Finding China in Wudaokou

Spring has arrived in Beijing and with it a transformation of the campus and the surrounding Wudaokou neighborhood. The 15 minute walk from the dorm to Foreign Policy and Sociology class or my favorite Muslim restaurant is much more pleasant with sunshine and lush green trees, even if I need to swat the occasional bug from landing in my mouth. Warmer weather, and the month countdown until my program ends, has also motivated me to explore the city in the little free time I seem to have.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited the 798 art gallery district, Lama Temple (home to Tibetan Buddhism) ancient drum and bell towers and the surrounding famous Hutong alleys. The Hutong’s of Beijing are the traditional neighborhoods that epitomize old Beijing. They’re frequently in the news for being torn down in an effort to modernize Beijing, making way for some new construction project. Even though this particular area of Hutong’s are largely for tourist, some local people still live there with their families. My visit was a welcome reminder of the reason I wanted to live in China in the first place. It’s an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the culture, history and everyday life of Chinese people.

Living in Wudaokou and attending a university composed of more foreigners than Chinese, it’s all too easy to live in the bubble of a program surrounded by Americans and a neighborhood that’s remarkably Western. It many ways the program tries to protect you and help you seamlessly adjust to life in a new country. However, one of the side-effects is losing out on the cultural aspects of study in a foreign country. Living with Americans can only bring with it much of American culture and drama. It’s difficult to focus on China when you are surrounded by classmates more interested in each other than learning the language. Additionally there are more places to buy pizza and hamburgers and coffee than to slurp a big bowl of beef noodles or eat freshly fried dumplings. That’s not to say you could ever, even for a moment, forget you were in China.

Life’s challenges are present on every corner. Not so much for foreign exchange students sipping overpriced coffee but for the local people living, working, striving to make tomorrow better than today. For my semester research project, I’ve started to investigate and document the living condition of migrant workers who come to Beijing in hopes of finding a better life. They are the vendors selling pineapple and sweet potatoes, the dishwashers of local restaurants, and the staffers of popular local bars. These migrant workers leave Beijing’s surrounding villages and come to the cities to find jobs and better education for their children but find hardships in part because of China’s population registration system, or Houkou. I recently learned that because they earn very little money, they sometimes choose to live in the cramped, unclean, and dangerously overcrowded basement areas of apartment complexes.

Hopefully with the help of my language partner and other Chinese friends, I’ll be able to speak with some of the people living there and document their experience which I feel is the darker side of China’s rapid development. basement areas of apartment complexes.


Back to life in the Big City

banana fields in XishaungbannaI arrived in Beijing early this week and was surprised at how much I had missed this amazing city. The last few days of our trip were by far my favorite because of our activities and delicious food. The last 3 days were mostly spent in the Banana and Pineapple farming town of Xishuangbanna.

riding bikes through the banana fields

The weather was beautiful as we rafted down the lazy Mekong River and rode bike through the banana fields, stopping for lunch with the local Dai Zhu people in their village. There was a very eventful game of basketball where our class lost to the locals by only one point. Xishuangbanna , located near the Thai border,  was easily one of the most pleasantly beautiful places I’ve ever visited and makes it easy to really fall in love with the Yunnan Province

with my roommate Natalie


We finished our trip with another day in Kunming, the capital city, visiting a local park, eating yummy Western Food we all were craving at Salvador (think the best chocolate cake, homemade ice cream combo in China!) and shopping for gifts and souvenirs. I spent most of the day with Morgan and Betty, two people who made my trip extra fun, laughing and picking the perfect tea sets, one for my language partner and one for myself, before one last plane ride to Beijing. Beijing was surprisingly refreshing with its cold air and sprawling cityscape. The trip taught me that I don’t mind visiting small towns for a few days, but I very much enjoy a big city.

This week of class was tough. I was in America for a week, then traveling for a week and my Chinese suffered as a result. It was a challenge trying to learn the new material and cover about a week and a half of class I missed because of my Truman scholarship interview all in one week. Speaking of which, I find out the results this Tuesday more or less. I’m trying to keep my mind off the finality of the situation and not be too anxious. I feel confident about my interview, but the challenge is that there are two other highly qualified people competing for the same award. At any rate, having a ton of work to do is nice because it doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to stress over what I can’t control. I also lost my wallet in the process of trying to buy a bike. It had all my cards and cash and is a headache to replace but isn’t the end of the world, or so I keep telling myself.

