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April 15, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 4.15- A Day in the Life


My alarm goes off. Annoyed, I fumble for my phone before turning it off and rolling back into bed. Light through the curtain illuminates my room faintly, signaling that it’s actually morning- I’ve woken up several times throughout the night coughing. The bed is modest but comfortable, and I’m tired enough to go back to sleep for another hour. My throat itches. I can’t stop coughing so I reach for a bottle of water on my desk, a desk much cleaner than the one back at Stanford. It’s long and rectangular, and on it are my laptop, a few pens, a notebook opened to a page of scribbled Chinese characters, a bottle of lotion, various chargers for my laptop and phone and iPod, a PKU campus map, my wallet and a mask to the far left, and also a book of classical patriotic songs that I’ve been using for bamboo flute practice.

When I wake up a second time, it’s already 10am, two hours later than I intended. My plans to go to the gym first thing in the morning now out the window, I swallow painfully at the lump in my throat and sit myself up. It’s still very quiet- having a single is good in that regard, especially when the walls are pretty thick. I go to the bathroom, wake up a bit more, and justify sleeping in by convincing myself that being sick warrants extra sleep. I’ve been sick for a while now- I wonder when I’ll actually be able to wake up and feel perfectly normal. It’s also noticed the trend that my throat feels the worst from around 1am until after lunch.

Lunch sounds good- I decide to go to the dining hall early today to beat the rush and also to grab the food when it’s hot. Coming out of the bathroom, I glance at Bryson’s door and see that the light’s already on. I turn on the light in my room, turn on my desk light, and start reviewing Chinese characters from the lesson that my textbook is already open to. I can expect a vocab quiz every day I have class, so I test myself as well as scribble characters over and over again in a scrap notebook.

Bryson and I decide to keep lunch simple- we head to the nearest dining hall at 11:30ish. I don my mask and head outside. The pollution isn’t that bad today, but millions of poplar tree seeds are still floating around like falling snow: a weird sensation for someone who’s accustomed to associating falling white crystals with cold and wet, not warm and smoggy. We pass by WuMei, racks of bicycles, and also sidestep several times to let electric scooters or bicyclists pass by on the narrow streets. Inside the dining hall, students are already lined in front of four or five different serving windows. I grab twelve dumplings to share with Bryson, go to the next window, and point at two of several large serving dishes behind the window. The server scoops a helping each into a bowl, then tops it off with a scoop of rice. They hand it to me through the small window, tap a ridiculously cheap price into the register, and have me scan my student ID.

Bryson and I bring our food upstairs. All the eating tables are situated in groups of four seats each, so we sit beside two random students. The dumplings are good, but nothing amazing. The rice and tofu are comforting to eat. While I wait for Bryson to finish his last few dumplings, I review some flashcards in my phone. On the way back to our international student building, we pass by a larger group of Stanford students on their way to lunch.

A few more minutes to review, so I look ahead a few pages in the textbook. I know that my reading comprehension is way behind the other 3rd year students, so I look up words I don’t know using an app called Pleco. At 12:45, Bryson and I gather our materials and head out. In the hallway, all the other students are doing the same, just closing their doors. We head out together, walking out the back door of the building and entering the building where our classes are held. The elevator is full- I walk up four flights of stairs to the fifth level, walk past a long hallway with hotel-like rooms, and turn to get to class. All three years of Chinese are held in classrooms right next to each other. I join Tracy and wait for Jackie- a three person class. Our teacher, Daniel, is fairly young, with yellow-sided glasses, medium length “sweepy” hair, a woven red string bracelet as well as one with clear beads, and a puffy light blue jacket. He’s a really nice guy, and I like the way he teaches. The next hour is filled with him pouring out knowledge to us and writing out new Chinese characters and phrases that he incorporates into his explanations onto the board. They’re explanations and not lectures… we regularly interrupt him to ask questions, and he goes through the vocab words in the textbook in order, occasionally going on a tangent to explain something relevant or interesting. The row of wooden desks are very close together- the classroom is very narrow, and we are sitting two feet away from where Daniel is standing against the whiteboard. I take notes, mostly listening to Daniel speak about the Cultural Revolution and a story of how his professor’s professor was taken and imprisoned for 10 years by the government before being allowed to return to teach.

The class ends- I’m all motivated to look up history on the cultural revolution, review all the characters in my study notebook, and preview the rest of the lesson to get ahead. By the time I walk back to my room, I’ve lost all motivation to study and just want to take a nap. Just today, I accidentally locked my room key in my room, so I grab a person at the front desk to help me unlock it. I sit down in my room and decide what to do. Studying can wait just a little bit,  I need to just take a quick nap…..

