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.

Writer’s suitcase:

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