天灯节!

Hello everyone! Today concludes the Chinese New Year celebration. Most people returned to work last week, but today marks the two week point after Chinese New Year, which makes it the Lantern Festival thus ending the celebration. The Lantern Festival was one of the main reasons Dannysha and I decided to come to Taiwan for the winter break. We did some research and reliable sources (wikipedia) said that the town of Pingxi is supposed to be one of the best places to go for the lantern festival, which was where the 天灯节 or “sky lantern festival” originated.

Pingxi isn’t too far outside of Taiwan, but it’s not accessible via metro. To get there, we had to go to the Taipei Main Station and buy train tickets to Ruifang, and from there transfer to the Pingxi line and take another train to our final destination. Buying the ticket was easy, but getting on the train was a little tricky. China’s train system is very well organized and there are many workers on the platform to help you if you have any questions. Unfortunately, Taiwan was severely lacking in the helpful department, and the arrival/departure board was utterly confusing. Despite the confusion, we boarded the correct train and arrived at Ruifang within a short amount of time. We bought our tickets to Pingxi again (which was a mistake because we’d already paid for the full ride at the previous station) and rushed to the platform. The train was waiting for us when we got there, and was packed with people. I was dismayed at first, but realized the cars further down the platform were fairly deserted. Dannysha and I nearly sprinted to get a seat and were practically kowtowing to the gods for it by the time the train started rolling. Anyone who is claustrophobic or doesn’t like being in close proximity to strangers would not handle this trip well at all.

Being in a seat, we were unable to read the sign when we reached a station and the train began emptying. We followed the crowd and wound up at the wrong town and station, but it was no big deal. We ended up in Shifen, which had a very large Sky Lantern Festival itself. The tiny little town was completely packed. I’ve been to large, crowded theme parks and various other big cities but I’ve never been so jostled in my life. I’ve also never seen so many foreigners in any one place in Asia–I’d say that the crowd was maybe 30% foreigners. There were so many shops selling lantern trinkets and snacks that the streets were clogged and getting down to the area where people were sending up lanterns in groups was incredibly difficult and maybe even a bit arduous.

Finally, we came to a large area where people were selling lanterns and providing markers with which to write your hopes for the new year. People say that by sending the lanterns into the sky the gods are more likely to see your wishes and prayers. So we purchased a red one from an option of about 9 different colors, my favorite of which (purple) was sold out. After writing our wishes on our lantern, a girl came by and helped us send it to the gods. The way these things work is that it’s like a mini hot-air balloon–they light a fire under it and then it just floats up. This can, of course, go terribly wrong. One of the lanterns became entangled on a telephone wire while ascending and caught fire, another hit a building and sort of exploded, and several simply hit a strong pocket of wind causing them to tumble over and immolate mere feet above the heads of the crowd. I’m assuming that all of these scenarios do not forebode good fortune. Fortunately for us, Dannysha and I’s lantern flew away safely, and thank heavens for that because I did not want to see my message of 给我钱 or “GIVE ME MONEY!” go up in flames.

The ride back to Taipei was, well, crazy. There were thousands of tourists in this tiny town, and only a few trains were coming to take them back. This was the first time I’d ever seen the train workers shoving people into the train to make them fit. However, Dannysha and I made some new friends while being crammed into the train. It seemed better to be friendly to the fellow foreigners whose faces were only several awkward inches away from your pelvic region than to ride on in an uncomfortable silence. It was very interesting to hear their opinions on Taipei and the Chinese spoken there since they were all exchange students and also studying Chinese. I wish I’d met them at the beginning of my stay in Taipei, but at least some nice conversation made the uncomfortable train ride a bit more tolerable.

I’ve uploaded some fairly bad photos for your disappointment. I should have taken my camera’s instructions with me or read them before I came to Taiwan. I did not, however, so many of the photos are a little blurry. Some of them are not the camera’s (or my) fault–there were so many people that I was constantly being jostled and it was difficult keeping the camera still. Still, here they are!

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我们总算到了!

Hello all! Dannysha, myself, and all of our things officially made it to Taipei! We checked into our hostel a good while ago, dropped off our things and went exploring for a little bit. The location of our hostel is absolutely phenomenal–we are about a one minute walk away from a subway station. There’s also a convenience store attached to our building, so buying snacks and drinks will be very convenient. This is the first dorm style room I’ve stayed in. I’m not super impressed, though the man and woman who are operating it seem to be quite nice. We followed the directions from hostelworld.com (a fantastic site for finding hostels, highly recommend) and ended up in an apartment building of sorts. We rang the bell of a slightly shady looking place, and a women who spoke no English poked her head out of the doorway and asked us what we wanted. We explained the details, and then she took us back outside the building. Once she realized we weren’t some foreigners there to rob her, she became very friendly. I was a little wary, however, because we walked down the entire block to a different building with a woman we’d known for 5 minutes to a place whose address we didn’t know in an unfamiliar city. Were we in America I’d have said “Nope. I’ll just find another place to stay, thanks.” but we are in Asia, which is exponentially safer, so we just followed her. She took us to the 4th floor of this rather large building and showed us where we could sleep and the shower and so forth. My initial reaction was that it was a bit dirty, but that’s not the right word. The furnishings are a little bit old, but everything’s clean. The shower is nice and warm–sadly not hot–and the room is air conditioned! There are another 4 guys staying here besides us, but we haven’t met them. It seems as though everyone mostly keeps to themselves.

