In Other Wor(l)ds: Meredith in China


Meredith Evancie graduated from Cornell University in 2012 where she majored in Psychology and Asian Studies. She currently lives in New York City and works as a paralegal. She will be starting at Stanford Law School in the fall. Meredith spent two periods of time in China. In the summer of 2010 she worked in Chengdu in Sichuan Province at a summer program for Tibetan students. She also studied abroad in Beijing in the spring of 2011 during her junior year of college. This post is in reference to her study abroad in China in 2011.

On Choosing China: People often ask me how I became so interested in China, and I never really have a good answer for them. I started studying Mandarin my first semester of freshman year at Cornell just because my college had a language requirement for graduation and I was bored of studying French. From there, my interest grew. I made a lot of Chinese friends at school, and the little pieces of culture we discussed in language class hooked me. I realized that this was a huge country with an amazing history, and every history class I had up to that point just glossed over China. I just had to keep learning more, so I started taking classes about the culture and history of China, and it turned into a major for me.

My enthusiasm with mastering the language also led to my choice to study abroad in China. I chose the language intensive program with IES in Beijing because it closely mirrored that first year curriculum I had found so challenging and rewarding.


Woman weaving in small Aini village, Yunnan Province

On Learning Mandarin: I’ve never had a gift for studying languages, and for some reason I chose one of the most difficult ones. That first year we had language classes eight times per week. I prepped for each class for at least two hours, and I still struggled every day, especially with the tones. I just couldn’t get the fourth tone for the life of me, and every day the teacher would yell at me. When I finally understood and was able to produce a fourth tone in the second semester I was so proud, I walked around campus saturating even English sentences with fourth tones just for the heck of it.

On Living Arrangements: When I was studying abroad, I lived with a host family in an apartment in Beijing. They were a middle-class family (yes, the emerging/powerful/rising middle-class that every news article is always going on about) and I had a very nice bedroom in a high-rise apartment. My host dad worked as the chief engineer for a subsidiary of China Mobile and my host mom did something with imports and exports and Pakistan (I never really understood what she was saying when we discussed this). I also had a host sister named Chelsea. She was 16 at the time and a wonderful friend to me when I was there (and she still is because she’s currently a freshman at Columbia). We discussed everything together, from feminism to pasta sauces to Tiananmen Square.


My host family

On Disgusting Delicacies: When I first moved in to my host family’s apartment, Chinese New Year was approaching, and like almost everyone else in Beijing, they were heading back to their home province to spend the holiday with their family. My host dad told me that Shanxi Province would be too “backward” (his word) for me, and I shouldn’t go with them.

Instead, I was booked on a flight with my host dad’s boss and his wife who were going to Shandong Province to photograph migrating swans. Every morning, we were up at the crack of down and shuttled to the icy coast to photograph the swans, which really were quite amazing. Then for every lunch and dinner we had the traditional Chinese banquet. I like pretty much anything, but there was one creature that figured prominently at every meal that I suffered through every time. Sea cucumber is a delicacy in China, and it’s very expensive. It’s also spiking and very slimy and strangely tasteless. It was at every meal in a broth, and the women at the table always watched me to make sure I ate it. At the first meal, I had a difficult time figuring out how to eat it with my chopsticks, and after I got halfway through, I lost my grip and it went skittering off across the floor. There was a collective gasp around the table, and I sat there mortified. The waitress quickly returned with a completely new dish for me and I had to start over. After that, I made sure never to drop it again. There was no way I could stomach any more sea cucumber.


Migrating swans in the East China Sea, Shandong

On Food: Besides sea cucumber, in general I loved the food. I know this is a cliché thing to say, but Chinese food really is a lot different in China. There are a lot more vegetable dishes and it’s just generally healthier. Another important thing that people don’t always appreciate is how varied the cuisine can be. China is a huge country, and the food in Beijing with soy paste, sesame paste, and buns instead of rice is very different from the spicy flavors of Chengdu or the yak meat and butter tea of the Tibetan plateau or the sweet and delicate food of Shanghai (now I feel bad for making generalizations). I really loved a lot of the vegetable dishes, especially when they were sautéed with garlic. However, I don’t really know what these dishes are, because when I asked, everyone would use the word 青菜. It’s a catch-all phrase for green vegetables that captured everything from cabbage to water spinach.

