Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Week Slipped By (Part I)

Time goes unrecorded, like the span between "happily ever after" in first installment and "here we go again" in the sequel. I presume that CB doesn't strike anyone as particularly angsty, but still it's the underlying tension of holding sadness and loneliness at bay which keeps me writing every day. For now, that has evaporated and I realize my shoulders are fully unknotted for the first time in months. (The back-rub might also have had something to do with that too...)

Still, in the interest of tidyness, and so you'll know what I've been up to, I thought I'd mention the highlights of what we've been up to lately.

The Friday before Christmas I biked to my Chinese lesson. The new poem I was to memorize had a really good first line: "You ask my return date--no date yet." (Sounds better in Chinese of course.) I don't have a return date yet either. I say tentatively late June or early July, and it would feel better if I had a specific date to get used to. But what stops me is the worry that there will come some point when either Colin or I (or both) can't take it any longer, and I simply have to go home.

Anyway, as I was biking home I happened to hear my phone ring and it was WW. "Why didn't you answer my text message?" she demanded. Probably something to do with the fact that I was in the middle of my forty-five minute bike ride home… In any case, she was inviting me and Colin to dinner that night with her and YHz.

We went. It was a hot-pot restaurant. Surprisingly, if one isn't took picky about what the broth is made of, hot-pot has a lot of good vegetarian options. Colin was impressed.

WW said that Colin looked like Karl Marx. (The picture at left is from here.) I think from a Chinese person that's a nice compliment! In any case, it was really funny.

I did running translations, which wasn't really that hard once I got the hang of it.

Both YHz and WW teased us and said we would have beautiful babies and that we should have at least two, and send pictures. (They each have one only, both daughters, and seemed envious at the fact that we were potentially free to have two or more.) Colin weathered this teasing very well, and the whole thing went just fine. Also, I got Colin to show off all the Chinese I had taught him to date, and he did brilliantly, getting many compliments on his accent.

Colin said that it was clear YHz liked me very much.

We found out that WW is a great admirer of Hilary Clinton, which was very funny somehow.

Saturday was not an especially eventful day except that we tried to go and explore Chaoyang district. Apparently we went to the wrong part, and there was nothing much there but a long line of depressing bars and a series of nested shopping malls selling nothing we wanted.

One thing we did manage to acquire was a small metal head with four faces. I bargained for it from one of the "Tibetan" vendors that sell junky jewelry from yellow blankets spread out on the sidewalk. Not all the heads were metal: there were some decaying heads of actual animals as well… not sure which animals… I am not good at bargaining, and never manage to down to much below 60% of the asking price. So it was more expensive than it should have been, but at least I bargained some.

The head is a nice size to fit in the palm of one's hand, and has a pleasing weight. I'm not sure what its story is, but underneath it says in characters blurred (no doubt) through the process of multiple copying: Imperial Goods of the Qianlong Emperor. So it must be a copy of some little objet of his.

Another strange thing that happened on Saturday was that my favorite Korean restaurant, which we had gone to only a few days before, suddenly got crushed by a pneumatic wrecking crane. By the time we saw it, it was pretty much just a pile of rubble. It was so strange, so completely without warning.

Sunday, Christmas Eve, we went to see the Forbidden City. Considering that I had been there before, I felt I was not as good of a guide as I should have been. My teacher AL, during Friday's lesson, had suggested going along the east side of the complex, so we did that. But overall, there were some worthwhile things on the west side I regretted missing. Too tired to go back though. For some reason, the taxi brought us to the north gate, and since we were planning to take the subway home, we went straight through and didn't backtrack. Still, we saw some neat stuff, bronzes, and Tang sculptures. I always have a particular soft-spot for Tang sculptures, even though it's so cliché. I just like them. The ox-cart with its magical door turned out especially well, I thought.

We ate instant noodles in the emperor's flower garden.

We got really tired out.

Also, we (and especially I) got very angry at people trying to talk to us in English and scam us. To the point where being addressed in English made us instantly wave our hands and cry in chorus, "Bu yao, bu yao!" (Don't want it!). One offended young lady, ("Hello: where are you from?") said disgustedly that she wasn't a tour guide, but that didn't cause us to stop ignoring her. I felt guilty--what if she really was just a random friendly person hoping to practice some English--but still angry too. Why should any random person feel they have a right to ask me where I'm from and force me to help them practice their English. I should be like the wife of a Professor I once knew who would tell people (in Chinese) that she was from Iceland and didn't speak any English. Besides, I think the girl was actually one of the fake art students, and probably was still trying to scam us.

