Thursday, December 31, 2009

HARBIN Part 3: Ligers, and Tigers, and Jaguars (Ai-ya!)

One of the coolest things we did in Harbin was go to the Manchurian Tiger Park. I felt kind of guilty, because animals in captivity are always a bit depressing, but these kind of tigers are going extinct -- so, on one hand, it's good that they're being bred. The park has about 500 tigers currently.

When you first walk in, you are given the option of buying food for the tigers. A live chicken is on the cheaper side (40 kuai), while feeding them cattle is a little bit pricier. One of my regrets is that we didn't buy any food. The perverse side of me thinks it would have been so much fun to watch a tiger tear apart a live pheasant.

Jess and I piled into a little bus with a bunch of other Chinese tourists. Here's her "we're going to go see some tigers!" look.

And see tigers, we did! They were so close, it was pretty amazing.

Lest you think they are just chilling in the unspoiled wilderness, here is a more realistic view of their habitat.

We also saw some ligers. I thought Napoleon Dynamite made those up, but it's true: you can cross a tiger with a lion and you get a "liger"!

After thoroughly bothering the tigers, we got out and walked through a pathway full of other animals in higher states of captivity.

While the tigers have quite a bit of space to roam, these animals were caged up in pretty small areas, which was lousy. As I said, animals in captivity are always a little sad, because they lack a life purpose (protecting themselves from predators, hunting for food) and so they end up just pacing endlessly. Moreover, while the tigers are well-suited for the cold weather, there were some animals in the park that are definitely indigenous to warmer climates and I'd hate to think how uncomfortable they must be in temperatures well below freezing.

But selfishly, I must say: it was awesome. I'll end with a few more awesome tiger shots, courtesy of Jess. Her photos turned out gorgeously.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

HARBIN Part 2: Ice Lantern Festival

One of the main reasons people go to Harbin in the winter is to see the Ice Festival. The opening ceremonies are in early January, but when we went, most of the sculptures were already up. It was awesome. Also, it was COLD.

This is what I was wearing:
- Tank top
- Turtleneck
- Faux-fur-lined thick long underwear shirt
- Sweater
- Black jacket
- Purple jacket
- Blue vest

I was pretty comfortable overall, but my fingers and toes were suffering a bit. The sculptures themselves were really great - it was like a surreal city of ice. I've never done any hallucinatory drugs, but I imagine it's a lot like this: crazy bright neon lights everywhere and Michael Jackson singing "Beat It" on repeat over the loudspeakers.

The pièce de résistance? The Forbidden City! In ice!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

HARBIN Part 1: Exploration.

Jessica and I arrived in snowy Harbin early on Christmas morning. We walked about 3 kilometers to our hotel, and by the time we reached the Tian Lun Fasion Hotel (do they mean "Fashion"?), both of us were a little bit in love with the city. It's a fairly walkable place; it has colorful, Russian-inspired architecture --- and it's always romantic to spend Christmas in a winter wonderland.

One of the most beautiful buildings we sought out was the Saint Sophia Cathedral, a huge Russian Orthodox church in the center of the city. I personally think it would be classier without the giant, inflatable Santa Claus, but what do I know? I'm just a kid.

We kept walking. I saw some happy red boots in the snow.

...and some workers preparing for the ice festival.

...and some early-evening snacks being purchased.

...and some eerie, beautiful lights on the frozen riverbank.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Leaving For This Place

Jessie and I are off to a winter wonderland trip in Harbin (current temperature, 100 below zero. Just kidding. Sort of.) We're going to see the ice sculpture festival and see some old synagogues and churches and perhaps ski at China's best ski resort. I'll be back Monday to report.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Birthday Weekend

I don't think I've ever had such a terrific birthday. Truly. Even though my friends were all stressed with grading finals and packing up to leave the city/country, they all made the weekend so special and wonderful. I'm still kind of blown away by it.

On Saturday night, Jess and I opened up a nice bottle of red wine that she'd been saving, and we just hung out and talked. Red wine is very conducive to long talks about what we want and why we want it and family dynamics and love and my future husband, Astronaut Mike Dexter. It left me feeling warm and cozy.

After we finished the bottle, it was time to head downtown. The only thing I specifically requested on my birthday was a trip to Brooklyn, that classy restaurant that serves pizza and hamburgers and salads and whatnot. We all met there around 8 pm and had a nice time talking and drinking margaritas and wheat beers and other lovely Western specialties. Some toasts were proposed, the owner of the restaurant gave me a complimentary chocolate-y shot, and my friends sang "Happy Birthday" to me over a delicious slice of cheesecake. Perfect, no?

