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How Wet are the Wetlands

There are times when the mind believes teleportation is possible. I thought I was still in Beijing that morning. Before I knew it, one look outside the window told me our bus was rumbling through the dark streets of Hangzhou, pouring rain blurring my vision.

Chatting with the Wanxiang student ambassadors was merry. I wanted to know everything about Hangzhou. But like any city, it has its secrets. My first night already alerted me to three.

  1. How dangerous is being in a typhoon?
  2. Is there really a mystical city underneath West Lake?
  3. Are the Xixi Wetlands really wet?

Okay, so firstly, we’re fine. A typhoon is just a “mature tropical cyclone” that occurs in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Basically, heavy rain and heavy wind – water is being blown in your face. So I knew we were fine when a light drizzle greeted us the following morning. Umbrella? Problem solved.

A comrade of ours had pumped me with the gossip that there was some kind of city underneath the West Lake, a famous scenic site of Hangzhou. Because no one is allowed to swim in this body of water, it will never be known whether there is actually a city underneath the lake. Case closed.

Only one task remained on my checklist. Right in the backyard of Hangzhou Wanxiang Polytechnic. The wetlands. By day 5, I was ready to begin my investigation.

Armed with a dingy hotel flashlight and the strongman on our program, I setoff just as the last rays of sunlight glanced off the horizon. A brief ten minute walk brought us to the gates of wilderness.

There sure were a lot of people for supposedly unforgiving wilderness. Joggers, motorcyclists, and even rampaging children. Nonetheless, we heeded the call of the wild and ventured onward.

Humidity and cicadas. You’re sweating buckets and you can’t escape the buzzing all around you. I remember a couple bats flying overhead us. A very well-paved road seemed to stretch on through the interior of the wetlands. Hmm… suspicious.

We continued to penetrate deeper down this path, as all around the us, vegetation and darkness began to engulf us. Every so often, a clearing would emerge, showing the water part of the wetlands.

I was eager to investigate the wildlife, as I perhaps thought we were at some biodiversity hotspot. The weak ray from my flashlight barely illuminated the surrounding trees; every sign of life apparently invisible. For the time being, the wetlands weren’t as inhospitable as I made them out to be.

Then we rounded the next corner. And my jaw dropped. From the seemingly endless sea of verdancy, there were bright green lights. “Starbucks Coffee.” The investigation was over. Just a bit further and we hit a village that loomed to our left. Lights aglow and jazzy music playing. Bah, humbug. It was just a lie.

We ended up relaxing in some refreshing air conditioning, stuffing our mouths with spoonfuls of ice cream. After a purchase of cookies, we decided to call it a night and “retreat” back to civilization.

So what became of this final secret? The Xixi Wetlands aren’t really that wet. Sure, you got some water here and there with a lot of cicada-infested trees. But that’s really only the backdrop for what’s really going on. Tourism has mainly grown through its fancy interior, almost like a sprawling city within the wilderness.

So don’t get too caught by the allure of a natural exterior. You really want the red bean paste ice cream and mango shaved ice on the inside.



The Bus Doesn’t Wait

The saying “the bus doesn’t wait” has become all too popular among Northwestern students studying abroad in China. Perhaps it is because the phrase has turned into one of Professor Gu’s mantras. But perhaps it is also because the bus, more often than not, does indeed wait. Of course, I’m talking about our trusty private bus that takes us on all the tours.

But to this day, it will be never known whether the “bus” that Professor Gu always chirps about is our school bus or perhaps another bus. I can try to shed some light on the matter here.

I suspect that the “bus” Gu is referring to is actually of the many public buses that crisscross through Beijing. Recently, I got to taste what it was like being a commuter on a Beijing public bus.

Following a bustling adventure with my language partner during the day, dusk found us searching for a way back to campus. Before I knew it, we were already rallied at a nearby bus stop. To my dismay, we would have to take different buses because we lived in different areas of Peking University. She had just enough time to hastily explain to me what to do when a screeching halt told me my colossal ride was here.

With my sweaty palms nervously gripped around the bars of the bus, I repeated the instructions in my mind.

Ok, so take this bus for 3 stops and gets off at a place called zhongguanyuan. How hard could it be?

Very, very hard.

It’s very hard because the stop right before my stop is named zhongguancun. Confusing right? Yup, I was bamboozled for sure.

I strained my ears to discern what the muffled broadcast was saying, so when I picked up “zhongguan” I thought I had arrived. It was only after I muscled through the swarms of commuters and stepped off that I realized I had no idea where I was. The minotaur in the labyrinth.

