Tag Archives: Sichuan University

Chengdu: A Retrospective

15 Jun

I leave Chengdu tomorrow. My bags are (mostly) packed, my train ticket bought, and I leave with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

It’s been a long year here. I don’t think it’s any big secret that I was rather disappointed and depressed during my time here. While I met a lot of really cool people and learned a lot of new things, it never quite balanced out the miserable weather and Kafka-esque graduate program.

The scholarship that brought me here was a really nice opportunity, but it didn’t quite pan out the way I had hoped. Instead of this being the first year of a masters, I spent a whole lot of time knitting. My classes were a joke, and it’s hard to motivate yourself to learn another insane language when you feel no real pressure to. My progress in Chinese stalled out and then plummeted. The only real bright spots were hanging out with an awesome group of kids, forays out of Chengdu proper, and watching a ton of DVDs.

I am grateful, in my own little way, that I got to come back over to China. This year off gave me the perspective necessary to realize that, no, I really don’t want to go to grad school right now. I really don’t want to continue living in China. And I really don’t want to continue with Chinese.

It sucks, since that’s what I got my degree in, but hey. Now I know and I can move on and do something different.

Life is all about the journey, right? You gotta take the good with the bad. This year wasn’t ideal, sure, but that’s life. And hey – I got to see baby pandas, Sydney, Jiuzhaigou, Bangkok, Leshan, and a whole bunch more of China than this time last year. So it wasn’t all terrible.

I don’t want to leave this on a downer note, so here are some random highlights from my last year here in Chengdu.



So long, Chengdu.



Spring Cleaning

13 Apr

As I’ve mentioned before, I live in the Middle-A, Nowhere of campus. It’s kind of a weird area. Mostly run down buildings, a lot of random apartments with broken windows and bricked up walls. My daily walk out of little east gate takes me past a huge field, bigger than a basketball court, full of rocks, dirt, and garbage piled nearly six to ten feet high. This wrecked field is farmed by the oldsters who live in the old danwei apartments. They’ve planted lettuce, cabbage, anything that will grow really. It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Part of the field.  I like how the really expensive apartments get to overlook what is basically a low-income housing co-op.

A neat little garden, carefully fenced in with rocks.

A granny hard at work, weeding her garden.

This neighborhood is also one of the main reasons why I laugh anytime someone says SCU is a top university for China. I mean, could you imagine an Ivy campus with portions that looked like this?

I came back from Hong Kong on Wednesday. And sometime in the week I was gone, they managed to bulldoze all of it.

I kind of miss the old field. I mean yeah, it was kind of an eyesore, but at least it had flowers and green plants. This bare field, razed and salted, is even worse. Plus, you know all those old people are suddenly short on fresh greens they could eat. Kind of a lose-lose.

Such is progress in China, though. One day you have a field, the next a flat piece of land ready for development, often without any warning.

Life in the Dorms

13 Mar


Well, I hope you all enjoyed the travel posts about Sydney and Bangkok. It was a nice diversion from the craziness going on here in China. But now that we’re done with the travelogues, let’s dig in, shall we?  Due to some High Drama (re: fine print’s a bitch, ain’t it?), I am still in the dorms. I have complaints. Oh do I have complaints. But dammit, I’m not going to let the bastards win. (And there goes the PG rating within the first paragraph.) Three points of interest:

My wireless internet cuts out at random points. They give you a handy timer, to track how long you’ve been logged on, and for the longest time I was cut off at precisely 37 minutes. Then, yesterday, the China Mobile gods give me two whole uninterrupted hours. Today I haven’t managed to keep a connection for longer than ten minutes. I don’t know what sorts of offerings these gods desire, but I’m imagining a little shrine with a tiny cell phone tower and a router, with those “rollover minutes” from those ATT commercials as the sacrifice. Coincidentally, China does not believe in rollover minutes.

The humidity is making my laundry mold as it takes four or five days to dry out. Seriously. I’ve got blooms of yellow on some of my clothes and it is gross. What isn’t molding has that sour mildewy smell. I don’t know what else to do except spend some quality time re-creating a desert-like environment with my cheap hair dryer and my laundry rack. China also does not believe in dryers. You should be able to hang your clothes out to dry and let nature take care of the rest, even though I haven’t seen the sun in three weeks and the humidity is at about a hundred-twenty percent with a nice chilly drizzle..

