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,

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*

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.

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)

Making it Through the First Few Days – written 9/14/09

*deep breath*


Check the vitals: blood pressure seems to be okay, pulse normal, temperature stable.

Alright! So it’s been a week since I have been in China. Here in glorious NANJING UNIVERSITY. So, let’s just give a quick rundown.

No, there is no free toilet paper, and unless you want to run all the way down 8 floors and walk around the campus to another building, you have to use a squat toilet to do your business. If you are wondering, yes, I have done it several times already. It is definitely a challenge, but there is not much choice in your moment of urgency.

The food is abundant and cheap. Probably the most expensive things I have seen on a menu has been 30 Yuan (about 4 dollars and 40 cents American). A lot of it is more like American Chinese food then I would have expected. Most things are deep fried and covered in salt, from both street vendors and nice restaurants, and much to my chagrin there in no peanut butter to be had – anywhere. It is difficult to get a healthy meal around here, but I discovered a local grocery store where they pretty much sell everything I could need. A full shopping trip there costs about 100 Yuan. I give them the bill, they hold it up to the light to check if its fake, just like back home, and inside I feel like I have spent a lot of money. Then I think for a second, and realize that I’ve spent only fifteen dollars for enough food to last me two to three days; Something scarcely possible in my beloved America.

For the most part I am getting along. I am very homesick, I won’t lie, but China is an acquired taste which I am coming to like quickly. Classes started last Friday. I like all my teachers, and I think with a little hard work I will adapt to the language pretty quickly. I seem to be better at it than I thought. I usually do the ordering when I am eating out with my friends. I think with a little time, and a lot of love from my family and friends, I am going to get through this year a bigger man than when I started.

再见(see you later),
李安 (Liam)

Before China (1st entry) -written 8/30/09

Wow! What a crazy whirlwind it has been so far. It surprises me every day, because life shouldn’t be this good. Contrary to what my confused logic tells me, things just seem to be getting better and better. I have just come away from one of the best summers of my life. I started my summer off learning Russian martial arts at a Sufi retreat, hidden in a little pocket of upstate New York. I wandered back home at some point to discover a new social side of myself; getting to be the life of parties I never thought I would have been invited to. I have read more books this summer than at any other period of my life, delving into every subject I could get my hands on, from neo-Gnosticism, to fashion, and Dominican history. I have done everything I could have possibly wanted this summer, and now, of all things, I am going to China, to attend Nanjing University, for a full year! I have got to be the luckiest guy in the world.

My job right now is to get everything together. I need to check and double check every little detail to make sure I don’t forget anything. In all likelihood I probably will miss something, but I could care less. I will live in a cardboard box if I have to. I am that excited. Before I had this opportunity, my friends always joked that I would be the first illegal immigrant into China. Most of the time it is hard to focus and in this moment my world seems too unreal to me, since I know I am going to leave soon for bigger and better things. I have never actually been out of the country before. The furthest I have ever traveled was to Florida when I was twelve. So, this is going to be quite the leap for me.

While I am still somewhat grounded I want to dedicate this entry to the people who made this possible. Firstly, I want give my overwhelming appreciation to everyone at the Levin Institute and the Chinese Government. They are the ones who offered the scholarship that is allowing me to go. I hope I can prove myself worthy of their kindness. Any success I have from this trip is done in their name. They are really going to change the world with the work they are doing.

I want to thank Carlton Rounds, the Assistant Director of Study Abroad at SUNY New Paltz. You have been unbelievably patient and knowledgeable every step of the way. I wish words could express how truly grateful I am to you, but I imagine you wow people all the time with your charisma and abundant compassion. So, it’s probably nothing too surprising for you. You truly are a great man who I deeply admire.

I give my thanks to the many professors who helped me get into this program by showing their support. Professors Heath, Appelbaum, and Elstein of the philosophy department all helped with my recommendations and I know I couldn’t have done this without them. Most importantly among my teachers I want to thank Professor Chien, my first Chinese instructor. I know I have had my struggles in the subject over our time together, but I hope I can make you proud with my success abroad. You have been a great well of kindness along my road to learning the language.

Most importantly I would like to thank my Mother who put all her time, energy, and love into helping me along this road. I have no doubt that she is going to miss me, but for the most part, all she feels is pride at seeing me live my dreams. I know I give you trouble sometimes [like any good kid should do for their parents 😉 ], but in the end my feelings only amount to profound gratitude. I love you, Mom!

This is the beginning of a new era, for me and all of my loved ones. I look forward to the ups and downs that will come with this new adventure. I stand jittery from excitement, but face this change head on, prepared for things sublime and wonderful. In the future, I will do my best to say here, all the crazy things that I encounter in China as they arise, but I know that some things you just can’t put into words. For now I will do my best to take things with an open mind and an open heart.

Wish me luck!

Karaoke Pictures

Me trying to sing at the Karaoke place. (sorry if my back is turned)

Me trying to sing at the Karaoke place. (sorry if my back is turned)

Friends trying to do the Macarena.

Friends trying to do the Macarena.

Its always Christmas in Nanjing! (Decorations to the entrance of the lounge).

Its always Christmas in Nanjing! (Decorations to the entrance of the lounge).