Rooftop Reflection, Day Three

I am writing from the rooftop of Rui’s family home. It is nearly 7AM on Sunday Morning and the heat of the day has not yet begun. Birds chirp as middle-aged men do morning exercise around the lake – one is walking waving modified “jazz hands” through the air, another is clapping his arms and back in a loud sort of self-massage. One woman is doing taichi on the bridge facing the calmest part of the lake. The fishermen, who Rui says are a constant (even late at night) are as glued in their spots as ever. Somewhere on the hill a man is sirening “whoa” in powerful 20-second-long bouts with a projection, though amplified by an echo, that has this vocal teacher VERY impressed. Even farther off, someone plays what nearly sounds like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division on the Chinese flute.

Three days in and China is everything I remembered it being – beautiful, bustling, and entertaining. My flight was a 14.3-hour red eye I managed to sleep for a bit over half of. I tried watching La La Land but it made me miss my boyfriend so I mostly played Settlers of Catan on my phone.

There was a diverse selection of music and movies. I was most happily surprised to find “Sex & Food”, the latest album from one of my favorite bands Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The in-flight magazine had a great cover as well, a nice start to what I’ll call Awkwardly Phrased English. It’s not “Chinglish” and yet… I wouldn’t put it that way….

After arriving, I took a taxi for 50 minutes to my new home in Haizhu District. I was immediately overwhelmed by how beautiful Guangzhou is – each building has a character of its own, flora consumes pockets of the city like a true urban jungle. The giant red sun watches through gaps in the skyline as the city rushes past me.

Rui’s boyfriend Ouyang says I am easily made happy, perhaps this is true. Or I’m a bit more aesthetically-oriented than I like to let on and Guangzhou pushes all the right buttons.

The day of my arrival was long and bureaucratic. Our apartment is on the 8th floor and at present there is no elevator, so Ruiwen and I took turns hauling my predictably overweight suitcases up the stairs. I managed to somehow get a gnarly bruise on my knee. I will write more about the apartment itself once I am fully unpacked so I can do a before-and-after post, so for now here’s the outside:

After a brief but lovely nap I met up with Anson, an intern at my employer WIEChina , to get my photo taken, a phone card, and open a bank account. It’s funny to me that for all my serious selfies, my general resistance to smiling in photos, I cannot for the life of me take a passport picture without looking like a sullen chubby boy. Though I may sometimes FEEL like a sullen chubby boy, I never want to appear as one on official documents and yet there I was in a store that sells passport photos, healthy food and insulin, looking just like one.

The cell phone store was like any other – all fluorescent lights and a primary color of choice, with photos of stock models as employees juxtaposed with employees who are not stock models. The bank was equally predictable, blanketed with the white noise of pens writing and papers shuffling. Our experience there, too, was predictable – though Anson had helped a foreigner set up an account their first day in China just last week, this employee had a different idea about bank policy and so our trip was unsuccessful. I believe we will return Monday.

For lunch, we walked to a LEEDS Certified Gold building that emits a strong floral scent. From the many restaurants inside, Anson picked Japanese, so my first real meal during this trip to China was a beef curry with egg over rice. It was delicious and cost only $3.

The WIEChina office is in the building next door. There I finally met Olive, the person who hired me. I went over and signed my contract, then it was off to the police station to get this alien registered! This trip too proved unsuccessful as my landlord had not completed one final form. Another spot to which I’ll return.

For dinner later that night, Rui, Ouyang and I went out for beef hot pot, Ouyang’s favorite. It was a celebration of sorts – for my arrival and Ouyang’s recent promotion at work. He is in IT. The meat was absolutely delicious.

Jet lag has not been too burdensome this time around. For the most part it just wakes me up at six am and puts me to bed at nine. I enjoy the peace and relative cool of these mornings thus far. Yesterday after further unpacking in the early hours I hopped on the subway less than a block from my house and traveled on stop East to Kecun. Kecun has more happening at it than my station, Lujiang, because it is a transfer station. One exit goes into a mall that has a very nice Walmart. Sounds like an oxymoron I know, but what can I say – I was charmed by the place. They really do sell everything. Now, for example, I own a pillow! And a copy of The Little Prince (小王子) in Chinese!

