feels renewing. Refreshing. After the summer's heat and push, the relaxed coolness of the fall makes me feel as if I can breathe again.

I love the coolness of the air, the crisp smell on the wind, the changing color of the leaves, the intensity of the grays and the muted color of the light. I love the endless American sunsets and how they become so sharp during the fall.

The fall has a resolute normalcy that sweeps me up. There's a social air of determination, of drive, of getting things done. It inspires me. I often do my best work during the fall.

The fall is romantic. I become disgustingly sentimental during November. I feel my feelings, perhaps, most strongly as the trees begin to shed their leaves. It's almost as if nature primes me to go on an emotional overload. It's a great cleansing mechanism.

I'm one of the few people who moved to Chicago for the weather, and autumn is definitely a selling point for the city. The air is delightfully nippy, the wind is just so, the light is neither depressing (like late winter) nor alarmingly joyful (like July). It's just an awesome season.

I'm a son of the North. I grew up in the Northern US, I live in the Northern US, I love the Northern US. I never understood why people chased the sun and sea, when the autumn and spring are so beautiful.

I've been fortunate enough to see a lot of the Northern Autumn: in Chicago, in Indiana, all over the New York area, the Catskills, and much of coastal New England. I've felt strong autumn winds in rural upstate New York, and I've smelled that unmistakable, firewood-like scent in both Hyde Park and in northwestern Connecticut. Boston in late fall - an experience Model UN in high school gave me several times - is incomparable. It's the best time to visit the city.

The fall keeps me tied to where I'm from. Wherever I live, the North American autumn's eventually going to pull me home. It keeps me waiting all year.

Fall has already started in Canada - a country which has taken a fall symbol as their mascot. In a few weeks time, we'll don our sweaters and our socks and push against the wind to our classes.

I can't wait.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reflection on an Asian Journey

I’m back in the United States after almost two months away. I go home to Chicago on Friday, ending my "time away from home." So, how do I feel?

I had an awesome time in Asia. Sure, I had to come home early. But I wasn’t really planning to do much the last week. Rest, relax, finish up at work, eat some last eggplant. The return home has been outweighed by all the wonderful things I saw and experienced. I’m really happy I went.

This trip included my third extended stay in Mainland China, as well as visits to many fascinating and amazing places. I’ve learned a lot about China and about the world, and I’ve gained unquantifiable experience for my life here. My work was great, and I saw and went through so many unforgettable and great things. Even the medical experience that came at the end of my Asian odyssey, I think, has its value: if anything, I learned a lot from it.

I now have fifteen weeks’ aggregate experience of living and studying/working in China; I can translate Chinese-language documents and I have a daily life routine in China. I can live in Mandarin, and know basic Cantonese. Shenzhen, as weird as it is, feels a bit like home to me. It will never be New York or Chicago. But it holds a piece of my heart.

I definitely hope to go back at some point in the near-ish future. Singapore is an amazing, fascinating and inviting city; I’m already considering pursuing an internship there at some point (probably two years from now), or even a job after graduation. I would also consider doing research on Singapore if the opportunity arose. I’d also like to see more of China, but more of Asia in general.

I don’t think I’ll live in Shenzhen again. Visit? Sure, G-d willing. In fact, if I end up in a career where I go to Hong Kong a lot, I probably will. But live, and live more than a few weeks? Unlikely. Will I even live in Mainland China? I don’t know; I can’t predict these things. But I enjoyed my time there and will not forget it.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go on this trip, and to have had the chance to see and do what I did. I won’t ever forget it.

I’ve got an exciting school year coming up. Expect more on this blog. I’ve decided to save my post on translation for a few weeks from now.

Guys, thanks for your reading and your support. It’s really great when someone tells me on IM, “I liked your post,” or when someone calls me to make sure I’m doing OK. It makes me feel awesome, and I love you guys for it. When I recover, I am going to make you all fat with baked goods.

Also, my parents and sister were awesomely supportive and helpful. Thanks guys! I love you always! 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Coming Home: Going Medical, 8000 Miles Away

I got hit by a highly unexpected double health whammy in Shenzhen.

Firstly, I developed some sort of nasty respiratory infection, which was accelerated by the pollution and humidity. By the time of my birthday, I was pretty much violently coughing 24/7; a puff of my emergency inhaler would improve the situation for about two hours – half of the time it’s supposed to work.

Secondly, I got bit by a bug. Not a normal skeeter. Probably some sort of spider. Anyway, it went from a big bump above my ankle to causing swelling pretty much from my heel and ankle to my calf on my left leg, with accompanying problems and a fever.

