Leave a comment

Summertime fun.



Summer was great. ImageFresh cherries from the neighbor’s tree.ImageKayaking at Big Star Lake.ImageBeautiful sunsets. ImageAnd beautiful mornings. ImageGood times with Spencer. ImageBiking adventures in Northern Michigan.ImageMission Point ride. ImageCatching up with college friends. ImageA great summer indeed. 

Leave a comment

The year in review.

I’ve made it home! Back to the land of internet and other freedoms! I haven’t written in so long that I will be surprised if anyone even reads this blog anymore. Just in case, and because I also want to reflect on the year for my own good, I will attempt to sum up what I wish I could have written weekly.

On learning Chinese:
I know more than I like to believe, but my Chinese is still much worse than my Asian classmates’. When going to class on a daily basis it’s hard to see progress, and some days there isn’t progress. But when looking back on the year as a whole I know how far I have come. Experts say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, whether it be a language, ability to play a musical instrument or a sport. I calculate that I should have attended 500 hours of class this year, 400 of which I actually attended. Outside of class I probably studied an additional 400 hours. By these calculations, I should be approaching 1/10th of the way to mastery. From my self assessment of my language ability I’d have to say 1/10th is pretty accurate. This is both depressing and makes me feel better. Depressing because I still have so far to go and better because the unrealistic expectation that I could learn Chinese in a year can be labeled as unrealistic, and I don’t have to feel guilty or like an inadequate student for not achieving more. Most importantly, though learning Chinese can be frustrating and arduous, it makes sense to me, and in many ways is easier than English. For example, the word for orchestra 乐队 is made of the characters for “music” and “team”. Of course an orchestra is a music team. Why don’t we call it that in English?  

On dorm life:
The dorm really grew on me as time went on, especially after I moved to a bigger room. Sure there were annoyances, like how all visitors have to sign in with their passport number and leave before 11pm, how the building is a total eye sore- pale blue with streaks of rust running down its walls, how there are intermittent hot water outages in the winter and power outages in the summer, and how the North Koreans are always doing bizarre things that I can’t ask them about because we can’t talk. Their latest project involved constructing wooden crates which we speculated were being used to ship home appliances which are not available in their country or they may have been building a space ship. Who ever knows? These things aside, the dorm has been a great place to live and I’ve even found myself fearing what would happen if I could no longer live there. It is so easy to live there because there’s no rent to pay, no utility bills, no landlord to deal with. Recently a few friends have moved out of their apartments and there always seems to be some conflict with the landlord that involves paying extra fees for various things, which is hard to dispute as a foreigner. The dorm, though very ugly from the outside, is situated in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Hangzhou, ideal for hiking and biking. Best of all, I have a place to keep my things for the summer and know they will be there when I return in August.

On my relationship:
Though this is now a thing of the past, it is important to mention that, as many people already know, I had a boyfriend this year. I can’t begin to describe the year without touching on this because the relationship was a significant part of my day to day life. Unfortunately, yet predictably it has now come to an end. It’s hard to know exactly when to mention relationships in this blog and it almost seems easier to describe it after it is over, like a complete picture or story. It happened, it was good, now it’s over. 

On my work:
Both jobs continue to be enjoyable and profitable. What more could I ask for? I may take on a few more responsibilities next year because I anticipate having more free time because I’ll have less class time. I have also been tutoring a few students who are preparing for the language assessment test which I work for. There are some great stories about this, which I will write about later.

On the summer:
It’s so so nice to be back in Michigan where I can enjoy the clean water, blue sky, family, friends, fresh vegetables, pleasant temps, open roads, internet freedom, cheese and the list goes on and on.

On next year:
My plan is to go back to China in August and officially start my PhD classes (in Chinese) in September along with my next 800 hours of language self study. I have intermittent anxiety about next year because there is absolutely no way I will understand my classes or be able to contribute in any meaningful way other than to smile. But my advisor speaks English and I can use Google Translate to write my papers and maybe it won’t be so bad.

Leave a comment

I’m back.

Two hot topics: N. Korea and bird flu. The first I feel does not threaten my safety at all, and the later, probably a little. Strangely, in the heart of what seems could be called the war zone (though from my understanding there are no missiles aimed at China) and the bird flu zone, I receive no news regarding either topic other than from the American media. However, last Monday in class my teacher reminded us to wash our hands regularly, which seemed slightly ironic given that there is never soap (or toilet paper, for that matter) in Chinese bathrooms. Washing with water seems less than ideal. Life in the dorm with the N. Koreans is as usual. When I see them in the kitchen no one makes eye contact. I silently heat my coffee and return to my room. Living across the courtyard from the N. Koreans in a dorm with 24-hour surveillance has got to be one of the safest places to be. Keep your enemies close, right? Except for the possible risk of bird flu, everything is going just fine. I’ve taken precautionary measures by avoiding the vegetable market with the live chickens in the back and I have a bottle of hand sanitizer with me at all times.


