7 Rules of the Chinese Post Office

Chinese post offices are ridiculous. The shortest time it’s ever taken me to mail a package was 80 minutes, with the all-time-record being around two and half hours. You might be wondering how this is possible. Well, there are some rules involved in going to the post office.

1: English may not be used.

2: You have to understand the dialects and accents of the postal workers for if they sense weakness in any form they will not use Mandarin.

3: Since you are a foreign devil, if any Chinese person enters the post office they are immediately given your place in the queue and you move to the back.

4: If you brought your own box, or stupidly decided to pack up your things before coming, too bad. Everything will be taken out, taken apart, and thoroughly inspected, before the postal workers repack everything into one of their own boxes.

5: Oh, you forgot your passport? After going back home to fetch it return to square one.

6: You have to fill out the requisite customs form, which has an additional nine copies of the form below it, with enough force so that ink is applied evenly to all ten layers. If you are unsuccessful, or accidentally tear the paper, you may try again until you succeed.

7: You may not break into the diarrhea sweats while the postal workers are mid-way through repacking your possessions, as there is no public restroom within a 10 minute walking radius of the post office. You may either forfeit your belongings, or shit your pants, which would result in you moving to the back of the line.

Note: I sincerely love all of the post workers I’ve come to know and love over my three months in Jinan and don’t actually think any of them would call me a foreign devil. Except Linmei. She might.

Diarrhea Dieting, or, How to Lose 10lbs in Three Days!

I’m almost half-way done with the Jinan portion of my trip, which is difficult to wrap my mind around. I’ve barely begun to create any sort of stable routine in my life, and my body still has yet to adjust to the food here. Then again, part of the reason I wanted to live abroad was to throw myself out of my routine, and to make myself swim for the surface. That’s really what this trip has been about, putting the right spin on things. However, if you’d tried to tell me that while I was having diarrhea while hovering over a squat toilet on a moving train yesterday, I probably wouldn’t have been so receptive. I would go into more detail about that wonderful little gem of an experience, but I’m sure none of you really want to hear the gritty details, like how I *****CENSORED BY THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA FOR GRAPHIC CONTENT*****, but no one needs to hear about that.

The real question is why was I on a train in the first place! That’s because starting on the 7th, we’ve been on vacation/independent study. When I visited the Portland Chinese Gardens with my literature class last semester, we had a wonderful tour from an excellent tour guide named Carol — I highly recommend going, make sure to ask for her — who had a passion for the Chinese city Suzhou, which is filled to the brim with the magnificent Chinese gardens that the Portland imitation was based on. So when I had 10 free days, and knew that the one thing I needed was to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, where better, I thought, than to go to the city once described by Marco Polo as the “Venice of the East”.

After my traumatic and emotionally scarring encounter with the squattie in the train, I was in no short time forced to endure two other harrowing experiences. After emerging from the Suzhou rail station, I made my way to the taxi queue, where a government official who is supposed to make sure that the infamous black cabs — who don’t have a license, and aren’t allowed to drive anyone — aren’t allowed to pick up any unsuspecting foreigners. Except he wasn’t there. I knew exactly what was going on — that the group of fifteen or so men all yelling at me and gesticulating to get in THEIR black cab were trying to scam me — but had no recourse except to eventually succumb to their aggressive posturing and have my luggage removed from my person and thrown in the trunk of whichever lucky bastard the crowd decided most deserved the spoils of taking advantage of my waiguoren-ness. Have we covered the term waiguoren yet? It literally means outsider, and children are trained from the tender age of two to scream it at me, alternated with ha-looo (a transliteration of hello), whenever they catch a glimpse of me in public. The most upsetting part was that I knew exactly what was happening, yet had no choice but to watch on in horror as events unfolded before my eyes.

