It’s one of those days where everything is dandy and not necessarily coming up roses, but pretty yellow weeds.
The sun is up, the sky is blue, the pollen content is off the charts, the wind is strong and all the girls (including me) have to hold down their skirts because they didn’t wear the right underwear today.
I’m enjoying a very romantic moment by myself, waiting for my department’s International Friendship Day Picnic (yes, do laugh at this!), sitting in a little park on campus next to running water from a man-made pond, pondering the meaning of friendship and wondering if there will be enough food at the picnic.
What a perfect afternoon…
In March, I made a spontaneous and skeptical decision to apply to grad school in Beijing. When I told my friends in America and my Chinese students my plan, both groups asked, “Why on earth would you go to grad school in China??!” Here’s what I told them after convincing myself these were legitimate and good reasons:
1) 10 months in China wasn’t long enough; there was more to accomplish! And if I’m going to stay longer, then I’d like to make friends, and if I’m lucky, also find that twinkle in my eye. It has been long enough.
2) A Master’s degree in International Development is relevant to my career goals.
3) Tsinghua University is the Harvard of China.
4) I can live in the dorms and have some privacy from my nosy parents.
So…in August, without great expectations, I moved into my dorm room single, filled it with plants and ikea goods, and stayed up ’til 3 in the morn’ because the bed is so hard. Aside from an uncomfortable bed, controlled hot-water hours (very inconvenient, especially on weekends!), and mediocre dining hall food, living on campus is actually quite nice. The paths are lined with trees and there are plenty of sports fields (being built). There are also sculptures dotted around campus and even a famous water-lily pond, a hotspot for tourists.
Three weeks in and I’ve met dozens of people from all over the world, and for the first time in my life, the number of my Asian friends to non-Asian is greater. I’m surrounded by them! In my program of 17 people, we represent 10 different countries: America, Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Peru, Ethiopia, Italy, England, and South Korea. The school of Public Policy, which I’m in, also has a Master’s program geared towards government officials from various African countries, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Grenada, Cambodia, Laos, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, among many others. They’re a generally older crowd, and the fact that I am sharing a dormitory with these accomplished, government officials and leaders is somewhat laughable.
Judging from the first week of classes my professors are not stimulating enough. I want to be challenged, pushed, treated like a knowledgeable adult with lots of potential (I can pretend). But like I said, I didn’t enroll with high expectations. The International Development program is a relatively new one (to all of China, actually), so administrators and professors are still building it up. Unfortunately this means I’m one of the guinea pigs, but with a title of “Tsinghua University Graduate” it still puts me ahead of the game, at least in this country.
Tsinghua and Peking University are China’s Harvard and Yale, respectively (I think…does Harvard have a better reputation than Yale?), and getting into one of these top schools is the dream of every Chinese family. If you are admitted into one of these universities, you and your family will be forever celebrated in your hometown because it is such a great and near impossible feat that you’ll make your entire hometown, or even province, proud. When my family found out, I got text messages left and right and a personal phone call from my grandma in Chongqing congratulating me. Of course I didn’t tell her how unjustly easy it was for me, an international student, to apply (30 minutes to fill out the application including the personal statement, 2 emails to professors for recommendation letters, and an online request for my transcripts and graduation certificates to be mailed to Tsinghua). Chinese students, on the other hand, go through a grueling application and testing process. Might I add, they don’t have air conditioning or hot water in their dormitories (they have special shower areas); we do (international students live separately from Chinese students).
The choice to attend Tsinghua binds the next 2 years of my life–I’ll be 26 when I graduate, ah!–but I’m happy to be here. It’s a new experience and it feels great to be sharing it with a group of new friends (who are all brilliant by the way).
Okay. Now that I’m a student again, I must set a curfew that requires me to get into bed by a reasonable hour (it’s already 1 am). Then, it’ll take another 2 hours to fall asleep after tossing and turning on a slab of concrete. By the end of my 2 years, if I don’t learn anything valuable from school, at least I know I’ll have an iron back.