It’s amusing this situation I’m in with my language study and this scholarship I have. I’ve written about it briefly before, but here’s a recap. I have a five-year scholarship, which includes one year of language classes, then education classes and research for four years. It’s expected that after one year of language study the foreign students will be able to keep up with and participate in classes taught in Chinese. I am so far from being able to do this that sometimes I want to quit and flee. I can usually keep up with short conversations about the weather and I can say my name, room number and telephone number in Chinese. The thought of being in a Chinese classroom where the teacher isn’t speaking slowly and emphasizing every tone, oh dear. From talking with other foreign students I know I’m not alone in this. After only one year of language study, no one understands their classes, but grades are given based on whether you show up and everyone gets a B. I don’t know yet whether I’ll continue to be a foreign cog in the Chinese education system next year, or if I will really quit and flee. I can say the language study has been worthwhile, and to offset the frustrations I do have a job I like, so life goes on… 

Leave a comment


Blogging lately has become a burden. Finding time to sit down and write, something that I used to enjoy doing, seems like drudgery. Even finding things to say seems like a stretch the mind and imagination. The Internet here continues to block blogs, the university continues to block VPNs and the coffee shop’s VPN is overworked by the students who want the same Internet freedom as the rest of the world. I have all but given up on having a normal, social-media filled life.


Two weeks ago the 14 year old student that I tutor asked me to help her get a VPN on her iPhone. She said all her friends at school are on Facebook and she wants to be too. Her family wasn’t tech or English savvy enough to figure out how to download, pay for and install the VPN, so she asked me. Upon trying to download the software, we realized that you need a VPN to download a VPN, and you also need a non-Chinese credit card to pay for it. Though I wasn’t able to get the VPN for her, the reason she wanted it struck me as pivotal. Foreign brands, whether in clothes or fast food, are trendy here. It seems now that having access to foreign websites has become the new cool thing among the young generation, which, combined with their English language skills is allowing them to be global citizens, or netizens, as they say. That the young generation wants Internet freedom, even though they might not be able to get it, is something significant for those who are trying to tightly control the web.


In other news, the new semester has started which means five days of classes and lots of studying. It’s good to get back into the routine. I have a new teacher, new classmates and new outlook on studying. My class is slightly over my head, which I’m hoping will motivate me to study harder rather than motivating me to give up. Only time will tell.


Because blogging has been so difficult lately, I’m going to take a break from writing, or at least write less frequently. I will get back to writing at some time, but I want to be free from the weekly time consuming frustration of trying to write and post blogs. Think of it as a sabbatical. I will be back, just not on a weekly basis. Until then… 

Leave a comment

Bali part two.


Gili islands (Gili T and Gili Air) were the first places I headed with my college friends. Gili T is known to be a party place, and after having the luxury of cheap and available accommodation due to low demand because it is rainy/low season in all the other parts of Bali, we were surprised by how expensive and crowded Gili T was. So we left and moved on to Gili Air, which was just what we were looking for. There was nothing going on on this quiet island that doesn’t allow cars or motorbikes. We stayed for two days and did nothing but wander, sit around, read and drink Bali coffee.

The island of Lombok was calling next, and if there is one place that we absolutely didn’t do justice to, it is Lombok. Unfortunately we were only here for two and a half days, which allowed only limited exploration on motorbikes. The other factor was that our hotel was like paradise and we didn’t really want to leave it to do other things. We had one very rainy day while motorbike riding and one very nice day of pool and beach time.

Finally, we went back to Ubud for a few days of wandering and eating and more wandering.

All in all, Bali and Lombok were very touristy places. It was interesting to hear some local perspective about tourism from taxi drivers and hotel owners, both who were highly in favor of tourists, and were quick to talk about how the European economic troubles have been hard on Bali. I, on the other hand, tend to automatically look for the ways in which tourism adversely affect a place. A few examples: one day we rode motor bikes around Nusa Lembongan, and over to the neighboring island which had not yet been built up with resorts. As we rolled through on motor bikes, women went about their business raking seaweed and transporting it in baskets on their heads, sometimes shirtless. In situations where there were no exchanges, or the local people didn’t gain anything from tourism, I felt like I was disturbing them. On many areas of Bali, everything is set up for tourism and Balinese from all around the island have relocated to profit from the industry. They’ve had a choice about the extent to which they want to be involved. On the small island, where tourists go because it’s beautiful, untouched and not touristy, the people don’t have a choice because tourism is coming to them.

