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Author: Catejohnson

National Day Voyages

National Day Voyages

Chinese National Day takes place during the first week of October and the country goes on the move. Brendan and I joined the crowds and headed to Yunnan province and Beijing. It was incredibly busy but worth it! Yunnan is interesting because it is a region totally new to me. The province is south of Tibet and Sichuan provinces, and north of Myanmar. Its topography, cuisine and customs really differ from those in Jiangsu, my province on the east coast.

We started in Kunming (provincial capital) and planned to travel north through Dali to Lijiang. Unfortunately due to a flight delay, we missed our first train. Tickets were sold out so we took a bus. Due to traffic the three hour ride took about nine hours. Luckily Brendan is a sparkling conversationalist. Finally, delayed by a few days, we made it to Tiger Leaping Gorge! So worth the journey; it is the deepest gorge in the world.


At its most narrow point, the rapids are formidable and the water is so loud that we made to shout. Use the bridge in the above photo as a size reference- these rapids are huge.

Of course, we also ate. In Dali, fresh fish from the lake is popular and delicious. We also tried a local goat cheese. It tends to be quite sour, so it is often fried and dipped in sugar.

From the gorge, we reversed course back to Kunming. From that city, we flew back to Beijing for the tail end of National Week. The crowds calmed and we were able to go hiking on a deserted section of the Great Well. The views were wonderful! And we lucked out on the weather.

In Beijing, culinary highlights included Beijing duck, noodles galore and eggs benedict, which I had for breakfast every day. The photo below is of our roast duck being expertly sliced and diced. Once the bird is cut, you are instructed to dip the skin in white sugar. Next you make small wraps of plum sauce, duck, and spring onion. Delicious!

Snacking my way through September

Snacking my way through September

Since returning to Nanjing, I have been embarking upon more culinary adventures. Some of my favorites are below:

1. Noodles. China has amazing noodle shops: very casual, super fast and incredible noodles. Varieties include 炒面 (fried noodles), 拉面 (hand pulled noodles), 刀削面 (thicker, knife-cut noodles), 粉丝 (vermicelli noodles) and 冷面 (cold noodles). Other than the vermicelli noodles, I think those types are usually made of wheat. Noodles will come in a soup or not, according to what you order and are topped with a meat or egg and some vegetables. I love getting noodles, though technically I live in the part of the country that usually eats rice. Noodles are more fun and I missed being able to get a huge, steaming bowl for only 15 RMB.
2. Dumplings. 生煎包 are so yummy. They are pipping hot, pan-fried dumplings made of pork. Especially popular in Shanghai, Nanjing also has great local options and at least one location of a popular Shanghai chain. I bring everyone that comes to visit out for dumplings, if you are looking for any motivations to come on over.

3. Fried rice. Need I say more?
4. Tofu. China has a million and one varieties of tofu and it is fun to try new ones. My roommate is vegetarian, so we often opt for tofu when we go out to eat. 麻婆豆腐(mapodoufu) is one classic dish, sometimes made with meat. It is stewed tofu in a spicy sauce.
5. Roasted fish (烤鱼). It was excellent and I have become much better at eating with chopsticks and at avoiding the bones when I eat, so the experience is more enjoyable and less alarming.
6. Skippy peanut butter. No explanation needed.

Battling the Autumn Tiger

Battling the Autumn Tiger

Happy (almost) September! After a wonderful, joyful summer I am back in Nanjing and gearing up for my first days of teaching. Because the first years have a several week long orientation, they do not begin classes until mid-September. Most of my classes are for first years, so I have lots of time to prepare and plan. I brought back some resources from the US, especially for mythology class, which I think will prove to be very helpful. I am eager to put them to use. Given that I am teaching many of the same courses as last year, this week has been a matter of rearranging and altering curriculum. That is so much easier than entirely creating a curriculum and more fun, too. I have a better sense for how to pace the class, which topics and activities will interest students more than others. It is all very exciting.

Beyond the classroom, Nanjing unfortunately has not cooled off too much yet. We are in the middle of 秋老虎,or the autumn tiger, the Chinese name for an Indian summer. What joy! I think that name is very apt and have adapted my schedule accordingly. I do errands and venture outside in the mornings and evenings. During the heat of the day, I (and most of the rest of the population) take refuge in the AC.

