Saturday, December 31, 2011

Harbin Trip!

Here's my entire journal from our Harbin trip!  Enjoy.

Day 1: I'm on the train to Harbin as I type this; it's Christmas Eve 2011 and I've been on the train for 18 hours.  12 hours to go!  Seth, Maryia, Seth's roommate 明文 (Ming Wen) and I decided to spend Christmas in Harbin.  It's the capital of Heilongjiang province, the northernmost province of China, bordering Siberia and North Korea.  It has a world-famous ice festival and a Siberian tiger park and skiing!  Although I heard people on the train earlier saying it hadn't snowed there yet...hmm.  In any case, we're heading up there to freeze to death and enjoy ourselves in the real winter weather!

We're in a hard sleeper car, which has small rooms with six bunk beds on the walls in each.  The four of us are on the top and middle bunks, and there is a minimal amount of room, definitely not enough to sit up.  The hallway is narrow, but there are fold-out seats built in to the wall with little tables, so we can sit there when we're tired of cramming into our bunks.  We played scum for a couple hours earlier and read books; Seth and I also gave Maryia a short missionary lesson on priesthood authority and how it works.

The bathrooms are little rooms with squatter toilets that open right onto the train tracks; fun, no?  We walked the length of the train earlier to find the dining car.  Of course, everyone stared at us, but it wasn't worse than usual, and I don't mind being the foreigner as much as I did when I first got to China.  Dining car prices were about twice the price of normal food, but still very cheap by American standards.  Traveling with Seth, Maryia and 明文 is an interesting experience when it comes to cost.  Maryia has money and doesn't care nearly as much about saving money as she does about comfort and cleanliness., while Seth wants to save wherever possible.  We're on hard sleepers right now because Maryia wouldn't go on a seat, so we compromised and all got sleepers there and seats back except for Maryia.  Same with hotel accommodations - Seth would be fine sleeping on someone's couch, while Maryia wants a decent place to stay.

On the train for 20 hours.  We got back from dinner a little while ago - Seth didn't eat (he said he wasn't hungry, but I think it was on principle or to save money), but the rest of us got food, mostly because Maryia was hungry.  We just read Luke 2 and 3 Nephi 1 out loud, and I flipped through the December Ensign, so it feels a little more like Christmas Eve.  This will be quite a story to tell; I never thought I would spend a Christmas Eve on a crowded, dirty sleeper train heading to Harbin!  Tomorrow should be interesting... 

Day 2: Sunday, Christmas Day 2011.  We arrived in Harbin around 8 am.  When we got off the train, the cold shocked all of us.  I experienced cold like that on my mission on occasion, but it had been a while.  It was around negative 20 Celsius, and our nose hairs froze when we breathed!  Everything that would be liquid in other cities - the spit on the ground, little splashes of water, urine - freezes within minutes here.  明文's friend from high school, 王爱 (Wang Ai), who goes to university here, met us at the train station and took us around for part of the day.  First, we took a bus to our hotel.  It is so cold here!  All the windows on every bus are frosted over, and if you take your gloves or hat off, it only takes a minute for your fingers or ears to go numb.  We all brought lots of layers, so we should (hopefully) be fine.  Maryia and Seth gave me Christmas presents at the hotel!  Seth gave me a Chinese cookbook (with DVD), and Maryia gave each of us some socks filled with candy and some lip balm.  I felt bad for not bringing anything for them, but I'll write Maryia a nice card when I get back, and I gave Seth a card already.

After we checked in to the 7 Days Inn, we all went in search of a church with Christmas services.  We took a taxi to one, but it wasn't having services.  The lady who let us in was very helpful, though, and she told us where to find another church.  In the few minutes I spoke to her, she said "神祝福你" and "谢谢主" (God bless you and thank the Lord)!  That was the first time in China I've ever heard a Chinese person say anything like that, and it was startling, but nice to hear.  The church we went to services at was a somewhat modern building, and there were hundreds of people crowded in to watch.  We went up to the second level, and after a bit of waiting, two nice old women ushers found a place for us on the front row of the balcony.  It pays to be white in China sometimes; that probably wouldn't have happened if we were Chinese!  The service itself was basically song and dance numbers, with elaborate costumes and emcees and concert lighting, and it was a new experience for Christmas.  Only the last number felt much like a Christmas song; it was a medley of a few carols, and the whole cast entered at various times and took their bows at the end.  Besides that, though, it was an eclectic mix of Chinese, Christian, and Russian cultures.  I was pleasantly surprised at how many Christians there are in Harbin!

After church, we went to lunch at a hot pot place we had passed along the way.  Maryia didn't like it that much, but it was fantastic, and fairly cheap!  We got platters of pork, beef, and lamb, noodles, and several kinds of vegetables, and it ended up being only 20 something per person!  Awesome.  With the warmth of hot pot in our bellies, we were once again ready to face the bitter cold of the Harbin streets.  We went to the Harbin Institute of Technology campus, where they have an ice skating rink on the track!  I think it was my third time ice skating, but I did pretty well, except for the one time I fell.  Maryia is a great skater (she's done figure skating before), and Seth is pretty good, too (he has lots of skills like this - rock climbing, skating, skiing, fencing, etc), but I didn't feel as self-conscious as I usually do at such things.  Attitude is all-important.  It was really cold on the campus, but I got warm while skating for a bit.

From there, we went to the Saint Sofia church, which is an old Orthodox church turned into a museum.  It was really cool.  I was a little sad that it wasn't quite as grand as the Hagia Sophia, though, because when Seth sent out an email with pictures of Harbin to convince people to come on the trip, he sent a picture of the Hagia Sophia instead of Harbin's Saint Sofia!  Oh well; it was still a neat building.  There is Russian all over Harbin!  It's on the signs, and there are these little cheap Russian goods stores every 20 feet along the streets.  There was a Russian impressionist gallery on the same square as Saint Sofia, so we stopped in there for a bit, and it was very nice.  If I had any money, I would have bought one of the paintings, because they're a steal compared to the ones in the Park City Russian impressionist gallery, and quite good.  *Note to self: when you are living in China and want a painting, head to Harbin.

After at, we went to the main shopping area, 中央大街, and we window shopped for a while.  At the same time, we looked for a Russian restaurant for Maryia's Christmas dinner.  We found a basement restaurant that looked and smelled fantastic, but it was going to be at least 70 kuai a person, so we passed that one up.  We found another one in the basement of a mall - Harbin has all of the major international brands and a very nice European-style mall - but it turned out to be more of a Russian strip club that serves food!  We also chanced upon an all-you-can-eat pizza place, but there were throngs of people waiting to get in line and to get seated!  It was likely the busiest restaurant I will ever see in my life.  We got colder and colder as we went around, but we didn't find anything else, and finally we took a taxi back to where we thought we had seen another Russian place earlier today, but we didn't find that one, either.  Eventually, we broke down and went to a little cafeteria place down an alley by the train station; it was very good, although definitely not the Western Christmas dinner we had promised ourselves!

Man, I need to stop writing so much on these travel journals.  After dinner, we came back to the hotel.  We have a room with a large bed and not much else; Seth wants to sleep on the floor, so I'm going to sleep on the bed in between 明文 and Maryia.  Fun!  At least the room is warm.

Day 3: Sleeping on a large but not huge bed between two other people wasn't as bad as I expected!  I didn't kick anyone, and I managed to keep a sufficient portion of the comforter.  Not something I want to do often, but it was okay.  We went downstairs and got our free breakfast at 9:35 when we were ready for the day, only to discover that breakfast ended at 9:30, but the two women cleaning up let us eat anyway.  A boiled egg, two meat buns, an orange, some gruel, soy milk, and a little spicy pickled cabbage.  Very much like our breakfast in the monastery on Emei Shan.  They had mantous, but I think I'm done with them - they have absolutely no taste.

Our first adventure of the day was the tiger park!  After a couple buses and a walk of about a kilometer into the park, we arrived.  明文 bought Seth a fuzzy tiger hat for a Christmas gift, which he wore for the rest of the day.  The first part of the visit was a bus around several enclosures.  We bought a chicken to feed the tigers, and in the first enclosure, we watched as an armored jeep with our chicken on top drove up to two tigers.  One jumped on top of the car, scaring the chicken off, and the other one pounced!  Within seconds it was tearing the chicken apart.  It was pretty cool to watch.  We drive through several more enclosures, some with a couple tigers and some with many, and in one we saw lion cubs playing!  The tigers would prowl around the fences, and every enclosure we drove into they would meet us at the gate and then back off as the driver barreled through!  They would also follow the bus and come up and lick the sides - I was inches from tiger fangs!