After Brooklyn, we headed to KTV to do my other favorite thing: sing badly to classic songs.

It was grand.

The next day was my actual birthday. I spent it laying around in bed being incredibly lazy. Also, I ate a lot of chocolate. But soon, it was action time! One of my Belarusian classmates, Alex, has the same birthday as me and so we decided to have a joint party. Alex was much more ambitious about this shindig and arranged the whole thing at Black Beans, a cafe right by my apartment. It turned out to be a fantastic party. Lots of really nice people and games and food and drink and music. People complimented my DJ skills and everyone had a great time.

Alex & I. Can you tell I have a crush on him? I know, I'm pretty subtle.


I know you're asking yourself: how could it get any better? Good friends, wine, music, love, laughter. Well, after the party, a bunch of us came back to our apartment to hang out. Jess had decorated the apartment with balloons; Alex had bought me beautiful flowers, which I promptly put in water. And then: my friends gave gifts. Yes, after treating me to a night on the town and generally showering me with birthday attention, I also got presents! A beautiful scarf, earrings, chocolate, a thermos, and a photo collage.

Oh wait - AND an amazing present that references my favorite show: 30 Rock. Specifically this episode. I mean, I'd rather have a framed ticket of The Gender-Blind Crucible, but I suppose a drawing of a frog & a coffee mug filled with bath salts will suffice.

When people know you well, it feels great. So thanks, friends. You made me feel really special on my 24th birthday. I think I'm ready to start ushering in my mid-twenties. I love you lots.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: Hannah (Baron von) Harrison

This is a way overdue post for Hannah Harrison: long-time friend, devoted reader of my blog and former China resident herself. I feel really indebted to her for the support I get while I'm here - it's heartening to know that there's someone out there who checks in on me and understands all the quirks and tribulations of living in China. And who understands all my Michael & Michael & David references. (And my Arrested Development references, 30 Rock references, early Family Guy references...). And she likes SET. And she had an incredibly beautiful, fun, and special wedding last summer that I had the privilege of attending. I could write a whole post about it, but in short: it was in Austin, she looked radiant, we had a miniature Michigan reunion, the country music band was great, the margaritas were flowing,she was marrying an awesome dude, and the next day, everyone (including her really terrific parents) spent the whole day at the best water park in the world.

But before any of those things came to light, we were just two fresh-faced young women sharing a hallway in East Quad (which is how we met). We both took Chinese classes together and I was grateful for a friend, because those classes are usually populated with - for lack of a better word - weirdos. Then we would go back to our dorm and study and watch television and roll around on the floor. Hannah would make some popcorn and I would eat it. But eventually, she would venture to the library to study organic chemistry for hours at a time because she's one of the most hardworking people I know. Then we all grew up, kind of, and moved to the city, where would meet at our favorite cheap bar filled with NYU students and talk about our jobs and life and Wet Hot American Summer. After spending two years teaching in the New York City public school system, she's changing her focus to medicine, and I know wherever she ends up, she'll do great. While I hope that we can live in the same city again, if she does end up in Texas I'll secretly be glad because it'll be an excuse to visit her and eat delicious barbecue and savor the South. 我 爱 你! 我也想你! 你 是 很 好 的 朋友!我 知道你考 MCAT 的时侯, 你会考得非常好 。 (Totally grammatically wrong, but you get my drift...) Miss you, H-Bar!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Journalistic Crush

I finished China Wakes! And it only took me four months. Blergh. It's not a difficult book; it's just that I would put it down and forget to pick it up for weeks at a time.

I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. Both Kristof and WuDunn are great writers and thinkers - plus, the fact that they're married and clearly have the utmost respect and love for each other adds a nice "awww" factor. And while it's a serious book, they aren't afraid to throw in some humor now and again:

"I'll never forget my first glimpse of Taiwan as a journalist. It was late November 1986, and I had just arrived from Hong Kong to cover the legislative elections. I stepped off the plane and saw hundreds of riot policemen in the immigration area. They were lined up in rows, looking like Nazis, and periodically, a row trotted forward in perfect union. Through the window, thousands more were visible in the parking lot beyond, surrounded by military vehicles and coils of barbed wire. As a perceptive journalist, trained to pick up the most delicate signals, I concluded that something might be up."

In addition to interesting anecdotes and colorful descriptions of their time in China (mostly in the 80's and early 90's), their book answered a couple of the questions I posed in an earlier blog post.

