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Travel throughout China

How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America

How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America

I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.

While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America: read more

Chinese Sci-Fi Book Review: Three Body Problem

Chinese Sci-Fi Book Review: Three Body Problem

Three Body Problem was on my “must read” list ever since it won the Hugo Award two years ago.  Unlike past Hugo award winners, this book was special because it was the first time a Chinese author won the most prestigious award in science fiction literature.  As someone who loves both sci-fi and China, I just had to read this thing.

But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to it.  It was probably the not-so-appealing cover.  Maybe it’s the weird title.  Or perhaps it was the summary of the book, which involves the overdone plot of “humanity fights aliens.”  I have to admit–from first glance, it didn’t seem all that appealing.

But then a few months ago…

“Mary,” husband said to me as I picked him up from the airport.  “I just finished Three Body Problem–and it’s now my favorite book EVER.  You have to read it.  NOW!”

My husband wasted no time.  As soon as we arrived home from the airport he found my iPad and loaded the entire trilogy onto my Kindle app.

“Ok” he handed the kindle to me, “start reading.”

I had never seen my husband so excited for a book.  I shrugged and, before bed, started the book.

Within weeks I had finished book one.  A few days later I gobbled up book 2 (the Dark Forest).  Now I’m nearing the end of book 3 (Death’s End).

It’s the best science fiction I’ve read in years.

The Highlights

The storyline is innovative, scientific, philosophical and downright disturbing.  It is a very realistic account of humanity’s reaction to an alien invasion… and it’s not pretty.  From the cultural revolution, to environmental ruin, to the death of democracy and the survival of humanity–the plot really covers it all.  What really sets this book apart from other sci-fi is the amount of scientific detail woven into the storyline.  The author goes deep (sometimes too deep) into physics and astronomy to explain space exploration and alien civilizations.  Unless you’re a physicist, I guarantee that, at times, this book will go way over your head.

Plus, aside from the plot, it’s refreshing to have an Asian protagonist star in every book.  Period.  While the trilogy doesn’t have a typical ‘protagonist’ cast for each book, the overwhelming majority of actors in this series are Chinese.  It definitely put me in a different place and perspective compared to typical, western sci-fi.

Finally,  every book in the trilogy provides great closure (something I really value in a book).  I haven’t finished book three yet, but I heard that it leaves most readers happy and satisfied.  In fact, the ending for book two was so well done I wondered why the author even bothered to write book three.

The Downsides

Characters could be a little stronger.  They’re not deep, three-dimensional characters like you would find in Game of Thrones.  Sometimes it feels like they’re simply fulfilling a plot device the author wants carried out.

And while I love the plot, sometimes it’s just too damn complex.  I had to skim over a lot of scientific theory throughout the book because it was way behind my comprehension.  Although I enjoyed how the author made the book more feasible with his in-depth scientific theory, he can sometimes bog the reader down with too many details.

And it’s kinda sexist…?

When I googled book reviews, I read a few blogs by angry, female sci-fi readers accusing Liu Cixin of being sexist and demeaning women.   At first, I was stunned.  This book not only had a good chunk of key female characters, but all the female leads were scientists, politicians and innovators…!!  Considering the numerous amount of strong female leads, how could the author be sexist?

It wasn’t until book three I realized that, perhaps, maybe those angry female bloggers were onto something.  Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that female characters in this book are the root cause of all the problems in this trilogy.  It’s subtle, but if you take a step back and look at all the tragedies that occur in this book, it’s basically like Eve screwing over Adam and all of humanity, but multiple times and on a much larger scale.

Plus, all the male leads always end up lusting after some soft and demure Chinese chick…which is fine, I guess.  Still,  through the way he crafts female love interests in the book it’s quite obvious to imagine Liu Cixin’s image of an ideal woman.  Innocent, demure, soft-spoken, motherly, caring.  These are all great traits and are the epitome of Asian feminine beauty, but unfortunately it reinforces some negative stereotypes.

In a nutshell

If you’ve seen the movie Interstellar and liked it, then you’ll go crazy over this book.  Three Body Problem is basically a way, way better version of Interstellar.  Just imagine Interstellar with a better cast of characters and an even more mind-blowing story.

And thanks to Liu Cixin and this trilogy, the floodgates to Chinese sci-fi has finally been opened.  Here’s to hopefully more amazing Chinese sci-fi/fantasy literature being translated and released in the future.

How Can Learning Japanese or Chinese Get You a Job?

How Can Learning Japanese or Chinese Get You a Job?

According to the news, China is about to rule the world and the Japanese are poised for extinction via low birthrates.  With an ever-rising China and a Japan on the decline, one has to wonder:  Will learning Japanese actually get me a job?  And more importantly, will learning Chinese get me an even better job?

In my post “should I learn Japanese or Chinese?” I gave the cop out answer of “go with your heart.”  I still stand by this super cheesy advice.

However,  via this particular post, I received multiple emails from young college students asking for even more advice.  What kind of jobs can I get with these language skills?  What level of proficiency do I need?  And most of all: Are learning these languages just a massive waste of time?

The combination of these questions, and my recent job hunt, has led me to the following conclusions:

Japanese is Not Useless

Tokyo Time Square

When I first started learning Japanese, it was still the number two economy in the world.  Japan was going places.  They had Sony, Hitachi, Toyota, and a bunch of other recognizable and respectable companies.  I thought knowing Japanese would really take me places.

Then China surpassed Japan economically, took its spot at #2, and totally stole the country’s spotlight.  My graduate program not only slashed the number of Japanese courses in half, they fired all the Japanese professors until there was only one left and cut the Japanese foreign language track.  Just to spite Japan even more, they hired three new China professors and added an entire major that was wholly China focused.

Japan’s birth rates are low.  Their economy is sluggish.  Prime Minister Abe is kind of a jerk.  Earthquakes.  High suicide rates.  China.

All of these events led me to believe that my Chinese skills were going to get me that big job.