I took time off work on Wednesday to go to a doctor in Hong Kong. Unlike other large cities in China, medical care in Shenzhen is not really very strong in quality. Foreigners are expressly asked to, if possible, cross over into Hong Kong to see practitioners there; those with single-entry visas usually go to Guangzhou. My employer, actually, urges any non-Mainland employee to seek medical attention in Hong Kong if possible.

I was prescribed medicines for what I had.

Then my condition worsened a lot Wednesday night. I called my parents in the States and talked to a friend as well. And then they asked me to come home.

And I decided to follow their advice.

I was irrationally nervous. I felt like I was bailing out. That I couldn’t survive being in Mainland. That I was being a wuss.

And then I realized. I’m feeling like shit. I can barely talk while I’m in Shenzhen. My leg is swollen. I have a new school year coming up, and I need to be recovered and rested for that. My mother is 8,000 miles away, worried to death; my friends are extremely concerned. My dad is a nervous wreck. My boss has already told me to lessen my work hours. I wasn’t going to be doing much in the last week.

It takes more bravery to make the right decision for oneself than it does to be stubborn. So I courageously returned my dad’s call.

“Dad, I’m going to listen to you. I’m coming back.”

I decided to go back to New York rather than Chicago. I would spend a week with my family recuperating, and see the doctor and get some good sleep.  In a way, since the trip psychologically started for me in Chicago, New York will probably be in my mind an extension of the trip.

I made arrangements. I changed my flight from the flight to Chicago next week to one to New York, via Vancouver, the next day. The airline was really great about everything; I didn’t have to pay through the nose. I started packing up my things. I bought a lot of stuff in China. Some of it my friend offered to ship back to me in the States, which was really nice of him. (A few presents, including Hannah Cook’s, will be delayed).
I went to talk to my boss and colleagues. They understood and gave me hugs, and helped me move out of the dorm. Then I crossed over to Hong Kong. I shed a tear as I left Shenzhen. It gave me a lot of amazing experiences and memories.

I went to the doctor, which ended up being a two-hour long experience. The doctor said that flying was not the best idea, but that with certain measures I’d be OK. Because of my leg’s condition, there was a small chance of thrombosis developing – in layman’s terms, a clot. I’d have to wear special socks on the flight. I also received a shot of antibiotics to last me through the flight, and surgical masks if I coughed a lot, so that other people wouldn’t get sick.

And then I flew home. The flight was not too bad; it was not that full and I slept a lot. I was a bit uncomfortable, since under the compression socks my leg was swelling. The plane had some good movies.

There was one little incident, though.

In Vancouver, we had to go into a transit lounge while the plane was refueled and recrewed. I was talking a bit with another traveller, who made a disguised dig about me being weak and uncultured for not being able to stay in China for that long (how juvenile!). I responded clearly:

“I made the right decision in that I needed to come back to be ready for my long-term commitments and to recover properly. I had an awesome time, and I now have an accumulated 15 weeks living experience [3.5 Beijing, 5.5 Shanghai, 6 Shenzhen] in China over the past four and a half years, as well as proficiency in Mandarin enough to be able to translate the Peking University code of conduct with the aid of a dictionary. I can live in China fine, but sometimes, I need to go home.”

And then I realized: dang, I’ve come far.
I’m with my family now. I went to the doctor and had my medicines all changed. My leg is feeling better on the new medicine, and my cough has improved with the better air quality here. My mother has been a great help. I slept for most of the afternoon and early evening – here come some weird, jetlagged hours.

I had an awesome time in Asia, and I don’t feel bad about how things have ended. I’m going to write a long reflective post soon, and there are also two more posts I had in the making. Lots of jetlagged writing coming up!

Thank you all so much for your love and support. I am so grateful to have you guys as my friends. Rock on, y’all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Early Return to the US: Health is Important

This also appears in pretty much the same form on my Facebook.

I've basically been hit by a double health whammy here in Shenzhen. I have a pretty bad cough that's either from the pollution or some upper respiratory infection (and probably has something to do with my general breathing issues here), and I also have a pretty virulent tropical bug bite that's caused swelling, inflammation and possibly (read: likely) an infection on my shin, as well as possibly fever and chills. The doctor in Hong Kong prescribed rest and a cocktail of antibiotics, and also asked me to consider returning to North America. 

My parents and several close friends, however, have unequivocally asked me to come back to the United States as soon as possible, and not next Friday as originally planned. I have decided to return.

I have not spoken to my bosses yet, but I will likely receive approval. I will also need to check with the doctor about flying with my leg in its current state. Should I return, I will probably go to my family in New York for a few days, and then back to Chicago on the 23rd.

