Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Beijing Olympics 2008 (Part 1 of 3)

Well, the Olympics have come and gone, but it's not too late to give an account of my adventures in Beijing. I was able to stay in Beijing from August 14-18 and it was pretty much non-stop fun. Two of my good friends were going to be in Beijing during that time: Derek, who is working in Beijing, and Amy (Swimmer), who is working in Shenzhen. Since the Olympics, I have reached the quarter century mark (25 years old) and would rather talk about my exploits while traveling than the realization that I am getting dangerously close to being what many people refer to as an "adult," whatever that might be. So, on August 14 I set out in the early AM to go to the Hangzhou airport to fly to Beijing. I decided to take the airport shuttle from the downtown area to save a little cash and it ended up being a fun experience. I was one of the first people on the bus and had sat down in a row by myself. Pretty soon, I saw a middle aged Chinese man get on the bus and glance around as many people do upon entering any type of public transportation, assessing the situation. Slowly his gaze found me and a big smile appeared on his face. I knew then that even though this bus was empty, this man was going to sit by me. To me, this is one of the more endearing things about Chinese people: their curiosity and kindness towards foreigners like myself and willingness to immediately approach them and practice whatever English they might speak. It turns out this man could speak pretty good English and we talked the entire 45 minute drive to the airport. He works for an offshore oil drilling company and told me all about his job, which sounds like really tough work. He was headed to the airport because he had an interview in Tianjin with Conoco Phillips and hoped to eventually work for them in the US. I practiced all the Chinese phrases I knew with him and he helped me correct my pronunciation and taught me new phrases, most of which were methods by which I could pick up Chinese women. By his estimates, if he were my Chinese teacher it would only take about 1 year to whip my Chinese abilities into shape. We finally made it to the airport and everything started according to plan. However, after about an hour or so into the flight, the pilot got on the speaker to say that our flight was being diverted to another city due to weather conditions in Beijing. Since I had tickets to a tennis match that day shortly after my flight was scheduled to arrive, I was pretty worried that I would miss it. We sat on the plane for hours and hours, waiting for clearance to finish the last leg. The rainstorm that went over Beijing also hit us in Jinan, where our plane had temporarily landed. Finally, though, we got the clearance and our flight ended up arriving in Beijing at around 8:30 pm, 6 hours after the scheduled time. Fun stuff.
The Cause of the Delay
Escaping the Rain
I immediately went to find a cab so that I could go to the tennis match, where I was meeting Amy and her friend Gill. However, the cab driver didn't know how to get to the tennis stadium and, because I didn't speak enough Chinese, I had to call both Derek and Amy to try to tell the cab driver where I needed to go. I think the driver finally gave up on me because he dropped me off somewhere that looked nothing like an Olympic venue. I had to make a few more calls and eventually had a security guard help me hail a cab and give directions to the stadium. Needless to say, after around 12 hours of traveling I was both frustrated and tired. However, despite my long delay, the tennis match had also been delayed and I finally arrived in time to see the two main matches. Now, I had been expecting to see a couple of no name tennis players, but I soon found out that I would first be seeing Roger Federer (Switzerland) play James Blake (USA). Roger Federer is one of the best tennis players of all time, but James Blake actually beat him, which was really exciting to watch. Of course a few U-S-A chants were in order.
Amy and Wes Outside the Stadium
Roger Federer James Blake
Inside of Tennis Stadium Who's This Guy?
The next match was Venus Williams (USA) vs Li Na (China). With the primarily Chinese audience, this match was particularly rowdy. Tennis is usually a pretty formal sport, with cheering normally happening only between points. However, many people in the audience didn't know this and would cheer or chant Li Na's name pretty much whenever they felt like it. The refs often had to ask them to be quiet, but that would only work for a minute or two. One time, thankfully between sets, the crowd began doing the wave, which I'm pretty sure wouldn't be happening if this were Wimbledon. Li Na played a great game, though, and beat Venus Williams who was heavily favored to win.
Venus Williams
Li Na
One more cool thing that happened at the tennis match was when I saw a guy being escorted by a formal looking security person into the lower section of the stadium. After taking a closer look, I realized that it was none other than Bill Gates. I nearly turned into a screaming teenage girl at a rock concert when I saw him, which I think might reveal that I am a bigger nerd than I thought I was. I tried waving at him and tried to take a close picture of him, but none turned out very well. Alas, meeting Bill Gate will have to wait for another day.
Old Billy Boy (In Green)
So, after a bad start, my first day at the Olympics ended up being really great after seeing some world class tennis and seeing Bill "The Man" Gates. More pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/wallred10/OlympicsPart1

