Oberlin Blogs

Blogging Across Oceans: Oberlin and Kunming

October 4, 2015

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17

Leaves changing color, Halloween advertisements, cooling temperatures, the beginning of school - for me, these events represent the coming of fall. However, this year, this is all turned upside-down for me. Living in Kunming, a "四季如春" (four seasons all spring) city, I can't say that I have noticed any particularly significant temperature trend, and I certainly haven't seen any colorful leaves or Halloween ads. While I have experienced the beginning of school, it's certainly unlike any other year of school that I have had before.

The beginning of the school year has always been one of my favorite times of the year. During the first month or so, everything feels very fresh. All my professors seem really interesting, my classes are exciting, and I'm seeing all my friends and making new ones. For that first month, it feels like anything can happen. I've taken this experience to the next level this past month.

Just over a month ago, I had never been out of the United States (yes, I've been to neither Canada nor Mexico). For the past month, I've been living just about as far away from the U.S. as you can get - not only in terms of physical distance, but also in terms of language and culture. Or, at least, that's what I expected before getting here. In fact, because of my white skin and blond hair, strangers on the street routinely come up to me and start speaking English (this past weekend I took a trip to a fairly touristy area, where even the Chinese people responded in English when I spoke to them in Chinese. That was disappointing to say the least). Unfortunately for them, the program that I am participating in has a language pledge, which means I'm not allowed to speak English in pretty much any situation, so they only get Chinese responses from me (I've told a few people that I don't speak English, which I guess isn't really a lie). As for the culture aspect, while there are certainly differences, there are also a lot of similarities. In particular, my roommate here (who is from Shanxi, but studie(s/d...it's a little complicated) at Yunnan University (the school my program is located at) bears a lot of similarities to my roommate last year at Oberlin. They both watch a lot of movies, take showers at seemingly random intervals, and are laid-back and nice to the point that it sort of creeps me out.

However, that's not to say that I haven't had a ton of new experiences for the past few months. I have so much to write about that I don't really know where to go with any of it, so I think I'll make a list of some of the experiences I've had here contrasted with my experiences at Oberlin. Since these descriptions will probably be fairly brief, expect to see some of these points elaborated on in future posts.

1.I climbed a mountain.

While I can't say this is an entirely new experience (the highlight of my high school swim team training trip was our mountain-climbing excursion), it's certainly not like anything I've experienced in my time at Oberlin. You may remember from one of our earlier posts that, to the best of my knowledge, the highest point in Oberlin is a man-made hill somewhat-mockingly dubbed "Mount Oberlin." Meanwhile, 西山 (Xishan), the mountain we climbed a few weeks ago, which I believe is within Kunming's city limits, is quite a bit larger than our beloved Mount Oberlin.

2.I speak 汉语/中文/普通话 (Chinese) all day every day.

Honestly, best part of this experience. As you can probably tell from any blog post I've ever written, I love Chinese. It's usually my favorite class at Oberlin, and, much to my friends' chagrin, if there's an opportunity to speak Chinese with a fellow student, I will take it. While I'm in Kunming, I don't have to worry about finding anyone to speak with - I can speak Mandarin with just about anyone anytime anywhere.

While this is awesome, it's always made me think critically about life as someone living in the U.S. whose first language is not English. The number of times that strangers on the street here have asked me and/or my friends "how many years we've lived in China" (response: ...about three weeks) or given me a spontaneous compliment on my Chinese ability is honestly astounding. Although I like to think that my Chinese is not bad, it is certainly not good enough to warrant this level of excessive praise. Every time that I receive one of these compliments, I think about how ridiculously low the standards are for white people living in China as compared to how harshly people in the United States judge people's English. I've decided that when I get back to the United States I need to stop taking people's English for granted and start giving them more compliments.

3.Everything here is covered in oil.

