Thursday, June 19, 2008


Today was graduation at Lanzhou University.

Apparently everyone was graduating today - undergrads and grad students - all at once. I don't know how many that is, but it sure seemed like a lot. People have been wandering around campus for the past several weeks wearing caps and gowns for photo shoots, at least some of which were officially sanctioned by the school. Today, though, everyone was wearing them for 'real'.

It started at about 7am, out in the stadium right next to where I live, with some kind of ceremony. I can't tell you much about this part because I tried to sleep through it (does anything official start before 9 back home?). I can say that it was loud and lasted several hours. I think it was speeches from various school administrators.

The actual graduation ceremony took place in front of the library. There's a decently big space there, and they'd set up a stage and bleachers. Students congregated, donned caps and gowns, with hoods colored or designed to indicate major, and waited for hours in what seemed a lack of serious organization and good amount of boredom (I came across many card games). Cross the scene to the stage, though, and there was an orderly, efficient processing of graduates. The department and degree was announced, followed by a series of names as students filed across the stage, bowing to the head of the school so he could turn their tassels and hand them cased diplomas (see video below). The new graduates lined the bleachers behind the president, and one class after another was photographed, achievement in hand.

Sounds fairly normal as described, but in reality it seemed a strangely warped version of graduation as I know it. Most significantly, there were no spectators. Not a single parent was there. There were a few people watching, probably a mixture of people happening to stroll through the campus 'gardens' which spread out just past the scene and a smattering of friends. The area was roped off, but you could cross it to greet somebody if you wanted to. The few security guards looked bored and hot, and didn't seem to be paying much attention. The students started lining up on the right of the library, then filed around in front of the stage to eventually go up on stage from the left, finishing on the right where they had started. This is to say, spectators didn't have a really good view anyway (see photos) because people waiting to graduate were in the way. Finally, the names were read much faster than the procession to greet the president, and so would end a while before the line of graduates. Consequently, names didn't match up with faces. And in the interest of efficiency, the next group of graduates would start being called while the previous was just starting to get off the stage.

Math majors who have just donned their gowns, loaned to them on site by the school for the few hours of the ceremony.

Students pause as they cross in front of the stage from the right, waiting their own turn to walk up on stage from the left.

Waiting to graduate. I have no problem getting this close, though I am still behind the tape barrier, which is marked as 'limitline.'

Does an official ceremony lose meaning without the crowd there to support and celebrate and appreciate it? I asked friends what they thought they were dressing up for, and though a bit puzzled the answer seemed to be for the school president. Maybe for the photos. Maybe just because it's graduation. Nobody seemed to think it was a big deal, and maybe even this much ceremony was a bit overdone. The school is funny too, I don't think many of the graduates knew for sure what day the ceremony would take place until this week (I have a friend at another university who still isn't sure when hers will be), and they've been finished with everything for longer than that now. I don't know how they used to celebrate the end of schooling before this western-influenced kind of event, but I get the feeling that though some surface elements transfer over, little if any of the deeper meaning we attach to our graduation made the trip. Graduation isn't just about finally having diploma in hand but is about marking and celebrating the personal and intellectual growth students have achieved by working hard over the course of years, in the presence of people who care about them and who have contributed to their achievement. Isn't it?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chinese medicine, by prescription

Initially, it was supposed to be for a concoction to treat asthma the Chinese way, and I was just going along with a friend who was more knowledgable and eager about the plan than I was. But according to the TC doc, you can't treat specific diseases in Chinese medicine. You have to treat the whole system. It's a matter of qi. I was roped in and, it just so happens, my qi that day was 19 plant products and a scorpion low.

I've actually finished taking that first prescription, so today I went back along with three friends to get my prescription adjusted to my new health state. Here's how seeing a Chinese doctor works, at least in this case.

The doctor's office, on the corner of a busy intersection, is straight inside. The door remains open, covered only by the plastic fringes so common here, as long as the weather is decent. There's a partial partition which shields it from the rest of the area, but it's not a room to itself.

The whole consultation, besides a brief glance at the tongue, consists of sitting across a desk from the doctor as he 'listens' to your wrists. He puts three fingers along the right wrist first, applying light pressure in different combinations for a couple of minutes. During this, he was explaining what the points are, how they apply to different body parts and circulation pathways, but it was tough to follow. In any case, according to my friends, he was astonishingly right. You have a weak stomach, he'd say. Do you have a pain in your lower back, or perhaps related to your kidneys? Some of it I think could be easily guessed by chance, and I'm a skeptic. But, some of it was remarkable.