"When I say that China is fascist, I mean that it is a one-party dictatorship with a market economy and a large number of state-controlled corporations...Obviously, no label fits China perfectly and I don't want to stretch the fascist analogy too far. But whatever China is, at this moment it is not a Communist country. No Communist country has ever owed so much to capitalism, or ever reduced central planning to such a marginal role, as China has in the 1990's. No Communist country has ever enjoyed such a profusion of photocopiers, satellite dishes, private schools, talk shows, karaoke bars, hula hoops, and sex shops. No Communist country has ever opened itself up so much to trade and foreign investment, given out passports to its citizens so easily, or so gleefully sent tens of thousands of its students to the West..."

What The World Eats

Lots of interesting things happen in my little neighborhood. My neighbors keep hens in their alleyway garden, and the local store owner keeps two roosters in a ramshackle enclosure made from corrugated cardboard and old pieces of wood. I often hear the roosters crowing in the wee hours.

On this very cold day, I walked outside to see some fish drying on a wire outside my door.

Then I went to class to teach about "Changes In The Balance of Nature" and showed my students photos from this TIME essay, called What The World Eats. They loved it. And they taught me how to say "Ecuador" in Chinese. (Eguāduō'ĕr)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

China Post: My NEMESIS!

So, my parents sent me a package for my birthday, but it ended up at the post office near the train station, which is a hassle. The bus downtown takes about 40 minutes and I only have time to go on Thursdays or Fridays. Today I bundled myself up (it's below freezing outside) and headed down. I went to the usual customs office, but today they directed me elsewhere. Blergh. I walked outside to another office, and they kept pointing in the same direction, "Keep going, keep going." So I kept going. I found myself in a big loading dock area, which felt sketchy. How is this the right way? I kept walking, until I got to a customs/lobby type entrance. Luckily, this was the right place. Time for my adventure to begin.

First, they took my package slip and checked my passport. Then they brought out my box and opened it and started going through the items one by one. I had to open all my birthday presents that my mom had so sweetly wrapped in scrap cloth from my old curtains. After they examined everything, I thought I was home-free. Nope! They took the package back, and directed me to another person. I figured I'd get a signature and the all-important red stamp that is used for official documents. Instead, I encountered a very pleasant woman at the desk and the following conversation ensued, partly in Chinese, partly in English:

Woman: You pay 4,000 kuai.


Woman: You pay...customs...
something something something...China...something something something.

Me: Why? Before I have package, I never give money. My parents always give me package. Why this package?

Woman: Blah blah blah bullshit blah blah blah.

Helpful Man (in English): It's a customs tax!

Me: I know. But I've never had to pay before, so why do I have to pay for this package?

Helpful Man: Uh...

Woman: Your parents blah blah blah package blah blah blah.

Me: I have no money. Why this package? I don't understand. Before, I have package, I never pay.

I actually wasn't too concerned - perhaps I misheard and she said 400 kuai, but either way, there was NO WAY I was paying anything to pick up a package. I wasn't exactly sure how to play it, so I called my Chinese friend Lucy. She didn't pick up the phone, but apparently the mere act of calling someone was enough to make these bureaucrats buckle. After my fruitless phone call, I began to text someone, but the woman beckoned me back over. "Are you a student?" she asked. "No, a teacher," I said. I showed her my Foreign Expert's Visa (which looks pretty hardcore) and she signed something and motioned that I should go to yet another desk. At this station, I finally got the glorious red stamp, and then it was back into the package room. The little man at the package desk had me write my English name, my passport number, and my Chinese name in characters, and then said I had to pay 8 kuai - which was still dumb, but I figured I'd pay the equivalent of $1.50 to leave with my wonderful birthday box, full of Velveeta Mac & Cheese and chocolate and...a new camera! Thanks parents. You are great. Check out the inaugural photo (ignore the huge bags under my eyes).

I've read a lot about Chinese bureaucracy and saving face, but I hadn't experienced it too much on my own. Clearly they had to at least attempt to extract an absurd amount of money from a foreigner, but it didn't take much for them to give up. I wouldn't call it corruption, but it's all in the same family. Bargaining a 4,000 kuai "tax" down to 8 kuai - it was an interesting experience.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


On my walk to class the other day, I spotted a man riding a camel. It seemed like a fancy camel, too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: Talia Kahn-Kravis

Today at 10:30 a.m. (my time) and 6:30 pm (Talia's time), our paths crossed digitally and we talked for a while, which was so nice. She really brightens my day. Our friendship is not usually so Jew-y, but at the time this picture was taken we had just finished wishing one another a happy Chanukah, which led to symbolically lighting a candle, then having a Skype singalong. We did "Chanukah, oh, Chanukah" and "S'vivon, sov sov sov" and "Not By Might, Not By Power" for the Debbie Friedman fans. I know there's a song about Macabees but I can't remember it. (Anyone know?) All I recall is a 1990 home video of me singing it, and then telling my mother and sister that they could only sing along if they did so quietly. I was such a little emperor.