On the way out, we paid a little extra to climb one of the gate towers, but it turned out to be the wrong one, not much view at all, and a lot of scamming tourist crap (get your picture take with "the emperor") at the top. We went grouchily down and felt sick of all commercial activity.

Still, we thought we'd take a turn around the square and try to find some little red books (no luck on that, by the way--they're expensive and hard to find nowadays it seems!). We got more and more angry at the Chinese merchant way of harassing shoppers, which on a slow-business winter day was aggressive bordering on desperate. Ugh.

The only store we enjoyed being in was a grubby hole-in-the-wall "2 RMB" store--yeah, basically a Chinese dollar store. We were both tickled, and made many hilarious purchases, including a deck of nudy-girl cards, a chin- and ear-warmer, an almanac style tear-off 2007 calendar, and more. Most fun store in the city, as far as we were concerned.

I also learned what my favorite Chinese pastry is called. After looking for them longingly all week, we finally saw someone selling them at a big table. (Of course we got one.) Everyone was crowding around! I asked, what are these called, but didn't quite understand the answer. I asked for clarification, and a helpful bystander tugged on his earlobe, grinning, and I figured it out: they're called "Sweet Ears," because they're kind of ear-shaped when you think of it. Good to know!

Snapped this picture of Colin on the subway, and really like it.

We'd planned to have our Christmas Eve dinner at a good vegetarian restaurant in the Qinghua Science Park. I'd never been there, but a friend with good taste had recommended it. It looked nice. But they were having some kind of Christmas Eve activity, and apparently reservations were mandatory, grumble. Tired and discouraged, we got a cab to the Famous Chef from Jiangnan restaurant I had gone to on Thanksgiving.

That's a good restaurant for holidays and special occasions. It just never disappoints. They even served me a small complimentary dish of turkey--real turkey! imagine--with a dish of opalescent sauce. There had been some worry about whether they had enough vegetarian stuff for Colin, but there shouldn't have been. There were more than enough choices, including an entrée-style vegetarian roast duck that was beautiful enough to get its own picture on the menu.

The meal improved our mood immeasurably. (Five courses and drinks for about the price of lunch at Panera!) But unless you've been here, it's hard to realize how grating it gets going to tourist sites, where you get picked out of the crowd and approached every five steps just because being a foreigner makes you look a like an easy mark. It's tempting but useless to get mad at any one of them, because the 389th one to approach you is no more culpable than the first. I could tell I was still jumpy, because halfway through the meal, a restaurant employee in a Santa suit came over and offered me a Christmas wand. Totally without thinking I snapped "Bu yao!" He was totally at a loss, and I confess I felt guilty about it for days afterward. We were the only foreigners there, and here he was--his special job was help us to celebrate our Western holiday, and I shot him down without even a no thank you. I don't even know why, except maybe I was having a flashback to how sometimes in European restaurants people selling roses for deaf orphans get in, hand you a rose first, and then demand payment with a heavy dose of guilt-trip.

Sigh. I felt so bad when I saw the poor Santa again on the way out… Colin said to comfort me that maybe because I hadn't taken the wand, someone got it who would give it to their little kid who really wanted it and then the kid would run around ceaselessly, waving the wand and screaming "Merry Christmas" at the top of his lungs, annoying his parents tremendously. For some reason this bit of silliness made me feel a little better.

Monday, Christmas Day. We slept in. No stockings, no Christmas tree, but a modest little pile of presents. Christmas is such a family holiday for us both that it felt very strange to be just the two of us. We opened our presents, which were all small so as to be portable, but quite touching. I've felt for a long time about Christmas presents that I care very little about getting something I want or anything like that. But I like Christmas presents a lot, because I like the feeling that someone thought of me. People always say "It's the thought that counts" as a euphemism for "I hate it." But for me, it's really true. Homemade presents, presents that are just especially me-like, even if not something I need, or presents that have some personal meaning, that's really what I like best. (Note: Mom's knitted leg-warmers prominent on me in the above picture!)

