A Train to See North Korea

Saturday, November 5th I awoke very early in the morning to catch a 7 AM bullet train to Dandong, China along with the rest of our group plus our Chinese friend.

Situated on the banks of the Yalu river, Dandong is the largest border city in China and responsible for half of North Korea’s trade.

Upon arrival in Dandong, a large statue of Chairman Mao was present outside of the railway station and further down the street after a few twists and turns sat North Korea just on the other side of the Yalu.

Looking through the thick smog and haze, I looked up and down the river at the nation of North Korea. With mostly farming to the north and just a few buildings to the south I was able to gain a new perspective on this nation.

At the end of the bridge connecting China and North Korea I could make out an amusement park that was not running and looked abandoned as well as a freighter cargo ship that was half way on land.

Seeing North Korea from the Chinese side really gives you a different view of life elsewhere and makes you realize how great you have it in America.

Fun Moments in China

Adapting to a different culture can lead to some fun, awkward, and rewarding moments. It is hard to predict which one will happen next, but each one is a learning experience.
We have now been in China for three months. In those three months, countless moments of hilarity have passed us by. A favorite story of mine happened early on in our journey, when we still had problems ordering food in Chinese. By now, most of us can order food without too many problems, but when we first arrived, it was a different story.
The story starts off with Justin, Dillon, and I at one of our favorite restaurants here called Xiao Xiao Xiao. We went into the restaurant to sit down, and had a look at the menu. As usual, Justin wanted to order jiaozi, so he pointed to that on the menu and sat back.
His food arrived, and he was very satisfied. Chinese food is wonderful, by the way, and each dish is delightful and fresh. As soon as Justin was finished eating, the restaurant staff brought out another plate of jiaozi. As Justin was full, he tried to use his Chinese skills to say that he was full, and did not need another plate.
Justin began to say, “SWANJOHN. SWANJOHN. SWANJEEN.”
Each time he said it, the lady looked confused, so he began to try it in another tone. Finally, she smiled and grasped on to what Justin was conveying. She took the plate back and brought out the bill, and in that moment, Justin’s nickname was immortalized as “Swanjohn”.
From that experience, we learned many things. The Chinese people are very kindhearted, and are always helpful to us as we adapt to the culture. So many concepts and emotions can be conveyed to others without saying a word. Humanity strives on moments like that, and it is wonderful to see how humans can come together to learn from one another, regardless of differences in culture.

The Mid Autumn Day Festival

Each year during the fall, many Asian countries celebrate the Mid Autumn Day Festival with their friends and family. This harvest festival is one celebrated during the full moon. Traditions include eating lots of yummy food with friends and family, watching the moon, and eating moon cakes.
Moon cakes are delicious pastries filled with all kinds of things, from the very popular red bean paste, to fruits and nuts, to savory things such as eggs.

To celebrate the Festival, we were invited to join a group of people to share music and stories. At this gathering, I was taught how to make moon cakes, and it’s actually quite simple! We had two kinds of dough, one firm, the other soft. We simply rolled a ball from each dough, squished the firm ball flat, and then wrapped it around the softer ball. After that, we placed it in the moon cake press which gave it a pretty design. Then, you simply let it set for a while, and eat it! I quite enjoy the moon cakes even though some of the other interns aren’t fans, and I’ll be quite sad when this festival rolls around next year and I won’t get to enjoy any.

At the gathering, we were also told stories about where the Festival originates from. They say that long ago, there was a great archer and his beautiful wife. They lived together very happily until one day, 9 suns rose into the sky. It was much to hot, so the archer shot down 8 of the suns, leaving only one to shine down. An immortal spirit saw what the archer had done and was very impressed. She gave the archer an elixir to drink to make him immortal too. Not wanting to leave his beautiful wife, the archer hid away the elixir, content to live out his mortal life by her side. One man knew about the magical drink and wanted it for himself, so one day, when the archer was out hunting, the man came and demanded that the archers wife give him the elixir. Not wanting to allow the man to have it, the wife drank it and floated into the sky where she now resides in the moon. The archer began to mourn the loss of his wife and honored the moon whenever he could with food and other gifts. The other villagers were sympathetic and therefore joined the archer in his honoring, leading to the Moon Festival.

