Archive for December, 2010


Caution: Asian Driver

Where I'm going, every car should be bound by law to have one of these

A few days ago, Anna told me I should write down what I’m hoping to get done with these ten weeks, so that I can ostensibly have some goals to hold myself to. I realized that such a post would overlap a little bit with one I was going to write anyway about potential problems that I’m going to run into, and a lot with some advice that Connor gave me last week. So in classic, I’m-really-lazy-and-it’s-3-am-again style, I’ve opted to lump it all of it together into one. This almost necessarily means that structure is going to suffer a little, probably making it somewhat less enjoyable for you to to read. I’m too nice to my readers, yeah? Really do a good job of making sure they come back.

Anywho –

The concern that’s looming largest is that it’s going to be an incredibly lonely experience.  The only American friend I was going to have in the city just figured out she couldn’t go. And so far as new friends are concerned, Connor pointed out that ten weeks isn’t really a whole lot of time, so most people aren’t going to find it worth it to invest in any sort of substantive friendship knowing that i won’t be sticking around long. So I guess two goals come out of this. The first is that fine, maybe I won’t be looking for my best friend this winter, but i’ll be damned if i’m going to go that long without even friendly acquaintances or something. And for that to happen, I’m going to need to be more aggressively social than i’m used to. The second goal is almost the opposite; I’m looking for meaningful introspection. I’ll concede that even if i succeed in getting to know some people, it’s going to be really unlikely that my social situation is going to be remotely comparable to what I’ve had for nearly as long as I can remember; i’ve been consistently blessed for years with various circles of close friends. In lieu of this i’d at least like to get to know myself a little better, and to see how i cope outside of the supportive mechanisms i’ve relied heavily on for so long.

Second goal is to glean something valuable from the internship itself. That is to say, beyond whatever technical database-crawling abilities or whathaveyou I might acquire on the day-to-day, I’d like to be able to end the summer and point to ‘this is what i did, here’s why it was a good idea for me to do.’ I want some identifiable benefits that can actually weigh against the sacrificed quarter of education. That’s not going to be “look at how fast i can use Excel, now” but might be “Hey, I enjoy/hate living/working alone in Beijing, and understanding how businesses work here / completing a project that matters / blah blah blah is cool because x,” and that’s knowledge i’m not going to be able to get otherwise.

Third is to get my Chinese level up as much as I possibly can. Sorta worried that i won’t be speaking as much day-to-day chinese as i want to because i won’t have people to speak it to outside of work, but that just gets back to the whole ‘so get out there and make some friends, dammit’ issue. I need to be talking to people as much as possible. Also, a related goal here is to keep up at least in vocab with the classwork my peers are doing back at home. should only be three or four chapters, certainly not unmanageable. In any event i at least want a language partner or something; with the number of people desperate to improve their english, this shouldn’t be too tough either.

That about covers the big ones. lotsa smaller goals like learning some basic meals i can cook for myself, not losing a lot of weight again, staying healthy, all that jazz.

Journey starts in about 26 hours. Catching a 6am plane, getting into Beijing at 4pm (bejing time) the next day. wish me luck!

Food

So this has bugged me for a little while — a lot of my posts mention in passing the various things that I ate during my last sojourn in Beijing, but I never sat down and wrote an honest-to-god entry about food and nothing else. So when my grandpa sent me an email tonight asking about just that, I decided to give as thorough as an answer as possible and use it as a blog post. Specifically, he asked:

Kevin –
I would like to ask you a few things about eating on your Chinese trip. Could you give me an idea of what you will be eating while you are gone? Does the food come from a cafeteria or street vendors or from some other source? Basically, what I am curious about is what constitutes a diet for a fellow in your position who is visiting China. And could you tell me whether in Beijing there is a restaurant that offers American cuisine, whatever that is? In summary, Kevin, what do you expect that you will be eating while you are gone.

