March 2010

The universe works in mysterious ways my friends.  I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is a God, he must read my blog.  After my post yesterday I was in a rotten mood, an in an attempt to take my learning of the language into my own hands I went to a small coffee shop called Lilly Coffee, the only expat establishment in the city.  It did me little good. The text books given to us are published in China, made evident by the numerous grammatical and spelling errors such as “learnt” instead of “learned,” and thus they don’t have simple things that would make the process easier.  For example, the textbook for my Chinese characters class has the pinyin translation, but not the English translation, so I know how to pronounce what I’m writing, but often times I don’t know what it means.  The only dictionary I have is a photo-copied  version of Lost Planet’s Mandarin Phrasebook, and more often than not it proves to be rather useless.  There are pages missing, the print is too small to read the characters accurately, and a couple of times I’ve even noticed that they have the wrong characters printed or they give a bad translation.  I left the coffee shop as discouraged as ever, finding no help whatsoever in the stack of literate I have on the Chinese language, wishing dearly that I had someone I could simply converse with, someone to answer my questions and fix my errors when needed, providing me with a tool set of problem solving abilities that would push my language comprehension to the next level.

Ask and ye shall receive.  I was hanging out in my room when I got a phone call from Li Lidong, one of my language teachers who himself is struggling to work on his oral English.  He proposed that we set up a time to meet twice a week in which we trade-off working on each other’s respected endeavors.  I felt as though a weight had been lifted, and I foresaw this as an amazing opportunity to not only work on my Mandarin, but to also have something to do in my hours of wasted time.  It was a relief beyond words.

But that’s not all.  I had gone to dinner with my Chinese friend Tony, who’s English is quite good, mercilessly bitching about the stagnant nature of my classes.  I hadn’t hung up the phone with Li but twenty minutes before Tony called me saying that he had finished his homework and wondered if he could come over to my room and help me with my Chinese.  We spent about an hour so covering some of my most basic questions that my teachers had either not been able to answer, or I had forgotten to ask them.  We went over several of the common things that people like to ask foreigners when they bump into them on the street, and he covered all of the ways in which they might ask.  A lot of times I can figure out what people are asking me by recognizing a few key words, but usually I have to say “Ting bu dong,I don’t understand, a few times, at which point they rephrase the question and hopefully I am able to understand.  It’s usually something like the difference between “How long have you been in China?” and “When did you arrive in China?”

Tony and I covered all of these possible questions in their various forms, and when he left I felt a certain sense of pride in my newfound level of comprehension, so I thought I would reward myself with a beer.  The store that I usually go to was closed, and I like going to the same one because by now they are used to my appearance and I’m not bombarded with questions I don’t understand, and they don’t stare at me like I have a pencil sticking out of my neck.  I went to another store, and per usual, my entrance sent the two girls working behind the counter into a fit of giggles.  One of them shouted, “Baba, laowai!” Dad, foreigner! An older gentleman emerged from the back and greeted me with a smile and said, “Hullo!”

“Nihao,” I replied

In Chinese, he said, “What country are you from.”

“I’m an American.”

“American!  I didn’t know there were Americans at this school.  How long have you been in China?”

“Maybe a month.”

“One month?  You speak Chinese very well for only being in China one month.”

“Thank you.  I think my Chinese is not so good, but I’m studying.”

“Are you a student or a teacher?”

“I’m a student.”

“Oh you’re a student.  What would you like to buy?”

“I would like a beer.”

“Our beers are right there.”

I paid him and said goodbye, and he asked me to come back soon.  It wasn’t until I was about halfway back to my room before I realized that I hadn’t said ting bu dong once!  And what’s more, I had understood every word that came out of his mouth!  I felt like jumping up and down in the street, crying, calling my mother, and guzzling my celebratory beer all at once. I called Tony, nearly in tears, and thanked him for his help.  In response he shouted “Jia you!” which translated literally means give it gas, but is more or less the Chinese equivalent for go on get it!

