These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
Unlike “banana,” “apple,” and the inexplicable “apple with a banana flavor” my first Chinese textbook insisted was real (as best as I can tell, it’s not), none of these fruits were a part of my beginning language classes. If I’d ever heard of them before, their names were nothing but bright abstractions conjuring islands, unfamiliar trees, hot suns. I learned to parrot the Chinese words for a series of fruits never real to me outside of Asia, in some cases later matching them with English names like “pommelo” or “red bayberry” or some other unfamiliar label (unrecognized by my version of Microsoft Word) that didn’t help explain to my father what it was I was waving in the corner of his computer screen.
These fruits are an interesting study of the connection between object and language. Often, the language in which something is first known becomes the default, as though that thing is more firmly entwined with its name in that language, that Chinese is its true name and English a paltry shadow, or English tied to its essence and Chinese a clumsy affixation. Sometimes it’s a matter of ease. Pommelo in Chinese has two syllables, 柚子youzi, and that becomes the name everyone around me calls it by, even in the midst of all-English conversations.
Having learned to categorize Clementines and Mandarins and Navels as “oranges” in the broad sense, I struggle in Chinese to make distinctions between fruits that all look like they belong to that family but are apparently strictly separated based on some invisible logic - small greenish globes with orange-like interiors; larger yellow-orange fruits also sectioned into slices sealed in semi-transparent white; palm-sized spheres slightly flat at the ends and easy to peel. They might be 橙子chengzi, 柑子 ganzi, 柑橘 ganju, or 橘子 juzi. No broader category of “orange” to sweep them all into. I’m still not wholly confident I have that one sorted out. Vendors are puzzled if I approach asking how much the chengzi cost while pointing at something that clearly belongs in the juzi category.
Names are the beginning. Learning to properly label a fruit is part one of the challenge that continues with finding out how to know when it is ripe and how to eat it, tasks that seem deceptively easy. It should be basic: peel, and eat, or don’t peel and just eat, but even choosing which of those two methods to follow can be a decision fraught with uncertainty.
With its fuchsia rind, this sweltering tropical fruit is the only one to ever rival my love for the wild raspberry.
Those tiny orbs were long banned from the U.S., and once imports began to trickle through in 2007, they would sell for fortunes a pound in upscale East Coast groceries.
The woman who would become one of the best friends China ever brought me introduced me to the mangosteen in the warmer months of 2012. Mountains of those dark magenta spheres were tumbling out the front of fruit stands lining the streets we walked toward our favorite coffee-shop haunts. She had spent part of her childhood in Sri Lanka and knew far more about how to choose and eat the fruits stacked in piles in Beijing’s bustling produce markets than I had learned growing up in Minnesota. It was summer in northern China. There were almost no blueberries, few strawberries, and not a raspberry for miles.
I wasn’t precisely sure what a mangosteen was, or how it differed from a mango. She taught me to choose the ones that give a little when pressed, that the hard ones are no good. She showed me how to dig my thumbnail into the rind, to crack open the woody red-purple shell, to peel it away in chunks and pull out the tender white heart, divvied into wedges like a Clementine, soft and sweet and drippy, melting into a single oblong brown seed. We bought bags of them. My fingernails gained a semi-permanent magenta cast, my palms became sticky.
This was the first summer I spent in Beijing.
For a long time, the U.S. banned import of a lot of Thai fruits, including the mangosteen (ostensibly to protect against the Asian fruit fly), and given the fruit’s fussy nature and short ripening window, few are imported from Asia even after irradiation has allowed for a reasonable level of security against invasive pests. A small number of persistent cultivators have started growing them in tropical Western hemisphere locales like Puerto Rico and Hawai’i. The New York Times reported $45-per-pound sales on 2007 Puerto Rican mangosteens in New York’s ritzy health food shops. In China they are an everyman fruit, where a handful of yuan will get you a bagful in the right season, instead of a $10-per-tiny-globe deal. Even with prices dropping some, the logistics seem to be against bringing the mangosteen into widespread popularity in North America.
The mystery fruit
I stumbled upon this fruit up in the mountains of 广西／Guangxi, one of China’s southern provinces. I have not seen it before or since. The sign read 猴头果 houtouguo. Google translate renders this as “hedgehog fruit.” It looked like a giant berry, its drupelets grown large and unyielding.
I asked the vendor how to eat it. She said “like a grape.”
When I was out of the mountains and back in Guilin, I showed the fruit to the woman working at my hostel and asked what it was. She told me she had no idea, and had never seen it before.
I carefully rinsed it and patted it dry, but as I plucked off sections and began to chew, (the outside fibrous and sort of mild ginger-fresh tasting), it occurred to me that “like a grape” might mean the way many Chinese people eat grapes, spitting out the skins, and not the way I was accustomed to eating grapes, skin and all.
