Last night, I crossed many things off my bucket list. I went to Nanluoguxiang to buy some gifts for my mother and grandma and walked around (we found some delicious clotted milk with red bean), I ate at Dali Courtyard — an infamous Yunnan restaurant where the chef changes the menu daily according to what he/she finds at the market that day—and I went to Houhai.

Dali Courtyard: It takes the pressure off of choosing dishes and everything was so tasty. Dishes included diced chicken that you could wrap in what you normally eat Beijing Kaoya with, crunchy shrimp with fried lemon leaves, greens swathed in a light vinaigrette, deng deng (etc etc). They even had this amazing cocktail (the Dali special) made with the more expensive baijiu and fruit. It was refreshing. Of course, this choice would not have been possible without the suggestion of Connie. It was great seeing Tracy after all these years, too. She has this intriguing Scottish accent — British accents just make everything sound better, no? 

Dali Courtyard’s ambience was unique for Beijing. The restaurant is tucked in a hutong (Beijing’s traditional alleys). But it’s also an outdoor courtyard, that is relatively peaceful without the usual loud bustle of restaurants. We didn’t have to yell the usual “FUWUYUAN” to grab the attention of waitstaff. Connie admitted that if it rains, you really have no other banfa (means) and just have to stop eating outside.

Nanluoguxiang: I explored a bit and ended up getting my mom a silk scarf that also has buttons and can be worn a ton of ways. Something like this: http://www.shanghaiwoo.com/en/product/default-78.htm. We also had clotted milk there. We then went to a bar in a nearby hutong that serves drinks with Sichuan peppers with the very distinctive “ma” flavor. It’s called Mala Mule and was delicious.

Houhai: Houhai is not too far from Beishida (Beijing Normal University) — literally a 10 kuai cab ride away. It’s an area that has been built around a large lake. There are bars everywhere but it was quite quiet for a Wednesday night. We also got there about 12:45 am.

Today: 

Today is my last whole night in Beijing. I have my final exam tomorrow and then I’m off to London to watch the soccer finals and then home to New York. It feels completely strange. I had an amazing lunch with a group of fifth year students. We ordered fresh fish, lamb, tofu, and a mushroom dish. I had my “last” zhengzhunaicha (bubble tea), I bought my last mangoes. I even had my last nap in a sense. Maybe I should pack my suitcase tonight…

Today’s 课文 (text) was about plastic surgery in China. Hao Lu Lu was a plain-looking girl who became famous overnight for undergoing cosmetic surgery from head to toe (nose job, breast job, double-eyelid job, etc.). We had an intense discussion in class about how Chinese people have been influenced by the West and Western concepts of beauty (受到了西方的影响). Let’s not forget the recent NY Times article about the recent fad of wearing ski masks to the beach to preserve the whiteness of one’s skin.

I also had an intriguing conversation with a laoshi during my 个别谈话 (one-on-one tutorial) about China’s performance in the Olympics. She ultimately thinks that the West isn’t ready to accept China’s dominance in many sports, especially swimming. Specifically, the case of the Chinese female swimmer who swam the last leg of the last lap faster than Ryan Lochte and also beat her own record significantly. Many still suspect she was doping (吃药)but she maintains that if Phelps did something like that, he probably wouldn’t be undergoing so much scrutiny. I also told her that I thought the Indian government’s priorities were different than China’s because it was a democracy. If the government spent so much money on training athletes for the Olympics instead of resolving poverty, I certainly think most constituents would have a problem with that. At the same time, China’s poverty level is at a mere 13% compared to India’s ~35%. Both are large numbers regardless when considering the size of each’s population. At the end of our conversation, I think we both agreed that the West can still sometimes look down upon Asians when it comes to athletic prowess — maybe this seeps into other walks of life, too. 

I finished the day with dinner with Leandro, who’s been in Beijing studying Chinese privately for a few weeks. It makes me so proud to watch TD freshmen grow and grow and grow. What a joy.

I also just finished Life of Pi this past weekend and What the Dog Saw. Both are still haunting me. Guess I now have to find some new reads for my plane ride home this Saturday morning (!). Suggestions welcome.

I clearly have been terrible at keeping this blog up. Light Fellowship, please forgive me. PIB really doesn’t leave me with that much free time to even see my friends outside of the program, so it’s quite hard to remember to do this.

