Great Wall, Great Fall (Break)!

Students on the Great Wall of China
Walking along the Great Wall

It’s been 10 years, but I finally returned to the Great Wall. One of my program’s excursions this month was a trip to the Great Wall of China. We piled into two buses and rode up to Mutinayu, one of the most popular Great Wall sites. When I visited the Great Wall in 2009 with my family, we rode the gondolas up to the wall. However, this time, being the real world travelers we are, all of us -around 60 students, all trudged up the wall, toughing it out in the blistering heat. Did we play “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus? Maybe. Okay, definitely, but I really do believe it helped us to keep going! It was extremely worth it too.

Sweaty, dehydrated, but feeling accomplished, we made it to the top of the wall! After some group photos, we were set loose. I trekked all the way to Tower 14. It was exhilarating being up there. The views were spectacular, but what I found to be even more amazing is the fact that I was standing on something so historic, so much bigger than myself. The Wall has a place in history, not only Chinese history, but world history. It is a feat of architecture and prowess and standing on it is indescribable. Things like the Wall, which were built to stand the test of time,  inspire and encourage me and I hope that one day I can make a difference in the world and leave my own legacy.

After walking the wall, checking out the views, and taking majestic photos for our social media, we had two options of descent. One was plain ol’ walking (boring, right?). The other? A HUGE slide, all the way from the top to, you guessed it, the very bottom. It was only $14.00! How could we possibly resist.

View from the Great Wall of mountains and blue sky.
View of the Great Wall from hill top
Sarah and I jumping on the Great Wall of China
Sarah and I on the Great Wall of China
Students walking on the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall snaking along the top of a mountain ridge
CSI group of students at the Great Wall of China
CSI group photo at the Great Wall of China

We have excursions almost every weekend, but the dreaded Monday always has to come again around. Soon enough it was back to the grind: classes, homework, and tests. However, this month, lucky for us, our regular scheduled programming was interrupted, and we were on Fall Break! “Fall” break, but let’s be real, it was still 80 degree weather with no wind. Where I’m from, that’s summer, and a really hot summer at that. Now we were faced with the decision of where to travel?

China is a vast land, offering diverse experiences. All 60 of us students considered very carefully where to plan our travels. Where did we decide on? Shanghai, baby. And not just a few of us. Literally, all of us. We all went…to Shanghai. So we all split off into smaller groups, and planned to meet up together in the big city once we arrived. My group included myself, my friends Sarah, Marilyn and Aili from University of Denver, and my friend Juliana from California. Together, bags packed, sunglasses on, we headed to the (other) big city for a well-deserved break.

We rode the high-speed train called the 高铁 (gaotie) to Shanghai, which only took around 6 hours. China’s high-speed train is so convenient, comfy, and quick that it could give the Eurorail a run for its money. From the train we rode taxis to our hostel. Because we arrived in Shanghai pretty late, we hit the hay and started our Fall Break the next morning with a trip to the famous Bund! Shanghai’s Bund is a beautiful walk by the water, where you can see Shanghai’s famous skyline.

The city really looks as if its from the future. All of the buildings are brilliantly designed with artsy shapes and sizes, and at night they put on the most spectacular night lights. We hit the museum and walked around some more, later taking a nighttime river cruise where we were able to take in all the beautiful scenery.

The skyline of Shanghai from "the Bund."
Shanghai city skyline from “The Bund”
The skyline of Shanghai from "the Bund" at night.
Shanghai city skyline at night

The next day we went on a trip to Jing’an Temple. An active temple right in the heart of Shanghai. It’s very interesting to me the juxtaposition of the very preserved and beautiful traditional temple surrounded by a modern, loud, and bustling city. It’s especially striking because the temple is an active temple, and many people were praying and practicing at the temple, right there in the heart of the city.

Jing'an Temple in Shanghai.
Jing’an Temple
Jing'an Temple and town square in Shanghai.
The public walking into Jing’an Temple
Jing'an Temple with the courtyard in the front and view of Shanghai skyscapers on the horizon.
Jing’an Temple (notice the skyscrapers in the background)

After the temple we headed to the Shanghai Tower with some other friends from the CSI program who were also in Shanghai. A view of the city from the water wasn’t enough; we had to get one from the sky as well. The city looked so vast and alive from the tower, and I recommend the experience to you all!

The final destination of our Shanghai trip was one of the reasons we even chose the city. All five of us knew we wanted to go, even before we booked anything. We were going to… Disneyland! We spent the entire day at the park, arriving when it was opening and leaving well after the fireworks show. It was not very crowded, even though we thought it might be because it was a national holiday. (Golden Week, read more about it in my next blog). But we were lucky and the lines were short, the weather was nice, and we all bought Mickey ears.

