Monthly Archives: September 2012

Chinese Culture: Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day

Zhongyang Street Shop Nationalistic Poster

While my friends and I were walking down Zhongyang Street to a restaurant to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, we noticed the street was draped with hundreds of Chinese flags. They hung above the thousands of pedestrians who were also celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. We walked by this clothing store that had this sign. It reads: “China’s heart, China’s trade…Fishing Island  is our country’s! I love China.” The National Holiday (the day after the Mid-Autumn festival) has come during a tumultuous time this year. Recently, there has been controversy over the ownership of small, uninhabited islands northeast of Taiwan and Southwest of the Ryuku Islands. The Japanese call the islands Senkaku and the Chinese call it diaoyu (fishing). They supposedly hold natural resources (oil) that both countries desire.

From what I have read, Japan has official ownership of the islands through the Okinawa Reversion Treaty between the United States and Japan (after WWII surrender). However, Taiwan and China claimed the islands centuries before. Recently, the Japanese government announced that they bought the islands from a private Japanese owner, which has sparked protests all around China, including Harbin. Harbin Institute of Technology has even been affected. There were pamphlets around campus saying not to buy Japanese items and red banners that mocked Japan and idealized China.

What a time to celebrate the CCP’s birthday! Anger and nationalism put into one cake.

Emily and Me at Bingfengtang

We finally made it to the restaurant Bingfengtang, a southern-style Chinese restaurant. It was delicious! We ate peanuts, chicken buns, fried fish, tofu in brown sauce, and caixin (vegetable hearts). After the meal, I looked out the window and saw a stream of red lights floating toward the stars. I realized that they were setting off red lanterns from the river. We quickly walked over to find hundreds of locals writing their wishes on the lanterns and then preparing them to take off. I had never seen something so beautiful in Harbin. There are not many stars here, but the lanterns looked like a brilliant red Milky Way in the sky.

Eating a Yuebeing with the Full Moon and Lanterns

Emily and I decided to send off our own wishes. We purchased a lantern for 10kuai ($2~) and wrote our wishes onto the red paper. We then lit a white cube (made of flammable material) and waited as the lantern filled with air. We then set it off. It joined the rest of the lanterns into the sky. I wonder where they go? Sending off red lanterns is a tradition for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many families wish for good health and peace, others may wish for their deceased to be happy.

Lantern Lifting Off with Full Moon in the Background

I felt so alive participating with the other hundreds of people in the tradition. Though I may have seen 100+ lanterns take off, each one was mesmerizing. When the lantern slowly lifted into the sky, it made me smile. And seeing it turn into a red star with the hundreds of others in the distance was awe-inspiring. I had a lot of fun hanging with my friends along the river. We set off lanterns, played with sparklers, laughed about almost anything, and strolled along the river. It was a great night. I am not going to forget it…I was so happy. I am so fortunate to be in China and to be given this opportunity to study and do research.

Celebrating with Friends: Elise, Bryan, Brian, Emily, and Su-Yee

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Exploring Harbin: Buddhist Temple and Jile Pagoda (极乐塔)

This weekend we had class on Saturday because our Academic Advisor didn’t want us to have two long weekends in a row. This weekend was a “double holiday weekend:” 1) Mid-Autumn Festival and 2) National Holiday (Chinese Communist Party’s Birthday). On Sunday, Mid-Autumn Festival, I decided to celebrate by exploring Harbin. I organized a trip to visit a Buddhist Temple nearby. A few classmates (Mallory, Jenny, and Ryan) joined me.

We first got onto a bus from Harbin Institute of Technology and then rode for about thirty minutes East through the city to Nangang District. Even though this is my third time visiting China, I am still not comfortable riding buses. It’s easy to miss your stop and get lost. So, my normal routine is to find friendly faces and ask them which stop we’re at. We successfully hit our final destination, got off, but saw no temple. Once again, I found a friendly face and politely asked where the Confucian Temple is. However, whenever I ask one Chinese person a question, everyone listens since I’m a foreigner. A middle-aged fellow said that he was going in that general direction. He led us into an underground underpass that was a technology shopping district (under the 6-lane highway above!) and showed us how to get to the other side of the road. We got through the maze of small shops and onto the road again. The middle-aged man gave us his business card: Center for Eye Science Studies (Ph.D) .