The left wrist follows, in the same way, with the tongue glanced worked in along the way.

The doctor never asked for symptoms, only asked for details or clarification once he came up with them himself. Since none of us are actually that sick, and coming for general health instead, I don't know what treatment for very acute issues would be like.

Next, the prescription is thought over as it is written out:
My prescription, as illegible as doctors back home, so far as I can tell.
This is then taken to the cashier, in the other, larger room of the establishment, who calculates how much is owed. The consultation with the doctor costs 5 yuan (70 cents), and the medicine preparation (including putting the product into individual packets) costs the same. The rest is the cost of the materials, which varies, in our experience between 75 and 150 yuan ($11-21). So it's sort of expensive, but it's a lot of herbs. I can't imagine what it would go for back home.

The prescription is passed to other employees, who seem extremely knowledgable. They gather the various herbs from a set of drawers behind the main counter in the room, weighing by sliding a marked metal rod until it balances at the length representing the weight desired. These are piled neatly along reusable sheets of pastic-y paper as you chat with the gatherer and try to figure out what's what and what it's for.

There are roots, seeds, berries, leaves and if you're lucky, a bit of scorpion or seahorse. None of us got the seahorse, but we did have a look at it up close, upon request:

I had scorpion in my first concoction, though I didn't realize what it was until I got back and looked up the character. It's sort of a funny story. When the doc was writing the presctiption I had asked if they were all plants, and he had chuckled and said almost but not all, for I had 'xie' in mine. Now, I know the word 'xie,' and it means crab. So I put my hands up like pincers to confirm I had the meaning right and he nodded happily. When they put a pile of it on my sheet, it wasn't really identifiable as anything, most of it was powdered or at least crumbly, though you could make out small pieces that looked very faintly spiky or shell-like. After looking up the character, I learned my mistake - crab is 'xie' pronounced with a fourth tone, starting high-pitched and sharply going done, while scorpion is 'xie' pronounced with first tone, at a very even, relatvely high pitch (oh, and second tone can mean shoe and third tone write, by the way).

But back to the pharmacy. Once the ingredients have been double-checked, they're bagged up in a black plastic sack and you're given a ticket, sort of like a coat check, which matches the ticket attached to your bag of goods. Coming back in a few hours, the piles will have been processed by this machine, which whistles and whirs and looks like cinnamon toast crunch should pop out:

But out comes a brown liquid that is distributed and sealed into 15 packets, to be drank hot three times a day for five days half an hour after meals.

Does it work?? After my first treatment phase, I'm still not sure. I feel fine - good, even, and perhaps with extra energy. It's hard to say, just yet. I'm thinking I'll go once more, a 15 day cure for my qi.


Being gone for over a month gave me new perspective on my life here. It's funny how taking time away from something can actually make it clearer, make you more perceptive. You get lost in day to day routine, in day to day exposure to the exact same things. You forget that what you eat is spicy, because you don't sweat anymore. You forget that it's unnatural for you to agressively yell out your lunch order and that you can never get to the front of the crowd if you're still trying to wait in a nonexistent line.

I got an abrupt picture of my progress. Coming back on the exact route I took over a half year ago when I first moved to Lanzhou, I could feel my cluelessness reawaken like deja-vu. But this time I could suppress it - I knew what I was doing. I knew how to check in at the airport, get to the University, how to find food and groceries, how to talk to my roommate and classmates. Returning to Lanzhou after having been away for a while I was startled to realize that I did actually live there. Last semester I struggled with making my life coherent in my mind; it felt like a bunch of pieces, made up of things I did in disparate places with very different intentions, almost like I was a new person each place I went. And it doesn't help that all the people who don't know me, no matter how long I live here, will look upon me as a visitor. But as I welcomed the newcomers, recommended places to eat and buy clothes, shared stories from the holidays, and picked up my old routines, I got a bigger picture of the life built here. I don't know everything, by far - the city holds many unexplored corners and I'm still constanty learning new secrets from friends and strangers. But I live here, I know here. I can see when things change. I can make plans for weeks ahead and I can talk about last fall. This isn't travel, this is life.

I can see my Chinese improvements a little clearer too, and since that's a big reason I'm here, that really is big. I was a little scratchy at first, having not spoken much at all back home, but it came back swiftly and smoothly, again in stark comparison with my first arrival in Lanzhou. Even writing characters flowed more fluidly than I remembered, easier and more natural.

