End of a chapter

As I write this blog from the Sydney Airport, I think it’s finally time to consider my study abroad experience over. Up until now, it’s been unclear- what determined the end? Was it over when I turned in my final assignment? Or when I said goodbye to the first round of GSA’ers who headed to the airport? Or when I checked out of my room at PKU? Now that I’ve finished my coursework, said all of my goodbyes, and have landed in a different continent, it’s definitely done. I have completed my semester abroad.

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Coming into the trip, I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone. I’d never taken a class in global health and had only one public policy class under my belt, while I knew that my many of peers were majors in these fields. I’d never been away from the States for more than 10 weeks. And to top it all off, I was going to India and China, two of the fastest developing and most populated countries in the world.

The trip that I spent months anticipating is now over. And it was so much better than I could have ever expected. But, I still don’t know how to articulate what I saw and felt over the last four months. The summer before my sophomore year, I went a ten-day canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters with three other campers and our counselor, Lauren. During our last day, Lauren prepared us. She said that once we got back to camp, everyone would ask us how it went. They’d ask for our favorite moment and favorite meal. They’d ask us what the hardest part was, the funniest thing that happened. How were we going to respond? With adventures like this, people want a recap. And they’ll expect an answer. How will you encapsulate your experience in just a few sentences?

I had a really hard time explaining my ten-day canoeing trip, and I fear I’ll have the same time with my latest adventure. I took classes on public policy and global health in India and China. I stayed with two host families in Udaipur; one lived in the town and another lived in a rural village about half an hour away. I stayed in a dorm at the Peking University Health Science Center. And I got to know some of the most incredible people in the world. That’s a brief summary, but doesn’t do the experience justice. When I think back on the last four months, it’s all in little snapshots:

  • Walking through the security checkpoint in Minneapolis
  • Watching the bus window shatter on our first day in Delhi
  • Meeting my host dad and host brother for the first time
  • Eating lunch in the school courtyard in Udaipur
  • Watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with Deepti, Ajay and Golu
  • Walking through Sangat with Meenal and Mohini
  • Riding rickshaws with friends after school
  • Making chapatti with my village host family
  • Shopping in Old City
  • High-fiving Ajay through the window of the train as it pulled away from Udaipur
  • Riding an elephant at the Amber Fort
  • Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time
  • Reuniting with my mom in Beijing
  • Eating eggplant at Ralph’s
  • Getting lost on the subway
  • Visiting the rural maternal health center in Chan Ling
  • Hiking to hilltop temple in Yunnan
  • Racing on the Great Wall
  • Eating fried worms at the farewell dinner
  • Singing karaoke
  • Breaking Swetha’s bed when 15 of us decided to try to pose for a picture on it
  • Staying up all night before goodbyes
  • Leaving my room
  • Riding through Beijing for the last time

Those memories are how I’ll remember this trip.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in countdown mode. Every aspect of my life became part of it: days, meals, classes, loads of laundry, showers, pages of my final project…all until I was done. The countdown was certainly a product of anticipation for the next chapter of my adventure: seeing Collin in Australia, but it was also a product of fear: leaving the people I’d grown to love on my trip. I had been so nervous to begin the trip with a group of Duke strangers. And by the end, I didn’t know what life would be like without them.

ImageThis trip has been a huge challenge, but it’s one that I’m so happy I took on. I didn’t have any groundbreaking revelations about India and China. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them in the future. And if anything, I’m more perplexed than when I started the trip. The cultures, histories and current situations in both countries are incredibly complex, and I feel like the more I study them, the harder it is to really know anything for certain. I learned was about what life is like on the ground. I learned about the problems normal people face and what, if anything, is being done to fix them. More than anything, though, the trip taught me about myself. I learned how much I love travel and Bowdoin and writing and rowing and home. Spending time away from things I was so used to at home showed me how much I missed them. And I was exposed to new people and things that I love now too.


This major chapter in my life is over. And I now need to figure out how to explain it. But so much of it will carry on with me. Those parts are not over; they’ll be a part of me forever.