Ten minutes turns into an hour which turns into two… the bed mattress is low on the ground, unlike my lofted bed back at Stanford. I can’t resist just flopping onto and resting my head a little, so I often take unintended naps. But then again, I’m sick and so I need all the sleep I can get, so I don’t feel so bad. It’s nice not having any classes other than Chinese the majority of the week, anyway- Mondays are full with class from 9am to 6pm, but after I get through that it’s all completely up to me how I spend my time. I think about my friends back at Stanford and how they must be envious of how little academic work I have to complete abroad. I cough some more, thinking about a conversation I had with Chad earlier in the hallway before class- what should I do to get better from all this coughing and sore throats? Maybe Chinese herbal medicine. Or maybe some exercise to get it all out… I should probably go to the gym now. It takes awhile for me to get motivated to go to the gym, a routine I like to complete in the morning before lunch. So I turn on my laptop and YouTube a song that I’ve recently discovered that I love- “Turn All the Lights On” by T-Pain featuring Neyo. I dance in my chair a little, grooving to the strong beat, barely paying attention to the lyrics, which are probably obscene and pretty vulgar anyway. I’ve noticed that for a while now- my listening comprehension when it comes to songs is terrible… words just glaze over in my mind, and I can’t even differentiate swear words until I look the lyrics up, let along explain what a particular song is talking about. It must have something to do with how my brain was wired when I first started listening to the radio…. I feel and experience the songs more than I interpret the lyrics, which is probably why I enjoy electronic and techno music so much. It’s the chorus to “Turn All the Lights On” and I can’t help but do a couple of shuffling moves in my room, pretending I actually know how to dance hip-hop.

Man, hip-hop is so cool. It’s on my list of things to learn, but I’ve never had time to pursue it… wait, I’m never going to have more free time than I do now. What’s to stop me from getting into it? I sit back in my chair and go to YouTube, looking up if there are any dance choreographies to “Turn All the Lights On.” There are! I go through a couple, feeling more inspired the more I watch. And this one has a tutorial! Excited, I open up the video and am pleased that the person actually teaches at a manageable pace. I spend the next ten minutes trying to mimic the first eight counts… wow, I am so bad at controlling my body. How does he make it look so good? And wait, how does he do that? I’m so glad Bryson and I have separate rooms, because I must look so stupid right now… I go to the bathroom and try to use the mirror to help me control my movements. Nope. Well, kind of? I’m close, so I reassure myself that it will be a work in progress. I watch the video one more time for fun, then grab a bottle of water, my iPod, and head out to the gym.

The gym is a fairly long walk, so I put on my mask and my iPod. A few pop songs start playing, and I can’t help but dance a little as I walk… no one will notice. I blend in for the most part, right? But then again, maybe people can tell that I’m a foreigner if I wear the mask when the pollution isn’t “that bad.” The roads are fairly busy with pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional car. I make sure to look back every time I pass someone in the road, to avoid being run over by a bike. Most people have bells on their bikes that they incessantly ring to alert you of their approach, but I feel like I should be careful anyway.

The gym has a lobby and an inner room filled with equipment, much smaller than Arrillaga, and WOW it’s packed today. There’s even a significant line to the desk inside where you scan your ID. I glance around quickly- every single elliptical and treadmill is taken, and there are even a couple of people standing behind them and stretching, waiting for them to finish. I get in line to scan my ID, debating on whether or not it’s worth it to stay. It’s around 5:15pm, so I decide that I’ll stick around to work out on whatever machines are available, then grab dinner before the dining halls close. There are so many people here, something pretty unexpected, considering that it’s just about dinner time. I do a couple of machines, then grab a mat to do crunches. The person on the treadmill closest me suddenly finishes, so I check to see if there’s anyone waiting before getting on. It’s already pretty hot in here, and the AC isn’t that strong… I put in a good half hour of cardio before deciding that I’m dying. I stretch, do a few more machines, and head out to dinner.

Ahhh, Nong Yuan. The Arrillaga Dining Hall of PKU. It has two stories so I head directly for the second floor, hoping to find a hot plate of food before it all runs out. I’m a little late, it’s 6:30pm, but I go around to all the different stands to scope things out. This dining hall is structured much differently from the one closest to my dorm, and is set up exactly like a food court in a mall. I grab a plate of broccoli, swipe for 3 yuan, find another plate of cabbage and chicken (6 yuan), and also a bowl of rice (2 yuan), a total equivalent to less than two US dollars. Nong Yuan is the largest dining hall on campus, so there is actual ample amount of seating, unlike the other dining halls where you just sit down at a table of four with three other strangers and eat your food without looking up and making eye contact. The food is nice, but not as much protein as I would have liked to find. I muse over a couple of things while I eat, feeling much better now that I’ve finished my goal of getting to the gym and getting a productive workout. When I finish eating, I bring my tray and plates to a lady with a cart, who dumps excess food for me and stacks the empty bowls and collects the chopsticks. I head for the entrance of Nong Yuan and happen to overhear a group of students speaking fluent English. Other international students! I would never have known if I hadn’t heard them speaking, so it’s a nice surprise. I smile as I head down the stairs. Maybe one of these days I’ll sit down randomly with a group of international students and start talking to them.