We walked down the street for five minutes and then were surprised to see a magnificent, colorful gate next to the highway. We walked through.

Jixiang Gate (吉样 auspicious) and Ancient Tales of the Past

The narrow park was lined with stone tablets that showed century-old tales. All the stories were in Ancient Chinese (which I am currently studying), so I understood about %20 of their meaning. At the end of the semester, I should come back and see how much I have improved. We exited the cobblestone pavilion and found the Buddhist Temple on the other side.

Outside the temple were Chinese peddlers illegally selling parakeets and disabled/crippled Chinese begging for money. It’s been a while since I have seen a beggar in China. They are often in tourist spots (especially religious tourism spots). They are persistent, but politely smile, saying “Xiexie Xiexie (thank you)” or “Hallo Hallo (hello).” Most are missing an arm, a leg, or an eye. A little (person) woman approached me asking for money. I don’t normally give money because I feel uncomfortable. This uncomfortableness comes from much experience with seeing this population during my stays in China. Maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner that disabled and crippled Chinese flock to me when I walk by: Laowai must be wealthy! One aspect of China that makes me squirm: the disabled that have injuries that are NOT natural and beg for money (for others’ benefit, most likely). I’d rather not continue with what I have seen, but if you’re interested, you can send me a message.

Back to the fun part of my day, we entered the Buddhist Temple.

Chinese Praying to Buddha on the Mid-Autumn Festival

We entered the temple and immediately smelled incense smoke. Due to the holiday, many people were praying. The architecture of the buildings in the temple were mesmerizing: tall red columns, intricate designs of blue, yellow, and green along the golden tiled roofs. The rooms in the temples were large and open, each with their own statue of Buddha or different gods, and locals kowtowing to them (three bows facing, three bows not-facing).

  Ferris Wheel Peaks over the Temple

In the temple, I felt at ease. It was quiet, the smell of incense was soothing, and the company of friends made it fun. While walking by a large bell, I noticed above the dragon-lined roof of a worship hall that there was a Ferris Wheel. The juxtaposition of traditional Chinese architecture and the western amusement park device intrigued me. I took a picture.

Jile Pagoda (极乐塔)

We made it to what brought us here in the first place, the Jile Pagoda. I was not expecting the temple to be so vast with beautiful worship halls, trees, gardens, and the bustling local population praying to different gods. I was presently surprised. The Jile Pagoda was the icing on the cake. It was very impressive. Inside the hall below the pagoda were descriptions of hell. I am not familiar with Buddhism, but I was not aware that they had a hell. I need to look into how Indian and Chinese Buddhism are different.

We waited while our classmate prayed and then walked back to entrance. We spent about two and a half hours at the temple. It was a good visit. I often get sucked into big city culture that I forget how beautiful China can be. Going to this temple helped soothe my soul and prepare me for another couple weeks in Harbin–a big, urbanized Chinese city–and its big city culture.

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Weekend Excursion: Tiger Head Mountain Great Wall of China

We has breakfast at the hotel and then took a bus to Tiger Head Mountain, an area that has the most northern Great Wall. We hiked up the Great Wall at different speeds. I was near the end. I walked slowly and enjoyed the scenery of the North Korean scenery.

Looking at the Peak–A Long Way to Go

This view is still of the Chinese side of the river. Along the wall had small farms growing corn and cabbage.

The Great Wall is Great, But Nature Always Wins

This was about half-way to the top. This Great Wall was constructed during the Ming Dynasty, so in the last 400 years of so. The part of the Great Wall that we walked up had been repaired, but this part of the wall has been left to crumble. What a sight and what a view.