My roommate and I went strolling by a lovely neighborhood canal this week around dusk. It was remarkable how much more crowded the willow-lined paths became after 6:30 pm arrived and darkness hit. The city comes alive again at nighttime, though it is still 80 degrees all night. But I am trying to appreciate the warm nights while we have them. I also know that by the middle or end of September, it will likely be more comfortable and the autumn tiger will slink away. In the meantime, I’ll be sampling the Magnum ice cream varieties at the local supermarket and trying to make use of my new HSK4 Chinese textbook. Wish me luck!

Out of Office

Out of Office

I wrapped up my first year in China a few weeks ago, just before the end of June, and immediately dashed to a joyous wedding and some glorious camping. The lack of wifi and cell service was wonderful and allowed me to do some reflection on my first year.

By the end of June, perhaps because I knew the end was coming, I felt ready to be home in San Francisco, to speak English, to see my friends and family. I was and am excited to relax this summer and to see loved ones. The end of my first year didn’t feel too monumental (beyond the breaking up of my wonderful flatmates) because I know that I will return to teach many of the same classes in fall. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I am halfway done with my time in Nanjing, and that much of next year will need to be devoted to thought about what to do afterwards. That is exciting and scary (senior year of college all over again). I am hoping to use this summer to seek the council of everyone I meet over the age of 25.

I am so grateful to all of the people that I met this year (most of whom I will also see next year). Before I left, I went back to the home of a friend, in a small town in Anhui province. I felt so lucky to be invited! It was such an interesting experience, it made me excited to travel and see more next year, whether in large cities or small towns. I have a list of places I am hoping to visit before I leave China/East Asia.

In the meantime, I’ll be in California soaking up the sun and likely won’t post again until August. I am also aiming to be more regular next year, so keep checking back!

Before you go, here is a list of some of my favorites, consumed over the past year from China.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (book)
An Artist of the Floating World
The Sound of Waves
Manhattan Beach
When Breathe Becomes Air

Death in Ice Valley (podcast)
2 Dope Queens

Stranger Things (television show)
The Great British Bake-Off

Graduation, Revisited

Graduation, Revisited

Wellesley’s class of 2018 graduated this weekend. Their commencement speaker was the inimitable Tracy K. Smith, current poet laureate of the US. Though I have not watched yet, I heard reports from my roommate that her speech is well-worth listening to and hope to make the time in the next few days.

Reaching the one year anniversary of my graduation is strange. I feel as if the time has flown but also I still have flashes every now and then, “what am I doing? Why do these students seem to be listening to me?” I had one recently when I blanked on the pronunciation of “sagacity” while teaching and had to rapidly sound it out in my head. So, I haven’t entirely grown up and found all the answers, nor would I want to. That seems to me to be a lifelong process.

Anyway, I graduated last year on May 26. This year on May 26 I was in Hangzhou with a friend’s family. It was gorgeous, foggy and blessedly cool. We ate very well: I tried a new kind of rice cake, delicious fish, black rice, and pork cooked in the style of Beijing duck. All great. (Photo above is Hangzhou’s famous West Lake)

While there, I started reading David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. In 1977, when the diary entries start, David is perhaps 22. Suffice to say, David Sedaris at 22 and Cate at 23 led/lead very different lives. David Sedaris was hitchhiking across the country, working as a fruit picker and trying to make it as an artist. He lived such a wild life and though I like to think of myself as adventurous, I think David and I are adventurous in different ways. Recently, I got very excited about trying crayfish (龙虾), as it is a popular dish in summertime in this part of China. It was delicious, flavored with mala (麻辣), which means “spicy and tingling.”

I found more echoes of myself in Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is slightly worrying. Murakami is a wonderful author and runner, but he has about four decades on me. But, he was writing about why he runs, what has drawn him to the act of distance running for the last 30 years of his life. I really identified with his observations and think I find some of the same relief in exercise. Since it is difficult to run outside in Nanjing (crowded sidewalks and unreliable air quality) I have tried out CrossFit this year. Though I still lack arm strength, I am getting stronger and really appreciate the focus that doing CrossFit brings. It is challenging for me, so I when I do it, I completely focus on it and can forget everything else. Also, I am learning the parts of the body in Chinese! Helpful for the next time I hit my head.

To round about this roundabout post, now I’m reading Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury and really hoping that I don’t see myself in any of the characters.

Hiya, Harbin

Hiya, Harbin

Harbin is a city located in China’s north-easternmost province, Heilongjiang. This province’s name literally means “black dragon river” and it borders Russia. It is best known for its six month winters and for an ice festival hosted there every December-January.

