Ich bin ein Berliner

Hallo aus Deutschland! I’ve been studying German here in Stuttgart the last 6 weeks, and it has been really ausgezeichnet. It’s very different from China, but I like it a lot. I wish I could stay longer – 6 weeks is so short! I decided to make a rough list of some of my favorite new foods. If you go to Germany, be sure to try them!

  1. Berliner — aka jelly doughnut. I had to look around to find one in memory of JFK’s famous blunder during his speech in Berlin when he said that he was a jelly doughnut instead of a Berliner (as in, someone from Berlin). They are lighter, fluffier, and not quite a sweet as American jelly doughnuts. I like them a lot more!
  2. Apfel Shorle — a magical bubbly apple drink. A German favorite, and now, one of my favorites. (side note–Germans LOVE sparkling water. I’m pretty sure they drink more sparkling water than regular water. I need mine to be apple flavored before I’ll drink it.)
  3. Muesli — my breakfast pretty much every morning. I love it — it’s a hearty, tasty granola, and flavors range from fruit and nut, to banana chocolate.
  4. Abendbrot — literally “evening-bread” which is a simple assortment of breads, meats, cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, and anything else. In Germany, you can have bread, meat, and cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  5. Peanut flips. Think cheeto puffs, but peanut butter flavored. So addictive.
  6. Döners — Turkish kebabs on every street corner. About the only place that’s open on Donnerstag (Sunday).
  7. Maultaschen (German dumplings) and Käsespätzle (German mac and cheese) and all other traditional Swäbisch foods, although food is a lot saltier here.

After being immersed in the food, language, and culture of Germany, I can echo JFK and say, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or at least I’m on the way to becoming a Berliner. The more Berliners I eat, the more German I become.

The Little Yellow U Bahn

Having grown up in the largest city in the US without public transportation, I was intimidated by the transition to Stuttgart, Germany, a city where not using public transportation is like not having legs. But after adapting to the trains, downloading a transportation app, and sprinting to make my train more times than I can count, I have fallen in love with the little yellow U bahn where you get to mingle with local Germans going about their daily life. Sometimes to practice my German, I would comment to a friendly-looking older lady about the weather or something innocuous, and then see what would happen. Most of the time she would take the bait and launch into a long-winded monologue. I would just smile, nod, and remark as genuinely as possible, “Ja!” or “Das ist sehr interessant!” or “Naturlich!” even though I had no idea what she was talking about. It was always a little awkward when she finished and looked me expectantly, and then the conversation would just end with a half-hearted “Ja…” and then I would be relieved to find out that my train station was the next stop. If I didn’t make conversation, I would do some last-minute homework, or catch up on some reading. One time, I accidentally left my purse in the S bahn, and of course, I proceeded to call my bank and cancel all my credit cards. But less than an hour later, I received an email and Facebook message from my German hero who found it, turned it in, and told me exactly where he left it. The interactions I had with local Germans on the U bahn are definitely unforgettable.

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Wang Anyi — Newman Prize Winner for Chinese Literature

This semester I got to meet the famous Chinese writer, Wang Anyi, who came to OU to receive her award for the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. I went to a Chinese Salon conducted only in Chinese where a panel of top Chinese writers, thinkers and interpreters took questions about Chinese history and writing. I understood about 40%, but one point I did manage to grasp was that Wang Anyi is not just a skillful writer, but also a thinker. In her writings set during the Mao era in China, she skillfully captured fundamental themes such as love, family, revenge, and death, themes which do not change despite the tumultuous outward political environment.

After the salon, I got to take a photo with Wang Anyi, along with another Chinese girl I met who has the same Chinese name as me. I also had the opportunity to take a photo with a Peking University professor.