One of the sweet things that Colin brought me was a big candle in a glass jar like the ones we had when we lived together but Christmas wreath scented. It made the room smell just like it would if we'd had a Christmas tree. (We could have had a fake tree fairly cheaply, but neither of us are into them--lack of the right smell, for one thing--and real trees seemed a lost cause.) It's burning now, and making me smile.

Of course the best present Colin gave me was being here, which was a little hard for him in fact--it was his first Christmas away from home! We talked to my parents and his mom and Skype, which made us both feel a little better, but we promised ourselves we'd have a more family-intensive Christmas next year.

Next year. It's so pleasant to think of it. Forward-thinking types like ourselves, I sometimes think, have a worse time in the anticipation of hardship than actually living through it. Last year I spent inordinate amounts of time struggling with the dread of being apart, but this year I spend more time day-dreaming about how this time next year we'll be together again. Funny!

In the afternoon, Colin said he wasn't feeling too well. At first, I thought maybe it was psychosomatic homesickness, but actually he really did come down with something and even had a fever. So we had a quiet and restful day at home. Instead of having another fancy dinner, therefore, we went to the Yonghe Dawang across the street. I've mentioned it before, possibly mispelled--wherever you see a KFC, you also see a Yonghe Dawang, offering a healthy delicious Chinese fast-food alternative. On this particular occasion, I discovered that they have really good vegetarian fake-meat and noodle dish. That's all it took to make Colin happy, woozy and under the weather as he was. I had one too, and it was quite a nice meal, though a far cry from most people's Christmas dinner!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Summer Palace in Winter

On Wednesday, we had a mostly resting day. It seems like we can't manage to go see sights every day because we have to recover from all the walking! Beijing really takes a lot out of you, and is best seen a little at a time!

On Thursday, I had my eight o'clock class and then we went and saw the Summer Palace. Of course it is winter, but the Summer Palace still put on a fine showing. The big lake was all frozen over, and it was a white, misty day, which actually made the scenery very romantic.

We walked past the marble barge and on around to the other side, where there was a thin strip of land running all the way through the lake, adorned by six different bridges (actually seven, but one was too plain to make the count). Here is our favorite bridge, the Jade-Belt Bridge. It was very high and steep, and makes yet another of those rare pictures where Colin looks small.

Here, to make up for it is one where Colin looks both very tall and very satisfied!

We walked out on the ice and I found part of a lotus pod.

Here are three views of the scenery on the other side of the lake, two with the marble barge.

A few more ice pictures.

It was a very picturesque and romantic day, and although we got thirsty (water water everywhere...), we ended up feeling very satisfied about the whole thing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Altar to Heaven and Other Adventures

It was very hard for me to get out of bed yesterday morning. All the same, I did it, had breakfast with Pocket of Bolts, and headed out on my bicycle in time to get to my 8 AM class. There's some internal calendar in me that says, especially with Pocket of Bolts here, that I deserve a Christmas break. But Christmas is not an official holiday in China, and classes go on and on.

After the class I chatted with WW. She says YHz is encouraging her to learn from me. She was openly skeptical, but emphasized YHz's confidence in me. I'm not used to scholarship being such a, well, social activity. It has its upside and downside. Currently, it is making me sweat because I feel like I should be working extra hard but at the same time I want to enjoy myself while Pocket of Bolts is here. The shape of developing colleague relations don't admit of that especially easily though. It's like something that builds momentum, and any step down or back is a new and undesirable change of trajectory.

In any case, I'll muddle along somehow. I have to remember that I've already gotten a lot of help from them, and even if nothing else works out in the future, I'm better off than I was.

(I had an eerie feeling that I'm being judged at every turn, more by WW but also by YHz as well. So far I've yet to fail in any important way, but the tests keep coming. I suppose any professor-student relationship is like that, but because of the cultural difference I'm never quite sure what I'm being judged on!)

My bike chain derailed on the way home, but I have learned to get it back on pretty easily now.

After I got home, I parked my bike, collected Pocket of Bolts, and we set off on a major adventure. First we took a taxi to Wudaokou. Pocket of Bolts practiced trying to tell the taxi driver our destination (at my suggestion) but the taxi driver didn't have a forgiving enough ear so I stepped in to reassure him.