The second part of the visit was an enclosed walkway, reminiscent of Jurassic Park.  As we walked, we came upon a mass of tigers, maybe 15 or 20, taking a nap together.  There was a lady selling food for the tigers, so Seth bought another live chicken, and I videoed as he grabbed it behind the wings and lowered it through the bars to the waiting tigers.  They jumped for it, and it became a frenzy for a few seconds until one of them ran off with most of the chicken in his mouth.  After that, there were cages with all kinds of big cats in them - a white tiger, a white lion, a cheetah, black panthers, regular panthers, and a liger, one of the few living ones.  The tiger park was awesome - definitely as close as I've ever come to experiencing Jurassic Park!

After that, we went back into town for lunch at the all-you-can-eat pizza place we found yesterday.  It wasn't nearly as crazy at 2:30 in the afternoon, and we were seated immediately.  Everything was good, not great, but we gorged ourselves nonetheless.  A man came up to our table and asked if any of us knew Italian.  Upon learning that Maryia did, he proceeded to sing some Italian operatic love songs and asked her to correct his pronunciation!  It was fantastic - a fifty-something year old man singing to us in a restaurant in a language he didn't understand.  After that, he tried one English song, and then switched to Russian, which was the best of the three.  Then he thanked us and said goodbye, all in Russian, and went back to his table.  I wish we had some video of him singing, because it was hilarious and pretty good singing at the same time!

It gets dark in Harbin at 4:30, so after our pig out fest we went to the Harbin Ice and Snow World!  It's a world-famous ice carving festival held here every year, and it surpassed its reputation!  As we drove up, it was like entering a fairy tale.  All around were huge castles, palaces, pagodas, and bridges, all made of ice, and there were neon lights throughout everything!  We spent a good two hours climbing all over, sliding down ice slides, taking pictures, (almost) petting yaks, and spinning in circles.  Seth got the hiccups, and he spent a good half an hour with his affliction!

After that, we came back to the hotel and watched The Princess Bride on Seth's computer, then went to bed.  I insisted on taking the floor, since Seth slept on the floor last night, and he let me after being stubborn about it for a bit.  He can be so 不听话 at times!

Day 4: I slept fairly well, but this morning I was depressed for no reason.  I really need to figure out why this has happened to me several times since I came to China.  I don't think it's homesickness, but I'm not sure what it is.  Anyway, we didn't leave the hotel until almost noon, because we were deciding what to do for the day, and we headed to lunch first.  We got 30 dumplings each at a restaurant in the neighborhood, and they were really good!  I felt a little better afterwards, but still terrible.  I decided to be happy, though, and the rest of the day was much better.  Again, attitude is everything!

We went from there to the Sun Island amusement park area and ended up going to the Harbin Polar Land.  It's a combination sea world and aquarium with mostly polar animals and fish, and it was pretty fun.  We got student discounts by booking online on Seth's phone after getting there, but then they held us up for 15 minutes because Maryia's student card doesn't have an expiry date.  They finally let us in, but we had missed the last scheduled beluga show of the day!  Lame - people not taking responsibility for individual actions that aren't specified either way in the rules makes me angry sometimes, and it happens a lot in China.  We went around and saw the other animals for a while, and then we went to the sea lion show, which was much like those at Sea World, but it had 中国特色 all over it, especially with the 主持ing.  The final act was the sea lion coming up and kissing a Chinese girl from the audience!

After that, we went back through the first exhibits, which we had rushed through to get to the last of the beluga show.  They had penguins, wolves, arctic foxes, and polar bears, all in small cages, and the wolves and polar bears were magnificent and pitiable at the same time.  They did the same things over and over, pacing their cages or swimming in the same patterns nearly the whole time we watched them.  Seth thinks they can be just as happy there as in the wild, but I feel to disagree.  Even if they themselves might not know what they're missing or feel sad (insomuch as they can), they would fulfill the measure of their creation much more fully in the wild, and I think that and the freedom they are deprived of would help them live a happier existence.  How can a creature that paces in the same circle on the floor all day every day truly be happy?  Then again, what does it mean for an animal to be happy?  And are we also not pacing in circles, albeit wider, each day, week, month, and year?  I don't have all the answers to these questions, but my gut reaction is to recoil from putting innocent creatures that naturally have much larger habitats in tiny cages.  In any case, it bears thinking about.

As we left, it had once again grown dark.  It would be hard to live here in the winter, where there's so much less daylight.  We went back into town and finally had our Russian dinner at a place 明文 found online.  We had borscht, potato salad, chicken fried in egg batter, meatballs, a beef stew, and the best bread I've had since I've come to China, with butter and jam!  I had heard that Russian food was comparatively bland, but this was all very good, and Maryia said she could make most of it better.  It came to about 50 kuai per person, a great deal for all that food.  After dinner, we went across the street to a famous local ice cream place.  It was very good, but not any better than normal ice cream in the States.  Chinese people are obviously deprived of good ice cream!  We walked around the central shopping district for a while looking for presents - Seth for his sister and brother-in-law and me for 辛强, but we didn't find anything at the several cheap Russian goods stores we stopped in.  We finally gave up and went back to the hotel.  Bed early tonight, because we're going skiing tomorrow!  I'm sleeping between Maryia and 明文 again; it's really hot in our room, but hopefully I'll be able to sleep anyway.

Day 5: I'm now on the train back to Nanjing, sitting in a crowded car full of students going home for the holidays.  This morning, we got breakfast on the street and caught a cab to a ski resort outside of town.  We thought we could rent dog sleds there for 100 kuai an hour, but it was really 100 kuai for a lap lasting a few minutes!  So we opted for skiing the single bunny hill covered with manmade snow instead.  It was actually pretty fun, maybe because I haven't been skiing in so long.  I don't think I went at all last winter.  Seth spent most of the time teaching 明文 basic skiing techniques, and Maryia and I went on the 'advanced' tow lift to the steeper half of the hill a few times waiting for them.  I went down backwards in front of 明文 with him holding onto my poles like a kid in ski school once.  I can now say I've skied a run backwards, even if it is a bunny slope!  It was ridiculously cold.  We all had icicles form on our eyelashes and eyebrows, and the cold made me tear up going down every time, so I couldn't see where I was going near the bottom.

We got back to the hotel with barely enough time to grab our things and check out, and then we went to the train station and had lunch at a USA California Beef Noodle King restaurant!  They're all over Harbin, but we have no idea why they decided to brand it that way, because they're pretty regular beef noodles, and it's not a single chain, it's most every noodle place in Harbin.  After that, we went to grab our tickets, and then we boarded the train.  We got two hard sleepers and two hard seats this time around, so we're going to trade off who gets the sleeper next to Maryia.  明文 and I took the first shift on the hard seats.  They're actually about like airplane seats, except arranged so they face each other and there are little tables in between, so in that aspect it's not bad.  The car is overheated, however, and pretty noisy.  It's a much better way to make friends than the sleeper car - I've already had conversations with several people about different things, and that seems to be the norm for these cars.  We've been on the train for 6 hours.  23 to go!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Well, the last couple weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster ride.  The weather warmed up for the last few weeks of November (I wore shorts to school one day when it was maybe 22 degrees, and my law professor commented on how brave I was J), but on December 1st, it finally became winter, and now it’s cold.  My apartment is freezing – I think it’s actually colder inside than outside!  Thankfully my heater works, because I never bought a comforter, and it would be cold at night for sure.  Xin Qiang’s heater doesn’t work, so I picked the right room, but at least he has an electric blanket.

I’ve basically given up on writing my writing class assignments – I go to class, and I wrote a speech and gave it this week, but I haven’t made up my missed assignments and I don’t think I will.  Hopefully it doesn’t affect my BYU grade.  I did finally finish my law school applications, though!  That’s a huge weight off my shoulders.  It’s just in time to be replaced with another few weights, though – I’m in charge of finishing the Flagship Times, and we’re supposed to be done by next Friday.  That has been a huge uphill battle, sending out emails every week asking people for their pictures and articles and self-introductions.  It should get finished on time, though.

Christmas is nearly here, but it doesn’t really feel like it.  It’s not very cold, and having class all the way through a normal American Christmas holiday makes it feel like January already.  I’m really looking forward to going home in January!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


This is mostly a copy of my service journal for this month - I never recorded our Romeo and Juliet experience here, so I thought I'd do that now.

This will be my last month writing this, as I’ve already finished my 15 hours of service (although I plan on going to the YMCA a few more times in December, because we still have the end of semester presentation with our kids).

The YMCA has been the same as always – our kids are crazy, and it’s hard to keep them occupied for ten minutes in between games.  I feel like they’ve enjoyed the semester, though, and they have learned a few English words here and there.  It’s also hard when they’re at such different levels.  Kevin requires individual attention to learn even three words, when Helen has learned the entire lesson in the same amount of time, and the other three are in the middle.  I hope my kids aren’t belligerent or hard to discipline, because otherwise I’ll need a lot more patience than I have now.  It’s been a good experience, though.