A frantic call with my language partner informed me I should wait for the same numbered bus to come back and ride it for one more stop to get to where I needed to go. My trepidation at not wanting to be mistaken again kept the wait time short. I was already boarding another bus.

This time I tried to shut out the overhead broadcast. I just had to count to 1. Just like kindergarten. Soon familiar scenery passed by in the windows. We were at my stop. At the worst time, I tuned into the broadcast.

“All passengers please exit through the back doors.” Or so I thought. It was in Chinese.

As I raced from the front to the back, the back doors suddenly closed. My only way out was back through the front. But I was going against the current of boarding commuters. Just as I squeezed past them, the driver pulled the front door shut… and began to drive. But that was my stop!

We stopped almost immediately after at a red light. We were still stationed along the curb. I went up to the driver and begged him to open the doors to let me out because I had just missed my stop.

“How did you miss your stop, young man?”

“I thought I heard to go out through the back, but the doors were shut, and I couldn’t make it to the front in time.”

“Well it’s really not fair if I just let you down now. You wouldn’t be safe in this traffic.”

I was thoroughly peeved but I fell mute and let him take me to the next stop.

I biked back to campus through the public bike system, quite angered. How could I be misdirected like that? The curb was right there, why didn’t he just let me off? 

I had such a fun time in Beijing, so this incident stands out to me because I haven’t been so irritated in so long. So when Gu says the bus doesn’t wait, I don’t think he’s talking about our tour bus. He is secretly warning us that if one should ever ride the public buses in Beijing, it is an unforgiving scene and there is no such thing as a bus that waits.



Face to Face with Fog

I remember when I first arrived in Beijing, I didn’t even know it. Gazing out the window of my aircraft, I thought we were still amidst the clouds. Then there was the riveting jolt, signaling that we had just made contact with the airport runway.

Huh? I thought to myself.

After disembarking, curiosity urged me to solve the mystery. The answer was apparent above. The plane was not in the clouds, but rather in a thick veil of fog – artificial fog known as air pollution. My time was soon to reveal that blue skies were a rarity in Beijing.

Apart from infrequent, minor hiccups in my lungs, I thought I had bested this devious fog. But one night, I thought wrong.

8 pm. Musty and dimly-lit indoor track. Bags slumped around the floor and water bottles planted on benches. My friend and I were in for the workout of our lives.

It was a little something he called “high intensity cardio.” After grueling ab and leg workouts, we would have to complete short bursts of all-out sprints. Though not more than 30 seconds each with plenty of rest in between, just four rounds had me prostrate on the dusty pavement, crawling to reach the sanctuary of the mat and the oasis of my water bottle.

With the wind knocked out of me, I groggily affirmed to my friend that I had nothing left. His distant reply told me we would go grab some late night protein. Gathering our belongings, we lethargically slipped out into the night like two exhausted bandits.

That’s when it began to hit. The huffing and puffing of my unsteady breathing coupled with the ringing in my ears drowned out the din around campus. But I also didn’t feel right. I was too fatigued. Too short of breath.

Initially, I ignored it and continued to try to walk it off. But it seemed with each breath, it only got worse. I felt lightheaded, as if my lungs were devoid of oxygen, and I thought I was on the verge of collapse. As I continued to hobble around, I yelped to my friend that I had to find somewhere to lie down. With my vision blurring, I recall stumbling into a nearby dorm and immediately collapsing on the tiled floor. My friend was right behind me.

We drew looks from all around, and even the manager approached us to inquire what was wrong. To be honest, we didn’t entirely know what was wrong. We just needed oxygen.

Minutes passed without a word, with only the raspy cacophony of breathing. Per my friend’s suggestion, prolonged deep breaths began to do the trick. Slowly my mind and vision began to clear, as if the invisible fog was seeping out of my lungs.

No matter how hard I had worked out before, I had never felt this weak before. Late night research revealed my worst fear. That night’s air quality was abysmal in Beijing, so it was no surprise that we were so short of oxygen.

I was truly scared that night. There were some moments where I really did not know if I would be ok or not, with the option of the ambulance hanging over me. But I’m also scared for the future. With the present condition of Beijing, it’s frightening to imagine what the world would look like with increased levels of the menacing fog that lurks in the air. Because it’s already very real.

Peking Duck is a Must (and dumplings, of course)

I’m almost halfway done with the program, and I cannot believe how fast time flew! The first day I arrived in Beijing, the smog was unbelievable, I couldn’t even see the tops of buildings. To my surprise though, the next day and every day after has been mostly blue skies or just cloudy and rainy , but no smog which was a huge relief. But as we have learned in class,  it is still a huge problem that impacts people’s long term health.