One of the best parts about being in another country is enjoying the local festivities. You learn so much about their culture and traditions and get to try all sorts of new foods. We all enjoyed our first holiday here and can’t wait to see what the rest of the semester holds for us.

Friends in China!

China journal – October 31, 2016

One of the best parts of studying abroad through Missouri State University is getting to spend time with the LNU-MSU students. When Dr. Bennett said I would have to tutor twenty hours a week, I was definitely not excited to start. However, two and half months in to my stay here, it is great. I love getting to work with the students. Everyone has been friendly, and the tutoring lab is a great place to meet new people. One of my best Chinese friends, Stephan, has been able to show us around Dalian. One of the best meals I have had since landing in China was with Stephan at a local hot-pot restaurant. It was an experience one would never get back in the United States.

LNU-MSU has also been wonderful with scheduling school events. Being here in China, I did not think we would get to celebrate Halloween. However, Friday we had a pumpkin-carving contest. I carved a sub-par pumpkin. I think they thought my pumpkin would be a lot better; since I have been carving pumpkins for quite some time. Though, everyone had a great time, and it was interesting to see people carving pumpkins for the first time in their lives.

When I first came to China, I thought I would spend all my time with everyone who came over with me, but I was wrong. I would not trade the friends I have made here for the world. If you want to find true friend who will last a lifetime, study abroad in Dalian China!

– Alex Priest

Half Way: A Few Things I have Learned

Today I want to reflect on a new cultural perspective I have gained. Additionally, I believe I have learned more about the overall nature of all cultures. Since half of my time in China is over, I definitely hope to learn as much from the second half as from the first. I will first preface my learning experience by stating some of the experiences I have been through. Mostly these experiences are about the hospitality and goodness of the people in China.

When we first got to China, it was definitely apparent many people, especially children, do not see or interact with a lot of westerners or “white people” very often.  Sometimes we hear “Meiguo Ren Meiguo Ren!” or Americans, from children we encounter. Although this is true, they were always very kind to us. As we went to school and met students, they were very friendly to us. I will sometimes play basketball at a campus court and the other students from the various universities will always invite me to come play with them. They are always so inviting. Sometimes shy to approach but always so friendly. One of my first friends who spoke enough English get through a conversation, while I was struggling to communicate at all, invited myself as well as asking if the other interns would like to go, to dinner. He made sure our glasses were full and always explained the various dishes. He also insisted he pay for the meal. This was not my only encounter like this either. Another major experience was when I stayed in the home of Holly’s family, my Chinese friend, for the national holiday in Xining, Qinghai. They would get up early to make sure we had breakfast. They sacrificed sleeping in the living room so my roommate and I could have our own rooms. They made sure we ate very well and tended to all our potential needs or comforts. They were so generous and hospitable. Like I stated, I constantly go through experiences similar to this. This is very common.

To summarize what I have learned about all cultures and what I believe to be humanity as well, is the goodness in all people. Though I think we get stigmas, preconceived notions, or generalizations about various cultures and groups of people, I have come to believe that most cultures want to treat others with kindness. From the outside China and America or Asia and Western Culture are much different, and there are definitely differences, but both have so many similarities. The one I have experienced is the good nature and hospitality. Both cultures want their guests to feel warm and welcome. Both would set aside or sacrifice personal luxuries for the comfort of another. I have experienced this America but most definitely experienced this in China.

I hope to learn as much from this second half of this semester compared to the first, but more importantly, I hope I can have a new level of appreciation and generosity for those I will have the opportunity to do for what others have done to me.

Fall in Dalian

As I am now nearing the end of September, the climate of Dalian has for the most part remained constantly humid and around 75 F as an average for the last month, but last week was the first day of fall and this week it has been a bit chilly outside.