Which is exactly how I felt when I got to the hotel and they told me they were adding a 15% service charge to my bill, and that it was also hotel policy to round up the bill to the nearest 1,000 yuan. That makes perfect sense, right? After trying every trick in the book of intercultural communication, I eventually rested my case and was ripped off for the third time that day (the first instance was whoever sold me whatever gave me diarrhea). But not all is sad and cruel in this world, for there is a Starbucks directly across the street from my accursed resting place. As determined as Suzhou seemed to be in trying to get me to hate it from the get go, with some caffeine in me the day was restarted and I set out to explore the three classical Chinese gardens closest to my hotel.

And boy am I glad that I didn’t give up on Suzhou then, because that afternoon was one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. These gardens are pockets of peace and tranquility tucked away in a city as Chinese as any other, bustling with the single-mindedly aggressive and purposeful energy of 10 million Suzhou-ese. Most of these gardens used to be the living quarters of government officials and wealthy merchants from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. These gardens served as places for reflection and escape from the duties of their political lives. Here government officials could moonlight as scholars, poets, and artists, as often as not in the moonlight itself. One of the gardens I visited has a special pagoda specially constructed to give the inhabitant an extraordinary view of the moon at night.




Many of the pagodas are filled with inscriptions of wonderful Chinese poetry, which was sometimes composed right where the viewer now stands, hundreds of years later, able to enjoy the same words and scenery as the original author. Others are named in reference to lines from poems both obscure and prominent. In one such temple, being the pretentious, stuck-up asshole that I am, I proceeded to recite the poem that the pagoda was named for. I was impressed by myself, if no one else was.


The gardens are usually centered around a pond, filled with goldfish, and surrounded by ornate pagodas, artificially constructed rock-formations, and intricate winding pathways filled with thriving flora. In addition to the above, the owners also had living quarters constructed on the edge of the water, so as to be able to rise every morning inspired by the beauty of their garden.




While walking through the first of the gardens I visited, I was quickly drawn back in time to Carol’s informative tour so many months ago. She explained to us then that in a Chinese garden every window design is unique, so that no single design is ever repeated throughout any one individual garden. Additionally, these windows and rounded entryways can be used to frame scenes for a viewer. I attempted to replicate this technique through some of my photographs. I was also blown away by the nature of the pathways, with their innovative designs that seemed to change not only between gardens, but also from section to section of one individual garden.




Best of all, the gardens were nearly empty. I was able to soak up the beautiful ambiance in almost total silence and serenity, as the other few tourists and locals seemed just as captivated as I by the sense that this is a place of reflection and calm, and should be treated as such. The only sound to break the spell of quietude was the periodic splash of a goldfish breaking through the surface of the pond, which, if anything, only added to the sense of tranquility.

Why Chinese is so Hard

I read a wonderful post about the difficulties of learning Chinese before leaving for the PRC this summer, and I’ve been thinking about how hard this language is to learn pretty often lately. There’s a multitude of reasons why this is so, but today I’m going to zoom in on just one.

The thing most commonly discussed in the first few years of taking Chinese, to me, seemed to be the question of how many characters one has to learn in order to be considered ‘fluent’. Forget for a moment the question of how one defines fluent, which is problematic all on its own, and instead think about the nature of the Chinese character. In English we have words, each one carrying its own distinct meaning. Chinese characters do not function in exactly the same way. They can mean something on their own, yes, but more often they are paired with another character to create a new meaning. Sometimes one of the two characters is only ever used in conjunction with the other character, but in most cases each character can be combined with other characters in myriad ways. Take the character 认 (ren) for example. On it’s own, it means something along the lines of to recognize. You can combine it with 为 (wei) to mean to consider, or combine it with 识 (shi) to mean to be familiar with, or with 真 (zhen) to mean sincere. In all, my dictionary has over 40 words containing the character 认.