When I arrived at the Sydney airport, I realized that I still had 73 kuai in my wallet from Beijing. I went to the money exchange desk and the woman handed me $6.50 AUD. “That’s six dollars and fifty cents,” she said as she counted it and handed it to me. She smiled, “That’ll get you a coffee.”Image If the blue, cloud-filled sky outside wasn’t a reminder enough, this interaction sure did the trick; I’m far from Beijing. Back at PKU, 73 kuai would have gotten me through a week and a half of lunches or given me close to 35 rides on the subway. But that part of my trip is over, and I’m three hours away from the moment I’ve thought about for the past four months. It’s been an incredible experience and one that I will certainly hold on to for the rest of my life.

Zaijian, China. G’day, Australia.

Place of Peace

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Last Sunday night, I arrived back in Beijing from a ten-day trip through Yunnan Province. Yunnan is located in the southwest corner of China and borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. It’s just under 1,700 miles from Beijing and just over 1,800 miles from Udaipur. Located almost squarely between the two cities where I’ve split the last four months, Yunnan serves as more than just the geographic midpoint between the two halves of my experience here.

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IMG_6085Visually, Yunnan brought me back to Udaipur- women wore elaborate and bright textiles, lakes were nestled between rolling hills and mountains. There were shops selling Indian food, and we even saw a few cows in the road. Culturally, it also appeared to be a blend of the two places. Several ethnic minorities inhabit Yunnan, and we were able to visit the homes of different tribes. Some people conversed in Mandarin, but many other spoke their own tribal dialects. Rajasthan is also home to several large tribes and ethnic minorities. There, too, many people spoke different dialects in addition to Hindi and/or English. Religiosity was also very apparent in Yunnan. When walking through Shaxi, one of the towns we visited on the trip, we saw a roadside shrine to a village deity. Seeing the shrine and visiting temples during the trip to Yunnan evoked memories of India where it felt like a religious structure was constantly in eyesight.

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At the same time, Yunnan was entirely unique, unlike anything I’d experienced in Udaipur or Beijing. At 3,300 meters, there was no doubt we were a long way from Udaipur (600 m) and Beijing (44 m); even a light hike felt grueling. We travelled in a new way: sightseeing with tour companies. And we studied new things: the ancient Tea Horse Trade Route and current primate conservation efforts.

IMG_5910During our ten days there, we visited three different cities (Lijiang, Shaxi, and Zhongdian) and spent two nights in a nature reserve in Tacheng. In Lijiang, we visited a house-turned-museum for a lesson in the Dongba pictographic language of the Naxi tribe. We hiked to a small Buddhist temple where a monk recited a blessing for us. We spoke with a woman at The Nature Conservancy about the group’s work in and around Lijiang. We explored the Old Town, and got $8 massages. The spa idea sounded great in theory, but unbeknownst to us, the shop we visited subscribed to a unique, deep-tissue school of massage, and we all left feeling a bit more bruised and sore than we felt coming in.

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We then drove southwest to Shaxi, a small town that was a key layover point for traders on the Tea Horse Route. There, we tasted 600-year-old Puer tea that sells for $800/kilogram- no surprises that the tasting cups we were given were only slightly larger than bottlecaps. We walked through bright-yellow fields of canola plants and visited an abandoned nunnery. The morning before we left Shaxi, I woke up early and went for a run. I was out as vendors were setting up their shops along the main street and farmers were beginning work in their fields. I ran through the main section of town and out into a small enclave of houses that Nicole and I had stumbled upon the day before. The air was crisp, and the clouds hung low. After running uphill for a while, I decided to head back toward the hostel. As I turned back, I looked out over the huge terraces of crops that I’d been running past. The slight breeze sent waves through the plots of long green grasses and menacing blue-black mountains lay in the distance. On my way out through town, I’d passed an elderly man. As I ran home, I saw him again and he gave me a wide grin and clasped his hands together. “Very good!” he told me. I giggled and kept going. It was an incredible way to start the day.

