Riddles in the Dark

Riddles in the Dark 


Sorry for the delay. I am unable to get to this website from China and therefore need to find ways to get around the “Great” Firewall. 


Anyway, I’ve been thinking about culture lately. The word sounds so solid, so easy to understand; but when it actually comes down to talking about it and experiencing it, it becomes liquid. The differences between two people comes down to preference, experiences, and environment. But is that all that culture is? Is culture individual? Although I claim to be an American, more specifically I am North Dakotan. There are smaller cultures within the “American” culture. For instance; both my roommates are from two different states and neither of them thought I might be a little taken aback when they didn’t wait for me after our class to walk home together, something I know to just be…polite. It sounds small, but it’s kind of like the “North Dakota good-bye.” As one of my out-of-state friends pointed out, most people in North Dakota have really long goodbyes. Also, we talk about the weather a lot. Even here in China I find myself talking about the weather more often then my peers. 


So is culture tradition? Or is tradition part of culture? What specifically is tradition? Is it habit? Is it individual to each person or family? Is it tradition that people in North Dakota wait for each other, or is it habit? Is eating lefse a preference, tradition, or culture? Can culture ever be defined? 


In addition, my homesickness is starting to sink in. I do miss being around people who understand some of the small things that make me “North Dakotan.” To not always have someone, or anyone really, to practice these North Dakota traditions with. At least before our spring break, there is one professor who will be visiting with the Shanghai students who is from Minnesota. He and I hit it off in Shanghai. We sat at the same family-style table of about ten people, talking about Hockey! We teased each other about it: he’s a Gopher fan. The other people at the table seemed so confused at our conversation; like they’ve never heard two people go on about their hometowns, weather, family traditions, lefse, ect. 


Saturday 6:30 pm: after Huanglongxi Ancient Town 


Things in China have been good. This week I’ve been very lazy but found a new place to go shopping. It is, however, filled with western stores like Gap, H&M, and Subway. Everyone here says they’re import prices; which means they are more expensive than other stores in China, but the same as they would be the States. 

Today we went to Huanglongxi, Ancient Town, which is kind of the equivalent to our Renaissance Festivals, but with more flashy kid toys. In several places there were ‘minstrels’ competing with Beyonce in the background, people selling goods, and tourists wearing ancient clothes for pictures. Overall though, despite the tourist trap, it was really nice to get out of the city and breath fresh air. 



Wednesday 2:30 pm: Well this sucks 


I’m sick. Mostly it’s a sore throat and all I want is soup. But I have to leave the apartment to get soup and the farthest I want to walk is to the kitchen and back. Outside people stare at me regardless if I look awesome or like I haven’t showered and my hair is sticking out at odd angles. I now understand why famous people are cranky when people stare at them. 


Sunday 11:00 pm: The day after Chinese New Year 


Oh boy, Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is most certainly not like American New Year, it varies in basically every factor. Chinese New Year has the family orientation of Christmas, with the fireworks of the 4th of July. Before, I’ve heard rumor that if one has Traumatic Stress or is nervous around the sound of gun shots, don’t go to Chinese New Year. I now understand. The whole city sounds like a battlefield! Also, there are no regulations on fireworks in city limits so some people end up shooting them out their window! 


A lot of the festivities didn’t start until dark so I spent the morning Skyping and then headed over to Jinli street for the lantern festival. It was amazing! I’ve never seen so many lights. It was the middle of the night and I could see as though it was noon. Lanterns above, figures lighting the sides, and trees lit up with flower lights! In the center of the festival was a small pond that glowed with reflections. 


Apart form the lights, Jinli had venders selling souvenirs and candies! We had a skewer of sugar covered strawberries, nut bars, and cotton candy made in whichever design we ordered. There were performances every two hours on the stage showcasing several different cultures including Russian, Tibetan, and Hispanic! 



After Jinli street we went back to the dorms and got coerced into going out and shooting off fireworks. 


As we approached midnight the fireworks became more and more rampant, and at midnight they peaked! Festivities were slowing down by 1am and that’s when we headed back to the apartments. In the middle of my street were large firework boxes that must have released quite the sound and show. The sidewalk was littered with firework remains. Fireworks continued going off into the early hours of the morning, but as for what time they stopped I couldn’t say, I finally fell asleep at 3am.


Happy Year of the Snake! 


Over Hill and Under Hill

Monday 7:00

Last week we started classes and I can’t believe in the matter of a week we have covered what it would take my UND class over half a semester. We are moving at lightning speed and need to memorize over 15 characters a night just to keep up. Every day we start class with a dictation quiz, so we always need to be ready. We have class three times a week for three hours each, totally nine hours of class time. We don’t really go over the characters (that’s independent study), but we focus on new grammar and listening/speaking. Nearly every class we spend the last hour only speaking Chinese in a very informal but interview like setting. Professor Song asks us questions and we’re to answer them with our own experience and with the grammar points.

On Saturday we went out to the Panda Research Base which was amazing!


Just as we arrived it was feeding time, so all the pandas were out and visible. Unfortunately it was cloudy and hard for me to get a crisp, clean picture. Also, unfortunately, I earned myself a reputation for getting lost. I wondered away form the group because I wanted to see the Red Panda nursery which turned out to be really cool, but also really hard to find. 