Most of my service hours this month weren’t at the YMCA, however, they were spent preparing and putting on Romeo and Juliet!  Seth had the idea for all the single Flagship guys to perform Romeo and Juliet for 光棍节, or Singles Awareness Day, November 11, 2011, because it was 11/11/11.  We started at 10 am, so we were still performing at 11:11:11 on 11/11/11!  I was the Nurse and Paris, both of which were fun, but the Nurse especially, because I got to declaim in falsetto and got lots of attention from the crowd.  Ben was Juliet, and Chandler was Romeo – a more hilarious and apropos combination could not be had!  We performed in the fountain by the campus cafeteria, and there was a crowd of about 50 to 100 people that came and went.

Now as to why this was service: Seth’s roommate had the idea to use the publicity to raise money for someone in need, so we collected money and donated it to a family.  The wife has cancer, and they don’t have enough money to cover her chemotherapy treatments, even with government aid and her husband’s income.  After the play, several of us went with some reporters to their apartment and gave the husband the envelope with money in it.  It was a very emotional moment all around, and he thanked us repeatedly with tears streaming down his face.  I’m very grateful for the opportunity to bless his family through our service, and things like this remind me how much joy service can bring to us and to those we serve.

We got on TV and Seth was interviewed by reporters, so in the end I think even more money was donated to this family.  There were also several articles in the local papers, which we'll be including in the Flagship Times.  I bought Ben a wig and a mask, and one of the Chinese guys watching thought he was a 美女 (pretty girl)!  Awesome.

Count Your Many Blessings

...every doubt will fly!

This will be short, but I wanted to record my second Thanksgiving dinner experience.  Joel got invited to Thanksgiving dinner over the weekend at a family friend's house, the Butters, in Shanghai, and he brought me and Seth along.  Before we left, we ate at Carl's Jr. at the Nanjing South Railway Station!  It was great - much better than Carl's Jr. in Malaysia - and they had actual portobello mushrooms on the mushroom swiss burger.  Yum.

The high speed rail is so convenient here - I wish we had it in the States.  You go through security in seconds, get on the train, and get to your destination comfortably and quickly.  We finally arrived at the Butters' house around 10 pm, and they were putting the younger kids to bed.  They have 5 kids, and they've been in China since shortly after they were married.  They actually remind me a lot of my family - I think we would have been friends, had my parents been a bit younger and lived in China.  Friday night we stayed up late and watched Mystery Men - it was funny, but probably one of those watch-once-and-done movies.

Saturday morning, we got up and helped prepare for dinner - they had 20 or so people over (again reminding me of my family), so we helped set up tables and such.  Before we knew it, it was time for dinner.  It was fantastic!  Way better than the branch dinner, and the branch dinner was great.  We had two enormous turkeys, stuffing, yams, salad, fresh homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, jello, and homemade pumpkin pies for dessert (six of them, which Sister Butters made on Friday and warned us not to eat Friday night or face serious consequences)!  We sat outside and played with their youngest child, Dorothy (Dot) on the lawn - she made us close our eyes while she hid berries and had us look for them.  Oh to be a child again and find joy in such simple things!

After dinner, Seth and I went out looking around for apartments for his internship here in a couple months. He's working at a neuroscience research lab that focuses specifically on cancer, which is exactly what he wants to do.  I wish I were that confident in what I want to do with my life.  Anyway, we took the subway for 40 minutes or so, got off and walked around the area near his internship.  We looked for newspapers with classifieds, but didn't find any.  It's a nice area, though, and he should be able to find something when he gets there in February.  I'd really like to intern in Shanghai, but at the moment it's looking more likely that I'll be in Beijing.

Sunday, we went to church in Shanghai, but it ended up being the Asia Area broadcast that we already saw in church in Nanjing.  I learned a few new things this time, however.  After that, we headed for home.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving is Here!

The last few weeks have been so busy!  Actually, they haven’t been nearly as busy as my most hectic times in Provo, but my capacity for juggling a million things at once has diminished considerably since I stopped practicing the piano so much.  Well, at all, really.  I practice maybe a couple hours a week.

Where to begin?  The weather finally got colder this week (though the high tomorrow is still 17 degrees, barely an autumnal chill in Utah).  The leaves are all changing and falling; Nanjing has many wide, tree-lined streets, and lately they’ve been piling up with leaves.  The street sweepers keep them mostly under control, however.

The branch here had a Thanksgiving dinner yesterday – we had several turkeys and basically everything else you could want for Thanksgiving, and it was wonderful.  Seth and I were in the very back of the line, so we went for dessert first and then rejoined the food line.  I got a slice of cheesecake, a mint brownie, a slice of raspberry pie, a slice of pumpkin pie, and a cookie.  Overkill?  Hardly.  All 100 people there got more than enough to eat and there were leftovers, quite a feat for a potluck affair.  After dinner, there was a talent show, the highlight of which was the China Horizons girls (here with an English teaching program) strapping glow sticks all over their bodies and faces and dancing in the dark to “I’m a Believer”!  I think I’ll steal that idea for the next talent show I’m in.

Six of us went on a group date with some girls here teaching English last week; we made fajitas and went bowling.  Fajitas were incredible after months of basically only rice and noodles!  Our first game, we had a lane rivalry going; everyone was pretty terrible at bowling, though.  I won overall with 121, which I wasn’t terribly proud of.  I should go with Grandma Ida more if I ever get the chance.  The second game, we drew a random M&M every bowl and did something crazy depending on the color – eyes closed, backwards, between the legs, kick the ball (that hurt!), and using your other hand.  There were still three or four strikes, incredibly.  For the last few balls, we all got up and danced in front of the person bowling to distract them.

I’m still behind on my schoolwork; I keep meaning to catch up, but it doesn’t seem to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Same story with my law school applications.  I need to buckle down this week and get all those things taken care of.

I don’t really know what else to say – that’s the problem with waiting too long in between updates.  Blogs are more manageable in bite-sized pieces.  Hopefully my next post is a short update on how much homework I’ve done!  I like the sound of that.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A few thoughts

To everyone who actually reads this: I'm sorry for failing to update you on my whole life. Although I watched an episode of House a little while ago in which someone blogged about literally everything, and it pretty much ruined her life, so maybe I'll hold off on full disclosure. :)

Update #1: I think I got the job with the Beijing law firm! I don't know if I've even told you about the Beijing law firm, so here goes. Seth went to a medical conference a while ago, and he met a patent lawyer there and got his card. I emailed him my resume, and he basically offered me an internship in his reply and set up a meeting, which he then bombed because he had to get back to Beijing on business and couldn't stay in Nanjing to meet with me. However, we finally met this last Tuesday, and he offered me the job, whenever I want to start. I accepted, so he should get back to me with a contract this week and I'll work there from February to the end of May.

Update #2: I'm not going to take the job with President Yu's company. He's the branch president here, and his company, Fullshare Group, makes over a billion dollars a year and works in five or six different industries. I interviewed there a couple weeks ago, and then he had me and another flagship student come to a client meeting on Tuesday and then to dinner (I went to meet with the lawyer after dinner). It would be cool to work for him, but I think I'll have a better experience at the law office.

Update #3: It's still barely fall here, despite people wearing coats and sweaters everywhere. It's rained some over the last week, but it hasn't gotten colder than about 60 degrees, and I still wear shorts most days. All the Chinese people bundle up heavily, though - it makes you wonder what they do to stay warm when winter really hits.

Update #4: I saw an albino for the first time today. It was a baby on a guy's shoulder, and at first I thought it was a white guy out with his child for a walk, but then I realized the man was Chinese. I passed them, and the blond haired, white child had Chinese facial features! Crazy. I wonder what the social implications of that are for the kid growing up.

Update #5: Over the weekend, we went as a group to tour a town called Changshu, in eastern Jiangsu province. We left at 7:30 on Saturday morning (well, 8-something by the time the people who slept in arrived), and it took a little over three hours to get there by bus. Changshu is one of the places with the fastest-growing economy and largest amount of international investment in the country, and it has all kinds of heavy industry and technology research. We visited a commune neighborhood, a water treatment facility, and a sweater factory.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Office Rat

That's me the title is describing, because I've been in the Flagship office from 9 am to now (3:15 pm!), minus half an hour for lunch.  That being the case, I have accomplished two and a half hours of tutoring and a whole lot of catching up on schoolwork and emails, and I feel on top of the world, or at least on top of my mountainous to-do list.  The internet here is slower than in the States, and it cuts out all the time, which makes it take twice as long to get things done.  Speaking of internet, my neighbors changed their internet password again; it's a never-ending saga.

I enjoy living here a lot!  When I first got here, I thought I wouldn't want to live in China again after a year here, but now I think I could be very happy living and working here "for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die." (props for the reference!)  Okay, until the day I die is a bit of an exaggeration, but for a time, certainly.