It strikes me to pass on the first advice on Chinese dining that I can recall receiving: that of the options “good, cheap, and won’t make you sick,” I could only ever pick two. In a manner of speaking, this is true, but the loophole is that ‘cheap’ turns out to be a highly relative term. If you want cheap by Chinese standards, it is almost certainly going to either taste awful or be really hard on your system. But if you’re going for cheap by American standards, you can eat pretty much as much good food as you’d like with impunity and rarely break $10 on a meal.

So far as the sources of food are concerned, there is a hell of a lot more street vending than you’d find in the states; finding food isn’t an issue. Figuring out which street food won’t give you diarrhea, though, is another story entirely. Granted there are some things that are almost always safe — fruit, jianbing (a sorta crepe-like pancakey thing), and drinks, for instance. Helpfully, these are the most common types of street carts/stands. Ice cream vending is also really popular, but this is sorta a gray-area in terms of safety, because ostensibly ice cream is permitted to melt and curdle before being refrozen and sold on a fairly regular basis. I’ve never had a problem with it. For everything else — dumplings, meat skewers, that sorta thing — the guess-and-check method is pretty much the only way to go about it. Whee ha.
There are also plenty of restaurants around though, which run the gamut from barely-above-street-quality, hole-in-the-wall noodle joints to really as high-class of establishments as could be found in any big city in the states. China’s unique, though, in that it has zero problem putting these two stores next to each other, so it’s really tricky to identify anything about a restaurant by its surrounding district.
Cafeterias are less common when one isn’t on campus, which I won’t be. At Tsinghua though, I ate probably half my meals at the subsidized dining hall, which I’ve already described at length.
Oh and sometimes the food comes directly from the farmers themselves, as I found out at the end of my stay last time, when I was living in the southeast part of the city. I was basically in the middle of a farmer’s market in which the fruit being sold had clearly been trucked in fresh by its owners; that was some of the freshest, best-tasting fruit i’ve ever had in my life.

Anyway, the standard Chinese diet primarily comprises a ton of vegetable and noodle dishes. There’s obviously also a lot of eggs, rice and tea involved. Because all these staples are inherently pretty bland, spices are used extensively to make them more palatable; i’m still getting used to these. Many dishes incorporate meat, but it’s often not the highest quality. Pork is far-and-away the favorite, but much of the time the meat is incredibly fatty. Beef tends to simultaneously be gristly as hell and impossibly tough to cut/chew; to help this, it’s almost invariably served in really, really big chunks. Go figure. The Chinese do, however, have a really good handle on poultry. In my experience, chicken is pretty delicious no matter how it’s prepared. Beijing duck is famous, etc etc.
Dairy is conspicuously absent, partly due to high lactose-intolerance rates in Asia, partly due to people just not liking the taste. Milk is kept in small, room-temperate baggies. Yogurt is runny and terrifying. Cheese is almost entirely nonexistent, except at McDonald’s. Which I guess gets me to the American-cuisine question — it’s definitely extant, but but almost exclusively manifests itself in the form of fast food. Which, I guess, is really the only uniquely American culinary phenomenon anyway. KFC is far and away the most popular to an extent that is nothing short of surreal, but McDonalds is pretty common also. Bizzaro-Pizza Hut’s the best though. It outwardly looks like the establishment we all know and love, but it is secretly a really classy restaurant that serves you steak and stuff. Like, it wouldn’t be a bad place to take a date, and it usually has a waiting line out the door. It’s a full-fledged sit down establishment, and it is almost perversely odd.

Oh christ it’s 3am i need to go to sleep. Uhh i guess i’ll personally be eating lots of scrambled eggs and peanuts and stuff in addition to whatever i find nearby my workplace that’s good for lunch or dinner. might start cooking dinner. don’t really know how to cook though. oh, and ritz crackers and peanut butter, those things are lifesavers. friend of mine used to carry em around in her purse for me this past summer — so helpful. guess i should start wearing a backpack full of ‘em around. but yeah aside from that, just pretty standard chinese food for 10 weeks solid. buckle up!