My father, fortunately, happens to still be in Hong Kong on business at the moment, so I am safe here for now. While what I have is not life-threatening, my recovery will be greatly aided by a return to the US.

I'm not really sad. I've achieved way more than I even thought possible in Shenzhen, and I've really had an amazing and thrilling experience here in China. I am so grateful, so very grateful, to have had this opportunity and this mind-blowing experience here in Asia. I've seen so many new things and so many new places and lived (,but) for a good period of time in Shenzhen.  I just need to come home, because there are things more important than cool experiences and new things. Like my health.

I also want to thank you guys for the amazing support you've given me over the past few weeks, and the amazing support you've given me in general. One of my achievements was that I got presents for everyone I wanted to get presents for, so that's good. I hope you understand. I know you'll understand.

I'm so grateful to have had this experience. I'm only really losing a few days, and in the long run, that'll matter less than being healthy and happy and being able to reflect on this amazing trip. Sorry to bang my drum here, but I can hold my head high knowing that I've achieved a fuckton, and took advantage of an opportunity that not only many people wouldn't have taken even if they had the opportunity to do so.

I've loved this so much. I'll keep y'all posted. 

I still have two analysis-type posts bouncing about in my head. If the early return happens (we're talking 97% likely here), I will write and post them after getting back.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Birthday and Dad

Short post this time.

My 20th birthday was on Monday. It feels really weird not to be a teenager, and it feels really strange to be a "twentysomething." I feel kind of ... old. It's also really amazing to be able to spend a birthday abroad...it's sort of like being inside the birthday cake. I like it.

Also, THANK YOU SO MUCH for all the birthday wishes. It really meant a lot to me. I feel very loved.

Monday also happened to be the confluence of several things. It is a public holiday in Mainland China, but the day before one in Hong Kong. So, I had the day off. Secondly, my dad happens to be in the area on business, with a particularly important meeting on the morning of the 12th. There was no question: I went into Hong Kong to hang out with my dad.

It was a great day. I got a new pair of eyeglasses (way cheaper than the States) and a new blazer (ditto), and I spent time with my dad between his meetings. We went to a great Japanese place for dinner. It was really great seeing my dad - it's nice to suddenly have family around after being away for so long!

The border, because of the holiday, was really quiet. It was a bit unnerving.

Dad had meetings in Shenzhen today, so I went out with him for dinner, which was really good. I also showed him around where I'm working and living, and he seemed to like that a lot.

Unfortunately, I have had a quite nasty cough for the past three or four days, so my boss has asked me to go back to Hong Kong tomorrow to see the doctor. Guys, I'll be fine (knock on wood), but I need to take care of myself. I'm feeling great mentally, but physically, I should probably see someone.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Guangzhou: Cantonese Capital of the World

Note: I wrote this post on less sleep than normal after having way too much MSG in my dinner. Oh, China.

Shenzhen might have more people than most US metropolitan areas, but culturally, it’s hardly a center. Why is this? Well, it’s stuck between Hong Kong, a major world financial center and cultural, economic, and media crossroads, and Guangzhou (also known in the West as “Canton”), the provincial capital of Guangdong province and a major center in South China for over one and a half millennia. I’ve been to Hong Kong quite a bit this trip and on the other trips to China. But Guangzhou, I decided, was definitely worth at least a daytrip. So I went up.

The pagoda at Liurongsi (Six Banyan Temple)
A high-speed railway links Shenzhen and Guangzhou; it’s part of China’s enormous “let’s build railways everywhere” boom. Except this one is actually popular. Every fifteen minutes, a train makes the hour-and-a-bit journey between the two cities. It’s convenient.

I live pretty far from the train station – it’s over an hour by public transport – so I decided to splurge on a cab. Luckily, there’s a shortcut by road, and the cab fare was not too bad. Cabs in China are way cheaper than their US counterparts; I paid about $10 for a ride of thirty kilometers. For reference, I would pay about $45 for a similar ride in Chicago. Luohu Station was crowded, and the security checks and ticket windows all had huge queues behind them. However, the queues, though chaotic and extremely intimidating, are quite fast-moving. There are some automated ticket machines for the rail, but foreigners cannot use them: you need to provide identification to buy a Chinese railway ticket, and the only ID foreigners can use is a passport. Anyway, the railway ticket at $12 or so is a bargain – the round-trip costs about as much as a round-trip commuter ticket into New York from where my family lives. And that’s for a much smaller distance. Admittedly, it’s more expensive for the average Chinese person – there’s a huge controversy about that in China at the moment.

The security line to enter the train station. Chinese train stations are like Wal-Marts on Black Friday. But more orderly.