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Learning Chinese (So Far)

It has been two and a half weeks since I first started studying Chinese and I feel that things have been going relatively well so far. China is certainly a tough language to learn and much more difficult than learning German, which is the only other foreign language I've learned and can compare it to. When I first started my course, I was the only person who was a complete beginner, so the first four days I was pretty lucky and had one-on-one class. With the one-on-one classes I was able to move as fast as I could learn the material, so things were going pretty well. Since those first four days, I have had three other students join the class and am no longer having the one-on-one classes. At first I wasn't happy to have classmates because I didn't have as much attention to my individual progress, but I realized it's been good to have people to practice with and joke about our attempts to practice Chinese in the city. Learning a new language almost forces you to adopt the mentality of a child and I definitely felt like one the first few days. When you're trying to learn how to pronounce new sounds you're bound to make a lot of mistakes and say some funny things as a result of those mistakes. My teachers will laugh sometimes if we say things really wrong or say something that is weird to them. It reminds me of being around a kid who is learning to talk when they pronounce or use words in a funny way and all the adults will have a good laugh about it. Another bonus about learning a language is that I get papers where I can trace Chinese characters in big squares, much like a kindergartner learning how to write letters. So this provides clear evidence I have hardly progressed as a person in the last 20 years. From my very short introduction to Chinese so far, I can basically see four levels of difficulty to learning the language. As a former consultant, I decided it was necessary to use a bulleted list, although I resisted the temptation to create sub-bullets.
  • Pronunciation: Chinese can be written in what is called "pinyin" which is basically Chinese written in western style letters. Some of the letters make the same sounds as in English, but others are quite different. For example, 'x' makes more of a 'sh' sound. Also, when some letters are combined, the pronunciation changes slightly. To be fair, though, Chinese pronunciation is very consistent and there are fewer combinations of letters than in English. In English, for example, "read" can be pronounced different ways depending on the context and there is basically an infinite limit to the way letters can be combined.
  • Tones: Imagine mastering the way letters are pronounced and thinking you are finally starting to understand a language. Then imagine being told that there are 4 different tones of pronunciation for each letter combination or word and that each of the tones indicates a different meaning for the word. I'm not going to write about what each tone is, just know that for a western language speaker they are difficult to speak, difficult to discern between when listening, and difficult to understand how such a language system ever evolved.
  • Chinese Characters: As far as I can estimate, the "pinyin" style of writing was only created to make the Chinese language more accessible to foreigners, as well as for simplicity when using technology such as keyboards or cell phones. At first I thought I would bypass learning Chinese characters since it seemed like too difficult of a task and just learn the pinyin, but after being in China for a couple weeks, I realized that "pinyin" is rarely used in Chinese writing. Also, the characters seem pretty invaluable if you plan on spending much time traveling around China. China has multiple dialects throughout the country and in oral communication, some Chinese people can't even understand the other dialects within the country, so what hope is there for an ignorant American such as myself? Well, the hope lies in the characters as they are the one thing that is uniform across all dialects. In fact, on normal Chinese TV, there are often subtitles with the characters so all people across the country can understand what is being said. So with that in mind, I decided to put a lot of effort in at least being able to read characters. Writing characters, however, is another story at this point.
  • Grammar: After mastering pronunciation, tones, and characters, the final frontier is grammar. As with all languages, there is no one-to-one translation between sentences and learning all the differences is a lifelong process. Right now, I'm happy to be able to say my name and where I'm from.
This ended up being longer than I had hoped, but I think it provides a good overview of what I'm spending most my days doing right now. I'm pretty happy with my progress and have been able to communicate with people a little bit around the city. It's funny, though, because sometimes when I'm trying to think of what to say in Chinese, my brain will start thinking in German, like it's kicking into foreign language mode, but was shifted into the wrong gear. Hopefully this problem doesn't last too long. I realize at this point that learning Chinese to the point of fluency would take a lot more time than I probably will have in China, but if I can have a basic level of proficiency, I will be pretty happy. In the meantime, I'm going to get back to talking to myself in my apartment to practice Chinese tones and pronunciation and making my neighbors think that I'm either stupid or crazy, or maybe both.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hiking Around in Hangzhou

