Monthly Archives: August 2012

First Day in my New Home

I apologize for the poor quality of my photos. So far I have been taking pictures with my iPhone.

My fellow three bunkies were classmates, Emily (Wu Enmin), Rebecca (Mai Beijia, CET Harbin RA) and An Zhuo (I don’t remember his English name!). We slept in what is called a “soft sleeper,” meaning that there are only four beds and each bed is cushioned with a mattress and pillow. There are four different kinds of train tickets in China:

  • Hard Seat: a hard, often wooden seat
  • Soft Seat: a cushioned seat with a table
  • Hard Sleeper: a compartment with 6 beds and table (I often choose this option)
  • Soft Sleeper: a compartment with 4 beds and table

I personally enjoy the “Hard Sleeper.” I like to converse with the other Chinese passengers and hear about their lives. I believe riding an overnight train (or any train, really) is a great way to better understand Chinese culture and people. A lot of my classmates think I’m crazy though…but I can see why. Buying train tickets, getting through all the lines, and handling luggage through a Chinese train station may be one of the most stressful aspects of living in China. Actually, I agree. But, sitting down and relaxing, while also conversing with your bunk mates becomes worth it, especially when your destination is a new, exciting place!

We woke up around 6:45am to prepare for our arrival in Harbin. While steadily gliding into the city, Emily and I ate a pomelo (youzi) for breakfast and observed the scenery. Outside the train window was primarily flat plains with many acres of corn stalks–sounds a lot like Nebraska!

We finally stopped at the Harbin Train Station and headed for the bus. Leaving the train station was like being a fish in a strong river current. It was impossible to go against the current or even move side to side. We finally were pushed out of the main entrance and found our CET liaison and bus to campus.

After breakfast and putting luggage into our rooms, we took a tour of Harbin Institute of Technology, our new campus.

This is where all my classes will be this semester. It’s the College International Student Building. The campus is surprisingly really nice! There is a lot of foliage and wide streets for pedestrians only. We have a large market that has everything that I would ever need. It seems like I’m living in a city within a mega-city. Campus food is also really tasty, and we also have dozens of restaurants just a short walk away. I’ll have to force myself to explore the city this semester!

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Beijing’s Modern Skyscrapers and Disappearing Alleyways

The next morning I woke up around 6:30am and met with other fellow early risers in the banquet hall for breakfast. My appetite was satisfied with cereal, bacon, a red bean bun, and fruit. I then walked with two of my classmates, Mercedes (Ma Mingxi) and Gao Meiling, around the neighborhood. It is Mercedes first time in China, so I wanted to give her a nice tour that briefly introduced Chinese culture. Fortunately, the hotel bordered an “alleyway (胡同).” The alleyways of Beijing are considered pieces of “Old Beijing’s” past. The alleyways normally contain traditional homes that have four separate rooms and a courtyard in the middle. The first one we walked through was lined with local hole in the wall shops, noodle restaurants, and restaurants with Muslim cuisine. We must have been in a Hui minority neighborhood, which is the practicing Muslim minority group in China.

The alleyway was filled with smoke from the roasting meat that many locals were burning with coal. I held my breath through the smoke and when I finally took in a breath, I took in a good, wet taste of the alleyway’s public bathroom smell. It’s funny how when I’m in America I can only remember all the wonderful things about China (the food, the rural landscapes, the friendly people), but then I smell that familiar stench that I will have to become familiar with in China…makes me remember that China isn’t perfect and is still developing.

After exiting the first alleyway, we ran into a 6 or 8-lane road–which is common in Beijing. We kept walking and ran into another alleyway. I noticed that one half was thriving with people, fruit stands, and older men and women strolling with friends. The other half, however, was almost completely demolished.