But guess what?  After applying to dozens of jobs, both of which needed either Chinese or Japanese, I was hired at a big firm for my Japanese skills.

AGAIN.

Japanese Skills Are Great For the Private Sector

China’s growth may be exponential, but it is still a developing country with a relatively unstable market.  China still has yet to produce reputable corporations and stable businesses to attract widespread investment.  Aside from Lenovo, there are few Chinese brands that households recognize and trust.  China, despite taking the number two spot in GDP growth, still has a way to go if it wants to stand on par with Japan as both a stable and trustworthy economy.

Japan’s economy may be sluggish, but its corporations are not.  I could write an entire post about this, but let’s just say a fair number Japanese corporations are rather profitable.  Softbank acquired Sprint.  Suntory acquired Jim Bean.  Uniqlo is rapidly expanding.  Japan is still making money and, most of all, is a huge driver for business.

All Japanese jobs I applied to were, largely, in the private sector.  Despite Japan’s “decline,” there were still a high number of jobs that not only demanded Japanese language skills, but also Japanese cultural aptitude.  Whether its linguistic or cultural, companies are constantly on the lookout for individuals who are familiar with Japan.

Why is this?  Well, I think it’s lack of supply.  It is very hard to find talent both bilingual in Japanese and English.  This could be due to Japan’s education system, the vastly contrasting linguistic differences between English or Japanese, or perhaps even the lack of Japanese immigrants.  Despite the reason, this lack of bilinguals creates huge demand from private corporations.

So just how good does my Japanese need to be to get this job?

Let’s just say… you probably need to be able to read half this sign at least

I’ll be blunt: your Japanese needs to mind-blowingly good.  Like, you can watch Japanese news, pick up a Japanese newspaper, and talk Japanese politics with a local–and all without picking up a dictionary.

At the bare minimum, I recommend passing JLPT Level 2. However, as I wrote in the Japanese or Chinese post, Japanese is WAY HARDER than Chinese.  Passing JLPT 2 could take years of your life.

Chinese, on the other hand, is great for the public sector

I lived in Shanghai for four years.  I met Chinese people from everywhere.  Anhui, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Sichuan, Ningbo, Beijing, the list goes on.

What did they all have in common?

Their English was AMAZING.

In general, Chinese people speak better English than their Japanese neighbors.  I don’t have evidence of this, it’s all from personal experience, but it was overwhelmingly evident during my stay in both Japan and China.  In Japan I only met a handful of locals who could speak English well.  In China, there was hardly anyone I met who couldn’t speak English.   In fact, some of my friends were so good they could pass as American Born Chinese (ABC).

And what do most Chinese people want to do with their English fluency?

Make money (aka work in the private sector).

Where does one work not for money, but for stability and a good cause?

The public sector.

When I was job hunting I found dozens of Chinese-speaking jobs for the US government.  I often wondered why these jobs were not being filled or how I had a chance in hell to even interview for these high-ranking positions.

But then it hit me: Only US nationals can apply for (most) federal positions.

And while the US has no shortage on ABC US nationals, many of them did not grow up fully bilingual.  In fact, beside my husband, I don’t know any ABC who can read and write Chinese characters.  They are in short supply.

So if you speak baller Chinese and want to work for the government–then I say your odds are pretty good.

So just how good does my Chinese have to be?

When I interviewed for jobs that required Chinese, they didn’t just interview me in Chinese.  Oh no.  It was much worse.

I wrote a three page marketing plan in Mandarin.  They still didn’t hire me.

I had to translate a four-page, hand written document on rubber tariffs from Mandarin to English in one hour.  they didn’t hire me.

I had to write a hand written essay in Mandarin about the Chinese economy in 45 minutes.  They didn’t hire me.

The demand is high, my friends.  HSK Level 5 or 6.  Minimum.

The Most Important Job Hunting Advice I Have to Give is….

The Ruby Ronin says…

Foreign Language will not get you a job (as I wrote in a previous post).  Foreign language is a supplemental talent.  If possible, first focus on a primary skill, a hard skill, and use foreign language to make that skill even more desirable.

I made the mistake of focusing purely on language, and I paid the price for it.  While my language skills have gotten me jobs I never even dreamed of, I would be fairing much better if I had gotten a law/medicine/engineering/business degree and then studied a language.

Even if you do just study a foreign language, though, I have to say… you will be ok.  Japanese and Chinese (and Korean!) are incredibly useful languages to know in this day and age.  They both clock in at #2 and #3 economies respectively, are hard languages to acquire, and can provide work in both government or business.

In the end, I just gotta give my cheesy advice again: go with your heart.  These languages are crazy hard to acquire.  You gotta love it to learn it.

To me, Chinese and Japanese just aren’t languages.  These languages represent food, culture and friends.  These two languages have given so much joy and excitement to my life that, hell, I probably wuldn’t have met my husband without them.

So, go with your heart.  You won’t regret it.

What Has Gotten You Ahead in Your Career?

What a Trump Presidency Means for US-Japan-China Relations

What a Trump Presidency Means for US-Japan-China Relations

Two Chinese girls looking out at Tokyo with a faux statue of liberty. The US-China-Japan all in one photo.

It’s only been one day and we are already starting to see the damage.  The repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The disappearance of the Climate Change page on whitehouse.org.  Re-negotiations of NAFTA.  It’s all really happening.

Yesterday, in a truly humbling event, scores of Women’s Marches were held around the world. Women (and those who support women and diversity) stood in solidarity for equality, love, and women’s rights.  I was rooting for all of you.

Although these marches spanned the globe, they mostly represented a fight for U.S. domestic policies.  Planned Parenthood, immigration, education, healthcare–Americans turned out in record numbers to fight for these rights.

But I’m Here to Talk Foreign Policy

I’m currently taking a Failed States & Insurgencies class (I know, sounds uplifting right?).  The professor is young, but captivating and ridiculously intelligent.  He lived in Central Asia for years and actually worked with warlords in failed states formed from the ruins of the USSR.

