Entry 3: In the Crowd-written 9/28/09

We all remember our first college party, the feeling of anticipation hoping to make new friends while enjoying the evening as we look ourselves over in the mirror hoping to give off a good first impression. Now fast-forward a year or so, your socializing gets you a throng of friends and you’ve gone to ‘80’s Night enough times to know every song by heart and you never go alone, but suddenly you are dropped someplace entirely new, with a different culture, people and none of your friends to give you that extra boost of confidence. Meeting new people in Scotland your first time abroad might at first appear challenging, but as long as you be yourself, be confident and are willing to try new things, you can make the transition into the Dundee social scene easy and fun!

When I first arrived in Scotland, I was lucky enough to be traveling with a small group of friends already; and after making more at the airport I realized that meeting people and making connections wasn’t so hard to do. We were going through the same experience of being in a foreign country for three months to a year and something as simple as that is enough to form friendships that not only last the time abroad but forever. Within minutes we were trading contact information and our flat addresses so we knew where we all lived until our computers and international cell phones were set up. No matter who or where you are, having several friends (or even just one good friend) can be enough to make you feel more at home.

As we are centrally located on campus and therefore the most convenient to get to, the flat Sydney, Julie, Lauren and I are living in has become the “de-facto” meeting place if we decide to go out to a pub or club, have a group dinner, travel meeting or just hang out. In fact we have so many people over and get along so well, we have been called “The Cool Flat” by our next door neighbors.
In order to survive mentally and physically abroad, you have to learn to work together. After our first exciting, yet un-nerving night in Scotland, we realized that if we acted more as a team and less as individuals, we could make our lives more comforting and our stay in Dundee exciting and fun. For example, when shopping for our flat we try to go out in either a pair or group. I grocery shop with my other flat mate as we both eat the same foods; so when we do visit the supermarket we buy for the both of us and we each pay half. This not only saves us money, but ensures we don’t buy so much food as to take up space in our refrigerator or cause it to spoil. Likewise with cleaning essentials for our bathrooms and kitchen, we agree to share so we save money individually while helping out the flat as a whole.

The buddy system also works if one or both us is having problems either adjusting to life overseas or with school. Talking about your personal feelings with someone who you can relate to helps and gives a much needed confidence boost. This boost comes in handy especially when you go out to the student night club (or Union). At The Union, you will come face to face with students from around Scotland and the world at large. Everyone flocks to the Union throughout the day as its restaurants and sports bars give the ideal place for students to congregate and unwind from a hard day’s studies. During “Fresher’s Week”; a week long orientation session, the Union is filled to maximum capacity with students socializing in 4 separate bars and dancing the night away at “Mono”; the basement dance club. Speaking as someone who (despite similar experiences at home and a senior in college) felt like a stranger in a strange land, the prospect of going to The Union at first appeared daunting and made me feel like a freshman all over again. Luckily my friends were going as well and in that respect I didn’t feel so bad and just focused on enjoying myself and having fun. The club was loud and packed with people, and I still found it hard to start a conversation with anyone. However some of the people I did approach were very friendly and curious about where I came from, what my “Study” (or major) was, and if I enjoyed Dundee. It was strange being the center of attention all of a sudden, but when you’re the foreigner I suppose everyone is curious to hear your opinions and thoughts. I told them what British television shows i watch and what bands i listen to (most either British or Scottish in origin). It was strange as when I responded to the same questions at home I got quizzical looks and had to explain the band or premise of the show. Here everyone knew what I was talking about, and in thus it was comforting to talk to someone who could relate, despite the fact they were from another country. I finally knew what it must be like to be a study abroad student at New Paltz, some of them were in my classes last semester and I often wondered what it must be like for them to adjust to life in America; this time the roles were reversed.

After my first several nights at the Union, I was still having growing pains but slowly got more confident. Despite the accents, the slang and style of dress, Scottish students are the same as American’s when it comes to socializing with others, if you have enough confidence to walk up to someone, introduce yourself and start a conversation, you will make many friends here. In fact I’ve made a couple of friends just by doing laundry, standing in line at the student run convenience store, and waiting for class. Never underestimate the power of your own self-worth.