The weather changed immensely since I left. In January I was wearing long johns and using an electric blanket; in March I was back on the tennis courts and sleeping in shorts. Construction projects were finished (a new cafeteria has opened right next to my class building!), and new ones were begun (the pavement has been destroyed between where I live and the nearest gate to the street, with scraps piled 10 feet high. this segment had also been of interest to me because it previously was broken or chipped in many places such that you could see evidence of at least 5 layers of different cement or tiling patterns. Now they've all been removed by workers sledgehammering them to bits).

Having that gap in space and time was nice - I discovered that I live in Lanzhou and that I speak Chinese, even if both in a rather strange, abnormal way. Things aren't perfect, and after a few weeks some of that shock has turned back to the view of the road ahead, which is still steeply uphill. Maybe we need to take vacations and weekends more seriously.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

One Child

Talking about brothers and sisters with Chinese peers is not always a comfortable topic. I avoid asking directly if my friends have siblings, though I am happy to talk about mine when asked, and it can lead to a very interesting conversation. Often, my counterparts make a comment like, ‘we are all only children, you know.’ They don’t seem bitter about this, mostly objective, or even a little proud. This is a unique policy, evidence of the prominence/dominance of the Chinese (there so many Chinese that if uncurbed they’d probably take over the world). And, being among those who did get the chance to be born, they feel very lucky.

I know that a few of my friends do have siblings (though it’s sometimes hard to be sure because people often refer to cousins as brothers or sisters, and sometimes even childhood friends). Last week, a guy I met on the tennis court from Shaanxi province, where he said his parents were ‘peasants,’ admitted to 5 siblings, topping mine. What is the actual population policy in China, and why does everyone claim that all are only children when it’s not true??

I reread an article I remembered seeing in China Daily, which I’d gotten in Beijing on my way to Lanzhou a couple weeks ago, about a decision to leave the one-child policy unchanged in the foreseeable future. It mostly quoted reasons of stability and ‘it’s working,’ and that changes would create more problems than they would solve (though admitting issues of gender imbalance and an aging society were problems). It gave the current birth rate as 1.8 children/woman (a strict one-child policy would be 1 child/woman, or less). Contrary to what seems to be the popular notion of the world (including China itself, it seems to me) that everyone in China is limited to having one child, only 36 percent of the population is strictly affected by this law. These are mostly people who live in big cities. Then, 53% of the population, living in more rural areas of most provinces, can have a second child if the first is a girl. That leaves about eleven percent of the population unaffected by the law, mostly minority groups, according to this article. I checked the figures with a few sources, which all more or less agreed, though most wouldn’t quote such concrete figures as this article. Additional children can be had so long as fees are paid. This kind of population policy was first implemented in 1979.

Interesting. This must affect population dynamics quite a lot – some sectors, sorted by various factors, will be increasing faster than others. Also, it creates rural/urban and ethnic divides about whether you have siblings or not. I’m not sure of the reason why some of my friends have siblings - some may be because older siblings were born before 1979, at least one has a half brother (no idea what the law says on that) and another definitely comes from a very rural area.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Back to the lab again (figuratively, not literally until next year)

After a two month hiatus, I'm back to blogging. Exams finished off the first semester, I visited Beijing for a week, flew home, and flew across the country six times to visit grad schools. I figured there wasn't much to write about, but actually it was an interesting experience: being home for break from China, reverse culture shock (e.g., getting abnormally excited by the Arby's menu), attending ambiguosly defined recruitment/interview/visit weekends at seven schools and thus introducing myself and my somewhat nontraditional circumstance to about 30 people at each school (that's a lot of explaining why I'm in China. it's funny to see who asks 'why do you study Chinese?' and who asks 'why do you study Biology'). Perhaps there will be a future post on how to (or not to) choose a graduate school from China. In any case, the word will be out when a decision has been made on the matter.

Meanwhile, my current circumstances: I'm up at 4am, battling jet lag and the exhaustion from such a long trip. Going over 24 hrs with almost no sleep and then having day and night officially switched is not easy. I find myself drained but unable to sleep well, and sorta sick on top of it. I don't know if that's the travel or the air now that I'm here. I'm constantly thirsty, so I'm on constant tea and online for now, glad I bothered to pay for my internet reconnection yesterday, being quiet for Yuri sleeping behind me but her phone beeps every 10 minutes with a message she hasn't read yet, and on rare occasions she mutters a slew of something in Korean (in fact, it's very nice to see her again). I'm thinking over my first day and a half back:

-coming in on the bus, from afar, Lanzhou sure looks like a city. I saw a lot of cities while I was home, and from where we were crossing the Yellow River outside of town, it looked like it could be anywhere. Maybe the buildings were a little shorter, but they were many, and lit up, with even one or two with notable color schemes like you get in a metropolis.