So, if I’m to say that you only need to learn 2,000 characters to be ‘fluent’ in Chinese, or to be able to read a newspaper, what am I really saying? You need to be versed in the meanings of the multitude of two-character combinations of those 2,000 characters, a much more dizzyingly intimidating feat than simply memorizing the meanings and stroke-orders of some 2,000 characters. I’d say that I’ve learned at least 700-800 characters at this point, maybe upwards of 1,100 or so, who really knows, and I feel that I can recognize at least 50-75% of the characters in any given text, as long as there isn’t an excessive amount of jargon involved. However, since the pronunciation and meaning of a character can change depending on its position relative to other characters, I’m completely lost in almost everything I try to read. Whereas in French I can learn the word for soleil and know that it means the sun, in Chinese I can learn that 日 (ri) means sun, but that 日本 (riben) means Japan, and that 节日 (jieri) means holiday. And since there aren’t spaces as we have them in English, sentencescanappearlikethisuntilyouknowwhereonewordendsandthenextbegins. Imagine trying to read that sentence with English not being your first language, kind of difficult, right? And then add to that the tone of the character can change depending on the tone of the character following, and that some characters have different tones altogether depending on the character combination that they’re in.

I’m getting a little side-tracked here, so back to my main point. Learning 2,000 characters, an accomplishment on it’s own, isn’t actually enough to understand anything, let alone read a newspaper. The real work is under the surface, knowing all the different combinations of those 2,000 characters, and their different pronunciations. And then those 2,000 are only the 90% most commonly used ones, so if you run into a newspaper headline and you don’t know one or two specific keywords, you’re still totally lost. And you don’t have any cognates to help you. The original article that inspired this post I will link below, as it does a much better job than me of explaining why this wonderful language is so difficult to learn.


Diarrhea Daydreaming

I’ve gotten lax about keeping this updated, and a lot has happened over the past few weeks, so be prepared for an exceptionally drawn-out, painful, sudden bowel moveme- I mean blog post. When I left off, I was just starting to get used to the pace of life here. And then I was whisked out of my room at 8:00am sharp, thrown in a bus, and took the train to Qingdao with all of my classmates for a week of learning about tea, beer, and everything else that the previously-German city has to offer. But instead of giving you a neat summary of the city that you could find on Wikipedia if you actually cared, I’m going to tell you about things that happened to me, because that’s why you’re here!

I had the opportunity to visit the tea fields of a generous tea company based out of Qingdao, and the chance to pick my own tea! Was it a green or a red, might you ask? It was both, and neither! because as I learned, tea only becomes green, red, white, yellow, black, or qing (the six types) during the processing stage. How egalitarian! Any tea leaf can become any type of tea. Incredible.



From there we were invited to learn the art of the tea ceremony from the current tea-making champion in China, Ma Dashi.


The one small hiccup to this plan is my daily dose of Chinese diarrhea, which never fails to make an appearance when it most unwanted. Like clockwork, just as we sat down at 10am with Ma Dashi, I hear the first signs of a grumble from down under. In China, we take toilet paper with us everywhere. What one cannot take on the go, however, is a western toilet. I want everyone to think long and hard about the implications of diarrhea on a squatting toilet. An hour into Ma Dashi’s lecture, the sweat was beading up on my face and the world was starting to slip away from me. And now, what’s this? I’m nauseous too? Apparently drinking green tea on an empty stomach can get you ‘tea drunk’, which involves motion sickness and nausea. Wonderful. At this point my Professor, Yueping, eagerly tells me that whenever she gets tea drunk she immediately elects to throw up. She looks expectantly at me. I elect not to go force myself to throw up, fearing what possible reverberations that might have on the rest of my body. By the time lunch rolls around, most of my sanity has rolled off in the other direction. My entire body is drenched in sweat and I can barely hold myself upright. It’s not just your normal diarrhea, I won the Chinese food lottery, I’ve gotten food poisoning.

