Sunday, June 08, 2008


A friend of mine recently started working on a project called WikiStory. WikiStory is the creative writing version of wikipedia. Users can post content that can then be viewed and added to by other users. They also have the option of posting content that cannot be changed but that others can comment upon. It looks like it will become a great resource for writers as well as groups looking to collaborate. In the future, a function may be added that would allow groups to create private content that they alone could then access and collaborate upon. This would be an extremely valuable tool for students and teachers working on various projects. The site is easy to use and borrows a lot of its interface from wikipedia. Check it out and help get things started by posting some of your own work and seeing what happens.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Earthquake Update

Other the course of yesterday evening and today more news has been coming in about Monday's earthquake. When I checked the news immediately after the quake only five people had been reported dead. Those numbers have now become absolutely staggering. The death count has risen to a confirmed 10,000 but 10,000 more are still unaccounted for, making this China's largest natural disaster in a long time. Here is the latest NY Times article, as well as some pictures and maps. Several schools were also killed in the quake and a resulting landslide, leaving more than 1,000 students dead and countless others are still missing.

Minutes after the first quake occurred in Sichuan province, an additional, smaller quake occurred on the outskirts of Beijing, which is presumably what we felt yesterday. Everyone I talked to reported feeling dizzy for a few minutes during the quake. Aid efforts may be limited because of the massive amount of damage after the recent Myanmar cyclone.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Breaking News: Tremor felt in Beijing

Today I taught a first grade class for Ms. Holzheimer because she is on vacation in Guilin. Part way through the class we are getting ready to teach a nursery rhyme when I realize that the lights (which are hung from the ceiling by chains) are starting to swing violently and the building is shaking ever so slightly. We were a little skeptical but it stopped after one or two minutes and we just attributed it to a strong wind, of which Beijing never lacks.

When I got home from school today I logged onto Facebook and lo and behold, several of my Beijing friends had posted about the earthquake. I immediately checked the New York Times, and though it took a little searching (it was too soon after the quake for a regular article) I did find this headline. This wasn't any small earthquake. 5 children were killed when a school building collapsed and more than 100 were left injured in the initial 7.8 magnitude quake. The quake's epicenter was close to Chongqing, a city in Sichuan province. The USGS filed this report.

I'm sure more news will come in with the passing of time, but it is pretty stunning to have experienced my first earthquake.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

New York Times

I read the New York Times everyday, and everyday I bookmark articles to post on the blog, and everyday I don't put them on the blog. So now I'm putting them up all at once (with commentary) so that they aren't clogging up my bookmarks folder anymore.

"Yes, Running Can Make You High" - They finally proved that runner's night exists, not that I every had any doubts.

"A Death-Defying House" - The secret to eternal life apparently lies in the environment you live in.

"Scrutiny of Suit Rises as World Records Fall" - When does a swimsuit cross the line into becoming a performance-enhancer?

"Changing Speeds to Go the Distance" - Run faster.

"The College That Would Not Go Gently" - I had thought about applying to school here for a while.

"Bisphenol-A BPA" - Now I have to get a new Nalgene.

"China Says It Is ready to Meet Dalai Lama Envoys" - Big new here. Who knows if anything will come out of this, but it's better than nothing.

Now go learn new things.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I stand corrected

My blog has miraculously become unblocked in the past few minutes. YAY! I can finally see it in full. Internet here is very strange and things come and go. I don't know if it will last (it was blocked this morning) but I'm very pleased at the moment.

Annoying Mix-up

I just realized that all of the time stamps on my posts for the last two months have been wrong since I forgot to change the setting to China time after moving here. I hadn't realized that Blogger didn't automatically take the time from my computer and I didn't realize sooner because I can't actually see my blog here, only post to it. (China has blocked all blogs.) Anyway, for all intents and purposes, posts from the last two months were actually written thirteen hours later than it says they were. Sorry about that.

Theatre Review

Recently some of us went to see a production of Hamlet at the Capital Theatre. The performance was by a small British Shakespeare troupe and was thankfully in English, with Chinese translation projected on screens on the sides of the stage. I was dubious about seeing Shakespeare in China, both because I saw a mediocre production of Hamlet in the states before I left and because some of the shows we’ve seen here have been absolute technical disasters.