Beyond class, I’m making an effort to make Chinese friends and really visit many places around Beijing. I met a friend named Pae Yue who attends Beijing University, commonly known as the Harvard of China, through the FACES program. She’s really nice and spunky and extremely bright. We had lunch and I tried to speak only Chinese so that I would have more practice with speaking. I hope we are able to meet more often this semester and I can have Chinese friends in addition to the crazy people I study abroad with. This weekend I hope to visit the famous 798 art gallery district with my language partner and some friends. I don’t want to spend the whole semester studying and miss out on the cultural aspect of Beijing. It’s easy to have your head in a Chinese Text book to the point you miss out on the “real” China happening all around you. 6 weeks have already passed and I have no doubt the others will come and go before I know it.

Adventures in Yunnan- All the days since the first

Our class trip to Yunnan has been fairly uneventful since our first night. We’re averaging two nights in each town of this province in southwest china. So far we’ve seen the towns of Dali, LiJiang, and now we’re in Jinghong, arriving early this morning at the hotel. Dali was beautiful and historic, with a walled city area very friendly to foreigners. It was here found an American Café for a classic American breakfast fix. It was great to just have coffee and scrambled eggs and take a break from the mornings of noodles, fried dough, and boiled eggs we’ve found at every hotel.

Dali was special because of the small town, old village feel and beautiful white architecture of the local minority people.

outside the walled city

We stayed in an open-air guest house and again had free time to explore the city. I took time to find some of the places listed in my lonely planet, the old walled city complete with market and a European style bakery, called “Sweet Tooth” run entirely by the hearing impaired. It was like stepping back in time and seeing a less developed part of China that’s very different from Beijing. Unfortunately, the hotel lacked hot water and had limited internet. I wasn’t thrilled to not have a hot shower, but thankfully the city was nice enough to overshadow the lack of basic, or maybe not so basic, comforts.

We drove about 4 hours to another town famous for its historic charm and beauty called Lijiang. Lijiang has Snow mountain and yet more minority people. The town was a bit more touristy than historic. It looked recently restored in what people would perceive as architecture from a previous era, open store fronts, wooden shutters, and cobblestone streets.

Historic Lijiang

But I remain unconvinced. Much of the stuff that the open air stores sold didn’t look very Chinese and could be found in many different parts of China, leading me to believe it wasn’t locally crafted.

Snow Mountain was cool because according to our program director no one has ever climbed to the top, even though quite a few people have tried.

Snow Mountain

While at Snow Mountain, we saw a show featuring many of the Chinese minority groups. It used the mountain as a backdrop and had some interesting music and dances. Although I enjoyed the show, I wonder if it accurately represents the groups presented in the show. Everyone was singing, dancing, drinking, holding hands, and otherwise extremely happy.

Lijiang Impressions Show- China's Minority People

I suspect the real story isn’t a happy mixed family of Chinese minorities who have a completely different language, culture, and ancestry and who didn’t want to be Chinese in the first place.

At any rate, we made it to Jinghong, near the Golden Triangle. I haven’t done much today, slept in and finished reading “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown, my read for the trip. Good story. A bit overdone, but good story. I skipped the morning hike because of the rain and am wasting the day away at a MeiMei Café, think China’s best hot chocolate and brownies covered in homemade ice cream. Plan for the day: stay warm, dry, and finish my newspaper article that’s overdue. Might even be feeling good enough to look over my Chinese book, we’ll see how the day goes. It’s St.Patty’s day, so drinks are in order according to college student code. Should be a good day.

Adventures in Yunnan- 1st night in Kunming

 Our class arrived in the Yunnan Province yesterday afternoon in the capital city of Kunming. It’s a smaller city for China with around 1.6 million people and beautiful weather that reminds me of the pleasant Alabama Spring I’m missing at the moment. Yunnan is located in Southwest China, similarly located to New Mexico in the states. We had an early start, around 6:30 in the AM, to catch our 3 hour flight from Northeastern Beijing to Yunnan.

