Friday, April 30, 2010

Maps 'n More

In talking to Sophie, I realized that I have never given a good overall view of Dalian. Partly it's because my sense of geography is so rotten that it took me months to even understand the layout of our campus. But since you, dear readers, might fare better in that department, here's a map:

If you look in the bottom left-hand corner, you'll see my school, (Dalian) University of Technology. I live down there as well, and while it's far away from downtown, it's a wonderful neighborhood. We're surrounded by other universities, so it has a little bit of that college-town feel, with lots of cheap restaurants and cafes, and even a bar or two. I really dig it.

Xinghai Beach is close by, and farther east is the beginning of Bin Hai Road, which I blogged about earlier this year.

Northwards is "downtown," featuring Zhong Shan Square, which is the main center square, and is close to places like Dave's Bar and Free Club. Close by is the train station, the post office where my packages end up sometimes, and Victory Plaza, which is a large, underground shopping area. And, of course, in between us and downtown there are a ton of neighborhoods and markets and residential areas and places I have yet to explore.

Meanwhile, I'm leaving for Yantai early tomorrow morning, to go to my friend Jean's cousin's wedding, and I have been terribly sleep-deprived (completely of my own doing), so to sleep I go! I look forward to a lovely ferry ride and lots of Chinese family members who I've never met. Will report back soon.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The People Who Feed Me: Gimbap

While I've gotten a bit better at cooking for myself, I still eat out pretty often because it's cheap, convenient, and tasty. So, in the tradition of Tae's "What I Eat Here," here's "The People Who Feed Me."

My first edition will be concerning gimbap, which is a Korean snack food. It's a bit like sushi, since it involves steamed white rice and dried seaweed, but it's served warm and the contents include vegetables like cucumber and pickled radish. It costs 5 kuai, which is about 75 cents. It's filling and fairly nutritious.

The stand is run by a very friendly woman and her daughter, who is pictured below. We converse about basic things, like the weather and what we're doing for vacation.

I'm still not quite sure how to say gimbap in Chinese, but when it comes to ordering, my interaction is pretty standard:
1. I ask for 鸡肉 jirou ("chicken").
2. I point to the meat that looks like SPAM and say, "我不要这个" Wo bu yao zhe ge ("I don't want this"). I don't know exactly what it is, but I know I don't want it.
3. She asks, "辣的不辣的?" La de bu la de? ("Spicy or not?")
4. I respond, "一点儿辣的." Yi dianr la de. (A little spicy).

I know my friends are a bit horrified by my ability to eat the same thing over and over again, but it's just my nature. I'm less picky than I used to be, but I still enjoy the comfort of a familiar meal. And I haven't gotten tired of gimbap yet. Here's a photo of the finished product, which I happily ate tonight in my living room.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tomb Sweeping

Earlier this month was a holiday called Tomb Sweeping Day, commemorated by leaving food and alcohol at the graves of your ancestors, and burning paper gifts in order to pay respects. Religious activity was discouraged under Communist rule, but a few years ago they've reinstated Tomb Sweeping Day as an official national holiday.

Vendors outside my apartment, selling fake money and paper gifts.

The holiday was on a Monday, and while I relaxed on my day off, the roads were filled with cars heading to cemeteries and grave sites before noon. At night, the streets were eerie and beautiful with the sight of so many tiny bonfires.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Profiles in Awesome: Jamie & Ned

I honestly don't mean to discount the separate and unique qualities of these two individuals, but I've just realized that I have four weeks left of my semester (seriously) and loads to blog about, so I'm going to combine forces on this one.

One of the best things about working at the Museum of the Moving Image was the opportunity to meet such wonderful people. In retrospect, I'm a little embarrassed by how often I was probably talking (as opposed to "working") but I just felt so lucky to stumble into this group of folks, and we always had so much to talk about. I had a girl-crush on Jamie immediately, due to her artistic sensibility, humor, wit, fashion sense, and our mutual love for Michael Cera. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which, for some reason I always associate with summertime: ice cream cones with old racist ladies, 4th of July rooftop parties, birthday picnics in Prospect Park.

I felt equally comfortable with Ned when I first met him, even if his interest in Michael Cera was more platonic. He's very smart, easy to talk to and there's a genuine kindness about him, which makes him a great friend (and educator). Both of them are always up for something fun and interesting, like experimental film screenings at Light Industry or dancing up a storm to Fischerspooner or humoring me when I want to ride the tram to Roosevelt Island. (FYI, it moves very slowly).