The tragedy was preformed with a minimalist set consisting of a single platform of exposed construction in an arch shape. This acted surprisingly well as a watchtower, throne, ship, and bedroom. The troupe consisted of seven actor-musicians who frequently moved in and out of several roles. Musicians were positioned stage left and at different points included a guitar, a ukulele, percussion, and vocals. Overall the acting was very good with some interesting decisions that I hadn’t seen in other performances. What follows are some of my random observations.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were extremely comical and were dressed as twins, even though they both played other parts throughout the play. Fortinbras was completely eliminated from the script, probably for time’s sake more than anything else. During “To be or not to be,” when Polonius and the king are spying on Hamlet, they are disguised as rocks on the beach. Hamlet is apparently considering whether or not to throw himself off a cliff. When the players are putting on their play, the actors pretend to be marionettes. This was very cleverly done and must have required quite a bit of work to figure out. Later, when the king calls for lights during the play within the play, the lights rise for intermission in the actual theatre. The director chose to have Hamlet and Ophelia go shoeless ad an indicator of their madness. When Hamlet kills Polonius he does so by very realistically breaking his neck, complete with gruesome sound effects. Unfortunately, this eliminates Polonius’ line to the effect of “I am slain.”

The clash between Chinese and Western was evident in the technical aspects of the performance, which were flawed in ways that have been common to all the Chinese performances I have seen. The Chinese consistently overdo their special effects. Hamlet’s undoing was a noisy smoke machine that whirred each time it produced a weak puff of smoke in the corner of the stage, eliciting a laugh from the audience. Additionally, the lighting was a little overly creative. The ghost was cast in a mix of orange and green light, reflecting brightly off his burial shrouds. After he disappeared, Hamlet then steps into the same area, making it very difficult to take him seriously. The fencing scenes were well choreographed, but other examples of stage fighting appeared utterly unrealistic.

In the end, I was very pleased that I decided to go see the show. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in the audience if I didn’t speak English.

GMail Art - Google

I discovered this during computers class today, which is basically just two hours of surfing the web. The Chinese kids are supposed to be learning photoshop, but mostly they just play Counter Strike. I found the whole thing quite amusing because the school has blocked Gmail (among other things) and I was annoyed that I couldn't get around it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

It's Raining, It's Pouring

It rained today. This is excessively exciting being that we have experienced no precipitation whatsoever since being here. Unless, of course, you count sand storms. Despite the fact that it very rarely rains, everyone in Beijing is more than prepared. The city, which is completely reliant on bicycles as the backbone of its infrastructure simultaneously dons rain ponchos. And these aren't just any old rain ponchos; they're brightly colored plastic ponchos which are longer in front than in back so that they can be draped over and fastened to a bicycle's handlebars. In theory, this keeps your upper body, backpack, legs and hands dry. In practice, I'm not sure what it actually achieves because I didn't wear one. I figured better to keep a shred of my dignity and just put on my Gore-Tex raincoat.

The city was quite beautiful in the rain, with all the sounds kind of muffled and everything moving at a slightly slower pace. That was until I ran into another student on a bicycle. The bike lanes in Beijing are for two types of vehicles: bicycles and city buses. Though this seems pretty counter intuitive it works alright. As I was riding the final block towards school I was between a bus and the curb. I couldn't see around the bus and out of nowhere another student on a bicycle rides head on into the bicycle lane. This is a generally stupid thing to do as it was clear that bikes couldn't see around the bus, but native Beijingers have a very different sense of safety. In the end she just gave a little yelp, apologized and rode away. I caught myself from falling on the side of the bus, whose driver was kind enough not to run my over. And though now thoroughly wet, I still didn't have to suffer the embarrassment of wearing one of those ponchos.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tibet Conflict

The conflict between Tibetans and Han Chinese has been widely reported on in the states, but here in China, much is being covered up. Although I can't understand the Chinese news, my host parents have told me what they know from watching CCTV here. The Chinese government it reporting that around 15 people have been killed while the New York Times reports that that number is probably closer to 100. Also, until today, the Chinese government had not admitted that protests had spread from Tibet to the bordering provinces of Sichuan and Gansu. The AP update can be found here.

In other news, my host mom came home the other day saying that she had heard a rumor from a colleague that morning that schools had been closed in Hong Kong after several students dies. This had gone completely unreported in the Chinese press. I decided to double check online and the New York Times had published an article four days earlier saying the Hong Kong schools closed early for Easter break after four student deaths related to influenza. I was shocked to discover that not only had this gone unreported, but that it took four days for Chinese people to find out anything about it.