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black-necked cranesWe had breakfast that morning at the hostel (peanut butter, toast, eggs, and of course, tea) before heading to Zhongdian. In 2001, Zhongdian was renamed Xianggelila or Shangri-La (the paradise described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon). Shangri-La or “shambala” in Sanskrit means place of peace. The politics surrounding the name change were highly contentious, but the place itself is totally serene and wears the name well. While in Zhongdian, we visited an enormous, gold-roofted monastery and hiked up a small hill with a small shrine and 360 degree view of the Napahai valley. Prayer flags rippled in the stiff wind, and we could see snow capped mountains in the distance. As we walked across the valley below the hill, we caught a glimpse of the rare black-necked crane, a symbol of luck. That night, we ate dinner at a local Tibetan family’s house- butter tea, yak meat, and a dance show to cap the night off.

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IMG_6200The next day, we woke to two inches of snow on the ground. It was beautiful, but delayed our departure for the next portion of our trip. After an extended breakfast at a local café, we piled into busses for a six hour ride down the mountain to Tacheng where we’d be staying in a nature reserve and learning about the efforts of China Exploration and Research Society (CERS) to preserve local Lisu culture and protect the endangered snub-nosed monkeys. Yunnan means “south of the clouds” in Mandarin, but during our time in the nature reserve, we were literally among them. We stayed in small log cabins tucked into the forest. At points during our stay, it was impossible to see farther than a few meters with all the clouds hanging around us. It was beautiful, despite the fact that it never stopped raining. We observed snub-nosed monkeys and visited a nearby Lisu village. We learned about bee-keeping techniques and spoke with a local ranger. On Saturday morning, we headed back for a final day in Zhongdian before flying out on Sunday.

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What in many ways appeared the middle ground between Udaipur and Beijing, Yunnan gave me something totally different- a serene, peaceful escape from the crowded, bustling cities where I’ve spent the last three and a half months. The clean air, mountain vistas and forests of prayer flags were such a relief. When we got word that the bird flu had hit Beijing, I joked with friends that we could adopt a simple plan: run away and stay in Yunnan forever. I could think of worse places to end up. But for now, I’m happy to be back in Beijing. Relaxed and rejuvenated from the trip, I’m ready to soak up my final 13 days in China (14 until I see Collin, 25 until Minnesota, and 43 until Bowdoin.) Yes, the countdown has certainly begun.

Finding Home

ImageMaybe it’s because it’s been over 12 weeks since I left home. Or maybe it’s because there are only a little over 5 until I return. Then again, maybe it’s total coincidence. But over the past two weeks, I’ve found myself seeking out and bumping into pieces of home all around Beijing.

Second only to the people at home, what I miss most is food: Thai, Mexican and American diner fare to be specific. I’ve felt their acute absence throughout my trip, but over the past week I filled the voids of all three. Last Tuesday, we all trekked out to a restaurant called Avocado Tree. It was described in online reviews as a knock-off Chipotle, and it was exactly that: Image
identical décor, identical menu, and most importantly, identical food.
Unfortunately, the prices were also identical. A $6 burrito doesn’t seem that outrageous in the U.S., but when I’ve been spending less than a dollar on most of my breakfasts and lunches, it felt like quite the robbery. It was delicious, though, and worth every kuai.

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On Wednesday we grabbed dinner at a Thai restaurant in the swanky expat neighborhood called Sanlitun. It was great, but no competition for the pad thai at Big Bowl or Sweet Angel. And finally, I filled my pancake craving on Easter Sunday at Grandma’s Kitchen, a restaurant near the Silk Market.

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Meghan and I dressed up for the occasion before making our way to one of Beijing’s few American breakfast places. I loaded up on real coffee (not instant, which people seem to really like both in India and China), blueberry pancakes, sausage, and eggs. It was perfect and left me full until nearly 8 that night.

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ImageThere also appeared to be a Minnesota exodus to China this weekend; I ran into over 200 people from the Twin Cities over the course of Saturday and Sunday. A few weeks ago, Ms. Wong, my high school Chinese teacher, contacted me about meeting up during Breck’s annual China Trip. We agreed to meet up at a restaurant on Saturday night. That afternoon, I left myself plenty of time to find the place and even brought a book in case I got to the restaurant with a lot of time to spare. That was real overkill because as it turned out, I arrived to the restaurant 45 minutes late and never ate dinner. I got terribly lost after getting out of the subway station and couldn’t find anyone with reliable directions. My journey to the restaurant consisted of walking one direction down several lanes of hutongs then being sent back the other way under the guidance of shopkeepers and other residents. I rode on the back of a man’s small rickshaw, who then proceeded to drop me off in a random alleyway and demand 300 yuan ($50) for the five minute rickshaw ride; when I recounted the story to my parents, I boasted that I’d reasoned with the driver and convinced him to let me get away by only paying 25 yuan (around $4). They were none too pleased by my bargaining techniques. In retrospect, it was pretty stupid and something I hope to never repeat, even though I am pretty proud of my bargaining.