Enough with the excuses. This was my last weekend in Beijing, so it called for something special right? Friday, I went to see Connie in Wudaokou and we ate a very chill meal at La Bamba. The portions were American-sized (aka huge, we each got our own ziji platters). I ordered a lemon chicken burger and it was probably one of the tastiest burgers I’ve had here (okay biaozhun/standards aren’t that high), lathered with spices. We then ended up getting massages. Connie got a full body one while I got a foot massage. It was just bliss. On our way back to meet Habin, we got some Taiwanese ice. Yum. We also bumped into one of Connie’s tongxue/classmates and got a few beers together. He served in Iraq and his experience compelled me to think harder about how the war has affected Americans. I have felt so removed from it while in college.

Saturday, Habin and I hopped off to the Lama Temple, which was marvelous. The architecture was gorgeous and there was a sense of serenity that I found missing at other historical sites. We also had a scrumptious vegetarian buffet at XuXiangZhai and checked out the Confucius Temple. Beijing’s hutongs (their traditional alleyways) are a wonder and it’s a shame the government has torn down the vast majority of them, replacing them with more sterile roads and plain, tall buildings. Beijing Shiye (our PIB Beijing night) was that night and afterwards, we all went and partied at Spark.

Sunday was relegated to studying and meeting Ashley for dinner at Beishida.

Enough recapping. One of my favorite things about Chinese are their chengyu (four-character idioms/phrases). I don’t know why it took us seven weeks to learn 入乡随俗(When in Rome, do as the Romans do). Basically this has been my main 办法 (method) in China anyway. I use umbrellas for both sun and rain (can’t let my skin become even darker than it did in Vietnam), I try to bargain hard (but of course, fail terribly), and I only speak Chinese at all costs with Beijingren (even in the Silk Market). I eat Chinese food, have gotten used to the ubiquity of oil and pork in everything, and buy my water all zee time. So I’ve really been thinking about what I will miss about Beijing (and China) in general and what I really want to see.

Well, things left to do:

1) Go to the Temple Heaven
2) Go to Nanluoguxiang to buy things and eat at Dali Courtyard, one of the most famous Yunnan restaurants around, chefs create fresh menus daily (http://www.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,1850076_1850078_1849778,00.html)
3) Maybe revisit Silk Market for a qipao?   (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheongsam)
4) Buy gifts for mother/father/etc
5) Study for qimo kaoshi (final exam)

Things I think I will miss about Beijing/China:

1) The extensive menus - Most Chinese restaurants have at least 50 dishes to offer. It feels overwhelming but also means  there’s certainly at least ONE thing you can eat. Since we mostly eat family style, it’s just a delight to be able to try a gazillion dishes. It also means you always end up overstuffing yourself.
2) PuBeiBan’s Laoshimen (teachers) - These teachers are some of the most adorable, most capable people I have met. They are so patient, especially the male teachers, and open to our ideas — though I’ve heard through the grapevine that Zhongwen teachers are trained to appear to be kaifang (open-minded) but are actually quite baoshou (conservative). We shall never know.
3) The Beijing Kaoya - I have loved the duck I’ve had at Da Dong, which uses a special technique so the ducks have 65% less fat and are crispier. What’s amazing is that the fuwuyuan (waiters/waitresses) will make your first kaoya roll for you. It’s so delicious, I went back at least once and maybe will be going back tomorrow night. (http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/asia/china/beijing/31145/beijing-da-dong-kaoya-dian/restaurant-detail.html)  
4) The fruit. Manguo (mangoes) and lychees are so delicious here.
5) There’s more. I’ll get back to you later.


Things I won’t miss
1) The constant spitting on the streets.
2) The pollution.
3) The constant rain (this summer was particularly qiguai/strange).
4) The danger of food poisoning/lack of food hygiene.
5) Rude old people who push you about while on the bus or train.
6) People discriminating against you because you’re a waiguoren/foreigner. They especially think I can’t speak Chinese because I’m Indian-American. Also, I have been called African.
7) People cheating you because they think all waiguoren are rich. Terribly rampant.

There’s more but I have to finish writing a 500-character essay on a topic of my choice. Maybe it’ll be about Beijing. 

Eating: Mangoes (delicious right now) + grapes
Reading: Life of Pi (hear they’re making it into a movie)
Listening: New music from Hindi flick “Cocktail”
Surviving: Beijing thunderstorms (well, this weekend)

It’s terrible that I haven’t posted a single post about my time abroad in Beijing until my fifth week in! I have three weeks to go and so much has happened so quickly. One thing I can hope to do to rectify this situation is probably write every day as much as possible.