“Climate change isn’t that big of a deal,” he announces to the class.  “Now wait, before you start throwing tomatoes at me I want to tell you the most pressing threat to humanity, something that is far more deadly than climate change–and that’s nuclear warfare.  One wrong move, one wrong word, one miscommunication and all of mankind is wiped out, save a few unlucky souls.  All your friends.  All your family.  Wiped from the face of this Earth.”

He pauses.

“So yes, international relations is important.  Sure, climate change is a big deal and I know we can deal with it when mankind is pressed with the urgency–but nuclear warfare?  That is a much more pressing and delicate subject.”

So while domestic policies worry me a lot, it’s the danger the Trump administration could inflict in the realm of foreign policy that keeps me awake at night.  Most voters go to the ballot with daily grievances in mind–I went in knowing that Trump could change the entire world order.

Security in Japan

During his campaign, Trump said the U.S. shouldn’t be the world’s police and we should withdraw and/or reduce U.S. military presence in Japan (even though Japan pays a hefty sum of money for our military to be there in the first place).

Can you imagine what would happen to Japan if the U.S. left, especially with a rising (and aggressive) China next door under the rule of President Xi Jin Ping?

That’s why Prime Minister Abe basically ran to Trump tower mere days after the election results.  Although Japan has recently built up its domestic military (aka self-defense force) under PM Abe, the country would be almost defenseless without U.S. assistance (and that’s because after WWII we did not allow them to have any form of military of self-defense).

After the Abe-Trump meeting, it seems that Trump will likely not go through with his campaign rhetoric in terms of military presence in Japan–much to Abe’s relief.

Security in China

I have one word to sum up all current security tensions with Trump & China:

Taiwan.

China has one, and only one issue it is absolutely non-negotiable with, and that is territorial sovereignty–especially over Taiwan.

I read a 100 page security briefing on tensions between US-China from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and most conflicts arose from Taiwan.

Trump taking the phone call from pro-independence Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen is a big deal.  It has elicited confrontational and disturbing comments from China.  If Trump changes his policy towards Taiwan, if he recognizes it as a sovereign nation, China is not afraid to strike.

China attacks Taiwan.  The U.S. comes to defend Taiwan.  Russia supports China in its claim for Taiwan.  Japan also comes into the fight.  Starts looking like a world war.

Even if it doesn’t begin with a full-frontal fight over Taiwan in the straits, one wrong move from increased naval ships from the U.S. or China in waters near Taiwan could easily escalate into unnecessary warfare.

The day after the election results I asked my professor what he thinks will happen between U.S.-China, especially with TPP gone and possible military pull out from the Asia Pacific, as stated in Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

“I don’t think the U.S. will pull out,” he cried. “Trump said he will double spending on the military budget.  One day after the election and defense contractors had a spike in their stock.  He’s obviously going to beef up the military–but why?  Perhaps an attack against China?”

I’m extremely skeptical that the U.S. will attack China and I would rather bet my money on a conflict arising from Taiwan than all-out military warfare between US-China.  However, one does have to wonder why the U.S. is upping its military strength.

Trump and the China-Japan Economy

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a multilateral trade agreement initiated by the US and included 12 countries in the Asia Pacific and the US read more

3 Reasons Chinese People Like Trump

3 Reasons Chinese People Like Trump

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Like most of America, I was devastated on the morning of Wednesday, November 9th 2016.  The impossible happened.  The United States elected a KKK endorsed rapist to the most powerful position in this country.  As a minority, I was horrified; and as a woman, I was absolutely disgusted.

Ill with a hangover and still in a state of shock, I rolled over in bed and reached for my phone.  I had a slew of frustrated and hopeless texts from friends around the states.  My Facebook feed was awash in anger, denial and filled with dispute.  I opened my WeChat account to find…

“I saw that Trump won, Mary!  You must be so happy to have such a charming and charismatic president in office, right?”

What?  I had to do a double take.  Did my Chinese friend just describe Trump as a charming person?

“I don’t understand this election stuff much,” another Chinese friend texted.  “But looks like Trump is pretty good, right?  Better than Hillary, anyway.”

Oh my god.  What is going on!?

“Mary,” my boyfriend texted me yesterday. “My (Chinese) parents and all their Chinese friends (living in an extremely liberal state as U.S. citizens) voted for Trump.”

Although the hangover was fresh, I ran to the kitchen to find the closest bottle of wine I could.  This was just too much.

Chinese people, even those living in the states, endorse Trump.  My brain still can’t even compute it.

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Why Do Chinese People Like Trump?

My Japanese friends do not like Trump.  My Korean friends do not like Trump.  To hear my Chinese friends–really, any minority–endorse Trump is beyond me.  Still, I tried to stay rational and think it through.  What in god’s name motivated their decision?

According to a poll by a Chinese newspaper Global Times in March 2016, 54% of 3,300 mainland Chinese respondents said they supported a Trump presidency.  On Weibo (Chinese Twitter) there were 10 Trump fan groups with over 1,000 followers each, such as “Trump Fan Club,” “Trump Light of the World” and “Trump Commentary.”  Chinese people in the groups commented that the Republican party is “more sensible” and “cares more about business and trade than human rights.”

Meanwhile, the communist party smugly nods with a smile and comments: “[The] Trump phenomena shows the U.S. public is getting weary of party politics” and that “the democracy America advocates has boundaries.” 

So just what in god’s name made the Donald so popular in China?

  1. He’s a Businessman

Nothing speaks louder to the Chinese than money.  Many middle-class Chinese seeking wealth and riches look at Donald’s extravagant hotels and lavish lifestyle and are instantly sold.  To them, a man who knows business should be running the United States.  Sadly, money still reigns supreme in China.  In a place where an entire country and culture were decimated by an authoritarian regime, but later rescued through the power of money and economic revolution, it’s no wonder the citizens think that business is best in terms of politics.