However if you are still having trouble meeting people, Dundee offers a variety of clubs and organizations that conform to everyone’s interests. There is an activities fair during Fresher’s Week in which one can join whatever club or sport piques their interest. For example there is a Forensic Anthropology Club, Psychology Club, Music Club, Gaming Club and LGSBT organization in addition to a variety of other groups. These clubs meet regularly and sponsor field trips, dinners, dances and events in which one will get to meet other people with a common interest. My fellow abroad students and I joined several (including The International Students Association and Peer Connections).

The latter group I highly recommend. Peer Connections is run through the International Programs Office at University of Dundee and is a discussion group made of students from around the UK and other countries and helps first year internationals get acclimated to life in Dundee while giving them a place to socialize with other students from around the world. The first time we went to a Peer Connections meeting, my friends and I took two students from Switzerland, one from Lithuania and one from Scotland out to a pub for dinner and then to The Union for drinks and dancing; needless to say they have become regulars at our flat and are the newest members to our “Family”.

As I look back at almost a month abroad, I realize how far I’ve come since those first exciting steps into Edinburgh Airport. Making a fair amount of friends from all over the world and taking part in campus activities has made me feel more than just a student from New York studying in Scotland; I finally feel a part of the campus at Dundee, meeting fellow students for tea at Costa or dinner at a local pub and taking trips with my friends to the many historic castles and sites that dot the area surrounding Dundee and Scotland as a whole. I consider myself no longer a student of SUNY New Paltz, but instead a student at The University of Dundee. If this is what anthropologists have warned against (i.e. “Going Native”) then I fear I have become their most wanted man.

Bearing the Smog

The Nanjing Skyline from my bedroom

The Nanjing Skyline from my bedroom

As a study abroad student in China I feel I am in a very unique position. If I were to go to a country like Australia, England, France, Japan, etc. I would get to be part of well established programs in well developed countries. However, I’ve never been one for the easy choice so I am here in Nanjing in a program that clearly hasn’t been around very long, in a city that is very obviously still developing.

When you look out into the skyline of this city you can’t see much further than five hundred feet before it fades into gray. Its rare that you see the sun or the moon, let alone the stars, and every day the weather report reads the same: “Haze”. The pollution here is constant and hard to hide from. On a day like this it makes me feel sluggish and unmotivated.

It has pretty much been like this from the beginning, but there was a period where I actually forgot about it. During their Mid-Autumn Festival, China shut down most of its factories for eight days. During that time the sun shined nicely and you could actually see a few stars at night, but ever since that its just gradually built back to its original condition. I went on a trip to Guangzhou that week, and I think my opinion of the city may have been distorted because people have told me that its far worse than it is here.

Depressing, I know, but its a reality I feel I needed to talk about. I have a few things I need to do today, and an adventure to take part in later in the day, but on a day like this its hard to find the motivation. It makes me wish there was something I could do about it, but really I just have to suck it up and bear it.

Berobed in Bedlam

On Thursday a funny thing happened to me. I was loitering out on the front steps of my hotel, reading a book, when a friend came up to me, “Hey, Liam what are you doing this weekend?”

“Mm, nothing yet.”

“Wanna go on a free trip?”

There’s not really much else you can say an offer like that. I had some vague suspicions, but otherwise, I was ready to have a blast of a weekend. I have been holed up in my room most of the time studying, and I thought an adventure off in some obscure part of china would be good for the spirits. I somehow managed to wake up at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning and we were off on a bus ride to Shouxing, China, in the Zhejiang province just south of here.

Before my friend’s offer I had never heard of Shouxing before, so for those also in the dark: Shouxing is China’s “wine capital”, but this really just means Chinese White Liquor. If you haven’t heard of this drink before either…well, if you like drinking paint peeler, smelling of dank cheese, then be my guest and try it. I’ve never actually tried it myself, but I know a friend that’s made himself sick for a the past three weeks drinking half a bottle. I would only recommend this to someone who is either really passionate about the Chinese culture, or someone just trying to prove their own bravery.