Food Deserts? You want to see a food desert, look at where I’m at. Nothing within a ten minute walk. Within fifteen sure, but you’re eating out and possibly at the expensive places. Grr. On the upside, I now have a much shorter drunken stumble back from Bar Street and Mooney’s. Eh, let’s call this one a draw.

Also, the majority of the fuyuan* here are annoying and knock on the door all the freaking time for no good reason.

Pictures will go up when I have access to a better internet connection, since mine has been pretty unstable recently. Sorry folks.



*Written as fuwuyuan, it’s usually shortened to fuyuan, and means waitress / maid. Almost exclusively feminine. In this case, it means the five or so ladies who man the front desk, deal with paperwork, and keep tabs on us for the Chinese government.

Moving On Down

17 Feb



So. I wanted to talk about the food in Sydney on this post, but due to unforeseen circumstances, today I am moving from my very comfortable room here at the International Student Dorms to the East Dorms. Details are thin on the ground and we exchange students are prone to hyperbole, but from all accounts we are definitely being downgraded.

The word “squat toilet” is being thrown around. As is “public shower”.

I am Not A Happy Cabbage.

Right now I’m packing up all my stuff and trying not to freak out. I’m looking at rooms to rent in the Chengdu area and I have a lead on an apartment-share not too far from campus. In the meantime, a farewell to room 111, which has served me faithfully these past six months.

UPDATE: I have moved into the new dorm room. The scholarship rooms were everything we had feared and more: a small double, no bathroom, public squat toilets (without doors on stalls, mind you, so anyone walking down the hall could watch you), and locker room showers of similar “privacy”. To what should be absolutely no one’s surprise, I said no to this* and upgraded to a single room with a tiny en-suite toilet and shower**. No internet though, and I have to pay for electricity. It’s not exactly a bargain, so I’m still in the market for a cheap alternative, although there is something to be said about not lugging my stuff around again.

*Actually, what I said is completely unfit for print.

**Yes, I realize I’m an absolute prima donna about this as compared to what the Chinese students on campus deal with, but frankly, unless I’m camping in the woods or backpacking, I expect a certain minimum standard of living. I’m a middle-class American girl and I have my limits, okay?

Like a River Flowing

5 Dec

I’m learning another language again. Yes, I know. Clearly, this is the insanity talking, because why the nine hells would I decide to pick up another miserably hard Asian language with tones and an intricate writing system? Well, actually it kind of went along the lines of Professor Xu telling me there was a graduate seminar on basic Tibetan that she was holding for her students. This meant that I had damn well better be there, or else. (It was implied.)

So, Tibetan. Yeah.

It turns out that the teacher of this class is a grad student my age, a Tibetan guy named Dorjee. He wants to study at UC Boulder. Small world, huh? His English is rudimentary and he doesn’t know any linguistic vocabulary at all. Which is a problem, since I don’t know the Chinese words for linguistic terms either. So for the past month or so, I’ve muddled along in class, reciting after the teacher along with everyone else. The class is small, no more than ten students, but I’m thankfully not the only foreigner there. A Korean woman old enough to be my mother – we determined this when she cheerfully announced that her middle daughter is my age and studying at college in Seoul – is also part of the department. I’m glad that she’s there; occasionally, when things are going not-so-swimmingly, Ann and I will glance at each other and exchange these beautiful, “what the hell are we doing, learning Tibetan in Chinese?” looks.

The class is primarily based around how to read Tibetan. I’ve learnt more spoken Tibetan (Lhasa dialect, if you’re interested in that sort of thing) from the Talk Tibetan podcast, which I highly recommend. I can safely say one thing for certain after a month of classes every Wednesday morning: written Tibetan is patently ridiculous. This isn’t racism or language elitism; you’re talking to a girl who voluntarily studied Chinese and their character-based writing system is so insane it defies belief and makes strong men and women cry.  [See the section on writing in David Moser’s Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard for validation from another source.]

