Ink Blot # Whatever: A Day in the Life

8 Jul

Most of what I write is too short and choppy! So here is my effort to write with more details and facts. As a starting point, let me recount a day in the life.

Most of the following sentences will probably include the word “I.” I hope this log doesn’t sound self-indulgent, although it probably is.

I wake up between 6AM and 7AM everyday, without a clock.[1] For breakfast, I have bread or a piece of date cake[2], and date yogurt.[3] After a quick shower, I leave for school, hair still wet, sometimes with my roommate, and sometimes by myself. Occasionally I will commit something to short-term memory during my walk.

The walk takes about a half hour.

The first 5-10 minutes: I cross Zhongguangcun East Road and Chengfu Boulevard. I used to hate this because of the crazy traffic, but I’ve gotten used to it. If it’s raining, I hail a cab around here.

The next 20 minutes: I enter Tsinghua from its South Gate. The area near the West Gate is the most beautiful part of campus, the East Gate is closest to the school’s most renowned program buildings. The South Gate leads to a dusty street with some cars and many bicyclists, and nothing here attracts the eye.

The building that houses the language program also houses the History department. Near the doorway is a Shang Dynasty bronze receptacle replica. I like looking at it not because of any interest in the object per se, but because the cleaning ladies store their mops inside of it.

There is no elevator, and my classes are mainly on the 7th floor.

My first class is Classical Chinese, which requires the most preparation of my classes. Many idiomatic phrases in Chinese were originally penned in short Classical Chinese stories, which form the basis of our lessons.[4] My second class is Broadcast Chinese, which trains students to become accustomed to radio broadcasts. I like this class because of its usefulness and the classroom environment, in which I get to say many stupid things and laugh a lot. My third and fourth classes are reading courses, and my teachers fine-tune my expression. A lot of the time, words feel like marbles in my mouth, but I get by.[5]

I have a break between 11AM and 1PM. This is when I check my email for about a half hour since I don’t have an Internet connection at home. After I leave the computer lab, I head for the cafeteria. I eat green beans, some other vegetable, and rice almost everyday. There is little variation because I am a little picky about meat, and many of the other dishes in the canteen are too oily.

At some point in this 2 hour break, I do work. There are other classmates working in the language center’s library, of whom at least one is asleep (sometimes, me included). After my last class, I do my best to finish the rest of my homework. It wasn’t always like this; I used to drag it on till late evening. Then I realized that was no fun.

From evening on, I eat dinner and find something to do. Two nights ago, it was eating hot pot with my Berkeley friends. Last night, it was watching student films in 798 with my roommate.

My weekends feel a lot like an extended weekday evening, but different in some ways. The main difference is church on Sunday, and a cafe visit on Friday/Saturday.[6]

I have visited different churches here with my friend, including the Haidian Protestant Church (a local Three-Self church) and the Beijing International Christian Fellowship. To get a seat at Haidian Protestant Church, you must come early; it is packed every service. Early birds sing hymns, and the music conductor goes over new songs. Last time I went, we sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (or 亲爱主,牵我手) six times. I admit, I ran out of steam around the 4th time. Also, it’s sort of funny: the music feels really traditional — old hymns, sonorous lead voice, simple piano accompaniment. But the church in the past couple of years bought an electric drum pad, and it sounds so out of place when we sing.

Anyway, I can’t explain it, but I feel encouraged when I visit this church.

Last Sunday and the Sunday before, I visited the Beijing International Christian Fellowship. Last week was particularly stirring as I listened to the elder’s message from Acts.

1 The reason I ditch clocks is because I used to wake up a couple of times during the night. Seeing the time — 4:30 AM, 5:45 AM, whatever — anchored the unpleasant experience to a specific point, and the surprise I got from seeing the time made it harder to fall back asleep. Not having a clock normally works out, but today was perilous because I woke up at 7:17AM.

2 It sort of tastes like banana bread, but it has dates. I get it from a stand, and the cake is so popular that a line will still form outside when it’s raining.

3 I love date treats.

4 What about English idioms? If only we could read “The Story of the ‘Wet Blanket,'” “How ‘Flash in the Pan’ Came to Be,” and “The Day it ‘Rained Cats and Dogs.'”

5 Maybe I don’t describe people much in public written records. If someone knew me in writing alone, he/she might find my world to be sparsely populated. This is not true! We know the written word hardly does people justice; a storehouse of volumes can never capture someone’s essence. Words cannot fully encapsulate places or events, either. But at least places and events don’t have feelings.