At that point I decided to wait to make sure nothing bad was going to happen to me for swallowing sections whole before I continued my experimental fruit-eating.
The passionfruit with its firm-burst seeds was a fruit I’d seen only in beverages, most often chopped up into a beautiful mojito in one of Beijing’s back-alley artisan cocktail bars, and not something I’d encountered whole. I didn’t know it came in small bright-purple spheres, harder than a pear, smaller than an apple. Again, I had no idea how to eat it.
Visiting Guilin was the first time I saw people eating them as they walked, vendors sitting at the side of the road with buckets of them. Apparently one eats passionfruit with a spoon, cutting it open and scraping out the interior, butterscotch yellow tangles with black seeds to crunch through.
She sliced off the top and handed me a tiny plastic spoon. 1 yuan, 1 fruit.
Made in the moon’s image, the most famous Mid-Autumn festival food are the dense, round pastries known as mooncakes, or yuè bĭng 月饼, given as gifts between family and friends.
It had originally been the tradition to hand-make mooncakes. I live in a dorm. I have no oven and no idea where to start making a mooncake. This year, I joined the majority of people in opting to purchase mine pre-made. From the traditional lotus seed paste and salty duck eggs (the roundness, again), to sweeter flavors like taro and pineapple paste, there are an unpredictable variety of fillings to choose from.
Beyond their role as snack and traditional gift, mooncakes are something of a cultural icon. Legend has it that secret military plans baked into mooncakes helped in a Han uprising against the ruling Mongols during the Yuan dynasty, letting the Ming revolutionaries spread messages coordinating their attack. This year, the Wall Street Journal ran photos of pandas in Guangzhou province being fed special bamboo-powder mooncakes for the holiday. Even merchants like Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs have gotten in on the game, creating for sale their own versions of mooncake-shaped sweets.
Mooncake-giving has also become linked to status, and in some cases, corruption, when incredibly lavish cakes are given to politically and socially influential figures in the hopes of gaining favor. Gifts to officials in past years have reportedly included gold-encrusted cakes stuffed with sharkfin and other expensive delicacies, and beautiful boxes with room for hiding bribes. This year, demand for these most luxurious mooncakes is said to be down following the new president’s emphasis on cracking down on corruption. Mine were a more garden-variety, picked up from the grocery store, shoved into a flimsy plastic bag and weighed by the gram. It was a little more than 14 yuan for the dozen I got, or about two dollars - nowhere near the highest-priced boxes that sell for hundreds.
All this and despite my best efforts, I still have no idea what the majority of the filling flavors were.
This week marked 中秋節 (zhōngqiū jié), or the Mid-Autumn festival. Celebrated in several Asian nations, Mid-Autumn festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full (September 19th this year). The same as the Northern hemisphere’s harvest moon, it falls during the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Given the importance of the full moon, the holiday is also referred to as the Moon festival.
The history of celebrating the autumn harvest is very old, and the accompanying veneration of the full moon also goes back several thousand years. The festival in its more organized form seems to have gained popularity during the Tang dynasty (618-907AD).
Today, Mid-Autumn festival is a public holiday in China. Traditionally a time for reuniting with family and giving thanks, most people spend the holiday with relatives. The moon in its roundness is said to symbolize family unity.
I spoke with my Chinese roommate about her plans to spend time with relatives for the holiday. Not having enough time to get back to her immediate family, she is spending time with other relatives, including an uncle. The word she used for “uncle” led us to a discussion of vocabulary for relatives, which is far more complex in Chinese than in English. There is one word for “uncle” used when speaking of one’s father’s elder brother, and another for one’s father’s younger brother, and yet other words for maternal uncles and uncles-by-marriage in what seems to me to be an almost endless variety of combinations. In this case she explained the relative is really her mother’s cousin, but since it’s her mother’s side of the family she used the word for maternal uncle. We briefly digressed into the many words for “cousin.” Having some forty-odd first cousins, this particular family vocabulary complexity has always plagued me. I am usually reduced to describing the relationship (the daughter of my father’s younger brother, who is younger than I am) instead of using the proper word.
In addition to the different words for cousins on your father’s and mother’s side, she also reminded me that the correct term also depends on whether your cousin (male or female, elder or younger) is born to your father’s brother or sister. Essentially, there is one category of words for the cousins who share your last name, or “belong” to your family, and another for the category of cousins born to female relatives who “belong” to someone else’s clan/household and have other last names. She said though that sort of thinking is outdated, the words are the vestiges of the idea that girl children are born to be “given away” and after marriage, she will no longer belong to your house, and any children born to her belong to husband’s family.