Tiger Head Mountain’s Peak

At the top of Tiger Head peak was a watchtower where we could climb stairs to the top. From there, we could see an endless landscape of flat North Korean farmland and distant mountains. While I was at the top, I was extremely happy. Not only had I succeeded in climbing up the Great Wall, but I was with close friends whom I could share this experience with. This entire weekend was filled with fun and laughter. I haven’t been this content with life in a long time.

North Korean Countryside

There was a village in the distance. A village that hosted the farmers that toiled the land next to the Yalu River. The thin river split the two countries. A few thoughts went through my mind while I looked out at the scenery and the village…boundaries seem so arbitrary when you see them firsthand. This river splits China and North Korea, but the land is exactly the same. There are no thick black lines that line the borders, only a thin, wire fence. The farmers that toil the borderlands view the earth as a means to live…I wonder how do they view the border?

Trailing the North Korean and Chinese Border

We hiked down the Great Wall and trailed along the edge of the mountain back to the entrance. The trail put on right next to the Chinese border fence. So close.

We took a bus back to Dandong and hopped on an afternoon train back to Harbin. We arrive at 2:00am in the morning, looking forward for no classes the next day.

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Weekend Excursion: Night on the Town in Dandong

Sunset over Dandong Cityscape

We arrived in Dandong, put our luggage in the hotel, and then had the night to ourselves. Me and a group of classmates ate at a North Korean barbeque restaurant. There was a large metal pan in the middle of the table where we cooked our own meats and vegetables. I don’t know what they put in that food, but it was delicious! I apologize for not taking any pictures, I did not bring my camera.

We then took a long walk along the river that borders North Korea. At this point, it was night. The buildings bordering the Yalu River on Dandong’s side were lit up with neon lights. However, the opposite side of the river was pitch black. We once in a while saw a dim light in the distance and stopped to look at it. We would guess what it could be: “a fire?” “a public restroom light?” “a home?” Strange how two cities so close to each other can have such disparities in development. The dichotomy was really quite bizarre.

Here is a photo that shows this difference in development: The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge


“A Bridge to Nowhere”

The blog calls this photo “A Bridge to Nowhere.” But, of course, it goes somewhere…it’s just at night that place disappears into the darkness. I do want to make the point that just down the river, both sides of the river look the same–same darkness, same development.

I had a great night. I walked along the river for 2-3 hours with friends. We laughed, danced, and talked with locals. We went back to the hotel and prepared for our next day’s adventure: The Tiger Head Mountain Great Wall.

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Weekend Excursion: Farm Homestay and Bingyu Ravine

This was the farm hotel that we stayed at. A few classmates and I hiked up the hills around the farm, the hills of trees were endless. Most of my classmates slept on a kang, a large, hard mat that fits up the five people. I fortunately was given one of the special suites with my RA, where we had a thin mattress that fit two people.

We woke up early the next morning, ate breakfast (CET brought cereal and Nutella!), and then set off by busto Bingyu Ravine (冰峪沟).

Natural Stone Pillar Jutting out of the River

We arrived and then took a boat to the park. The stone masses in and around the river were mesmerizing. When we banked into the park, we walked as a group to the other side of Bingyu Ravine to take a boat ride around the scenic river-view of the towering karst mountains.

Bingyu Ravine’s Karst Mountains

After the boat ride, we walked by a practicing Buddhist temple and then split up in our own groups to enjoy the park. I joined a group that planned to go hiking up one of the karst mountains. The steps up the mountain were incredibly (almost dangerously) steep. Hiking up the mountain was quite exhausting, but the views were worth it.

Almost to the Top–Where the Karst Mountains Seem to Never End

After a ton of huffs and puffs, I finally reached the top to a pavilion called 观日亭 (guanriting-sun observation pavilion). I felt so relieved, proud, and happy to reach the top and to see the smiling faces of my fellow classmates. There was a small Chinese pavilion with a tiled roof and red columns with a few seats at the top. I walked through the pavilion to see the view and was in awe.