Yueping decides that since two of us — Morgan and I — are tea drunk, we’re not going to take the planned thirty minute bus ride to our scheduled lunch, but that we’ll be going to the mall instead. I perk up at this, hoping that the mall might have a western toilet. Once we arrive, I make due haste and follow the signs towards salvation, making sure not to run, no matter how much of a hurry I am in, knowing just how cruel a body can be. Once I get to the bathrooms, I run in and– disaster. A row of squatties. I contemplate the fate lying floor-height before me, and after long consideration enter one of the stalls. I get as far as bending down into a squat, but I just can’t do it. I can’t force myself down this path. It’s far too terrifying. There’s no putting it into words. I walk out of the bathroom in shame, pain, and sadness, and see my friend Morgan, who’s also suffering from the diarrhea blues, or should I say browns. She couldn’t manage it either, which makes me feel slightly better about myself. And that’s when I see the handicap toilet– an ethical argument begins to unfold in my brain, about whether or not the plight of my privileged diarrhea justifies using the one handicap toilet in the entire mall. Let’s just say that I rushed towards the handicap toilet, to find that the cleaning staff uses it for their lunch break. The intermingling of shame and terror and sadness experienced at this moment is difficult to describe. Sweating profusely, Morgan and I shamefully walk back to the rest of our class, who are waiting for us by the escalator.

During the rest of the afternoon, I grin and bear it, in one of the most painful and nerve-wracking experiences of my life. While attempting to learn from Da Mashi, as he has us walk back and forth with books on our head and hold expensive looking tea cups, I fight my own internal battle, wiping sweat out of my eyes as the room tilts sideways. I try not to break down in tears as he presents us with a signed copy of his book, the grin on my face simultaneously expressing sincere appreciation and utmost agony.


The next day, fully recovered (but never for long, here) we headed off to the Qingdao beer museum. This would have been much more enjoyable if I hadn’t been assaulted by a group of Hunanese boyband types and their entourage shortly after arriving. I take back everything I said in my previous blog post; being jumped on by 20-some people all screaming at you and pulling at your hair and clothes is not fun and I refuse to enjoy it. I’m sending back the red carpet, I don’t want it anymore. Roll it back up. The silver lining of the trip was the very enjoyable ~drunk room~, which is built at an angle so that you never feel entirely in control of your footing whilst inside. On top of that, it slowly rocks back and forth to give you a sense of inebriation, without the actual intoxication! Thank god the free beer part comes later, as otherwise we’d be having clean up on aisle drunk room 24/7.

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Luckily I managed to keep my food down in the drunk room, which is especially good because if I hadn’t it would have turned into a veritable aquarium in no time. Seeing as Qingdao is perched on the edge of the pacific ocean, the local cuisine is just full of delicious little fishies and friends to snack on (apologies to my veg(an)etarian friends!).



One night we had the pleasure of walking to the ocean itself, and I got to see one of Qingdao’s architectural marvels in all of its nighttime glory.

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As we approached, we could hear a dull chanting from far away. As we got closer, we noticed a group of hundreds of people with their fists in the air, running as they circled the monument. No, this wasn’t some sort of protest, it was Qingdao’s city exercise group. Every major Chinese city has one, silly me! Hundreds of people getting together at night, wearing matching costumes as they run around a giant structure chanting and moving their arms in unison, duh! Why wouldn’t I expect that? Classic China. Trying not to stand out as a tourist, I jumped into the fray for a lap and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I need to find out where they do this in Jinan!

On our last day in Jinan, we traveled to a Daoist temple. It was gorgeous, and full of beautiful ancient architecture, freshly constructed for our consumption. I jest. Some of the sites and trees we walked among have been around for as long as 2,000 years, and have incredibly rich and powerful histories to boot.


