Day 1: Plane and Welcome
Hello! Well, the adventure began today. From Raleigh, we flew to Chicago, then took a 14 hour flight to Beijing. I boarded the plane with lots of Biscoff cookies and the wholehearted intention to read two chapters of my organic chemistry textbook. Between watching La La Land and Argo and enjoying a mango sorbet, time flew by (sorry not sorry) faster than I thought it would. The textbook lay untouched. Oops.
Arriving at the airport, we were met by two friendly college students — Jeremy and Celia — who will be our translators. I’ve been to Beijing several times before to visit my relatives, so the airport and Chinese surroundings felt familiar. Even though my English is better than my Chinese, I tend to feel most at ease in a Chinese-speaking setting. Perhaps it’s because it’s the language I speak at home with my family.
We headed to the conference site in Huairou (on the outskirts of Beijing). After a huge welcome dinner buffet, we found our luggage neatly “caught” and set aside in a bright yellow net.
A quick run to the convenience store later, and we’re finally settling in.
I’m rooming with Ana Sofia, but each of us have our own room within the big room. We each have our own TV. I probably won’t use it, but still, whoa! I really appreciate everything that the Beijing hosts are doing to make us feel comfortable and welcomed.
Day 2: Language is powerful
Today was competition day. But it didn’t feel competitive, at least not among the international students. Arjun and I are in the same category (Medical and Health Sciences), so we were stationed next to each other. Next to us were Alex and Ruby, from Australia, who kindly offered us their favorite “Zappo” candies — sour grape chews that they proclaimed the “currency of [their] school.” I also learned that the temperature in Australia often hits 113 degrees for days straight. Ugh. Judging was wearisome, but talking to new people made it engaging.
I also realized just how useful it is to speak multiple languages. I translated several loudspeaker announcements for those around me, and made friends with a volunteer who asked to take a picture with me holding a water bottle. Ruby calls him “the water bottle guy”. We chatted about his life in Beijing and my American upbringing.
I was surprised at how surprised the Chinese locals were to find that I, an American, could speak Chinese. The Beijing students presenting across from me exclaimed excitedly when I said I could. Later, “the water bottle guy” came around asking me to be a translator for a girl who had questions about a project from Israel. As I talked with the Israeli presenters, Ofri and Omri, I learned that their school system allows them to major in multiple subjects in high school.
I conversed with a Chinese student about being a student in Beijing. To get into college in China, you have to take the gao kao — a series of rigorous Chinese college entrance tests that singlehandedly determine the college you go to. She told me that science competitions like BYSCC have begun to play a role in college admissions too as admissions officers look to recruit talent. “But only if you get first place,” she continues. “Second place doesn’t mean anything.” Yikes.
That almost made me glad that I had the chance to write essays and discuss my extracurricular activities as part of the U.S. college admissions process. (That’s saying a lot!)
Anyways, to close this up, I traded for a bunch of trinkets from other countries!
Day 3: Public viewers, tea party, and a really hard reflex game
Today, I learned to present my project in Chinese! Mostly through a trial and error process…I’d try different descriptions of technical terms until one clicked with a Chinese student, then remember it for the next presentation. By the end of the 3-hour morning session, I had it mostly figured out, ish. The viewers were patient with me. There wasn’t an overwhelming number of people, but the announcers kept reminding us that the venue was super crowded and informing us of all the nearest exits. They even propped open the doors for good measure. Questionable move. It was COLD outside! I guess they really wanted people to get out.
Later, we attended research talks by several international and local students. One guy from Singapore had all his power point slides in Chinese, but gave the entire talk in English. He kept referencing and glancing at the slides as he talked, too. If I were to try that, I’d probably start speaking a mix that I like to call Chinglish. His actual project indicated that caffeine from coffee doesn’t do much for cognitive performance, which is something I prefer not to believe. I don’t usually drink coffee, but I like to have the option to choose to believe that drinking it will make me more alert. What would our world come to without the placebo effect?
Ana Sofia won a 3000 yuan cash prize at the evening awards ceremony! Arjun got up on stage to learn some martial arts too. North Carolina represent!
After awards, we passed on the Danish students’ invitation to “get lit.” Ana Sofia, Arjun, Raymond, and I held a tea party among ourselves (look at us, we’re practically adults!) and played cards. We were joined by Alex and Ruby from Australia, then a couple of Czech and other European kids who happened to walk past our open door. We all headed down to the lobby for an intriguing game involving crossing arms over each other and slapping the table quickly and accurately. It’s always cool to see what people from other cultures bring to the table (literally).
Tea party and card games!
The table slapping game! We took half the tables and chairs in the lobby to make one giant table for 11 people.
Day 4: Awards and a Steep Climb
There was an awards ceremony this morning. All the international students got medals. It’s a way of encouraging everyone, I guess. It was cool to be up on stage.
After lunch, we headed to the Mu Tian Yu section of the Great Wall! It was a beautiful day. We rode up the mountain on wobbly pods strung from cables, then clambered up to admire the breathtaking views. Light pink blossoms adorned the trees against a backdrop of green and blue slopes. There weren’t that many tourists, either. We came at the right time of the year…
We (the students and Matt) decided to venture up a steep slope to a sharp bend in the wall. We didn’t realize just how steep it was until we got there. I haven’t exercised in way too long. It was an intense calf workout, to say the least.
Day 5: The Summer Palace
We left Huairou today. Celia wrote us all little notes, and even sent us gifts. I’ll miss everyone I met on this journey. But now, the tourist-ing begins!
Our hotel is in downtown Beijing, located close to just about everything. There are so many amazing (perhaps and unnecessary) luxuries. The lobby is filled with books and wine glasses and smells like orange-scented lotion.
Then, the summer palace! This was basically the emperor’s playground. Once again, the weather was wonderful, and there weren’t many crowds. It’s my favorite place we’ve visited so far.
In the evening, I met up with my relatives and several family friends. It’s been two years since I’ve visited China, so it was good to see them. Another plus — they brought a 24-pack of my favorite Chinese yogurt, tons of loose tea, and several pounds of cherry tomatoes and strawberries.
All in all, a very fruitful and rewarding day! Ana Sofia was knocked out by the end. Hehe.
Day 6: U.S. Embassy and Forbidden City
This morning, we went to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. I was struck by the long lines of people waiting outside to apply for U.S. visas. Apparently it’s like this every day. Wow.
We were welcomed inside by Nancy Sung, the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in China. Walking around the embassy, I saw a blend of Chinese and American architecture and layout. I wish we could have taken pictures, but we had to leave everything at the door.
In the NSF conference room, we discussed science and education. Ms. Sung even wrote us personalized letters! She has had so many interesting experiences.
Next, we walked through Tiananmen Square and the gates of the lavish Forbidden City. I find this site fascinating because of all the history and tradition underlying every detail of the architecture and intricate design.
Day 7: Souvenirs, Haggling, and Plane
I think I’ve been to the Hong Qiao market before, but I have no recollection. After packing up our stuff, trying to eat as much of my relatives’ yogurt and fruit as I could, and saying goodbye to our amazing hotel, we spent two hours there buying souvenirs.
I haggled, but I always get to a point where I feel guilty doing so. Still, we got a couple of nice gifts for friends back home.
I’m sad to leave this place where I’ve formed so many friendships and taken part in so many experiences. At least I’ll be back in the summer to visit friends and family. And as the cliché goes, the memories and pictures will be with us forever.