Sarah and I jumping in front of Shanghai Disneyland
Sarah and I in front of Disneyland Shanghai
Sarah and I in Disneyland
Sarah and I in front of Disneyland Shanghai

Fall Break had a sort-of US “Spring Break” feel. It was really nice to have a break from class, since it is non-stop, tests every weak and hours of classes every day. I’m not complaining at all though, as my Chinese has improved so much! I have to say, after Shanghai, I am happy to be back in Beijing. Our Shanghai trip was a whirlwind and I had the best time, but I prefer Beijing. Shanghai is a beautiful place full of amazing sights, but it felt a little too much like the United States to me. There are a couple reasons for this. The city (especially compared to Beijing in my opinion), was very international, and even more modern than Beijing. Beijing is the cultural and political capital of China, whereas Shanghai is the economic hub. This means there are tons of businesses and business people from all over the world. It’s much more diverse than even I expected. Fashion, architecture, and infrastructure were all different than our neighborhood in Beijing (Haidian), and it was really compare and contrast the two large cities in China, and how their development as cities differs due to their history.

Friends and I Shanghai
CSI group photo on a bridge, overlooking city
Shanghai Tower view
Shanghai Tower, top floor view.

Wrapping Up This Semester

These past couple months have flown by. Seriously, time is catching up with us so fast. It’s strange. It feels as if it was just yesterday that I was stepping off the plane, nervous, excited and totally lost. Now I feel that China is my home. I feel like I’ve been here for years. Now we’re all rushing to finish final papers, prepare for our final exams, and pack our souvenirs into our little suitcases.
And with all this end of the year craziness, my friends Sarah, Will, Sam, and I all decided to forget about our responsibilities and go for a day trip to Tianjin. It’s just about a half hour from Beijing by high-speed train.

Students standing Underneath an arch in Tianjin
Underneath an arch in Tianjin
Tianjin markets
Tianjin markets
Biking on a riverside path in Tianjin
Biking on a riverside path in Tianjin
Tianjin at night
Tianjin at night
Group photo on bridge overlooking river and skyline in Tianjin
Group photo on bridge overlooking river and skyline in Tianjin

Tianjin is a curious little place. First of all, it’s not really little at all, but compared to Beijing, it does feel quite small. There’s a lot of really interesting architecture in Tianjin, much of it being modeled after European architecture, which makes it feel like some weird fusion city of East and West. In some places it almost feels as though you could be in Europe (if it wasn’t for all the Chinese people). They even have a “Little Italy Town” and a huge sightseeing ferris wheel known as the Tianjin Eye. My friends and I sent a photo to our parents in front of the Eye and captioned it “Hi from London”. For a second, we did actually fool them.

Students posing in front of the Tianjin Eye
Photo in front of the Tianjin Eye

Little Italy Town had amazing authentic Italian food, and later we ventured downtown.

Authentic Italian food in Tianjin.
Authentic Italian food in Tianjin!

We visited a sort of “heartbreak museum” on the top floor of a mall. It was filled with love letters detailing lost loves, and random artifacts tied to stories of unrequited love or broken hearts.

I didn’t want to return to studying for my finals so we went on another adventure the next day. My friends Aili, Kathleen, Will, and I also explored a Hutong for the first time this semester. A Hutong is a Chinese alley that is basically its own little neighborhood, with shops, homes, and restaurants.

People walking up and down Hutong alley
People walking up and down Hutong alley
Friends posing in front of Hutong Alley
Friends posing in front of Hutong Alley

They’re very popular with tourists. You can buy any kind of souvenir there and taste a bunch local speciality dishes and snacks. Later that night we went to see a traditional Beijing Opera performance, something we’d been dying to do since we arrived in Beijing.

Beijing Opera stage and performers.
Beijing Opera stage and performers

Beijing Opera is a long-standing cultural tradition in China. Actors paint their faces, sing, dance, and depending on the show, perform martial arts. If you’re interested, I recommend watching Chen Kaige’s critically-acclaimed and award-winning film “Farewell, My Concubine”. It’s quite graphic, so I do advise caution.

I ended this packed period with another top Beijing experience. I had the huge pleasure of participating in an American Classroom panel at the US Embassy as part of my Gilman Scholarship. The Gilman Scholarship is a US Department of State scholarship that helps support students like myself who study abroad. I am extremely thankful for this scholarship as it has helped me afford this amazing opportunity.

With our wonderful audience at our Gilman scholars panel about the Asian-American experience. Selfie photo credit to our wonderful organizer Nick Grandchamps!
With our wonderful audience at our Gilman scholars panel about the Asian-American experience. Selfie photo credit to our wonderful organizer Nick Grandchamps!

The panel was about the Asian-American experience, and myself and two other Gilman scholars talked with current Chinese university students about how we define our Asian-American identities, Asian stereotypes, and safety studying in the United States. The two other panelists, Linda and Wendy were Vietnamese-American and Cantonese-American respectively.