I got a part-time job offer yesterday.  My roommate went to check out an SAT tutoring school a few days ago, and told them about me, and I went and interviewed with them yesterday.  I'll teach 10-12 hours a week, and they're going to pay me 300 kuai an hour as a base salary!  That's nearly $50 an hour, so I'll make a good $1000 every other week while I'm going to school and working minimal hours.  And I think I'll enjoy it a lot - I like teaching and helping people understand things, and part of it is editing papers, which I also like.  No downside - I think it will even help me be more responsible with the rest of my time; having too few things scheduled is generally a bad thing for me.

This has been an office rat special announcement.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Giraffes? Giraffes!

If you don't know the meaning of the above title, I am sorry.

Life since the trip has been interesting.  I'm behind on some of my schoolwork, and I think it's because I'm still in vacation mode.  Also, I'm decreasingly motivated to do well on assignments that ostensibly have nothing to do with graduation, acceptance to law school, or my future life.  I need to change my attitude, though; I'm here to improve my Chinese, and no matter how boring or unnecessary the assignments seem, they will help with that goal.

On the other hand, I'm enjoying life a lot more than I was a few weeks ago.  The weather here is beautiful, with the temperature in the high 70s every day and usually sunny with a light breeze.  We went to the Sun Yat-Sen tomb/memorial and the Ming Dynasty tombs on Saturday (every few weeks, Chen Laoshi takes us out to one of the historical sites around Nanjing).  It was fantastic!  Unlike some other historical sites, the natural setting was gorgeous - groves of plum trees on the mountainside, fields of grass (actual grass! a rare find in China), and breathtaking views from the top.  Sun Yat-Sen was the first president of China, and though he only lasted in the post for a few months before being deposed, his egalitarian ideas and foresight permanently influenced China's political ideology and development as a nation.  The Ming tombs were also cool - they're 600 years old, and remarkably well preserved.  The actual tombs are 50 meters into the hillside, but there's an enormous wall in front with a restored hall on top.  I'll definitely be going back in a couple weeks when the leaves change colors.

There are always little things that strike me as odd.  For example, over the holiday and back in Nanjing, I see flower displays on sidewalks and at memorials everywhere.  However, the flowers are always in their individual little pots instead of being planted in flowerbeds as would be usual in the States.  It's interesting to think about the thought process behind such things.  Obviously it's probably more convenient to just dispense with the pots after the flowers are past their prime, but I don't know which is more expensive, and to my eye flowerbeds would look a little nicer, although the pot arrangements have grown on me since I first saw them.

We've been spending more time with the China Horizons girls (here teaching English) - we play frisbee and volleyball with them, we had a YSA game night at the church on Saturday, and yesterday after church we had a big french toast party at their apartment.  They're all really friendly, but I don't think I'm interested in any kind of relationship right now; they're also all pretty young, maybe 19 or 20.  Although maybe I shouldn't be picky in that regard - I'm only 23, after all.  It's just that I've always kind of thought that I would marry someone who had served a mission and was about my age or even a little older.

Life without a phone for a week has also been interesting.  I'm actually kind of enjoying the irresponsibility of no one being able to contact me.  I've managed to run into people when they're going out to do things, but other than that I've been AWOL.

That's about it for now...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sichuan Trip, Day Seven

Day 7: Today we came back to Nanjing.  The day started early: we got up at 5, checked out, and took two cabs to the airport.  Of course, Josef got a picture of himself doing a handstand in the Sheraton lobby before we left!

At the airport, the ticket counter gave Seth a little bit of a hard time, but ultimately they let him buy a ticket with his passport copy.  The security check was another story, though.  Once again, Seth was the last in line, and they took his ID and made us wait.  At first, they said there was no way he could get on the plane, but finally, after going back and forth to different managers for half an hour, they told him to go to the police station, make a new ID, and use that to get on the plane.  The final miracle of the trip!

I slept the whole plane ride, and we took a shuttle bus back to Zhonghuamen station.  I lost my cell phone on the bus, but only realized it as I left on the subway.  Now it's gone forever, and I'm looking at iPhone 4s on Ebay.  Oh well - these things happen.  And thus ends the chronicle of our trip west!

Sichuan Trip, Day Six

Day 6: Today was a little up in the air, but it turned out well.  We didn't end up finding anywhere to go white water rafting, sadly (we tried online, asked the concierge, called the travel bureau, and apparently most of the places are closed for the season.  Boo.), but we found some things to do around Chongqing.  In the morning, we took a bus to the Three Gorges shopping district and then headed to old town Chongqing.  It was a cool little village with narrow cobblestone streets and stores selling all kinds of little products and traditional snacks.  We bought a pineapple roti, some taffy things, ice cream, and squid on sticks (well, actually I was the only one who ate the squid).  There was one guy selling dog teeth out of rotting dog heads on the side of the road, and several places had old communist propaganda posters.

From there, we went to a memorial site for the November 27, 1949 massacre of Chongqing, which none of us had heard of before.  Apparently a few days before the liberation of Chongqing, the nationalist army killed a few hundred political prisoners, who were afterwards labeled martyrs for the communist cause, and a whole memorial complex was built in their honor.  It included a huge plaza and museum, and then up the mountain a ways was the prison where they were kept.  It's so interesting viewing history from another perspective - it truly depends on who's writing it.

Following that, we head back to the city center and spent a while looking for a hotpot place, it being our last night in Chongqing.  After walking for a while and a couple metro stops, we wound up at a place back on a small side street.  Josef didn't want hotpot, but the rest of us ate there.  It was pretty good, although they didn't have the sesame paste sauce I like dipping my hotpot in.  We had a big bowl of chicken broth and a smaller one inside it with spicy broth.  Joel and Nicole opted not to eat the spicy stuff, while Seth and I ate everything.

Afterwards, we started heading back, and I played badminton on the street with a couple of people while everyone else bought treats.  Josef and Nicole went downtown to go shopping/look around, and Seth, Joel and I went back to the Sheraton.  After we left the last subway stop, we took a cable car across the Yangtze.  It was one of the highlights of the day - we could see downtown, and the whole river was lit up with gold and purple lights.  The Sheraton was even more impressive from the cable car - we hadn't realized that it was right on the waterfront before, and it's in a very tall skyscraper with a huge tv screen on one half of it.  After that, we walked back along the river to the hotel.

Sichuan Trip, Day Five

Day 5: We spent most of the day heading to the giant panda reserve park and back before making our way to Chongqing.  After stopping at a fruit stand for breakfast, we took a couple buses to the park.  I had my first experience eating sugar cane along the way; it was less sweet than I thought it would be, but definitely worth the three kuai I spent on it.  The second bus to the park was a small wooden one, crammed with people.  We forced our way on, though, and I stood in a corner, leaning against the driver's seat with room on the floor for only one foot.

The park was a good experience.  It sits on a beautiful piece of property, with a large lake and well-maintained flower beds and bamboo groves.  We went to the research station, the veterinary hospital, and the panda kitchen and learned about how the pandas are bred in captivity and what they eat.  The enclosures for the pandas were fairly large, and we watched as the handlers gave them bamboo to eat.  They sit back on their haunches and grab the branches with amazing dexterity, looking for all the world like a guy on a recliner reaching for the chips.  Apparently they eat different parts of the bamboo during different seasons; when we were there they stripped the leaves off and ate those.

Next, we went to the nursery and saw the infant pandas.  They were really cute!  After that, on our way around the park to where the red panda enclosures were, we stopped to ask a lady sweeping the path which way we should go.  She pointed us in the right direction and then told us to follow her.  We followed her through a restricted employee area and then took a dirt path through the bamboo directly to the red pandas!  People have been so nice to us on this trip.  The red pandas were smaller than I expected, more like foxes than bears.

After the park, we went to the main train station to buy tickets to Chongqing.  It was the most crowded I've seen any place, completely different from a few days before when we left for Emei.  We got in line only to find out that there were no seats on any train until the next night! At this point, we were completely fed up with our plans going awry, but we looked for another way to Chongqing.  A private bus driver offered us tickets for 120 each, but we ended up sending Joel to the bus station to ask about tickets.  Meanwhile, we got dinner, not having eaten all day long, and then headed over to catch our bus.  It didn't leave until 7:20, and we got to Chongqing after 11, taking a taxi to the Sheraton.

The Sheraton is incredible!  It really serves as an example of Chinese opulence - nearly everything is gilded, and the furniture is very ornate.  The lobby is huge, and the hotel takes up a whole skyscraper. There we two good-sized double beds in the room, so the guys took the beds and Nicole gets the floor (with our extra pillows and comforters, of course).

Sichuan Trip, Day Four

Day 4: Today was a long, long day, but it will probably have been the highlight of the trip!  It started shortly after 6 am, when the monks beating drums and ringing bells woke me up.  It was fairly cold, and we dressed quickly and headed to breakfast.  Breakfast was in a big cafeteria, and consisted of rice gruel, mantous (basically soft bland rolls), and a side dish of spicy cabbage, green beans and tofu.  Not the best, but it gave us enough calories to get going.