Princeton in Beijing (PIB/普北半has been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have done recently. We study hard every day but I can feel the effects every second: I think in Chinese, I want to speak to people all the time in Chinese, and even when I write in English I feel 很奇怪(quite strange).

For starters, I’m a third year student at PIB-equivalent to the L5/L5 sequence at Yale. A typical day goes something like this:

6:00 am to 8:00 am: Wake up, brush teeth, shower, etc. + go over characters and grammar

8:00 am: Tingxie (听写): oral exam on characters for that day’s lesson —> this has changed to more of a written test using new characters and grammar

8:00 am to 8:50 am: 大班 (“Big Class”): Your class is composed of 4-5 people and the 老师 (teacher) goes over the grammar for that day. The teachers send us all the grammar points for each lesson over the weekend so I’ve learned to print out a copy and write on it. It’s much easier to study from later for Friday exams (yes, we have weekly Friday exams).

10 minute break

9:00 am to 9:50 am: 2nd “Big Class” - continue same as above

20 minute break

10:10 am to 11:00 am: 小班 (“Small Class”): This is supposed to be a smaller size but also has about 4-5 people. This time is more for drills so teachers end up asking questions about any topic (not just our text) and we have to respond using both newly learned grammar and vocabulary. Honestly, I think this isn’t as useful as our earlier two sessions because in teaching the grammar points in the Big Class, teachers often use other examples as well. I think the Small Class was originally intended to be more drill-like but has evolved into a slower-paced version of the Big Class. Not so great.

10 minute break

11:10 am to 12:00 pm: See above.

12:00 pm - 1:00 pm (twice a week): 中文桌子 (Chinese table): Each teacher takes 2-3 students out to lunch (paid for probably through part of our PIB tuition). We get to eat delicious meals (40 kuai (~$6) allowance per person which can be pretty generous for many Chinese restaurants. You get to ask your teachers if they have boyfriends or girlfriends or anything else really.

some 50 minute slot between 2:00 pm to 4:35 pm: You have 个别谈话, tutorial time with one teacher for about 50 minutes where you can do whatever you want, from reviewing tones for vocabulary to rereading the text, to going over grammar questions, to talking about Bollywood. I mostly use this time to figure out what my laoshimen think about Indo-China relations and Hindi films. 

Today, I recommended three Hindi films to Wang Laoshi: 1) Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 2) Dhobi Ghat, and 3) Dev. D. She’s teaching at Princeton University so I think she’ll be able to find them. I was able to relate all the three stories in Chinese, no problem. How about that?

By the way, the teachers for each class session and tutorial session constantly changing so it’s nice to experience different teaching styles. You definitely develop favorites.

Anyway, more interesting stuff later. 

I’m usually not one to have regrets. But I’ve definitely just been schooled.

While checking in at US Airways, I was offered the opportunity to switch to a Continental flight that flew direct Athens-Newark. But I panicked and stayed with the flight I had (Athens-Phil-LaGuardia). Why? Even though I was faced with a $845 voucher valid for a year (exact details TBD …maybe towards more US Airways or Star Alliance flights?)? As Prof. Benkard once explained, we aren’t really rational now, are we…we’re terrible at estimating our own confidence levels even. And maybe I’m the type of person that needs more time to make a decision; I’m really not good with options that are sprung upon me.

So yes, as I’m waiting to board, I’ve been thinking of all the places I could have gone with that $845. It could have paid for my flight to the London 2012 Olympics. It could have gone towards Spring Break to China? I need to stop.

Well, now I know that next time I’m offered, I should jump at it, especially if someone is going to pick me up on the other end. I was also thinking how pissed my dad would have been to find out that after a long day at work he would have to pick me up in New Jersey instead…but his wallet would have also been a few hundreds thicker. It’s also 3 am in the morning there (no, Snigdha, $845 is worth it for an early wake up call). But I just want to be home already (oh, I also forgot to ask what time that Continental flight would arrive…). AAAAH. Decisions, decisions.

This past Sunday, I had the honor of seeing Kevin Spacey perform Richard III (or Rixardos Gamma in Greek) as part of the Epidaurus Festival

I am so glad we managed to get tickets, which managed to sell out as soon as they were announced.

This was Kevin Spacey at his best. Reunited with Sam Mendes (think American Beauty and Revolutionary Road). Spindly-legged. Fierce. Also, playing Richard III, the character who chose to catalyze plots within the kingdom just because he was idle and bored.

Kevin Spacey and drummers - Richard III

What the show did really well was lighting and the drums. The lighting could make you feel like it was any time from early dawn to late at night. And often, cast in such a way so you could see characters’ shadows strategically on one or more of the three walls. 