This is not about pollution. It is about food. I'm not exactly sure why, but it is very difficult to find a dish that is not drowned in oil. There's not really a way to be sure if the oil is vegetable oil or animal fat, which kind of makes me uncomfortable, but I've started to get used to it. I also have to put a lot of effort into finding out if a dish does or does not contain meat. I'm actually a "student correspondent" for the program that I'm in, which means that I have another blog about this whole study abroad experience (don't worry, though - the Oberlin blogs will always be first in my heart), and I just wrote an entire post for that blog about life as a vegetarian in China, so I'm not really going to elaborate too much on it here, but let's just say that it's an entire blog post in and of itself.

4.My classes are tiny.

Most of my friends from high school think that my classes at Oberlin are small (I've never had a class larger than 50 people, and the vast majority of my classes have 10-20 students; this is extremely small in comparison to the 100+ person intro classes that many of my friends had/have). However, they are enormous compared to my classes here. I have four classes. One has six or four students depending on the day of the week, one has three students, one has two students, and in one I am the only student. In fact, Middlebury C.V. Starr Kunming (the program I am on; I just realized that although I keep referencing it, I hadn't mentioned its name) requires all students to participate in a one-on-one class. This class is on a topic chosen and designed by the student, and has a teacher who is an expert in that topic. At the end of the class, you have to do some original research on your topic (in Chinese, obviously), and write a fairly long paper on it. My class is about contemporary Chinese views on vegetarianism, and, while I'm not exactly sure what my final paper is going to be about yet, I'm sure it will be exciting.

5.My classmates aren't Oberlin students.

Yes, I know that this should be obvious, but it's honestly quite the change. My classmates range from students at other small liberal arts colleges (Middlebury, Bowdoin), to students who go to much larger/different schools (Columbia, Georgetown). This means that we don't have all the same experiences to bring us together. I can't count on the comforting social awkwardness characteristic of my fellow Oberlin students, and I can't be sure that I can talk about cultural appropriation, anthropocentrism, or heteronormativity without receiving strange looks (not to mention that it's pretty difficult to talk about these topics in Chinese). However, at the same time, I think that there's nothing like intensely studying Chinese 24/7 to bring people together. We all understand the Chinese struggle, and we've had to support each other through constant miscommunications and the frustration that comes with not knowing how to express oneself. Therefore, the disappointing lack of "Obies" has not impeded my ability to make friends (any more than the "characteristic Oberlin social awkwardness" that I, of course, possess would have otherwise).

6.It's hard to know what topics are and are not acceptable.

I said before that I didn't think Chinese and American culture were as different as people tend to think, but that's not to say there aren't differences. One of these is what topics are or are not acceptable to talk about. It's not uncommon for Chinese people to comment on people's appearance to their face - I joke that one of my friends here is going to marry my roommate, since the first time they met, he told her that she was pretty. However, this really isn't an uncommon topic.

For some of my classes, I have to go out on the street and interview strangers about their views on certain societal issues. For someone like who me, who, as I'm sure my parents would tell you, is often uncomfortable talking to strangers, this is kind of a scary proposition. The culture differences often add to the stress of this situation, but sometimes they actually help me out. For example, one of my classes is called "云南少数民族的人类学研究" (roughly translated by me as "Yunnan (the province I'm living in)'s Ethnic Minority's Anthropology Research"), requires me to find 少数民族 (ethnic minorities, although this translation doesn't really represent the term. I personally think that there is no good way to translate this word). These "ethnic minorities" only represent about 13% of the population of Kunming, and if they aren't wearing their traditional clothing or working in a restaurant that serves their ethnicity's cuisine, there isn't a good way to identify them. Hence, they're pretty hard to find. This situation led me and the other student in my class to ask our professor how we were supposed to find minorities to interview. According to our professor, we could just go up to someone and ask them what their ethnicity was. To my classmate and me, this sounded like a pretty uncomfortable question to start a conversation with a stranger with, but apparently it's fine in Chinese culture. It turned out that I asked a random woman in a bookstore if she was an ethnic minority, and she ended up getting really excited because she was not only an ethnic minority, but also an anthropologist. I guess sometimes random encounters with strangers work out.

7.My classes are all in Chinese.

This should be obvious by now, but all my classes are in Chinese, and that's how I wish every semester could be. That's not to say they're all "Chinese" classes. I would say that three out of my four classes are more focused on content than they are about language acquisition. That's all I'm going to say about my classes for now, since I'm sure I will write a very, very long blog post about them later in the semester.