ImageI finally arrived to the restaurant by cab and walked in as dinner was being cleared from the tables. Ms. Wong was making announcements before the group headed out. In typical Ms. Wong fashion, she looked up and without skipping a beat announced to the group, “And we’re joined by Katie Ross.” All 100 people turned to me. It was my turn to talk, whether I liked it or not. I told people about what I was doing in Beijing and how I’d liked the trip so far. Ms. Wong asked me to talk about Bowdoin and my plans for the future. The whole experience made me feel so old. I remembered meeting alums four years ago when I was on the trip, and now suddenly I was old enough to be one of them. Things had come full circle. Ms. Wong was the first Chinese teacher I ever had and is without a doubt the reason why I’m an Asian Studies major today. Me being in China right now really is all her doing. While the trip to the restaurant nearly got me killed, it was wonderful to see Ms. Wong again and talk to students and parents on this year’s trip.

ImageAnother surprise came on Sunday morning after my Easter brunch with Meghan. She and I decided to stop by the Silk Market before heading back to campus, and as we walked through the parking lot, I noticed a big tour bus with a red sign for Eden Prairie on the inside of the dashboard. It seemed in typical Chinese fashion to string two pleasant sounding words together to name a tour group. Meghan snapped a picture of me next to it, and we moved along. After walking around the market for an hour, we decided to head out. A group of boys cut in front of us and I noticed a small red and black insignia on one of the boys’ jackets. I called after him, “Hey. Excuse me? Are you by any chance from Eden Prairie, Minnesota?” The boy stopped and looked around for a second before responding, “Uh, yeah?” I apologized for being so creepy, and told him that I was from there too. It turns out the EP band was on tour in China for their spring break; 92 of them were on the trip. So with me, 93 of EP’s 60,000 residents were in Beijing, all in the same market at the same time.

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While I’ve been finding home, I’ve also been setting up my new one here over the last two weeks. My friends and I have explored more of Beijing, going to Drum and Bell Towers and walking around Nanlouguxiang in the Houhai area and visiting Yonghegong and the Confucius Temple near Dongzhimen. We’ve discovered our favorite neighborhoods and cafes to hang out in. We’ve gotten our nails painted and hair cut at local shops. We’ve found our favorite shopping spots and given nicknames to all the places we get dinner; high up on the list are Ralph’s restaurant, the Shanghai restaurant, the English picture menu place and Maidanglao (McDonalds in Mandarin.) The fact that I’ve found aspects of home is not at all to say that I haven’t noticed and relished the totally foreign aspects of the city. 

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Yesterday, Swetha and I went out to Changping, a district over 40 kilometers northwest of Beijing city, to conduct research for our project on maternal and child health. We left the dorm at 6:30 AM and arrived at the health center in Changping two and a half hours later. We were accompanied by our two co-researchers from Peking University, Bingyu and Xinyang. The four of us arrived at the Changping Health Bureau by bus and then met up with a driver and two folks from the Health Bureau before driving to the Chang Ling Community Health Service Center. We toured the facilities and spoke with administrators and health care workers about the center and the services it provides to pregnant women and newborns. By the time we wrapped up our tour and interviews, it was 10:40 AM, and we were ready to head back to campus. Our hosts asked if we wanted to stay for lunch, but Bingyu kindly informed them that we weren’t very hungry and had to get back for 2 PM class anyway, but thanked them for the offer. They insisted we stay. We giggled and declined the offer. Apparently “no” was not an acceptable answer. The promised they’d keep it simple and quick.