A bit of good luck concerning my camera–I didn’t forget it! It turns out it was merely hiding in my bag. Tomorrow begins a hopefully long day of walking around and exploring this exciting city. The Lunar New Year is almost upon us! I hope everyone has their fireworks ready!

雪盖老河大的时候。。。

大家好!Last week I mentioned on Facebook that Kaifeng saw it’s first real snowfall of the year, and that I had the chance to go out and take a bunch of photos of the snow covering campus. I only uploaded my favorites here (along with one of me trying my hand at printing a kind of Chinese lithograph).

Christmas is quickly approaching, although it doesn’t feel like it much in Kaifeng. Some stores have Christmas trees displayed inside or put up some decorations, but the overall holiday atmosphere is severely lacking. I have yet to hear a single Christmas Carol or see any Christmas Lights put up, which are two of my favorite things about Christmas. All of the foreign students have been asked (by this I really mean coerced) into performing something for a holiday program the school is apparently having on Christmas Day. Despite my not wanting to have to perform anything, all of the foreigners are essentially being forced into it so at least we’ll all be able to laugh at each other. Our finals are just around the corner now, my first exam landing on the 7th of January. It seems extremely late by America’s standards because Chinese New Years is the biggest holiday of the year, and that is the holiday the Chinese school system works its semesters around. My second semester doesn’t begin until the end of February so I suppose I can deal with having class through my usual Christmas break. Happy holidays everyone, enjoy the holiday atmosphere, and let’s hope we make it through the impending Doomsday.

 

 

English Speaking Competition

A few weekends ago, I was invited by one of my Chinese friends to attend an English speaking competition. It was a little awkward at first because some of the people running the competition thought that I (along with a few of the other Americans in attendance) were judges, and we had to explain that we were just there to watch. There were a total of 13 contestants, and each contestant was to have a memorized speech no longer than 3 minutes prepared, and were then given a question that they had to answer in under two minutes. After this, the judges asked them questions concerning both their speech and the contestant’s answer to the question. I thought that watching this competition was going to be like pulling teeth, but it ended up being an incredibly eye-opening experience.

All of the contestants were students, naturally, and many spoke English rather well. This alone gave me renewed vigor and drive in my studies of Chinese because if these students can obtain such a firm grasp of the admittedly difficult English language, then I, surely, can become fluent in Chinese. Chinese is, after all, much easier than English particularly in terms of grammar. Listening to the students give their speeches really gave me insight into the Chinese way of thinking and (what feel to me as an American, at least) cultural abnormalities. Many students spoke of college life, and one topic in particular really stuck with me. It is still very rare in China for student to take out student loans to pay for their college education–the parents are supposed to provide that for their children. Working during the semester is also very frowned upon, because it would distract from studies. This contestant’s speech was about how he would like to do more for his parents right now, but he cannot. He can only see them every once in awhile, and how he wants to repay them for everything they’ve done for him, but he cannot because he’s still a student. So, he studies even harder–he wants to be the best student he can be so their money isn’t wasted and that he can find a good job after graduation to provide for them in their old age. I can’t say I’ve met a single student in the US who have a similar feeling of responsibility towards their parents concerning their grades or their future careers. Similarly, another contestant’s topic was that growing up means relinquishing your dreams and studying something you can use to find a good job to care for your family. This seemed like a very Chinese thing to say. Often in America I hear it said or see on television shows to “follow your dream”, even if it’s not very pragmatic. We don’t like telling people to put their dreams on the shelf and to get a job that isn’t glamorous or fun but pays bills because America is the Land of Opportunity (or used to be). Chinese people cannot afford to think like that, and so you are urged to go with the option that is more likely to produce the most financial gain. It isn’t necessarily that money brings you happiness in China, but money definitely brings you comfort, and that is something that many people still don’t have. In Kaifeng, many of the houses do not have heat or AC, and with temperatures currently at about 4 degrees Celsius, I can’t imagine these people are living in any sort of comfort.