8.Everything is less scary than I expected it to be.

For some of the reasons stated earlier in this post (all of my classes being in Chinese, speaking Chinese all the time, traveling to a foreign country for the first time), I was extremely excited for this semester. However, leading up to my departure, I was also quite nervous. I was worried that I wouldn't make friends, that my classes would be too difficult, that my Chinese wasn't actually at the level I thought it was, that I wouldn't be able to find food that I could and would eat...the list goes on and on. However, these fears have been mostly unfounded. So far I've been having an amazing time, and I'm fairly certain that this will continue to be a great experience. Of course, I'm also excited for my return to Oberlin - almost seven months is a long time to be away from the best place on earth.

Anyway, that's my list for now. There's still a ton of topics I want to cover. I haven't talked about my calligraphy and Chinese painting extracurricular class yet - for me, whose lifetime lowest grade was in 7th grade art class, this is a major challenge. I also haven't really talked a lot about my roommate and the experience of living with a Chinese roommate. I've barely touched on the wide variety of food options I have here. I haven't talked about Kunminghua, or any of the millions of things that I've discovered I want to learn since arriving in China. But I'm sure there will be plenty more blog posts for that; I think this one should come to an end before Frances calls me out for rambling on without a real central topic. I hope my English ability won't be too bad by the time our next post comes out - speaking nothing but Chinese takes a toll on your English (as you can probably tell from this blog post). Anyway, I'm glad that, by coming to Oberlin, I've had this opportunity. It's a totally new take on the first month of school.

I don't think I've ever wanted to be in Oberlin more than I did at the end of this summer. After several weeks of not working and pretty much doing nothing, I was tired of being at home, I was tired of California, and I was gripped with an intense "back-to school" feeling. I've always loved going back to school, ever since I was in elementary school. Whenever anybody asked me if I was excited about school, I'd lie and say I wasn't (I guess I was trying to seem like a cooler fifth grader than I actually was). On the inside, I was bursting with joy and apprehension over getting a new teacher, new school supplies, new school clothes, and being able to see my friends at school every day. Of course, that was back when school was more about making dinosaur dioramas and playing four square than coming to grips with your academic and post-college future, like it is now. Nevertheless, I was incredibly restless at the end of August, and when the airport shuttle rolled up outside Wilder, I felt like I had drunk five cups of coffee and was practically jumping out of my skin.

Once I was back on campus, I busted open my brand-new single room in Baldwin Cottage. Wow-ee, was I excited to see that my room has a large window, yellow walls, and a walk-in closet! I have never lived in such luxury! The first thing I did was open my window and plug in my fan--it was about 100 degrees in there, and my jumping around in excitement was not helping me stay any cooler. After I had some time to unpack, get the rest of my belongings out of my off-campus storage unit, and actually breathe, I began to feel very...alone. This is the first semester I've had a single room on campus, and though I was excited to have some extra space and privacy, I had taken for granted how nice it was to have the near-constant company that comes with having a roommate. Though my friends are only a few minutes away, having a single has taken some getting used to. I've had to seek out social interaction by doing more homework in public spaces, and get better at reliably communicating using my phone instead of in person. I've also enjoyed the freedom that comes with being alone: getting to moderate the temperature of the room based on my preferences alone, getting up and turning on the light at odd hours, and not having to worry about accidentally locking my roommate out of the room, or waking them up if they're sleeping. On the whole, I've enjoyed the change, but I have found myself Snapchatting my outfit questions to my "ex" roommate, Emma, because I'm indecisive and I miss her.

So far, I've been loving my classes this semester. (Even though they're taught in my first language, unlike Brendan's. Bummer!) I'm taking three History classes and Introductory Astronomy. I'm taking Astronomy to fulfill some graduation requirements, but even though it's not in my area of expertise, I've been enjoying it. The more I learn about the subject, the more I realize how little I actually knew about the Sun, the stars, the seasons, and space in general. I do have to do math for the class, which is daunting after not having taken a math class since high school, but I've survived so far.