-but alas, it isn't anywhere, it's the middle of China, and the guy next to me was showing me his lawyer's certificate and inviting me to visit his homeland sometime, which is somewhere in shandong province. I smiled lightly and noncomittally complimented his province as a great place to visit. Chinese occasionally but regularly invite me to where they're from, a place they're very proud and fond of, and which I mostly don't think they expect me to take them up on which is a good thing since I wouldn't.

- I walked 15 minutes down the street and through the university to Zhuan Jia Lou. I could have taken a cab for a dollar, but was so eager to walk at all that I ignored the weight of my bags and the looks around me, figuring that as a reinitiation rite for Lanzhou foreigners.

-it's been incredibly nice to see friends and people here in general (the office, the desk in my building, etc.). With few exceptions, I don't communicate by internet with people here and so haven't been in touch. It's a reminder that I do live here, with six months of habituation behind me.

-Class started last week, and though I've only been to one so far, I've gotten some of the lowdown from classmates. I've moved up to the advanced class, the top of the ladder, and although I'm not sure I deserve that status yet, I think it'll be better than last semester. The atmosphere is more serious and skilled, but in a very good way. I've only got three classes this time - reading, speaking, and newspaper-reading. There's also a prep class for the HSK, the Chinese equivalent of the TOEFL, both of which (the class and test) I'm undecided about taking.

So, basically I just want to let you all know that I'm back in Lanzhou, back on the web, and planning to be back in the lab next year; but first, I'm planning for a super five months here, and even more first, planning to get back to the Korean sitcom dubbed in Chinese that I've been watching, until I'm sleepy or have class, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Brown liquid to cure my cold

I've had cold symptoms for well over three weeks now, no doubt affected in nature, and likely intensified, by extremely dry air laced with pollution and dirt. It started with the hoarsest throat I can remember, where I had to explain over the phone three times before anyone believed who I was. Since then it's moved around regularly, confusing me into thinking I was nearly cured. Yesterday, the cough was back, and my nose was running. It was time to consult a professional.

There's a clinic on campus, just around the corner from where I live, which had always looked kind of mysterious. So today, I finally had my chance to walk into the simple, dark entryway and wait in line to register. Once at the front and having briefly described my problem, I was given a ticket for 'internal medicine' and a blank slip for the visit’s prescriptions. I was also charged 1.5 yuan visit fee, about 20 cents. I was confused about where to go, and in the not-so-helpful manner that often characterizes Chinese customer service, was pointed in a vague direction but didn't know whether to stand in the corner indicated and wait for something or continue down the hall to the left. I stopped for a minute at the edge of the room and then pleaded with someone in line to be more specific about where to go. Finally finding several doors not far away marked 'internal medicine,' I waited outside because someone was already being seen, but was motioned to come in. Conditioned to the privacy and confidentiality of medical visits in the US, it was a bit uncomfortable to share my walk-in appointment with another person. We were talking with separate doctors, but side by side. I wasn't too surprised because I'd already gone through the medical tests upon arrival in China which involved drawing blood and other procedures in a similarly open setting, but still was a bit taken aback. My cold complaints were nothing difficult to talk about, fortunately.

The doctor asked a few questions relating to my symptoms and what medicine I'd already taken, and took a listen to my breathing. I took the now filled out prescription slip to the in-house pharmacy, where they wrote down how much I owed, returned to the first window to pay, returned to the pharmacy to pick up my meds, and to the doctor so she could tell me how to take them. At least I started to understand why everyone seemed to think I should know where to go - I know the place well now too.

I got home to inspect my yield. I had antibiotic pills, unidentifiable (to me) pills, and tubes of brown liquid. I was fine with the pills. The brown liquid, in its little vials you could poke a hole in the cap of to insert a straw, provided, were cute. The taste however is nasty, and straw is so skinny you can't gulp it down and get it done with. However, I am hopeful that treating a Chinese cold with Chinese drugs will be effective, more effective than my attempts at using donations from Korea, Singapore, and Krygysztan.