Although many Chinese said they appreciated Trump’s focus on trade and economic development, they seemed to have missed the part about Trump’s pledge to slap 45% tariffs on all imports from China, which would cripple the U.S. and Chinese economy.  Plus, most of Trump’s businesses and investments resulted in bankruptcy and failure–but hey, why get into the nitty gritty?  He’s confident, wears a great suit and rich–good enough.

2.  Clinton Was “Anti-China”

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton heavily criticized China–and when I mean criticize China, I mean criticize their human rights record and lack of climate change reforms.  As Secretary of State, Clinton also pushed for a “pivot to Asia” alongside Obama as a means to further strengthen ties with the Asia Pacific in a changing world.

Apparently, Chinese people don’t like being criticized, and they don’t appreciate a “pivot,” either.  Many Chinese saw the “pivot” as “containment” and were discontent with her bossy attitude in telling Beijing to stop its expansionist behavior.  When it came to the South China Sea, they didn’t want to hear Hillary complain for another 4-8 years.

Chinese citizens wanted someone who was practical with money and didn’t make a fuss about silly things like, you know, freedom of speech and human rights.

Plus, social media in China was awash in ageism and sexism regarding  Hillary.  One Chinese (female) user commented:

“She is so old. Why can’t she go home and help raise children?”

Ouch.

I can understand their bitter sentiment toward the “pivot,” but in terms of human rights I’m simply baffled.  Isn’t that why Chinese people immigrate to the United States?  So they won’t get locked up for speaking their mind?  Some acquaintances in China even told me that people “disappeared” for selling the wrong stock at the wrong time.  Don’t they want to safely practice business and protect their assets?  And don’t the Chinese flock to the U.S. for cleaner air and a better environment?  Isn’t that exactly why Clinton and Obama pushed China into the Paris Climate Agreement?

Again, any criticism about China, even if it’s in the best interest of their people, is apparently bad.

3. Chinese Media Influence

Like Russia, when China knew that Trump had an actual shot at winning, they rolled with the punches and made him shine on TV.  Nothing would split the U.S. more or ruin the enticement of democracy like an angry America with Trump as president–and they wanted to make that happen.

“From a comprehensive view, it would make it easier for China to cope if Trump is elected. This is because under the policy line advocated by Obama and Clinton, the political and military frictions between China and the U.S. will be more frequent.”

Chinese Media and government backed commentators were sympathetic toward Trump.

And by god, it worked.

I Know, Not ALL Chinese People Feel This Way

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I have a lot of Chinese friends in China (like Z, god bless you) who was also stunned and shocked by a Trump presidency.  Many Chinese-American friends are also disappointed in the results.

In a country that has been void of elections or any independent political movements for more than 70 years, it makes sense that Chinese citizens are still… well, confused.  Chinese people just don’t understand how democracy works, and with a quick glance at their history and government, it’s easy to understand why.

However, the China response to Trump has made me wonder:

What would happen to China if they could actually vote for their leader?

For me, it’s a troubling thought indeed.

Sources:
Brookings Institute: “What do Chinese People Think of Hillary Clinton?”
Brookings Institute: “What Do Chinese People Think of Donald Trump?”
Asahi Newspaper: “Chinese State Media Signal Trump Preference”
Fortune: “Donald Trump is Oddly Popular in China”

Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China

Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China

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Hunan.

In high school, I worked at the only Chinese restaurant in my very humble town called “Hunan Village.”  I neither knew what, or where, Hunan was at the time.

Fast forward six years later, and I meet the inspiration for my foray into China: a man named Chen.  Through our friendship, he inspired me to not only self-study Mandarin in Japan, but also to study abroad in Beijing and later take the plunge and move to Shanghai.  Honestly, without Chen, China wouldn’t even be a part of my life.

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Chen and I from six years ago when we traveled to Korea

Chen is from Hunan.

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Chen with his AWESOME WIFE!

For years, Chen has been urging me to see his homeland, so when I told him I was going back to China this summer, he and his wife invited me to go–and I did.  I finally made it to Hunan province, the hometown of the infamous Mao Ze Dong, the land of hot peppers and spices, a province full of minority tribes and ripe with national parks.

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Believe it or not, this is supposed to be Mao Ze Dong. Gotta love that wind blowing in his hair.

The trip was a wake up call for me.  Chen’s father father lived in a crumbling, concrete apartment building from communist-era China, covered in mold and black decay. Despite all of the wealth in Shanghai and the coastal cities, it was then I realized that although China has managed to lift 250 million people out of poverty, most of its citizens still live in staggeringly poor conditions.

Outside of Chen's father's home
Outside of Chen’s father’s home

Chen’s family was more than generous.  They invited me into their home, prepared the best Chinese food of my life, and made many toasts to my travels.

This is why I love China.
This is why I love China.

After visiting his family, Chen encouraged me to see Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO world heritage site and the pride of his home province.  Although he was unable to accompany me, I was able to persuade J to escape from Shanghai and follow me to the countryside.

And by far, Zhangjiajie was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in China.

Zhangjiawha?

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Zhangjiajie is a city located in northern Hunan province and is a five hour bus ride from the capital city of Changsha.  The national park Wulingyuan within Zhangjiajie City was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992.  The first city here dates back to 221 B.C.–so yes, this place is really, really old.  Zhangjiajie is also home to one of China’s minority tribe which, unfortunately, also means it’s the poorest region in Hunan.

Most know Zhangjiajie as the inspiration for the movie Avatar, and it’s easy to see the similarities.  Zhangjiajie is a natural playground of rock formations.  Like fingers reaching up to touch the heavens, the jagged, quart-size sandstone columns hidden in the ephemeral mist of this rural piece of China makes for a mystical landscape indeed.  Some of these columns are almost 600 feet (200 meters) high!