One of my biggest goals next to expanding my knowledge of China’s healthcare system is exploring all of the food options available here. I strive to try something new everyday, and I feel like I haven’t made it to even half of the local restaurants. I have yet to try anything that I didn’t like which is surprising because I’m usually a picky eater. The food is very very cheap compared to the U.S. so it is not difficult to make your way around and try as many places as you can.

The best meal I’ve has thus far is the Peking duck. I was lucky enough to be able to go to a 5 star restaurant with the best quality Peking duck you can find and I think I may be ruined for all other ducks now. I definitely recommend trying it! My next favorite meal is the dumpling place right down the street from our dorm. I have yet to find better tasting dumpling than these. There are my go to when I don’t want to hike to one of the dinning halls for dinner.

This is a picture of the chef cutting the Peking duck for us to eat. I recommend looking at videos on how to eat it properly!

Packed and Ready to Go!

As the starting date for my study abroad program creeps closer, life has become more and more hectic. Between finals and moving everything into storage it feels like I have barely had time to breathe before launching into this new adventure. Either way, school is over and I can finally let myself be excited to be a part of the Wanxiang Fellows Program.

To make sure that I’m ready for the trip I’ve exchanged a good amount of currency and called my service providing company to arrange a phone plan that I can use abroad. Luckily, I also have quite a few friends here in the US who have either lived in China or have family there so I made sure to ask them for all of their recommendations as well as how much things cost, on average. Now, my suitcase is packed and all that there is left to do is wait.

I will be meeting a good friend in Beijing a day before the program starts and will be staying with her in her family’s apartment for the night. More than anything, I’m excited to eat as much food as humanly possible and (hopefully) to pick up on some Mandarin. I’m most scared of the jet lag as nothing can dampen a trip like being terminally exhausted for most of it but I’ve decided to do my best to sleep on the plane and to fix my sleeping schedule as soon as possible.

That’s all I have for now! The last obstacle I will have to brave before diving into the new program is the thirteen-hour flight, wish me luck!


The Wayward Path Ends Where It Began

This has been a time of change. I like to think of change as a baby elephant we are always riding. With more change, more age, the elephant grows up and inevitably, we become more aware of the world around us. It was just one week ago that I hurriedly scribbled away the last words of my government final. In a few days time, I will be flying to the capital of one of the oldest nations in the world. But this week has been different. It was change.

It was a loss of order and structure. No longer would I wake up every morning wondering if I would make it on time to work. No more Sundays of stressing over dreaded math worksheets. No more shattered hopes upon discovery of sub par dining hall food. The friends I had accustomed myself to seeing on a daily basis had all left, gone their separate ways for the summer. Just a Saturday ago at noon, I was forcibly ejected from my 9 month home of Sargent Hall.

That day, as I dragged my luggage through its empty hallways and rusted doors, I felt strange. A sense of tension and vigilance. Perhaps I was nervous or excited, or just… something. My flight was not until Monday morning, and I was just improvising at that point. I stayed at Mudd Library for several hours. By dusk, a friend I contacted in Willard graciously offered me the hospitality of his room, and of course, Willard itself, which was a large mansion. I played a lot of piano, ate quite unhealthily, and slept a lot. I had always been bounded by things beyond my control, but for the first time, I had to make all the decisions, with nothing guiding me; no deadlines, schedules, or requirements. And knowing any answer, any path, any decision could be a right one was scary. I was used to order, not chaos.

I know that as I begin my time at the program, I will be returning to a normal life of routines and habits, such as going to class and completing assignments. But there is just so much more to explore in Beijing, that I can’t forget this side of being natural and whimsical. Letting things happen and making decisions freely. It will certainly be challenging and change is a given. Change. Just that word fills me with so much trepidation of uncertainty. As such, I am attaching a photo of me riding an elephant in Southeast Asia, reminding myself that change seeks to give us a broader perspective of the world and that some analogies are just terrible.

My “Post-Grad” Plans

Hello! My name is Jena DiFiore and I just submitted my last final at Northwestern. I’m extremely nervous and excited to walk across the stage on Saturday and then I leave for Beijing the next day! Everyone keeps asking me “So what’s your post-grad plans?” and it feels pretty cool to say “I’m going to China for the summer”. While there is a lot to do in the next week like saying goodbye to all the friends I have made at Northwestern and getting my last taco at Frontera, I am ready to graduate and see what China has to offer.

I am very excited to go to China, specifically, to learn about the health care system because I studied Environmental Science and Global Health at Northwestern and I know that many people in China suffer from lung cancer, etc due to the air pollution and I am really interested in learning more about this and other ways the environment has played a role in the public’s health.