I ended up finding it just half an hour before we were to meet up. I knew the way back from where I entered, but got turned around in the nursery and ended up on the way wrong side of the research center. I figured out where I was five minutes before we were to meet up, I was at least a twenty minute walk from the front. Thankfully the USAC group waited for me, some grudgingly, but waiting nonetheless.

Afterword we had lunch and a city tour. I finally bought my first Chinese souvenir, I even attempted at bartering! I failed, but I still think the price was reasonable, $13. I’ll get better eventually. I mean, I have too, we’re going to the Antiques and Art street soon and they barter like it’s their job!

That night we celebrated Tyler’s 21st birthday. I went to his apartment and tried his 13 year old whiskey he brought from home, but when they started getting ready to hit up the bars and clubs, I wished them goodnight. I’m not yet comfortable walking around Chengdu sober, let alone when I and everyone I’m with are drunk. It was fortunate I went home. One of the girls kind of knew the bartender and the he gave them a round of free drinks. As it turns out, liqueur is also one of the knock-offs here. When you’re not carful bartenders will give you some homemade stuff that can be downright lethal. In one story our directer told us, a bar was giving out drinks made with rat poison. However beer is 99% of the time legitimately beer. That night these guys were not drinking beer, they might have been drinking rat poison though because most of them were not in school two days later.

On Sunday my roommate Anna showed me where to get some groceries. I can mostly get essentials at the market just down the street, or fruit and veggies from the street venders.


It’s surprising to find out what US brands have here. For instance, Oreo is huge! There’s the original cookie in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, I’ve even heard of lime and cake. Also it comes in wafers, cookie straws, and soft cookies. At nearly every market I’ve been to, a good portion of shelving is used for Oreos. And odd, obscure flavors of Lay’s chips. There’s one labeled Hot and Numbing Pepper Lay’s chips. KFC is also everywhere, along with Starbucks. It’s good to know whenever I’m missing home that KFC is within walking distance. 

Now that I don’t have the distraction of TV or Netflix, I’m focusing more on studying Chinese and even writing. I suppose I could get a subscription to a stronger VPN, but they are sometimes unreliable and you have to pay for them. Well, with UND’s I have access to facebook and pinterest and that’s all that really counts, right?

Little by little I’m seeing what is accepted in America vs. China, and even what I’m personally comfortable with. How food is presented was a big one, how things are purchased was the next, and overall manners. Food is largely presented in family style on a lazy-susan, the one who is paying sits in a certain spot, and arguments on who is paying usually involve people wanting to pay. In America when you are shopping you are able to putz around with little attention from the shopkeeper and buy the thing for the labeled price. Here, the shopkeeper is very attentive, making you feel like you have to buy something, and then you barter. This difference is a little unnerving for me and makes shopping a little stressful. However, some of my fellow students absolutely love it. It’s like gambling. You bluff, say it’s too expensive, say I don’t have that much money money, walk away, and then the shopkeeper comes to you. Overall manners are different. We were always taught “It’s not polite to stare” and “stand in a straight line.” Here, when we went to a Tibetan restaurant we sat near the picture window and there gathered a bunch of Tibetans and Chinese alike. Nothing is in a uniform manner except nature which is oddly very uniform and controlled in China; people on the other hand crowed around and even budge in line. Even some behavioral things are different like people approaching us because we obviously speak English, and simply wanting to try out their English. Sometimes though said person wants our phone number and address so we can meet up. I understand they want to practice English, but I’m still skittish to give out my information to someone I met five minutes ago. It’s just interesting to notice these differences; I’m just not sure yet what to make of them.


Friday 6:00 pm: The end of week two in Chengdu

Sorry everyone in North Dakota, I’ve heard you’ve had a rough week. Here in Chengdu we’ve had abnormally warm, sunny weather. Mostly I’ve spent my time wondering around campus, enjoying the weather, and buying fruit. I also found a street vender who sold Harry Potter books in Chinese. I got the last book for a dollar, my roommate got the first for $0.30. Speaking of which, Harry Potter has been helping me fight off homesickness. I’ve taken a hiatus from HP for various reasons, but now I find it comforting. Even Harry in music form (A Very Potter Musical) does the trick! Maybe it’s my lake of TV / English movies / Netflix talking, but I think I’ll be watching more of HP.


Saturday 7:00 pm: after a day of shopping

I think I hate bargain shopping. Scratch that, I really hate bargain shopping. My roommates and I went to a mass bargain market with the aim to buy shoes. The place was packed! It was just like crazy Black Friday shopping. I couldn’t get through anywhere without shoving someone, I even think I knocked someone over. As we wondered through the area, I noticed that the same product kept repeating itself, each vender had the same shoes as the other, the same t-shirts, pants, and jackets. It was just the same products displayed in different areas. 

However the non-bargain markets are less crowded, you just end up paying a little more. I think I kind of prefer that even if I’m paying more, at least I don’t have someone shoving me in order to get to the other items.

Tonight we’re staying in, eating pizza, and watching Les Miserables. Poor Ann Hathaway is making me cry.