Of the many fables surround Mid-Autumn festival, one of the most popular is the story of Houyi, the mythical hero who saved the world from drought and famine by shooting down nine of the ten suns in the sky until only one remained, and Chang’e, his wife. Houyi was rewarded for his efforts with an elixir of immorality, which he gave to his wife for safekeeping. Once when Houyi was away, an evil disciple came to Chang’e and demanded the elixir. To protect it from falling into his hands, she drank it herself and floated away in the sky, coming to rest in the moon. Heartbroken, Houyi lined up her favorite cakes under the moon, hoping to bring her back. Others in sympathy joined him in setting out offerings. Chang’e’s outline is said to be seen in the full moon.
This story has many variations, one of which was acted out by my classmates in shadow-theater style.
Chang’e is also known as the moon goddess, or the goddess of immortality. The first spacecraft in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program was a lunar orbiter named “Chang’e 1.” Chang'e 3, China's first lunar rover, is set to launch later this year.
For those who cannot see their loved ones, the festival is also a time for “expressing the strong yearnings for family and friends who live afar,” with whom we share the same moon, no matter the distance. Poetic, and fitting for the many foreign students who are my classmates, all of us far from home.
Themed restaurants are very much en vogue in Beijing.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine offered to take me to one. She told me it was a 1980s restaurant, and that I had to be sure to bring ID. Only ‘80s babies allowed.
I was trying to envision what an ‘80s nostalgia restaurant would look like. As an American kid, I grew up with Nickelodeon cartoons and Boy Meets World, but the 1980s in China were what? Tian’anmen Square and Reform and Opening? My cultural reference points were somewhat lacking. I had no idea what to expect.
We caught the subway into a more central part of town and leaving the busy streets behind, followed my friend’s smartphone map through ever-narrowing side roads. In the middle of a neighborhood, we turned into a small alley between apartment buildings, walked past a public restroom, and turned a corner. It was a fairly ordinary Beijing alley: cement walls and narrow roads, little shops and their proprietors sitting outside. Except for the large crowd of twenty- and thirty-something Chinese people milling about, we might have been anywhere.
A man with a rockstar ponytail was sitting by the door, checking reservations and handing out oversized pieces of paper, formatted like a Chinese grade-school exam: the menu.
The staff was in the middle of cleaning out the restaurant for the next round of diners. Everyone loitered outside, waiting until they finished and the doorman began to call roll. As he shouted names, groups piped up with “present!” and filed into the restaurant.
This building had been remodeled to look like an elementary school classroom: blackboards on the walls, a hopscotch mosaic on the floors, a Chinese flag over the blackboard, pictures of Lu Xun on the wall, an old arcade video game console sitting dark between the tables. Groups of adults were crowded into small wooden desks and chairs.
The back room had posters of movie stars and rock bands from the 80s; the walls and door were all covered with graffiti, a mix of English and Chinese writing stretching up to the ceiling. Unlike a typical restaurant where tables turn over regularly, everyone was let in at once, squeezed in all together around desk-tables. It was one long dining experience, a kind of interactive performance dining, on display once a night. Reservations required.
The “teacher” waved a wooden pointer around, summoned the class monitor to put any unruly “students” back in line, and barked commands while the diners worked to contain their giggles. He was imposing and hilarious. “Students! Class begins!” Much of what he said went over my head, but I got the gist of it, and my friend Jade helped fill in some of the gaps.
The restaurant sold bags of favors shaped like uniform shirts, tied with a red scarf. Jade told me about the red ties students had to wear around their necks when she was in elementary school, the class inspections, and how students would get demerits for forgetting to wear theirs.
I recognized ring pops and push pops among the packets of candy – a cultural commonality. Jade told me the wind-up jumping frog was a toy every Chinese child had. Finally, there were multicolored rocks that looked like jawbreakers. The teacher hit them together at the front of the room, causing a shower of sparks.
Dinner ended with a trivia contest. The tables transformed into teams, each with a buzzer rigged to ring in. The questions were all about Japanese anime characters and movie scenes, video games and television shows. I was no help, but the diners at other tables scrambled to be first to buzz in with the answer.
When we left nearly three hours later, it was dark outside, and the competition was still going.
My summer in Beijing revolves around eight weeks of intensive Mandarin language classes. Run through the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies (IUP), the classes are taught at the Tsinghua University campus, often named the most beautiful campus in Beijing. The campus covers almost two square miles in the Northwest corner of Beijing, nestled between the 4th and 5th ring roads. In addition to a beautiful setting, the university has a storied history, and was most recently in international news as an alleged target of NSA hacking in the Snowden revelations (it houses one of China’s six major ‘backbone’ networks).