It is now “the holidays” for China because there is a national workers holiday starting September 28th and lasting until October 10th. I will be going Qinghai province on vacation with my roommate, Dillon. Qinghai is one of the largest and least populated provinces of China and is located on the Tibetan plateau. Nicknamed “The roof of the world” and home to lake Qinghai which is the second largest salt water lake in the world. I will be flying into the city of Xinning after a five hour direct flight from Dalian. The round trip flight cost was 2,800 Yuan for myself which is not bad.

Last weekend was the 65th anniversary of Liaonning Normal University. They set up a massive stage in a day near the middle of campus and on Saturday put on a two hour production with various acts. Even though it was all in Chinese, It was still very interesting to see.

First Few Weeks in China

Reality seems to delay itself when you travel. What you learn beforehand about traveling can never amount to actually going through with it, and when it sets in that you are halfway across the world in a completely new culture, it begins to take your breath away.
We arrived in Beijing in mid-August and stayed there for four days. Arriving in Beijing was amazing, especially since I had never flown before this trip; It’s been quite the baptism by fire for traveling , but I have loved every second of it. Once we arrived at the airport, it was an adventure in itself trying to find exactly where we needed to go. We navigated our way through the airport and met up with our tour guide named Coco. Coco was very friendly and helped us immensely during our first few days in China.
After a lovely introduction to rush hour Beijing traffic on the way back to our hotel, we finally were able to get to our rooms and process what all was going on. There is so much to take in when reality begins to set. We left early every morning in Beijing to go explore tourist sites in Beijing, namely Tienanmen Square, The Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, and a few other notable restaurants in Beijing, as well as an acrobatic show. Coco was with us throughout our tours to explain the importance behind each stop and help us whenever we needed.
As we neared the end of our days touring Beijing, I realized that we were about to launch ourselves even further into Chinese culture once we arrived in Dalian. The flight from Beijing to Dalian was short and scenic, which I enjoyed. Once we arrived to the airport in Dalian, we were able to navigate to the exits, grab our bags, and meet up with Karel.
Karel took us to LNU-MSU and showed us around the campus. The campus here is beautiful; there are many restaurants and shops nearby, as well as public transit. Our rooms are nice, and the weather here has been delightful. We have started classes as well as tutoring, and both are going well.
There is so much to do in Dalian, and I know that this is just the beginning of a wonderful adventure in to a brand new culture.

Learning Mandarin

TL;DR:  ChinesePod/ Anki/ Pleco/ Memrise/ Skritter

It wasn’t until nearly a month and a half in until I found these pieces of software.  With them I was able to learn ~700 hundreds words and pass the HSK3. I believe with knowledge of these methods of learning sooner, best if before even coming, one can achieve HSK4 level proficiency (1200 words) during the internship in Dalian.

ChinesePod

Listening/ Video

Chinesepod is a podcast that improves listening abilities as well as familiarizing you with phrases. The site is sorted by fluency level so that you can find which one challenges you while still being able to keep up.

The typical podcast begins with a dialogue repeated three times, then an explanation of each sentence, an explanation of the phrases within the sentences, and then the dialogue once again.

With a discount code you can get a month’s subscription for $1. After paying, wait a day and then cancel. Download all the podcasts you’d need within the following month. Many of the new podcasts come with a video form that includes subtitles.

Con: Requires a VPN to access

Available for iPhone/Computer/ Android
anki

Anki is a space-repetition software with a flashcard interface. The flashcards can have as many sides as you would like. The software will show you cards at different times based on the Forgetting Curve. Basically, the most efficient way of remembering a piece of information after first learning it is to be remembered of it one day later, three days later, one week later, a month later, and then  once in every six months. There is around 2 minutes given to learning a piece of information forever as long as it presents itself once in every six month span.

It is possible to download pre-made decks but I found that creating your own cards helped make the information stick.