Tibetan at least has the common decency to have an alphabet. Good for it. Well done, Tibetan. Unfortunately, every letter has, by default, the [ah] ending. So, a letter reads gah, kah, jah, or tzah, etc. In order to use the other vowels, diacritics (squiggly lines put above or below letters) are used to differentiate between a gah, gi, gu, ge, or go. Not hard, right? Well, not if you’re trying to glean a method to the madness at 9 am and only have a thoroughly unhelpful syllabary in Chinese and Tibetan at your disposal. I only managed this one with the help of Susan and the Internet, both of which are awesome.

Another fun thing is that spoken Tibetan and written Tibetan have diverged somewhat since the Buddhists adapted Sanskrit to the vernacular in the eight century. So any given word will have a few unvoiced consonants. I can’t bitch about this nearly as much given the English language’s propensity for hanging on to extra letters here and there in words. (through, I’m looking at you.)

We haven’t even gotten into grammar or basic sentence syntax yet, but from what I’ve gleaned from research on the internet, it will indeed make me cry. They have two ways of saying “goodbye” for crying out loud – galeshu is if you are leaving and galepe is if you’re the one staying behind. I’m curious as to what word is used if both parties are leaving, but I shudder to ask. Knowing my luck, it’ll be an entirely different word.

My personal goal in this class isn’t to become the next world-renowned scholar in translating Tibetan manuscripts into English. I know my limitations, people. Frankly, I’d like a little conversational Tibetan, enough to get me around in Lhasa or Kham when I go, not that I’m visiting either in the near future. It’s definitely winter here and if you think I’m going anywhere where they measure the snowfalls in feet you’d better have another think coming. Still, a little emergency Tibetan of the “hi how are you where’s the bathroom?” variety wouldn’t be amiss. Besides, how many people get to say they are being paid to study Tibetan? That’s what I thought.

Note: If you are Tibetan and thoroughly offended as to my representation of your native language, let me know, for Buddha’s sake, but be aware that I’ll probably take the opportunity to bug you about my homework problems and where my grammar is going wrong.

Of Mountains and Men

2 Dec

Today we’re going to talk about Tibet. Yay Tibet!

I am a member of the Tibetan Studies Department here at Sichuan University. Supposedly, this means I am working on a paper about Tibet (women in Tibetan Buddhism), but I am lazy and have no real motivation to do so. What I do bother to work on is research assistance to my advisor, Professor Xu. Right now, her thing is all about eco-anthropology. Basically, that means studying how humans interact and change their environment. This is a growing field of anthropology, especially with global warming and the rising human population.  Professor Xu has to give a lecture to non-anthro majors and wanted resources to spice up her presentation. I was set to find the English language bits, for obvious reasons.

Without further ado, I give you what I dug up on Tibet, or at least the interesting bits about the Himalayas. Mountains are cool, people.

Photo taken from “Rivers of Ice”.

Rivers of Ice: Comparative Photography
A visual, interactive look at ice and glacier lost on Mt. Everest. Compares the amount of ice present on the main Rongbuk Glacier by looking at photographs taken in 1921 and in 2007.The loss of ice and snow is simply stunning. It’s hard to argue with climate change when you see such a stark difference over the course of a lifetime. The pictures are fantastic, even without the scare-mongering. I want to go to the Himalayas, even if I will probably NEVER be in good enough shape to hike in the near vicinity of Mt. Everest.

China Green: The Big Melt
A video on the rapidly disappearing glaciers of China. The video is seven minutes long and has Chinese subtitles. It focuses on several mountains in the Tibetan Plateau, not just Mt. Everest. Tibet is known as the “Roof of the World”, but this region also serves as the headwaters for all the major rivers in Asia – the Yellow River, Ganges River, Indus River, and Mekong River all draw their sources from the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. China Green also has some other interesting videos on desertification in China, the problem of pollution, etc.

ECO Everest
A Nepalese Sherpa, Ang Tshering Sherpa, has started a movement to clean up the hiking debris from mountaineer’s attempts to climb Mt. Everest. As the levels of snow grow lower, more refuse from fifty years worth of hiking becomes visible and as the number of attempts climb, the amount of garbage grows, despite the Nepalese government imposing strict penalties on littering. Since they started in 2008, they have brought down “more than 12,000 kilos of previous expedition garbage”for proper disposal.