Then we had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Korean place that I had spotted on an earlier trip. This is not figurative either--it really was just a tiny bit of space between two walls, not more than a couple feet wide. It was called Shrek Kimbap. The menu didn't have more than ten things on it, but Pocket of Bolts had nice spicy noodles and I had dduk bokki (rice sticks in hot red sauce with kimchee).

From there we took the subway to the Altar of Heaven. It was actually a bit of a walk from the subway stop. First we saw a gargantuan fake Christmas tree. Here is a picture where for once Pocket of Bolts looks small.

We also got some pastries. We bought them from a fairly sketchy looking vendor, but they seem to me like a really safe type pastry, just saturated with sugar and oil, and indeed we don't seem to have any trouble because of them. I'm not sure what those pastries are called, but they're great, a sort of extra-serious doughnut.

Also on the way we took a detour through a tiny Chinese back-alley neighborhood (hutong), just to have a look at one. We felt pretty conspicuous, but it was fascinating all the same. Hutongs are great when you don't have to live in one. Pocket of Bolts took these wonderful pictures.

This is what is left after the coal is burned.

Finally we got to the Temple of Heaven, where we got a 5 RMB discount with my student ID but got gouged for a cup of very bad coffee (10 RMB). Then we started our long ramble. This is a beautiful park, and one of the only places in Beijing where I saw actual green grass. There were also old trees and charming quiet paths.

The actual Temple was not all that photogenic as far as I'm concerned, but impressive in real life.

Also, there were more gold-knobbed red doors. This photo is proof that the ugly yellow ski jacket (an M family reject, which Pocket of Bolts brought for me to use as a bicycling jacket, and which is extra warm) is actually not even funny-looking here in China. Why, I blend right in!

My favorite part was actually the echoing wall. There were no instructions, but Pocket of Bolts figured in out. You stand at one part of the curved wall, with your face right up near it, and whisper. The other person, really far away, can hear the whisper like it's right next to them, and it's perfectly natural. Lots of people all around where shouting and hollering, trying to hear the echo, but almost no one figured out the trick. Hearing Pocket of Bolts' private whispering voice while seeing him fifty yards or so away was one of my favorite parts of the day. You'd think in an era where we use skype to see and hear each other halfway around the world we'd be a bit jaded about this kind of thing, but you know what? Somehow it was still really awesome.

Again, this gorgeous picture of the echoing wall is Pocket of Bolts'. I don't even think he planned it to come out as well as it did, so I think I should at least get the credit for recognizing it as one of the best of the bunch.

We took tremendous numbers of pictures in the Altar of Heaven Park, but I can't include them all, as it's getting late and I'm so tired already! Pocket of Bolts claims he will do a guest post here when he gets to it, and he will perhaps put up some more.

After we left the part, we were almost too tired to carry out our plan to also visit the nearby Natural History Museum. But we persevered. We knew exactly what we wanted to see. First, apes in Socialist-Realist poses, in the "origin of humanity" exhibit (no hesitation about us being related to monkeys; perqs of a non-Christian country). On the way we also saw a marvelous lungfish.

Second, "the structure of the human body" exhibit, illustrated with actual preserved human body and body parts. That was quite a trip. It really makes you feel funny to see actual adult (and babies) in jars and in various stages of dissection. I realized that we usually see these things illustrated with plastic models in the States, but this was very much more real. Plastic looks so clean. These bodies were, well, messy. On some, you could see their faces.

No photos allowed, naturally.

We decided to take a bus home, because there was a direct one from just outside the natural history museum, and taking the subway was such a long trek. We made pretty good progress until just a couple miles from home, when we hit rush hour traffic. One hour to cross the entire city, one hour to go about two blocks. It was maddening.

But we made a good end to the day with more delicious Korean food and then a very early bedtime!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Brief Sketches

Colin has been here for five days now, and I have yet to write a single thing about that, it seems. Well, on Friday I skipped my Chinese lesson and we just spent time together. I took him to the campus and showed him Nameless Lake.