M&M — my two German conversation partners

Through the German Club at OU, I was connected with two girls from German (both with names beginning with M) to be my conversation partners. They both are Master’s students in petroleum engineering, and speak English fluently. I’ve only taken one semester of German, so the first meeting was mostly in English. I quickly realized that I was nowhere near a conversational level,  so instead they taught me some basic survival vocabulary as we sat outside Second Wind Cafe sipping our chai tea lattes. They helped me work on the German “r” sound as well as o, u, and a umlaut. I was happily surprised to realize that some of the sounds mimic Chinese letters, but then caught myself wanting to reply to German questions in Chinese. I will not be surprised if while in Germany this summer, I accidentally blurt out a few lines in Chinese. I’ve heard that it’s easier to learn a second language once you’ve learned one, but I think German is still pretty difficult, and nothing like Chinese at all. It’s going to be a challenging next few weeks studying abroad, but I look forward to being able to converse proficiently with M&M in German! I hope to meet up with them again in Germany and have a meeting in German instead of English.

Environmental Crisis, Social Movements, and Nascent Democratization in China

The OU Institute for US-China Affairs hosted Liu Jianqiang, a Chinese investigative reporter and environmentalist to give a talk on how China’s worsening environmental crisis is catalyzing social movements. He began by giving a brief history of environmental issues that sparked public outcry, beginning with the Three Gorges Dam project that displaced over a million Chinese villagers. He recounted other environmental crises that sparked public protest, and as time went on, the government became more responsive to the people’s requests. He referred to 2012 as the year of dramas and showed pictures of environmental protests that occurred all over China–I had no idea that so many public demonstrations occurred in China’s recent history and are continuing to occur as the environmental crisis worsens. He said that most cases of public disorder have been tied to pollution issues for three reasons.

  1. Pollution is intolerable
  2. Environmental rights are apolitical (or at least seem that way)
  3. Environmental issues have a wider impact; there is safety in numbers

Ultimately, he argued that although citizens and journalist did not set out to turn their environmental efforts into a democratic movement, they have effectively established a relatively democratic sphere in the green movement.

Liu Jianqiang’s talk got me interested China’s environmental crisis, so in my Chinese capstone class, I decided to research the issue of cancer villages in China, villages where the rate of cancer is significantly higher due to economic over-development and industrial pollution. As with many environmental issues in China, I realized that the first step for the government to solve an environmental problem is to address the problem. But in most cases, the government censors “sensitive” content such as environmental issues, because they put pressure on the government, and as Liu proved, often are charged with democratic sentiment. Although the Chinese government is gradually beginning to respond more to environmental protests, hey are still more focused on economic development. So at present, such environmental issues are swept under the rug.

Calligraphy

This past semester I decided to attend an Arabic calligraphy event, because I had some experience with Chinese calligraphy and I was curious to find experience a new culture and language, and see how it compared with Chinese.
A room full of students sat around and watched as a middle-aged man began to write in Arabic on a chalk board. He wrote a few different scripts, and each one became more decorated and complicated than the one before it. The first difference between Arabic and Chinese calligraphy became quickly obvious, as I had no idea what was being written, or even the names and boundaries of the Arabic letters. That made it slightly more difficult as the swirly script carried no meaning for me. But I could still appreciate the amount of time and detail that went into drawing each letter.
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Sitting in a classroom drawing in Arabic reminded me of when I took a calligraphy class in China, where my professor was an old Chinese man with a round face and deep voice who spoke melodically about Chinese history as he carefully painted beautiful Chinese characters stroke by stroke. For a single character, he demonstrated at least 4 or 5 different scripts, some readable, others unrecognizable. But even the unrecognizable script had its own specific design and stroke pattern, despite its apparent sloppiness. As I watched the Arabic calligrapher draw out the different scripts with letters of a specific shape and size (measured by the the unit of a little diamond), I was reminded of the detailed rules involved in Chinese calligraphy.
Another point that impressed me was how much school and training the calligrapher went though to master the art of calligraphy. He went to two different schools in two different countries and studied for many years to attain to such a level of calligraphy mastery. Maybe after medical school, I can attend a calligraphy school in Morocco (after I learn Arabic).
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Schnitzel