Tsinghua University was founded in 1911 as a preparatory school, with American money, in a generous effort to help China modernize after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Well, sort of – it turns out the funds came from money awarded to the American government as war reparations from China, based on grossly inflated damage estimates. This was in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, China’s defeat, and the punishing treaties that followed, which heavily favored the coalition of invading Western powers and awarded them massive amounts of money in addition to unprecedented rights to Chinese territory and self-governance within China. After prolonged debate, the U.S. government agreed that the $30 billion-plus indemnity was “excessive” and decided to return the part beyond costs actually incurred in the war. This decision came after several years and much lobbying on the part of Chinese representatives in Washington before an unenthusiastic public, a hostile Congress, and a preoccupied president Roosevelt.
When the money was finally returned, it was returned with strings attached, much to the chagrin of Chinese politicians: it had to be used for the education of Chinese students, who would then be sent to study on scholarship in the United States. From the perspective of the American lawmakers, everyone involved would win: China would get a new generation of leaders educated in top-notch American universities, and America would have benefit from a set of power-holders in China with pro-American views (in reality, many of the Chinese students who would go on to attend American universities suffered intense discrimination that did nothing to win them over to the virtues of the American model). If the American side was enthusiastic about this win-win situation, the Chinese side was not so universally satisfied. The American stipulations about how funds that were never properly theirs to begin with should be used was seen as high-handed interference in domestic Chinese affairs, and their plan to educate the next generation of Chinese students was an attempt at infiltration, a means to pry open Chinese society to further American influence, which would of course carry financial benefit for American businesses.
But with the money firmly in the grip of the American government, there was little room for bargaining on the Chinese side. And so a preparatory school was founded on the site of former Qing dynasty imperial gardens, much like neighboring Peking University.
While Tsinghua evolved from a preparatory school into a full university, and broke completely with the reparations fund after the Communist Revolution in 1949, there are some who consider the source of the university’s founding a reminder of a painfully humiliating time for China. Many versions of the founding story exist, most with details selectively omitted and other, more convenient narratives emphasized in their place. Nevertheless, it is widely regarded as one of China’s best.
Chinese politics has a disproportionate number of Tsinghua graduates in the upper echelons of power, including a group has become known as the “Tsinghua clique.” The two most recent “paramount leaders” (simultaneously General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army, and the President of the People’s Republic of China) both graduated from Tsinghua. Xi Jinping, the current President, was a chemical engineering major, and former President Hu Jintao studied hydraulic engineering.
For further reading on the subject of American remissions and the founding of Tsinghua University, I recommend “The American Remission of the Boxer indemnity: A Reappraisal” by Michael H. Hunt in The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 31, No. 3 (May 1972).
This summer marks my fourth trip to China, my third language-intensive summer, and my second summer in Beijing.
China is not a particularly good spur-of-the-moment vacation destination. First, there’s the transit time. Though nothing like 19th-century’s 100-plus-day trip aboard fleetest “tea clippers” (lightweight ships on a mad dash to trade Mexican silver for Chinese tea and return to sell their tea-leaf cargo ahead of their competitors), a flight from Chicago direct to Beijing is around 13½ hours. As far as I know, it is not yet possible to fly directly from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Beijing. It took me closer to 17 hours to make the trip, counting a layover in Seattle.
In addition to distance, there is the visa requirement. It is newly possible for passengers in transit less than 72 hours to enter China visa-less, but for everyone else, that full-page seal is mandatory and requires several weeks’ processing time. My summer language program ferried my application to the San Francisco Chinese embassy in early May. Within a month it had been returned to me with a shiny new year-long multi-entry (the Cadillac of Chinese visas) inside. I had been holding my breath: the visa is never guaranteed, and should the official behind the desk decide you only merit a 90-day single-entry, if you so much as decide to hop down to Hong Kong for the weekend, the thing is finished.
For longer in-country stays, there is the humorous-but-exhaustive physical examination and its attendant forms, all of which must be plastered with the appropriate official stamps. My physician, like most American practitioners, carries nothing like the red-seal chops commonly used to validate forms in China, and in the past has stamped it with a return-address block instead. Other times, lacking any sort of properly official-looking stamps, my forms have been rejected, leaving me to trot over to the nearest Chinese hospital and submit to a new series of blood tests to confirm that I was not in fact bringing tuberculosis into China. On several occasions, I contemplated buying my own “official” stamp and a pad of red ink to solve all my form-related headaches.
All this to spend 8 weeks studying Mandarin Chinese at Tsinghua University.
8 bars of chocolate (the good stuff, as opposed to the aged and discolored Dove bars common in convenience stores here)
Dessa’s newly-released Parts of Speech CD
7 precious English books for summer reading
Floss (unexpectedly hard to find, but Americans apparently have a reputation for being excessively fussy about their teeth in the opinion of other nationals)
Sunscreen (without any skin-whitening agents)
An umbrella and rain boots (for Beijing’s torrential summer rains)
Upwards of a dozen fine point pens (to better write intricate Chinese characters)
Pleco Chinese e-dictionary
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