We hiked for several hours yesterday, but the hike proper started today, with seemingly endless staircases going on and on and on!  I think a regular hike would have been a little easier mentally than some of the staircases, because in real life you expect staircases to end after a certain interval, but these kept going.  Other than that, though, the hike was very enjoyable, with breathtaking views every once in a while.

Just before lunch, we came upon monkeys for the first time.  One came loping along the trail, then another and another, and they walked by us looking for food.  None of us had any visible, thankfully, but a giro and her boyfriend right behind us were carrying a shopping bag on a pole with some food in it, and the monkeys went for it with a vengeance!  They weren't hurt, thankfully, and it was entertaining to watch the monkeys go to town on the bag.

Shortly after we stopped for lunch, we came to the boundary between the subtropical and deciduous/evergreen forests, and the mist enveloped us.  The steps were coated with condensation, which made for slick patches on occasion.  It was really cool climbing through a cloud; it was also at this point that we saw a few maples with orange leaves, the first real evidence of fall!  Joel had gone way ahead after lunch, and Seth and I finally caught up to him when the mist broke and we saw the sky for the first time.  We rounded a corner and came upon an incredible view - looking out at a sea of clouds beneath us with a few other peaks of Emei Shan visible above the cloud cover, the sky brilliantly blue above us.

We hiked for another hour at least, and then came to a parking lot and e tourist center beyond that.  There's a road that goes up nearly to the top of Emei, and people take buses up and hike the few kilometers to the top.  So, despite the trail being sparsely populated nearly the whole way up, at this point we encountered throngs of thousands of people and stores selling stuffed monkeys and other touristy things all along the trail.  We muscled our way through the masses and to the top, which took another couple hours.

The views from the top were breathtaking.  There's a tall golden Buddha statue with several faces and a few temples on the top, but the best part was feeling literally on top of the world!  In every direction, all we saw were clouds and a few lower peaks sticking out.  After taking a lot of pictures, we went to head back down, but Joel wasn't with us, and all of our phones were dead.  We spent a fruitless 20 minutes searching for him, and finally someone told Jason that they had seen him down the trail a little ways.  I went down and found him heading back up.  At this point, it was shortly after 5; we started down in search of a restaurant, but didn't find anything but snack places.  Jason headed back up to camp on the mountain top for the night, and we kept heading down.

At the parking lot/bus station, we found that the ticket office was closed. A van driver offered to take us for ¥300, which sounded unreasonable until we realized that bus tickets would have been ¥50 each anyway.  I haggled him down to ¥275, and off we went.  This guy was a professional.  He didn't slack his pace in the mists, despite low visibility, and he passed every single car and bus we came across on the windy, two-lane mountain road, even around corners, honking as he went!

As we approached the hotel, we asked him if he knew the best way to get to Chengdu.  The regular buses had stopped running, but he asked some people near our hotel, and a woman said she would sell us tickets for a bus to Chengdu, but it was leaving immediately.  Josef and Seth ran to get our things at the Teddy Bear Hotel, and Joel and I followed the lady to the bus.  Nicole stayed in the van to pay the driver.  At the bus, we loaded our things in and bought tickets, but there was no sign of Nicole.  Joel went to find her, and we spent an anxious couple minutes waiting for them.  He came back without her, but she appeared from the other direction with the van driver.  It turns out she didn't have the correct change, so the driver drove her down the street, she saw us, and they stopped and we gave her some change to pay the driver.  Then we all piled on the bus, and now we're our way to Chengdu.  Again with the tender mercies - if we hadn't hired this driver, we definitely would not have made this bus to Chengdu, because it left just a couple minutes after we got to the hotel, and the driver knew who to ask about buses!

Now we're sitting in a hostel room in Chengdu; we got to Chengdu around 11, and we spent an hour walking around looking for a place to stay.  Finding a place to stay last minute as a foreigner in China is hard!  We ended up coming to a hostel, after which we ordered McDonalds (they deliver in China).  First Big Mac I've ever had.  It was okay, I guess.  Nicole is sleeping on the twin bed and Joel and I are sleeping on the double bed, after Seth and Josef gracefully insisted on sleeping on the floor.  Bedtime!

Sichuan Trip, Day Three

Day 3: Once in Chengdu, we got breakfast and looked for the bus station.  Chengdu was cool and a bit gloomy early in the morning, but we found our way (by another bus and more walking) to the bus station for Emei, where we also found Jason!  Jason Loose is another flagship student, who came to Chengdu on the train and is hiking Emei Shan this week as well.  The station was ridiculously crowded, but we managed to get tickets, and now we've been on the bus for about 45 minutes.  The last 24 hours have been among the longest in my life, but nothing can hold back the fab five for long, and now we're the scintillating six!

The bus lasted a couple hours, and we found ourselves in Emei, the town at the base of Emei Shan.  It was green and bright and felt like a cheerful place.  We took two buses to the base of the mountain, getting lunch in between.  Lunch was at a place on a plaza outside; it had really good noodles and fried rice.  Once at the mountain, we found the Teddy Bear Hotel, where we rented a room for an hour to shower and change.  Showering felt so good, as did taking off my shoes for the first time in over a day!  We left some stuff there and consolidated bags - Joel and Josef were sharing a bag, Seth and I were sharing, and Nicole and Jason brought their own.  And at 2 pm, we finally started up the mountain.

We came to a monastery first, but it ended up being a little off the main path. After wandering for a bit, we finally came to the main gate at 4 pm, to officially start our 52-kilometer hike.  Nicole doesn't have a student ID here, but she got through on her BYU ID with the help of the lady behind the counter.  Emei Shan is a verdant, wet mountain with streams and moss-covered stones everywhere, and there are thousands upon thousands of steps along the trail.

After a little while of hiking, we started playing 20 questions, and I got distracted and we took a wrong turn.  Not entirely my fault, but I was in the lead, and we ended up taking a road down the mountain a ways before I realized we probably weren't on the trail.  Detour #2 for the day! By this point, we pretty much gave up hope of reaching the peak before Wednesday.  However, mostly undaunted, we continued with our hike (and 20 questions - Nicole nearly stumped us with 'bullets', and I went a long time before anyone guessed that I was thinking of 'supply and demand').  It started getting dark, but we pressed on to the nearest monastery.  We had to go through a monkey area to get there, but we didn't see any, and after hiking in the dark for a couple hours, we made it to a monastery.  We ran into a group of deaf Chinese tourists there that we had first seen at dinner on the trail (there are lots of little shops and restaurants every few kilometers), and we all ended up sleeping in the same big room on mats on the floor.  One of the deaf guys came over and Josef and I had a conversation with him on a pad of paper.

Staying in the monastery was really cool.  The bathrooms were filthy - dirt/mud tracked all over the floors and squat toilets that were just a hole in the floor - but we survived.  At least I think we did.

Sichuan Trip, Day Two

Day 2: After taking the shuttle bus, we wandered for a bit before finding the central bus station.  It was so crowded!  I think it felt more crowded than Shanghai or Beijing stations usually are.  There was a sign that said "Mail the child" - we think it meant send your child somewhere on the train, but we're still not sure.  Chongqing is a really hilly city; we went down into a metro station and the exit went out onto a huge staircase down to the riverbank.  A cute puppy took a liking to Nicole and followed us halfway down.  We're now on the bus to Dazu; Josef spilled water on his pants and it looks like he wet himself! :) On a less humorous note, the lady in between Josef and Nicole just threw up, a little in her plastic bag and mostly on the floor.  Ick.

There have been multiple incidents now - our bus is the Golden Dragon, Golden Dragon flu, perhaps?

We finally made it to Dazu around 2 pm and grabbed some lunch before heading up the mountain.  It was really good - why is food in Nanjing so bland?  After that, we headed to the bus station only to discover that all the buses up to the rock carvings were done for the day.  Some tuk tuk drivers offered to take us there in seven or eight minutes for ten kuai each, but we got a second opinion from some taxi drivers, who said it was a twenty minute drive.  We ended up taking a taxi for ¥60, even though the driver was scared of the police noticing he had five passengers.  As we drove up, the police had set up a road block, so Joel and Josef ducked down and pretended not to exist.

Once there, we bought tickets and saw the rock carvings.  They were originally going to be ¥130, but we got student discount tickets for ¥60.  Score!  The carvings themselves were amazing - they dated from the 12th and 13th centuries and were remarkably well preserved.  There were hundreds of Buddhas and demons and animals carved into niches in the rock, some weighing thousands of kilograms.  We saw evidence of laying on of hands and the divine symbolism of three and twelve - pretty cool!  After we finished, Josef bought a couple swords from a vendor at the entrance.  Don't ask me what he's going to do with them.  We took a small bus down the mountain; it had 19 seats, but we ended up squeezing 42 people on!  Careening down the mountainside with so many people in a small bus was fantastic.