I had the pleasure of learning about them first hand, from a wonderfully kind Daoist who saw me lost in contemplation (soon to be translation!) and decided to say hello. He didn’t know any English, and spoke a dialect of Chinese that I’m not too familiar with, but his overwhelming warmth and kindness caught me off guard and made my day. He took up Daoism right out of high school, and is a true believer. He believes that talking to foreigners such as myself is the only way for Daoism to spread, so he always takes the opportunity to do so whenever he can. It’s small moments like this when I am struck by the intense compassion and good-heartedness of the Chinese. He made up for the Hunanese boy band ten times over.


As we finished up our wonderful week long excursion with take out food hurriedly stuffed down while waiting for the departure call at the train station, our Chinese professor, who also accompanied us and served as our wonderful photographer, caught a candid snap of me wolfing down some rice.


Since this has turned into a glorified photo blog, I’m going to throw in a picture of the delicious scallion pancakes I’ve been eating every morning. Just looking at this picture is making me go weak in the knees.


Much else has happened since I’ve gotten back, but I think that’s going to have to wait on the rest for now. I promise to be more punctual with these updates in the future. Look forward to posts on culture shock, English language instruction in China, and an update on my research project! And a collection of the funniest photos I’ve taken so far.


So far I haven’t actually talked about what it is that I’ve been doing here. Here’s a brief summary of my life.

Funny things: While walking through the mall I was approached by a family and asked to hold their infant child and pose for a picture. This actually happened.

baby and me

Academic things: We started classes last week. We meet at 8:00 and 2:00. It’s a different set of classes every day. Sometimes we get a guest lecturer, covering an aspect of Chinese culture. We’ve talked about Daoism, Chinese geography, and Chinese media so far. Sometimes we meet with our Chinese teacher, Guo Laoshi. Sometimes Professor Zhang gives us a lecture on Cultural Psychology. Sometimes we meet to practice Tai Ji Shan. We’re learning a dance that we will be performing in public. In public. In. Public. Public. Dance. Performance. This is the song we’re performing to.

Research things: We met yesterday to discuss the independent research projects we will be conducting during our stay in Jinan. I want to research the attitudes of Chinese college students towards English. Specifically, whether they think everyone should be required to learn English, even those who never use it, as is the case today. I’m going to continue working on the specifics of my plan this weekend. I hope to write about my progress on the blog later.

Chinese things: I try to study Chinese on my own. But it’s hard to sit inside and mindlessly review flashcards when people are chatting in Chinese outside your window. However, no one actually wants to speak Chinese with me, only English. Except for my wonderful tutor, Jiaqi, who I meet with 2-3 times a week to go over my class lessons and chat in a confusing mix of Chinese and English. I am actually noticing vast improvements in my Chinese each time I meet with her, so I think that this will really help out in the long run. Also, she’s great to bounce ideas off of about my research project, since she’s exactly the demographic that I will be looking at. At this point, the act of speaking Chinese is easy for me, in the sense that it isn’t absolutely terrifying. However, I still have absolutely no idea what anyone else is saying. It’s anyone’s guess when that will stop happening.

Culinary things: I think I’ve tried every Chinese breakfast food imaginable, and none of them agree with me at seven in the morning. Except congyoubing (scrumptious oily green onion dough pancake), light of my life, most delicious thing to ever grace the inside of my stomach. You know how everyone tells you to avoid street food like the plague? Disregard that. This thing is so haochi (tasty) that I think I named the blog after it before even knowing that it existed. Some wonderful man, who’s name remains unknown to me, makes these things all day long on the side of the alley that I walk along on my way to class. Whenever he sees me approach (I wonder how he remembers me so easily?) he immediately starts bagging up a piping hot pancake for me. Did I mention that they cost less than 50 cents? The rate at which I have been consuming these is actually disgusting.

Oh and I’m horribly sick, have been hacking up phlegm like there’s no tomorrow, and can’t seem to sleep for longer than an hour at a time. You know. It’s fine.

