Radio rapture

I hope I don’t get NPR blocked if the government reads this.

I never tried using my iTunes stream to KQED before this week, but suddenly it occurred to me that this might not be blocked. Thank goodness I can have my morning cup of NPR! With the time difference it’s a little weird to wake up to a random show instead of All Things Considered. It’s also oddly comforting to hear about the weather (fog) and the phrases “backed up through the 680 interchange,” “gridlocked through the maze” and “fender bender off to the side on the bridge.”

Yeah, I’m a nerd

I am taking six classes: advanced Chinese, basics of writing, Classical Chinese, classical Chinese literature, modern Chinese literature, contemporary Chinese literature. All of these classes have a lot of new vocabulary and the teachers tend to speak quickly during lectures, so the pace of learning new material is pretty fast.

I’m not really into technology, and I normally kind of like using my beat up little pocket paperback dictionary. However, everyone else in my class has an electronic dictionary, and after the past few days boy do I know why! It’s really hard to keep up just using a paperback dictionary, because to look up a Chinese word you don’t know takes several steps.

Last night I finally bought an electronic dictionary, and I am in love. First of all, it was on sale and was way less than any other dictionary I’ve seen here. But it has more than enough features for me. From what I could tell it was way less money than the others because it doesn’t have a color screen. Oh no! How will I ever learn without colored dictionary entries?!

The saleswoman did make a very convincing pitch for the updated model from the same company; that dictionary could translate whole sentences. She showed it off by writing 我现在在物美, which came out in English as “I am thing pretty.” It should have said, “I am at WuMei right now.” Needless to say, I had little faith in it’s sentence translation to begin with, and had even less after a demonstration. That dictionary was about 500 kuai more expensive, so after long deliberation, I went with the cheapy.

It comes with several different dictionaries in it, including a Chinese idiom dictionary and a CLASSICAL CHINESE dictionary!!! Yeah, in case you can’t tell, I’m really stoked about that. Having an easier way to look up classical Chinese words will cut my homework time down by a lot, and it will make reading classical Chinese for fun much closer within reach. It also has a bunch of stuff I’ll never use like games and calendars and whatnot.

One of the coolest things is that it comes with a stylus, so I can write a character and it will look it up for me. This is really useful when I have no clue how a character is pronounced and I don’t want to go through a multi-step process to look it up. Anyway, I used it a bunch in class today and was very pleased with it.

On the tables

It has come to my attention that when I moved my blog off the WordPress server, the RSS feed may not have updated properly, meaning those of you who were relying on a reader to inform you of my posts might have missed a few.  If you are actually interested in what I have to say, you might want to look into it.

However, seeing how this is Caitlin’s blog, I’m sure that there are many who don’t care the slightest about me or my blog.  If that’s the case, forget everything you just read.


Today, for the first time in a while I spent a few hours not doing anything. With Jeff in Hong Kong fixing his visa, I find myself feeling like I have a ton of time on my hands. How does that little rhyme go again? Correlation equals causation? Science kids, help me out. Har har.

Anyway, I had some time on my hands, and rather than doing laundry (current status: not quite out of chones, but choosing outfits is a bit difficult), or studying, I decided to stalk Jeff’s blogs of past days. Yes, I’m that pathetic.

But actually, it made me realize that there are a few things I haven’t been able to do in China that I really loved in my Davis life.

1. Bake bread

2. Bake brownies, cookies and chocolatey things to give to friends

3. Cook really tasty dinners

4. Go to farmers market/pick fruit from Impossible Acres

5. Hang out with Davis peeps in Davis

6. Warm country strolls

7. Warm country bikerides

8. Warm country car rides (sorry environment, I just love that stuffy hot car feeling)

9. Dates that don’t involve public transportation or traffic jams

10. Air that smells nice

Looking over the list, most of these things require a country setting, warm weather and an oven. Dang you China! Apparently my life is also a lot more food-centric than I thought, probably due to a certain tape-worm-toting boyfriend. I guess I’d better get that oven I’ve been coveting. [although baking soda, baking powder and yeast are probably the limiting agents in my baking dreams] I’m going to need an oven to comfort me in the coming months of bitter cold, pollution and hours spent riding public transport. It’s currently 4 p.m. and I am sitting in bed, wearing a sweatshirt, fuzzy bathrobe and blankets. Winter is coming…

High school dramz

Sometimes I feel like I’m the new kid in high school. There are school bells that tell you when to start and end class. Everyone in the same grade level has all their classes together. We don’t really get to pick our classes or class times. We get up ridiculously early. The teachers don’t expect too much. There are cliques.

The other day, I went to a new class. When I got there the room was mostly full of students who already knew each other and were talking rowdily. Being the somewhat shy girl I am, I went to a nice looking girl and asked if I could sit next to her. Without so much as a hint of charity, she said “seat’s taken,” a la Forest Gump. Not to be deterred, I sat nearby, only to watch that seat remain empty throughout the entire 90-minute class.