We got back to Dazu around 6:30.  We made our way to the bus station via taxi, except for Seth, who ran ahead, but the station was closed for the day.  Not a single night bus to take us out of Dazu.  By this point we were pretty tired, and we didn't want to spend the night there, so we looked around.  A taxi driver offered to take us to Chengdu for 1000 kuai.  Then a girl in fuzzy pink pajamas came up to us and asked us if we needed a place to stay.  We said no, we needed a ride to Chengdu, and she said she knew a place that we coud hire a private car to take us.  Josef, Nicole and I followed her, and we sent Joel back to the bus station to wait for Seth, who was nowhere to be seen and not answering his phone.

We walked a ways and the girl's friend joined us.  We followed them for another ten minutes or so through winding back streets until we came to the place, but it was closed.  She made a phone call, and soon there were several guys around offering to take us in their vans (one was a bread truck heading to Chengdu anyway).  The cheapest they would go was ¥1600, though, because they ran on natural gas, which is more expensive than gasoline.  No dice.  So we made our weary way back to the bus station.

Meanwhile, Joel had found Seth, who had gotten lost and went to the other bus station in town first, and they had looked for a place to stay the night.  Apart from a couple brothels, each of the eight or nine places they inquired at wouldn't let us stay.  One place said they had space, then ten seconds later said they were full.  We met up, and the two girls tried to help us find somewhere to stay.  We walked to a hotel, which seemed nice, but they wouldn't let five of us stay there and ultimately wouldn't give us a room because of the hassle.  At that point, Seth and Josef were set on sleeping in the park.

We went to dinner with the girls, who were determined not to leave us until we were taken care of.  They offered to call friends or realtors they knew and find us a place for the night, but we declined and planned an escape by taxi so we could be homeless uninterrupted.  At dinner, though, a crowd gathered around us, having heard of our difficulties, and one guy told us about a bus his friend ran that left for Chengdu at midnight.  Tickets were only ¥80, so we bought five and hoped it wasn't a scam.  While we waited for the bus, the girls took us to karaoke and insisted on paying for it - they were insistently nice to us.  We were probably the most interesting thing to happen to them all month, so maybe it was worth it for them, but either way it was really nice of them.

The bus was a little old and sketch, but overall not too bad.  It left at midnight and got to Chengdu at 5 in the morning, then they let us sleep until 6:30 before kicking us off.  None of us got much sleep, there not really being a comfortable position to sleep in on the bus, but at least we made it to Chengdu!  Tender mercies for sure.

Sichuan Trip, Day One

Here's a synopsis of my travels last week, divided into convenient bite-sized pieces. Enjoy!

I'm on the plane to Chongqing right now.  It left the Nanjing airport at 9:40 pm, so we met at the Gulou metro station at 7:15 pm and took the metro to Zhonghuamen Station.  The airport shuttle wasn't running anymore, so the five of us took a taxi to the airport for 120 kuai.  Not bad considering my shuttle ticket was about 25 kuai coming in from the airport before.  Josef played dumb by speaking only English and acting like he didnt understand the driver (who started flapping his arms trying to imitate a plane and Josef yelled bird, which the guy responded with a big nodding grin) and tried to get a discount, but the driver wouldn't have it and told him we could come with him or hire two cabs for at least 200 kuai.  Oh well.

The fab five: me (do I really need an introduction? Come on!)

Josef Kujanpaa: tall, blonde, half Finnish but all American, speaks Russian and Finnish (and Chinese, of course), came on the study abroad four years ago with my sister Hannah, chill guy who's down for most anything as long as it's fun.

Joel Christensen: less tall and less blonde, his family lived in Beijing for a while but are currently on assignment in Washington, DC.  Has a sharp, sarcastic sense of humor that's usually aimed at someone around him, but he's a nice guy on the inside.

Seth Vogel: Joel's cousin, taller with lightish brown hair, studying neuroscience and aiming to be a doctor.  Softer on the edges than Joel, but still with a bit of a dry wit, very good at Boggle, one of the more diligent/studious guys in Flagship.

Nicole Galbraith: the only non-flagship student on the excursion, she's from North Carolina and is here with the China Horizons program teaching English for a semester, maybe 5'5" or 5'4" and blonde, friendly and obviously adventurous to come to Sichuan with four guys she doesn't really know.

There you have it!  So we got to the airport around 8:15, checked in and got through security within 15 minutes.  Not shabby, not shabby at all.  At least until Seth, being the last one, tried to get through security.  He only had a copy of his passport with him, because his passport is still at the immigration bureau until they give him his temporary residence permit.  He checked in fine, but they didn't let him through security.  The rest of us stood there dumbfounded for a minute, had a little pity party for Seth and then walked to the gate, our parade rained out.

At the gate, Joel went to buy a Coke only to discover that it was 38 kuai.  For a can!  When it should have been 2, maybe 3.  Can you say ripoff?  He ended up getting a bottle of Sprite for 8 kuai instead, and I bought a 10 kuai juice.  I brought out Boggle, and after a few rounds we were starting to reconcile ourselves to the loss of Seth, when Seth walked up out of nowhere!  He went to another security line, and they let him through, no problem.  That's one nice thing about China: spotty/uneven enforcement of rules.  There's no way he would have gotten by in the States. They did however tell him that he might not be able to get on the flight coming back from Chongqing...

Josef sat in an aisle seat at the front when he got on the plane because it had more leg room and didn't have anyone sitting there.  He loves playing the dumb American!  It didn't work, though, because a flight attendant came up and claimed his seat, so Josef got moved to the exit row.

Our flight gets in at 1:10 am - whether we sleep in the airport or at the airport hotel is yet to be determined.

Update: we found benches to sleep on, and it was the best night of airport sleep I've ever had.  We're now on the bus to the city center, after everyone else got KFC soft serve ice cream for breakfast.  Day 1 and done!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

District Conference

Memo to self: never confirm the content of a future blog post - it means you then have to write the post.  Actually, I suppose in this case it's a good thing, because I want to record some of my thoughts about district conference before they turn into fleeting, half-forgotten dreams.

District conference was the weekend before last in Shanghai.  We took the bullet train out to Shanghai on Saturday morning.  You need a passport or a copy of a passport to buy a train ticket in China, but my passport was at the immigration bureau awaiting my student visa, and I didn't have a copy of it on me.  Problem.  I decided to get up early and go to the bureau to get my passport before going to the train station.  I got there at 8:30, only to discover that it didn't open until 9, and my train was leaving from the other side of town at 10 and I hadn't bought a ticket yet.  So I nonchalantly got breakfast and reasoned that there would be plenty of time to get to the station after I got my passport back.  Right.  At 10 to 9, the guard opened the door, but there weren't any attendants at the counters.  Just before 9, some attendants started opening their stations, but apparently the worker with the keys to unlock the room where they keep passports hadn't arrived, so I was forced to wait.  And wait.  Finally, they called him and he came running in at 9:15.  At approximately 9:17, I had my passport and ran out to catch a taxi.  From there, it took 15-20 minutes to get to the station.  Meanwhile, the other guys had bought a ticket for me (they told the agent my passport number).  Once at the station, I had plenty of time before the train left, but it was nevertheless an Eye of the Tiger music racing through my head experience, adrenaline pumping.

On the train, four of us played Ticket to Ride on my iPad (appropriate, no?); the bullet train is nearly as comfortable as those in Japan, and we were only in economy class.  There are four or six seats around a table, and nice big windows affording views of the countryside (in our case, coal plants and factories with the occasional rice paddies).  From there, Jonathan, Chandler, Josef and I went to go check in to the hotel that Jonathan had booked.  There were two twin beds in a tiny room, so I decided we should push them together and three of us could sleep on them and one of us on the floor on the two comforters.  We started a game of Monopoly, having little time before the leadership meeting, and then Jonathan and I left for the meeting.  Four of us were there - Jonathan, Nathan (clerk), Ben (executive secretary), and me.  Elder Sam Wong of the Seventy from Hong Kong was presiding.  Nathan and Jonathan and I were sitting together, Nathan on my right and Jonathan on my left, and Elder Wong noticed us and that we were from BYU.  He asked us a question during the meeting, and then he called on Nathan to bear his testimony at the end.  Nathan has a beaming, angelic face, and he's one of the married BYU students here on Flagship, so it made sense.

Following that, we went to dinner and then had the adult session.  It was mostly focused on families and keeping our families strong in the gospel while in China/as the world becomes more opposed to family values.  My only comment here is that Elder Wong called on Jonathan out of the blue to bear his testimony on finding an eternal companion!  He usually cracks jokes and says outrageous things, so all of us were expecting a spectacle, but he gave a very nice testimony.