At the Top–Thank you Fulbright

We quickly hiked down the mountain and met up with our classmates. We took a boat and bus back to the farm for lunch and then took a 4-hour bus ride back to Dandong.

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Weekend Excursion: Dandong and Living in Chinese Countryside–Liaoning Province

CET Harbin staff set up a weekend trip for us to visit Dandong, a city that borders North Korea, and experience an overnight homestay in Liaoning countryside. Liaoning Province is south of Heilongjiang Province (where Harbin resides). We left Harbin around 7:30pm and took a 12-hour overnight train to Dandong. We then began our weekend adventure:

When we arrived in Dandong, we set off to see the Korean border. We boarded a boat on the Yalu River (which splits the two countries’ borders) and coasted along the shore, taking a closer look of the North Korean shore. I felt somewhat silly looking so intently at the other side of the river–“Wow! That’s North Korea!”–But, it’s only one itty-bitty sliver of what North Korea is. However, the country is such a mystery to me. So, even seeing the coast was intriguing.

The Korean city that we were peering into is called Sinŭiju. While I was there, no one told me. They just called it North Korea. After thinking about that, it’s quite strange. Dandong isn’t ambiguously called “China,” it has it’s own identity and local customs. It’s a small part of the gigantic whole that is China. However, this small North Korean town seems to not have its own identity, it was “North Korea” from the tourists’ eyes.

The Broken Bridge

A broken bridge once connected the two countries (one bridge next to it–Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge–still connects to North Korea). It was an iron truss bridge of 3,098ft in length. “Both bridges were bombed by American aircrafts during the Korean War. From November 1950 to February 1951, the United States used B-29 and B-17 heavy bombers, and F-80 fighter-bombers to repeatedly attack the bridges in an attempt to cut off Chinese supplies to the North Koreans. The bridges were repeatedly repaired. The 1911 bridge was left destroyed and only the newer 1943 bridge was repaired and used at the end of the war. The North Koreans claimed that they did not want to rebuild the broken bridge so that the United States could not deny the fact they destroyed it. Four spans of the old bridge remained on the Chinese side of the river, giving it the name the “Broken Bridge” (断桥)” (Wikipedia).

The Broken Bridge is now a tourist hotspot for curious visitors to get a closer look at the mysterious North Korean riverbank. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to check it out. It’s interesting to be in a country that has good relations with North Korea. Harbin (and Dandong) have many North Korean restaurants and shops speckled around the city. In the U.S., you would never see this. We have no way of experiencing North Korean culture, we only see photos that occasionally appear in newspapers or news channels. Those photos only show narrow aspects of North Korea: its backwardness and militaristic government. In Northern China, I get to eat their food and meet Chinese that are of the North Korean minority group. Though it’s still not much, it’s more than what I experienced in the states.

Me and Sinŭiju (North Korean town) behind me. During the boat trip along the coast, the North Korean border did not have much development.

After the boat ride, we took a bus out to Liaoning countryside to an area called Ke Mountain. Scattered within its forest and peak  were Daoist temples. We visited the mountain to observe the traditional Chinese architecture of the temples.

Hidden Dragon in the Forest

Red Wishes and Bells

When I visit temples, I normally see trees or small “bell pagodas” wrapped with red sheets filled with wishes. I do not know what this is…I called it a “bell pagoda.” I’ll be sure to ask next time I visit a temple!

Temple Built into the Mountain

This is the temple at the peak of Ke Mountain. It was such a sight to see the old roof tiles with plant-growth and the use of the mountain to connect the temple with nature. While walking through the tranquil forests and taking in the temple’s environment, my spirit really does feel refreshed. In large Chinese cities, I seem to lose myself, get stressed, and forget about how beautiful China can be. In America, I am a city-girl…In China, my heart is in the countryside.

Local taking a break at the peak. 