On Friday, I tried to go to my 8 a.m. class. First I went to the room I thought it was in, but another class was in there. Realizing I had written the wrong room number down, I ran to the department office and checked the bulletin board. To my surprise, it said the same room as the room with the wrong class in it. Realizing something was awry, and that nobody was working at that hour who could help me, I trooped home and took a nap. When I asked some classmates about it in the next class, they all sort of laughed and explained that the room had been switched, and nobody had corrected the posted room number.

It’s strange. I don’t feel bummed out by these high school snubs and mishaps. I kinda think it’s funny.

Bass Ackwards Education

While talking to some of my new foreign friends from school, I learned something truly mystifying. If you are an undergraduate foreign student at BNU, you are subject to many rules about which classes you can take, when you can take them, and so on. This seems pretty logical, after all, they want to make sure that the foreign students go to the right level of classes and get a fair shot at a good learning experience.

However, one of the rules is that you must take three years of classes within the school for foreign students. You see, foreign students usually cannot take classes with regular university students. Instead, they take language classes, of which there are more or less four years’ worth. Now, when you get to the university, everyone takes a placement test and starts classes accordingly. You’d think that placing very highly would ultimately be good. In my mind, if you placed highly enough, you could skip out on the language classes, which are kind of boring, and start off taking real university courses. And wouldn’t that be a great way to really get fluent?

That’s where the three-year rule rears it’s nasty head. If you place too highly, you run out of foreign student courses before three years is up. In order to fulfill the requirement, you have to take classes from a lower level. Again.

That’s right.

One girl in my fourth-year class is in this situation. Next year she’ll be taking second-year Chinese.

Ok, so I know that really, when it comes to languages, reviewing can only help. But a whole year in a lower-level class seems like torture. I can’t understand why they have such inflexible rules, and why they seem to try as hard as possible to keep foreign students from taking classes within the other university departments.

Luckily, I am an exchange student, so I can do as I jolly well please since I’ll only be a pain to them for one year. Life just isn’t fair, is it?

Oh, that conniving government

Even if you don’t know your garlic press from your pasta maker, you can probably recognize this brand as a leader in knife sales. But you may be surprised to know that Henckels does not always sell knives, at least not in Beijing.

Let me draw up a time line for you, and we can see understand this problem with more clarity.

August 8, the Beijing Olympics begin

August 9, an American tourist is stabbed in Beijing, incurring increased security measures

August 16, I move into my new apartment

August 24, Beijing Olympic games close

September 17, Beijing Paralympic games close

Like most people, I began shopping for needed household items as soon as I moved into my apartment. One of the most important things to me was to get my kitchen up and running, so I began buying all my pots, pans and the like. Unlike grocery stores in the U.S., most stores in China are more like Costco — they sell virtually everything you need for your house. So, I began what would become a long and tiresome search for a knife at Wu Mart, the giant chain grocery store near my house that sells everything from lingerie to kitchen stoves to fresh-cut fish. I cruised down the silverware and kitchen utensils aisle, looking desperately for a kitchen knife, to no avail. Thinking it was a fluke, I asked an employee, only to get a terse “no knives” answer. So a few days later, I went to Bonjour, a competing large supermarket. Again, “no knives.”

Figuring I must just not know where Chinese people buy knives, I started asking around. Most people seemed bewildered that I couldn’t find one. So, I visited several malls and went to their home wares sections, only to continually get the “no knives” response. Weeks passed, Jeff and I went traveling, and I arrived back with the Olympics over and a renewed hope in my heart that I would be able to find a knife. The shelves at Wu Mart remained empty, and the local malls had nothing for me.

This is where Henckels comes in. While out with Jeff and my parents in mid to late September, we went to the most upscale mall district in Beijing. Jeff marched me into a Henckels store, almost demanding that knives be sold. We went to the salesgirl, and I asked her whether they had any knives for sale. Her embarrassed reply was “not right now.”

I’m sorry, “not right now?” What does that mean?! Also, this is Henckels. They shouldn’t sell anything but knives! But the store shelves were devoid of anything sharp. I asked the other stores there, and got basically the same answer. Finally, I started a new strategy: “When will you be selling knives?”

“September 20th”

Now, often when something inconvenient or sort of stupid happens in Beijing, it is blamed on the Olympics. This time, it really was the Olympics’ fault. As it turns out, stores across the city were banned from selling knives. Most people never noticed, because you only need to buy kitchen knives a few years at the most. I, however, spent over a month unable to really cook anything or eat fruit that required chopping, all because the government is crazy paranoid. Let the record also show that to get into the games and all subway stations, you have to go through screening, so a knife wouldn’t get anywhere anyway. But let’s not get fooled by logic.

On September 20, I tried again to get a knife, only to get the same responses from salespeople — no knives. Annoyed, I put forward the claim that it was September 20, and I knew knives were allowed. But, the salespeople said they hadn’t gotten the official OK yet.

So, finally on Sept. 28 or so, I finally found a knife at an upscale store. It was more expensive than any knife I’ve ever owned — over 200 kuai, or about $40 USD — but I decided to just get the dang thing.