To our surprise, part of the Nameless Lake was frozen over, and there were people skating on it! But I guess what was odd, was that other parts of it weren't frozen over. Who is confident enough to skate on only a partially frozen lake? But Colin said that if the ice is more than four inches thick, it can old about anything. I want to try skating there sometime. They even rent out skates.

It was such a beautiful blue day.

On Saturday, it was a white day, with an icy wind. Colin was initially unimpressed--he's just been in Chicago after all, and the temperature was still up in the twenties. But once we got to Tiananmen Square and started walking around, even he had to admit that it was pretty darn cold.

We went and saw Chairman Mao. It was a very solemn place, actually, Mao's mausoleum. There was a white statue of him in his chair, where people laid white roses one at a time to form a thick layer, and sometimes the people also bowed and bowed. Behind that was his actual body, or probably a wax copy of it. He looked too good to have been lying there for thirty years, and the preservation was said to have been done badly too…. He was lying as if asleep, looking very good, as I said. One tiny old lady walking beside us waved and waved at him, as if he might wave back. Then we were shuffled past. (Photos strictly forbidden in there, of course. Here's a phallic monument to the people instead, with a very cold-looking guard.)

Back out in the Square there was an Arctic wind. We managed to get some little cups of hot coffee from a tiny stand. Many people tried to sell us hats because we weren't wearing hats. Colin actually did want a hat with ear flaps, but they all looked too small. When we found a stationary stand, he actually tried one on. Too small. "Try this one," the pushy vendor said. "I'm afraid his head is too big," I told her. "Impossible!" she said. The hat perched comically on the very tip of Colin's head. "How could his head be so big!" she exclaimed in wonder as we moved laughing on.

We wandered in through the free part of the imperial city, and Colin took a picture of the "imperial basketball courts," while I took a picture of a faux imperial yellow canopy up on the high wall over the gate. The cold was terrible, and soon we had to retreat. We took the subway home. It was crowded and we had to push our way through. Colin said he felt like a brazil nut among all the peanuts. He does tower over everyone!

It was our twenty-fifth monthiversary, and after we had rested most of the afternoon we went out and had dinner at the fancy vegetarian restaurant in the Disanji building. It was most romantic, and also good not to have to worry about whether something might have little bits of meat in it! (Colin is a vegetarian, in case you don't know him in real life; not an easy thing to be in China!)

Sunday was fairly uneventful, except we went to a café and did a little work. We both have a lot of work to get done, and it's nice that we can work together as we always have. In the evening we went to the Communication Association's "Black and White Crazy Tonight" International Night. I would not say it was a success. It might have been interesting if there had been any actual communication involved, but it was mostly limited to a talent show in which:

The Korean drummers were very loud and crazy! But definitely had spirit. I've never quite understood the appeal of all-percussion performances, but they were interesting enough to catch one's attention anyway, and also it was funny to watch the Chinese people covering their ears.

The magic show was pretty funny, especially the scarves. I am always fooled by magic shows.

The a capella singers were painful, but then both Colin and I are really un-fond of a capella to begin with.

The ballroom dancers were skinny and not naturally graceful, but it was fairly interesting to me just because I knew some of the moves. Also the a capella was not a hard act to follow.

Then there was a "game" sponsored by some cell-phone company, which we ignored, and the beginning of another game, hallmark Communication Association, involving way too many rules, not well explained, and a restless crowd. We'd had enough and ducked out. Colin remarked on how young everyone there seemed! Tell me about it. Mostly undergraduates, I guess, but those undergraduates are getting younger every year.

And yesterday morning we made a pact to do two hours of work. We used to have those pacts, which helped us both a lot, and as usual it was very successful. It reminded me that indeed Colin is more help than distraction, and I would in fact get more actual work done if we were together…

In the afternoon I went to classes. YHz emphasized once again that she would like to meet Colin and have a meal or some such. Colin is willing, but I feel very nervous about it!

I got a lot of errands done between my two classes (post office, library, etc.) but all I could think of was Colin at home and how much I wanted to be with him. Okay, so that was a bit of a distraction.

My last class was fairly interesting but I was tired and distracted, and really happy to head home again, finally arriving around 7. We had dinner at a Yunnan restaurant, which we both found lackluster. I never manage to really like Yunnan food, but everyone else likes it so much that I keep trying, thinking I'll like it better one of these days. Also I found out that in a Yunnan restaurant "entirely vegetarian" still means that you get slices of meat and whole chicken wings. Poor Colin--he is being extra tolerant!

