Jeffrey Ding

CIEE Beijing Study Abroad Program
Back in Iowa City after half a year in Beijing, I am struggling with re-adjustment. The process goes like this: watch four Star Wars movies on the flight back, half-heartedly suggest family Easter dinner at the Beijing Buffet on the Coralville strip, get car towed because a certain private parking lot has strengthened enforcement protocols, swerve at the sight of newly sprouted condominiums three houses down from my home, scroll through photo albums of China adventures, obsessively check friends’ WeChat updates, try to retrieve the part of me that is still sleeping and waking in Beijing time. Perhaps retrieval will come by way of writing and reflecting.

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24 hour bookstore
Built on East Art Gallery Street in 1996, the 24-hour bookstore is known by many readers as their “spiritual home” and a place in which to soak for an entire day. A bubble bath of 90,000 books stacked in a space of 1400 square meters. There are at least twenty different annotated versions of Journey to the West, one of the four great classical novels of China. A 513-page guide to polyphonic Mandarin characters can be found in an aisle devoted to dictionaries. Copies of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant are tucked away in random nooks. Books with titles like The Story of Art and The Story of Time convey the immense ambition in this place.

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Kites and chair-skis on the Chinese New Year
On the way to Houhai, the streets are empty, the crowds are sparse, the city is hollow. The street vendors left a week earlier to villages and families they visit once a year. The office workers have just left, most visit families, some avoid families by visiting other places. The bosses are fishing on an unnamed island. Houhai is an island of ice in an ocean of cement.

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Lifestore translation picture
Study abroad is a perfect opportunity to translate oneself in a foreign country, in a strange language, in unfamiliar roosts. You may just discover a way to add another layer of meaning to your brand. No, despite what the Chinese supermarket said, you can’t actually buy life. But maybe you can rebrand it.

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Yu Hua, considered by many to be China’s greatest living author, begins his remarks with a joke. Brothers, a novel he calls his most important, has received critical acclaim abroad but encountered mixed reviews at home. International critics, under the pretense that Chinese critiques of the book were government-sponsored, flock furiously to the novel’s defense. In fact, Yu Hua sheepishly concludes, the negative assessments were offered spontaneously and freely by the Chinese public.

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polluted days in beijing
Part I. Tell Me How I’m Supposed to Breathe in This Air The first thing I check every morning is the U.S. Embassy’s AQI (Air Quality Index). This Tuesday, the AQI reads “beyond index” (>500 AQI), which is a diplomatic way of saying “deathly.” The annoying lump in my throat and its companion “Beijing cough” reappears. When I look outside, I wonder if I have been transported back to the 1950s to London’s Smog Menace when couples kissed with their masks on and people relied on the blind to lead them home. I can’t help but question why I chose to study here, a decision that will probably cost me in life expectancy.

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First, a quick glimpse at the Mandarin learning process. Last Monday, I watched a movie in Chinese with English subtitles, and I found myself not even noticing the English. The next day, when ordering Chinese pancakes, I blanked on the names for any type of sauce, so I just mumbled something that sounded like what the previous customer said. Thankfully, it still tasted good. Last weekend, I was walking around the Global Village (international student dorms), and a couple asked me where building #10 was located. Despite living here for almost two months already, I still had no idea. At present, my study abroad is: thinking comfortably in Chinese, muddling through sticky situations, and having no idea about some basic surrounding areas. At least it still tastes good.

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Beijing is vast. I’ve been here the span of seven Hawkeye football wins, and the city’s vastness is overwhelming at times. The vastness is geographical. At 6,000 square miles – larger than Connecticut – the city’s rings stretch outward into rural villages masquerading as suburbs. Try taking the subway from the northwest corner of the city, where Peking University is located, to Yizhuan Culture Park, in the southeast corner; the bus or taxi through typical traffic will take even longer. The vastness is also historical. It reaches back through Mongol, Chinese, and Manchu dynasties, when the city was passed back and forth among occupiers.

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I love words. The paradox of love is it both requires an expression of totality but also one of discernment. When you love a person, the first attribute that comes to mind may be her beguiling smile, the way her voice sounds when she’s flustered, or the beauty mark on her elbow. What I love most about words is their capacity to express exactly what I – who I am in a particular context at that specific moment – would like to communicate. And I think in piecing together these words that contain our truths in their meanings we just may be able to find some kind of ultimate meaning.

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On the first day of class, I can’t tell if the teacher is giving an overview of the course or trying to convince people to drop it. Perhaps the culprit of my confusion is my participation in a rigorous study abroad program at Peking University, known as the “Harvard of China”, through which I am directly enrolled in classes with Chinese undergraduate students at the School of Economics and the School of International Studies.

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