The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.
I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!), he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)! I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.
On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.
I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?
Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).
When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.
Photo credit: Judy Manton
(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)
And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?
Stone Village, Anshun
Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.
The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself. I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.
It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.
I have been in New York City for 2 weeks now, visiting friends and places I’ve missed in the past 9 months of living in Beijing.
As happy as I am to be surrounded by friends again, I can’t help but feel out of place here. Feeling out of place in the city I considered “home” is a truly shitty situation to be in when I only have 2 months to re-immerse. Perhaps it’s counter culture shock, or I feel lost because I can’t remember the name of every station and connecting line of every subway train, or maybe I’ve just changed a lot. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for this strange feeling, but it better go away soon because I’d like to enjoy myself thoroughly this vacation.
Now how about the good stuff. Well as the title of this post says, Brooklyn is a place where people say hello and it’s awesome! I’ve done a lot of strolling these past few weeks, reacquainting with my old neighborhood. During these strolls, countless people said hi, waved, smiled, nodded, said hello in Chinese, cat called. One guy, middle-aged, waved hello and said hi to every single person he walked past, including people in cars. A little boy with long, curly blonde hair ran past an elderly man sitting on a lawn chair in front of his Park Slope apartment on a busy sidewalk yelling HELLLLOOO! These are just two instances of friendly greetings that put a gigantic smile on my face.
When I was walking up 2nd Ave. in Manhattan, I noticed a short, Latino man karate-chopping some scaffolds. I gave him a smile, acknowledging his Jackie Chan-equivalent skillz and continued on. Then I heard, “China (‘chee-na’), China, do you like to eat?” to which I responded, “YEAH I like to eat (duh!!!)” “You wanna get some lunch with me? Or some coffee? I’d like to buy you something to eat.” “Oh, no thank you, I just ate. Look at my leftovers! Maybe another time.” “Alright…another time baby.”
At the Delicate Steve show last night at Mercury Lounge, somebody mistook me for the Asian keyboardist of the opening band, People Get Ready. I was chatting about China with a bouncer I used to know from my days of frequenting bars. The bouncer had just said something about me wearing all red (haha, China, Communist, get it?), when another dude interrupted to ask me something. I thought he asked, “Are you a spy???” thinking maybe he was just chiming in on our China conversation, so I said, hahaha yes, I AM a spy! He was like, huh? Well, did you? Did I what? DID YOU JUST PLAY? I finally understood he thought I was the girl from People Get Ready. No siree, I know all of us Asians look exactly the same and I’m flattered you thought I was her because she was beautiful and hip, but unfortunately I am not her. I am Emily He, queen of all that is good and holy.
I’m sitting in a sunny cafe called Tiny Cup drinking delicious Counter Culture coffee (HOW IRONIC) and life is good. My mind is all over the place, likely from too much caffeine in one sitting. The brownstones on all the tree-lined streets and people hanging out on their stoops are so Brooklyn-y. Drinking coffee, listening to indie music and blogging on my Mac is so Brooklyn-y. Mommies pushing their babies around, mail-men and -women chatting with the locals and kids running through the streets after school is all so Brooklyn-y. Everything takes time. It’s going to take time for me to get back in the swing of what it means to be Brooklyn. But wait, I think what I loved most about Brooklyn is that everyone can be exactly who they are and still find their niche or niches or even complete isolation if that’s what they want.
So, I need to let down my hair (after I get my haircut tomorrow!) and just be myself and embrace every moment I have in this awesome city I once, and still can, call home. Oooooh, optimism is a good feeling. It’s good to be back.
An interesting thing happened the other night. Someone tried to set me up with a Taiwanese man. A girly one.
I went out to dinner with Dingding, her boyfriend and a couple of new folks, Frank and May (not real names). Frank and May are having an affair; May married with a child, and Frank, a coworker. May explained to me that she wasn’t cheating on her husband because she was having an “affair.” That confused me because I thought having an affair was cheating. And so, I asked el internet. (I’ll get back to my Taiwanese encounter as soon as I figure this out.)