The Good: Must See, Jaw Dropping Views

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The scenery at Zhangjiajie was, simply, the most badass thing I’ve ever seen.  Yes, this place is “touristy,” but like the Grand Canyon or the Notre Dame in Paris, it still doesn’t fail to impress.  Compared to other places in China, it wasn’t even that bad.  Hawkers didn’t harass me at every turn and corner and I was able to enjoy nature without someone trying to sell me something every five minutes (which happens everywhere else in China, trust me).

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Highlights included Jinximen, a path at the base of the sandstone formations that runs alongside the bubbling brooks and rivers.  Although there were some slight showers while J and I hiked the trail, it was a blessing in disguise because we were awarded with the mist factor.  A touch of mist, the mountains above, the rivers rushing by us–my god, it was perfect.

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The view from the top of the glass elevator was excellent.

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J: Oh shit! 600 foot elevator in China?! I’m totally a goner…!!
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…or maybe not 😉

Another must see view was tian guan tai (天观台), a fairly empty (yes!) viewing spot where J and I sat on a rock, dropped our backpacks, and stared at this magnificent view in utter silence for almost fifteen minutes.  We were very impressed.

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My favorite hike was, without a doubt, the aptly named “10 mile painting.”  From the peak of tian guan tai down to Wulingyuan City, this long ass strenuous descent down into the City is hard on the legs, but easy on the eyes.  Every time J and I rounded a corner we had to whip out our cameras.  Every step led us into a new landscape, a fresh perspective, a beautiful painting.  The most photogenic hike ever. read more

Hiking in China: 7 Habits of the Modern Day Chinese Traveler

Hiking in China: 7 Habits of the Modern Day Chinese Traveler

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J and I were descending one of China’s greatest treasures: the National Park of Zhangjiajie.

Every corner we rounded presented us with a new jaw-dropping landscape of carved sandstone valleys poking through a sea of lush green trees. J and I took a deep breath, inhaled the clean air of the countryside and lost ourselves in the sea of clouds swirling in between the mountains.

That is, until Avicii arrived. You know, the Swedish DJ. The Chinese tourist who came bouncing down the trail behind us was blasting him full volume from his iPhone speaker.

Now, I have nothing against Avicii, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of music I imagine when hiking down one of China’s most treasured valleys. This Chinese tourist didn’t stop his playlist at Avicii–oh no–we heard Calvin Harris, Rihanna, some Selena Gomez and even Justin Bieber.

After 20 minutes, J lost it.

“Excuse me,” she walked up to him and spoke to him in near perfect Chinese.

“Your music is not appropriate for the scenery and it’s causing a disturbance to myself and the other travelers. I think you should shut off that crap and appreciate the beauty of your country around you.”

His jaw dropped.

He shut off his music.

J pierced into his dumbfounded eyes.

He stepped back and cried,

“wow, your Chinese is AMAZING!”

While he totally missed the point, we were able to hike the rest of the mountain without club music. At least, for a little while.

This was only one of many delightful “habits” we faced when hiking with fellow Chinese travelers.

When hiking with Chinese tourists in China, one is bound to put up with enjoy one of these five lovely habits:
1. Shouting and Screaming.  Without end.

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Imagine the echos this view makes

Chinese people scream and shout on mountains. That’s just how it is. One scream prompts another scream and pretty soon the whole mountain sounds like a banshee.

I’ve lived in China for five years total and I still can’t figure out why they have to shout their lungs out on a mountaintop.

Maybe they get a kick out of the echo it makes. Maybe they feel like they’re on top of the world and want everyone to know it. Maybe they’re tired and want to vent their frustrations.

Either way, it drives me crazy. J and I were greeted to these lovely echoes and screams on almost every trail in Zhangjiajie, and we wondered what would happen if someone ACTUALLY screamed for help on the mountain.

Oh well.
2. Boombox on the Mountain

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Imagine this view to Avici’s “Titanium” song. Fitting, no?

Chinese people love to blast music on their iphone speakers. J and I did not hike Zhangjiajie in the silent serenity of nature—oh no. We had the Frozen song “let it go” as the OST to one of our treks, Avicii on another (as mentioned above), and of course Taylor Swift and other American pop hits following us on almost every trail.

Whenever I’ve gone hiking in China someone is always bound to be blasting music. If you’re climbing a mountain in China, get ready for some noise.
3. Smoking.  Everywhere.

Emilien ETIENNE [ - THE SMOKER - ] via photopin (license)
Emilien ETIENNE [ – THE SMOKER – ] via photopin (license)

Is it just me, or is China the only place in the world where national parks have multiple designated smoking spots on almost every trail?

I was alarmed at the number of people smoking AND hiking (actually, I was kind of impressed). J and I were constantly waving away the stench of smoke and stepping over cigarette butts that people casually tossed onto the national park grounds.

One man was even smoking ON THE BUS. J stormed up to him and commanded that he immediately stop smoking, or she was going to give him the smack down.

He put out his cigarette.
4. Littering

Jonathan Kos-Read Trash via photopin (license)
Jonathan Kos-Read Trash via photopin (license)

China has more garbage cans readily available than any other country I’ve been in—yet the littering problem is enormous.

J and I saw a middle-aged Chinese woman throw an empty yogurt bottle into this lake.

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When the lake resembles a mirror, that means don’t throw garbage in it

Seriously? I know that the previous generation wasn’t trained in social graces, but this is a bit much. I feel like it’s common sense not to poison or litter an area as beautiful as this.

J and I saw so much garbage scattered throughout all of the national parks, our hearts were broken by the end of the journey. I really hope the younger Chinese are more respectful of the environment and learns to preserve these natural treasures for future generations to come.
5. Loud, loud, loud voices

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This was a loud photo. Trust me.

J was paces ahead of me. I couldn’t catch up. I was weaving through the tourists, wondering why J was in such a rush to reach the end of the trail. The nature around us was lush and gorgeous, yet she was on a mad dash to reach the finish line. When I finally sprinted ahead to catch up with her, I asked.
“Are you worried about time?”

“No, sorry Mary,” J sighed.

“I just can’t stand the ayis (old ladies) behind us shouting and blabbering.”