Shopping and exploring has proved confidence-boosting. My Mandarin skills surprise even me. I am far from fluent but for daily navigation I am proficient. I don’t have to translate back what is said to me to understand, I just do. Of course when I speak Mandarin to people they speak Mandarin back which makes this process possible – casually everyone is speaking Cantonese, which I can understand only a little of. It’s something new to learn. My language strategy is to learn words as they become relevant to me. So far this includes “hai”, which is yes or an expression of understanding, and knowing that “yi”, which is one in Mandarin, is two in Cantonese. A bit confusing but okay.

A closing image for you, from my wait in the airport’s immigration line: an old man affixing a crystal snowflake broach to his grey suit jacket carrying a small black leather purse. On the back of the bag is a passport photo of him in lieu of a “if lost return to” tag.

Where Exactly I’m Going

Well obviously, I’m going to China. China is in Asia. I hope you know that. Not everybody does.

I’ll be in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province. Think of Provinces like States.

Here’s Guangdong Province in relation to the rest of China:

Map showing the location of Guangdong Province

That tiny section sticking off the bottom into the ocean? Hong Kong. Right next door. It neighbors the city Shenzhen, which is in Guangdong. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Here’s Guangzhou in relation to the rest of Guangdong:

Location of Guangzhou in Guangdong

Again, notice that little green section at the bottom – Hong Kong. That inlet you see is the Zhujiang River Estuary, which feeds into, you guessed it, the Zhujiang River.

Within the city of Guangzhou, I’ll be living on the island district of Haizhu. Haizhu is smack dab in the middle of the Zhujiang River! Here’s another map, Haizhu is the dark orange section smack dab in the middle:

“But I can’t see the river very clearly on that map!” you cry. Fear not, my friend, I’ve got you covered:

Notice that spot where it says HECUN in all caps? I am not sure why this particular map says Hecun, because the spot in pinyin (romanized Chinese) is Kecun, but that is exactly where Ruiwen and I have an apartment! As you can see it’s on the North side of the island.

Compared to California, my rent is SUPER cheap. I’m paying 1800 RMB/month, which is roughly $266/month. Amazing. Even compared to other major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, life in Guangzhou is very affordable. By total metropolitan area, it is the largest city in China with a population of over 44 million. By urban population alone it houses “only” 19 million, putting it in third place. Only 19 million! Can you imagine?

Thank you Wikipedia for all maps except the last, which I got from

T-Minus 28 Days

There’s but one month left until I move and I find my heart and belongings scattered. I’ve bought a plane ticket, created a packing list, informed School of Rock of my last day, and started selling excess possessions I cannot bring to China nor keep in the US. What was before not completely believable is daily more obvious and inevitable – one month from today I will be waking up in Guangzhou, in the apartment I’m sharing with Ruiwen.

For those of you who do not know, Ruiwen is one of my Chinese exchange sisters. She lived with my family in San Ramon in the 11th grade for the entire school year (2011-2012). She fit in with our family perfectly and has visited us twice since then, once when we lived in Arizona (2014) and again this past winter (2017) with her boyfriend Ouyang after studying at Columbia University as an exchange student for a semester. She is incredibly smart and very goofy. She is passionate about travel and is always up for adventure and trying new things. One of the most remarkable things about our relationship is how truly sisterly it is – we are definitely good friends but more than friends we are really family. We can live and travel together easily, making our imminent housing situation ideal.

I visited Ruiwen in Guangzhou during December 2016 for two weeks, fresh out of studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea for one semester. I had been to Guangzhou in 2011 for three days to visit a childhood friend Michelle but really got to know the city a bit during this second trip. Since I have wanted to live in China for so long I was at that point “shopping” for a goal city to move to and fell in love with Guangzhou. There are gorgeous tall buildings (but then again, what city in China doesn’t?), a temperate climate, a prominent river winding through the city, an amazing public library, and DIM SUM. FYI Dim Sum is from Guangzhou.