An “emotional affair” can be defined as follows:
“A relationship between a person and someone other than (their) spouse (or lover) that has an impact on the level of intimacy, emotional distance and overall dynamic balance in the marriage. The role of an affair is to create emotional distance in the marriage.”
In this view, neither sexual intercourse nor physical affection is necessary to impact the committed relationship(s) of those involved in the affair. It is held that an emotional affair can injure a committed relationship more than a one night stand or other casual sexual encounters.
Are you wondering whether you are having an emotional affair?
- Do you avoid telling your partner how much time you spend or talk with the other person?
- Do you tell this person more about your day than your partner? Do you even tell him about your marital dissatisfaction?
- Do you “ready your appearance” to see him?
- Is there a sexual attraction (spoken or unspoken) between you?
- Would you feel guilty if your partner saw you together?
If you answer yes to two or more of these questions, get out of there. You are cheating!
Okay. So according to Wiki and Oprah and several other internet sources, an emotional affair is worse than infidelity, which is physical cheating. I don’t know how many yes’s May has to Oprah’s questions, but she defines her relationship with Frank as an affair and regardless of what Oprah and Wiki say, I’ll just take her word for it that she’s not cheating. She just has feelings for a man who is not her husband.
I miss feelings. I miss having crushes on people like I’m in middle school. I don’t like people setting me up with others unless they’re actually really cool and attractive. Sound shallow? Well, there are certain things people should be picky about. A potential mate is one of them.
As I was saying at the beginning of this post, I was at dinner with Dingding and friends (at this DELICIOUS, 1.5 hour wait, tiny mom-and-pop Sichuan cuisine shop). I was the 5th wheel, but I didn’t mind. Not having a partner means I get to have full portions to myself. F*$! sharing. I’m an only child with a big appetite.
We are all chatting having a grand ol’ time until May decides to set me up with one of her friends. John, the Taiwanese fella, lives nearby, so she calls him up and he comes on over. Black button up shirt, black slacks, a shoulder bag. Meh, not my style, but not terrible. He says hello cheerily to all the others and looks at me like he knows what May was stewing. I give him an awkward, overly friendly wave, he sits down and begins chatting away with Frank and May. Fine with me! Then May nudges me and asks me why I’m not talking to John, who’s sitting just a few seats away, putting me in a very awkward situation. Well because he’s sitting there waving his hands and fingers all over town like a valley girl, not looking at me ever, WHICH I AM FINE WITH, and to be honest, he’s not very interesting. Did I forget to mention that I’m not into Asians? “Oh, he’s really nice. I’m just really awkward.”
(These are some of the photos that came up under image search “awkward”:
Can someone please explain why there are so many animals involved with “awkward”?)
So May, a friend I might have to cross off my list, starts talking about me to John, saying things like, “Emily is from America,” and “She’s going to Taiwan in July.” Of course I’m not going to Taiwan in July, but okay, to humor everyone else at the table. This is what I chime in, “Taiwanese food is so good!” to which he responds, “Mmhm.” We were a match made in heaven.
Then as all new friendships progress, everyone exchanges Weibo (Chinese twitter) information. As John is busy doing so, I violently, but hopefully not too conspicuously, shake my head at Dingding as to say, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO to her sudden interest in this “set up”. I’m a little shocked that she thinks John and I would make a good couple. My friends back home (in America) would NEVER set me up with a John, and for that, I love them so so so so much.
We finally leave the restaurant and thank God — if there is one — that John is not coming to the bar with us. As we bid him farewell, forever from me, John begs May, “Please don’t say anything yet! Please please please, not while I’m still here!” I think he was just as disinterested in me as I was in him. Phew. Although also a little bit insulting. People always wants what they can’t have, but in this case, I still don’t want him.
As we head over to the bar, May asks why I’m not interested in John. But before I can answer, she explains to me how many Taiwanese men are quite girly. The way John spoke, the way he flicked his wrists when speaking, just part of his Taiwanese nature. I’m sure this isn’t true of all Taiwanese men (HELLOOO? Jeremy Lin!), but John, he’s just….not for me.