There are two lessons about studying abroad in this story.  The first, life has its highs and lows, but when you’re immersed an in alien culture such as China the lows are much lower, and the highs are much higher.  This might seem a little corny, and in fact it is, but get over it, it’s true.  Earlier today all I could think about was how much I missed just talking with my friends, just shooting the shit with no particular purpose or meaning, and how I would give anything to be out of this crappy little city.  But after my encounter in the shop I felt like talking to anyone who passed by.  Hey you, ask me a question and I bet you twenty bucks I’ll be able to answer it.

The second lesson, and perhaps the more important one, is the importance of seeking and accepting the help of those around you.  I don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t had the help of several young Chinese students.  They’re kindness and compassion thus far has pulled me out of several jams, and made my life here much more enjoyable.  Tony helped me buy my bike.  Huang helped me buy my cell phone and gave me a tour of the campus.  Nathan was is my drinking buddy, and about a week ago, over a bottle of rice wine, related a deeply personal story about a childhood friend of his that passed away when he was 20, a moving and emotional conversation that was perhaps the first and only meaningful interaction I had with a single person since my arrival.  These simple, yet immensely helpful actions have not only made my time in China more bearable, they have also helped me to realize the true value of my friendships back home and across the globe.


I’m going to go on a bit of a rant today.  I just got out of an increasingly irritating class in which I spend the vast majority of the time listening to a tape of a man reciting Chinese vowel and consonant sounds, which I am then supposed to repeat.  The only reason my Chinese has progressed whatsoever since being here is on my own accord, attempting to converse with locals and other students, and asking the teachers questions.  I’ve now been in class for two and a half weeks and for some reason the teachers are still convinced that I have an inability to understand simple one syllable sounds and their corresponding sounds.  I explained to them that it’s very easy for me to look at a list of syllables such as “Bu, bo, bi, biu, biou” and distinguish the difference between each one, as well as be able to speak the tones clearly, but my problem is putting it all together to make a cohesive sentence.  There have been no assignments on putting it all together, and the extent of the actual conversation we have in class consists of reading a prepared set of dialogue, usually consisting of words that I already knew before coming to China this time around.  Perhaps they think we’re stupid, or perhaps straying from the original plan just puts fear in their hearts, but in any case if a change does not occur soon, I’m likely to pack my bags and head out into the world where I can learn some practical language skills.

The only class in which I find any value is the Chinese characters class, but I still only have one two hour block a week, and in the meantime every time the teacher teaches us a new word she writes it on the board in characters, usually scribbled quickly in bad handwriting.  I’m doing my best to tell the teachers where I need improvement, but because of social traditions here they usually nod and smile and pretend to acknowledge my distress, but continue teaching in the way they originally planned.

I can’t help but place some of the blame on the international program at my school in the United States.  I was thrilled to find out that they had started an exchange program with Liaocheng University, but the more I found out about the school the more I was turned off.  The program here is just getting off its feet and they are used to catering to Korean students as opposed to English speaking students.  When I tried to find out about other Chinese schools in other parts of China because I felt as though the education I got here would not be up to par, I was told that it would be very hard to transfer my credits from a school that Warren Wilson did not have a relationship with because there was no way of checking the validity of said school.  Discouraged, I agreed to attend Liaocheng University in the hopes that it would all work out.  Had I gone to a school in Shanghai, Beijing, or even Kunming, where many English speaking foreigners live, I believe my classes would have been far more beneficial.

So I guess at this point it’s just going to be up to me to make the most of my education here.  I’m tempted to just start skipping my Chinese listening class and instead going out to find the plethora of locals that want to converse with me.  This way I can learn to understand practical Mandarin, as well as work on my own grammar and pronunciation.  As for my characters class, I will continue to badger the dean of the international school here to give me more in the hopes that eventually they will get the point, and we can move beyond the nods and the dumb smiles.

On a happier note, my roommates took me and a few friends out to a Korean restaurant last night.  The food was rich, spicy, and absolutely delicious.  My favorite was a bowl of rice, vegetables, a little bit of beef, and a raw egg that cooked on top of the steaming rice.  While I love to eat real Chinese food (Americanized Chinese food is not the real thing), I’m considering absconding to Seoul if my classes don’t improve, just so I can eat all the wonderful food.  After dinner my Chinese friend Nathan took us to Dong Chang Lake, which is nice during the day, but magical at night.  The Chinese have a thing for neon lights, and all along the lake were multi-colored Hutongs, the pagoda style, castle like buildings that Westerners tend to associate with ancient Chinese kingdoms, all lit up in brilliant shades of green, orange, and red.  Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, a grave mistake, but I plan to return to take some pictures.  In the meantime here’s a collection of photos of entrances to homes I took while wandering around the suburbs of Liaocheng.