Back to my Profile: Talia and I met in third grade, when she moved from the hard streets of Brooklyn to the slightly softer streets of Larchmont. She was such a tomboy and I could barely kick a soccer ball, but we bonded over performing weird little plays and taping music videos in her basement. Our relationship has had a lot of incarnations and ebbs & flows over the years - she started listening to Hot 97 in 7th grade, while I was pretty content with my cassette of the hit single "Alone" by the Bee Gees - but our friendship has only gotten stronger, especially after we lived together in Astoria and experienced all the joys of piecing together underpaid, part-time jobs in our fields of interest. Although we're miles apart, I am always grateful for her love and support. 我 爱 你 !

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weekend of Exploration & Song

After a few weekends of laying low, I had a really fun, interesting time this past 周末.

FRIDAY - Jess and I hosted Part III of Women's Group, for the upperclassmen. On Tuesday, we held Part II: about 20 freshmen came to our apartment, ate snacks and asked questions mostly pertaining to sex (and Christmas). It made for some interesting discussion, although we tried to emphasize that our experiences and perspectives were not representative of all Americans. We talked about attitudes towards premarital sex: in China, it's generally frowned upon, and I think young people tend to be more chaste, whereas in America there might be lip service paid to abstinence, but more than 80% of people have sex before marriage. The "he's a stud/she's a slut" double-standard seems to transcend culture, unfortunately. One girl talked about how unfair it is for a man to sleep around and gain respect, whereas if a woman does it, she's "crazy."

Next time the group meets, I'd like to bring up gender presentation. Two girls in the group are so butch that they could easily be mistaken for boys, and they're not shy about it all. When we first held the group, one girl popped up and said, "My name is Wendy! I bet you all thought I was a boy - but I'm a girl!" Everyone laughed good-naturedly. This time, another androgynous girl showed up with her friends, who jokingly called her their "boyfriend" and nicknamed her "Superman." I'm curious if they feel pressure to act or dress in a more feminine way, but since China doesn't really acknowledge homosexuality, perhaps acting like a boy doesn't mean you'll be labeled a lesbian, like you might in the States. Curious.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON - On this cold and pretty day, I took the bus downtown, stopping at a bookstore I'd noticed in the past. It said BOOKS AND TEA (and then some random words like "peace" and "chance") so I was sort of hoping it was an English-language bookstore. It wasn't, but it was still a really tranquil spot that I hope to return to. I was browsing the books when I heard a squeaky voice say, "Ni hao!" I turned to the store owner and asked, “有没有 鸟?” which means, "Do you have a bird?" (I learned this word from my kindergarteners). Indeed they did! A really cute talking bird! I had a nice conversation with the store owner, in which I only understood about 50% of what she said, but nodded and smiled anyway.

SATURDAY NIGHT - The four of us went out to dinner at some weird German buffet at 黑石礁。 The staff all wore dirndls and fake blonde braids and I ate something called "beer-pickled chicken heart." It was nice to have a family dinner again and catch up. Then we went to KTV karaoke, which was great. I love singing, even with my terrible voice, and we just all acted dumb and sang and danced to great songs like "Lola" and "California Dreaming" and "Semi-Charmed Kind of Life" and "Folsom Prison Blues." It was grand.

SUNDAY - Another freezing, beautiful day in Dalian. I explored a new-ish part of the city on the way to meet Wang Xiao Ni, who I know through Lisa, my friend and quasi-mentor (and writer of this fantastic book). She treated me to lunch at a place called 大地春饼, which literally means Big Earth Spring Roll. It was crowded and the food was great and I had a really nice time with her. Hopefully we'll hang out again at some point. Then I took the bus back. I just looove public transportation. I especially enjoy taking the bus in Dalian through all the different neighborhoods: it's a medley of narrow tree-lined streets and wide thoroughfares and modern high-rise buildings and Russian-style architecture and old brick courtyard-style houses that are (unfortunately) being torn down. I just throw on some Passion Pit or Magnetic Fields on my iPod and watch the city go by. It's nice.

OH, AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST: Happy Chanukah! Happy Amazing Christmas Episode of 30 Rock! (Creativity to me is… just like…like a bird… like a friendly bird… that embraces all… ideas… just like shoots… out of its eyes all kind of beauty...) Thank you to Jordan for your wonderful blog post, which contains irrefutable evidence that I should come back to New York. And congratulations to Nick & Amanda on your engagement!