I’m itching for some companionship, but being set up is not the way to do it. It/I was too awkward and uncomfortable. I prefer doing it my own way, whatever that way is, even if it takes a million years and a lot of mistakes. At least I can learn from my mistakes. But do I?
Does every couple develop a dialect/accent/language/voice of their own? Particularly babytalk? Is it necessary for lovers to speak to one another in babytalk in order for the other to understand? Do they think it disguises what they’re saying from others around them even though it’s a universal language?
I haven’t been in a relationship in a while and I can’t remember if my ex and I had a secret language. Yes, sometimes I spoke to him in a higher, goo-goo-ga-ga-ly pitch asking things like, “Do you really love me? Do you REAAAAAAAALLLLLLY love me? How much? THIS much? Okay okay, I wuv you tooo!” I’m exaggerating, but it seems like all couples have a special way of communicating such insecurities. But must we talk like babies to do so??
I have a friend who-shall-not-be-named who shares a special dialect of English/Irish/babytalk with her boyfriend that is mostly used, from my observations, when talking about their feelings. If their conversation transitions into something more serious, like about work and school, they use regular English. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very cute accent they share, but I’m still curious as to why their voices digress to infant-hood when wishing each other good night?
Another friend who-shall-not-be-named seems to have permanently engaged babytalk. Her boyfriend has adapted to this language very well, and I dare say 75% of their conversations (at least around me) are spoken in this obnoxious pitch. To get in on the dialogue, I had to adjust the level of my own voice to match theirs. If this offers any explanation to the phenomenon, they are Chinese, and from what I’ve seen on Chinese television, babytalk is commonly used by young women.
In fact, the baby is so darn cute these days that adult women not only emulate them in speech, but also in habit. At a restaurant several weeks ago, my cousins and I were appalled to see a 20-something Chinese woman suck on a baby bottle!!!!! Filled with milk!! In public!!! All the while she was taking photos of herself with puckered lips and too much hair in her face. The woman sitting across from her, presumably her mother, was unmoved. My cousins and I, on the other hand, oh we were moved. We were moved by the way she couldn’t actually suck the milk out of the nipple so she unscrewed the top and sipped from the rim. She’s an adult after all!
It just occurred to me that my friends who have been in really long relationships – the married type and the soon-to-be married type – including my parents and my friends’ parents, do not break out in special languages/accents/dialects/babytalk with their partners. I wonder if it’s because they grow out of it, just like babies do? Or maybe because they master keeping it an actual secret? Or because couples who have been together for so long no longer need to express their feelings through absurd voices?
Like I said, I have not been in a relationship in a while and can’t remember what it’s like communicating with a lover. But I hope when the next boyfriend rolls along, we won’t confess our love for each other like overgrown babies. At least not in front of other people.
These past few weeks with Lucia have been some of the best since I began my new life in China. For one, it’s always great to have close friends around. And second, I haven’t laughed so much in months! Too bad the expression “time flies when you’re having fun” is true because she’s gone now.
Between our time in Beijing, we spent 9 days in 3 other cities — Hong Kong, Yangshuo and Guilin. For budgeting purposes, we took trains, buses, and a boat between cities, totaling 66 hours of travel time. It was definitely not a trip you take with a difficult person or a person without a sense of humor. Lucky for Lucia, there wasn’t a moment that I wanted to kill her, except when she ate all the Ferrero Rochers.
One thing I love about traveling is eating as much as I want without worrying about weight gain. In Hong Kong where my mom has excellent connections (the kind with $$), Lucia and I were treated like princesses. We had our own driver, Willie, and we ate like Greek gods. Buffet-ing, dim-summing, seafooding…I literally could not have asked for more or I would’ve keeled over and died from overeating. In Yangshuo and Guilin, no longer royal, we gorged on street food and noodles while avoiding horse and dog meat. The ramen, chocolates, cookies, tea eggs, chips and McDonald’s we ate on train/bus/boat rides were just food for survival.