On top of that Shouxing is China’s textile region. As a matter of fact the entire region pretty much only has textile shops. Really, that’s all there is in the city. We tried to find a place that sells ice cream, but we walked up and down a radius of a couple of blocks and couldn’t find anything, but fabric dealers. Apparently that’s why we got to go on the trip for free. A travel agency was hired to help bring publicity to the local Textile Convention by bringing in foreigners. A big affair certainly; There were cannons being fired, performances, and the marching of military processions, but it was still such an intensely dull place. Regardless, thanks to the good spirits of a free trip, and the energy of a few good friends we managed to turn a very drab place into a party.

We arrived at a gorgeous five star hotel. Each of us was given a room to share with another person. We all walked into our rooms to find gorgeous queen sized beds and full accommodations. This was the kind of place that was so classy it even had telephones in the bathroom. We all felt so at home that me and all my friends promptly decided to slip into bathrobes and never came out of them the rest of the night. Mind you we were there under the auspices of doing “business”. We were supposed to hobnob and schmooze at our best, but even when the cocktail hour hit, we went into the room, with full confidence, in our bathrobes.

We had ourselves a massage, which brought us all to a nice mellow state, and we decided to go to the karaoke lounge across the way. I think the front desk was a little shocked when we walked in, but we just acted normal and they let us into see our friends who had gotten there before us. We walked in to see a room of half alive, awkward people; half singing, mostly sitting and staring. In we walked in our bathrobes and the party began. None of us held back and the rest of the room really took to that. The party evolved from singing, into a private dance party in full force. It could have gone all night, but dancing in a robe is pretty hard. It’s far too warm and tends to start falling off when your moving.

From there, our berobed tribe wandered back to our rooms and decided to make a steam room out of our bathroom. The hotel actually had a sauna, but it was only for men. We had much more fun creating one for ourselves. We sweat it out the rest of the night, telling stories and enjoying each other’s company, until we all got tired and wandered back to our respective spaces.

The next day we got up early for breakfast and a few trips through the textile areas: nothing too eventful, and we packed up our stuff and made it back home. I wouldn’t recommend anybody spend time in this city unless they have to do business, but for us it was a total blast. In some roundabout way it will probably go down as one of my favorite adventures here in this crazy country we call China.

Best Wishes,
Liam

Visiting a Chinese Medical Center… – written 10/12/09

Cultural relativism is a very novel idea. I have studied enough philosophy to know that its not true in a literal way. Something isn’t right just because a culture decides to do it. But as a functional survival mechanism it works wonders.

Squat toilets are more dirty and harder to use: well, that’s just their culture. Okay. So, they have class 5 days a week, and sometimes on weekends: well, that’s just their culture. They smoke everywhere they go; restaurants, subways, busses, public lobbies, sports tracks (see last entry): well, that’s just their culture. Don’t mind the minor sarcasm. Most of this stuff I genuinely overlook. I am quite adaptable when it comes to strange situations, but no matter how flexible I am I have my limits.

I went to the medical center today, because of all things I had to go and catch the flu. I had a soar throat, headache, and achy muscles; Basic stuff. I’ve had it since yesterday, and thought it would go away. In my hope of not (involuntarily) missing more class, I figured I would get myself checked out at the student medical center. If I could I wanted to get this flushed out of my system ASAP.

I walk into the lobby and the first thing I witness is a lot of hustle and bustle; Lines and official paperwork everywhere. I was dumbfounded, so the first thing I do is go up to a nurse who looks like she’s in charge of information, and in my best Chinese I say, “”

“”

I listed my symptoms and then she says something which I don’t understand. I look confused and she asks if I have a fever. I tell her I don’t and she holds out a thermometer. I open my mouth and she shakes her head. She starts pointing to her shoulder and I realize…she wants me to put it in my armpit… I’m not a doctor, I could be wrong, but I don’t think skin temperature is a good indicator of core body heat. I think that they just use the same thermometer on everyone and it’s a little more sanitary that way if they don’t put it in your mouth.