I've only had this blog a couple weeks and I'm already getting behind on things that have been going on, so I'll try to write a post at 5 pm on a Friday despite my policy of not working at all on Fridays. I'll be watching the opening ceremonies pretty soon, which I'm pretty excited about. In China, the number 8 is considered to be a lucky number and in keeping with everything being very planned out, the opening ceremony starts on 08/08/2008 at 08:08 pm. Enough 8's for you? Last weekend I decided to do a few tourist things in Hangzhou and see some of the city. I first headed out to "Qinghefang Historical Street" (pronounced roughly Ching-huh-fahng). Qinghefang consists mostly of historical buildings converted into clothing shops, food vendors, and even a few carnival like games where people would throw bean bags to knock over some little statues for prizes. Of course, there was a McDonald's there as well to bastardize whatever authentic historical element might still remain. The main focus of the street seemed to be tea shops and traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies. Most of the tea seemed pretty expensive, around 300 RMB (~$45), although it was for very large cases of tea. Now $45 might not seem that expensive for a large container of quality tea in a tourist area, but when most my meals cost 20-30 RMB, you can see that few teas are worth 10-15 meals. The traditional medicine pharmacies were very cool. In fact, one of the students in my class is a German woman who comes to China specifically to buy the medicines to sell in Germany. Honestly, though, I don't know what types of medicines they were selling as everything was in Chinese and no one in the pharmacies really seemed to speak English.
Qinghefang Historical Street
After Qinghefang street, I hiked up to a pagoda called "Heavenly Wind over Wu Hill". It wasn't a huge hike, but because of the heat I was of course thoroughly soaked with sweat by the time I made it to the top. It was a very cool pagoda and looked pretty dramatic perched up on the hill. The view of Hangzhou was also very good from the top of the pagoda. I ran into several people who wanted to talk to me on the pagoda, including some South Korean guys who were about my age. Their English was pretty good, so I talked to them for a little while. When I told them I quit my job in Chicago to move to China, I thought their heads were going to explode. For them, quitting a job when you're young is very uncommon, where in the US it seems almost all my friends were switching jobs or trying something new after 2 years at their first jobs. It's fun talking to some random people and seeing what they think. It's one of my favorite things to do so far in China and there are plenty of opportunities to do it.
Heavenly Wind over Wu Hill
View of Hangzhou City View of Hangzhou and West Lake
After the pagoda, I decided to hike down a different way and see some smaller temples that were nearby. The temples were cool and most had places where you could put a candle near a prayer altar. I kept going down the hill and eventually came out into the city. However, as most people know, my sense of direction is pretty bad and I wasn't sure where I was at. Unfortunately, where I was at also was outside of the range of my tourist map. I eventually got my bearings and decided to start heading in the general direction back to the main part of the city. I slowly started to go into some poorer neighborhoods that look much different from the high rise apartments that are the norm where I am living in Hangzhou. Most people seemed pretty surprised that I would be there when they saw me. Then, the neighborhood seemed to abruptly end and all that was left was a small mountain. At this point, I was definitely lost, but figured climbing to the top of the hill was the best way to get my bearings and also thought the main part of the city was on the other side. Once I had hiked for around 30 minutes it, of course, started to thunder and lightning and sprinkle rain. After a little bit, I ran into an older Chinese man who was coming down the hill. He stopped to talk to me and warn me about going up further with the lightning. He didn't speak any English, so he was mostly talking and motioning with his hands, but I understood what he was trying to say. I could only get him to understand that I understood him by making lightning noises with my mouth and making my fingers shoot from above my head and point to the ground. He laughed at that and then headed down the hill, while I kept heading up. Once I reached the top, I realized that it was a good move because I saw the city on the other side. On the way hiking down, I came across some carvings and statues in the mountain side and also another cool temple. This temple actually had a monk dressed in traditional garb, but he was just chilling reading a newspaper instead of meditating and saying "ooohm," like I figured most monks spent their time. Once I reached the bottom of the mountain, I came across a traditional farm they had for tourists to see how farming was traditionally done. It was a small farm and was divided into eight sections, each containing a different type of crop that was grown in ancient times.
Wall Carvings in Mountain
Farmland of Eight Trigrams
In the end, I saw a few things I hadn't planned on as a result of getting lost. So the moral of the story is that everyone should travel with me and and put my sense of direction in charge. That way you'll be able to see a lot of cool things you hadn't planned on seeing. For those interested in seeing more pictures, here is the gallery on picasa: http://picasaweb.google.com/wallred10/QinghefangStreetWuPagodaAndHike