It was then I realized that we were surrounded by screaming (yes, screaming) and shouting middle aged ladies talking about god-knows-what. It was difficult to hear myself think. If I wasn’t surrounded by screaming old ladies, then I was being blasted by the megaphone of a tour guide addressing a herd of tourists. Totally took the tranquility out of nature.

Luckily Zhangjiajie wasn’t too crowded, so our fast pace helped us outrun the tour group where we were able to find (some) peace and quiet.
6. Spitting
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure most of us who have been in China know about the spitting–but I still can’t get used to it.

J had a front row view of an older man swirl a loogie in his mouth, accumulate foam, then hurl the yellow blob onto the floor with a deep throated snort. She almost threw up her lunch in response.
7. Shoving

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J and I were about to board the public bus, and like good foreigners we tried to queue.

Bad idea.

Three older women literally pushed a mother and two children to the ground to grab the last three seats on the bus. Screaming and shouting ensued, but in the end, the three older women got on the bus and the mother and her two children were left in the dust of the bus that sped away.

Basically, to get anywhere in China, you have to shove. I hate being shoved and I hate shoving, but it’s survival of the fittest here. Very tiring.

As I observed the habits of the local tourists, I had an epiphany:

Chinese people really dislike silence.

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This is the kind of ‘re nao’ I like

China is a society that values 热闹 (re nao), which literally means hot noise. The definition of ‘re nao’ is loud, energetic, vibrant, vivacious… it’s the noise of peopled gathered together, talking enthusiastically, eating, being alive to the fullest. It’s a trait of the Chinese I love, but it’s also a double-edged sword. During the holidays and at parties, being re nao is awesome, good fun–but it can also grate your nerves when you’re looking to relax. Anywhere.

Chinese people scream on mountains, shout at each other, talk in loud voices and constantly eat and snack (and thus litter) because that’s their idea of a good time. Keeping the spirit of “re nao,” even outside of the home, is a natural trait of the Chinese.

It’s been a few years since I’ve lived or traveled in China, and to be honest the seven traits above wore me out on my most recent journey… especially the pushing, shoving, and loud voices. It was hard to find a moment of peace almost anywhere (even in one of China’s most beautiful national parks during low season), and to be honest it was quite exhausting.

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Find inner peace, like this butterfly

So next time you’re traveling in China, mentally prepare yourself for the above. It will happen, but how you handle it is up to you. I suggest learning a few phrases in Chinese (like stop smoking or please be quiet) and do what J did. Many Chinese don’t know what they’re doing is a nuisance to others, and when told to stop they usually do.

Despite the above, traveling Zhangjiajie was totally worth it and, though I was worn to the bone, I have no regrets.

No pain (spitting, shoving, smoking, littering), no gain (gazing upon this).
chinesetraveler6
Have you had any experience with Chinese tourists? Do you have any habits to add to the above?

Battle of the Bloggers! Empress Of Bright Moon Ancient China Trivia Quiz!

Battle of the Bloggers! Empress Of Bright Moon Ancient China Trivia Quiz!

Welcome to the Battle of the Bloggers!

empress-of-bright-moon-cover-701x1024

In today’s episode, blogger Autumn Ashbough of West Dates East faces off with me for some Chinese Tang Dynasty Trivia.  Who will reign supreme?  Mary, a girl who speaks Chinese but knows next to nothing about ancient Chinese history; or Autumn, the witty all-knowing blogger?

weina

Weina Randel will be hosting today’s game. Randel spent six years researching China’s only female Emperor. She’s got some brutal questions for us about both her books (The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon), as well as Chinese history and culture in general.

Who will win? The woman who actually speaks Mandarin and lived in China, or the woman who took one class on Chinese history over a decade ago in college?

Let’s find out. Here’s an only slightly edited version of our game show, conducted primarily via Skype:

WEINA: Ladies, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. I have seven questions for each of you, plus a tie-breaker if necessary.

AUTUMN (snorts): It’s not going to be necessary. Mary is going to crush me. Especially if you’re dinging us on pronunciation. I don’t even know what tones ARE.

WEINA: I’ll give you a break on pronunciation.

AUTUMN: Whoo-hoo! You’re going DOWN, Mary!

WEINA: First question, to Mary. Mary, the ancient Tang China was a highly stratified, hierarchical society with classes and distinctions. The emperor used the dress’ color to mark the status and distinction. For example: the highest-ranking aristocrats wore the color purple, middle-ranking red and green, and lowest-ranking blue, and the commoners and scholars white. read more

Interview with Weina Dai Randel on Her New Book “The Moon in the Palace”

Interview with Weina Dai Randel on Her New Book “The Moon in the Palace”

I am very delighted today to post my first book review and interview with talented author, Weina Dai Randel!

The Moon in the Palace is the tale of China’s famous (and only) empress, Wuzetian.

MooninthePalace

I first learned about Wuzetian in my Chinese language class at Tsinghua University, where I was forced to learn words such as “decapitate,” “sever” and “jar in a head” in order to read and understand the gruesome tale of China’s empress.  While my Chinese language book’s rendition of her history and reign painted her as an ice cold queen who ruled with cunning and fear, a part of me still wondered: Could China’s one and only empress be that ruthless?  Is there a back story?

Well, my wish was heard with Weina’s book falling into my hands.  Weina tells Wuzetian’s story not merely as a biography–but as a colorful and human tale of a girl who has to make heart wrenching decisions while struggling to survive in a brutal dynasty.

First of all, I must say: I love this book.  Honestly.  I wasn’t paid to say this.  IT’S VERY, VERY GOOD.

I haven’t had a book push me to turn pages and read for hours on end for YEARS.  Reading this book brought me back to my younger years where I was so engrossed in a book I forgot about the outside world and focused only on one thing: what happens next.  When I say this book is a page turner, I mean it.  I guarantee you will fly through it in a week, tops.