A few weeks ago my mom took me out to a small, local, hole-in-the-wall German restaurant that recently opened up near our house. The quaint, dimly-lit cafe had only a handful of customers, and German /flags, posters with German sport teams, and traditional German clothing decorated the walls. The menu was full of all different types of wurst and schnitzel I had never seen before, so it took us a while to order. When our food arrived, a semester in Biochemistry told me that 80% of what was on my plate was carbohydrates and protein, with the leftover 20% being purple cabbage and its cousin, sauerkraut. I had a flashback to a summer in Spain where I found myself desperately ordering an “ensalada” to increase my fiber intake. But, to my dismay, the wilted lettuce was swimming in a dollop of mayonnaise when it came out. I remember that meal vividly, and often think back on it and laugh.

Last week, my Chinese teacher took our Chinese capstone class out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. We all grasped our chopsticks with familiarity and fondness, remembering our experiences together as a class and recalling our highlights in China, as we indulged in a rich, albeit somewhat Americanized, Chinese feast. My Chinese teacher chimed in from the other end of the table, “Xuelian, hao chi ma?” I responded politely that the food was great — and it was! She responded that because the company is good, the food is good. I laughed, and then considered her comment more as I chomped down on my fried rice. Actually, the main reason I enjoy Chinese food is not the MSG, but because Chinese food embodies China–the people, the language, the scenery, the culture. So, in a sense, when I eat Chinese food, I get to re-live my experiences in China. Through the doorway of food, an entire culture is opened up.

Although I will admit that according to my grade book the European cuisine has not always earned straight A’s, I am eager to give it another chance as I look forward to studying abroad in Stuttgart for 6 weeks to learn German and to not just eat, but experience German food. While I was in Asia for 6 months, one of the main entries in my travel journal was “New Foods,” and each new food was tied to a memorable experience. This summer, I look forward to expanding that list –as well as my “globally engaged” palate. I anticipate that German food will become more appealing to me after I come back from six weeks of absorbing German culture and cuisine.

Norman

One late autumn afternoon, as I rounded the corner of the North Oval on my way home from work, I saw a baby stroller slowly start rolling along the sidewalk, threatening to cross the path of my bike. I went wide as an older Chinese man stood up and pulled the stroller back to the bench, where an older Chinese woman was holding a swaddled baby. I looked back at them as I biked past, curious if they were from Beijing, how long they had been in the US, and if they knew any English. I quickly brushed off the fact that I had “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” and turned my bike, looped around the Clock Tower, and headed back to where they were sitting. They glanced up at me curiously as my squeaky bike brakes indicated my arrival. I smiled, and then immediately greeted them with a “Nihao!” as I stepped off my bike. The older man, whose English was quite good, said in surprise, “You speak Chinese?” I then replied in surprise, “你会说英语吗?” (You speak English?) We laughed.

I greeted the older woman who only spoke Chinese. She then introduced me to her grandson, Norman. His grandfather explained to me, “Because he was born here in Norman. He is a US citizen!” He beamed with pride as he looked down at the small black-haired bundle in his wife’s arms. He then explained to me that their daughter is studying for her PhD at OU, so they had come to Norman to help take care of Norman for a few months as she worked.

We chatted together in Chinese and English for a good half hour. We shared stories about Chinese food, crowded Chinese cities, the American way of life, and language-learning experiences. They warmly invited me to their apartment in Norman for dumplings, and even encouraged me to visit their beautiful hometown in China someday.

As the sun set, we said our goodbyes, and I took one last look at baby Norman. I thought about his childhood, and how different it would be from his grandparents’. I thought about how he would feel when he first went back to China to visit his grandparents, outwardly looking exactly like those around him, but inwardly being different, his environment having shaped him more than his DNA. Then I laughed as I promised myself that I would never name my child Beijing.

“Home” and “Home Home”

It’s been almost six months since I’ve been back from my semester abroad in China, and I know I’ve needed to write about my experience of reverse culture shock, but it’s always difficult to write coherent thoughts when a wave of Beijing home-sickness hits you. Even as I’m writing this, I’m checking my WeChat social media app and messaging Esther.