As for my history classes, I've been feeling really positively about and comfortable with my choice to major in the subject. Over the summer, I was feeling apprehensive about that choice, and I worried that I would somehow be wasting my time learning about the past. Now that I'm back at Oberlin, it's hard to imagine why I ever felt that way. I find it really exciting to learn about stuff I'm passionate about in a group of people who are just as excited and passionate as I am. This feels especially true in my smaller, upper-level classes in the History department; everyone is nerdy about the same things I am, and yes, they also get weirdly enthralled by the historical implications of Uncle Tom's Cabin and dictatorships in South America. Being around people who validate my passions is one of the reasons why I'm more confident in my choice to study history, and it makes me thankful that I chose to study at a liberal arts college like Oberlin. Ok, *cheesiness over*.

Though the first few weeks of my semester have been pretty standard, here are a few highlights:

1. Some delicious meals.

At the beginning of the semester, co-ops have something called "interim," a time during which each co-op elects its cooks and other positions. Interim is generally a tumultuous time, because having a head cook for a meal isn't guaranteed unless a seasoned co-oper steps up to cook it, and there are a lot of new members who aren't totally clear on how stuff works yet. Because of the typical chaos of interim, meals tend to get cancelled frequently. I took these opportunities to enjoy my favorite Oberlin culinary treats on the cheap.

On my first night back in Oberlin, I got my favorite meal from Agave, our town's very own "burrito bar and tequileria." Now, I won't lie to you and neglect to mention the many times I have publicly scorned Agave for serving what is, in my opinion, a sorry excuse for Mexican food. What Agave does offer is "half-nachos," i.e. a half-order of their super nachos, for $5. That's a pretty good deal for a lot of food (and nachos originated in the United States, so you can't expect them to be "authentic").

I've also taken a number of opportunities to visit my favorite coffee shop in town, the Local. I've definitely discussed the Local in depth on the blogs, because I think it deserves a lot of love and attention. However, this semester, I'm trying not to drink coffee. Which is difficult for me. It feels like a crime to enter a high-end coffee shop and just order a bagel. Lately, I've been ordering hot water and bringing my own tea bags with me. Not only am I keeping to my no-coffee pledge, but I'm also saving money. This works for me most of the time, but I've definitely broken my own rule and ordered a latte a couple of times. Now that we're entering autumn, the Local has started offering hot apple cider, which seems like an intriguing tea alternative. Now I can feel seasonally appropriate and keep myself from getting over-caffeinated!

I've also made a couple of stops at Kim's, the Korean grocery store and restaurant in town. I've long been a fan of Kim's bibimbap, but lately I've been indulging in their $5 lunch bowls, which include a meat entrée (I usually go for bulgogi) and rice. It's just the right amount of food for lunch, and the price is right. Lately, Kim's has really been hitting the spot for when I need to quickly grab something to eat before class, or if a Harkness meal has been canceled at the last minute.

So far, I've neglected to honor all the delicious Harkness meals I've been served these past few weeks! Our head cooks have really been hitting it out of the park this semester, serving delicious things like butternut squash soup, fried tempeh, expertly roasted brussels sprouts, and amazing buttery biscuits. I'm so thankful to be so well taken care of in my co-op!

2. A new co-op job.

This semester, I was elected along with another co-oper as a Harkness board representative on the OSCA (Oberlin Student Cooperative Association) Board of Directors. This is a big change from my past OSCA jobs. The board reps attend weekly Board Meetings, bring Board proposals to their co-ops, facilitate all-OSCA elections in their co-ops, and sit on additional all-OSCA committees. This job has already given me an insider perspective on the goings-on of OSCA as an organization, and I'm excited to take on this responsibility!

3. I'm officially studying abroad next semester!

Yep, that's right. Next semester, I'll be blogging from Amsterdam! At this time last year, I was unsure if studying abroad was something I wanted to do. I ultimately realized that this was probably one of the only times, if not the only time in my life when I would have the time and opportunity to live abroad. Deciding to study in the Netherlands is a huge leap outside my comfort zone, and even though it took some time to convince myself that this is a good idea, I'm really looking forward to it!

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