Without further ado, I’ll have the author introduce herself and The Moon in The Palace!

Please tell me about yourself and why you became a writer.

I was born in China and grew up there. I came to U.S. when I was twenty-four. I’ve been living in Texas for almost fifteen years.

I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I read a lot when I grew up, not just regular kids’ books with pictures, but those serious large volume novels. I began to read the popular wuxia novels written by Jin Yong, Liang Yusheng and Gulong in third grade, and when I was in fourth grade, I already finished reading Dreams in a Red Mansion. Why these serious stuff? You may ask. The truth is I couldn’t find any books for kids in my parents’ house. Those serious stuff were my older brother and older sister’s, and I had to steal from their night stands at night and return them in the morning so they wouldn’t find out. I think my earliest seed of wanting to be a writer came from reading those books.

I actually tried to write a novel one summer. I was still in elementary school, I think, and I only finished one paragraph! But when I was in fourth grade, I published my first short story, and I became a little reporter of the magazine. I was thrilled. After that, I often fancied to become a writer.

How and when did you first become interested in China’s history?

I was always interested in history, any history, not just China’s history. It’s in my blood, I think. I grew up memorizing and reciting the poems composed in ancient time, and I was always fascinated with powerful stories in the past and courageous figures who made impact on the other people’s lives. So in a way, to me, the past was gone, but the stories always stay with me.

For those who do not know her, could you give a brief introduction and summary of Wu Ze Tian?

Empress Wu, daughter of a governor, was summoned to serve Emperor Taizong when she was thirteen. After Emperor Taizong’s death, she became the wife of the emperor’s son, Emperor Gaozong. The Emperor, who suffered strokes that robbed him of vision, appointed her as the co-ruler of the country and after his death Empress Wu denounced Tang Dynasty and founded her own dynasty, Zhou Dynasty, and became the first and only female to rule China in her own name. Under her reign, China blossomed; literature, art, architecture, and trade reached zeniths unmatched in other dynasties and China became a role model for its many neighboring countries. Her reign, lasting as long as half a century, was highlighted in the Chinese history and praised as the Golden Age.

Why Wu Ze Tian? What was your inspiration for writing the book?

I was inspired to write about a strong Chinese woman after I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in graduate school. The book had a chapter about an unmarried woman who drowned herself because she was pregnant and her pregnancy was considered as a disgrace to her family and the village. I didn’t like that story, and I wanted to tell my friends in U.S. that China had many strong and successful women. Empress Wu was the first woman I had thought of.

However, when I began to research about her, I realized that even though she was a household name in China, she’s not well-known in U.S. So I decided to write her story and introduce her to American readers, and perhaps, also introduce Chinese culture and my favorite classic Chinese literature to American readers.

How much of this story is true?

You know I’m very happy you asked this question! It’s wonderful to hear readers ask how much is true after they finish reading. This is one of my goals, too, that readers will be intrigued by the novel and investigate further.

So to answer your question, the following is true:

1). All the male with names, except the eunuch, are true. They were real people who existed during the Tang Dynasty.

2). The women, such as Mei, Mei’s mother, the Noble Lady, who is also known as the daughter of Emperor Yang, the Xu Girl, Empress Wende, are true. And no. Jewel is fictional. And all Mei’s friends in the Inner Court, such as Plum and Daisy are fictional.

**Possible Spoilers!**

3). The attempted assassination of Emperor Taizong is true. It was recorded. So was his illness. Although many historians were not sure if it was stroke or something else.

4) The background information of Emperor Taizong killing his brothers, the incident at the Xuan Wu Gate, is also true. It was recorded, although the perspective may be different, depending on who wrote the history.

5). The rebellions of the Crown Prince Li Cheng Qian and Prince Yo are true, although historical record indicated they were plotted separately and did not cause any serious damage on the palace. So you can guess, the punishment of the Uncle and the Crown Prince and Prince Yo is also true, even though the rampage through the palace is fictional.

6) Much of the cultural elements, such as the Adulthood Ceremony, the Emperor’s bedding schedule, the polo game, the hierarchy of the palace are also true.

How much research did you do for this book? It’s very in-depth!

Ah, all the research I did. I spent three years just to gather all the relevant material about Empress Wu and Tang Dynasty, and of course that was not enough.

I also spent more than another three years to study classic Chinese literature, Shi Jing, The Art of War, Confucius’ Analects, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Jing, Ban Zhao’s The Book for Women, and numerous poems composed during Han Dynasty, Tang Dynasty, and even Song Dynasty, so I could have a feel of living in the ancient world in China.

I also read a lot of scholarly articles, dissertations, papers, that focused on Tang Dynasty, and many books solely discussing many aspects of life in Tang Dynasty, such as Charles Benn’s Daily Life in Traditional China and all of Edward H. Schafer’s books about Tang Dynasty.

I also dug into many articles regarding architecture, rituals, silkworm farming, silk weaving, Silk Road, polo game, and women’s dowry, and their lives in and outside palace in general.

Even when I was writing, I continued to review the exotics, the grooming of horses, and the imperial stables, etc. So in conclusion, I guess I can say the research was an education of almost ten years.

I noticed the main character “Mei” quotes Lao Tzu quite often. Was Wu Ze Tian as educated as she is in your book, or is her interest in the Art of War an influence from your personal interest, or both? read more

My Chinese New Year 2016 Gone Wrong

My Chinese New Year 2016 Gone Wrong

Happy Chinese New Year!
Happy Chinese New Year!

In America, it’s easy to forget that Chinese New Year is even happening.  Akin to Christmas in China, no one in America gives a flying crap about a holiday based on an outdated calendar.

My boyfriend was no exception.  Although he’s Chinese, he was way more excited about the super bowl.

“Am I allowed to watch super bowl?” he pleaded.

“What about Chinese New Year?” I frowned.  “I thought we could make jiao zi (dumplings) together and watch a Chinese movie or something.  You know, get in the spirit.”