A few days ago — as in early October — Wu Mart started selling knife sets with cutting boards and honers for 35 kuai. I was rather upset considering that the cheap knives were put back on the market way later than the expensive ones, but bought the set anyway since it was useful, and I had this nagging compulsion to stock up on knives.

Beijing bureacracy really does something to your psyche sometimes.

I guess the lesson is: the government can stop you from cutting up veggies for dinner, but it won’t go out of it’s way to prevent you getting kidney stones at breakfast. What a safe Olympics!

Home sweet home

I’ve spent a lot of time fixing up and cleaning my apartment lately, so I thought I’d fill you in. I know many readers found it shockingly disgusting, so I thought I’d set your minds at ease.

A few weeks ago, my parents came to visit and true to form, my dad helped me to get rid of an unwanted house guest. He scraped all the black grease off of my pipes, lizard and all, into a bowl. After a few days of deliberation, I decided to throw the bowl out instead of try to de-lizard and de-grease it. Now every time I go into the kitchen, I have to admit that I admire my pipes and their lack of lizard.

My mom and Jeff cleaned out my balcony mudroom, which permanently turned a pair of formerly blue washcloths grey. I don’t mind touching surfaces in there anymore, and my clothes line willingly holds the weight of wet clothing. Huzzah!

My kitchen is getting homier and homier. I bought a spice rack and have been dutifully filling it with spices and surrounding it with a meager collection of Chinese sauces. I also have a new teapot that doesn’t leave strange flakes in the water, an oven mitt and several cutting boards. I have even cooked several meals in the apartment with some success!

Best of all, my kitchen no longer has quite as foul a weird smell, as I spent several days ridding the kitchen floor of years’ of old food and oil spills. When I got the apartment, I assumed the tile had come up in some of the corners, revealing the dirty cement beneath. As it turned out, the dirtiness was actually an inch-thick layer of gunk on top of the tile. Now that I’ve rid the kitchen floor of those patches over a period of several days’ work, the place is much nicer. Jeff also was nice enough to completely clean the grease off of one of my large kitchen cabinets.

Since some of the counter tops weren’t really salvageable, I put a nice thick plastic mat over them so I can still set food on them without being grossed out. I also got a nice little dish rack.

Obviously the kitchen was my top priority, but I also spent some time getting the bathroom in order, because it also had some peculiar smells. It took some elbow grease, an extra-strength toilet bowl cleaner and some chemically dubious drain de-clogger, but now it’s quite nice. I even got a fancy toilet scrubber with it’s own ducky bucket — a huge improvement over the previous oddly colored naked scrubby brush left on the floor by previous tenants.

Jeff also built me a nice shoe rack, so my entryway now looks very inviting and organized. He made it out of a plank and two speakers, all of which was left by some previous tenant, so it’s both attractive and free! I also bought a rainbow umbrella, which really livens the place up.

Yesterday I bought a floorlamp to keep the place nice and bright at night. Most lights in China are pretty dim, and being a 120-watt kind of girl, it’s been a little dreary living in a dimmer environ. It may not look like much, but it makes a world of difference.

Now, I just have to get my “living room” area (the other side of my bedroom) set up, and the apartment will be just right!

Shaping young, privleged minds

I started my teaching job on Saturday. Yes, I work the weekends, which I’m not so pleased about. BUT, it’s a really good opportunity. I’m teaching elective conversational English classes at the Experimental School attached to BNU, which is among the top middle and high schools in China.

My Saturday class starts at 8:50 a.m. (oof) and is an hour-and-a-half long. It has three students, three girls and a boy who are all between 11 and 13. My Sunday class is from 10:30 to noon and has six students — four girls and two boys — who are all about 12 except for one tiny nine-year-old girl. Every single student is very smart and their English is pretty advanced. I’m not supposed to speak Chinese during class and they do a very good job following along even when the whole lesson is in English. The students are actually so bright that it’s challenging thinking of games and activities to keep them busy — just following the book doesn’t cut it.

I also have two classes during the week from 5:30 to 7 p.m. with one student. I start that class tomorrow, and I expect it to be intense. I heard that my student plans to go abroad to the US for high school, so he must be quite smart and motivated to work hard and fast, so I don’t know what to expect yet from him.

The job can be challenging, but I think it will be a good experience. I’ve never had to teach children — or really deal with children — before.

The daily grind

Today was my first day back from the national holiday break, which for the record was a week off from school one week into the school year. It was a little weird.I decided that I couldn’t stand being in the easy classes any more, so today I went to the next level up, which is pretty dang near the top of what they offer for foreign students. The class I went to today was a “basic” writing class which is actually pretty challenging, as it requires writing about two essays per class period, one in class and one for homework. I really want to get my writing up to snuff, so it seems like a good fit. I’m also planning on taking two classical Chinese classes, one modern literature and one contemporary literature class. Everything will hopefully work out and I have until Wednesday to figure it out and decide for sure. Wish me luck!