I am so tired, I'm afraid I will have to describe today's adventures later.

Apologies for the lateness of and lack of details in these blog posts. Hopefully I will get back into my good habits soon.

(His head doesn't look THAT big!)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas Arrives Early

I am sorry to be so behind on my blogging. The days have flown by, especially since my dear Colin has arrived. But I may as well do the other half of the half-baked week in review.

Wednesday is quick and easy, because I skipped my class and spent almost all day cleaning and reorganizing and buying things. I also finished this modular origami star, made of the wrappers from the Euphoria chocolate bells that my mom sent me for my birthday. The wrappers were very delicate, but fortunately the star was very simple. I liked the colors of it very much.

Thursday I meant to leave early and get some things done before my lunch date with YHz and WW, but somehow it took me forever to leave the house. And then WW sent me a text message requesting that I meet them in YHz's office at 11. That left me exactly 40 minutes to get to school and get my things done, and it usually takes me more than 20 minutes to get to school. But somehow everything was going smoothly, and I performed a complicated series of exchanges, involving books and IDs and CDs in the library, so I was able to turn back what I was done with and get what I needed next, and miraculously it all went off without a hitch.

Then we got into WW's car and headed to a fancy Peking Duck restaurant. WW had made reservations for it in advance, it seems, and was very pleased about it all. I was intimidated by the restaurant, because it was a cloth napkin sort of place, even at lunch-time. We got many dishes, including duck liver, duck webs in horseradish (yeah, that's the feet), and the duck itself. It was hard eating the duck webs, not because they were bad (a bit chewy and gelatinous, but good with horseradish)--just because they were the most ducky of all of it. They made me think of how much I like ducks and how cute they are, and how really I shouldn't be eating them.

The Peking duck itself was superb, and there was no room in my mind to think that I shouldn't be eating an animal I think is so cute. All I could think of was "delicious delicious delicious." The duck was served in slices of meat and delicious crisp skin, with hoisin sauce, rice pancakes, scallions, and tiny cucumber slices. Every bite was heavenly. But we had to eat it fast because once it gets cold it changes completely, especially the skin.

It was a pleasant meal, and I felt quite comfortable--perhaps even more comfortable than I should, I don't know. After all, there was a sense in which it was a business lunch…

They gave me advice about how to get to the airport, but I ended up being too nervous and impatient to follow it. After WW dropped me off, I just hopped in a cab and went there. I was about an hour early. The place was packed. I stood by the rail of where the passengers were pouring out. Everyone else was standing by that rail too, layered four or five deep, staring up at the gate where passengers were coming out. I watched the flight numbers on people's luggage tags until I saw ones from the Chicago flight. No Colin and still no Colin. First I savored the excitement and then I got worried. Finally when almost everyone was gone I turned around and saw him trudging past with big zombie eyes. They had let him out at a different place! I actually waved him hand right in front of his face before he noticed me; that's a thirteen hour flight for you.

There's no point in describing how happy we were, because it's way too mushy to put into words.

Then we went out the doors planning to wait at the cab stand. However, the line wrapped around itself three times and continued about a quarter-mile back from where the actual cabs were. Making use of the directions I'd got from YHz and miraculously remembered, I suggested we catch the airport shuttle instead. Colin said he was following my lead on this. We got a bus almost right away, and two seats together, and I felt quite satisfied. It still took a while to get home, but better than waiting like an hour in the cab line. And then we were home!

At some point we had instant noodles for dinner because we didn't feel like stirring from this cozy little room. I made Colin stay awake until nine or ten, and then, impressively, he managed to fall asleep right away. I had more trouble sleeping--hard to believe how thoroughly I have got used to living alone, and I kept waking up feeling shocked that there was someone else there. But it was a good kind of shock!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Half(baked) Week in Review

Oh how my blogging energy has been eaten up/away by Christmas shopping!

First: some pretty little vegetables. I have been eating a lot of salad composed of cucumbers, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes, carefully rinsed in boiling water and then dressed with vinegar, sesame oil, and black pepper. Somehow I find this very fresh and satisfying.