So here's to you, Ned and Jamie, readers of my blog, dear friends, and a great couple. Thanks so much for the support while I've been gone and I look forward to more city fun this summer.

Birthday drinks at LIC Bar on my birthday. The first and only time I've had Patron and it was delicious.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Passover in Dalian

Happy belated Passover! I had a lovely Pesach in Dalian, and I hosted my first-ever seder for Jessica, Tae, Chris, and Lucy. It was fun, but surprisingly nerve-wracking. I'm not used to explaining the holiday (I'm the only Jew of the group) and it made me view it through fresh eyes. For example, why does Elijah show up and why do we open the door for him and why does he drink the wine? I had no answers for these questions. But with the help of the WJC Women's Seder Haggadah (thanks Mom!) I think I did a fairly good job in leading the seder and everyone enjoyed themselves.

Jessica helped decorate by arranging a Mantel of Plagues. It turned out great, featuring plastic frogs, rubber insects, beasts (stuffed tiger), lice (salt), darkness (sunglasses), hail (cotton balls), and boils (acne medication).

She also helped me make the food. It all turned out well, except for the matzah balls, which were very dense. We also realized that we don't own any plates, which shows you how often we entertain. We've spent the year eating out of very shallow bowls, which is fine, but it gets tricky when you're trying to serve a meal with a soup course. So, after the soup, I washed the bowls, and gave them back to people. Nor did we have enough spoons, so Jessica and I drank from our bowls. It was all a little makeshift, but good.

I was also able to assemble a pretty decent seder plate, as seen above. I am most proud of my horseradish addition (the gloop of green on the left) because I really persevered in finding it. I went to Trust Mart, which is a large supermarket nearby, and asked many unfriendly salespeople where the 辣根 (la gen) was. There was lots of vague pointing and rows of mystery jars, but finally I insisted someone show me exactly where it was, which was on the bottom shelf in a little bucket. I was very happy.

Everyone at the seder was exceedingly polite and respectful and serious, which was wonderful, but it also filled me with anxiety. "Just relax!" I pleaded with my guests. "This is a fun holiday!" However, the more I talked about bitterness and oppression and blood and plagues, the less fun the holiday seemed. Passover has never struck me as sad - it's all story-telling and thoughtfulness and ritual and matzah - but it was hard to inject a sense of liveliness into my own seder. I will say, though, that I hid afikomen for all my guests and they ran around like kids, which was fun to watch. Also, my friends love any holiday where it is required to drink four cups of wine.

My favorite quote of the evening? After a night of eating, drinking, and really driving home the oppression of my people, I tried to start cleaning up. Tae stopped me. "Oh, no, no." he said. "We'll do it. You've suffered enough."

Next year in Jerusalem!

Friday, April 16, 2010


In order to get the cheapest possible flight, I flew home by way of Malaysia. I landed in Kuala Lumpur around 8 pm, and my flight back to China was the next morning at 8 am. I had a hostel recommendation, but I realized that by the time I took a taxi to the place, it would be late and expensive. I inquired about hotels near the airport, but they were mostly filled. "But the airport terminal is open all night," said the friendly guest services man. Fantastic!

So I spent the night in a McDonalds at the Kuala Lumpur Low-Cost Carrier Terminal, which sounds disgusting, but was actually sort of enjoyable. Given the fact that it's a popular hub, tons of people were doing the same thing and it was a good opportunity to people-watch.

I also played hours of Bananagrams by myself.

People around me were sleeping, but I couldn't bring myself to. So I drank my fifth cup of Diet Coke and wrote in my journal.

By 5 a.m. I was feeling pretty crazy but finally, finally, it was time for my flight. When I had booked it online, it said it went to Beijing, but in actuality, it went to Tianjin, a city about an hour away. Air Asia is tricky. I arrived in the afternoon and went immediately to the train station to book a ticket for Dalian. They only had soft sleepers available, which was fine, but it didn't leave until 10 pm. So, again, a sleepless Maggie loitered in restaurants and terminals and on chilly train platforms until the train came into the station. I had been awake for over 36 hours, so my night ride on the soft(ish) bed in my private(ish) compartment felt incredible.

Then, I was back in Dalian, which felt familiar and strange, comfortable and new again, and mostly cold. I had had a really exciting and lovely time traveling, but at my core I'm a homebody, so I was happy to putter and nest until my friends came back.