The theater itself is stunning. It was built in the 4th century BC, offers pitch-perfect acoustics (damn cicadas ruined this), and seats about 14,000 people. 

It was such a magical, unreal night. I would look up and see the stars, so many. I would look across and see the stage, Kevin Spacey waxing poetic. And I would look around me and see gads of people, quiet, leaning forward, soaking it all in.

I love lists. They seem ordered. Grouped. Like you’ve accomplished something more than just putting words to paper. Yet, they’re easy; they provide release. As GTD (Getting Things Done) says, lists (and super-organized ones at that) allow your brain to free up more mental capacity for things that actually matter (think of how your Mac/PC slows down as the number of desktop items increase—and how it performs after you’ve cleared away all the clutter).

So it’s that time-of-the-trip-into-foreign-land again. When the childish part of me organizes my thoughts on Greece in the following way; after you get over the juvenile titles, I hope you’ll get a better idea of what it means to spend two months working here.


Things I Love About Greece

Cherries are in season, all season. Yum. My favorite fruit. You can buy them for 2 euros (recently upped to 2.50) a kilo from the stands at Monastiraki, an area teeming with tourists and shops and equipped with a stellar view of the Acropolis at all times of day.

The islands are truly magnificent. They are beautiful creations, some marred by volcanic eruptions (Santorini), some bare (Aegina), and some fantasy islands with people partying from 4 pm (Mykonos). With cheap local marts where Fage costs only 2.80 euros for a three-pack (my benchmark item to figure out how inflated prices are—Bacardi Breezers are another sure bet at 2.50 euros).

The sea. The people are defined by it. So is the land. The skies. The weather. Everything. It is crystal clear, a deep Greek blue that has changed the meaning of the color forever for me. I want my bathroom to have Greek blue tiles, my clothes to be Greek blue, my kids to have Greek blue eyes. I have even started wearing more blue and white (especially in places like Santorini) so whenever people take pictures, I match the sky and sea. The seaside beach clubs (Akrotiri, Balux, etc.) are wondrous. They are expansive, you can see the stars and Athens sparkling in the distance, and the waves are lapping up right against it. And the music is great too, with nice dancing girls popping up in the beginning (music changes drastically at 2 am, when the dance party starts).

The food. (The olive oil. The feta. The Greek salads. The gyros…) Where else can I get stuffed grape leaves dripping in olive oil and spritzed with lemon? Or juicy chicken gyros (gyro kotopoulo) with honey mustard tzatziki sauce? Or nutty and substantial feta dousd in olive oil and rigani (oregano)? Or rigani potato chips (far better than any I’ve ever tasted)? Or loukomades—fried puffs dipped in honey? Or galaktaboureko, a pastry with a milk-based creamy filling? Are you salivating yet?

The mastiha. It’s a resin found only on the island of Chios that is protected by the European Union. It’s in your gum, your alcohol, your beauty products and has natural antibacterial properties. But, for me, alcohol and gum never tasted THIS good.

The coffee (cappuccino freddos to be exact). Cappuccino freddos kept me awake at exactly 3 pm every weekday when I would feel the zzzs at my desk at Accenture. Greeks love their coffee. And they like it strong. Frappes are the strongest, made from straight instant coffee emulsified with sugar and milk added. Cappuccino freddos at least involve some processing of the coffee into a cappuccino, which is then iced and sugared before being topped with milk that has been whipped into something quite delightful and cinnamon. After getting addicted exactly after the first instance I had one, I spent the entire month of July kicking the habit and weaning myself off. Did I mention coffee is strong here?

Things That Ain’t So Hot

Public transportation. I often judge a city by how good its (public) transportation system is. If you can get around a city independently, you’ve conquered it. As a girl who hails from NYC, I’m used to certain rules. 24-hour subway and bus. Bear right if you want to squat on the escalators. Move away from doors if your train is about to arrive at a station you’re not getting off at. Buses stopping at every stop regardless of whether the driver sees you hailing the bus down. Well, in Athens, forget all that. I take the bus to work every day from just outside the 1896 Panathenikon Olympic Stadium and it’s always a miracle if I make it in one piece (my ankle was crushed by a bus door once). The metro closes at 12 midnight Sundays through Thursdays and open only until 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays, which really cramps my style. It also opens at 5 am. And no, there are no bus route maps available on every bus/bus stop. It just doesn’t make sense when Greeks stay up/party so late.