There is only one food that I didn’t try. As part of my program, we took a trip with our Chinese teachers to Yunnan Province in the south. We spent a few days in a remote village learning a bit about the minority populations of China. There were dogs roaming the village and we played with them the first day, including one with a lame leg. The next day, we didn’t see that dog, and when we asked about one of the meats on the table at lunch, we were told it was dog. I had conflicting emotions about trying it. At that point, I had consumed sea cucumber, jellyfish tentacles, boar’s feet, starfish, and chicken feet, and I knew that this would taste much better than all those. On the other hand, dogs are man’s best friends, and it seemed more wrong. In the end, I decided not to try it, but a big part of that decision was the knowledge that I wouldn’t offend anyone, unlike my experience in Shandong with the sea cucumber.


A Chinese meal


Trying starfish in 王府井 (Wangfujing), Beijing

On Parks: I think one part of China that is hands-down better than the U.S. is the park system. Chinese parks are a big meeting area and activity center for the city. A lot of retired folks will spend their whole day there. Every day there are groups of people practicing tai chi, sword fighting, ballroom dancing, and calligraphy. Everyone was also completely welcoming if I wanted to join in. I was able to join a few dances, and I got in my morning exercise as well.


Practicing Calligraphy in the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing

On Lines: There seems to be a mentality in China that there are too many people and the resources are scarce, so you just have to fight. As a result, no one lines up for anything. When buying food from a vendor, there is no line, there are just people jostling to the front and shouting out their order. When waiting for a public bathroom, there is no line, so you have to pick a stall and stand guard right in front of it and then dash in as soon as the person in front of you comes out. I was elbowed by 80 year-old Chinese women. At first, I didn’t know how to handle it and always let people go in front of me, but by the end of my time in China, I was elbowing with the best of them. The government is trying to change this part of the culture, and there are signs in a lot of places telling people to line up. At more touristy locations, there are guards in restrooms who make people form a line.


Stumbling upon street performers in Shandong

On Communism and Capitalism: In China, it’s not like the U.S. where we just register for whatever political party we want. In China, there is obviously only one political party (the CCP), and there is a competitive application process to join. Usually entry is granted to top college students across the party. My host dad was a member, and he was much more supportive of the Party’s policies than the rest of the family.

China is really at an interesting time as it transitions to a more capitalistic system. I had a really intriguing conversation with my host dad about this. As I mentioned previously, he worked at China Mobile. China Mobile has an interesting business model (if you can call it that). It’s publicly traded, and private investors hold 30% of the company, but Party control is maintained through a government-owned holding company that controls the other 70%. China Unicom is its main competitor and has a similar ownership model. I still don’t understand this for the life of me. My host dad said they needed competition to spark more innovation, so then I asked why it was state-controlled at all. He said this was to prevent high costs and to protect the consumer. I asked why competition couldn’t take care of that. Basically, they’re at an interesting stage where they’re really combining capitalism and communism. The Party has a term for this: 中国特色社会主义. It means “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”


鸟巢 (The Bird’s Nest), Beijing

On Language: One word that was all the rage when I studied there was 给力. The first character means “to give” and the second character means “power,” so the direct translation is “to give power” but it has come to mean “cool” or “awesome.” I used it a few times and everyone was super impressed, but then they always proceeded to tell me I was using it incorrectly, so I guess I never mastered that one.

Another fun character is 囧. It originally meant “patterned window” or “brightness” but now it’s used as an emoticon because it resembles a face. People use it most often to express shock or annoyance.

On Travel: If you’re thinking about visiting China, you definitely have to go to Beijing. The Summer Palace and Forbidden City are really amazing. It’s also the best if you want to study Mandarin, because it is based on the dialect of Beijing. Be sure to check out 798. It’s a modern art district with some amazing pieces.

I also really loved Hangzhou and the West Lake. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Lastly, I recommend Yunnan Province. It is in the south and is quite mountainous. Because of the forced isolation, different customs and groups formed in this province and it is now home to the most minority groups. It also has a lot of Southeast Asian influence, both in the architecture and the cuisine, so you really feel like you’re in another country. If you go, be sure to try the Pu’er tea (it’s fermented).

China really is an astounding and diverse country unlike anywhere else in the world. I can’t recommend it enough.


Temple near Kunming, Yunnan

Thank you so much, Meredith!! And I commend you for stomaching the sea cucumber :) 

Have you ever been to China? Is it on your list of destinations?