I've left some things out because I'm too mentally tired to do them justice, but I wanted to say "thanks" to you all for reading about my travels - I had no idea it would take me so long to recount. Now I can get back to writing about my life in Dalian: eating, teaching, learning, spending time with friends, attempting to speak Chinese, hosting seders, and freezing in my apartment. Strange thought: I'll be back in the States in 3 months! Time is flying by a little too fast.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


My next stop was Kampot, a seaside town in the south. In the past, Cambodia had been under attack from both Thailand and Vietnam, so eventually France offered protection in exchange for control over the country. Cambodia agreed, and thus began years of French influence, which is most noticeable in towns like Kampot. One of the strangest and coolest things I saw in Kampot was the Bokor Hill Station. It was established in the 1920's as a kind of resort for the Europeans who were living in Cambodia. There are other hill stations in places like India and Africa, but what is unusual about the Bokor Hill Station is how often it's been taken over and used by guerrilla fighters, first when Cambodia fought an independence war in the 1940's, and later when the Khmer Rouge were fighting in the 70's, 80's, and 90's.

First, we hiked up part of the mountain, in the foggy jungle.

On the way, we checked out the former vacation residence of King Sihanouk, although he never actually used it. Notice the strange red moss growing on the walls, and the bullet holes.

Then we kept hiking, until we reached the actual hill station, which was a grassy area surrounding a reservoir. This picture isn't too impressive, but I thought it would be good to give a general idea of the area.

We ate a quick lunch at the station (we = myself and a bunch of sulky Europeans) and then went off to explore on our own. The buildings right near the lake are a bunch of small, abandoned hotels, like the one below.

The insides are covered with moss and rust. There is broken glass and dirt everywhere, with weeds and flowers growing in every crack. It's a pretty incredible sight. Here are some more remnants of a small, colonial resort town:


Post Office


In the distance, up a winding road, is the main attraction of the hill station - a large, opulent former casino. I've tried to find some photographs of what it looked like in its heyday, but a cursory internet search turned up nothing. You'll have to use your imagination. Below are some photographs of the burned-up casino exterior, the ransacked ballrooms, and the battle-wrecked walls.

In addition to the fascinating clash of Colonialism and Communism, it was just a very eerie and atmospheric place to be. I know this is going to sound melodramatic, but it smelled like death. At this point, I've been in fairly close quarters with dead animals and a dead body, and I know what it smells like. I'm sure, in this case, it was due to something animal-like, but still - it lent a sense of morbid reality and history to the place. I was standing where people lived, and probably where people died.

After our trip to the Hill Station, and a sobering talk with a Cambodian man who had lost his father during the Khmer Rouge, we took a boat ride down the river. It was very, very beautiful and we stopped at a tiny inlet at sunset. I thought a lot about things I've since forgotten, but I mostly just felt lucky to be there.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

CAMBODIA TRAVEL PART 4: Last Day(s) in Siem Reap

On my last day in Siem Reap, I took Hanna's advice and tried to look for ways to volunteer. It's one thing to funnel money into the economy and eat at restaurants that give a portion to charity, but giving time and resources might be more useful. Despite having more infrastructure than Laos, Cambodia is still an extremely poor country.

Now, a quick note about my Princeton-in-Asia orientation. During one session, they asked us to write down occasions where we had done some sort of service work. It was pretty easy for most of us, including myself. In high school, I tutored Spanish-speaking kids in an after-school program called Amigos, I built houses over the summer with the American Jewish Society for Service, I co-led Michigan's Darfur activism group in college, and so forth. Then they asked us to write down a time in which we had genuinely sacrificed for someone else. This was much, much more difficult. It made me realize that, while I had done some good service work, it was all pretty fun and it never required me to give a lot of myself. Yes, my grades dipped a bit in college when I was juggling a bunch of activities, but that hardly makes me Joan of Arc.

The reason I bring this up is because I'd never given blood before, and I read that Cambodia's hospitals needed donations. I'm only squeamish about a few particular things, and VEINS are one of them. It's hard for me to even type this because it grosses me out so much. The idea of sitting somewhere while blood leaves my body is...yucky. But I figured that I should make some sort of sacrifice that actually feels like a sacrifice. So I did, and it wasn't bad at all. After I read testimonials to make sure the facilities were clean and professional, I headed down to the Angkor Children's Hospital.