There were also quite a few journal articles, but they’re a little esoteric to people outside the field. (Hell, they were hard for me to read and I like this stuff.) Also, they’re hidden behind a JSTOR paywall. However, if you feel the need to read anything like “Sustainable Management of Alpine Meadows on the Tibetan Plateau: Problems Overlooked and Suggestions for Change” or “The Headwater Loss of the Western Plateau Exacerbates China’s Long Thirst”, let me know and I will totally send you the .pdf files.

On Monday, we’ll be talking about the language of Tibet and why I already want to bang my head against a wall and cry. See you then!

Photo Drop

5 Oct

As vacations go, mine has been pretty boring so far. Granted, I had fest illness going on the past two days, so not doing much has been good for my health. (Sleep! Drink tea! Watch tv! Sleep some more!) Today is going to be a photodump of my various walks around Chengdu. I may not run and I hate to bike, but I am a champ at walking long distances. So I’ve been exploring the streets of Chengdu, getting lost and finding cool new things.


This was on campus, somewhere. Look, a flower that isn’t pink!

The picture above was taken on the roof of my graduate school. Yes. If you look closely to the left side, you can see an electric wok and other supplies. The requisite drying laundry hangs in the right foreground and in the back, there is a small vegetable garden growing. Off to the side, out of the frame, was a series of make-shift doors. I did not go over and peek, but I have the sinking suspicion that they held beds and people’s belongings. All of this is open to the air – a good driving rain would soak the table and possibly all the way down to the hallway. Anyone could walk on up here like I did, just climbing up six flights of stairs to see how far up they went and emerging on someone’s makeshift home.

Welcome to China. Every time someone makes dire predictions about the immediate rise of the Chinese and their inevitable dominance over the rest of the world, I think about this and other places like it. I don’t know who wants to live on the sixth floor of the graduate school, but I certainly know that you don’t find people actually camped out in unused corners of Anderson Hall.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Lan Kwai Fong, the ritzy area not far from me. It’s centered around the Shangri-La Chengdu and the upscale businesses and amenities that go with having a nice Western hotel, i.e. Starbucks, Bentley dealership, extremely expensive shopping, etc. There’s a few large office buildings and a bunch of other stuff along the river, but the eye-catching monstrosity on the river is the Bridge Restaurant. (No relation to the beloved and missed Bridge Cafe of Beijing.) This is an expensive restaurant, even along American-New York standards, that caters to the wealthy and the business travelers with expense accounts. I don’t think I qualify. But it is architecturally interesting.

Also in the same architectural style: a Buddhist temple! Man, you find these in the weirdest places. This one is hidden away in a back alley near downtown.

Last but not least, Mao! This statue of Mao sits in front of the Chemistry Department, over by the East Gate of campus. A lot of schools have the same “saluting Mao, coat rippling in the stone wind” statue. I have no idea why.

So there you have it – a minor walking tour of the area around my campus. I’m sure I’ll hit the major tourist attractions in the area soon enough and when I do, there will be pictures.

Scholarly Pursuits

28 Sep

t’s been a month since I landed in Chengdu. Somehow, time moves both faster and slower here in China. I’ve well and truly settled in, although my room does need a bit of brightening up with posters and the like. My schedule has mostly solidified at this point and my classes have finally gotten interesting, i.e. we’re not spending the entire lecture on “how to write an essay” and “plagiarizing is wrong” and “this is the proper way to cite properly” and “if you do not cite things properly, it is plagiarizing, which is wrong”, and my ultimate favorite, “do not copy words directly from a book, this is plagiarizing, which is wrong, NUMBSKULLS”.  (I may be paraphrasing.)  This was given to a class of undergrads, so I’m fairly certain the teacher’s had a problem with this before.

Here is where everyone gets insanely annoyed about my course load: I only have two regular classes. Yes, you read that right – two classes a week. A paltry four hours in total.