So it’s not Chinese medicine I saw today, but something of a Chinese approach, and it was not bad. The clinic was about business and efficiency, with no time wasted filling out forms (a simple question about whether I was allergic to anything before prescribing). I'm not sure if I was treated a bit differently being foreign - I didn't even have to show I was a student, and others seemed to have a little booklet that maybe was a health record or record of their visits to the clinic. It was affordable (I think even to Chinese, 1.5 for the visit and 30 for all the meds I got is not too expensive?). Interestingly, the doctors were women, and those working in the pharmacy were men.

Though I’m tired of being sick, it’s nothing serious and I am pleased to have gotten to go to the doctor. Though I registered in England, I never had the occasion to go. I went once in France, where I was amazed at the quantity and variety of medicines prescribed for what also was just a lingering cold, including a nasal spray. I think we must purposely avoid uncomfortable distribution methods in the US.

So I'm crossing my fingers this will kick my cold back out on the street. Then I won’t have an excuse not to go to the gym anymore.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Christmas and New Year's

Happy New Year!!

Both Christmas and New Year's have passed most uneventfully in Lanzhou. But this doesn't mean they went by unnoticed by me. In fact, it would have been impossible for me to forget about Christmas because so many people asked me about it. What was I going to do? Was I very sad not to spend it with my family? Did I see that they were selling little stuffed santas in the supermarket? Most of the time, I took the time to explain that no, I didn't really mind missing Christmas. Even though Christmas is an important holiday in the US, I don't celebrate it because it's a Christian holiday and I'm not Christian. Even after explanation, these same people would wish me a Merry Christmas a few days later. Christmas is very much understood as a holiday from the west, a big part of which is the US. I just couldn't possibly not care about it.

And partly, they're right. It is a holiday for me -- it can't not be. At home, everything is closed that day and many many people are celebrating with family, thus forcing it to be spent in a way that distinguishes it from other days (e.g., at the movies and eating Chinese food). I sort of looked forward to not going through Christmas hassle for one year, but the interest from those around me made it stand out just as much. I must have been asked a hundred times about my plans for Christmas.

Christmas has come and gone. I didn't have class on the day, perhaps because of this seemingly set idea that foreigners observe Christmas (in fact more of the foreign students here are Muslim, I would guess). I went shopping, the absence of crowds rather striking (and pleasant). Then again, there is always a lot of advertising and selling going on here. I'm scared to even think about what a peak in these for Christmas would look like.

January 1, 2008. Wow!!!

Though the Chinese traditionally used a lunar calendar with a new year that falls around early February, they now refer to all dates (including historic, current, and dates of birth) using the solar calendar as we do. Therefore, I assumed that the signifance of the holiday would at least be on the same scale as back home. Wrong. I think schools were off today, but they start up again tomorrow. Walking around, it seemed that everything (notably excluding my gym) was open. Even more dramatically, last night there was little midnight activity. After asking a few Chinese friends and finding out that they had no intention of celebrating, I went to dinner with a group of schoolmates from Kazakhstan. It was a very big deal for them, and they were excited. Still, they couldn't muster up the celebratory atmosphere that a whole city - a whole country - in suspense could. I truly missed it. I passed the midnight hour in 'Tango Club,' one of the few night clubs in town. I think that half of my dormitory was there, plus a handful of Chinese. There was no countdown, or even any clock in sight. With a few minutes to go, I got scared they wouldn't even tell us when midnight came. To my my relief, with ten seconds to go, they did a brief countdown. There were cheers when we got to zero (almost exclusively from my counterparts) and the staff handed out little sparklers which we lit for another 10 seconds (adding to the already eye-stinging smoke inside the establishment from cigarettes, fog machines, and zero ventilation). There was an announcement to welcome the new year. That was it.

I didn't realize before how much I like these holidays to mark off the cycle of the year. Especially New Year's, which I hadn't expected ever to pass so unremarkably. Other holidays belong to a country or a religion, and I thought this one was pretty universal (I love watching the replays on TV from cities already in the new year while waiting in the US). I bet this will change - it probably already is in bigger, more westernized cities in China (see next post). I did enjoy talking to my family this morning, when I was well into 2008, as they counted down the last few hours of 2007. Of course the change in digit doesn't mean much, and if I went to sleep last night and woke up this morning without seeing it happen it wouldn't mean any less. It's just where we decide to etch the stick, but it gives order to our lives. We count in years and decades. The Chinese do too, but they also like to count in rounds of the zodiac. Though it technically won't start until Chinese New year in Feb, this year is the year of the rat -- my year. It's gonna be great!

-- cuz you have to believe -- this'll be my year --