As for the week so far in review--Sunday: alternating dissertation work and Christmas shopping. Here is an example of the kind of nastiness I face in undertaking this task. I went down the little pedestrian street near the Haidian Book City, searching for interesting/unique something or others among the street vendors there. There was only one item that caught my eye. I asked how much it was, and heard "4 RMB." Then I asked about another bigger one, and I thought he said he would give me the big one and the small one for 10 RMB. Sounded fair. I looked through all of them. He kept suggesting an especially ugly one, which made me angry but I didn't show it. Another person came by and asked about the small ones, and was told "3 or 4 RMB," then wandered off.

I made a decision about the big and small one that I wanted, only to have him demand some 30 RMB! I protested, and he said that the particular large one I picked out was more expensive for such and such reason. (How about this ugly one? It's much cheaper…) Okay, I said, then I'll just have the small one. I took out my 4 RMB, and he said, Not 4, 10! In Chinese they sound similar, but I know he said four to the other guy who inquired, because you say "3 or 4", not "3 or 10." He knew they sounded similar and was preying on my linguistic insecurity. I felt really pissed off and started to walk away, saying sharply that that was a rip-off. "I'll give it to you for 5" he called after me, and if I weren't so eager to finish off the shopping, I would have just kept on walking, but I conceded to 5 because 1 RMB is not worth the time it takes to bargain for it. Neither is 5 I suppose when it comes to that. But the whole thing left me feeling completely disgusted.

Speaking of disgusting, I confess that I also had lunch at McDonalds. Why? Because I was really curious to try their taro pie. I had a fondness for McD fried apple pies when I was little, so I somehow was tickled that Chinese McDonalds has fried taro pie instead. It was good, but in a disgusting, excessive sort of way. I had a chicken sandwich instead of a hamburger, and I know that it's still supporting the evil McD empire, but it's slightly less bad I hope. Actually the chicken sandwich was darn good, not ground up and reconstituted but actual, you know, chicken in its original texture--with spicy sauce. Pretty tasty, I mean, for McDonalds.

Monday I spent all day alternating between classes and grabbing stuff from the library. I am getting warmed up with this research topic that I'm working on with YHz. Poor YHz, she finally lost it today and gave the rude immature kids in her class a good dressing down. The really deserved it. They were acting like middle school kids, talking during class, so you could barely hear her lecture, passing notes, and so forth. Sigh, they give Koreans a bad name around here, do these kids. I have already been told they're basically kids who couldn't get into college in Korea, and Beida takes them as cash-cows. They are, it must be admitted, not very dedicated. Not all that interested in Chinese culture either, as far as I can see. Very cliquish and childish and thinking everyone must find them adorable.

Anyway, YHz poured it on thick, especially when she got to the part where she said that students like them are ruining Beida's good name, and making her feel ashamed to be a Beida professor! How many hard-working students in this country would give anything to get into Beida, and here these kids are wasting their time here, not learning anything, constantly talking… if they don't like this class, they don't have to take it, but so long as they are taking it, they could have their private conversations after, not during, class. And so forth. All perfectly true and well-deserved, albeit rather uncomfortable. They surely had it coming, though.

I felt very sorry for YHz. Last week, she had mentioned to me how hard she finds it to endure teaching this class, how when she looks out at them there is just a sea of blank faces, so different from teaching Chinese students where at least there is some indication that they are learning something, that she's not just talking to herself…

After class, I asked if I could meet her the next day to discuss some questions I had. She had very much encouraged this and seemed pleased. We chatted a little about how it might go as we walked back toward her office and the library. I thought, seeing how upset she had been, a fairly neutral and pleasant topic would be best. And she did seem rather excited and eager to be thinking about the research instead of the little brats. As I've said before, it's research that she herself is rather interested in, but can't do for one reason and another--a good situation.

I continued on to the library, then the copy shop, then the library again… this sort of thing all day, collecting documents and like the busy ant preparing for winter. Took a brief break for ZM's class. He spent most of it discussing the homework assignments he had just graded. It was actually quite pedagogically interesting: he addressed very specific points, so that everyone could learn from one individual's failings or successes. When discussing successes, he would also mention the individual's name, which I'm sure made them very proud. I was particularly interested by the nonchalant way in which he dealt with plagiarism--a problem that so many professors in the U.S. sweat blood about. ZM just said, "There are some places where I can tell that it's not your own work. Please add citations for these. It will not influence your grade. Also, I am more interested in your own ideas." Of course, this was addressing individually plagiarized sentences, not entire papers. Still, there was something to the idea of treating plagiarism as something almost beneath notice, a disappointment rather than a judicial issue.