Tuesday morning is Cultural Anthropology with Professor Xu, my advisor.  It’s a class full of History grad students, and we actually have discussions.  Prof. Xu has this weird habit of playing absolutely random movies with bizarre special effects from the early nineties.  I have no clue what’s up with that. Thursday afternoon is Ancient Chinese culture, a class for undergrads in the Tourism majo.  I don’t know why Sichuan University decided that the Tourism department should be attached to the History one, but it is.  So for those of you playing along at home, I belong to the Department of History and Culture (Tourism).  I’m kind of amused at how they’re just an afterthought, even in their own depatment. Wednesday night I used to have a rotating lecture series, but I stopped going after Professor Xu stopped giving her lectures on Tibet. I’ve taken about a dozen courses on modern Chinese culture already, it’s getting a little repetitive at this point.

The rest of the week is spent doing whatever the hell I want. I spend a lot of time knitting and listening to the “History of Rome” podcast.

I’ve been told by Prof. Xu that since she’s going to be in Tibet doing field research for two weeks starting in October, that I will have a reading assignment. That’s it. A measly reading assignment – in English.

Somehow, I’ve managed to get the easiest course load a grad student has ever thought of. I feel like I need to make an offering of food and incense at the closest temple or something.

Oh well, I’m enjoying the laid-back pace, even if I feel like I’m forgetting something huge. (It’s that stupid “Protestant work ethic” all Americans have, I’m sure.) I’m still not sure if I want to continue in Asian studies after this year. It seems like a good time to reflect and contemplate on my options without having a back-breaking course load consuming my high brain functions.


12 Sep

This one’s for Dad, who asked to see some pretty flowers. For some reason, all the flowers on campus are pink. I’ve got no idea as to why.



It’s definitely the end of the lotus season here in Chengdu.  I’m just glad I got a bunch of pictures before they’re all gone.








For some reason, practically every college in China that I’ve been to has imposing front gates.  There’s probably some cultural significance that Prof. Fan meant to let us in on, but since he was a miserable teacher I’ve got no clue.  Anyways, you can see them off to the far left – they’re the red things.  Beida has a set of ’em as well.


More to come late on my thrilling purchases and first classes.


8 Sep

“Someone once said that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility”. I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.”  —- David Moser

Every time that someone has said, “oh, your Chinese must be so good”, I’ve cringed. Prevaricated. Tried to deflect what seemed like honest praise. It’s not modesty.

Yes, I know Chinese. Some Chinese. In that “pidgin-language” sort of way. Yes, I can get around, order dinner, and hold conversation on a limited number of topics. But there’s a lot I don’t know. It’s frankly embarrassing, seeing as I’ve given it five years of my life. (Four in college and one in high school.) I am routinely blanking on basic words, and have developed a pathological fear of speaking Chinese in public in recent years. I fluster easily over basic stuff and give off the impression that I’m mildly retarded.

There’s a beautiful essay out there on the interwebs called “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. I love that man with the passion of a thousand suns. Go read it, if you have fifteen minutes to kill.  It’s a very good look at learning second languages and Chinese in general from someone still in the trenches.

All of this is a round-about way of my explaining why today sucked. I got a phone call from one of my teachers. (Jiang laoshi is good people, even if her directions suck.) It was impressed on me that I should show up at a certain building around 3pm to meet another of my professors. Sort of. I got the gist, but not the crucial bits of information, like which teacher and which building.

I spent two hours walking around a tiny area, looking in vain for one building. Eventually, in defeat, I returned to my dorm, whereupon Jiang laoshi called again, saying, I will *walk* you to the building in question.

I had passed it five times not realizing that the “Jiang shui lou”, River Water building, was in fact “Zang xue lou”, Tibetan Research Building. (This is not as dumb as a mistake as it seems. Our campus is called the Wang Jiang campus, and we’re right next to a freaking river.)

I lost face again today. I lost my temper several times in my Quixotic search, and frankly, had a major case of Fraud Syndrome.

(Fraud Syndrome is the seventh-grade low-self-esteem equivalent for scholars. Basically, “why am I here, there are better people out there more qualified for this job/scholarship/position, I am useless, I am not as good as they think I am, etc. Fun times.)

Today, I did not acquit myself well. I’m tired of that feeling.