Cons: Might take an hour to understand how to set it up

Availble for Android (Free)/ Computer (Free)/ iPhone (Costs)
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This is by far the best way I found to learn vocabulary. While the repetition algorithm is not as well put together as Anki’s, Memrise includes mnemonics which makes learning the Hanzi and their pronunciation bounds easier. The interface is very clean, and it tracks progress quite nicely.

Reccommended lessons:

China’s provinces—  There are like 22 provinces, learning them makes conversation easier.

Read a food menu—  No need to learn pronunciation, learning the meaning allows you to order food without pictures.

HSK# list— A great way to learn vocab even if not studying for an HSK

Skritter

Skritter is a website/app that allows you to practice writing Hanzi. It comes with a two week free trial, however; after the two weeks the user can still practice any words added to their word bank. Just add all the words you can, sort them, and it will be able to be used throughout your time here. While writing is perhaps the least needed skill during your time here in China, this is a great way to practice.

Grammar

http://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar

Good way to understand grammar rules and odd words.

Speaking – Hello Chinese

This is an app developed by my friend —-  he’ll be adding more lessons as time goes own but for now it is still a fun way to learn grammar/vocab and to improve listening and speaking. The speaking algorithm focuses on pronunciation rather than tones because mastering of pronunciation comes before mastering the tones.

Pleco

The best English-Chinese dictionary out there. The standard version comes free and is enough for your time here. There are add-ons that can be purchased to make life even easier. The improved OCR reader is probably the most useful, it allows you to point your camera at Hanzi, the phone translate and pulls up the entry page. Flashcards can be made at the touch of a button from the dictionary entry page.

Labeling IRL things

Label things in your room with Chinese. Print out the Hanzi//Pinyin and just look over it whenever you come across it. Every little bit helps and you will come across them fairly often

Desk

This is something I wish I would have done sooner. You will be working at your desk and having this on your desk and crossing out the words as you learn them is a really nice way to visual your progress as well as review.

Waiting for Happiness

You are waiting to be happy.

Day-in and day-out you tell yourself that once you have this, or get that then you’ll be happy. You have lost your sense of value. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you played outside with some sticks? Or spent the day turning over rocks looking for bugs? Or played in a rain puddle for hours simply watching it ripple and splash? It’s been quite a while hasn’t it? The reason why is because those things do not cost money, and so they must not be any fun.

Remember how happy you were to get a little 25¢ toy from the machine? Imagine how those around you would react if you were still just as excited to get a toy from such a machine. They would look at you with quite the disapproving stare, after all it’s just a little toy, no reason to be that happy. Buy an expensive machine however and celebrate all you want.

Russian national Alex Shumilov celebrates after being the first customer to buy the latest Ipad 2 at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York, March 11, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images) [PNG Merlin Archive]

You have been trained to equate value with money. This is why people love their phones so dearly, why they crave new cars, and dream of owning a house.

-Which completely defies their paradigm of equating money to value-

After all, the average person would think it quite odd if someone let a lamborghini  collect dust and rot away in a garage while they saved up for a Ford Focus right? Well the average person does just that, they let their most prized possessions rot away in order to obtain things they value substantially less. Maybe you’re different though.

Let’s find out.

How much would you sell your legs for? From the waist down. Be honest. If I offered you a million dollars would you do it? Ten million? Most people wouldn’t sell their legs for that much. That means most people already possess something they value more than every material thing they will gain in the future. Yet, the majority of Americans live a sedentary lifestyle. They are letting there lamborghinis rot away. There are so many people in this world that would be happy for the rest of their life to have just one of the many things you own. You on the other hand (because you have both of them), couldn’t care less. You spend your time complaining about your feet hurting, about how tired you are, about how you have to work, about anything and everything you can. This is why you aren’t happy. This is why, no matter what material items you obtain, a dog, a house, a job, no matter what is, you will still not be happy. If you aren’t happy with things that you value at billions of dollars, how can you expect yourself to be happy with anything else?