After I wait five minutes and find out that I’m “normal”, she points me to a line where they make me fill out some forms and then pretty much fling them in my face and shoo me away. Having no idea where I’m supposed to go, I start asking people until a man come up to me and tells me the exact room I need to go to in English. Mind you, my Chinese isn’t fantastic, but it said nothing about this room in the form they gave me.

In the room, with one dirty hospital bed and a couple of office desks, the doctor looked at my throat, without any instruments, and told me I needed to get blood work. At this point I was so tired and so weirded out that I just walked out, and didn’t say anything else. Why would they need blood work to test for the flu? I usually get the flu at least twice a year back home and they just look at my symptoms and can tell from that.

Worry not, however. I am not endangering my safety in any way. I just decided to take another root. I am downing tea and resting up back in my room. I would say that at this point I feel pretty good. My sore throat is almost completely gone and I have no aches at this point. Later tonight I am even teaching a Capoeira class. Lesson of the day: Chinese medical centers are scary, avoid them where possible.

China and The Track – written 10/8/09

Scene 2: a rice paddy somewhere in the middle of rural china. Many Chinese people are about, hunched over in their field work.

In steps a smiling American man in a suit and brimmed hat – 1950’s style.

American guy (AG): Jeepers! What a swell place *big grin*, but you know I can’t help but feel its missing something *scratches his head in an exaggerated way*. I know *lifts an affirming finger in revelation* –

Local Villager: who are you and what are you doing on my land? –

AG: You need a little *star wipe* Modernization (TM) !!

Star wipe knocks over the villager

Village turns into a city, and everybody suddenly looks very trendy.

AG: There you go all better now. You have all the great things that we have in the good old US of A. Western Medicine, Infrastucture, and go ahead and burn a little coal while you’re at it. *wink* we had our turn at it once too.

Just for good measure we gave you your own track so you can keep in top shape for a long healthy modern lifestyle.

Well my work is done here!

Puts hands on hips and looks contentedly into the distance.

KAPOW!! *disappears in a puff of smoke that makes everyone cough*

Scene 2: Everybody has adjusted quite nicely, and is getting along in their daily business, but a little less hunched over this time.

AG: *in a flash of smoke* KABLAM! I have returned. *with a look of total satisfaction on his face*

*goes up to a stranger* So how are things getting along here since we added patented Modernization (TM) to your country.

Local Chinese man (LCM): Oh yeah, you. *rolls eyes a little* Well, you gave us a real shock the first time, but yeah, we’re doing just fine. We especially love the track. It seems a regular past time around here.

AG: Super duper! Well you must have some real titans of fitness by now.

LCM: uh..what do you mean?

AG: Well gosh. You must have some pretty fast runners around here. Endurance or dash, you must be in real tip top shape, yes, sir.

LCM: Well some of us are going there now. Why don’t you come along and join us.

They go to the track together. The American guy is now in short shorts and ready for a brisk run. He warms up by doing some stretches and pumping his legs a little. By the look of his build he does this a lot.

AM: Alright, let’s do this. I’m ready for a bit of a race.

LCM: okay we can do that.

They start off at a sprint, the American guy is very excited, then all the Chinese people stop at the end of the straight and start flailing their arms and walking backwards in strange ways.

AM: *stops his jog and runs in place near his friends* What are you doing fellas? Hey, why are you slapping yourself in the torso, doesn’t that hurt? Maybe you want to face the other way while your walking. And hey buddy why are you moving like your swimming? We’re not in a pool we’re on land.

LCM: Good for the health. *smiles a little and goes back to flailing his arms strangley* Want a cigarette while we’re here.

AM: Umm…gosh! Did I miss something? Wait why is she wearing high heels on the track? Maybe she should put down that handbag and change out of that miniskirt. – Wait! Is everybody here smoking? I thought we were running.

LCM: we did run. 10 seconds as planned. Now we flail – and smoke. Isn’t that what we’re here for?

