Summer in China

Name: Sydney Greenberg

Year: Class of 2011

Longmeadow, MA

Public Health Studies


At tiananmen with maoI’m really good at charades. You think I kid, but you try living in Beijing, China for a summer with not-so-hot Chinese language skills and let me know how talking without your hands goes for you.  I was completing 2nd year Chinese at Hopkins when I somehow got the idea into my head that I wanted to be in Beijing for the Olympics, and that’s how I ended up in an 8 week intensive Chinese language program where I had to sign a pledge that I would speak Chinese, and only Chinese, at all times.  I’m a Public Health major, but I had started Chinese in high school and have continued taking it out of sheer enjoyment.  While Hopkins had taught me well, as anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows, learning it in the classroom is not the same as living it.  And so, when I arrived in Beijing that first evening, my new fellow classmates and I left to our own devices to find dinner, I began to appreciate the universality of facial expressions and hand motions.

That first dinner went like this: A group of us ventured to the nearby dumpling restaurant where they gave us a private room with a huge table (apparently that’s what they do most places for large groups) and they put the qualifying rounds of Chinese Badmiton on the TV, obviously a sport you can really get into.  Ordering was quite difficult, as we quickly learned none of us spoke Chinese quite as well as we had hoped, but the wait staff was extremely understanding and after lots of broken sentences, emphatic hand gestures, and people on each side of the language barrier having to repeat themselves many, many times, we finally ordered successfully and ended up having a great meal which left me feeling stuffed, and all for the steep price equivalent of $2.  Food in China isn’t as greasy and gross as American-Chinese food, though very different…lots of doughy/bread items and a lot of things in sauces.  I quickly became proficient with chopsticks since most Chinese restaurants don’t offer any other utensils- if you should find one that does, chances are it’s probably not as authentic or it’s way overprices for tourists, get out fast.  Also, you know how they say you don’t know a good thing till it’s gone? Well I will never leave the US without at least two Tide2Go pens ever again.  Particularly in those first few days of me clumsily operating chopsticks, my clothing became covered in all sorts of sauces, and I had nothing to get them out…my mom eventually had to ship some to me.  Now having been back in the States for some time, I miss using chopsticks every day, and often get cravings for some of my favorite dishes, like qiezi (eggplant), chuar (skewered spicy meat sold by street vendors at the unbeatable price of $0.28 per stick), or ji dan guan bing (the omelette cum taco type concoction I would eat each morning for breakfast).

Dragon fruitLive scorpions on a stick!Being that I had classes five days a week, I quickly fell into a pattern.  But each time it seemed that I had settled in, something would remind me of just how much of a waiguoren (foreigner) I was, and how different of a culture I was living in. Like one day, while in the supermarket, we decided to venture through the produce/meat sections where I saw unrecognizable fruits, and to my great surprise next to the fish in the meat section they were selling packaged bugs.  I thought they were snails at first and ventured to poke one with my finger through the wrapping only to find it squishy and slug like, AH! They also had whole eels, and just like you might see steaks or ground beef packaged and awaiting sale, they had the same for fish heads, just the head no body, yum.

And of course one day we had to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, easily the biggest attractions in Beijing. Of course, semi-living there, my friends and I would all commented on how we felt like we weren’t true tourists, since we at least somewhat knew what we were doing (despite the fact that we took every touristy picture imaginable). We traipsed around having fun and taking all sorts of photos, some pretending like we actually knew how to be thoughtful photographers, a lot of us being goofy (‘cuz those are always the best).  The most hilarious thing though was the reaction Alex received.  Alex is pale and has very blonde hair, a rarity in China.  So, no exaggeration, about every five minutes someone came up to Alex asking to take a picture with her. As we’d become accustomed to, we got stares everywhere we walked, but unlike in America, people aren’t bashful about it, they will stare you down as if they were just examining a museum display, or they’ll whip out a camera and take pictures of you just standing there having a conversation with friends.

Other things about China: I joined a gym in order to keep up on my workouts (I play Varsity field hockey at Hopkins, and as such have a training schedule of running and lifting in the summer). Let me tell you, women don’t lift here, and the gyms definitely don’t get too many white girls…so when I went there to do all my “man lifting” (i.e. squats, benchpress, etc.) the men often times literally stop what they are doing to watch me.  And then yesterday a man told me that I shouldn’t lift so much because my legs will get too big and it’s unattractive. Then, he went on to say that my Chinese wasn’t so good…at that point I really wanted to say, “well that’s not very nice” but I was limited by my language abilities to simply giving him a face that said, “I don’t like what you’re saying.”  It was slightly infuriating, but the thing is that in China men can say that and women aren’t typically very sassy/sarcastic, so they don’t expect any lip back. They would make fun of each other for being shorter than me, because at 5’9 I was above the average height for both women and most men.  They got an even bigger kick out of it when I would stand on my tip-toes to emphasize the difference.  For the most part the men are extremely nice.  They always hop off machines if they realize I’m in line for it, and I try to explain that I don’t mind waiting, but they still insist.  Al ot of the trainers love learning the English terms for all the exercise stuff and talk about working out in America.  I think one of the most entertaining things was that when I would explain I had to train because I play field hockey in college, I would immediately be asked if I was there to play in the Olympics (I became tempted to just start saying yes).