Bucking tradition, my roommates and I headed there in mid-May. Beyond being literally the only guests at our charming hostel, we also benefitted from Harbin’s spring weather. It was 70s and sunny for most of our long weekend there. We spent as much time as possible. Nanjing is rather uncomfortably humid and Harbin’s weather made a wonderful break.

Thanks to its proximity to Russia, Harbin is an interesting cultural melting pot. From the early to mid-twentieth century, Harbin also had a large Russian Jewish population. These influences are visible in its architecture. Many of the buildings could easily be twins of those found in Eastern European cities, especially. Russian restaurants are also scattered around the city center. Several museums are dedicated to this history. We went to two, one in a repurposed church (Saint Sophia’s) and one in a large synagogue, which provided the history of the city’s Jewish residents. Thanks to interesting museums and picture perfect weather, we had a wonderful four day excursion.

We also, of course, ate. This was a highlight for me. Harbin had INCREDIBLE food. First, there was Russian food. Which was fun to try, but after my 8 months of spicy noodles, lacked some fire for me. Harbin’s local cuisine is heavier than Nanjing’s, more oil, but so good. Their dumplings (I forgot to make note of their exact name) were perfectly fried and had different fillings than I am used to. Lamb, which is par for the course that close to Mongolia, but also fresh shrimp, cucumber and rutabaga. I have not in my memory consumed rutabaga, but in dumplings it was excellent.

Harbin’s baked goods were also excellent. First, some context: there is a divide in China between north and south. The cutoff is the Yellow River and a mountain range. (Nanjing is firmly in the south.) This divide is made manifest in cuisine, as people in the north tend to eat wheat-based noodles and people in the south tend to eat rice. So, the fact that Harbin had plentiful local baked goods (wheat-based) was a marvel. Nanjing has such bakeries, but they tend to be internationally focused and therefore expensive.

In Harbin, while on the hunt for a very difficult to find bubble tea restaurant, one of my roommates and I discovered a fantastic local market. Different stalls had fruits, sausages, tea, baked goods, a huge variety of things. We returned every day of our trip. We sampled bread, cookies, baozi (steamed buns), and a fantastic box of strawberries. Below are some photos of our selections.

Many of these dumplings and buns were ones that I had never seen before, and it was so fun to try. One stall also sold roasted, cold noodles (烤冷面). That doesn’t sound amazing, but it was. On a hot griddle, the cook spread out uncut noodle, which looked like the corn husk they wrap around tamales. On top, she cracked an egg. The egg cooked into almost a scrabble, onto which she added sausage. Then she folded the noodle over itself and added spice, sugar, and some green garnish. Then she cut the whole thing up. It was excellent.

Thanks to the excellent food, weather and company, I will remember Harbin fondly. However, the trip was not totally smooth. I have taken to sitting in the front seat of taxis because that is not weird here, the view is better and I can practice making conversation. However, this came to my disadvantage in Harbin. First, I asked if could use an electronic payment app when it was literally written in front of my face that I could use it. I was just trying to be polite. So, the driver was already chucking. Then, I almost paid 1,600RMB instead of 16 and he drove off guffawing. So, not only did I enjoy Harbin, but I also spread some joy. Job well done.



One evening this week, while preparing dinner, my roommates and I began discussing Planet Earth II. I shared, rashly I now realize, that I usually watch Planet Earth I or II at the dentist’s office because I like to be seen as watching “educational” material. As many of you are now likely shouting at your computers, yes, I do typically choose to watch reality television when I have my druthers. Particular favorites include Below Deck: Mediterranean edition, Real Housewives of the OC, Beverly Hills and New Jersey (but only circa 2010-2013). I also, of course, enjoy watching Keeping Up with Kardashians with Mairead over brunch.

Anyway, as I explained my strategy to my roommates, one of them paused and said, “We contain multitudes.” This saying struck me, beyond my television preferences, because it relates to something I have been thinking about lately, language.

Because of my language limitations here in China, the way in which I interact with people is different. I think my personality has even shifted a bit. For example, I am a bit humorless when I speak Mandarin. Understanding when someone is making a joke often takes me a few extra seconds. I don’t really speak well enough to make my own, though I have tried. One of my favorites involves making a pun on the word teacher, which in Mandarin is laoshi, or “old master.” When people tell me that I look young, as they often do when discovering my profession, I like to remind them that I am a LAOshi. Therefore I must be old. As you have likely guessed, no one ever thinks that I am funny.