After Ke Mountain, we took a bus to a farm where we would spend the night. We ate a large dinner (white fish, corn, sweet potato, local vegetables, pork, and chicken) and then spent the night singing karaoke and dancing next to the tall bonfire. We ate s’mores, celebrated a classmate’s birthday, and chatted late into the night. It was a good day.

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Exploring Harbin: Shangzhi Park Chrysanthemum Exhibition

My classmate, Emily, and I decided to explore the city by ourselves and travel by public bus to a flower exhibit somewhere in the city of ten million people. We hopped on the correct lu (路-bus number) and took a 45-minute bus ride to Shangzhi Park. I often forget how large Harbin is. I normally stay on-my campus and sometimes go off-campus to eat at a restaurant. So, while riding that bus, I looked at all the endless amount restaurants, shops, exercise areas, cars, and thought: what do the other 9,999,999  people do? I share this city with them, but I feel like it would take years to fully comprehend their (Harbin) culture and the atmosphere of Harbin’s neighborhoods and districts.
Today I had a taste of what average Harbiners do for fun on the weekends: go to Shangzhi Park’s Chrysthamum Exhibition.

The characters read: “The Golden Age of Chrysanthemum Fragrance–Harmonious XiangFang District

I was surprised at the amount of people that were at the park. Emily did not mention that there was an event, so the crowd caught me off guard. There were a lot of grandparents walking with their grandchild, young couples on a date, middle-aged couples either enjoying the flowers or playing cards–and then the two 老外 (laowai–foreigners). Since we were in a part of town that has very few foreigners, many Chinese asked for our picture, or just simply stared at us.

White Chrysanthemum

Grandfather watching his grandson playing on the river. 

There was a group of middle-aged Chinese men and women ballroom dancing. Emily joined in.

This brought a lot of attention from the park’s visitors, especially when the man (pictured above) told the audience that we can speak Chinese. We first talked to about 10 Chinese men, and then the small group turned into a crowd of 50 or more people (mostly men). Older men are more confident when talking to foreigners, older women do not normally take the initiative to talk to me. At first it was fun hearing about what they thought Americans were like. We mainly talked about stereotypes, but they actually believe they’re true–everyone is obese, all Americans are smart, all Americans are not good-looking, etc. But then, the crowd surrounded us, everyone wanted to talk to the strange-Chinese-speaking foreigners. We talked for about 30 minutes and then left when we thought the crowd was getting too large.

We walked through the rest of the park and headed back home. It was a good day.

This is my favorite past time in China, just walking around and seeing the everyday life of the 老百姓 (laobaixing-one-hundred last names, average people). Though I enjoy going to tourist spots, like Zhongyang Street, I prefer walking through public parks and joining Chinese in singing, dancing, and playing games! I think this is one of the best ways to get to know a new city, lifestyle, and culture.

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Class Trip #2: Picnic at Sun Island!

The CET staff coordinated a school trip to the pretty “Sun Island,” a island in the northern part of Harbin City that was developed into a large garden. To my knowledge, the entire island’s landscape was constructed by man (waterfall, marsh, flower gardens, squirrel sanctuary, etc). Some of my classmates and I explored the park together.

We first hit the “ice sculpture” section of the park, but these figures weren’t made out of ice. The intricacies in the design were still very impressive!

Dare and Mallory walking along the man-made lake. The reflection of the trees off the water was very pretty!

During our visit, we must have passed six-seven separate wedding photo shoots. In China, a wedding is a long matter that lasts for days. The photo shoot is on a separate day and the photographer often brings the happy couple to a city’s most beautiful places–today, Sun Island. For photo shoots, the couple often wears a western white wedding dress and not the traditional red qipao.

There was a wetland area…I felt like I was back in Minnesota.

We then visited “Squirrel Island.” The squirrels were black with pick ears. Basically, they were pretty freakin’ adorable. I thought this sign was funny.