Some of the contestants’ topics paralleled my own thoughts–one of the girls’ topics was that she thinks the media stresses thinness too much, especially in women. She stressed that everyone should love themselves for who they are and what they look like, and not to hate themselves for who social media reminds us we aren’t. This message is something that is really being stressed in America recently, and it just seemed so amazing to me that even in a culture completely different from my own and about 7000 miles apart that there are so many people who share similar ideas and views. It’s nice to know that, even on the other side of the world, there are people who, despite cultural differences and a language barrier, are just like me. 

 

Chrysanthemum Festival (Part 1)/Pizza Hut in China

大家好!我希望大家的身体是很好!Yesterday (October the 18th) began the start of this year’s Chrysanthemum Festival! During the past week or so skeletal sculptures were erected along the sidewalks and in front of gates and storefronts. They looked a bit odd at first, but things quickly became clear–they are now being used as vehicles to displays thousands and thousands of chrysanthemums. We had a small presentation about the festival in class, but I didn’t catch much of it. The orator was speaking pretty quickly, and I’m fairly certain smoke began wafting out of my ears towards the end of the speech because my brain was completely fried. I did understand that the city will be displaying the flowers for a month and that all of the foreigners are going to be taking a class trip to one of the historic parks next weekend to wander around and see the flowers.  It may be a tad on the boring side, but I plan to take many pictures.

This afternoon, we decided to go on an “adventure”. The original plan was to catch the number 6 bus out of town which would take us to the bank of the Yellow River. However, we arrived at the bus stop after it had been there for awhile so it was about as packed as it could get. We asked a local how long it would be until the next bus, and she told us it would be about 30-40 minutes, so we ditched the plan and began walking towards another park. By the time we got there the gates were about to close because it was 5 o’ clock at this point, so we opted for plan C which was to take a bus to the downtown area. This then turned into plan D. Plan D was exactly the same as plan C but instead of a bus we caught a cab because we didn’t want to waste our time with the bus. You’ve probably guessed by now that within our little group patience isn’t our strongest virtue.

We finally arrived downtown and walked around a bit, coming to rest at a crepe shop. It was pretty fantastic–they even used real whipped cream! That was a shocker, since almost all other sweet dairy products in China (ice cream, yogurt, smoothies) all have a fermented sour taste. Eventually, we found our way to the Pizza Hut in Kaifeng. They had some of the most interesting pizza topping combinations I have ever seen. This was also the classiest Pizza Hut I had ever been to, and the first time I have sat down to a meal in China with a butter knife included in the place setting. Fast food chains in China are not like the ones in America–they are some of the most expensive places to dine. A glass of soda at the Pizza Hut cost 12 kuai, whereas buying a bottle in a little restaurant would be about 1.5 kuai. And the meals seem outrageously expensive too–30 kuai for a chicken sandwich, compared to 4 kuai for a large bowl of beef noodles. The meal was a bit on the pricey side, but the thick, buttery crust and stringy, greasy cheese was worth every fen I paid. Nothing has tasted like home as that pizza. Also, if you would like to get a better feel for the decadence that is Pizza Hut in China, you can try looking at their website here.

 

我爱夜市!!

Yesterday evening I purchased the first two seasons of The Walking Dead (with all of the extra footage and whatnot) for all of 15元. With an exchange rate of 1元 = 0.159569 USD, I bought this DVD set for about $2.40. Now you too know the greatness of the 夜市,or night market. Between the hours of 7 and 10 PM, parts of certain streets and empty lots are filled with vendors selling a plethora of tasty treats and fairly priced treasures. If you see something you like, but think it’s tad too expensive you can always try and bargain down the price, or just walk down a few stalls because you’ll likely find an identical trinket on another table. The night market we visited was on a specific street, and it is by far the largest one in downtown Kaifeng. The street is named 书店街,or Bookseller’s Street. It’s a bit like the historic part of Kaifeng. The buildings on the street have been restored and repainted to resemble their original structures, and it was where everyone would go to purchase their books and utensils in a younger China. Because it’s one of the main tourist attractions in Kaifeng, it quickly became the largest night market in the city. The vendors arrive around sundown and simply set up shop right in front of the store fronts, crowding the street. I’ve definitely gotten used to inevitable jostling and shoving that comes from being swallowed by a crowd in China. Rarely am I startled when the scooters (and often cars trying to squeeze into the narrow streets) honk at us to get out of the way. Th night market is one my favorite things about the city thus far–simply strolling around the street, looking at the clothes and food and nick-knacks while making Chinese friends and laughing along with them when they can’t understand my broken Chinese  just seems utterly unreal. On the taxi ride home I can’t wipe the I-still-can’t-believe-I’m-in-China grin off of my face. I really feel like I’m a part of the city now. Be sure to check back in a week or so because the Chrysanthemum Festival is coming, and the city is going to be COVERED in flowers, so I plan to take many pictures. Enjoy the ones I took of the market yesterday evening! 慢走。