Syd on great wallBut the coolest thing I could say I did in China? Sleep on the Great Wall. It was quite the adventure because, as we had learned, in a Chinese city (we started in Beijing) it’s often pointless to ask people where things are because invariably they either don’t know, give you directions that you can’t understand, or pretend to know and send you the wrong way.  The latter is unbelievably common, so that while asking for directions we were sent in every direction possible, all conflicting each other. We finally got to the Wall and after having walked as far as we could go in one direction, reaching the highest point, we hung out there for a while.  Let me tell you, walking the wall is HARD.  If it’s not going up, it’s going down, often at aggressive angles or with these stairs that were extremely annoying because they were often extremely shallow, but just long enough so that they weren’t comfortable to take one step at a time, but you couldn’t manage every other step either.  So to get to this high point we had to climb stairs that literally were the height of my knee…it was more like I crawled up them rather than walked. Later in the evening we chose a tower and decided it would be our place to stay for the night.  People often stay inside the tower, but ours had the distinct advantage of having stairs up to the top, so we got to sleep up there out under the open sky.  We had ourselves some dinner of a baguette of french bread and various munchies we had brought along and proceeded to “set up camp” which meant rolling out the rice mats we had brought which were thinner than a tarp and then we put our cheap fleece blankets on top of those.  Then we spent the night just hanging out up there, playing cards and enjoying the first stars we’d seen in over a month.  And down in the town by where we started climbing for some reason there were fireworks, so we got a pretty nice show, but it was amazing that we were so high up that the fireworks seemed sooooo tiny we could have grasped them with our hands.  Other things about being in the woods on a mountain in China, there were HUGE bugs and tons of mosquitoes, luckily we had bug spray but the noise of them was still annoying to sleep.  Oh and by sleeping I mean continually going in and out of consciousness because we were sleeping on stone slabs with no padding, and sharing three thrown blankets among 4 people, but it was pretty cool to wake up and watch the sunrise over the mountains.  So after enjoying ourselves for a little while we got down the mountain and made our way back to school, with much less difficulty than it took getting there.  Anyways it was a wonderful trip, not just because I finally got to go to the great wall, but the whole adventure of managing to get there all on our own, no tour-guides/books/internet to consult, we relied mostly on our Chinese to get around, and that was pretty darn satisfying.

I came back from China with a lot (besides all the fake designer items I bought). I mastered the bus schedules (which look like some kind of encrypted code) and bartered with vendors and conquered the Great Wall.  I still crave authentic Chinese food from time to time, but have found that Oriental Express on St. Paul sells some pretty good bubble tea, so I’m doing okay.  And besides being much more proficient in my speaking abilities, I’ve gained so much appreciation for the Chinese culture.  It took a few weeks for me to stop talking with my hands, but I’m now able to keep them calm for the most part, however an expression or two still slips into my vocab.  I’m still studying Chinese at Hopkins and plan on returning to China to study abroad next spring, but next time around I’ll be a little more prepared.  So that’s the story of how I spent my summer, so much better than a minimum wage job if you ask me. Oh, and by the way, incase you were wondering: Yes, I did go to the Olympics, and yes, they are that cool.

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  1. Grammy Libby and Papa Morty

    My darling granddaughter, you are amazing. This was such a delight to read and to travel with you. However, I must say, Papa and I were happy to hear you were back on your native soil.
    We love you so much and wish you a lifetime of such exciting experiences.
    Grammy Libby and Papa Morty, too.

  2. Sydney! You awesome woman you! Thank you for writing about your journey in such a way that we could journey with you! While we know you have learned and grown so much through this journey, we also know that China will never be the same because you impacted it/them with your eagerness to learn, your knowledge, wisdom and vitality! And of course, your loveliness! We love you bunches!
    Grammy Caroloyn and John

  3. Hey, Sidney! This is your Gammy Carolyn’s sister, Donna. Thank you for writing about your great journey! It was a real treat to read. The bugs and sleeping situations sounded much like my family’s camping experiences!You are such an awesome young lady, a blessing to your family and ours.
    Love and hugs!
    Great Aunt Donna

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