The park was a lot of fun and the weather was perfect–Sunny with some wind.I had a great time with my classmates and got a good workout out of it too! Today was a busy day (going to the second HIT campus for the activities fair and then going to Sun Island).

This park brings up the concept of “Authenticity.” Sun Island is very pretty with its many gardens and large waterfall, but its “pretty landscapes” has a fake-ness to it. Because I am a Western tourist, I notice this and immediately feel disappointed. “You mean this waterfall isn’t natural?” Chinese tourists acknowledge that the park’s contents are not natural, but still find the park worthwhile for its greenery and main activities. I admire that. I fell like such a snob sometimes when I travel in China!

Sun Island is the closest green space city dwellers can go to escape urbanization for a couple of hours. For this reason, Sun Island is important for its local population, even if the landscape isn’t natural. It’s a safe tourist attraction that both old and young can enjoy. Going to the Chinese countryside to enjoy some greenery would be more difficult to accomplish and most likely unsafe.

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Activities Fair — Off to HIT’s Second Campus

My roommate invited me to join her and her club members to Harbin Institute of Technology’s Activities Fair. I decided to tag along and see what a Chinese campus activities fair is like and walk around the more forested campus.

We first ate breakfast at one of the cafeterias. This is when the cafeteria is moderately busy.

After breakfast we met with her classmates and then took a 30-40 minute bus ride to the second campus (my campus is the first one). I followed my roommate up to the sixth floor of the campus’ center building and observed how they interview applicants. I didn’t realize the organization she is in (Green Union) was so prestigious! They are only able to accept 30 new members out of the hundreds of applicants.

I then went on my way and walked around campus.

For some reason, I was not expecting the Activities Fair to be this active. There were so many people!

I checked out the Calligraphy Club’s table. My poorly written calligraphy is the one on the bottom and top (孙柯琳)

I then visited the Anime Club table and took a picture of this pretty man wearing cosplay.

From this table, I made a friend who then lead my through the activities fair, giving me suggestions on which clubs I should look into. I look at the Beijing Opera Club, Ethnic Minority Club, Singing Club, and others. I didn’t sign up to any, but I did talk with the representatives. I was the only foreigner at the entire event, so I was quite the eyesore. One benefit to being different from everybody else is that people are interested in getting to know you. Through this entire event, I met and talked to a lot of people and made some friends that live in my campus. It was a lot of fun!

Is that how it goes? Pretty close! This was at the Student Organization Council table.

Secluded Path on Campus

After escaping the madness that was the Activities Fair, I took a stroll around campus and found a nice path to walk down. It led me to the end of the forest where there were many older Chinese men and women going about their day: either doing Taiqi, singing, sitting, or playing with their grandchildren.

The Flowers and the Bees

I have a video of an older group of women singing and men playing the erhu. WordPress won’t allow me to upload the video unless I purchase an upgrade. For now, I’ll post the video on my Facebook. The older people took a special interest in me and beckoned me to join them in singing traditional Chinese music. I begged not to sing and just listen, but they pulled me in. I looked at the sheet music to find their notes were numbers and not on any scale. Finally, I jokingly sang/mumbled “Mo li hua,” which made them laugh. I really enjoy talking with older Chinese…I don’t know why. Maybe the difference in culture is intriguing? They are also very welcoming and always curious to hear about my life on the other side of the world. I hope to do more of this when I begin my studies around Lugu Lake!

I said goodbye to the musicians and singers and then I was on my way. I had to get back to first campus. We had an event that afternoon, go to Sun Island.

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Sick Week

Sick Week – A combination of American and Chinese medicine (and Pokemon)

I was doing so well too. I got a cold on the 10th and then it moved from there to something stronger. I spent most of my week either in class or in bed playing Pokemon Red. I took Day/Nyquil religiously and drank a special root with warm water. I got better!

What got me sick was the sudden change of cold weather this week and I ate too much sour food. My body hasn’t completely adjusted to Chinese food yet.

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