Kunming is famous for the local minority people, called the Hui, who are Muslim. Kunming has the largest group of Muslim minority people in the country. Their influence can easily be seen from the many mosques and Muslim restaurants as well as local people wearing hats and head wraps. With my Lonely Planet guide, aka the travel bible, by my side I used the first morning’s free time to explore Kunming and see some of the suggested sights in the city. My limited Chinese and travel guide were very helpful in helping me find some restored Mosques and “The Loft,” a local collection of art galleries and tea and coffee shops. Visiting on a Sunday severely limited the shops that were open but I was able to see a few interesting collections and just have a look around.

We had a loose itinerary for the day and I was able to slip away from my class and have some much needed alone time. Our first night in Kunming after arriving yesterday had a lot of excitement and left me questioning whether I really wanted to study abroad. I was prepared for some craziness, especially after last semester in Shanghai with some of the most colorful people I’ve ever met. Our week travel trip took us to Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Zhu Hai. However, I’m quickly learning this semester’s class may have my last semester’s group beat if there was a competition of insane situations, which of course there is.

Last night, much of our class went to a local hostel’s bar for a drink. I had planned to have an early night because we had to be up at 7 in the AM and go hiking at the Western Hills, a must see to really experience Yunnan according to my Lonely Planet. Well Natalie, my roommate and I went back around 11, only to wake this morning and find from a text message our hike had been canceled. My first thoughts were that there were still aftershocks from the mild earthquake that had struck the area a few days before and the cable car we had planned to use was out of commission. Imagine my surprise when I hear that after we returned to the hotel, things got crazy, fast. One of my classmates got in a fight with some locals and ended up arrested; 2 others were missing until about 5am, having failed to tell anyone where they were; and finally one classmate ended up at the hospital with a dislocated knee from slipping on alcohol in a club.

I learned all this at an emergency meeting at 7:30 this morning after all persons had been accounted for, bailed out of jail, and patched up at the hospital. Shortly thereafter my program director implemented a curfew for what might be the remainder of the trip. It’s just frustrating to travel with people who aren’t responsible for their actions, especially when I feel that a lot of what happened could have been avoided. I’ve always been a fiercely independent person and I was really against a curfew for the 75% of our class that didn’t have any problems last night. I’m just hoping that we don’t have any more situations and plans don’t get canceled. This is all in the first 24 hours….I can only imagine what the rest of the week will bring. Here’s hoping I survive this trip and make it back to Beijing soon. I shouldn’t be surprised. Travel with 21 other college students and you’re guaranteed to come back with plenty of stories to blog about.

P.S. I’ll post pictures tomorrow

First exam, Beijing Protestests, and Truman travel

So much has happened since my last post I’m not sure where to begin.  Chinese class is really kicking my butt. I’ve studied an ungodly amount of hours and my first test just didn’t’ go well. More importantly, I’m worried that the course is trying to cram so much Chinese down my throat I won’t actually learn any of it. It’s just a bit overwhelming. I think one of my problems is that I think if I spend 5 minutes on something I should be the best at it. People in my program have studied Chinese since they were 7 and still have so much left to learn. It’s definitely a long-term project. And that’s ok with me. It’d just be nice to feel like I was making progress.

I have a language tutor now and he helps me study 3 times a week. Mustafa, same name as the uncle from Lion King, is great because he’s patience never seems to run out. I’d like to speak more Chinese and less English during our sessions though. I find that young Chinese people who study English jump at any opportunity to practice their English and I don’t speak nearly as much Chinese as I’d like. I’m hoping to meet his friends and spend more time with local people and not so many foreign students who speak English. If you’re not careful, study abroad can turn into a little slice of America in China. I tend to do many things I’d normally do because I’m spending so much time with the other students in my program. One of the great things about a language partner is they are able to expose you to much more of the culture and life of real Chinese people who don’t live in our college district of Beijing, called Wudaokou. He’s actually Muslim and it’s interesting to learn of the challenges and adventures of practicing Islam in China, a place that largely has no religion to speak of. I’m hoping to interview him for the newspaper, especially since Senator King wants to put Islam on trial in the US. I think Mustafa’s perspective as a practicing Muslim in China would give insight to challenges Muslims face all over the world and I know I’d be interested to read about that.