 

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The Adventure of a Lifetime: Backpacking through China

How many people can honestly say that they have traveled to a truly remote location in the world; to a place so far removed from any possible comfort zone that there is literally nothing to familiarize with? Somehow, I can say that I have been to such a place and experienced a whole new kind of adventure.

First, I would like to establish that my most recent travels have completely torn down the perceptions I had about what it meant to travel. I have found, through experience, that true adventure lies in the spontaneity and ambiguity of the unknown. Most people, when they think of travel, would imagine a suitcase or two, packed to the brim with all of life’s “necessities.” Everything and anything that could possibly be of use on a week-long vacation would be neatly packed inside, and the entire getaway would be planned out, down to the smallest detail. I know all too well this form of travel. I have been a part of that group of people who obsessively worries over the limited space of a suitcase and the strangely terrifying possibility of leaving some important item behind. I have enjoyed the luxury of having my agenda mapped out, and not having to worry about facing the hardships of travel. However, recently my annoying human travel anxieties have been put to the test. Imagine a single backpack, much like the one a college student would carry to class, a ten day excursion into the unknown Chinese countryside, a non-existent itinerary, and a language and culture barrier so thick that it is practically tangible. Imagine these things, and imagine myself in the midst of it all. That is a rough outline of my adventure over the Chinese holiday.

To explain a little,  my journey began in Liaoning Province in Dalian, went through Hebei and Shaanxi Provinces, all the way to where I spent most of my trip, in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, the locations of Qinghai Lake, part of the Silk Road, and the Gobi Desert. I, and the four other people I was with, left from Dalian by plane, flew to Beijing, boarded an unbelievably crowded train—I plan to elaborate on the “wonders” of train travel later—which we spent twenty hours on with no place to sleep, and were finally deposited in Qinghai Province, Xining. All of a sudden, China as I knew it was very different. We were now in predominantly Muslim territory, and the culture was totally unfamiliar. Anyway, we spent the first night in Xining in a hostel. In fact, we stayed in hostels all throughout our trip and I must say that they are not nearly as terrifying as I expected them to be. They were by no means luxurious hotels, but they were clean enough, warm enough, and had running water, and I was usually so dead tired by the end of the day exploring that the hard wooden beds felt soft and inviting.

The morning after my first night in Xining I was shaken awake by my new Chinese friend, Xiao Luo. She told me, in broken English, that we had five minutes before the car would arrive to take us to Qinghai Lake. I became accustomed to spontaneous events such as this over the holiday, but at first, it was difficult for me to accept that I simply would not know the game plan. Xiao Luo was the one who organized everything, and essentially, my life was in her hands for ten days. This is what I meant by spontaneity and ambiguity; true adventure occurs when you’re not anticipating what’s going to happen next. You just go. Anyway, I quickly put on layers of clothing—it was surprisingly cold in that area of China for fall—brushed my teeth, grabbed my backpack, and ran for the awaiting cab. In fact, it seems like this is what I did most mornings. Woke up, grabbed my few belongings, and ran for it.

We made it to Qinghai Lake, and of course it was well worth the struggle to get there. It was absolutely breathtaking, surrounded by fields of golden flowers, old abandoned clay houses, and majestic sand mountains. We spent most of the day driving alongside the massive lake, stopping whenever we wanted, and enjoying our free time. After making quite a lot of progress on the road, our cab driver had to take us back to Xining. Later, I discovered that our cab driver was not really a cab driver at all…but that’s a story for another time.