Ready to board for Guangzhou
The new high-speed trains are comfortable, spacious, and clean. The passengers are pretty quiet, and the scenery outside is pretty good, moving between cities and fields, with the occasional mountain in the distance. It’s a smooth ride. The safety standards on this stretch of the rail are pretty strong; this is a well-utilized, well-maintained line, and is hardly one of the badly maintained high-speed flagships in other provinces (e.g. the Beijing-Shanghai disaster).

I got into Guangzhou around 11am, and walked straight into the Metro to go to my first destination: Guangxiao Temple. One thing I noted immediately was that Cantonese was everywhere – even more so than in Hong Kong. This is very much a Cantonese-speaking city: even the street advertisers and Metro wardens make announcements in Cantonese. Guangzhou’s linguistic attitude is basically a giant middle finger to Beijing.

When I got off the metro, the first thing I noticed was how alive Guangzhou is compared to Shenzhen. Even in Shenzhen’s busiest areas, there’s often a depressing artificiality, or lack of life (keep in mind that 99.5% of Shenzhen was built in the past thirty years). Guangzhou, meanwhile, is loud, active, and moving. I walked to Guangxiao savoring the feeling of being in a proper city again – a city with a sense of place, history, and culture.

Modern Guangzhou. Much more lived-in.

A side alley of old houses in Guangzhou. The men in the back are playing  a game.
Guangxiao Temple is one of Guangzhou’s largest and oldest temples. The current structure dates from the Qing Dynasty (roundabouts the 18th century, to be exact); however, there’s been a temple there since the 4th century.  It is known for its architecture, its giant Buddhas, and its enormous library of Buddhist scriptures. It’s also a major site of popular devotion for locals; though you pay for an entry ticket like a tourist sight, most of the people inside are there to pray. The offering tables are stacked with a multitude of delicacies, including mooncakes for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节). The temple is huge and has many historical sights, especially those relating to Huineng, who was China’s most influential Buddhist monk.

The entrance to Guangxiao.

This stupa-pagoda is made of smelted iron. It's pretty awesome! Take note of the zillions of mini-Buddhas, and the flower creeping up from the offerings.

A pavilion on the east side of the main courtyard.
Unlike many other Chinese cities, which in the name of “sanitization” cleared out mendicants, the areas around temples in Guangzhou have a lot of beggars and monks seeking alms. However, unlike anywhere I’ve been in China where I have seen them, beggars in Guangzhou are quite aggressive, and will actually grasp you. Monks are taught to say to any foreigner “Hello, G-d bless you, shake hand!” I gave a little bit of money to some of the beggars. Many of them are disabled in some form. A lot of Chinese people say that beggars make more than low-paid workers, but for a lot of beggars things are still very difficult, particularly given that some of their earnings often have to go to … “beggar bosses,” if you will. However, the recent “civilizing” trend in Chinese cities often means that there are no visible beggars.

Anyway, I had lunch at a vegetarian place near the temple (Best. Eggplant. Ever.) and took the Metro to 
Shamian Island.

Walking in Shamian
Shamian Island is known as a place of trade. During the Song, Ming, and early Qing dynasty, this tiny island of 74 acres was a major point of contact between China and the outside world. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a major Western trading point for the Chinese market, and was ruled for a time as a Franco-British concession area. The island has some fantastic colonial-era architecture, and views of the Pearl River. It’s also a bit of a tourist hub in Guangzhou; I saw more foreigners there than I did in a week in Shenzhen.

For some reason, this house struck my fancy.

Christ Church, built by the British. There was a wedding going on inside, so there were pretty voices sounding out from it. They give out bookmarks with evangelical messages on them - unusually bold for Mainland China (but quite mundane for Hong Kong).

A street on Shamian. The island feels quite spacious for its size.
The feeling you get on Shamian is very uncanny: you feel, almost, that you are outside China, but you feel that you are very much within China. The island’s conservational structure is also a bit odd in this respect: while a lot of the original architecture is preserved, a lot of it is also significantly altered. Even then, it has a “foreign” allure to many Chinese, and as a result, many tourists come to take a walk around this “little Europe” in the middle of Guangzhou. It’s also a site for fashion shoots.

Next stop saw me backtrack to Liurongsi, or the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. It’s one of Guangzhou’s most famous attractions, and is also still a site of popular worship. The centerpiece is its magnificent six-story pagoda, which has stood in some form (repeatedly rebuilt) since the sixth century. Liurongsi is beautiful. The architecture and landscaping are beautiful; the organization is magnificent; the image of prayer flags against the tall pagoda (though probably the most stereotypically Asian image I’ve ever seen) is a sight that one cannot describe enough to fully capture. Even the later presence of two loud European tour groups was not so terrible.