It was a bitter cold night. I was waiting for something to finish being copied, so I went to a little restaurant near the library and had a big pot of beef stew. It was good, though too much for one. Also, it was the type of stew where there's a thick layer of oil on top, making it very rich, not to see greasy even. The oil is interesting, though. It is not only for the purpose of making you put on the pounds and ooze grease out of all your pores for days. It is for the purpose of sealing in the heat. So you can have your privilege of burning your tongue on the last bite, as well as on the first. (Ask me how I know!)

Tuesday, I didn't make it to the 8 AM class. I am getting very lazy here. My internal seasonal rhythm tells me it's already Christmas break, even though there's no such thing here. At 10 I met with YHz. It is a joy talking with her. She has so many good ideas, and creative ideas. She also said she felt very regretful about yelling at her class. I told her they totally deserved it, and that the only thing she should be sorry about was not having done it at the very beginning. I said she's used to Chinese students, but students in other places can be very different! She seemed somewhat reassured, but still said she felt it was really not worth it. I agreed it wasn't worth her getting angry, but worth scolding them without getting angry about it. This sounded much more humorous in Chinese and made her laugh. They just don't care, she lamented. It's true, I said. We must teach them to be "fond of study" (a phrase that has Confucian associations). That got a laugh out of her too, though I could tell she still thought the task impossible. But they're no worse than some of the students I've taught in discussion section in the past, and some of them turned out okay.

More squirreling books and papers into my bag. In fact, by the end of the day my bag got so heavy I think I strained something carrying it. My bag was crammed to overflowing with books--I felt like a bookworm Santa Claus!--and today my shoulders have been dreadfully sore…

Speaking of Santa Claus, I had a post office adventure. It turns out that the post-office has a needle and thread station. I never noticed it before, but today somehow for some reason needed to use it in order to complete their postal business. The one (count her, one!) counter lady spent about five minutes trying to thread the needle. The eye was too small, the thread--really it was string--was too large. She got it partway through once and it started unraveling. Frustrated, she started rummaging around in drawers looking for a bigger needle. The line got longer and longer. I decided to be proactive, and offered to try my hand. They all looked dubious; I explained I used to be good at this when I was little. Then I used my special needle-threading powers (i.e., twisted the string very hard in the direction of its spiral, so it got wound tight, would be thinner, and wouldn't unravel) and actually managed to do the deed.

This helpfulness proved useful later on.

When you want to send a box but don't supply your own, the post office lady casts a hawk-like eye over the things you want to send and selects the absolute perfect size from a large series of finely graded boxes. She assembles, tapes, and packs if for you, and then there's a special machine that wraps tightly with a sort of ribbon to prevent against bursting and such. It looks like suspenders for boxes.

I was so intrigued by this process that I forgot to put the cards in with the presents. When I realized my error, I thought I might just glue the cards on the outside. No, no permitted! said the window lady. Too bad I didn't find out until after I glued them on. I had to rip them off--fortunately the outer envelopes were expendable--and beg the counter lady to open and reseal the boxes. But happily, she was well-disposed toward me because of the needle-threading incident, and didn't object at all.

Here is a photo I took while I was crossing the little residential island in the middle of campus. It is a cat-world--dozens of cats, very few people. Also the round gate made me think of hobbits!

Barely did I get home when I had to leave again, this time to a dissertation support group meeting. I arrived late because I left late, and my increasingly rickety bike slows me down a lot. We had Subway sandwiches and cupcakes. People are really wound up right now. Everyone talks at once, no one wants to listen, words just tumble out desperately. I found it wearing but okay. I mostly listened!

On the way home, I was struck by this peculiar sight: the blueish green Santa Claus castle I guess. How peculiar it looked, though, almost crossing the line between ridiculous and down-right scary. Definitely not my idea about Christmas! It looks radioactive.