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July 25, 2010

Below I have pasted a letter I sent to my family yesterday with some goings on.

24 July 2010

Just a note to tell you what’s going on and stress once more how great my time in AG was.  I had so much fun on the bike trip and in AG that, unfortunately, I was much less excited than previously about traveling to China.  So it goes.  I miss the food, the vegetables and fruit.  Northern Chinese people are weird about fruit, everything is slightly off, the cantaloupes are different sizes/shapes/colors and taste unripe.  The berries are too bitter.  Apples too mealy… I’m forward to getting to the south, where everything grows year round.

So I’ll start at the beginning.  Because I didn’t arrange for a friend to purchase the train ticket to Harbin before arriving in Beijing, I was out of luck.  On the 16th, nothing was available for a week.  My trip happened to coincide with the end of school for many (all?) universities.  So, I purchased an airline ticket for the 18th.  This was nice because made a 12 hour trip into 2 hours, but it also turned the cost into $150 instead of the planned $50.  On the plus side, Chinese airlines are very accommodating and helpful (because they have to compete with the trains), and it provided me a reminder of the wild ride that is flying in China.

First, the entire flight was very turbulent, my stomach dropped several times.  Also, my fellow passengers demonstrated an incredible ability to ignore the flight attendants instructions during take off and landing.  Directions as simple as:  no bathroom use, no cellphone use, no sleeping on your tray tables.  Then, the landing was absolutely awful, one side hit first, then THUMP, the other hit, sketchy!  Liz and I spoke about how when you fly to China, the first cultural shock is people’s disregard for the seatbelt sign and selfish interest in getting their bags as quickly as possible to get as ahead in line as possible, in order to exit quickly. Well, this phenomenon is much more exaggerated when you fly domestically.

About my class, I just finished the first week.  It’s four hours a day, and it’s intense, which is good.  I spend a lot of time studying every night because they teachers throw out a ton of new vocabulary every day, which i write down and then look up at night.  There are about 10 people in the class: 1 Englishman, 4 Russians, 1 Korean, 3 Japanese and me.  Aside from Nathan and I, there are no Americans in the entire program.  In class, English is never spoken because the other students’ Chinese is better than their English, and the teachers both speak little if any.  The immersion is beneficial.

The diversity of students’ backgrounds has also lead to a funny situation in the dorms, where we identify each other through ethnic groups, like a little model UN.  For example, “Ohh god the Koreans were so loud last night.”  “I know, I know they were awful, at least the Italians were quiet last night though.” “True.” (As I type this, the Russians are spraying some nasty-smelling hairspray on themselves in the hall, sigh…)

Harbin is a surprisingly large city with almost 5 million residents.  Also, things are pretty hectic because they are ripping up many of the large roads to put in a subway underneath them.  I’m sure you can surmise the extent of safety precaution in China on construction sites… there’s not much.  So the roads are in a constant state of flux, and there’s even less room for people.  Walking down the sidewalk feels like being corralled-poor sewage/drainage planning results in random streams, goofy migrant laborers toy with massive earth movers right next to vendors hawking everything from illegal DVDs to Obama socks and even questionable hair products.  And every once in a while, some flashy guy rolls up in a black Audi and parks in the middle of the sidewalk.  Even calling it a sidewalk isn’t accurate as there isn’t any pavement next to the construction sites.  What little space of uneven and rocky dirt between the buildings and construction site is largely taken up by the vendors.  And whatever semblance of quiet between the earth movers vanishes between both the storefronts who blast advertisements so loud that half the speakers are crackling to the extent that the advertising is useless as it’s impossible to understand, the vendors who yell prices in a distinctly Chinese sing-song manner and the incessant honking of autos in the road.  There is not a word in the English language to describe the level of chaos flourishing on urban Chinese streets.

Yesterday, the school took us to the center of the city where we were able to see the 1907 Church of St. Sophia (restored after being ransacked in the Cultural Revolution) and walk around some of the downtown area, where beautiful old Russian buildings clash with tacky new Chinese renditions (made to resemble the Russian classics).  This area, Heilongjiang Province, was very recently Chinese frontier land.  Originally part of Manchuria, part of it was completely off-limits to non-Manchus during the Qing dynasty (say “ching,” this is the last one, which was run by the Manchus).  Japan won control of the area after winning the Russo-Japanese War (1905).  But they were slow to enforce any immigration control and many Russians settled in the area to build a railroad to the Far Eastern Siberian port of Vladivostok and to flee from the Communist revolution-Jews.  The Soviets took power over the area in 1945 and handed it over to the the Chinese communists, when it became the first province the CCP controlled.  WW2 or as the Chinese call it, the War Against Japanese Aggression, lead straight into the Chinese Civil war.

We walked down to the Songhua River, the natural feature upon which the city was built where young Chinese men were swimming in the funky-colored water.  Here, the Communist Party (CCP) had constructed a monument congratulating themselves for holding back the flood waters with a serious of projects-the CCP loves the idea of controlling nature.

I have been sick for the past few days, so i started taking the Allegra which I think has helped, but I believe it may also be making my stomach sick (a common side effect from what i’ve read online)  which is unfortunate, because it’s so hard to find mild food here.  But, I’ll be better soon.

I was planning on sending just a short email to catch Mom and Dad up on things, but this turned out to be a long one, so I’m going to copy it to the rest of the family, so everybody knows I’m still breathing.


Damu the Fudgemunk

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