His face scrunched up.  He paused.  His mind went into the how-to-correctly-answer-girlfriend zone of concentration.

“Yeah…we can, uh, do that,” he replied after one full minute of silence.

“Oh, just watch the football game,” I rolled my eyes.  “I’ll go celebrate with some real Asian people.”

Sadly, boyfriend couldn’t do either.  He got called into the hospital.  But instead of wish everyone a “Xin Nian Kuai Le,” I can assure you he checked the score on his mobile for the play-by-play of the super bowl as he rounded the hospital.

Luckily, my fellow international friends invited me to a simple Chinese New Year gathering at their home.  I had a chance to spend the holiday with my Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese-American friends.

The Egg Rolls and the Incident

Vietnamese Egg Rolls
Vietnamese Egg Rolls

After picking up groceries from the ol’ Ranch 99 Chinese Supermarket near my house, I rolled up my sleeves, put on my apron and got to work.  I was going to make Vietnamese egg rolls.

Vietnamese egg rolls are similar to Chinese egg rolls, but way better.  Just sayin’.

There are two kinds of Vietnamese egg rolls: those made with won ton (egg & flour) skin that are usually stuffed with meat and vermicelli rice noodles, and the other kind made with meat stuffing and rice paper wrapping, which my mom and aunt usually made for me growing up.

I helped my mom fold and roll up the rice paper egg rolls countless times throughout my life, but I never actually made the stuffing or fried them myself.  So, I gave myself a challenge.

It was the awaited moment young daughters everywhere face in their life: the moment to cook like their mother.

…..so I found a recipe online.

After rolling over 20 egg rolls and sweating over a deep fryer, I towered over my finished creation.  Face caked in oil and hair in tatters, I had did it.  I made Vietnamese rice paper egg rolls–and they tasted mighty fine.

Then I looked at the clock and realized: Shit.  I’m 10 minutes late.

Without even looking in the mirror, I packed up the egg rolls, threw a package of tang yuan (sweet mochi) in my car and sped off.

Everything was going fine.  There was no traffic.  I drove with some Chinese music blasting, me totally singing along.  I was about ten minutes away.  I could smell the egg rolls in the trunk.

Then I made a right turn and there it was.

Debris.  All over the road.

There was no avoiding it.  It was to the left, to the right, to the front.  I braced for impact.

CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK.

My stomach sunk with the noise.  I pulled over and jumped out of the driver’s seat, inspecting the outside of my car.  It was dark, but from the looks of it there was no heavy damage.  I pressed on the tires to check the air pressure and they seemed alright.

I sighed a breath of relief and hopped back in the car.  I somehow managed to get away clean.

Or so I thought.

Dinner With a Surprise

Chinese New Year 2016 Feast

My friends and I gathered at their humble abode for some Asian cuisine.

My Chinese friend from Sichuan province made spicy noodles.  In China, eating noodles = long life.

My Korean friend made tteokguk, a traditional mochi (rice) soup with beef and eggs.  It supposedly ages you one more year for the new year.

My Vietnamese-American friend brought a shit ton of fruits.  Cause Asian people love, love fruit.

And my Japanese friend, who doesn’t celebrate Chinese new year, came along anyway for a good time and brought booze.  Woo-hoo.

And, of course, there were my egg rolls.

Anyway, we feast like it’s Thanksgiving and roll on the floor in gluttony.  It was a joyous evening of talking, laughing, and good food.  We finished it up with tang yuan.

I said my farewells and hopped in my car.  As soon as I put the car in drive and hit the gas pedal, however, I knew something was wrong.  The tire symbol on my dashboard lit up.  My stomach lurched as I inspected my Prius’ front wheel and confirmed the worst.

I had a flat tire.

CNY3
Yes, there are 10 nails in my tire

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I called the friends I had just left. “But do any of you happen to know how to change a flat tire?”

“Hold on one minute Mary,” my friend assured me.  “We got it covered.  We’ll be right out.”

My four friends rushed out to the parking lot in worry.

“I called my friends who know how to change a flat tire,” my Korean friend said. “They’ll be coming soo—“

Before she could even finish her sentence, a car came wheeling up behind us and parked.  Out hopped three young Korean men, one smoking a cigarette.

“They’re faster than 911!” my Chinese friend cried.

Before I even realized what was happening, the boys put the jack under my car and started to inspect my tire.  I was barraged with Korean.  I had no idea what was going on.  One boy kicked my rim, another one started loading up a “how to change a flat tire” video on youtube.

“I thought they knew how to do this!?” I started panicking and reached for my insurance card.

“They know, they know” my Korean friend patted me on the shoulder. “Relax?”

I was assaulted with Korean once more and one of the boys, cigarette in one hand and wrench in the other, began to jump on the wrench attached to the bolts of my tire in an attempt to unscrew them.  My car slid forward off the jack.  The two other boys rushed to hold my car up.  I grimaced.

Oh god.

As I began to dial my insurance provider, the Korean boys somehow managed to take off my old tire and put on the spare donut.  I figured, if they put this much effort into it and then I called the insurance roadside assistance, it would be a slap in the face.  I mean, who cares if the donut maybe rolls off later as I try to drive back home? It was all about good manners and showing my appreciation.

And as fast as they came, the Korean boys lit up one last cigarette as they put the final screw on the donut.  They gave me the thumbs up, smiled, and sped away in their car.  Although they had saved me from impending doom, I didn’t even know their names.  Hell, we didn’t even communicate.  I merely muttered a thank you as they drove into the night.

So last night sucked.  But somehow, I was saved by a magical Korean-boy-band-mechanic-trio.

This morning I took my car into the shop and spent a ton of money buying a new tire and fixing the alignment of my vehicle.  The paint job was ruined from the debris as well.  Ah, cars.  You expensive death machines.  How I wish I could live without you.

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So Happy Chinese New Year everyone! 

And don’t forget the very important lesson we learned from Mary’s Chinese New Year 2016:

Make sure you know how to change a flat tire.