Wait, an activity where they give you Coke and cookies and tell you to relax afterwards? How great! I'm reminded of a snippet of dialogue between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock:

Jack: Uh, a cookie in the middle of the day?
Liz: I gave blood.
Jack: Does that burn calories?

So maybe it wasn't the grandest sacrifice of all, but I'm glad that I did it and now I'm no longer nauseous at the thought. I plan on giving blood quite a bit in the future, as long as I bring something to distract me.

I also volunteered for an afternoon at a school, called Savong School, on the outskirts of Siem Reap. A high schooler picked me up on his motorbike and brought me to the school, where they pretty much stuck me in a classroom and said, "Teach." Granted, I should have prepared something, but I naively thought someone would give me a bit more introduction. I taught three classes, and it was definitely a case of me learning more from the students than vice versa. My favorite was the huge class of kids, ages 7 through 15. It's such a different context of teaching when you're doing numbers and animals and you can ask, "How many pigs does your family have?" and get answers like "My family has four pigs." Also, one older student asked me how to practice English and I said that listening to English music or watching English movies is helpful. I asked if he had access to English movies, and he said no. Then I asked him if he had ever seen a movie. He said no.

On my last night in Siem Reap, I took a break from eating my favorite dish (chicken and fried ginger) and tried the local delicacy, amok, which was amazing. It's fish, cooked in coconut gravy, and wrapped in banana leaves. Here is my blurry photograph:

Next stop: Kampot and Kep.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

CAMBODIA TRAVEL PART 3: The Temples of Angkor

To be honest, I was ready to be underwhelmed by the Temples of Angkor. I'm generally interested in modern history and anything before 1900 puts me to sleep. But Angkor Wat is one of the main prides of Cambodia and it seemed silly and embarrassing to skip it. Ultimately, I'm so glad I went. It was really, really magical. Straight from Wikipedia and condensed for your reading pleasure: the Angkor area was the seat of Khmer power from roughly the 9th century through the 13th century. Many kings oversaw the building of the temples over time, but the Donald Trump of them all was King Jayavarman VII, who created a ton of temples, and most of the cooler ones.

There are a couple ways to make your way through all the temples, some of which are spaced out pretty far apart. The first day, I walked from temple to temple, which was long and sweaty, but peaceful. The second day, I biked, which is by far the best way to do it. It's simple and breezy and good exercise. The third day, I hired a tuk-tuk to take me around.

Angkor Wat (the biggest and most famous temple) was my least favorite. It's set apart by a moat, I didn't think it was that beautiful, and part of it was under construction. Nothing takes you out of historical reverie like bright blue scaffolding. However, all the temples had fascinating and intricate carvings to look at while wandering around.

The next day I saw temples that I loved, most notably Bayon and Ta Prohm. Bayon is a temple filled with over two hundred large, smiling faces. The rumor is that they are representations of King Jayavarman himself. I can understand that. If I were Queen, I'd probably erect tons of sculptures of my likeness as well.

Then I biked over to Ta Prohm, which is amazing because they've left it pretty much in its original state. Huge tree trunks and vines have grown over the ruins and, aside from the crowds, it's possible to feel like an old-fashioned explorer who has stumbled upon an ancient city. Like I said, magical.

Even if the temples were a bit crowded, my bike rides and walks were really peaceful. Traveling alone from temple to temple was probably my favorite part. There were different routes to take, but no way to get lost - which is my ideal situation.

The last day in Siem Reap, I shared a tuk-tuk back to town with a Chinese woman. Like almost all Chinese people, she complimented me on my Chinese after I said two words to her. (可以? Keyi? Meaning "Can I?") And like almost all American people, I thought she was much younger than she was. I asked, "Where are you studying?" and she said, "I'm an oncologist." Anyway, she mentioned that she had gotten up before dawn to see the sun rise at Angkor Wat, and while I am not an early bird by nature, I sort of wish I had done it. She showed me some really beautiful photos - but admitted that she was jostled by hundreds and hundreds of people who joined her at 4 a.m. to see the sun rise.

Overall, it's a pretty special historical site and I'm very glad I went. I wish my dad had been there with me, because I know he would have found it really fascinating. But I was happy to be myself, walking, thinking, listening to music. As Jessica says, it's important to have Tunes to Keep You Alone and Wandering.