How did all this food digest you might ask? Well, the 5.5 hour-long bike ride through the countryside of Yangshuo certainly helped (the most exercise either one of us has had in light years). Racing through Ocean Park in Hong Kong and aimlessly wandering around rainy Guilin also made a difference to my digestive track.
Instead of boring you with all the nitty-gritty details of my trip, I’ll just tell you the highlights of each city. You’re welcome.
Far beyond my expectations, this city is just perfect. From the movies (like Rush Hour 2) I thought Hong Kong was just another city. But OH MY WORD the views were incredible!
The jade-colored water between the green hills and the wild monkeys with pink butts and nipples and mansions on hilltops and flowing traffic and random temples spotted throughout the city and beaches, all in one small place. It is a perfect balance of nature and city, traditional and contemporary. Though Hong Kong is known to the Chinese as shopping-haven, Lucia and I preferred the spectacular views and roller coasters. I must admit the most memorable part of Hong Kong, besides the food, was Ocean Park, an amusement park on a hill. We had so. much. fun.
Next up, we took this pimped out sleeper bus which blared house music 8 hours to Yangshuo:
This was my favorite part of the trip. When we stepped out of the bus, half-asleep and worried we’d left something behind after scrambling out of there at 5:30 in the morning, we looked up to find that we were surrounded by pointy hills (karst peaks).
And that’s the center of town! Can you imagine what the countryside looks like?! Well you don’t have to. Just look below!
Those hills plus the Li River equals stunning scenery that is rural China.
Because it was early March when the rains and fog are amidst, there were far less tourists than normal, much to our advantage. Lucia and I could ride our bikes for miles and miles without having to share the road with other tourists. We didn’t take “the road less traveled” — we followed a Lonely Planet route — but it was still the best ride of my life.
As Lucia and I were biking through one of many farm villages, Lucia’s impossible shoelaces got stuck in the gears. It was a heaven-sent pause because out came three little girls running towards us and plopped down with books and pencils in hand. Knowing me, a teacher, kid-lover, and Ms. Emotional-to-anything-slightly-moving, Lucia had to tell me not to cry at the sight of this absurd cuteness. The girl in the middle was reading her English alphabet picture book upside down!
We were also greeted by other kids yelling “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!” most likely at Lucia, who’s white, but I yelled back too. At one point we took the wrong road and geared off to find a pretty elderly lady with two long grey braids sitting on a bamboo raft by the river as her cows grazed the field nearby. I asked her for directions but it was difficult to understand the local dialect so she walked us to the correct path. She was a beautiful lady, inside and out!
We spent the rest of the time in Yangshuo strolling around and taking in the surrounding beauty. Two days later we were off to Guilin in a boat carrying Chinese and foreign tourists up against the currents of Li River. Along the way, we passed picturesque and widely photographed landscapes. While Lucia spent most of the ride with her nose in Jane Austen with throbbing heartaches for Mr. Darcy, I got wet taking a million photos of the passing views.
Four hours and two bus rides later we were in Guilin.
Well, because Lucia and I were all boated-out, we decided to stay away from the highly regarded boat tours. Instead, we spent most of our time eating and wandering the city center, but our day and a half in Guilin dragged on because of the bad weather. This was the least exciting part of the trip because, surprisingly and much to my disappointment, it was just another city with not much to see except the Sun and Moon Pagodas.
Lucky for me and Lucia, we only had to share our cabin for half the ride back to Beijing, except we arrived 2 hours late in the middle of the night to freezing cold and sleet.
That was my trip in a nutshell. I have much more to tell and show you, but I’ll save it for another time.
Overall, Lucia and I had a fabulous time and I’m sad she’s gone. But I have many good memories and photographs to prove it. I will definitely return to Hong Kong and Yanshuo in the future, but I’ll wait till the weather is nicer. And for you to get here. Anyone up for a 28 hour train ride?