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Photo Galleries

In order to satisfy the demand of more pictures, I have created an account with Picasa, which, like blogger, is through Google and completely free. It allows you to post up to 1GB of photos. I compressed my photos to so that I could upload more photos, but they won't necessarily look as good as the originals. I have labeled most of the photos, but unfortunately the file names can't be loaded as captions for the photos, so if you want to see more information about the pictures, click "more info" on the right and look at the filename. Like facebook, you can post comments on the photos, if so inclined. I have two photo albums on the site right now, with more to come: Hangzhou Tea House and Botanic Gardens IT Mall and Hangzhou Streets You can view all my public albums with this address: http://picasaweb.google.com/wallred10 I'll try to post a link to a photo album for most blog posts so people can see more pictures. If for some reason the links don't work, please let me know so I can fix it and made the albums public. See, I didn't have to give up being a nerd or asking for client feedback when I came to China.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Basketball at the KTV

Friday night, some of my schoolmates and I went to a KTV, or Karaoke TV. KTVs are ubiquitous throughout China and I will probably do a post later on about the, but unfortunately I forgot my camera this time around. For the uninitiated, KTVs are basically places where groups reserve private rooms and sing karaoke. Anyway, after coming out of the bathroom at the KTV, I noticed there was a TV playing basketball and that there were a couple minutes left in a close game between Argentina and Australia. I'm a big basketball fan and I couldn't resist watching the end of the game. As I was watching, I realized that a crowd was slowly forming around me. For those who haven't been to China, I should mention that Chinese people are often curious about foreigners and will usually say hello and smile at you when you walk down the street. So it seems that concept was also working here. One by one, guys would be leaving the bathroom, look at me watching basketball, point to the game, and try to say something to me in Chinese or English. At this point I had been studying Chinese only one week, so it was a prime opportunity to practice what I had learned so far, even though I'm sure my pronunciation was terrible. Most of the Chinese guys had English skills equivalent to my Chinese skills, so we had several conversations about what each others names were, where we were from, etc. in both languages. Everyone wanted to shake my hand multiple times, so eventually I had to show them the "snippity snap" handshake and the "blow it up" fist pound, both of which were hugely popular. Toward the end of the game, Manu Ginobili, in characteristic fashion, hit a big 3 and all the Chinese guys were chanting something, but I couldn't understand at first. I finally realized they were chanting Ginobili's name, but saying it roughly like "Gee-no-bill-ee." I'm pretty glad I decided to stop and watch because it ended up being a fun experience and a good chance to practice some of my Chinese. Chinese people seem to really like basketball and knew a lot of the NBA players who were playing in the game. Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian obviously have increased popularity in China, with an estimated 200 million people watching the Yao vs Yi game this past February. For comparison, an average 97.5 million people watched the Super Bowl this year (143 million total saw at least part of the game). Watching this game made me want to find some basketball courts somewhere here in Hangzhou and see if I can play a little pick up. Hopefully I'll be upgraded from "too short to play" like I am in the US to "still short, but good shooter" here in China.