Chinese gods. The lighting is bad, which is a pity: the colors are incredible.

A big ol' incense burner. 

The pagoda, in all her glory.
 From the temple, I walked through streets lined with shops, buying a bun on the way (you can’t not do that in Guangzhou). Guangzhou’s streets are very much hubs of activity, and many people were gathered in clumps on the street, either around salesmen or around other things of interest. It’s definitely a city I would want to spend some more time in – it’s just so alive! It’s also a lot earthier than Hong Kong. Hong Kong is chic and glamorous, but Guangzhou is very much a human city. Emotions run high, and there’s a more open exhibition of everything here – even stuff that the big shots would rather not have you see - than in Hong Kong.

An electronics market in Guangzhou. It is terrifically and wonderfully loud! And everyone is speaking Cantonese. This is a great town.
My final stop before heading back to the station was a quick visit to the Lanpu Orchid Garden, a botanical garden to the north of downtown. A botanical garden founded in 1957, Lanpu contains many different species both from around China and around the world. It’s not really much in terms of a site, but it was nice to sit in the shade of giant trees while reflecting on the day. There are expensive restaurants on site that play music from speakers hidden beneath hostas – that was a bit uncanny. Unfortunately, my camera had run out of battery.

On the way back to the train, I stopped in the mall attached to the station and bought some edible gifts for people. The Guangzhou prices are much better than Shenzhen. Guangzhou’s also very wealthy, and the city has a lot of modern malls – is China becoming a nation of malls and everywhere else? I hope not.
And then I headed back – to another chaotic station and smooth train. The train on the way back left just as a rainstorm had started, and I was lulled to sleep for the hourlong ride back. I grabbed dinner at a nearby Japanese place and headed home. Unfortunately, that dinner had a lot of MSG, and the air quality in Shenzhen wasn’t that great that night – I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I’m going to make it an early night tonight.

Guangzhou is a fantastic city, and one that definitely deserves more attention than the seven hours I gave it. I really hope to go back at some point to explore some more – I barely dipped my toe into the pool of awesome that Guangzhou is. It’s a city that, despite everything, refuses to be anything other than itself, whatever Beijing or the West or Hong Kong dictates. And that deserves merit.

An alley in an old part of Guangzhou, steps from one of its major streets. 
I’m going to Hong Kong tomorrow. My dad is in the area on business, and it happens to be both a public holiday in Mainland and my 20th birthday. It’ll be really great to have the day off, and seeing Dad will be awesome. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Borders; Or, the Passport-Stamp Motherload

Shenzhen's a border town. And living in a border town has some strange perks.

Hong Kong and Macau are part and parcel of the People's Republic of China, but under agreements made before reunification, the two territories established their own customs and immigration (along with independent educational, healthcare, linguistic, and human rights and free speech systems). This arrangement is not unique - for example, parts of Malaysia have it, as do the US territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas. So to get to Hong Kong or Macau from Mainland, one crosses a border.

I did not originally intend to cross over to Hong Kong nearly as much as I have, even though my employer is awesome and somehow snagged me a coveted unlimited-entry visa that's only available to residents or extremely frequent travelers (cue Daddy) to China. But I've had to cross over for a few reasons:
                      1) I have friends there (see the post on dim sum and hiking).
                      2) 3 of my 4 domestic flights in China were to or from there - easier than from Shenzhen. And free. Yay miles! So is my flight back to Chicago.
                      3) I went to the doctor there the day I went to Hangzhou. The doctors there are better, and I get insurance coverage. Win.
                      4) I had to go for work - our English-language resource office wanted books, and they're way cheaper in ex-British Hong Kong. I brought back a box load.

Add to that the trip down to Singapore, a visit to Macau scheduled for next week, a trip to Hong Kong on Monday for my birthday and to see my dad (who's there on business), and a last crossing over to Hong Kong the day before I fly home, and I will have had my passport stamped....thirty-three times between the time I stepped on the flight from Chicago to LA all the way back in July and the time I step into the airport shuttle back to campus on the 23rd - 17 entry stamps and 16 exit stamps. Let's just say that I know how to handle immigration lines.

 It's a really interesting experience to cross over so much. Even though Hong Kong is part of China (inviolably so), it's really strange to walk off the subway in Shenzhen, go through two lines, and suddenly be in Hong Kong, on Hong Kong's subway. It's anticlimactic, but totally climactic. You feel achieved, but it's so well blended that you don't feel like you've done anything. I've crossed borders by plane (lots), boat (Hong Kong-mainland), car (US-Canada), train (UK-France), foot (Italy-Vatican), and now public transport interchange. This is definitely the wonkiest.