But I do make other unintentional jokes. I mixed up qizi (“wife”) and qiezi (“eggplant,” or “aubergine” for my UK readers) once. This resulted in me telling someone that I was preparing their wife for dinner. Additionally, I find expressing large numbers in Mandarin difficult. Instead of dividing numbers in threes, they divide by fours. For example, English-speakers think 10,000 while a Mandarin-speaker would think 1.0000. So one time, someone asked my salary and I told them that I make 5 million a month, which is incorrect but I did not correct myself.

Though I am rarely chatty, even in English, sometimes I am rendered virtually silent. When I get my hair cut, for example, the gentleman who cuts it is quiet and doesn’t make conversation. I could but get nervous, so I sit completely silent for two hours. My nervousness is something I still have to overcome, since people don’t tend to give you conversation topics in advance and I should just get over it. But it is always frustrating when I can’t communicate exactly what I am thinking, or I can’t find a word with the connotation that I want. It makes me feel like a 2D person, like I can’t cram my whole being and all the things that I want to say into my relatively small vocabulary.

But I suppose this is the challenge faced by all language learners in all languages, including my students, and will improve with time. Additionally, some things are just untranslatable and that is why we learn languages in the first place. Though now when I speak Mandarin sometimes I feel limited, with time speaking a second language will be so freeing, as it opens up a whole new way of communicating!

Photos taken between March 31 and April 8

Photos taken between March 31 and April 8

I was lucky enough to host my parents in China from the end of March to April 8. It was a classic “Easter in China” trip and we celebrated my dad’s birthday! It was wonderful to see them, though seeing my siblings too would have a been a bonus. Anyway, here are a few images from my parents time in China. We saw Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai, in that order. These photos are not in order, nor do they include images of my loved ones (due to my ongoing online privacy crusade). However, I hope you enjoy them anyway!

This is a white tulip and/or magnolia tree (we struggled to correctly identify the species) silhouetted against a roofline at the Summer Palace. It was fun to return to the Summer Palace. I was first there in early November, leaf-pepping, and it looked so different in early spring.

This is a photo of Jing’an Temple, in the heart of Shanghai. The Buddhist temple itself is stunning, with buildings made of teak from Southeast Asia. The beams were absolutely massive! This temple is known for helping adherents to succeed in business. Along those lines, the roofs are golden and adorned with fish. The sound for fish in Mandarin Chinese (yu) sounds similar to a word for prosperity. I also really loved the image of the rooflines of the temple buildings in front of the ultra-modern buildings in the rest of the Jing’an neighborhood.

This is Shanghai’s Pudong district, all lit up at night. We were standing on the Bund side, to the West, and looking East. The older, European-built facades face off with these shiny new skyscrapes on the other side of the river. My sister pointed out that the view is actually more spectular at night, when the buildings are glittering. I would have to agree.

This is a photo of the best duck that I have ever eaten, and I eat a lot of duck. This photo was taken on Saturday night in Beijing at a Beijing duck restaurant with my parents. The restaurant is called 大董 and is known for serving very lean roast duck, with barely any fat. It was delicious! And there were three ways to indulge. The first way, more traditional according to the server, is the use a flat pancake with some onions and plum sauce and some duck. The second was to eat the duck on a small seseame bun, with an assortment of toppings. The last was to take a piece of duck skin and dip it in sugar, which sounds strange but may in fact be the best thing that I have ever eaten. Another fun part of going to a duck restaurant is that they bring the duck out and carve it in front of you.

This was taken by a canal in Beijing’s Dongcheng district. The weather was a little gray, but after a morning eating Yunnan food and wandering the hutongs, we stumbled upon this canal. It was lined with really vibrant cherry and plum and willow trees.

This is the wisteria in Suzhou’s Garden of the Master of the Nets. Though I have been to Suzhou before, going in spring was a different experience as everything was in bloom! It was fun to see, and later we got dumplings, so I was happy camper.


Highlights from Hangzhou

Highlights from Hangzhou

In the middle of March, my roommates and I hopped on a train in Nanjing and exited about two hours later in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. Fun fact: Hangzhou was the landing site for famed explorer Marco Polo in China. It also held other draws for us. One, that one of our friends from Wellesley, a Hangzhou-native, invited us to visit. And two, that Hangzhou is farther south than Nanjing and therefore, spring arrived earlier. Hangzhou was bursting with new growth in mid-March, while Nanjing really began to bloom again at the end of the month. 

Below is a photo journal from our weekend away.