Well Otherside readers it appears as though my new outlook on life in China has already paid off.  After I posted yesterday I took off into the city with no particular plan and no particular expectation.  I promised myself that I wouldn’t return to my cold white dorm room until I had had one of those “how the hell did I get here” experiences.

School boys cause trouble on the streets of Liaocheng, having way too much to notice me taking a picture of them.

I stopped on the way at a little street vendor selling bowls of cold rice noodles drizzled in vinegar and chili sauce, with bits of bread like pieces of tofu and diced cucumbers thrown in.  This dish had previously struck me as rather un-appetizing—I’ve never been much for cold noodles, the very thought of pasta salad is enough to kill my appetite—but to my surprise it was actually delicious.  So much so that I ordered another bowl and chatted with the lady who sold it to me.  She complimented me on my Mandarin, saying that it was very impressive that I had only been in China a month and could converse with her, as broken as our conversation was.  Of course no matter what I say, as long as it’s in Mandarin, the people here always say I speak well.  I’ve learned to take the compliment with a grain of salt, but for some reason I found it especially encouraging yesterday

My next stop was a part of town I had walked by several times, but never had the courage to venture in.  It appeared to be some sort of iron market, jam packed with heavy bits of machinery and wasted engines.  I dubbed it “Tetanus Town.”  The workers there gave me the usual stares I get anywhere I go around Liaocheng, but I suppose they were a bit more surprised to see me wandering around this place.  Why come all the way to China to hang out in a metal dump?  The reason is simple.  In the hyper-hygienic, overly insured American culture you simply don’t come across places that look like this.  In a lot of ways I think it exemplifies China’s status in the world as a first world nation with its foot still in the third world.  Industry is growing so fast in China that they still operate much like they did one hundred years ago, except now the machines are bigger, faster, and more complex.

Later on in the day I walked past what I believed to be an old abandoned hotel.  There were large machines parked in the courtyard, and several families mingling around an old dried up fountain.  I used this as an opportunity to practice my Mandarin, and engaged a number of them in conversation the best I could.  It wasn’t long before a large crowd of children gathered around me, shouting what little English they knew.  Hullo! Sankyou!  Nice to meet you!  What are your hobbies? They never stuck around for any answers, retreating in fits of giggles if I gave them the slightest nod of comprehension.  They gave me tea and cigarettes.  I showed them pictures of Beijing, which none of them had ever been to, despite being just three hours away by train.

I love this picture. It was a brief interaction but I'll never forget them.

For dinner I found an outdoor barbecue restaurant and hadn’t been sitting but 10 seconds before an excited twenty-something man in a jumpsuit sat down next to me.  “Hullo!” he said.  “My name is Fang Wai.” This was all the English he knew, probably taught to him by a classmate of his, or an English teacher in high school that failed to make any lasting impression.  He asked me the usual questions; how long had I been in China? Was I a student or a teacher? Why did I come to Liaocheng? Could I use chopsticks?  He invited me to sit with his friends, and before I knew it I was bombarded with conversation I could barely understand.  They were kung-fu students, and apparently on a long awaited break.  They ordered me dishes and poured more and more beer into my cup.  In China, when one person at the table drinks, everyone must drink, and a sip is not enough.  If I didn’t finish what was in my small glass they would shout at me, “He duo ju!” Drink it all!  They called friends and invited them to hang out with the foreigner.  More beer.  More beer.  More beer.  By the end of the meal I was tipsy and they were downright pissed.  All of a sudden they rose from their seats and the meal was apparently over.  At one point I had told them that I loved to eat garlic, and on the way out one of them stole a couple cloves of garlic into my breast pocket, holding his finger to his mouth and whispering shhhh. I asked them to show me their kung-fu.  They did splits on the streets and threw fake kicks at my face. Before we parted I gave Fang Wai my telephone number, and he promised to teach me kung fu.  I wandered slowly back to my dorm with a full tummy and a swimming brain.