Group Picture with the organizer and fellow panelists
Group picture with the Nick (the organizer) and Linda and Wendy (fellow panelists)

Myself being Chinese-American and adopted meant we all had very different experiences to share with everyone. I enjoyed how listening to the other panelists share their experiences and really enjoyed how diverse the panel was because it shows that there is no single Asian-American experience. We are different people, with different cultures, communities, struggles, and triumphs. It’s something that’s very important to remember.


Talking on a panel about our experiences as Asian-Americans in the US and studying abroad
Talking about our experiences as Asian-Americans in the US and studying abroad

Beijing Baby!

Me at Weiming Lake
Standing at Weiming Lake on Peking University’s campus

Sometimes I still have to pinch myself. I can’t believe I am actually living in Beijing.

I arrived in Beijing about two weeks ago. After a short flight from PDX to San Francisco, it was about thirteen hours to get to Beijing. On the flight, I sat by an incredibly friendly Chinese man who I conversed with in Chinese. I’ve only been studying Chinese for two years and overcoming my language insecurities was something that I really hoped I could do through this experience. I was surprised at how easily I slipped into conversational Chinese with a complete stranger, and even though my language skills are nowhere near perfect, I discovered that it doesn’t really matter. A desire to learn and a leap of faith, those things are universal, and I’ve learned that people appreciate you trying, even if you’re not a pro yet!

Weiming Lake on Peking University's campus
Weiming Lake on Peking University’s campus
Boya Pagoda on Peking University's campus
Boya Pagoda on Peking University’s campus
Street on Peking U's campus
Street on campus

The first week came and went in a blink. After taking a written and oral placement exam, we were put into classes. I am currently in 311, with four other students from University of Denver. The program I’ve enrolled in with the China Studies Institute (CSI) at Peking University feels very familiar to Linfield in that the class sizes are small, each student gets personalized attention, and you are able build strong relationships inside and outside the classroom. Peking University, commonly called “Bei Da” (a shortened form of Beijing Daxue, the Chinese name 北京大学) is often referred to as “the Harvard of the East”. The university itself is massive, with around 40,000 students on its campus, however, our program is isolated in that only students enrolled in CSI attend our classes. Despite this, we still get plenty of time to interact with Chinese students since we live right on campus.

The program here is rigorous, but I think I’ve finally gotten used to my schedule. Monday through Thursday I have one-on-one sessions with two Chinese graduate students from 9:20-10:50 am, and after lunch I have a comprehensive class and oral/speaking class from 1:00-4:20pm. On Fridays we have biweekly tests or language practicums.

A picture of our language pledge
The immersion track language pledge

Oh, did I mention? All of us in the language immersion program have also pledged to speak only Chinese from Monday 12am to Friday at 12:30 pm. Call us crazy? 我同意 (I agree). On the upside, I definitely see the progress! My language skills, especially my listening comprehension skills, have improved immensely!


CSI students on our off campus tour
CSI students on our off campus tour

It hasn’t been all classroom time though, I’ve been able to explore the city every weekend. My favorite place to go is Wudaokou (五道口). This Beijing neighborhood is very popular among foreigners, also called “waiguoren” (外国人). There are tons of clubs, bars, and restaurants that cater towards, or are owned by foreigners. My friends and I are a fan of a restaurant called Pyro Pizza. It’s a pizza parlor in the heart of the neighborhood that is almost always packed. One of the owners, Josh, is from Las Vegas. He  came to China with the simple goal of traveling around a bit, maybe seeing the sites and eating some authentic Chinese food, and he loved it so much that he’s been in Beijing ever since.

Exploring Beijing
Exploring Beijing

Besides this neighborhood, we’ve explored beautiful, cultural sites here with our program. The China Studies Institute plans excursions for us every weekend, and this weekend we are going to the Great Wall! We have already been to the Summer Palace (颐和园)and the Temple of Heaven (天坛公园). At the Temple of Heaven, we had an assignment to interview retired people exercising at the park.

At the Temple of Heaven
At the Temple of Heaven


At the Temple of Heaven
At the Temple of Heaven

Many of them were Beijing natives, and regularly come to the Temple of Heaven to practice tai chi, or use the equipment. After the Temple of Heaven, we went to Hong Qiao Market (红桥市场), which is a bartering market. Bartering could definitely qualify as a national sport here, and we were able to sharpen our skills with the shopkeepers for a couple hours.

At the Summer Palace with Sarah
Sarah and I at the Summer Palace
At the Summer Palace
CSI students at the Summer Palace
Friends at the Summer Palace
Sarah, Wil, Thomas, Benji and I at the Summer Palace!

It has been go, go, go, since I touched down in Beijing, and yet I feel as though my writing cannot properly convey my experience. Every day is a new experience. I’ve made the best of friends here with students from all over the country, and I can’t wait to see what other amazing opportunities are in store for me.

Friends at the Temple of Heaven
Will, Sarah and I at the Temple of Heaven
Friends eating Hot Pot
Eating hot pot (火锅) with Benji and Sarah
CSI students waiting to leave for the Temple of Heaven
CSI students on our way to the Temple of Heaven