ImageTwo minutes later, nine of us piled into a van that was waiting outside the health center and we headed out to a restaurant to eat. We arrived at a small restaurant that appeared to be constructed out of temporary housing material. As we walked toward the entrance, we passed by an outdoor area with a tarp overhang that appeared to be the  kitchen. Swetha and I exchanged a glance; it looked like we’d be going hungry at this meal, not that we were even that hungry to begin with; it wasn’t even 11 AM yet. We sat down around a large round table and the director of the health center looked at the menu and began rattling off the group’s order to the waiter. He’d heard that Swetha was a vegetarian, but he wanted to clarify, since vegetarianism is a pretty foreign concept in China. He asked her if she could eat chicken (no), fish (no), egg (yes), and finally asked if she minded if the rest of the group ate meat (of course not). With the last response, all of our hosts breathed a sigh of relief, laughed for a moment, and the meal ordering resumed.

ImageWithin 15 minutes, the huge lazy susan in the middle of the table was filled with dishes: tofu soup, fried chicken, eggplant noodles, fried green herbs, wild mushrooms, sizzling sausage, and sautéed veggie patties. All together, the director had ordered 16 dishes for 9 people. At several points during the meal, our waiter had to come remove plates from the lazy susan, which was already massive to begin with (probably 3 feet in diameter.) The lunch lasted for two hours and was anything but simple, but it was delightful. Many of the dishes were things only served in villages (Bingyu and Xinyang had never heard of several of them even though they’d only lived 40 km away their whole lives.) And close to a third of the dishes were purely vegetarian; if you know Chinese food, you know that this is an uncommon ratio of vegetarian to meat dishes. But our hosts wanted to please us, and graciously ordered several dishes meat-less.

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ImageThe fact that I’ve actively sought out and in cases just chanced upon things from home is not at all to say that I haven’t loved the very foreign aspects of my stay. I guess I’ve realized that looking for home is just a natural consequence of being away from it. In two days, we’ll head to Yunnan province in southwestern China. Yunnan borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and also houses a portion of the Himalayas. Ethnic minorities make up over a third of its population. All that I’ve heard and read about Yunnan leads me to believe that it will be the most exotic place I’ve been on this trip. I may have been able to find semblances of home in Beijing, but surrounded by the Himalayas, there will be no doubt that I’m far from Eden Prairie. Then again, I hear there’s plenty of snow and great mashed potatoes…home may not be so far away after all.

On to the dumplings

ImageIt’s officially been two weeks since I arrived in China, and I feel like I’m just beginning to catch my breath. (I mean that mostly figuratively, although with today’s clearing of the air pollution and getting to the end of my week-long cold, that statement could be interpreted literally too.) Between orientation, my mom’s three-day visit, two Beijing explorations, a week and a half of classes, and an impromptu trip to Shanghai, there hasn’t been much time to settle in or internalize everything I’ve been experiencing.

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When I signed up for Duke’s Global Semester Abroad program, I knew I was going to have to grapple with contrasts. It comes with the territory when you choose to split a semester in multiple countries, especially when those countries are India and China. The surface level differences I picked up just in my first day in China were astonishing. Beijing was cold and very smoggy when we arrived. Driving on the four-lane wide highway from the airport to our dorm, I could barely make out the massive characters lit up on top of buildings flanking the road. Cars moved in orderly lanes and rarely resorted to honking, a massive change from the “anything goes” road etiquette in India. There were sidewalks. I saw women in short skirts and high heels. Old men walked purebred dogs. And I noticed billboards for American department stores and high-end fashion lines. I knew China was going to be different. But thinking about it and experiencing it were two different things, and the shift hit me harder than I’d anticipated. After two months, I’d gotten used to Udaipur’s dusty roads filled with scooters, cows and stray dogs. China’s cold, hazy weather and austere skyscrapers made me miss the warm, colorful, bustling streets of Udaipur.

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I couldn’t stay homesick for too long, though, because when the bus pulled up to the dorm, I walked inside and reunited with my mom. She’d been working in Sydney and came to visit for three days on her way home. My mom tagged along during my first day of orientation as we toured the Peking University Health Science Center campus, got an introduction to nearby restaurants and met our professors. She and I also found time to go shopping at the Yaxiu and Zoo Markets and eat Shanghai-style pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung.