Shenzhen has several crossings with Hong Kong. All of them are humongous and all of them are quite chaotic. The first time I crossed, I was greeted by what was probably 2,500 people waiting to cross in. The Mainland side is always more chaotic than the Hong Kong side - Mainland China doesn't really have a culture of orderly queues. Being the good Israeli-South African-American New Yorker, I know how to push and shove my way through a chaotic queue (even though my favorite line is the orderly one where people are quiet). But here it's something else to queue - it is a constant battle until you get through. You should see the cafeteria on campus. Hong Kong is long, but efficient. Hong Kong people are brook-no-bullshit about queuing and demand that everyone outdo the former colonial masters in the queue culture; there are customs officers monitoring the orderliness of the line. You will be burned and scorned if you jump the line.

It's also fascinating to see how integrated the border is into the infrastructure here in Shenzhen. At two subway stops, you don't even have to go outside to get to the border; the biggest border crossing is attached to the biggest train station. People cross over for a day of shopping, or to eat fancy dim sum, or to catch a flight from Hong Kong's enormous and pretty airport. It's like a suburb that has a different currency. And drives on the other side of the road - it's pretty wonky to see cars here driving the British way, or cars in Hong Kong driving the American way. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are unique in China in that you'll see a car with the driver on the right driving behind one with the driver on the left. That's something I'll miss in the States.

It's made me reflect on borders: not on their (obvious) artificiality, but on their diversity. Travel is not just about instant change, but about slow change, or just crossing over in general. A border can be a domestic thing, but it can also be something totally forboding, a gate to a land one has gone far and for long to get to.  (I'm used to that. Immigrant's kids often think "going to visit the family" when you mention customs checks.) But a border can also be a gate to diversity in one's own normalcy, a way to see the world but sleep in your own bed at the end of the day. Crossing here in Shenzhen has made me reflect on this: short, but sweet travel.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I want to know what you think! This is particularly the case if you live in a border town - El Paso, Detroit, San Diego, Bellingham,  or Buffalo anyone? Any Harlingen people, or is someone from near a border in another land?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lectures, Research, and Cultural Difference

I should probably post about some of the things I do at work in more detail. I'll post later this week about my translation and industrial-research work, but for now, I'll talk about my cultural-exchange stuff.

During the six weeks I was interning in New York, I was responsible for surveying academic literature on cross-cultural psychology, particularly on Asian/American contrasts, in recent years. Some of this literature was in response to a 2003 book, The Geography of Thought. My task played into the school's efforts to further develop its international curriculum and to improve communication between the mostly Western faculty and mostly Mainland Chinese students.

Anyway, I created this enormous matrix (interactive, on bubbl.us), and another one, detailing and creating a taxonomy of the results of cross cultural studies:
There's a method to the madness. Most of it is straight citations.
As a result, here in Shenzhen, my bosses asked me to prepare a lecture for our newbies on American campus and city life. I was to talk about differences in campus culture, the expectations and assumptions of American professor, and survival information for living in the USA.

I gave that talk today.

It was an interesting, edifying experience. The students were attentive, but didn't have too many questions. Some of them were a bit tired - it's the day after some exams - but that was to be expected, alas. What I found more of an experience was explaining my normality. How do I explain the sum of what my normalcy is like? How do I guide someone eight thousand miles away through the methods and assumptions with which I am intimately familiar?

Learning another culture is one challenge, but explaining your own is an even more challenging one. Trying to distill the experience of American campus life - or American city life, for that matter - is truly a mind-boggling experience. Add to that the need to address certain assumptions widespread in China - for example, the assumption that black people cause all crime in the US -, and the mix-and-match knowledge of America gained from TV and reading, and it becomes quite an adventure. Furthermore, the students are graduate students - all older than me - so I was a little intimidated.

The students seemed to find my presentation interesting. There was a lot of visible surprise when they learned, for example, that many American students don't live in dorms, or work part-time jobs for significant periods of time. In China, your student occupation (unless you're a PhD student) during the year is "student," and you live in dorms. Some were pretty relieved when I addressed the thorny issue of things such as "that pro-Tibet protester who repeatedly harangues you"; some probably heard stories of discomfort from friends who had gone to the States and had uncomfortable encounters of the political kind. Discomfort is problematic, regardless of my own opinions.

Giving a presentation in a different culture is also a good experience - it's a fantastic way to understand the linguistic norms and expectations of a society. In China, silence is understanding - whereas here, it's confusion. In China, a certain formality is expected in presentations, but so is a certain humanity. One must be humble, but respectful. It is an exercise that is certainly a test for someone used to the innately Western, Model UN, bombastic style.