These guys could barely stand up by the end of the meal, it was pretty shocking that they could still do a little kung fu.

Dear Otherside Readers,

As the one month anniversary of my arrival in China approaches I find myself in an increasingly desperate situation, a desperately boring situation that is.  My lack of companionship and lingering bafflement of the Chinese language often means that when I’m not in class I find myself not knowing what the hell to do with myself.  I spend hours in my room, watching crappy shows on Hulu in ten second increments and pestering friends on Facebook chats that have their own lives to attend to and no obligation to cheer me up.  I can hear my Korean roommates, who do their best to include me in their fun whenever appropriate, giggling and carrying on the way I once did with my friends back home.  It’s a good night when I’m lucky enough to find an over the top Hollywood ball-buster on television.  Last night it was the mid nineties classic Steel, starring Shaquille O’neil.  I know it’s still early, and I know that this post will be followed by a series of stick in there’s and everyone goes through what you’re going through’s, but this just doesn’t change the fact that right now, life just sucks, plain and simple.

My last trip to China was with a program from America called Where There Be Dragons, and it was my instructors’ jobs to pack every last minute of my time in China with as much adventure as possible.  We spent our days visting temples and pagodas, riding trains to distant cities untouched by any bit of foreign influence.  We took classes in Chinese culture, ranging from kungfu, to calligraphy, to cooking classes.  We had all our travel plans arranged for us, and lived with Chinese families that included us in their own outings.  Somehow I expected this trip to China to be somewhere along the same lines, but alas it is not.  I’m on my own now, left to find my adventures, book my own tickets, meet my own friends, and looking back now I’ve realized that I’ve done a terrible job of all this.

On top of all this, I’ve grown rather weary of writing this blog.  The realization came yesterday after I posted a pathetic few tips on learning Chinese that I pulled out of my ass just to get something on the page. And while I believe my other most recent posts to be interesting—and if I do say so myself, well written and intelligently derived—I realized that I’ve slipped into a pattern followed by the vast majority of western bloggers in China; writing pithy politicized jabs at American arrogance that show-off my own intelligence and understanding of this culture.  The truth is, I don’t know jack-shit.  If you want to read about politics, commerce, or all the crazy things that all foreigners in China—and despite what some of my other posts say, there are plenty of us—read the Economist, or if you have the time read Peter Hessler’s River Town.  These guys are experts.  I’m just a spoiled junior in college who thought, hey, why not spend a semester in China?

I’ve strewn from my original purpose in writing this blog, which was to describe the daily life of a student living in China, providing a guide and incentive for students thinking about studying in China, and perhaps adding in some editorial pieces that come to light naturally as part of being here.  But instead I’ve found myself writing solely about topics that western media and liberal thinking deem as “important.” I live my days here as if I’m actually a journalist with a deadline and copies to sell.  This means that my writing is rather stale and contrived, as well as the fact that I’m not concentrating on what I should be: me.

It took me a while to realize that my difficulty in writing engaging blog posts and my boredom in China are not unrelated.  If I were out and about more often the stories would be flowing more easily.  Indeed I’ve found that on the days that I do go out with a mission in mind I return to my room at night full of ideas to put on the page.   I’ve often used my blog writing as an excuse to return to my room and catch the next episode of The Office on Hulu while jotting down a few thoughts about the larger world.

Well friends, it’s time for a change of pace, both in this blog and in my life here in China.  It’s high time that I stop searching for the deeper meaning in it all, and simply let it flow.  No more roaming the streets of Liaocheng as if I’m someone important, and no more choking out of my own voice to sound intelligent.  From now on the Otherside will be more personal, more immediate, more me.  I hope that this doesn’t upset my loyal readers, but in the end I think this will be a major turning point for the better, both for this blog, as well as for this wonderful undertaking I have thrown myself into.  This may also mean that the frequency of my posts will dampen, but it will most certainly mean that as a whole they will become more engaging for the reader.  I still promise to post something everyday, whether it’s a link to another blog or article about China, or just a few pictures.

I leave you now in perhaps a better, more exhilarated mood than I have felt in the past few weeks.  I think I’m going to go for a bike ride and see if I can get myself into some trouble.