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I caught her up on stories from India and remarked about all the culture shocks I was experiencing in China.     I asked her what changes stood out most to her since her last trip to Beijing. She, my dad, and I first visited China when I was five (although we only went to Hong Kong, which was still a territory of England at the time) and then came back for a longer trip when I was seven. During that second trip, we spent a few days in Beijing. Image

I only remember bits and pieces, but my mom was better able to recall details from the trip. She described the crowded bicycle-filled streets and people in dark plain clothing, vastly different from today’s multi-lane roads bustling with Audis and Land Rovers and subways full of men in Western suits and women in frilly coats and high-heeled shoes. When we visited before, there were not nearly as many high-rise buildings, and consumerism didn’t slap you in the face the same way it does now.

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Many of the changes that have taken place are largely due to China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse and massive development undertaken in the build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but I also think that the contrasts were heightened by our own experiences in the intervening fourteen years. When my mom, dad and I first came to China, it was our first time in Asia. My parents had been out of the country before that, but never to a place quite as foreign.

 

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Several friends on the trip were shocked by my mom’s bravery coming to China alone and unable to speak the language. During the past several years, she’s done a lot of solo international travel for work and is far more comfortable with it than she would have been when we initially visited. This time, I was able to speak some Chinese, and had been to Beijing once more in 2009. This time, we haggled at markets in Chinese. We decided to take the subway, whereas before we’d relied solely on taxis and travel on foot. China had seemed so foreign before, but this time it felt much more accessible and manageable.

ImageSince my mom’s visit, I’ve stayed busy with classwork and Beijing explorations. I’m taking two classes here, one on public health and the other on the environment and development in China. We’ve also been visiting parts of Beijing as assignments for these classes, so I’ve explored the Haidian district (the academic hub of Beijing) and Tiananmen Square and the pedestrian areas surrounding it.

ImageLast weekend, several of us decided to make a trip to Shanghai. We finalized plans on Wednesday, and at 6:30 AM Friday morning, we headed for the train station. We took a five-hour bullet train to Shanghai and spent the weekend exploring the city. We walked around the French Concession, rode a roller coaster in People’s Park, visited the Shanghai Museum, and walked along East Nanjing Road and the Bund. We explored the Yuyuan Gardens and visited two Buddhist temples. On Saturday, we left the hotel at 9 AM and didn’t eat dinner until 11:30 PM; it was literally a non-stop visit.


ImageOn Sunday with only a couple of hours left in the city before we had to head back for the train station, we decided to scout out a dumpling restaurant I’d been to on my last visit to Shanghai. I remembered Yang’s Dumplings as an unassuming restaurant tucked away among shops along a small side street. Yang’s specialty is their soup-filled dumplings. In fact, the restaurant only sells one variety of them (pork with onion labeled as “Yang’s Specialty Dumplings” on the menu), and I read that the owner has kept the recipe top-secret, only divulging it to her husband. Before leaving for our weekend trip, I jotted down the address for Yang’s Fry Dumplings just in case our sightseeing brought us to the neighborhood.


On the last day with empty stomachs and two hours to spare, we looked at the map and realized that we were pretty close to the restaurant. The hunt began. We hopped on the subway for one stop and got out near Wujiang Road, the street Yang’s was on. I recognized the area and we began to ask for directions to Yang’s. People told us to go upstairs in the mall nearby. I knew that couldn’t be right; we were looking for a small restaurant on a nearby side street. So we asked around a bit more. Again, people pointed to the mall. Finally, we decided to check it out.

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As we got off the escalator, I saw Yang’s Dumplings in big writing above a storefront. Turns out, we’d come to the right place. The restaurant was packed with customers, which combined with the hot dumplings coming out of the kitchen made for a very steamy atmosphere. Overwhelmed and without any place to sit, we asked Imagefor our order to go. The dumplings were just as delicious as I’d remembered and very worth the trip. However, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I’d remembered Yang’s as a humble little shop built on the first floor of a house, like so many small-scale Chinese restaurants. Now, it was in a mall. Not nearly the hole-in-the-wall it had been before. The shop owners were probably very happy about the move, but I missed the old Yang’s restaurant.