It was a good experience, and the cross-cultural aspect of my internship have been quite fascinating. If I take one thing from this internship, it will be the new knowledge on the way people think across different cultural boundaries.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Welcome to Hangzhou!
Hangzhou is beyond description. I was there for the weekend; I’m not even sure where to start.

The West Lake
The capital of Zhejiang province, Hangzhou has been a major center since the Song Dynasty. Marco Polo visited and remarked on it in the 13th century. It is most known for its beauty, found in its beautiful West Lake and surrounding scenery and gardens. Most of the modern city is not quite as pretty, but the lake and areas nearby are a major tourist attraction; the city is also considered one of China’s most livable.  I decided to visit this historic, gorgeous city for one weekend.
The city over the lake, through smog and passing clouds.
 I went to Hong Kong for the day before my flight to see the doctor (don’t worry, I’m OK). I’m on three new medicines. I also had to buy some books for our English Language Center – we need books for the students to actually practice reading, and English-language books on the mainland are mad expensive. My flights also happened to leave from Hong Kong.

Anyway, I got in at around 10pm and went to where I was staying, and then bed. So when I got up in the morning, I began one and a half days of exploration in a fresh, new city. Hangzhou’s air quality is much better than Shenzhen’s; the somewhat blue sky (a dome above the smog was blue) when I got up in the morning was … almost novel!

The sky has a blue tinge! I'm going to be looking up on every sunny day in Chicago from here on out.
I spent the first bit of the morning, starting around 8am, walking around before and after breakfast. I was staying on a tourist-oriented pedestrian street with some interesting architecture, but I also veered off to see the surrounding residential and commercial areas and to explore the various shops offering traditional Hangzhou products and snacks. This area is famous for lotus-based food; I enjoyed some very sweet, but light, lotus snacks.

Then I went to the lake. Warning: this is where it becomes quite photo-heavy.

Willow, and a lake.

On the Bai Di (a causeway), mounting a bridge. Over the northern lagoon, Baochu  Pagoda.
Much of my day was spent walking around the famous West Lake. The lake, centerpiece of a namesake national park including it and nearby mountains, is Hangzhou’s star attraction. Famed for its beauty for centuries, West Lake’s shores are surrounded by historic buildings, old bridges, famous gardens, and modern developments. Two imperial-era causeways with bridges cross the lake, one on the northeast and another along the west. Some areas are pretty touristy, but many of the people around the lake, especially on the weekend, are Hangzhou natives enjoying their cities. The tour guides and tour golf carts can be a bit loud, but that doesn’t take away too much from the lake itself. One can tune them out.

The lake…is nothing short of majestic. In the distance, there are mountains rising slowly above the lake. The water is soft and rippling; the surrounding greenery contrasts with the lake’s dark hue. But it’s too much for me to just describe. I’ll say that I walked around 75% of the lake over the course of two days, taking in several historical and natural sights, and I’ll let the pictures talk.

From the top of the hill Baochu Pagoda is on

I also took some detours to see some historical sights. Baochu Pagoda is located on top of a hill to the north of the lake, and dates back several centuries. Rebuilt several times, it currently stands at 45 meters, and, given its hilltop position, can be seen from all over the lake. 

Wooded patch on the way up.

Baochu Pagoda.
 The Yue Fei temple and tomb is dedicated to one of China’s most famous generals, the Song-dynasty general Yue Fei. He is known as a paragon of patriotism, and is also known for inspiring the patriotic song Man Jiang Hong (which is one of the best patriotic songs ever). The tomb and temple complex – he later became deified – date from the Ming dynasty, and was rebuilt substantially in the Qing era.

The main building of the temple. It's still an active worship site.
The Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society was a club and training ground for Chinese seal-carvers for several centuries, and is home to a 2nd-century Han stele. It’s on an island in the lake, and the surrounding lake views are spectacular.
An outdoor gallery of seal stela
But the best bit of the West Lake is the scenery alone. It’s amazing to be on a lake with so many different views…a place where one can go into the hills or on the causeway, hear birds chirping, and look out over a city across a tranquil lake.
Lakeside lotus plants

The eleventh-century Su causeway

Hills on the left, city on the right

I spent a good bit of the second day walking around Hangzhou. The neighborhood I explored was a really mixed place. It was at once residential and commercial; one street strictly for Hangzhou people, one street filled with tourist shops. It was an interesting example of urban planning in a country where tourists are very much pushed into certain areas.

Hangzhou at night, looking down a main residential drag. Baochu  Pagoda in the distance.