AM: *big smile* Well, I’m sure confused! *claps his hand and tries to poof out again, but just walks out of the smoke cloud dejected and slouched over*

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All based on real events (aside from the star wipes and clouds of smoke, but yes everybody smokes…everywhere). I don’t think Chinese people have figured out the concept of exercise yet. They just do tai chi and socialize while they walk. Makes it very hard to exercise…
************************************************

Haggling and Crazy Chinglish T-shirts

Ah! I really have to say, I have the most wonderful speaking teacher! Not only is he patient and creative in her lessons, but she is just too much fun. She always has a great sense of humor. She loves to teach us dirty words. Apparently chicken means prostitute in Chinese, and “question” sounds like the word “kiss” so be careful what you are asking strangers. On top of all this she gives us all the insider information on Nanjing. As soon as she found out that we were all getting ripped off at the tourist’s flea market she decided to take us to this amazing shopping center at the edge of the city. Mind you I hate shopping – DEPSISE it, but I’m in China right?; Time to go outside of our comfort zones.

The whole class took a field trip over there. We almost didn’t take the bus because it was so crowded, but we squeezed in and made our way over in one piece. I made a few friends on the way over too. Something about cramped spaces always forces you to socialize. I got there and saw rows and rows of every kind of clothing I could want to buy. I can appreciate the visuals, but mind you I still wasn’t psyched about shopping.

I walked around a little, palling around with some of my buddies from school. I wasted a little time looking at shoes with some female friends. They realized very quickly that they didn’t have the tiny Asian feet to fit the shoes and moved on, disappointed.

Then I bumped into a little store. They had a few things that looked interesting. So I walked in; no big deal. I asked the price of a sweater I liked.

“280 kuai”.

Okay not terrible, no better than home. I thought about it for a second, and my friend, Miguel, nudged me slyly. He told me to pretend I like I didn’t want it. I didn’t get it, but then, “oh”. A sly grin came over my face. We had to haggle. The thrill of the chase was on.

We tried to bring it down a bit, but she wasn’t budging. “260”, she said, but we weren’t having it. So, we left with an heir of deservingness. We snubbed her, and I felt like such an ass, but oh! It was a great feeling. They intentionally jack up the prices for foreigners because they think we have more money. It’s probably true, but the best way to get a deal is to find something you like and get a Chinese friend to buy it for you later.

Anyway, me and Miguel found another place later. They tried to sell us high at first. Now – realize, it’s not easy bargaining in a language you don’t speak so well, but Miguel is very flamboyant. He throws on his looks with such flare. He knows just the right amount of disappointment and apathy to use in any situation. In his brilliance, he got us down to a price down below what they were going to sell us, with an extra sweatshirt thrown in for good measure. Haggling is so much fun. I now know what it must feel like to gamble. You know you are getting rid of money, but those little thrills make it so worth it.

Well I was there I took a few pictures of all the “Chinglish” (Chinese attempts at English that end up as fashionable babble) writing I could find. I would have bought a few Chinglish t-shirts for myself but they were all for women. I figure people back home will get a few awkward laughs out of these.
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Making That Leap – written 9/26/09

As of now, I stand in my room surrounded by piles of wet laundry. If there was an open space here once, it has been taken up by wet t-shirts and soggy jeans. We don’t have dryers in my building complex so you can either try and find space on a crowded clothes line or lay your crap all over the room the way I have. Well at least it’s a clean mess, right? Sure I could have done my laundry on an off day, that would be the “RESPONSIBLE” thing to do, but I haven’t done any laundry since I was back home in the states. I guess I just got too focused on my studies. In the midst of my mess I have some time to sit and think.

A few revelations have come about. The first and most important: I am too comfortable. Everybody here speaks English, including my Chinese friends. I don’t have any opportunities to challenge myself. So, tonight I am going out with a few Chinese people for dinner. Originally it was going to be me and an English friend of mine who speaks exceptional Chinese. I was going to tag along and coast off his skills while I soaked everything in from the side, but guess what? Everybody is getting sick so my original crutch has been taken away and now I will have to converse all by myself with two Chinese people I have never met; Finally, a real challenge!