I’ve read many wistful accounts of the changing faces of China’s cities with the onset of development. But this was the first time the process impacted me. Yang’s Dumplings was a place I’d visited just once, and certainly held far less sentimental value for me than so many people’s old homes and shops that have been altered as part of China’s development. But seeing Yang’s in a shopping mall somehow made China’s development come to light in a way I’d never felt before.

IMG_5541China is an incredible place with so much to offer. I love exploring the city, riding the subways and eating delicious food at the restaurants near our dorm. Most of the places I’ve enjoyed exploring are the direct result of China’s recent development: the Qianmen and Wangfujing pedestrian avenues filled with Western shops and Chinese food stands, the Yaxiu market in Sanlitun.

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I’ve enjoyed the products of China’s recent changes, but have also begun to understand the costs at which these developments come. Beijing is a totally new environment from Udaipur and radically different from the way it was fourteen years ago. It’s certainly not the same as how I remember it, but it’s great to be back.

Phir Milenge, India

With only a few hours left in India, it’s time to say phir milenge to the place that’s become my home for the last two months. I’m writing this post from a food court in a mall in Delhi. Lights flash from the rides in the “Fun City” amusement park next to the food stalls. Whitney Houston blares over the speakers. Even in India, I feel like I’m in a different world, far away from the mustard fields of Sangat and peaceful lakes of Udaipur. Five days ago, I said a teary goodbye to my host parents, Meenal, and the Chitra staff who coordinated all of our activities in Udaipur. Since then we’ve been travelling around India by train and bus, stopping at Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi. We rode to the base of the Amber Fort in Jaipur on the backs of elephants and zipped around the Old City in Delhi in rickshaws. We watched sunrise at the Taj Mahal. past five days have been filled with walking, shopping, listening to guided tours, but most of all, I’ve just been thinking a lot. It’s hard to believe that two months ago I landed in Delhi, bag-less and in total shock with my surroundings. I didn’t know anyone on the trip and was scared about the culture, food, classes, and people. Now, I look around and feel at home. I’m no longer taken aback when I see a cow sauntering across a street filled with autos, motorcycles and “goods carrier” trucks. I can place my order at an Indian restaurant. I’m friends with everyone on the trip.

My stay in India has been everything I’d hoped it would be. I’ve been wrapped up in the culture of India- going to weddings, living with my host families, riding scooties around Udaipur with Meenal, visiting malls and markets, going for morning jogs at the athletic fields of a nearby university. I’ve been uncomfortable- beggars and homeless people on the streets, bucket showers and squat toilets, uncomfortable beds, and upset stomachs. But it’s been exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be a challenge; it wouldn’t be India otherwise. It’s also been completely rewarding- becoming a second child to Deepti and Ajay (they’ve made Facebook and Skype accounts now, so we can stay connected), talking to empowered women in Sangat about their health care decisions, mastering the streets of Udaipur to the point where I could take autos around by myself. India has become my home.

Now with only six hours left in India, I find myself incredibly sad to leave, but ready. I’m excited for Beijing. It will be a completely new experience filled with its own challenges and highlights. I’m excited to speak the language, recognize the food (or at least some of it), and enjoy the freedom that will come with living in a student dorm instead of a homestay.

I’ve gained so much from my time in India and am ready to learn more in China.

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So dhanyawad, India. Thank you for everything you gave me over these past eight weeks. And phir milenge. May we meet again.

Into the Onion


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Ever since the first day of orientation, our professor has encouraged us to dig deeper into the onion that is India. While I can’t help but think of the scene in Shrek (“ogres are like onions”) every time he makes this analogy, it’s a very worthy challenge- explore the depths of India, don’t take anything at face value. After seven and a half weeks of classes, research and sightseeing, I’ve made it into the onion…maybe not the core,                                                                                                  but at least part way there.

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Last week, I completed my final five-day stint in Sangat. This time I focused solely on my big research project where I investigated women’s interactions with and perceptions of government-provided maternal health care. Meenal, Mohini and I conducted household interviews with 21 women in Sangat and another village called Amra Ji Ka Guda, which has a larger population than Sangat and more

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women in the target population for our research. We sought out mothers who had given birth in the past year; government schemes are constantly changing, so we wanted to speak to women who were beneficiaries of the most recent developments in the Indian government’s provisions of maternal health care.