Sincerely yours,

Christopher Geoffery Montague Biddle.

So as I’m sure most of you know, Mandarin Chinese, as well as many other languages spoken in Asia, is a tonal language, meaning that not only does the comprehension of their language include the pronunciation of any given word, but also the pitch at which the speaker is talking.  Mandarin has four tones, which is actually relatively simply compared to say Cantonese, which has six tones is actually the most widely spoken language of Chinese nationals living abroad.  Mandarin tones consist of the first tone, which is a sustained high pitch, 2nd tone, which rises, 3rd tone, which falls and rises, and the fourth tone, which falls.  In pinyin, the written language that uses the English alphabet to write Mandarin words, the four tones are signified by accent marks above the vowels in each word.  To learn a few key-phrases in Mandarin, see them written in both pinyin and in Chinese, as well as hear the difference in intonation, click here.

Here are a few more pictures of Liaocheng.  I don’t have time for a long entry today because I’m going out for a little retail therapy.  Classes have been frustratingly slow lately, and combined with what I suppose is culture shock I’ve found myself in a pretty irritable mood most of the time, so I decided to go to the whole sale market in town and buy some new shoes.  By the way, if there’s anyone out there that’s dieing for some cheap knock-off shwag, and doesn’t mind a little Chinglish or frayed stitches, I’m taking orders.

It wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of China’s waste was organic, and this may account for the general uncleanliness of Chinese cities.  Every city has an army of public workers whose job it is to walk around and sweep up people’s garbage, and more often then not they just push it all into one place until the pile gets too big and someone comes around the clean it up.  In places like Beijing and Shanghai, there is a massive effort underway to teach people to actually use the garbage bins on the street.

The beautiful canals of Liaocheng…biking along these river ways has been good for the body and mind while here.

While this picture might shock some of the animal rights activists, for the most part this guy seemed like he was pretty kind to his little monkeys.  They were well trained, and his performance was downright hilarious.  Every time he pretended to get angry at one of them another one would toss a rock at his head.

The gap between rich and poor in China is simply massive, which is ironic in a country that’s technically communist.

Throughout most of the 20th century China was largely cut off from the rest of the world.  The Cold War meant that no foreign tourists were visiting the country, and even after China’s reform period in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it was primarily business men and politicians that were visiting China.  Today, while cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an (home of the terra cotta warriors) are flooded with blonde haired, blue eyed, fast talking Americans, Brits, and Aussies, most of China is still largely unfrequented by foreigners.  The reason for this is simple.  Many of the famous cultural sites around the nation were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and since the Chinese have a different concept of cleanliness than Westerners, most of these unvisited cities and villages are considered far too dirty and hostile to attract tourists.  As a result, most Chinese people have had very little exposure to Westerners, and combined with the increasing fascination with and influence of western culture China, Chinese people in cities like Liaocheng are often transfixed by the sight of a Westerner.

Save for a handful of teachers and their families, I’m the only Westerner on the Liaocheng University campus.  While I’ve been to places in China where a Westerner is less common, I still get a lot of attention for simply existing every time I leave my dorm.  I would compare it to walking around the streets of New York with a camera crew.  Some people don’t give a shit.  Some people stare wide mouthed with a look of absolute confusion on their faces.  Children like to point and shout, “wai go ren!” Foreigner!  Some people giggle and wave, and every now and then they shout “Hello!”

At times it’s funny, and maybe even a little flattering.  At times it’s annoying, and at times it’s downright obnoxious.  Chinese ideals of privacy are far more relaxed than we have in the western world, and it isn’t considered rude to stare or interrupt while eating or talking with a friend.  It can become rather exhausting at times, but I’ve learned that I don’t have nearly as bad as black people in China.

Will and Kissi are both from Ghana.  Will is a student at the school (though he lives off campus), and Kissi is a teacher at an English school in the city.  While people here might find my appearance curious, Kissi and Will routinely incite genuine shock among the masses.  It’s common to hear people gasping as Will and I walk to a restaurant together, or to see people whipping out their camera-phones to snap a picture of him as we walk by.  Today I met Kissi on the street and during the short period of time we were conversing on the street a crowd of about five or six people gathered around us, just watching and listening.  They stood within a two feet of us, studying us up and down, listening to the gibberish that came out of our mouths.  One guy even leaned over me as I dug something out of my bag, just to see the kind of things a Westerner likes to carry around with him.  Had they known that either of us spoke a word of Chinese they would have most certainly engaged us in conversation, most likely asking Kissi silly questions like “What basketball team do you play for,” or “Is your blood black?”