The air outside is still slightly foggy. The clouds are gray, and it’s slightly cold. I stop by a fruit stand shop, next to a Subway’s, a convenience store, and other small restaurants and shops I haven’t ventured into yet. I pick up two oranges for 10 yuan. I see another dining hall that specializes in noodles, and so I duck in- I previously got a few fried sesame pastries “to go” (they just put it in a bag for me) here, but it looks like it’s around 7pm and so everything’s gone. Undeterred, I keep walking back to my dorm, knowing that I’ll pass by WuMei. Hmm, the soy milk that I got with Matt last time was pretty good… I decide that I need the dairy in my diet and go in. The steps lead to a much larger underground store than the surface shop would suggest. In the back are the drinks, and unfortunately all the soy milk is already gone. I wander around for a while looking for a replacement: WuMei is a small grocery and convenience store all in one, and mostly I’m looking at the snacks, wondering what to get. I eventually just grab two bananas, and a can of red bean soup, and then call it a day.

Bryson’s back in the room so we chat a little- he had to go do laundry today. We don’t have any machines in our dorm, so all of our laundry gets taken to this laundromat, whose worker I’ve sort of befriended. She’s really nice and smiles whenever she doesn’t understand us international students, even my Mandarin, which I suppose has too much of a Taiwanese/foreigner accent to be super clear. Bryson tells me that the laundromat we usually go to won’t be able to dry his clothes in time for our departure tomorrow to Chengdu, so he plans on taking it to a different laundromat on campus. These are the kind of things that we take for granted at Stanford, free laundry and flexibility in how you do it. It’s funny because the first time we all got our laundry back, we were appalled that it felt so crusty, the result of hang drying them and using detergent without fabric softener.

I head into my room, wondering how I’ll spend my time for the night. I decide to get right to blogging, thinking about my experience here in China as a whole. I get detracted by my ramblings about PKU compared to Stanford, and so I decide to make that a whole separate post. By the time I finish my second post, it’s 10pm and I haven’t even finished the post I wanted to actually write (this one). Rachel and a couple of others came back from dinner at Wudaokou (a lively and nearby hang-out area for many international students) during the middle of my blogging session, and were talking in the lounge area that Bryson and I share (they also had boba with them- my heart twinges with sorrow at having missed out) while I stayed in my room to keep writing. The lounge area is a nice social area in between Bryson’s room and mine… there’s even a table and some chairs for playing cards, and a television that we occasionally watch. Anyways, I feel like catching up with Rachel and so I grab an orange and go knock on her two-room double. On the way there, I realize that I have to finish all the fruit that I bought today by the time we leave for our flight to Chengdu tomorrow before dinner.

Rachel’s room is pristine, as always. We chat about everything fascinating (mostly Rachel’s life and her interesting stories at the product design lab back at Stanford), and I realize what an incredibly talented and thoughtful person she is (but then again, I already knew that). We both realize that we have a presentation for our communications class that we’ll be working on together due Monday, and that we get back from Chengdu Sunday night. We discuss possible topics of interest. I also feel excited to document our experience with Szechuang food, the name of food originating from that province (of which Chengdu is a sub-municipality).

It’s around 11pm and so I feel like I should get back to not-studying. I realize that with blogging and another vocab quiz to prepare for left, it will be another late night. I quickly realize that the economics class I wanted to drop in on tomorrow is become less and less of an option, especially when I’m likely to only get a few hours of sleeping after insisting to myself that I stay up to finish the blog post that I started (this one). So what I do? Turn on YouTube to get myself pumped up. Aaaaand Kevin drops by, asking for a piece of bread (from me) and some jam (from Bryson). You know you’re good roommates with someone when you share food like that. I’m always happy when Kevin drops by, even if this time it was just for food. So I call to him from my room how I’m getting more and more interested in hip hop. Kevin’s basically the coolest- he tells me he got more serious about joining Common Origins just this year, a hip hop group back at Stanford, but his moves are already quite good. He comes in and shows me these ridiculously good dance videos of groups such as Culture Shock and The Company. It’s amazing stuff… I’m still in awe at how coordinated the groups are, how much creativity goes into the choreography, and how much work and effort goes into body control and muscle isolation.

I want to have that kind of swag too. Maybe for now I’ll stick with dancing in my room by myself, but it’d be so cool to learn to control my body and be able to express the energy I feel when listening to a song I enjoy. The night is getting late, so Kevin leaves and I’m left to finish the two things still on my checklist. Tomorrow will be another full day. My throat feels slightly better than it did last night. The hallway is now quiet, so I determine that I will finish blogging before I start to review for my vocab quiz tomorrow. I get to work writing and begin to type out my thoughts, enjoying how meta I’m being by narrating in first person but leaving the time reference of my current sentence purposefully ambiguous.

So that’s a day in the life… I promise my next blog post will be more coherent and interesting, but I thought it’d be fun to try and chronicle a whole day for now. Now it’s time for sleep.


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