It also looks like China has decided to in on the protest in a small but significant way. On Wanfujing, the main shopping street in Beijing, leaders organized “Jasmine Protest,” inspired by the protest in Tunisia that sparked revolutions across the Middle East.  Over the past 2 Sunday s or so, pro-democratic demonstrations were organized in about 20 major cities across China. The police were quick to extinguish any activity. I personally don’t think its China’s time for democracy. They may have been inspired by events in other parts of the world but the protests are nowhere near as major as in other countries.

I’ve also just returned from Nashville after about a week in the US for my interview for the Truman Scholarship. I learned a few weeks ago that I qualified as a finalist and would need to go to Nashville for my finalist interview. The interview went well and I feel that I did my best. After a week of mock interviews and informational interviews with teachers and companies, I was well prepared for what came my way. I won’t know the final outcome for about 3 weeks, but despite the outcome, I’m happy to have been able to participate in interview for such an amazing award. Of course, I’d like to win but if I have to lose, it will be to one of two of intelligent accomplished fellow Alabamians, one of which is UAB’s own USGA President Brad Watts, who will go on to do great things in life and I’m just happy to call them friends.

This weekend also brings some exciting plans. Our class will be visiting the Yunnan Province for a 9 day field study trip. I’m really pumped to travel some more through China. There was a recent earthquake in the surrounding area that claimed about 15 lives. It hasn’t affected our trip to my knowledge but it’s a chilling reminder that you never know what’s around the next corner and you always need to live life to the fullest. Yunnan is in the Southwest area of China, similar to California or Arizona I believe. It’s famous for music and minority people and tea. I can’t see what else China has in store. Expect some great pictures soon.

Looks like the honeymoon’s over

This week I started my Chinese classes and ended the little social life I had enjoyed before. Don’t misunderstand, I absolutely love learning Chinese and find it is a rewarding, yet rigorous mental workout, BUT, I’ve been up until about 2 in the am every night before class for the past week. Except for the few times, maybe more, I check FB or return an email, I’m studying. It’s very stressful and I’m trying to stay on top of my workload. I just feel that I never study hard enough and I’m always running into a character that I’ve never seen before, or worse, one that I’ve simply forgotten. Dictation, where they read a sentence and you write the characters, is the absolute worse. My brain just doesn’t function to recall a character off the top of my head.

It’s funny because at first I was excited to place into the 300 class that I wanted, but now I’m wondering if this is the right class for me. Bridget, who placed into the 400 class, is a persistent reminder that it could be worse. Her class has students who have all studied for quite a few years, 4+, plus two Princetonians and a native Chinese speaker.

My class has 6 students who range in how many years studied and majors and interest. I’m probably a bit dramatic in assessing how I’m actually doing. I’m not the best. I’m not the worse. I’m just somewhere in between. My teacher, LuLaoshi, is phenomenal and I’m very fortunate to have someone so experienced. It is a lot of work, but I’m sure I will be much better by the time I finish in June.

It doesn’t help that I’m trying to write for the newspaper and plan out the rest of my life this semester. I need to figure out my plans for the summer and  (eeeek) my senior year. Plus at some point I need to prep for the LSAT in October. Next week I also start 2 additional elective courses.

In the middle of thinking about all of this, I’m anxiously awaiting to hear back from the Truman committee about whether or not I’ll get to interview as a finalist. It would mean flying to Nashville for an interview in early March but the Truman is about 30K for school and I could use the money for law school. I’ve looked into tickets and it’ll be expensive but it would also mean that if I were in the states I could buy boots and other shoes I haven’t been able to find in China. Plus I’d be able to see my mom and sister and other family. I’m not necessarily homesick after about 6 or 7 months but I would be happy to see them too.

But Beijing isn’t all work . This Friday I’ve planned a dinner for other Boren Scholars in Beijing which should be a fun time. Hopefully over the weekend I’ll be able to get out in the city and explore some new neighborhoods. But with a 500 character essay and homework and previewing to do, I’m not sure I’ll have much time to explore. I’ll just have to see how things go. Thank God for great coffee shops, milk tea, and Reese’s cups. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d make it through the semester.