After the meeting, Joel introduced us to the wife of the Shanghai Consulate General, who his family knew in Beijing.  She said she had heard our accommodations weren't the best, and we were welcome to stay with her.  So we got her address and phone number.  Right after that, we all decided to go to Cold Stone in downtown Shanghai, not having had good ice cream for at least a month.  By this point, it was after 9:15 pm, and Cold Stone closed at 10, so we all ran to the subway station.  At the stop, no one could quite remember which subway exit to take to get to the mall where Cold Stone was, so we all ran around like mad in our white shirts and ties in the Shanghai subway.  I felt like I was in the Adjustment Bureau or the Matrix, all these white guys dressed up running through the metro.  We got to Cold Stone just as they closed, sadly, so we ended up getting smoothies across the street.

After that, it was around 11, and our stuff was still at the hotel, which we hadn't checked out of.  So we took the subway back, got our stuff, and then took a taxi for 35 minutes to where the Griffiths lived.  It ended up being worth the hassle.  They have the entire 33rd floor of a downtown Shanghai apartment building to themselves, two apartments combined into one, with incredible views of the city, and it's a full service apartment (basically there are maids to change the sheets and empty the trash and clean every day like in a hotel).  We stayed the night in their guest wing, complete with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  I about died when I saw the bathroom - it was almost the size of some of our apartments in Nanjing, and so nice I would take it over my apartment.  Showering was heaven, as was the bed.  All of us agreed the next day it was the best night's sleep we'd had since coming to China.  The best part, though, was having fresh baked bread and apple walnut muffins, zucchini bread, and banana bread for breakfast.  So good!  My breakfast here usually consists of nothing, occasionally with a sesame bun or fritter I buy on my way to school.

Conference on Sunday was also really good.  In the general session, Elder Wong asked me to bear my testimony (three for three of the guys he noticed at the leadership session)!  I was slightly nervous speaking in front of several hundred people, but it went fine.  Afterwards, we had a single adult luncheon and a fireside for the young single adults in the district.  I met a couple of Russian girls and enjoyed talking to them during lunch, although the one I was more interested in already has her master's degree and has been working for a few years at least, so she's probably not interested in me.  Oh well.

Best part of coming back to Nanjing: stepping off the train and feeling a rush of cool, crisp air!  Fall is officially here. :)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Neighbor update

Funny story:

So when I first moved in my neighbors gave me their internet password.  Then they changed it, so I went over and asked for the new one, and they gave it to me and didn't let me pay them for using their internet.  A week ago, however, right before district conference, I discovered that I couldn't use their internet once again.  So I chalked my neighborly overtures up as failures and decided to get my own internet.  My roommate moved in a few days later, and we went to a few telecom places.  It turns out the cheap internet company doesn't come to our building, and the other one only sets up year contracts, the cheapest of which would have been 1500 kuai (about $250), compared to 120 kuai for three months with the other company.

At that point, I decided not to get internet unless something else turned up.  That night, my roommate discovered that there are three unprotected wifi signals that he can use with his computer.  I had tried them already without success, but it turns out you need a Windows computer to use them.  So he's happily online and I am left with a useless Apple.  Frustrating.  I decided to not get internet, since at least he can get online at home and I can make do with the internet at school without forking over the cash.

Then tonight, while walking home, I ran into one of our neighbors from below.  He said, "Sorry about our internet lately - our router broke and we just got it fixed.  Here's the new password," and gave me their new password.  I felt bad at having assumed the worst of my neighbors...but now I can go online again!  And thus (hopefully) ends the saga of Ian's internet woes in Nanjing.

A few random observations about life in Nanjing/China

Food is everywhere!  I haven't gotten tired of it yet, although I can foresee the time I might get tired of rice, noodles, dumplings, tofu, vegetables, and meat with lots of bones.  Anyway, there are little places on every corner, and most of it is very cheap.  Lunch here usually runs from 5 to 12 kuai (under a dollar to almost 2), and dinner maybe a little more expensive depending on where we go.  I haven't cooked a single meal here yet, and it really would be more expensive and more hassle to do so, although perhaps healthier.  Also, I am going to turn into a really impatient diner here.  Food often comes within a few minutes of ordering, especially ordering one dish at lunch.  We went to a place that had pizza and pasta a few nights ago, and waiting 25 minutes nearly drove me insane!

I like my roommate a lot.  His name is Xin Qiang, and he's from Dalian, a city on China's northeastern coast.  He studied law for his undergrad, and now he's doing a master's degree in translation.  We stayed up late playing card games a few nights ago; he taught me some Chinese card games, all of which use jokers, apparently.  And in Chinese, you call all card games 'poker games', so I thought we were going to play poker at first, and then he was like, "This is how you play this kind of poker!" and I realized he just meant a card game.  He's really extroverted for a Chinese guy, and we talk a lot.

I don't think I've blogged about district conference yet.  Have I?  I'm typing this on my iPad right now, because I don't have Internet (another story; my neighbors changed their Internet password again, I'll have to go back and offer to pay a month or two for them, I guess, because otherwise I'll have to sign up for a year contract and waste a lot of money).  Anyway, on the way back from district conference, a few of us ran across a Chinese doctor in the train station and talked to him for a while.  He got his medical degree from Beijing University and then spent five years at Dartmouth doing research.  He worked in Boston and lived in the US for 25 years.  Anyway, he gave us his card and told us about a medical conference in Suzhou on Tuesday.  One of the Flagship guys, Seth, is going to med school for neuroscience, so we gave him the doctor's card and he left the day after we got back to attend this conference and make contacts.  While he attended, there was a presentation on intellectual property and biotech patents by a lawyer from a prestigious law firm in Beijing, so he went to that and got his card, which he gave to me when he got back.  Tortuous method of getting someone's card, no?  Anyway, I emailed him on Friday with my resume asking him if there was any chance of an internship at his law firm next spring, and he emailed me back the next day saying of course and that he wants to meet me when he's in Nanjing next week and that we'll discuss details then!  Score!  I still need to research his firm a little more and maybe hold off on deciding, but for now this looks very promising.  He's the senior partner and has represented Google and other well-known companies before the Supreme People's Court of China!

Five of us went to Xuanwu Lake for the afternoon last week.  It was probably the most beautiful day of the year, and we decided on a whim to rent a boat for an hour.  We didn't fit in the four-person paddle boat, so we got a motor boat instead.  I say motor boat, but it was about the slowest, most pitiably weak excuse for a motor boat I've ever ridden in.  Still, we had fun.  We pretended to ourselves not to know Chinese and proceeded to boat under some bridges we weren't allowed under.  After the first one, I got on the roof of the boat and sat there for a while.  We crossed under another bridge and some girls waved and took pictures of the crazy foreigner!  I wanted to shout my email address or phone number at them so they could send me the pictures, but didn't.  They wouldn't have heard clearly anyway...

My roommate is now looking up movies online of different accents in English and making me mimic them - why did I get a translation major as my roommate?!  :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The week in review

This week has been both better and worse than I expected.  As far as studying goes, finding classes has been slightly frustrating – the second-year law classes I was going to were all really boring except for one, and it turned out to have too many prerequisites for me to hold my own in the class, even though it was really interesting.  Oh well – now I’m looking at first year law classes and some international relations and higher education research classes, so we’ll see how that goes.  Flagship classes have been good – a bit slow, but I think they will help me improve my Chinese.  The media class is especially interesting, because I’ve never really paid much attention to the structural foundation of Chinese media and its relation to society.

Apart from study, life is great!  I feel acclimated to Nanjing, and everything has gone pretty well.  I’m using my downstairs neighbors’ wireless Internet connection – they’re Nanjing Daxue students too, and they gave me their password when I first moved in.  Funny story: they changed the password over the weekend, but I didn’t want to set up my own connection, because I’m only going to be here for a few months and the cheap Internet service here doesn’t come to my building, so I decided to offer to pay part of their monthly fee to keep using theirs.  I went over a couple nights ago and hung out with them for half an hour, watching them play Starcraft and making small talk.  Finally, right as I left I brought up the Internet, and they agreed to let me use it and didn’t even let me pay them!  I felt very Chinese, not mentioning the real purpose of my visit until the very end and doing everything the guanxi way.  Basically, they circle around issues and don’t mention them directly unless absolutely necessary.  I need to invite them over or give them a gift or something, though, because I am definitely in their debt right now.

The roommate I found told me his family opposed him living with me, so I’m back at square one now, even though we were supposed to have found our roommates by today.  Oh well – I’ll call the other guys I met with again and work something out.  Once that’s settled, I’ll feel a lot better about everything.