One of many skyline photos I took during my 2016 Guangzhou trip.

A little more about Guangzhou – depending on your criteria, it is either the most populous or third most populous city in China. The 2017 census put its urban population at 19.8 million but the greater population at 44.5 million!! Wowza. If you’ve never left the US it’s basically impossible to fathom, considering New York City has a mere population of 8.5 million. The language spoken in Guangzhou is Cantonese. Yes, I know, I have taken 10 years of Mandarin, not Cantonese. The relative ridiculousness of this is not lost on me – however, Mandarin is still taught in school, so my ability to communicate will not be totally hindered. Eavesdropping and listening comprehension will take huge blows for sure, but I hope to be able to speak Cantonese by this time next year. No, I don’t hope, I will!

with Guangzhou Tower in 2016.

I have already been reminded of the open-mindedness and flexibility required of spending time in China. I signed a contract with my employer that is good from September 1, 2018 – July 30, 2019, and thought I had selected a school to teach at. I was just informed after a further inquiry that I actually have another interview with that school I will have to complete after I’ve arrived in China.

Are you familiar with Myers-Briggs? It’s that semi-pseudoscientific way of categorizing people’s personalities by a four-letter combination representing different scales of temperament. The last letter in a Myers-Briggs type is either a P or J, P standing for perceiving and J standing for judging. Perceiving, in this case, indicates someone who is plan-adverse and does best in a more spontaneous, loosey-goosey situation. Judging people are more reliant on schedules and definite courses of action. I am one of the more J people in my friend group, I hate not knowing what is happening! I keep a tight schedule, and then heavily procrastinate within that tight schedule. One of the best things about China for my personal growth is being forced to let go of my expectations and plans and ideas about what will happen and just let China do its thing around me. It is easy to feel existentially insignificant looking at the stars, in China, it is impossible to cling to one’s ego and perception as somehow totally true.

a beautiful building Ruiwen, Ouyang and I stumbled across while going to dinner in 2016.

There remain a few major things to do before moving: sell my car and computer (I bought a new laptop to take), get a VPN, cancel my subscriptions, pack, say goodbye to friends and family. I won’t have easy access to any social media or websites I use frequently in the US except for Reddit. I’ll have to shift from using Spotify and my physical music collection for my daily music diet to services like QQ Music, which have a vastly different selection of tunes. I’m bringing some instruments but transitioning from teaching music every day for many hours to teaching English and just playing music for fun will be jarring. When I studied abroad in Korea, I dreamt of School of Rock weekly. I’m sure it will be the same when I move this time.

If you have any suggestions of essential desert island books/records you think I’d enjoy, please comment them below! I’m making a digital stockpile.



Navigating the San Francisco Chinese Consulate

So you’re a Northern Californian going to China soon – congratulations! Your Visa application journey will probably take you through the Chinese Consulate at some point. At various points of my experience with the Consulate I wished I had been better prepared or known what I was getting myself into; now I present to you a collection of precisely that – what you are getting yourself into.

The consulate is located at 1450 Laguna St, San Francisco. However this address will take you to the main entrance, which is irrelevant to you. Go around the corner and depending on what time you arrive, the true entrance will be made obvious by a blockbuster line. The consulate is open 9am-2:30pm and I would recommend getting there as early as possible. There are two lines that often bleed together into one. On the left side of the entrance is the line for Chinese passport holders who already have an appointment, to the right is for everybody else. I recommend bringing something to entertain yourself with that does not need cell phone service, as there is none inside the building. Food is also prohibited.

In line to get inside the building you will be given a number by a very nice and understanding security guard. If you arrive even at 9:45 you risk getting a number higher than 100, which will give you a wait time of numerous hours. My first attempt at getting my paperwork turned in resulted in a number of 134 and 4.5 hour wait time total.