Beijing Birthdays and Forbidden Cities

 My 21st birthday came and went as I’m just beginning to settle into life in China’s capital city. It was the first day of our program so I was still meeting everyone in our class and trying to survive the intense cold of February in north China. My class has a total of 22 students from all over the US and representing many academic backgrounds, from English to Economics to East Asian Studies.  The first 3 days of the program have covered basic welcome to China information, as it is the first time out of the country for many of my classmates.

I ended up having Natalie as a roommate and I’m confident we will be a good match. She’s incredibly witty, fun, and independent, all the makings of a good roommate.


I was concerned she wouldn’t be my roommate for long because she came to China a month early on a tourist visa and it expired recently. We learned today she wasn’t in danger of being deported, which is always good news. I sometimes start to miss my old roommate, XuDan, but like having someone to talk with about life in America and the challenges of studying in China.

Bridget and Me on My Birthday=)

She even bought me cake for my birthday and I was touched she remembered when I had known her less than a week. I thought maybe it was all my not so subtle reminders that helped her not forget but I think she just knew how special it is to turn 21. Missy also surprised me with a bouquet of flowers and my program bought me a cake after our first group dinner. It wasn’t the 21st birthday I expected, but I’m happy with how it turned out and I made some great memories with my new classmates.

Today we also had our placement test for this semester’s Chinese class. I think the student’s this semester have more experience with Chinese compared to the students in my Shanghai class. Before meeting everyone, I’d considered that Beijing might be a more rigorous program than Shanghai, even though it’s through the same program in America. Shanghai tends to attract a more liberal, fun crowd and Beijing seems to draw a more serious crowd. I’m pretty sure I’ll learn more Chinese during this semester. The students also seems more serious about learning which will be a great learning environment for me. I won’t go into too much detail about how I did on the test. Let’s just say I’m rusty from the nearly 2 month break and it showed. My oral was great and I could read most of the test, but struggled with actually answering the questions. I spoke with the teacher afterwards and think we’re on the same page about where I need to be this semester. If nothing else, the test made me excited to start class again and that’s always a good thing.

In addition to testing our class also visited some famous parts of the city. It was a brutally cold, windy day in Beijing that made me wonder how I was going to survive the extreme weather for an entire semester. Even with gloves, boots, and many layers, I couldn’t feel my hands or feet after about 20 minutes outside. Plus my lips were going numb and it was difficult to talk . I was about to start to cry when a teacher put the experience into perspective by saying, “at least you’re cold in some place cool.” And you know what? I couldn’t agree more. The Forbidden City was amazing covered in a blanket of white snow and looking over Tianamen Square sends chills through your spine because you’re walking through a place that played a significant role in history.

Natalie, Me, and Bridgette at the Forbidden City

I learned the Forbidden City, which overlooks Tiananmen Square, was where the past emperors were required to live and federal officials were trained, and sometimes beaten to death, within the city gates. There were many secret police around the Forbidden City, young men dressed in dark clothes with short haircuts. I’m pretty sure one was following me around which made me paranoid, but, other than a few Chinese people asking me for photos, the day was fairly uneventful. The part of the city we saw is part museum, part meeting rooms to host foreign officials. It had an intricate detailed, beautiful design on the ceiling.

When Chairman Mao established the modern-day People’s Republic of China (PRC), he spoke from the square back in 1949. We also saw a short clip from last year’s National Day, comparable to the 4th of July, which celebrates the  anniversary of the PRC.  Even though China seems to have thousands of years of history the modern government is actually quite young. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Mao’s face is everywhere, including

Mao on the side of the Forbidden City Gate

the large entrance gate to the Forbidden City. He’s credited with establishing modern-day China and it appears Beijing is a shrine of sorts to his life and accomplishments.

Following the tours, we visited a street known for the weird foods they sell: starfish, scorpion, lamb testicles, etc. I gagged at the thought of eating anything like this and used the opportunity to get out of the cold for

Weird Food Street

 about an hour. After the food street, we walked down Wanfujing, a famous street for high-end stores and luxury goods, and my heart skipped a beat. Surrounded by skyscrapers, bright lights, and stores I can’t afford, I took a moment to appreciate why I love to study abroad. It’s because around every corner is something new and exciting and foreign. After a little more than 6 months abroad, I’m starting to feel more at home being disoriented than with what has always been familiar. I don’t expect to know what to expect. It’s challenging and uncomfortable but extremely rewarding and I hope it never ends.