In preparation for this trip, I have downloaded at least 4 apps to learn Chinese. I want to be familiar with the characters and simple phrases before I leave so that I am not completely lost when I arrive. I have also read a lot about the health care system and am excited to see it first-hand.

These are a few phrases I have tried to memorize before I leave, and I have also looked at a few maps like the subway system below that I will probably still get lost on.

Basic Chinese Phrases Pictures to Pin on Pinterest - ThePinsta

Remembering China

Hello! I’ve been back on campus for a week now. I spent 2 more weeks with my family in Hangzhou and returned to Minnesota at the end of August. Leaving China was bittersweet, because I had grown accustomed to the lifestyle, people, and family. It feels very strange to be back and not seeing people on the program every day. I was jet-lagged for at least 2 weeks, simply because I took advantage of my time off and binge watched a lot of TV. Despite feeling ready to come back to the States, I found myself missing my family, the food, and the convenience of everything. Before departure, I expected this trip to China to be like the other trips I’ve taken there. In hindsight, I realized I had such a different experience this time around. I was not with my family most the time, had responsibilities like attending classes, and lived independently in a city that differs so much from the one I’m used to. Besides advancing my Chinese skills with learning hard literary texts and poems, I gained insight on the Chinese health care system and its traditional practices. These practices are such a vital part of daily lives in China. I was able to experience acupuncture, cupping, and Chinese massage. My absolute favorite part about studying abroad is the people. My class and I went out to get hotpot with our Chinese professor. I was not expecting to meet so many amazing people this summer, let alone become so close to them. This experience has been such a delight that I’m trying to find room in my schedule to study abroad again before I graduate!

Looking Back

It’s been about a month since I returned from my study abroad trip in Beijing, China. I’ve certainly returned to many elements of familiarity back in the United States, where road signs and restaurant menus are in English. Recalling all the experiences that I’ve had in China this summer, I can’t help but think about how enriching this experience has been, both academically and personally.

Other than the more obvious academic gains that I was able to take away from this trip by taking Chinese, Public Health, and Traditional Chinese Medicine classes, I was able to grow and develop as an individual by navigating the subway system, traveling with friends from Beijing to Shanghai and back, and even simply attempting to order food at a restaurant. In a country where I had such little knowledge regarding the culture and the language, simply attempting to accomplish everyday tasks became a significant challenge. At the end of the two months, however, I found that these challenges were a lot simpler. Instead of asking Chinese-speaking friends for help, I found that I was actually able to complete these tasks myself.

Through this study abroad trip, I was able to meet an amazing group of friends; as we struggled together through the challenges of being in an unfamiliar country, we were able to become extremely close-knit.

This study abroad trip to Beijing, China was certainly one to remember. I will definitely miss the food and interactions I had with individuals during this trip!



Missing China

Hey guys,

I’ve been home from China for a few weeks now, but it feels like I was there just yesterday. During the last two days I was in China, we visited the watertown “Wuzhen” and Shanghai. I am glad we got to experience both, but I most enjoyed being a tourist in Shanghai. During our first day there, we visited the Bund which had beautiful sights, but unfortunately we were not able to stay for long. We also saw another acrobatics show which I actually preferred to the one we saw in Beijing. During the second day, we explored some of the city on our own. We went to this really cool “Art Mall” called K11, which is like nothing I have ever seen in the US, and enjoyed some quality cupcakes and ice cream. We also did some shopping in Chinese markets and enjoyed our last dinner together in country.

The Bund!

Fancy fruit at K11 Mall

During my first week home, I took a week off from responsibilities and used that time to rest, recover, and visit family. Unsurprisingly, I found myself very jet-lagged and a little bored especially because I was used to having every day jam-packed with activities. During the second week and the rest of my time home, I am working at my old job at Pyxis Technologies where I am working on a few small engineering projects until I head back to school in September.

Being home from China is a bit weirder than I imagined. When I was in O’Hare International Airport waiting for my connection to Detroit, I found myself saying “thank you” in Chinese to the person who sold me my Gatorade. It was also a bit surprising to me that I no longer had to point at what I wanted and the cashier actually understood what I was saying. That being said, I kind of miss the adventure that came with trying to communicate with people using the very little Chinese that I knew.

I am looking forward to going back to campus and starting a new school year, but I will never forget the time I spent abroad. Coming home from this trip, I am feeling more confident and educated but most of all, happy that I went, especially because I debated going for a long time. I would recommend to almost anyone that if you get the chance, you should definitely study abroad. I know I certainly don’t regret it.

Well, this wraps up my last blog post. Thanks for reading!