Because of the fighting in Tibet, many US news sources are currently being blocked here including YouTube, CNN, and Google News.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Waiguoren in the Post Office

My status in Beijing is as a waiguoren or "outside country person." There are many waiguoren in Beijing yet everywhere I go I get stared at. People don't think anything of staring outright and even when you stare back, they continue to stare. Wearing my school uniform helps a little bit because at least then people can place me. Having a place is very important in China, and uniforms are a big part of this. Everyone seems to feel the need to be part of some greater whole and to show where they belong. That said, people are often flabbergasted to see an American wearing a high school uniform riding a bike.

Today I encountered this again when I went to the post office. I wanted to mail a letter home to my sister and needed to buy postage and an envelope. I walked in to the post office next door to my building and waited in line. It is not a very Beijing thing to do to wait in line, but there were only two people and when a man who came in after me tried to cut in line, I shoved him out of the way. This was not at all rude and would be completely expected out of a Beijinger. People often think they can cut the waiguoren but are never offended when I act like I'm Chinese. Anyway, I successfully mailed my letter, despite the fact that the man who had tried to cut me repeated everything I said in Chinese to the postal worker after I said it. I was shocked to see her using an abacus to calculate the prices of different packages. I knew that abacuses were a Chinese invention but I didn't think they were in use anymore.

Speaking of acting like I'm Chinese, I seem to be picking up many of the Chinese tendencies since moving here. I wear long underwear under my pants and then take off my outer pants and jacket when I come inside so that the house won't get dirty from the dust outside. I drink hot water, a distinctly Chinese tendency that results from many Chinese people believing that cold food and drinks interfere with digestion. I think that's just an old wives' tale, but hot water seems to do a better job of clearing the dust from the back of my throat. I shove people when I want to get on and off the subway or bus, which is the only way to counteract being shoved myself. My sense of style has even changed since I came to China, represented by a pair of overly colorful sneakers I bought for the equivalent of eleven US dollars yesterday.

Yet despite all these things, I am still most definitely a waiguoren. People often don't realize that I am speaking Chinese when I try to talk to them and tell me that they don't speak English. My accent is undoubtedly horrible and people don't expect me to be able to speak Chinese. Will and I play Frisbee during recess most days and a few brave students will come to talk with us or ask to learn how to play. Recently we also started playing the Chinese version of hackey-sack which is incredibly fun and doesn't require as much space of Frisbee. We were tossing a disk the other day and one of the elementary schoolers was just staring at us. Like many of the small kids he had a bean bag to play with. They like to play this game where they lob the bean bags at each other and then run away. He was just standing with his bean bag and staring so we asked him if he wanted to play with us. He said no and ran away. Later, he came back to watch again and Jasmine motioned him over to come talk with us. Again he ran away, but she followed and brought him back. He asked her what we were playing and she told him it was a Frisbee. (This was in Chinese of course. Most of the elementary schoolers can't speak any English.) She asked him if she could introduce him to Will and me, and he replied that he was afraid of foreigners. This would be unheard of in the US, but here everybody looks the same, and many children have never talked to a foreigner before. Eventually, he came over and shook Will and my hands' before running away. The entire interaction was exceedingly cute, especially seeing 6' 3" Will bending down to shake hands with a first grader. I can only imagine how scared the kid must have been of the blond haired, blue eyed, foreign giant.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pollution in Beijing

I noticed this series of articles this morning at I scanned the New York Times for the first time since being in China. China has been claiming for quite some time now that the pollution problem will be cleaned up in time for the Olympics but I have trouble believing it. The Olympics are only months away and the situation right now appears pretty grim. Many days I wake up in central Beijing to a pink haze that covers everything within site. Beijing's climate is very peculiar in that we haven't had rain in the month and a half that I've been here, but it is often very windy. The dry wind blows in dust from outside the city. The few trees that are are planted around the city are so covered with dust and particulate that their bark appears black in color. One day when I came out from school the hundreds of bikes parked in the schools courtyard had all been knocked over and were covered with dust and sand. Turns out there had been a sand storm while I was in class that morning. More alarming than the visual signs are the effects of this environmental crisis on the body. I consider myself to be a healthy teenager. I have minor asthma that pretty much never affects me when I'm in the states. Since coming to Beijing, we have had several days when I could clearly feel the poor air quality while running laps during gym class or riding my bike through downtown. If I am affected while doing these everyday activities that I usually think nothing of, I can't imagine what the air quality would do to a marathoner. China may be saying that they are cleaning up their act, but the environment here doesn't seem to be going anywhere but downhill.