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I loved the research. Women were happy to talk to us about their experiences and show us their babies. We were almost always offered chai when we visited women in their homes, so if the dentist finds a new cavity or two when I visit this summer, I’ll know why. For the most part women were satisfied with their experiences, but in some cases women saw changes to be made to the system.

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More than research, though, I loved just     being a part of Sangat. This time when Meenal and I came back for our third and final visit, we had friends we looked forward to seeing and anticipated our host mother’s delicious meals. As we walked through the village, it felt familiar. I no longer felt like a total outsider, a white girl from a Minnesotan suburb plopped in the middle of a rural village in India.     Well, I still looked pretty out of place, but I didn’t feel so alien. I recognized people, and they recognized me. Practices that felt strange during my first visit in Sangat no longer fazed me. I got used to the custom of women veiling in front of their in-laws. I stopped trying to understand the complicated family webs that existed in the village. Interviews and our early to bed, early to rise schedule became routine. I knew what questions to ask women during interviews and when to expect our host mother to wake us up with a fresh cup of chai every morning.

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One thing I never quite got used to, though, was the extreme tranquility and ease I found in the village. It’s a type of feeling I’ve only gotten in a few places in the world: Harlan, Iowa and Santa Elena, Costa Rica both come to mind. All of these places exude an essence of simplicity and routine that only an intimate farming community can provide.

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We passed countless sari—clad women with huge bundles of branches or metal jugs of water on their heads. Small kids herded flocks of goats, cows and buffalo. I can see why Gandhi was such a proponent of Indian village living. It’s pretty incredible, and I’m still not really over the fact that I lived it for two weeks. Definitely an inner-onion experience.


ImageSince coming home from Sangat, I’ve been busy wrapping things up for the India-portion of the program. We had our final classes on Monday and then free time to pull together our final papers and presentations for the rest of the week. A general routine several of us adopted was morning work time and afternoon fun time.

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Previously, much of our sightseeing was guided by the program coordinators and staff who work full time arranging our village visits, guest lecturers, homestays and weekend excursions. This week, though, we started to branch out and explore on our own. We caught a boat out to Jagmandir Palace, a lush hotel complex in the middle of Pichola Lake, one of Udaipur’s quintessential features.

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We took a 3-hour class on miniature painting in Old City. We climbed to Neemach Mata Temple for sunrise. We ate at street vendors and nice restaurants in town. And we did a lot of shopping.

ImageOver the past seven weeks, and especially the last two, I’ve worked my way into the layers of India. I’ve lived with Indian families in Udaipur and Sangat. I know what food I like and don’t. I’ve come to recognize others who commute to school or work at the same time as me every morning. When my friends and I go to the markets in Old City, we wave to our shopkeeper friends. We know which places have good deals and which don’t. We’ve mastered the auto system and know how to bargain. I still do touristy things like shopping in Old City, and I still look fairly foreign, although plenty of time outside is working in my favor. I may not be at the core of the onion, but I’m not far from it.

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Pieces of home

A few exciting pieces of home found their way to Udaipur over the past couple of days…

ImageI went to McDonalds with friends yesterday afternoon and got a dipped cone!!! Anyone who I spoke with this summer knows that I was obsessed with McDonalds’ $1.29 dipped cones. Well, here they’re only 29 Rs (about 50 cents) and just as good. It was an excellent discovery.

ImageI also introduced my host parents to some of my favorite American foods at lunch today: grilled cheese, tomato soup, and Asian slaw. It was a struggle to figure out what food to make: it had to be vegetarian, something that only required a stovetop because they Imagedon’t have an oven or microwave, and simple enough for me to find all the ingredients in an Indian supermarket. Luckily, the meal turned out to be a success! My host dad remarked, “It’s much better than I expected!” (I think his expectations were very low). He called me an “expert chef” and is threatening to take my passport if I don’t make it another time before I leave. Tonight they’re having family friends over and have asked me to make pancakes…for dessert. We’ll see how this goes.

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Another big highlight came when I Skyped into the crew team’s movie night. It was so fun to see everyone and get back into that world for a while even if just for a half an hour. Being away from my friends and family has been a challenge, but moments like these make being half way around the world not so bad; they’re little pieces of home in a place that has become my new, albeit temporary one.