Happy holidays, all. Just a few things –
Under pressure from my roommates, I’ve finally caved and gotten a twitter. Find & follow me at https://twitter.com/#!/kevingshepherd — and while I’m not sure how much I personally will be posting, I’ll be checking and reading it often; my main incentive to get an account was to stay somewhat connected to the goings-on in Evanston, Austin, etc.
Basically I’m just trying not to fall too much out-of-touch with everyone once I’m in China. It’s different from the situation this summer because during summer, everybody scatters simultaneously, but come January it’ll just be me (and other study-abroad kids) gone. I don’t expect to get to talk to too many people due to the obnoxious time difference — although I’d be happy to be proven wrong — but I’d like to at least kinda keep up with what’s happening. So I’ll attempt to do so, 140 characters at a time.
Updates, stories, that sorta thing on my end will continue to be put here for as long as Geoff allows the domain to stay up. A lot of tweets will probably end up just directing people here, really. So if you’re already reading this, you’re pretty much set. Way to be you.

Went to 37th street last night with the Austin kiddos.

Only in Austin

Although it wasn’t quite a substitute for of Austin’s trail of lights — a huge project combining millions of Christmas lights with the city’s main park which was sadly canceled this year due to budgeting issues — it was still impressive, especially considering that it’s just a bunch of households which put up ridiculous decorations year after year. Makes me wonder what the cathedral of junk looks like this time of year. I met the guy who built it a year or two ago, and he was every inch what I expected him to be. Odd dude, but absurdly friendly. He lets strangers walk around his back yard all the time for free, after all.

I’m pretty stoked for Christmas eve tonight. It’s always a fun one in the Shepherd household, primarily due to the traditional Christmas margaritas that mom makes every year. Fresh limes and everything, mmm. Oh, and then we assemble a weird advent calendar-sorta-thing from Germany. You have to build little paper houses and tape them together and put them on various scenic paper backgrounds; every year there are some pretty heated arguments over who is hogging disproportionate or unnecessary amounts of the limited scotch tape. It’s almost needless to say at this point, but my family is odd, and I love them.

I’ve noticed that my blog writing is reverting to my rather highschoolish habit of using way more em-dashes and parenthesis than is entirely necessary. This is bad. That is all.

Merry Christmas!

Bonus: Jakob with Jesus, and a sock monkey nativity scene.

Home again

Another Austin-homecoming night ends with me at Ken’s donuts at some ridiculous hour.  Granted, this time I’m actually home by 2 –which would be almost reasonable, were I not running off of 3 hours of sleep / traveling since 5am today. But honestly, I’ll almost always trade an hour of sleep, or work, or God-knows-what for an hour of hanging out at Ken’s with old buddies. Six of us out tonight; pretty sure Jakob woulda come also but he wasn’t, er, particularly conscious when we were leaving Andie’s place. Hm. I’m trying really hard to remember the last time I willingly turned down an offer to go to that particular donut shop, and am drawing blanks.  Such a solid tradition. Been consistent for at least four years now. It’s cheap, out of the way enough that visiting requires at least some investment of time, and damn delicious. Making myself hungry…

Anywho, good news! I finally found somewhere to live this winter! And by that, I mean my brother’s ex-girlfriend found me housing because she’s awesome and has connections to Beijing. The rent is like 300 bucks lower than anywhere else, the place is fully furnished, I’ll have a roommate who is fluent in Chinese, and I’m 3 minutes from a subway. I’m also like a five minute walk from Tiananmen square and the forbidden city, so I’ll have a good place to display my inevitably burgeoning Chinese-nationalistic pride. Living so close to all those monuments and huge portraits of Mr. Mao doesn’t leave me much of a choice, does it?