Internet Woes!

Not all Internet is created equal. And by that I mean that the security in China leaves something to be desired. For the past week I've been fighting with my computer trying to figure out whether the Internet problems I'm having are spyware, censorship, or a virus. Anyway, I thought I would pass along some helpful knowledge from friends who I have consulted on my computer problems. There are two good, free programs to download in addition to a regular virus scan if your computer is having problems (or if you want to prevent it from having problems.) The first is called Ad-Aware and is something I've been using for several years. The free version is a pain because you can't set it up to automatically scan periodically but the program works great. I try to scan my systems both in the US and in China about once a week and pretty much always find something. The other program is new to me, and is called Spybot- Search & Destroy. If you're a computer person you've undoubtedly already heard, and probably used, both of these programs. For those of you more like me, who don't know what to do when the computer doesn't behave except pray, hopefully this will be helpful.

Anyway, things seem to be working better now, at least for the time being, so I should be back and posting more regularly. Not much new is happening here. We did a presentation to the seventh grade about American culture that turned out to be a big hit. We were afraid that they wouldn't pay much attention because the whole thing was in English, but we showed lots of pictures which helped. They were especially interested in food and music. For a break we taught them how to do the wave which they seemed to really like. We left a little bit of time for Q & A at the end, not expecting them to willingly raise their hands, but they had tons of questions. It was a nice change from the high schoolers we are in class with who won't do anything other than stare down at their desks.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

T.G.I. Fridays

This morning my host mom asked me if I had plans for the day. After explaining in my jolted Chinese that so far I didn't have plans but that I was waiting for a friend to call, she asked if I wanted to go out to dinner tonight. I said that would be fine and told her I would plan to hang out with my friends tomorrow. I was expecting to go eat at one of my family's favorite local places, but instead they decided they wanted to have American food. Although it is sometimes nice to eat food I am familiar with, the Chinese food is much better than the international food here so I have generally tried to stay away from Chinese American food. It's sort of like how I'm not a big fan of American Chinese food. Anyway, we ended up at Sizzler's, a California-based steak house. I've never been to a Sizzler's in the US but I had heard of it before and it turned out to not be too bad. The restaurant was located in the embassy district and next door was a Haagen-Daaz and a T.G.I. Fridays. It was novel to see other foreigners and my family had fun listening me to guess where everyone was from. The highlight of the night for me was the sign for T.G.I. Fridays. The Chinese translated the name of the restaurant literally as Friday, the day of the week.

Monday, February 25, 2008

First day of school

Today was my first day of classes at the Jingshan School and quite and exhausting experience. I had to get up at 6 am so that we could leave the house at 6:45. At home it doesn't take me nearly this long to get ready but my family here insists that I eat a full breakfast before I leave so that takes up extra time. I ride my bike to school which is an adventure in itself. All the streets in Beijing have bike lanes but there are so many bikes it's sort of like driving in heavy traffic. Motorcycles were banned a few years back so now people have motorbikes, bicycles that have been outfitted with motors so you can faster that pedaling speed. Once we get to school, my brother and I go up to class and then have to line up and walk to the auditorium. During the assembly all 2,000 students stand in rows by class. Our exchange group then had to introduce ourselves in front of the entire school in Chinese. Usually I don't get nervous speaking in front of large groups, but it is an entirely different experience when using a foreign language. After we present our gift to the school, we go back to class.

The day is scheduled so that we have five classes in the morning, with morning exercises between the third and fourth classes. Then we get an hour break for lunch and recess, after which we have two more classes. My exchange group has extra classes after school many days because we can't understand the regular classes. Some of the classes satisfy requirements for our high school and others are just to enrich our experience. Overall, it's a really good set up. Problem is, the extra classes don't start until our second week of school, so we got very bored during the day. Couple that with the stress of not knowing what to do during gym class and morning exercises and I was very tired by the end of the day. There's nothing like making a mistake in which was to turn when you are marching with the entire school, every student standing in straight lines in full uniform.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vacation in Yunnan Province

We've been back about a week now from our superb vacation in Yunnan province and school will be starting tomorrow morning. I'm going to post the itinerary with some comments but there's almost too much to talk about.