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(Pictures from Qinghai Lake)

Anyway, our final destination would be Dunhuang. Located along the Silk Road in the far northwest corner of Gansu Province, it is home to part of the Gobi Desert. This area was by far the most amazing and curious place we visited. The territory had transformed again into a mixture of Muslim and Tibetan culture, and there was absolutely nothing that I saw that was familiar. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that the five of us were the only foreigners for hundreds of miles. The topography was much different from the northeast land I had become accustomed to; there were deserts, mountains, and everything was spread out. We +were in the country. As we approached the oasis where we could access the Gobi Desert, the tops of giant sand dunes came into view. The endless ocean of sand was absolutely unreal. It looked like something from a movie, and I wasn’t totally sure that I was even there. As we trudged through the sand towards the tallest peaks, our legs submerged in sand up to our shins, we realized how physically demanding it was. I remember it seemed like hours passed as we slowly picked our way up the sand mountains. However, when we got to the top, the view of the oasis and the sun setting over the dunes was breathtaking. I could have spent the night there under the stars if the temperature wouldn’t have dropped so quickly.

*Also, as a side note, it was here in Dunhuang where I realized we were too far from civilization for my West Plains Bank debit card to work at any ATMS. That was a fun little experience, especially with an over protective mom who freaked out when I shared this bit of information with her. Luckily, all was fine again when we got back to Xining.*

 

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(Gobi Desert in Gansu Province)

After spending a few nights absorbing the history of Dunhuang and staying in different hostels, it was finally time for us to board yet another train—this was to be our 4th and final train ride—from Xining to Zhengzhou. This trip would be eighteen hours total, however, this time we would have a small bunk bed to sleep on for the duration of the trip. Now would be a good time to give a brief explanation of the horrors of train travel in China. While many people can have a perfectly comfortable experience riding on the high-speed train, that was not the type of train we were riding on throughout our trip. Keep in mind, we are all broke college students and we decided to choose the cheapest option of travel. Unfortunately,  the cheaper trains are much slower and have very few regulations. For instance, a person does not necessarily have to have a seat on the train to ride on it. This resulted in an overabundance of people crammed in any open area, standing, squatting, and leaning wherever they could. I had an aisle seat, which resulted in me being a little too close for comfort to many of the other passengers. Not only was the train crowded, but I had to accept that I would be unashamedly stared at for the entire trip by literally every passenger. I also spent the majority of the ride praying I would not need to use the bathroom…let’s just say I have a very low standard for facilities now. However terrible all this may sound, the experience resulted in many ongoing jokes, and I have a new respect for people who regularly must use this form of travel. Looking back on those endless hours of discomfort on the train, I can’t help but to laugh at the absurdity of it all; it’s definitely a time of my life that I will never forget. Anyway, after what seemed like an eternity, we rolled into Zhengzhou. Later we boarded a plane that would take us back to Dalian. Even though I had had some pretty amazing experiences on my adventures through China, and I wouldn’t trade those for anything, I was really starting to feel homesick for my little home in Dalian. There is nothing I can compare to getting back to my dorm room and flinging myself onto my own bed. Thoroughly exhausted, I slept the hardest I ever have, and promptly woke up for class a few hours later.

I can say I learned a lot about myself during this adventure, and was put in some situations I don’t think I ever would be in otherwise. For starters, this trip redefined the meaning of travel for me. Also, it made me realize all of the luxuries I didn’t even realize were luxuries in America. I feel as if my demands are much fewer and far between here, and my standards for living are much lower. I have come to realize that the things I have grown up thinking I need, I can honestly live without. Truthfully, I’m not sure what it’s going to be like to return home and have everything handed to me again. I’m hoping I will maintain a more humble outlook on life after my experiences here in China, and I won’t forget what I have learned. I also now have an idea of what it’s like to face hardships virtually alone. For example, when my debit card failed to work, or another time when my friend Kelsey and I got off the train at the wrong location (also a story for another time.) I made it through these hardships, and reinforced my own independence while simultaneously making lifelong memories. No, backpacking through China with no game plan was not easy, but the lack of ease made the adventure what it was. We had no choice but to submerse ourselves in a foreign culture and do the best we could. I highly recommend anyone who has the luxury to travel to attempt to go off the grid. Don’t spend time working out the small details, just go and experience whatever comes. I promise it’s worth it, and you just might learn a thing or two along the way.

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