The line to get in the building is truly just a line for a metal detector that can only take one person at a time. Inside the consulate, seating is limited. I found a good spot to sit on the ground and lean against a pole near the passport photo line.

I do not know if this works for your first time at the consulate, but if you have tried and failed to turn in paperwork because of an error or having an incomplete form, you do not need to wait for your number to be called. Someone informed me of this while we waited in line during my second attempt to turn in paperwork and it saved me two hours of wait time. Simply go up to window 6 and turn in what you have. You will pay when you pick up.

If you are in my situation and are at the consulate specifically for authentication purposes, here is what you need:

  • Authentication form
  • Notarized Document (in this case, college diploma notarized by both the university and the state department, city criminal background check notarized by the state department). This will be 2 pieces of paper stapled to one another, the first page will have a form filled out by the apostille and will feature a stamp that should go onto the second piece of paper.
  • Photocopy of said notarized documents. Do not remove the staples when you photocopy these, otherwise they will be invalidated. If you forget to photocopy the docs at home, they have a photocopier at the consulate which is 25 cents a copy, cash only. The security guards can make change for one dollar.
  • Color Passport Photocopy.

If you are unable to skip the line, there are luckily come-and-go privileges once you’ve gotten through the metal detector a first time. Your hand will be marked with a blue highlighter. Official, I know. The two security guards are good at giving wait estimates if you’re curious.

The Japantown Mall is walking distance. If you have a long wait ahead and can’t skip the consulate line, I’d suggest biding your time in the Marufuku Ramen line before the restaurant opens.  A very yummy way to spend your lunch hour.

I hope this helps make your Visa application process easier!

One Month Later

Four weeks ago, I was in a Beijing hotel room. I had said my goodbyes that morning to those I love in Changsha, and was trying to put on a happy face. I went out to dinner with some other exchange students going home, and we had Korean food…a cheap replacement for the meal Sangmin still owes me, but good food none-the-less. I was trying to  focus on the present, and was surprisingly successful. Now I wish I could really say the same…

I’m here. Back in California, where I was born and raised.

I’m surrounded by an overwhelming culture, and everyone looks the same. No matter where I go, I feel surrounded by people with straight hair. It was cold today, and I wore an outfit that just seemed so out of place…it felt like everyone was staring at me. I rode a public bus after school that was completely packed.

It’s things like this that are the strangest. I’ve been here almost a month but it still feels like just a few days. So many things in this country are strange…and so many people aren’t as great as I expected them to be. The troubles I faced in China were different in specific ways from each other, but now I’m seeing that overall the same things are always coming up. I… I don’t really know what to write, other than I miss China a lot. Not China as a whole country, really, just Changsha I suppose. That city became as much of a home to me as where I live now, which is impressive, considering I’ve lived in the same house here as long as my memory. Looking at that last sentence, I’m not all together sure whether or not it’s correct. My English really has gotten a lot worse.

Anyways. From what Pauline and Moritz have told me, a lot has changed at Tongshenghu..both for the better and worse. Their schedule is different now, and they’ve got homework. Midori changed families. Sangmin gets back from Korea today, Karina got back from Yunnan (a different city in China) sometime last week. I haven’t gotten to talk to Giulia or May yet… my friends set up Skype on the library computer, but it didn’t work when they tried to call me last night. Hopefully tonight it will work. Honestly, I think I miss them much more than I missed anyone from the US when I went to China in the first place. When I went to China, I knew I would be coming back, and that things wouldn’t be too different upon my return…whereas now, who knows when I’ll return? And it’s obvious that it can never be the same way again.

But that’s the thing with life, isn’t it? It’s always growing and changing;forever moving on. You’ll never be able to relive this exact moment. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and other times bad obviously, but that emotion or opinion is completely irrelevant to the fact of it’s validity. This all sounds so cliche but it’s so true…there’s a reason cliche’s exist. Sometimes it just takes a while to know really what they mean, and not just remember what they say..