With this I am upping my study regiment. I no longer plan to go out to the clubs with my friends, unless there is some Chinese planned into the night, and I have changed my methods of study. I’ve already been working hard mind you. When I have nothing else planned I can do over ten hours of study a day, but it’s all been from the text book thus far. I am going to start chatting with more people online. This way I keep things more functional and not just theoretical. After a trip to the foreign language bookstore (外文书店),all the way on the other side of Nanjing, I now have Chinese comic books and some listening exercises for my personal use.

I know its only been a month, but I have to constantly challenge myself if I want to make real progress. On a Saturday night most people just loiter out in front of the building, chill with their foreign buddies, and drink cheap beers. I don’t want that to be me. That’s not what I am here for. If I want to waste time I can do that back home. I am in China and it is time to get my ass in gear.

各位再见 (see you all later),
李安 (Liam)

Living Like a Prince – written 9/20/09

At home frugal is my middle name. Just call me Liam Frugal Stephens. Pinching every penny and living comfortably with a free book from the library and the occasional cup of tea. I am a man of the mind, and I am content to wander in those space while I kill time and save dollars. These habits of mine constantly worry my mother. She thinks I am neglecting myself, somehow. When I made my plans to go to China she told me, “Please, don’t live like a hermit while you are over there.” Keeping these words in mind and taking advantage of the exchange rates, I have managed to live like a prince.

I went out for karaoke with a bunch of friends on Friday. What we call karaoke in America is a little novelty for wannabe divas and college students looking to kill time on a weekend night. What they have in China is a palace of worship for a national past time. They put you in your own personal room with wrap around leather couches; floors buffed and polished to a fine sheen; wide screen televisions placed around the room for best angle, all controlled by an elaborate computer system for picking just the right song in whatever personalized fashion you want. The staff is constantly coming in and providing all manner of services from maintenance, to delivering every kind of food you could want (don’t be afraid to try the pigeon if its offered), and every time they leave the room they bow with the deepest respect and gratitude. “Such an honor to serve you” is read in every gesture. Once the music starts it ceases to be a game. Every Chinese friend I had put their heart into each song they sung. They all have such beautiful voices and I feel like an American jackass who can’t sing, but knows a thing or two about stage presence.

I tried my hand at a couple Chinese songs too. No, I don’t know the tune, but I can get by reading the words and trailing along in backup behind my Chinese friends. After four hours in our own personal haven I felt the urge to get out and dance. I wanted to move, so I told my friends I would treat to wherever we went, if they just lead the way. Our Chinese friend, whose English name is “Okay”, took us to the “1912 District” in Nanjing, the best place for night life in the whole city. Once I got on that dance floor things just started moving. If you are friendly and outgoing in a Chinese club you make friends left and right. Total strangers invite you to their personal rooms. One introduced me to his whole family and he said I was his new, “American brother”. I don’t know if I will ever see them again, but the feeling was not lost.

Today I climbed to the peak of the Purple Mountain, a site filled with nature set right in the middle of the city. We made it to the top and I saw the city in its fullness for the first time. It would have been a flawless view, but the pollution is so dense here that everything disappears in a grey fog when you look further out. In my exhaustion from the long hike I asked if we could go for food, and was treated to Chinese hot pot. This is an experience that everyone should try at least once in their life.

They put a bowl of boiling water in front of you, set over a built in hot plate. You order a bunch of raw food served to you in single dishes, and then let the feast commence: Everything in the pot! We had fish balls, beef, shrimp, all sorts of vegetables, you put it straight in and watch it cook in front of you. Everything absorbs the flavor of everything else. It is an overwhelming experience that had me in a numb joy by the end. The steam from the pot, the amazing quality and sheer quantity of what I ate made me want to pass out for a nap. The whole time I walked back home with a smile on my face.

I am in CHINA! And it just keeps getting better and better. I started here with an awkward ambivalence, but it grows on me very quickly. My Chinese is getting better too. So maybe by the end of the year it will be like a second home.

Best wishes,
Liam (李安)