February 9: We flew from Beijing to Kunming.
February 10: Sightseeing at the Golden Temple and the Stone Forest. The Stone Forest was one of the more spectacular things I have seen in my life. It was literally miles and miles of towering rock formations unique only to China.
February 11: Sightseeing at Western Hills (took cable cars), Dian Chi Lake, and Daguan Lou Pavillion. The end of the day was probably the highlight when we went to the Dr. Tea teahouse and tried lots of different teas. It was, of course, a retail opportunity, as if practically everything we have done in China. We also went to the model village which was very interesting. The government built a town specifically for show. They legitimized it by saying the money came from a workshop that exported the local womens' embroidery. Now the guy who owns the workshop teaches all the village children English and French. It's pretty much a win-win except for the surrounding villages that are dirt poor.
February 12: Fly from Kunming to Li Jiang.
February 13: Sightseeing at Black Dragon Pool Park and Dragon Well Village. The only exciting thing from this day was that Christian fell asleep on a bench in the village and no one noticed so there was a bit of a panic. Mr. G and Bob found him no problem and after a piece of chocolate he was feeling better.
February 14: This was probably the highlight of the trip. We did a six hour hike up to nearly 11,000 feet at Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was one of the most intense things I had ever done and the views of the Yangtze from the top of the gorge were mind-blowing. We ate our best meal in a village unreachable by car halfway to the top. The hike ended with 28 switchbacks at an altitude where we could literally walk about 5 steps before needing to catch our breath.
February 15: We just chilled in Li Jiang because everyone was sore and tired from the hike. That night Suzannah got sick with food poisoning.
February 16: Around 3 am it was decided that Suz needed to be taken to the hospital. Jasmine and Ms. Holzheimer went with her. We spent the day sleeping and waiting for her to be released and then once she was we took turns staying with her so Jaz could get some sleep.
February 17: We flew from Li Jiang to Kunming, had a seven hour layover, and then flew from Kunming back to Beijing. On the second flight Caroline got really sick and was taken to the hospital as soon as we landed. The last few days ended up being way more eventful than we'd hoped.

Overall, it was an awesome trip despite two people getting sick. It was really good to have some warm weather and fresh air. The scenery was quite incredible and we were literally hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Daily Life in Beijing

Everyone has been asking me a lit of questions about what daily life is like here so I figured I would post up some pictures of the apartment. We live in Dong Si, which is a fairly central part of China. Our apartment is fairly nice, and very convenient. There are three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living/dining room, and a kitchen. There are also two sun porches. One is for hanging laundry and the other is for food preparation and storage. The bathroom also has the laundry machine and the shower is over the sink. There's no shower stall or tub, just a drain in the floor.

The last couple of days have been spent exploring the city. We went to Silk Road which is this huge building with lots of stalls that sell everything and you can bargain for the prices. Everything is pretty much a knock-off, but the whole thing is kind or cool. Some of the other kids bought some stuff, but it was fun to walk around. My host mother walked me to the subway stop so I would know where it was. The subway is extremely convenient and allows me to go pretty much everywhere. The day after I went to Wang Fu Jin Street with a friend. The street is essentially the equivalent of Newbury Street or Fifth Avenue. We walked around a bit, went to the international bookstore, and then went to a cafe to have baozi. They had some good vegetarian ones which I enjoyed.

Tomorrow is New Year's Eve which is a really big deal. We'll feast in the evening and then stay up all night watching the New Year's special on TV and then watching the fireworks at midnight. The next day we are going to a hotel for the night so we can swim and play sports. My host father told me last night that the night after we might go see a performance of Swan Lake.

Monday, February 04, 2008

First few days in Beijing

I've been getting settled in with my new family in Beijing and exploring the city a little bit. Thought I would post up some pictures for everyone to see. So far we've been to Tiananmen Square and also out to do some shopping. Yesterday I managed to take the subway all by myself and met up with some friends to go to the free markets where we could bargain. Afterward we walked over to the area where most of the foreigners are to eat lunch.