开封府 (Kaifengfu)

Today my little group and I set out in hopes to explore the Millenium Park, but instead ended up at Kaifengfu within the center of the city. We decided to wait on the Millenium Park because in a few weeks there will be either a flower festival or a changing of the leaves festival there (we still aren’t sure which). Since the price of admission is a bit on the higher side, the decision was unanimous to wait for the festival to see the temples and grounds of the park. Therefore, we ended up at the Kaifengfu. It was most famous for being the home place for Lord Bao of the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty ruled over China from about 999 AD to 1279 AD, and Lord Bao called this palace home until his death in 1062. Thinking back, it’s absolutely amazing that I was just walking around a huge palace that’s about 1000 years old. Every day I’m hit with sensory overload in China, from the foods and the sights and sounds, and my mind constantly feels bogged down with all of the history here–it’s just amazing. You can find out more about Lord Bao and Kaifengfu here and here. Here are some photos I took while touring around, I hope you enjoy them!

在中国减肥。。。

Coming to China, I really thought that it would be pretty easy to lose weight. Kaifeng isn’t too large of a city, so the most common method of transportation is the oldest one in the books–walking. I walk EVERYWHERE. There are no elevators in my dorm, and since I’m living on the fifth floor the five or so trips I make to my room end up giving me a good workout. The problem is the food. The food here is absolutely WONDERFUL. Today I went of the West gate of campus and bought 3 baozi (buns, essentially) that aren’t too terrible because they aren’t huge and they’re steamed–not fried. And then my little group happened upon a cart that sold some sort of Chinese burrito. The shell looked like it had been slightly fried, and before they began to fill it they lightly coated it with some soy sauce concoction. The innards consisted of a small amount of beef (small, of course), potato slivers, and cucumber slivers that appeared to have been lightly fried in some oil, and after this wonderful mix was heaped into the soft shell, the cook added some hot spices and wrapped it up. This has probably been one of my favorite meals in China so far, and the best part–it cost 3 kuai. Which is currently about $0.45. So the problem with much of this food is that it really isn’t that healthy. Rice, noodles, buns, dumplings, these weird but delicious pancake things–they’re just full of carbs. And MANY menu items at restaurants are cooked in either oil or lard. So it appears that losing weight in China isn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped. For dinner I got an interesting carrot/cucumber/peanut mixture that was pretty good–it wasn’t really in a sauce, and I think the carrots and cucumbers were just raw, so that wasn’t too heavy. I got a small helping of some strange vegetable in a very spicy sauce that was…alright. I loved the spice, I’m not sure about the texture. But there was not a single grain of rice nor strand of noodle on my plate, so I felt somewhat healthy.

Today was our first day of classes! I think it went really well. I’m really happy that the teachers speak almost exclusively Mandarin. By the end of the class I felt like I was not only absorbing more of what the professor was telling us, but also listening better. I really can’t wait to see how much my skills will improve by the end of the semester. These classes are moving pretty quickly too–each is an hour and a half long and we’re going through about two chapters in each class. Well, that’s about it for now. I think this weekend we’re going to take a trip to one of the large parks in Kaifeng. It’s the main tourist attraction here–several dynasties have been through the castle there, so I hope to get some fantastic pictures! 慢慢走。

Ben.

What a bummer…

Well, I ended up being placed in the lowest level of Chinese because of a low score on the placement test. I definitely saw it coming since I had almost no idea what any of the questions asked on the exam, but looking through the books and seeing the basic pronunciation charts is quite disheartening. It’s almost as if it’s invalidating the semesters I took at Akron. However, if the Chinese think that’s where I need to be then that’s where I need to be–they would know best, after all. And there really is a huge difference in studying Chinese here than in the states. Ah well. 加油!

We have to pile into a bus at 7 AM tomorrow morning to get our medical examination. I’m not really looking forward to it, except that we’ll be going back into Zhengzhou. Devin tells me there’s a Starbucks there, and maybe, JUST MAYBE, it’ll be close to wherever we’re having the examination and I can sneak off and get some coffee. I can dream right? Drink lots of delicious coffee for me everyone =)

Ben

Wandering around Kaifeng

    Hey everyone! It’s been awhile, I know. I don’t have internet yet! It’s quite bothersome trying to get some wifi set up for the dorm because unlike Akron, Henan University’s internet is strictly through ethernet cords. Unless you buy the necessary equipment to set up the wireless yourself. Hopefully by Monday we’ll be all set up! Yesterday we went to the iron pagoda in Kaifeng, and strolled around what looked like a small park but it ended up being rather large. There was some great scenery, and lots of the Asian people there were taking our pictures, so it felt kind of awkward. I forgot to grab my camera, so I’ll upload pictures some other time. There’s really so much I want to write, but I can’t think of much right now. Haha. Until next time!