Another example: when island hopping from Gili Air to Lombok we had the option of buying a “transfer” package which we were told included a boat ride between islands, a transfer to the bus stop, then a mini bus ride to our hotel on Lombok. It didn’t seem like a bad price for the package so we booked it in hopes of avoiding any hassles of finding our own transportation at the port. The boat ride was fine and once we docked at the port in Lombok we were immediately confronted by a man who wanted to see our ticket, and he proceeded to escort us from the boat to his horse cart. He loaded up our luggage and told us to get on the cart and he would take us to the bus. It seemed like great customer service until he told us, after we were settled into the cart, that actually this transport wasn’t included in the price of the ticket. Upon hearing this, and mostly because we were sick of being charged for things we shouldn’t be, my friend informed the man that we would walk. The man then said that if we walk we would miss the bus because the bus station was 1km away. Though we had no idea where the bus station was, we had reached a point where the idea of staying in the horse cart and paying for a service that was supposed to be included to a man who hadn’t outright lied but hadn’t been upfront either was a worse option than carrying our backpacks in the 90 degree heat to a bus station that was somewhere. We got out of the cart and started walking. Soon we realized that we had been outright lied to because the bus station was a five minute walk up the road and all we needed to do was follow the horse carts of tourists. The bus left when all the tourists got there, not before. My friend wanted to go back and give the man some advice about his business model, about how tourists aren’t happy being deceived, even if the amount is insignificant. How much better could it be if he were up front about the options for walking or taking the horse cart? Many many people would still choose horse cart because they wouldn’t want to carry their bags. Approaching the situation slightly differently could have eliminated all of the annoyance we felt (and often felt) and all the annoyance he felt when we refused to be passengers in his horse cart.


This is the most extreme example, but this type of thing happened repeatedly in different situations. I understand that many Balinese people are trying to make money from the tourists, and you have to both give them credit for their efforts and support them, and unfortunately in the process there is a good bit of lying happening. We’d learned by the end of the trip not to trust anything that anyone says about how far a place is (you always need a taxi) how much something costs (always inflated for us) or the quality of something (that place is bad, but I have a better one for you).

Then you learn when you finally accept the taxi ride and get talking to the driver that these people are kind and are just trying to make a living like the rest of us. These experiences didn’t cloud our perspective about Bali—we still loved it, but came to expect that in every conversation with locals we were only being given somewhat truths and you take those somewhat truths and go with it.

To see more pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/juliezwart/sets/72157632831574879/

1 Comment


It’s hard to know where to begin when describing nearly a month long trip. To describe the best parts, the worst parts, a general overview, the activities, feelings– there is so much to say. The trip involved first traveling with and meeting up with friends from China, then with friends from college. New friends and old friends, it was a good mix.

We began in south Bali, where we flew into, and immediately headed up the east coast to a town called Candidasa. From there we rented motorbikes and explored the northeast coast and areas around the volcanoes. I wasn’t entirely comfortable on a motorbike because my motorbiking experience had been previously limited to a few days of being a scared passenger in N. Thailand and then learning on my own on a quiet island in Malaysia. Among the heavy traffic and curvy and hilly roads of Bali I learned a lot, freaked out a bit and became more comfortable by the day.

Lagoon in Candidasa

Ubud, a community built around rice paddies was next on the agenda. There were rice paddies to hike through, monkeys to see and lots of great food to try. This was among my favorite spots because the days seemed to fly by without demanding anything but wandering around, taking vegetarian cooking class and relaxing. We took an overnight side trip to Mt. Batur and climbed to the rim of the volcano for sunrise. Yes, that was nice.Ubud MonkeysCIMG3419

Sanur, an area of beaches on the east coast was the next stop. The highlights of this area included amazing sunrises, a 5km long bike path which stretched the length of the beach, good street food and a nice hotel to relax at. It was also the port to our next destination, Nusa Lembongan.CIMG3463 CIMG3462

Nusa Lembongan was another favorite spot because of the crystal blue water, cliffs to hike along, a great little bungalow to stay in, quiet roads for motor biking, sunsets over Bali and the do-nothing feel of the place. It was the epitome of island life. I could have stayed here much much longer, but it was time for one friend to leave, and the others to come.

That’s the overview of the first half of the trip. It was a great vacation! More thoughts and pictures to come.

1 Comment

Exams, again.

For the last year I’ve been working as an oral examiner for a high stakes test that Chinese students must take in order to attend a university abroad. I can’t write many details about my job, due to the confidentiality of the test, but I can say a few things.

There are students who come into the test with very little to no English speaking ability, and they are often either pitied or somewhat made fun of by examiners. It’s hard to even give marks to a student who has little communicative ability and it can be even harder to sit through an awkward 12 minutes of asking questions that get no response besides a confused look.

Last week during my Chinese speaking exam the tables were turned and I was the one with little communicative ability. It isn’t that my speaking level is so low (though it is relatively low) rather that I was nervous and most of the time not able to understand the questions because my teacher was speaking very fast. She’d given us a list of topics to prepare in advance but anything was fair game. When she asked me a question I did my best to give what I thought was a correct answer, but I understood only about half of every question so I was never sure if my answer was even relevant. She could have been asking me about my favorite food and my response was about riding a horse. After this experience I have a lot more sympathy for those Chinese students who get so worked up about their speaking exam that they get a rash on their neck that slowly creeps up to their face or who get completely tongue tied and can’t use words.

The Chinese students who take the English test have a lot more at stake than I did. My grades don’t really matter, but for them their score could either make them an acceptable candidate for a spot at a foreign university or eliminate that possibility all together.

After exams, I was Bali bound, where I’ll be for 3 weeks. So far it’s beautiful! More pictures and stories to follow.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.