I love the crowds of people!  I always felt like Provo was empty, but here there are people everywhere.  Joel and I went to Xuanwu Lake on Sunday and walked around it, and there were throngs of people everywhere we looked.  This good-looking girl was sitting on a bench and taking pictures of herself as we walked up to her, making flirty eyes at me in between shots.  We came up to her, and I asked if she wanted me to take a picture of her, which she did, but then she got what she really wanted, which was a picture of me and her together.  I fell right in her trap.  At least it was a fairly innocuous one!

We have district conference in Shanghai this weekend.  I’m really excited – I’ve flown through Shanghai, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually been.  More on that when I get back.

Monday, September 5, 2011

VPN To The Rescue!

I'm sitting in my apartment typing a blog post!

I met my downstairs neighbors two days ago, and got to know them while helping them stuff dumplings. When I left, they gave me their Internet password! Rich American guy bumming Internet off of Chinese students...nice. Just kidding, they're rich by Chinese standards or they wouldn't live below me.

Then I just downloaded a VPN app for my iPad. It lets me access the Internet as if I'm in the States, hence this post.

Technology is a wonderful thing!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

School? Bring it on...

So they want us to take master's courses here, because they're easier than the undergrad courses, which usually have midterms and other assignments, whereas the master's courses only have final exams/papers to deal with.  Master's classes started last week, so I went to a few law classes to check them out.  We have until the end of September to officially decide which classes we're taking.

About half of the classes didn't happen - apparently the first day of class is pretty unimportant here - so I'll see about those this week, but the ones that I did attend were a mixed bag.  Financial law was understandable but a bit boring, intellectual property was in a huge classroom and I could only make out about half of what the professor said, and comparative constitutional law was fantastic.  I'll probably stick with it, though it's going to be a lot of work.  It's a second year master's law class, and they all took US constitutional law last semester, so they're familiar with that already.  This semester is research into French, German, and British constitutional law and their differences with Chinese law.  The professor is great, though, and the class is 50% participation and 50% the final paper.  There are only about 10 people in the class, so I'll get lots of discussion experience.  We'll see how it goes this Tuesday.

I'm probably only going to take one law class this semester.  They're a lot of work, and we have an advanced written Chinese class, a Chinese media class, and a grammar class that everyone in the program has to take.  For my other elective, I'm going to try out several other classes this week, one a higher education research class and maybe some poly-sci and econ classes.  On top of classes, we have service hours to do and reports to write every week, and we have to do 5 hours of tutoring each week with our live-in tutor roommates.  So here I was thinking I had escaped the BYU flagship workload, and it turns out that it's the same here.  At least I won't be practicing 25 hours a week on top of that!

I haven't found a roommate yet.  I met with both of the people they gave me to select from in the last week, and they were both pretty good, but not really what I want.  The first is a third-year law student from a tiny little village in Henan.  He would be a good tutor, but he's doing an internship this semester that has him working from 7 am to after 6 or 7 every day, so tutoring wouldn't be very convenient.  And he really has no interests besides law.  The second is a philosophy student who also plays the piano pretty well - they figured we would get along well, I guess.  The plus for him is that he's more interesting and we would have more to talk about.  He's not very outgoing, though, and he might have an internship and classes this semester, so he's not entirely sure it will work out.  The search continues.

Well, I'm more familiar with Nanjing than I was a week ago - I've been on the subway three times and bought a bike a few days ago.  Yesterday I went to a big furniture mall to look for a couple of ottomans or beanbag chairs for people to sit on in my living room.  I had heard this place had a huge selection and range of prices.  I was slightly deceived, however.  Picture the nicest furniture store you've ever been to.  Now make it even pricier.  Now imagine two shopping malls full of hundreds of stores just like that one.  That's basically what Hongxing furniture mall was like.  This place went on forever, and every store looked like some movie star or royalty's fashion guru personally designed it.  The prices were outrageous; after walking around for an hour I had only found three places that even sold anything like what I was looking for, and their beanbag chairs were over 600 kuai (100 dollars), more than a nice couch at IKEA here!  Needless to say, I didn't buy anything.  But I might go again just to gawk at the furniture and pretend I'm filthy rich.

Church this morning was really inspiring.  I love bearing my testimony and hearing others bear theirs, and that was exactly what I needed today.  I've been feeling a little low spiritually since I got here, but church was a helpful boost.  We have a gospel principles class in Chinese, which helped me feel like I was back on the mission, and priesthood with everyone in flagship was nice.  Even though I've had classes with them for a whole year, I've never really seen them completely as they are.  Being in the same priesthood quorum will be a great experience.

Flagship classes start tomorrow morning; wish me luck with all of my homework and finding a roommate!  I'll need it.  I can't believe I'm putting myself through more school...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

First impressions

It's been a few days, but I'm finally posting.  Feel free to skim if you don't want to read the epic novel this will probably turn out to be.  I'm on Jonathan's computer, because he has a VPN (virtual private network?) that lets him access the internet as if he's in the United States or about 20 other countries.  It turns out Blogger is blocked by the Chinese firewall.

So, to pick up the story where I left off.  I got off the plane and took a bus to the main train/bus station.  From there, I took a taxi to the intersection close to Chandler's apartment.  It was raining lightly, and there were five or six guys just hanging out by the crosswalk.  They found me a cab, and my belongings and I trundled off.  Once I got to the intersection, it was 10:30 or so, and I had no idea where to go.  I walked up the street and found a hotel, so I stood outside and borrowed a guy's phone to call Chandler.  He didn't answer, so the guy and his friend (who were quite definitely drunk) invited me inside to stay with them and have a few drinks.  They were really friendly and jovially insistent, but I decided it would be wiser to spend the night with Chandler.  The guy whose phone I borrowed told the bellhop to take my luggage, so I left my luggage there and went in search of Chandler's apartment.  I found him on the street looking for me, so we went back to get my luggage.  On the way back to his apartment, one wheel on my big suitcase fell off, but we managed to get to his place.

I spent the night on the bed in his other room - it doesn't have a mattress yet, so it's basically wooden slats covered with a sheet.  Needless to say, I didn't sleep very well.  However, I was grateful to escape the well-intentioned hospitality of the friendly drunks!

The next couple days are a blur.  I went to the flagship office first thing in the morning and checked in, and then I started looking at apartments.  That day I saw four or five.  The last one was decent, so I told them I would sign the next day.  That night, though, I came over to Jonathan's apartment and saw how nice it was.  It's a bit small, but higher quality than the other one I looked at, and he lives 50 yards from the flagship office, whereas mine was a fifteen minute walk away.  I spent the night at Jonathan's place, and the next morning, I called the one realtor and said I wasn't interested anymore, and Jonathan introduced me to his realtor.

She's incredible!  First off, she's really direct and energetic, which makes her seem more American than Chinese, and she's really competent.  Half the time she would spontaneously burst into a sprint - across the road, up a flight of stairs - and we would have to run to catch up.  Jonathan came with me to look at houses that day.  We saw some that I liked, but most people aren't willing to rent for just five months, which is a hassle.  That evening she took us and some other flagship students out to dinner, and then right after dinner we ran to see more apartments until 9:30 at night.  She let me borrow her daughter's bike, and we rode all over looking at places.  We didn't end up finding one, though.

Yesterday, she didn't have anything for me to look at until evening, so Josef (who had just arrived) and I went out looking for realtors.  We found a few, and the first place we saw was really good.  An old man manages the apartment, and the rent is only ¥2300 a month (about $360 for a two-bedroom apartment, not bad when I have to pay for the whole apartment - our tutors live for free and tutor us in return).  It's kind of a loft - diagonal wood ceilings and two spacious bedrooms and a nice living area.  And he was willing to rent it out for five months!  So I signed yesterday.

Now I'm going to go over and sweep and mop and dust and clean probably until late tonight.  I also have to go to the police station and check in - every time you move in China, you have to go to the police station right away and let them know where you've moved to - and buy food for tomorrow.  I've eaten out every single meal here, so it's weird to think that tomorrow's the Sabbath and I'll have to eat in.  We'll probably do a Sunday dinner calendar or something.  I'm excited to go to church here - I love branches, because they make me feel like my calling matters a lot more than when I'm in a ward of 200 BYU students.

It's hard to be detailed in such a long overview.  I like Nanjing a lot.  It's a fairly large city with a smaller feel to it.  People here are really friendly.  Nearly all the people I've met - policemen, cab drivers, realtors, students - go out of their way to be helpful and welcoming.  There are trees lining all the streets.  The weather has been cooler than usual and rainy, maybe in the 80's or so.  It's at least 90% humidity, though, so you still sweat all day long and it doesn't cool off much at night.  I'm happy to finally have a place - I spent one night on Chandler's other bed, two nights on his couch, and one night on Jonathan's couch.  Better than paying for a hotel for four nights, but it will be nice to sleep on my bed tonight.

There's so much more I could say, but I'll leave it at that for now.  I don't have internet in my apartment yet, so it may be a while before I post again.