6 I am in a cafe right now. I just realized I didn’t bring enough money to pay for my tea; how embarrassing.

墨点 Ink Blot #3: Floating Ciphers

10 Jun

Originally posted @

I’ve just signed an apartment contract for a 2 bedroom place in Wudaokou. Xiuming is my intermediary agent. She is slightly younger than me, new to the biz, having just moved here from Hebei last year.

There have been a few moments where we’ve both struggled with understanding proper registration and leasing procedure. She’s proposed some short-cuts, I’ve had to rein her back in at times, and we’ve both made plenty compromises and mistakes. I now know that all this time, we were really only ringing around one prime unwritten goal, that we would see all this through to its satisfactory end.

Today, we signed a contract, after four days that oscillated between 8 AM and 11 PM, rain showers and sunny skies, wait rooms and motor lanes.

So the lease is binding, but properly speaking, was a mere formality. Indeed, all it got was a quick go-through from me, and was probably not even originally typed by her. Beneath the words, floating ciphers, was one simple sentiment: we are happy.


I enjoy talking with her, and we will probably ring around something else soon — the dinner table, most likely.

墨点 Ink Blot #2: A Tale of Two Webs

10 Jun

Originally posted @

Xiuming: I asked the Internet people about setting up a network for you. They said that they can do it, but they can’t connect you to the foreigners’ Internet. I said, ‘What are you talking about? They use the same one.’ But they said no, and assured me that there’s our Internet, and the foreigners’ Internet. ‘We go on our websites, and they go on theirs.’ I don’t know much about this. Anyway, you can only connect to the Chinese Internet.

墨点 Ink Blot #1: Airplane Jottings

10 Jun

Originally posted @

I took some notes on an index card while on the airplane, see below for a portion. Fell asleep soon after writing.

6/7/11. 2:50 AM. 中国国际航空公司 [Air China], CA 0948.

Ensconced tightly in my row seat, draped in blue blanket. Was asleep. Emerged from my cocoon after my neighbor started rustling. He had just received a meal tray. Oh Paulina, so typical. Always roused by food, even when unconscious.

To be waken up at 2:30 AM for a meal is some perverse glutton’s fantasy, and here I was, living it. Under most circumstances, I think, I would have been happily compliant. But at that moment, I felt like a farm pig, soon to be force fed and transported, fattened, to the slaughter.

Fine, okay, my imagination was running wild. I was asked if I wanted the seafood rice or the beef noodles.I chose the noodles.


Strangely, my neighbor, a man of 70-years, had a completely different meal. Whereas most people on the plane had either the rice, or the noodles — supper, essentially, since it was 5:30 PM Beijing time — he had breakfast. Sausage and eggs. The old man is allergic to something, but what? Dinner?

More puzzling still were his beverage choices. He just downed an entire can of Yanjing beer, and had a cup of coffee to boot. Breakfast, beer, and coffee at 3AM? Dear sir, you are definitely messing with my concept of time. Dealing with the time difference once I land will probably come easy.

Reflections of a Workout Newbie: Part 1, Possibly, of 1

21 Jan

The other day, I received my first text message from my mother. She hardly uses her cellphone, so it was like a milestone, and I quickly opened the message to see exactly what this milestone marked.

“Dear Paulina, Please exercise OK. Love, Mom.”

It was as unexciting a choice for a first message as Thomas Edison’s “Mary had a little lamb” on the phonograph. But both she and Thomas Edison share something in common, here: both likely had these words quickly spring to mind as a result of repeated past utterances.


This morning, I went to the gym for the first time in — suffice it to say that the last time I went, there were no WikiLeaks, iPhones did not exist, and Bush was still president. So I entered wide-eyed, experienced embarrassing difficulty getting past the card-activated turnstile, and set off for the treadmill.

People around me were either reading texts, listening to music, or watching television. Having forgot a book, an iPod, and my glasses, I set my eyes on the treadmill’s red dot matrix display.

Duration: 30 minutes
Incline: 0
Speed: [omitted]

My eyes were anxiously fixed on the countdown clock, which I felt was more like a bomb timer which marked the steady pace to the point at which my legs would detonate. I don’t know what else hands-free, non-TV watchers do. Occasionally, my eyes would dart toward another category, “Calories burned.” At first, that was a fun display to watch. Two calories, that’s like burning off a tic tac. Four, okay, two tic tacs. And so on it went, until I realized I didn’t know of any other edible items between 1 and 60 calories.