I had heard a lot about reverse culture shock before I went to Beijing, but I did not really know what to expect when I stepped back on to American soil. While I was in China, I found myself talking all about the US, from the guacamole and delicious Mexican food, to my being able to drive a car at 16. I would talk about my family and friends, show them pictures of my newborn cousin, or tell them about how beautiful OU’s campus is. I Skyped my family almost every day, and introduced to them so many Chinese friends with unpronouncable names. But as it became closer to the time for me to come back to the United States, I realized that I would soon be leaving behind my other family, my other home.

It was as if I had was leaving “home” to go back “home home.” Here’s some of the ways how I adjusted, or perhaps, ways “home home” adjusted to a new me.

Capture the memories: When I got home, I was bombarded with people who asked me, “How was China?!” It was hard for me to find the words to encapsulate the most life-changing 6 months of my life. I found that showing them pictures gave them a better idea of what it was really like and reminded me of the small things that I had forgotten about. I started working an online picture book of my travels that I could show people to supplement the stories I told. I was hoping to finish it before school started, but sorting through all the pictures was a pretty gutting emotional process so it took a little longer than I expected. It’s around 50 pages, but still not completed; it’s on my list of things to do over winter break.

Stay in touch with “home”: I have stayed in touch with my Chinese home just the same as I stayed in touch with my US home when I was in China. I Skype Esther and other Taiwanese friends as much as our schedules (and the time zone difference) allow, and check WeChat’s news feed here and there. A couple times, my family secretly videoed me as I conversed with with them in Chinese over Skype cause they couldn’t believe I was speaking Chinese. Sometimes I forget that they can’t understand Chinese!

Speak Chinese: My friends make fun of me when I perk up and start to try to eavesdrop when I happen to hear someone speaking Chinese. When walking down the South Oval, I get really excited when I hear students speaking in Chinese. Sometimes, but not all, I get up the nerve to go over and strike up a conversation with them. OU has a lot of students from Beijing Normal University, so sometimes we reminisce about the campus together. I’m grateful for the sake of maintaining my conversational Chinese to have made quite a few Chinese friends since being back.

Be Chinese: I managed to find a small Chinese market near OU’s campus where I stocked up on latiao (aka spicy strips) and other Chinese goodies. I made all my friends and family try latiao, but hardly anyone liked it. When my brother in law even described it as “a paper towel soaked in oil,” I felt the same way when some of my Chinese friends didn’t like guacamole. I also discovered that my family just couldn’t really understand why I felt the urge to use chopsticks, or why I would start singing in Chinese randomly. A few times this semester I made strange, wanna-be Chinese food and ate it with chopsticks on the days when I felt particularly “homesick.” And other days I just ate my regular American meals with chopsticks, just because. I also have Taiwan on my key chain, and a Gutetama hanging on my rear-view mirror.

Image result for danhuangge I think my family eventually has come to terms with the fact that China is also my home now, because home is where the heart is. I think I too have come to terms with the fact that wherever I am, I’ll be like Gutetama, half-white, half-yellow. Who knows–maybe as I travel more, I’ll get even more colors added to me.

 

German Club

The German club hosted an event with cake, coffee, and games, so I went. I was surprised by the number of people who showed up (but I guess since it advertised free ethnic food, I should not have been too surprised). There were definitely more German students in attendance than the number of Chinese students that would normally come to Chinese events, so I had to find a seat on the floor. I managed to make my way over to the table with home-made German cakes, and got a delicious piece of cake topped with whipped cream. We played a game where we tried to guess the meaning of German idioms. My favorite one was about giving a monkey sugar (I don’t remember the exact phrasing). The meaning is essentially to give into one’s desires, which here is symbolized by a monkey. So, after learning this idiom, I gave my monkey some (literal) sugar, and enjoyed another piece of cake. It was interesting and enjoyable to learn more about German culture embodied in the language, and I hope to be able to attend more German club events in the future!