While it might seem rude to western audiences, this kind of attention is usually in sincere curiosity and geniality.  In fact it’s considered a great boost to one’s face to be seen interacting with a foreigner, and Chinese people are usually very friendly to outsiders.  The other day I was walking on the sidewalk and a guy pulled his car over, walked up to me, and asked if I wanted to go drink with him.  I would have done it, except that I was headed to class, and I promised that if he ever saw me again I would go with him.  After all, who could pass up a few free drinks?

I now have a Flickr page…check it out by clicking here.

I read an article the other day that said that the Chinese yuan is now 49 percent “behind its fair-value benchmark with the dollar.”  The yuan has been pegged to the dollar since 2008, which means that as the value of the American dollar rises or falls, the value of the yuan rises and falls in correspondence.  The pegged yuan is a ploy by the Chinese government to keep all products made in China affordable for the people known as the best consumers the world has ever seen, 21st century Americans.  (If you want to see a complete list of products made in China, go to  This creates what is known as a trade surplus for China, which means that they export more than they import, which is good for China, and bad for the United States.  A lot of people in the States think that if the yuan was not artificially suppressed by the Chinese government it would decrease the amount of things we buy from China, increase our exports, and increase the number of desperately needed U.S. jobs.  China now owns 894.8 billion dollars of American debt, 24.3 percent of the national debt, the largest chunk owned by any single nation.  Basically, the U.S. government has dug itself into a hole, and now with the financial crisis in America lingering-or at best, leveling out-the People’s Republic is in the best position out of any government in the world to help us dig ourselves out.

But, as Shiu Sin Por, a policy advisor to the Hong Kong government, wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, America is not going to get any help from China by being tough.  Having dealt with the Chinese custom of saving face firsthand, this statement struck a chord with me.  In China, it is considered very rude to become visibly upset, no matter what the situation.  Many-a-westerner in China have made a bad situation worse by resorting to anger, causing a severe loss of face, and most likely making the receiving party lash out with more anger.  For example, I was riding my bike on campus the other day and up ahead I noticed a student riding his bike towards me, and he was staring at me like, well like I was a foreigner.  I maintained my line of direction, but his fascination with me led him to slowly drift into my trajectory, and before I knew it we crashed into each other.  I wanted to yell at him, as if he would have understood me, but I quickly had to regain my composure, ask if he and his bike were ok, and go on my way.  Had I lost my temper it would have resulted in him loosing face and reacting by becoming angry at me, maybe even going to extremes to insure that his mianzi (face) was still intact.  This class of cultures can be magnified to a global scale, where the more we come down on China for its many shortfallings, the more China feels the need to take the United States down a notch.  To put it in simple terms, the Chinese are very, very sensitive.

Yet if you do a search for China on any of the major news sites all you get is bad press; humans rights violations, unsafe children’s toys, Chinese hackers snooping on Gmail accounts.  Now by no means am I saying that these issues don’t deserve coverage, on the contrary, I believe the right of free speech and the resulting power of journalism to be the greatest legacy that the founding fathers will ever give to this world, but as Spiderman would say, with great power comes great responsibility, and while western audiences strive for the most honest, direct, and dare I say confrontational style of journalism, in China, a more tactful approach is always best.  This very difference between our cultures is one of the biggest reasons for my interest in China.  One that’s been the world’s leader in economics, politics, military might, and culture for the past sixty years, and one that’s on the verge of becoming the world’s next superpower.  While these two great nations would benefit from a mutually beneficial relationship, the gap between us is actually growing wider every time the newspapers hit the stands.  So I encourage you, next time you slap a Free Tibet bumper sticker on your car, or read an article criticizing China’s human rights record, consider the good that it’s actually doing.

I’m working on setting up a Flickr page, so check back soon for updates on that.  Zai jian!

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