The only buildings that are still up are called “钉子户,” or “nail houses.” They are the locals that do not want to leave their homes. In the picture above, you can see some random buildings that have clothes hanging off cloth lines–those are the “nail houses.” Most of their neighbors left. We ran into some locals in the neighborhood, they said that the government gave them around 30,000 rmb to rent/buy a new apartment. The older men were quite happy to not only get money to rent a new place, but also they said they were content with helping stimulate Beijing economic development. The 900 year old alleyway will be turned into new condominiums. The condos will most likely be luxurious (like most new builders) and incredibly expensive.

I thought this was a very interesting introduction to China, not only for me, but also for Mercedes. First day in China, she became aware of Chinese economic development and its impact on local culture. I’ve always found Beijing’s alleyway conservation research to be really interesting. I haven’t delved too much into it, but their research and mine are similar in that the alleyways and ethnic villages are areas of arguable “value.” Economically speaking, the alleyways and ethnic villages bring in tourists and creates a tourism economic system (the main tourism alleyways are near Tiananmen Square). Therefore, these areas are “profitable.” Anthropologically speaking, both of the areas harness much value among the locals, who closely identify with their homes. I’m still trying to fully understand the anthropological meaning of “value.” It’s a very abstract term that connects closely with my future research in Yunnan Province.

These red and yellow signs mention that the indicated area is to be demolished for the benefit of the city.

This is Mercedes walking through the half demolished alleyway.

After our orientation meeting, me and the other Fulbrighters had a couple hours to enjoy Beijing. We decided to go to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, but it was closed. The Mausoleum is in Tiananmen Square. I took a picture of the square and the Forbidden City in the distance. You can faintly see Mao Zedong’s famous portrait hanging in front of the Forbidden City. The haze was quite thick this day.

After taking photos of Tiananmen, we raced across the street to the National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆) to take advantage of the free charge and air conditioning. The museum was just opened this year and it now the worlds largest museum. We spent 2.5 hours there and only saw three exhibits (aquatic archeological accomplishments, revolution paintings, and the museum’s creation). The aquatic section consisted of porcelain bowls and cups found in the Yangzte River after implementing the Three Gorges Dam in the late 1990s. Not as cool as I thought it would be!

This is me with the other Harbin Fulbrights in front of the National Museum of China. We got some lunch and then headed back to the hotel, had Beijing dumplings for dinner, and then took a 12-hour overnight train to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China.

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Back to the East

The night before setting off to China, I still had a lot to pack. I organized everything and put it on a bed…my Fulbright year fit on one bed.

The 14-hour flight from Newark, NJ to Beijing, China went surprisingly well. I spent the majority of the trip on my ancient Gameboy Advance catching Poke’mon and battling gym leaders on the original Poke’mon Red. I wasn’t even able to finish the second season of “Game of Thrones” because I indulged my childish gaming. The Chinese man that sat next to me probably thought I was strange playing a game his own son would play! He actually criticized how I held my pen when I wrote a Chinese character in my journal. “应该这样 (should be done like this),” he said. He grabbed my pen and held it as if he were writing calligraphy. I haven’t even started my language program and am already being graded!

We flew over the Greenland, the Artic, Russia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia. Greenland looked like a snowy desert and I saw the far-reaching plains of Inner Mongolia. I wonder if there are really fields of sunflowers…that’s what the Chinese tourism advertisements in Beijing’s airport tell me, at least. It was surreal once again flying through smoggy Beijing. It looked the same as before (two years ago), a hazy endless urban cityscape in the distance with small patches of farmland with shabby sheds lining the airport. I wonder how much money those farmers have to pay for such small pieces of land?

I met with two other Fulbrighters on the plane who are attending the same CET language program in Harbin. After we landed, we meandered through Beijing Airport and followed the flow of people moving towards baggage claim and customs. We finally found the CET group and took a bus to a hotel. After chatting with my classmates, I looked outside and saw that all the signs and billboards were in Chinese…that’s when I realized that I’m actually here and that I am starting a brand new life on the other side of the world. Wow.

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