Ski trip

So today’s the first actual morning of skiing, and we’re getting ready to go out on the mountain. Got up pretty early this morning to go rent our skis, and something kinda odd happened. The first shop we went to had ski blades (just like skis, but shorter. they’re just what i’m used to skiing on) but my name was in the second half of the alphabet so they sent us to a different shop. Which was fine i guess but the second shop in question didn’t have any blades to rent me. They did however have one to sell me, for … thirty bucks? What? I looked at them pretty carefully and they’re in fine condition from what I can tell. Apparently the dudes are just trying to get rid of them, and that they stopped renting them to people pretty recently.

I thought this was kinda weird but didn’t think much about it until checkout, when the cashier rings me up and tells me:

“You’re now the proud owner of a pair of snowblades, a dying breed.”
“The other guy mentioned that too. Why’re they dying out?”

She then shoots me this incredibly exasperated look and says, “because they’re the most dangerous things on the mountain, easy”

“Huh?”

“Dude, it’s like going down a mountain on ice skates. They get stuck in too deep of powder, they don’t edge well on ice, and on most of them (like the ones I bought) the bindings don’t really release very well.”

Confidence inspiring, right? She sends me off with a pretty chipper “have fun” and now I’m vaguely concerned for my safety; I think I’ll take it relatively easy for a day or two just to make sure the blades will hold up; I’ve never used the brand before.

On the other hand, $30 skis! 90cm. Not a bad deal at all…

Finals done!

Alright friends, fall quarter’s at a close. Finals all wrapped up, went well.

No real updates on the China/housing front. Started looking for a homestay program, but that’s tricky because I’m not even a student. I’m just a completely unaffiliated kid who wants to live with some random Chinese family, which I feel is more than a little weird if you think about it. Like, do people come to the states and do that? Could _I_ do that? How hard would it be to get a homestay in, for instance, Jersey? That’s about as culturally removed from me as Beijing, at this point. Come to think of it, if we grant that students can get them in most countries without much difficulty, at what age limit does it become strange to let a stranger into your house, even if he is a student? If I dropped out of Northwestern today and came back to finish my degree when I was thirty, could I take a study abroad to, say, Argentina and request to be put with a family? Is there that significant distinction between a 22 year old and a 30 year old?  I’d say so, but where’s the line…

Getting stuff packed up, distributing all my crap among my apartment-owning friends (sorry, guys! you’re the best) been selected for some internship thingy tomorrow, but taking it would be a full year commitment for my whole senior year, so I’m lukewarm about it. Supposed to be a really cool job though. Ergh. Either way should start planning for this summer, but it just seems so far away.

Anyway, ski trip soon. Looking forward to it, hopefully will be able to get some cool pictures of the mountains on here.

Second Tour

Or rather, bracing for it. I’m heading out in exactly one month, losing January 2nd to travel, and hopefully recovering from jetlag on the 3rd. Work at Qunar starts on the 4th and ends on March 11th, at which point I’ll be going to Hawaii to meet my family for their spring break, then spending the subsequent week (NU’s spring break) in Austin. I’ll of course be back in school for spring quarter, and don’t anticipate taking another quarter off between now and graduation.

So between now and New Year’s Day I’ve only got a couple obstacles left, chief among them being lodging.  Shouldn’t be that big of a deal; the visa and plane tickets are already taken care of so I’m at least guaranteed to arrive in Beijing — so I feel like where I crash once I’m there is kinda a secondary concern. I hear there’s a nice hostel above Pyro Pizza. Seriously though I’m talking to both Gu 老师 and a secretary at Qunar about finding me somewhere to live; ideally I’d want to do a homestay program of some sort but I’m not sure how viable that is given that I won’t be a student

That’s pretty much it, really. Just gotta get through finals week (Monday is looking awful) and it’s smooth sailing. Ski trip with Northwestern, seeing Austin friends/family, Christmas, New Years, China, Hawaii, double spring break. I’ve got a lot to look forward to. Presently I’m most unreasonably excited about the ski trip, because I’m honestly failing to see how it will be anything but incredible. They’ve been having a good amount of snow, I’m rooming with Ben, Geoff and John Sias, skiing is probably my favorite sport and I don’t get to do it that much anymore, 等等。