The tourist side of a street - every single one of those establishments is in the business of noms. The other side is pretty standard city street.
One of the interesting areas consisted of two tourist-oriented “historic streets” – one of which I stayed on. These streets consist of either restored old buildings or mock historic buildings, and are filled with hotels, snack shops, and shops for traditional Hangzhou souvenirs. I found the layout and planning of these streets somewhat interesting; the two provide an interesting example of urban planning and urban “renewal.” They also were great places to buy good-quality traditional products as presents; I bought fancy tea and classy sweets for many people there. Hangzhou is famous for a really good tea known as Dragon’s Well tea (Longjingcha).

Fancy jewelry shops on the left. Further down, an old mosque! Chinese Islam is interesting...there's an Arabicization scheme for Chinese, complete with tones!

The street of tourist products and classy tea
Then I headed back to the airport. Unlike other Chinese cities of its size and stature, Hangzhou has a public transport system that’s quite difficult to navigate; the airport is also quite far from the city. Hailing a cab is also a bit more difficult, since cab drivers tend to skip passengers they don’t feel like taking (white people who speak Chinese don’t get cabs.). However, I managed to get a cab and went off to the airport. Hangzhou’s airport is big and shiny. Big enough to maybe be too big for the city, but they’re dreaming big. Hangzhou is trying very hard to attract investment, but it loses out to Shanghai, 200 kilometers away. It is still very wealthy as far as Chinese cities go.

I flew back to Hong Kong, grabbed the books I bought for the office, and crossed back to Shenzhen.

Hangzhou has a different energy than the other cities I’ve been in on this trip. Shenzhen is new; Shanghai is moneyed; Hong Kong is chic; Zhongshan is the graceful old lady. But Hangzhou has a sense of a pride and of place that other Chinese cities don’t have. There’s an energy even in the daily interactions that you can sense: this is a place to which people belong. There’s a certain confidence in the cyclist, in the pedestrians, and even in the tourists, There’s also a certain…feeling that I’d call by a Yiddish word (which I was pleased to find had made its way to the New York Times, albeit in a different context). That word is haimish – something that roughly translates to “like a home.” Hangzhou has a warm, welcoming feel to it, a feeling of an invisible roof and an enormous, comfy chair. It’s a place where one can melt in, or stand out, where one can relax or be energetic. It’s a place where one can be anything. And I can’t wait to go back. Maybe it’ll be as a tourist again, maybe as an intern, maybe for work, but I definitely hope to go and see more of Hangzhou.

Lotuses are awesome.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

High-profile visitors

Today, my employer this summer hosted the delegation of the Congressional Asian-Pacific-American Caucus (CAPAC) currently visiting China. This delegation included Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), Mike Honda (D-CA), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa). Chu and Faleomavaega first gave speeches and a question-and-answer session for the students, faculty and staff; then the three representatives lunched with the faculty and the US Consul in Guangzhou, who had come to visit. Finally, the three and their staff met with students from the school for half-hour question sessions.

My involvement was pretty minimal. I helped set up the speech room and photo op, and guided faculty and some of the retinue to their seats. I also shook hands and acted the cute foreign intern for a bit - it's good PR for the school, I guess. Shaking hands with a Congresswoman is AWESOME.

The speeches weren't particularly spectacular. Chu mainly gave a lecture about the role of caucuses and citizen involvement, and the role of CAPAC in the Congress. Faleomavaega gave a speech more about American democracy and its effectiveness or lack thereof. While both speeches were good, the two representatives could have been somewhat more careful in what they said; Faleomavaega treaded on hot territory with some implications about China and democracy. This misstep apparently resulted in an awkward moment when a Chinese student directly asked the representative's opinion on China's one-party system. I, however, was not there to witness the moment - I was setting up the photo time. Chu used contaminated milk in one of her examples - a very sensitive issue in China, because of a massive 2008 brouhaha - although I think the example was something everyone in the room could relate to.

Chu is a phenomenal speaker. She speaks at two levels: the direct level of what she's saying, and then what she actually means, which is never far from the surface. Both are generally pretty intertwined, but the wording is *just so*. I think I found the speech a bit boring because it was stuff I was familiar with, but in talking about certain debates in the Congress right now, you could both hear the explanation - and on the inside, her own praise or criticism for various parties.

It was a pretty interesting day, even if my involvement was minimal - after the professors, big shots and delegation left for lunch, we admin team people went back to lunch, and for me, translation and planning. We only found out about the visit two and a half weeks ago, so it's definitely a really cool surprise Shenzhen had in store for me. This is one of the highlights of the work part of the summer for sure - although is it OK if I'm a bit conceited in saying that finishing my massive matrix on cross-cultural psychology research was a better highlight?