The Last Night

Well, here we are. The last night in Changsha.

It’s something I’ve always known would happen, obviously, and admittedly some days I yearned and yearned for this day to come. Compared to many, I actually didn’t get too homesick during my stay here, and sometimes actually had the opposite–California was the last place I wanted to be. Five months ago, I was on a plane headed towards Beijing..and in less than 48 hours I’ll be on a plane to San Francisco. Tomorrow morning I fly to Beijing, then the next morning I fly back to SF. Honestly it’s pretty crazy for me to believe.. yes, I’m packed now, I’ve said most of my goodbyes.. but it’s still incomprehensible. I feel so at home here. My host family has turned into as much of a real one as my parents in the US. My friends here, though I’ve only known them five months…I really feel like it’s been my whole life. And in a way, it life in China. Maybe my whole life was leading up to this, my first fifteen years were only the first chapter in the story of my life. I thought “so much” had happened to me in my life, and then I came here. And I began.

I’ve grown so much as a person through this experience. I barely recognize the girl I was when I first came here.. sure, a lot of me is the same I suppose but honestly I feel like a completely different person. I’m a person I love. I finally feel confident about myself and who I am..

Today it snowed a lot (it started yesterday) and it was so so beautiful. My mom woke me up just to see the snow falling outside my window, Sabrina’s school blanketed in white. The whole city looked really pretty..though it made transportation take longer and my feet cold, I loved it. And this is saying something, because usually I really don’t like snow at all. Ahh I don’t know if I can even put my transformation and just how I feel into words..

What I Learned in China: what love is, how to restrain myself, what I can and cannot stand, how to communicate without language, who my friends are, what Chinese culture is, how to wear two layers and never be cold, how to make instant noodles taste better, how to sprint one hundred meters, why respect is important, what America is like, what Chinese people dress like, how to haggle, when to speak, which kinds of people that will change and which kinds that won’t, how to eat really spicy food, what it feels like to move, how to survive while being illiterate, not to complain, live in the moment, how to let go, the virtue of indifference, the way in which jealousy taints relationships, how to wash my face, the plot of Gossip Girl, why I’m thankful I was born in the US, ways in which living in the US is a disadvantage, what it’s like to be around drunk people, that who I always wanted to be isn’t all that different from who I already am.

I hope I never forget the way I feel right now.

The Only Ones on the Ferris Wheel

Well I just got home. Not really, but I’ve been meaning to write this since I got home, so let’s pretend! I was driven home from Hypermart by a taxi driver who told me his eyes weren’t good so he couldn’t read my cell phone description of where I live, since he didn’t know where Sabrina’s school is. Just how such a person became a taxi driver is beyond me but hey, it’s China.
I spent the last two nights at Karina’s house. Wednesday evening she, Moritz and I went out on an adventure. Moritz left on Thursday for the AFS Yunnan trip, but he’s coming back before I leave so it wasn’t the last time I’ll see him. Anyhow, we first went to the large Ferris Wheel that we’ve seen all the time since we came here but never gotten a chance to go on–and boy, was it nice. We were the only people on the whole wheel! Now how many times has that ever happened to YOU? The wheel was enormous and went very slowly. Also, each of the boxes were heated, so we were kept plenty warm. There are (hopefully) pictures on my flickr that you can look at!
After the Ferris Wheel we went rollerskating at this place in a mall on Walking Street near No Sunset Play Game. Karina and I got let in for free because we’re girls (or so the security guard said) and Moritz had to pay thirty yuan. The rollerskates themselves were SO OLD and there were no inlines, though they were free so I can’t complain. The only rule at the rink was no pushing, which meant that there were a lot of people skating backwards and holding hands making chains of five people while smoking their cigarettes…but you know what? It worked. In American rinks I feel like we have so many rules, all of which are constantly being broken causing chaos. But here we have only one and it doesn’t get broken, and surprisingly chaos does not ensue. I like it.