Hangzhou’s biggest attraction is the lovely West Lake, which sat to the west of the city wall and traditional city limits. To one side is bustling Hangzhou with a population of 9 million, but to the other side is a lovely set of mountains. The lake is framed nicely and so pretty to walk around.


This is a photo I took on our second day there, when we left behind the crowded cityside and found a quieter path ariund West Lake. The gardens were bursting with flowers and it was a bit misty that day.


Hangzhou has tea fields nearby; this photo was taken at the national tea museum, in an active tea field. We visited a few weeks before the Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明节)and our local friend informed us that this is the time of year to pick a local variety of green tea, Longjing (龙井茶).  The museum was fascinating and this view was stunning. There were two sets of wedding photos being taken in the field, despite the rain.

This is a photo of some of the best fish that I have ever eaten. I photographed the menu, to make certain that I would remember the dish. It is fish from the South China Sea with a white and flaky flesh and it was cooked on the bone until it was perfectly tender. The name of the dish was fragrant wine fish, 酒香带鱼, and we ordered it at a Hangzhou-based chain called Grandma’s. 10/10 would recommend.

In Hangzhou the magnolias were blooming already (Nanjing’s trees followed a few weeks later). I found this vibrant tree on a rainy day by a canal. This beautiful tree was the perfect chance to try out “close-up” mode on my camera. 


All in all, a wonderful weekend!

Adventures with the HSK

Adventures with the HSK

Spring has arrived in Nanjing! It is glorious. The many flowering trees around town are starting to bloom and the towering sycamores are beginning to grow leaves again. Outside my window and around campus, the birds are chattering away and it is so pleasant to listen to. I always forget how quiet winter is, and feel so much happier when spring comes and the birds return. Nanjingers keep warning me, “春天太短了!” which means, “spring is too short!” Spring is apparently only a month long and summer here is infamous: 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), 100% humidity and frequent rainstorms. Luckily, the worst of the weather doesn’t hit Nanjing until July and I am planning to make my exit in June so I am disregarding their warnings. My students, when asked about their summer activies, happily look forward to staying inside and eating watermelon (西瓜) to stay cool. Their favorite summer activity is to do nothing at all. And in 100% humidity, I would likely do the same.

We started classes again two weeks ago. This early in the semester, I still feel like I have yet to find my rhythm, but I am excited to be teaching literature courses to most of same students. I feel so much more confident than I did in September it is almost laughable.

Additionally, I am thrilled to report that I have picked up my Chinese classes again. I am now studying for HSK level 3 (the HSK is the most common test of Chinese language proficiency) and hoping/praying/studying to pass by June. I am posting this publicly as a method of encouraging myself to study. My reading speed is slowly, slowly increasing so I can understand more of the test questions. These questions have proven a surprisingly interesting way to learn about China. For example, one recent prompt dealt with 春节 (Spring Festival, AKA Chinese New Year) and the usual activities. It read, “春节是中国最重要的节日,这一节日在中国有很长历史了。以前,春节那天,大家都在家里,和家人在一起。近年来,人们在春节里有了新的选择—出门旅游。” This roughly translates to, “Spring Festival is China’s most important festival, this festival has a long and continuing history in China. In the past, on that day, everyone would go home, all the families would be together. Recently, some people have a new choice during Spring Festival: to go traveling.” This description, of everyone returning home, fits my observations during Spring Festival. The streets of Nanjing were empty for the day of the start of the festival and much of the next two weeks. However, it also makes sense that in the context of China’s growing wealth, more people (likely young people) have another option, to travel for leisure. It really is an interesting time to be in China, as the country grows so quickly.

Another prompt on this week’s assignment read, “‘日久见人心’ has this meaning, if you know someone for a short time, you cannot understand much about them, only when you have known each other for a long time, are you able to understand who they are.” Chinese has many short phrases like “日久见人心,” another common one is 好久不见 which means something like “long time no see!” Additionally, this view of friendship also seems to be a common one here. Anecdotally, I have noticed that friendships tend to be very long term and to be very deep. My students live in room of four people each and seem to sit with their roommates in class and to take most of the same classes as their roommates. Students are also divided into larger cohorts and take most of the same courses with this cohort of about 20, along with hanging out outside of class. Whereas at Wellesley, I rarely had the same person in more than one class at a time.

Since I can learn some more cultural concepts from the HSK questions, I think I am more motivated to understand. Usually textbook examples are fairly uninteresting: “Martha went to the store yesterday. Martha will go to the store tomorrow.” But when I translate these prompts, I feel like I am learning more than just some new vocabulary, but also more about this culture, which is very cool.