The sun. Too hot. The sun is unbearable here. There is no respite; it never rains (there was a short shower once for 10 minutes) and it beats down precisely from when the sun rises until as late as 7 pm. I have never been this tan, my hair has never been this brown, and all the sunscreen in the world seems to have no effect. Don’t’ leave the house without: Sunhat. Ray Bans.

Terrible cell phone plans. I blew 40 euros my first 2.5 weeks here. The Cosmote What’s Up plan, with a 20 euro refill, gives you 1200 free minutes to any other What’s Up user and 1200 free SMSes for the rest of the month in addition to the 18-something-euro balance (they charge VAT) to run down calling other Greek friends. But, you have to activate this plan, which is hard to do when a) all the numbers you dial talk back to you in Greek, b) your friend buys you 5 euros for your first plan and you don’t understand this whole 20-euro scheme. To date, I have spent 50 euros ($75) so I could make fewer phone calls/SMSes than I ever have before. I miss my iPhone. Stark contast to the 103 rupees (~$3) it took to buy a new SIM card and get 85 minutes of talk time and unlimited SMSes in Bombay…

Expensive. In General. The only thing in Greece that’s probably cheaper than good ole Amurrica is the coffee and alcohol. Oh, and waxing. And sometimes, certain clothes (I bought a miniskirt for only $15). But expect to fork over almost double (or more) for everything else, especially for most food items (feta, olive oil, Fage, cherries, watermelons, etc being notable exceptions), and even the same product (Michelle and I once went into a Sephora to check). After gallivanting around Bombay living like a queen, this hurt.

If I Ruled Greece, I Would…

Reform the Taxi System so they wouldn’t be on strike. It’s been hard getting from point A to point B in a short amount of time. You really can’t survive without a car for most parts (I don’t know how we have), especially away from the city center. It’s going to be a nightmare picking up my friend from the airport tonight, taking him to the city center so he can unpack/settle, and then going back to the airport for my 5:50 am flight to Mykonos…

I landed in Athens at the end of May. This seems ages ago. With a few extra days in hand, I decided to jet off to Bombay to finish some research I started last summer on Hindi cinema.

NY to Athens to Bombay might have been the strangest transition but Athens is exactly that. It is the middle. It is neither completely East nor completely West. It has tasty cuisine, heavily influenced by the Turks, but Euro prices that hurt your wallet. It has the xenophobia and racism of certain parts of Europe, but the unwanted diversity of a port city and tourist magnet, a city of transit for many.

Whenever I learn a new city, or attempt to, I remember Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Mr. Grossman, are you reading/listening?). The following excerpt is a truly relevant one for Athens:

"Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” 

— Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)

You see, whenever I have a conversation in Greece, be it on the many islands we have visited (Santorini, Myconos, Aegina), or in the heart of the city center (we live in Pangrati), or at the massive clubs right by the sea in the southern suburbs, Greece listens. 

Let me explain.

1) Question: Do you think Greeks can tell where we’re from? Me: Of course! I feel like people can tell we’re Americans. 30 seconds later. Guy catcalls/asks us: Hello beautiful ladies. Where are you from?
2) Question: Will Accenture accept informal receipts for taxi rides? HR Email sent just the following day: Due to some problems with recent documented receipts, we would like to clarify the following: For tax reasons and local books keeping , we need official receipts related to the expenses you are declaring. 
3) Question: Will we meet interesting Greek boys on Mykonos? Michelle: We should come back on this ferry with stories. Me: Nah. ….
3) Question: Will someone’s shirt button pop as Dionysis suggests? Yes. Absolutely yes. 

Appended (thanks to Henry Lukoma):
4) Me: People tell me British accents sound hot on British guys but make British girls sound snobbish. Michelle: Hrm… [British couple walks by at that very instant] 

I was talking to my friend Ivana, who is working this summer in Bangalore, India as an intern for Infosys, and she told me one of her dream jobs would be at the MIT Media Lab. Of course, that led me to judge the site by its appearance to see if it was worth my darling Ivana’s time. Not only is the site fabulously designed, it offers up this vision of a city home. Looks quite intriguing but the last few seconds leave us with the depressing idea that we are all peas living in the same pods. As Joe pointed out, wouldn’t we get claustrophobic? More importantly, would you want to live here? 

At least two people have pointed out to me that I have stopped posting on Tumblr. This is truth.

My challenge: That I post at least once every day from now until I leave Greece. This is my promise to you. As my fellow Yalies in Bulldogs in Athens know, I do not take challenges lightly.

See you soon, oh tumblr!