Rolling out the Chinese Red Carpet

Walking along the alleys and boulevards of this city can be quite intimidating. This isn’t because of the truculent motorists, the invisible pickpockets, or the delicious smog that I breathe in with every breath, but rather because everyone is staring at me. At first this wasn’t too disconcerting, because I was walking in a group, but as soon as I set out on my own, what was initially an innocuous phenomenon quickly turned menacing.

My first response was defensive; I adopted a resting angry face in hopes of keeping people’s eyes turned away. I bought large floppy hats to cover my face. Massive sunglasses soon followed. However, none of that worked. After a few days, I realized that I had been going about this all the wrong way; I needed to embrace my inner movie star and give the world what it wanted.

Now, when someone points a camera at me, instead of turning away I’ll turn right back at them and flash them a grin. Sometimes as a variation I’ll bring up my hands into pistols, mock-shootout style, or give the classic good ‘ol American thumbs up. Both are definite crowd pleasers.

When people aren’t holding a camera, the technique still works. Whereas before I’d notice some 80 year old man without any teeth in his mouth grinning at me and immediately run away, now I walk towards him and throw a “nihao” in his direction. This new and improved attitude on life has lead to wonderful results. I am now having free Chinese practice all the time! Everyone wants to speak to me, but they weren’t before because I was scowling at them! Who knew?

Earlier today, while climbing Mt. Qianfo, I was taking a breather under a gorgeous tree wrapped with thousands of bright crimson prayer strands when I noticed that the couple sitting next to me were smiling in my direction. Putting my new plan into action, I turned towards them and smiled back. Next thing I know, he’s dragging me towards a really big tree with even more prayer strands on it and my arms around his shoulder and we’re taking a picture! After this we spend 15 minutes chatting about Xi’an, his hometown, and Shandong Normal, where both his son and I attend school in Jinan. To think that I would have missed out on that beautiful cultural exchange, and great Chinese-learning opportunity, if I had simply ignored his furtive friendship feelers.


All along the steps of Mt. Qianfo, this gregarious attitude of mine resulted in quite a few people wanting to take a picture with me.


Maybe I’ll have to tone down my new-found friendly attitude in the future, or start wearing a sign that says: “Photos, 10¥”

First Twenty Four Hours

It’s night out, and the air is a dim, tinted, somewhat opaque, dirty orange. Gargantuan neon red Chinese characters hang in the distance, as if suspended in the air. Massive flag poles rise out of a sea of haphazardly parked cars. We board a bus that will take us into the middle of the city. It will be around 1:00am when we arrive at the college. Driving alone along the deserted highways is a surreal experience, as larger than life billboards lurch out of the night as you draw close enough for your eyes to cut through the haze, and bright blood red characters adorn every building. Every once in a while a looming skyscraper will appear out of nowhere, and then there will be nothing for five minutes. As we approach the city center they become more and more common, and for every completed building there are another 10 mid-construction surrounded by an army of cranes. At the time, having been awake for thirty hours and having just survived three consecutive plane flights, the drive could only be described as post-apocalyptic.

Since on our trip we have six female students and one male student, I am given my own room as the Chinese don’t allow men and women to share rooms. The rest of my classmates pair off, and we are shown to our four rooms, which are conveniently all next to each other. To balance things out, my room is slightly smaller than the other three, and my bathroom (yes, each room has a bathroom) is smaller as well. We are quite pampered; each room has a TV, four closets, two sets of shelves, two desks, and two beds. The bathrooms are, well, I’m not complaining. It’s basically a 5×5 box with a toilet, sink, and shower-head, with no divider. So every time you shower it’s Noah’s Ark in there, and everything is wet for the rest of the day. But I am not complaining, it is quite nice to have your own bathroom. The living situation is incredible.