The rest of the time passed quickly, in between recounting to myself the last chapter I’d read last night, and doing mental math problems of percentages of my completed workout. Then I cooled down, waved goodbye to the Saline People I had just met, and exited — high on endorphins, and full of wonder at how many more times this can actually go on.

Life Without a Computer: It Really is as Horrible as it Sounds

7 Dec

On Wednesday, the day before one of my final papers was due, my computer charger started sparking and smoking. I used Amazon’s one-click purchasing to buy a new charger, and later found out that is en route to Los Angeles instead of Berkeley.

It’s been hard dealing with this new unplugged reality, since my computer was both my entertainment and productive console.

There’s one development that I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about, and that’s my newest purchase: a transistor radio. I buckled yesterday and confessed to the RadioShack cashier that I was going absolutely bonkers without some source of activity in my room. After laughing at me, she rang me up — at $14.99, it was the cheapest radio in the store.

I’m listening to the news a lot now, but the frequency is a little shaky in my house; I have to shuffle around and wave my radio in the air for it to land on Public Radio International. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, the channel will be interspersed with neighboring ones. For example, today’s report on Julian Assange was punctuated by the — que saaaaaaaa — beautiful sounds of — borrrriiii — mariachi music.

Food: San Francisco Bans Most Happy Meals

3 Nov

San Francisco McDonald’s now serving sad meals (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Again from the Los Angeles Times, apparently the paper with its finger on the irregular pulse of our nation’s favorite grease joint:

San Francisco’s board of supervisors has voted, by a veto-proof margin, to ban most of McDonald’s Happy Meals as they are now served in the restaurants.

The measure will make San Francisco the first major city in the country to forbid restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat.

The ordinance would also require restaurants to provide fruits and vegetables with all meals for children that come with toys.

Food: The McRib’s Return

2 Nov

The Los Angeles Times has good coverage of the McRib’s 6-week return at all chain restaurants, the sandwich’s fan base, as well as the reasons for its sporadic appearance:

While some U.S. devotees would like to see the sandwich join the McDonald’s lineup permanently, store operators have found that sales are strongest for about four to six weeks, said McDonald’s Corp. marketing director Brad Hunter. Thus the McRib has taken on a cameo role. Elusiveness heightens its appeal.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Hunter said. “The quest for McRib happens throughout the country every year.”

The sandwich consists of a pork patty pressed into the shape of ribs. It’s served on a hoagie-style bun with onions and pickles. McRib has 500 calories — 240 of them from fat — and 980 milligrams of sodium, according to the McDonald’s website.

The nationwide promotion marks the first time in 16 years that the sandwich has been available at every U.S. McDonald’s at once. The company is also holding a contest for the best tale (tall or otherwise) about hunting for or eating McRibs. The winner will get a free trip to Germany, where the sandwich is always on the menu.

News from the Yay Area: Giants Win World Series

1 Nov

Life After Facebook: Quitting You is So Hard to Do

30 Oct

I quit Facebook at 11:12 PM yesterday. Rejoined at 6:46 PM today, quit 2 minutes later at 6:48 PM. Logged in again at 9:29 PM, deactivated at 9:33 PM.

The Internet without Facebook is a lot like a Las Vegas without casinos, i.e., a desert wasteland. Today, I’ve read New York Times articles on cancer cells, how to prepare braised short ribs, a woman’s touching post on how it felt to lose her father, among other pieces. I’ve also played three past “This American Life” podcasts today: #317 Unconditional Love, #389 Frenemies, #359 Life After Death.

I’d like to think that I’ve flexed my brain muscle more as a result, or at least that this was a better use of time than browsing Facebook, but the truth is I’m only scrambling for some divertissements. Something — anything! This is really as sad as it sounds. Recovering crack addicts probably feel similarly, as if they understand everything they’re engaging in as “not doing crack,” and thereby unconsciously still defining things in terms of what they don’t have.

Objectively speaking, this has been a more productive Saturday than previous ones, and right after I finish this post, I’m going to continue my offline reading and do my best to finish a translation. However, there is yet the persistent urge for me to broadcast the mundane little things:

  • Berkeley sound bite at Cheeseboard, 1:05 PM: “Sarah keeps complaining about her knee surgery. I tell her, ‘Go watch Grey’s Anatomy. Now those patients have real problems. There was someone with no arms last time.'”
  • If I were still on Facebook, I would have “liked” Karl Pilkington by now.
  • … there was something else, but I’ve forgotten.

Those seem to have lost some relevance once typed out in a medium that’s not a feed. Anyway, cheers to the coming Day 2.