After a fitful night of sleep (read: lying in bed until it’s a reasonable hour to stop pretending that I was ever asleep), we begin out first day in Jinan. Yueping (Professor Zhang), the Lewis & Clark faculty member who organized this trip and is leading our stay in Jinan, takes us on a walk around the campus, which is massive and full of beautiful tall trees. The first impression that you have, when you enter the southern gate, is that you’re being watched. This is because when you look up you are greeted by a 70 foot tall statue of Mao Zedong, a relic of the cultural revolution, when statues like this were erected at universities all across China. Most of them have been taken down, but this one remains. There is a Chinese garden right across from where we’ll have class, complete with a lovely meandering river and a beautiful pagoda.

On our way back from the campus, we run into the CCP Secretary of the College, his assistant, and the Assistant Dean of the school. They will be hosting us for lunch. I get some brownie points from the get-go, as I casually remark “Zhende!” (really?) when told that the Secretary speaks fluent Japanese. The Secretary remarks “Hanyu Bucuo! (his Chinese isn’t bad!), and immediately takes a liking to me (or so I hope). Over lunch, he attempts to get us all drunk on baijiu, but Yueping steps in and lowers the stakes to delicious ice-cold Qingdao beer. The food is all incredible, and I really enjoy my first taste of authentic Shandong cooking. Plus, we’re eating at a canteen directly below our dorm, so we can come back any time! The lunch is punctuated by myriad toasts mostly stemming from the Secretary, and attempts by us to communicate with our infantile Chinese. Another guest is Guo Laoshi, who will be teaching us Chinese throughout the semester.

Towards the end of the meal, the secretary attempts to toast me individually, for my excellent Chinese ability (this is all gross flattery, my Chinese is far from excellent), except Yueping reminds him that it isn’t proper for someone of a higher rank to toast someone of a lower rank. So, I get to toast the Secretary! He doesn’t know much English, but he does know how to say bottoms up, and he means it. One thing that I remembered learning in my Chinese classes at Lewis & Clark is that when clinking glasses with someone while toasting, it is a sign of respect to have your glass be below your counterpart’s when the glasses meet. So, with this in mind, and feeling mighty proud of myself, I attempted to undercut the Secretary’s glass. But, as I was doing so, he was trying to do the same thing! Flummoxed and somewhat panicked, I upped the stakes and continued going lower, towards the table. This was definitely an arms race of sorts, and it felt like it was getting out of control, but since this was all happening so quickly, I panicked and kept going lower. At the last second, just before my glass hit the table, the Secretary let me keep my glass lower, and the toast was complete. In hindsight, I should have just followed his queue, but this all took place in less than a second or so, so I didn’t really have time to process what was going on. Maybe I didn’t actually remember the rule correctly at all. Who knows.

After lunch, with bellies far-too-full (the Assistant Dean took mock-offense when we didn’t clear the plates), we load up into a van and get a personal tour of the sights around the city. We see loads of parks that we’ll get to explore later, massive shopping malls, towering skyscrapers, and everything else you’d expect in a bustling city of six million people. We get dropped off at Darunfa, the supermarket near our dorm. It’s only a 10 minute walk away, so we’ll be able to come back here on our own quite easily (little do I know then exactly how often I’ll be returning). Darunfa is overwhelming, there is no other way to describe it. There’s ten different varieties of anything you could ever want, in every color, size, and shape imaginable. We stock up on the bare necessities: toilet paper, ramen, hangers, blankets, and shampoos. The only thing we can’t find is a converter for our laptop chargers, since they have three prongs, but all the outlets here only have two. Once we return to the dorms and drop our new purchases off we set out in hopes of finding a converter.

Jet lag sets in around now, as I wander through the alleys of Jinan, popping into hole in the wall shops, scouring through a motley assortment of random tech gear. Waves of fevered shivers run along my body, as I feel on the edge of losing my delicious lunch. Yet we continue. At some points, the shop keepers attempt to interact with us. This doesn’t go so well. Try saying “three pronged converter for my laptop charger” in a language you’ve only been learning for two years. And that language is Chinese. After one such encounter, as I sulk out of the shop, “Waiguoren!” is screamed after me. Waigruoren means foreigner in Chinese, and is a common moniker for most Americans, especially useless Americans like us that can’t communicate in Chinese. After successfully not throwing up in the street for the fifth or so time, we eventually find the chargers in a discount goods shop across the street. We purchase four.

After this, we return home, I make some ramen, and once it’s eight o’clock and I can’t force my eyelids to remain open a second longer, I let go and finally allow my body to embrace lovely, lovely sleep. Until I wake up two hours later.

I Got 99 Problems But a Visa Ain’t One

Hi! My name’s Ian, and I’m a Lewis & Clark student and Boren Scholar who’s going to be studying in China for the next year. I will be writing this blog primarily to document my year abroad for friends and family, but I also plan to discuss the research that I’ll be conducting while abroad and write on anything I find to be of interest in my scholastic pursuits.

Today I am happy because after nearly a month of awaiting the denial of my visa application with bated breath, punctuated by nervous-breakdowns and intermittently crying myself to sleep, I have been granted access to the Middle Kingdom. Now that I have my Visa in hand, I am finally allowing myself to get excited — and to start panicking. In this first post I will outline my travel itinerary and explain what a Boren Scholarship is.

Most of you reading this probably don’t know much about Chinese geography, so I’m going to add a map to aid understanding. In addition to Shanghai and Beijing, there are actually other cities in China. Just as the United States is geographically divided into 50 states, China has been divided by the PRC into 34 different administrative regions (including Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan). On August 30th I will be flying into Jinan, which is the capital of Shandong Province. If you look to the south of Beijing, which is to the west of the large inlet on the eastern seaboard, you will find Jinan. Here I will spend my first three months studying at Shandong Normal University.

Jinan is a sprawling city of six million residents that barely anyone in the United States has ever heard of. 98% of the residents are Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in China. There are not many foreigners there, so as a Laowai, the Chinese word for foreigner, I will stand out more than I would in the international megalopolises of Shanghai and Beijing. At Shandong Normal University, I will be enrolled in the following courses; Chinese Culture and Confucianism; Cultural Psychology; Contemporary China; and of course a Chinese language course.

china map

After my three months in Jinan are up, I will be living the life of a nomad for 25 days until my winter term begins in Beijing. I have yet to finalize my travel plans for this period, but in an ideal world I would somehow visit Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Yunnan, and Xi’an. If you’re feeling bold you can try to find those cities on your map.

At the end of the month, I will find myself in Beijing, beginning 30 days of intensive Chinese language study at CET. These 30 days will prepare myself for my final semester of study, in which I will only be taking courses in Chinese. Additionally, I will be signing a language pledge to limit myself to the speaking of Mandarin until the conclusion of my term. I use the terms Mandarin and Chinese interchangeably on this blog, even though there is a major difference between the two. I’ll try to cover this in a later post. I will finish my time in Beijing at the end of May, and then return to the United States, hopefully neither in multiple pieces nor in handcuffs. I’ve been told that my school in Beijing has a great track record for getting its students out of jail.

And you might be asking, who’s funding this wonderful year abroad? It’s Uncle Sam! As Wikipedia so neatly summarizes, “The National Security Education Program (NSEP) is a U.S. federal government initiative to enhance the national security of the U.S. by increasing the national capacity to understand and interact effectively with foreign cultures and languages.” Out of the nine initiatives that the State Department funds, one of them is the Boren Scholarship.

“Through a competitive, national, merit-based annual competition, successful applicants distinguish themselves as highly motivated in their academic and career goals and in their strong commitment to public service. In return for support, award recipients agree to work in qualifying national security positions for at least one year.”

I am incredibly grateful and indebted for this opportunity to both establish mutual and positive connections between the US and China and hopefully represent my country abroad in a more official capacity in the future. If you are reading this and have any questions about the Boren Scholarship, feel free to ask away in the comments. You can read an article on the Lewis and Clark website about the award here.