Erhu ready for your close up?

Recently, I serendipitously discovered a local erhu teacher. Following a brief intro lesson, I decided to take several lessons. Lessons haven’t begun yet because of National Holiday/parents visiting/lack of erhu.
But the other day I ventured into a musical district in Beijing that was really interesting: after exiting the subway, I found a street lined with musical instrument shops. Each specialized in different types, such as brass, violins, drums, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and traditional Chinese instruments. It was really quite a sight to see!
After a bit of inquiry from several shops to get a feel for prices and characteristics, I spoke with a shopkeeper through broken Chinese and English and explained my musical background and need in an erhu. I tried out few and settled on a beauty with a nice open tone. Of course I bargained a little, but held back in an attempt to keep it classy.
When I took it back to lab, I played the Chinese National Anthem and song from Phantom of the Opera for lab mates. At first some didn’t recognize their anthem, which could either because they didn’t expect it from me or because of my lack of ability…
Anyway, here are a few photos:




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Get in my belly!…. please?

The night started out innocently enough: Lab mates decided to go to a national hot pot chain. We’ve been a few times and it is de-lish. You make your own dipping sauce (my specialty is a sesame peanut sauce with a health dose of garlic) and then they bring out lots of raw meats and fresh veggies that you then cook in spiced broths and eat, family-style.
pretty raw meats!
I usually stick to the beef muscle (you wonder why I have to specify “muscle”?) strips and pâté along with potatoes, mushrooms, noodles, etc.

water lilies are edible! surprise!

Somebody usually orders cow stomach (see?) and coagulated duck blood slices, and I will nibble on something of it partly to be courteous and partly to provide my Chinese friends with look-at-the-foreigner-gagging-on-food-we-think-is-totally-normal entertainment.

Well this night, I decided to embrace the culture. Afterall, I’ve been here three months (!).
Down went the coagulated blood.
I slurped up the prickly stomach.
Up next was new…. duck colon?? Well, “when in Rome…”
I just… really hope they clean these things well.

But then came the crowning event of the night….

no caption can do this justice.

oh yes. brains. pig brains. Now, I’m sure I’ve eaten brains in things before (let’s start–and stop–at sausages), but never a mouthful of pulsating, spongy brain. After it sat in the boiling broth for ~10 min to kill any parasites (wait… can that denature prions too?..) they pulled the ladle out and I ripped a chunk off with my chopsticks.

open the grub gate!

Sadly, it took me a few seconds to gather myself. When I gingerly popped it into my mouth, I chewed a few times and it wasn’t as chewy as I thought… I guess the other times I’ve played with brain was in physiology when it was fixed with PFA. But actually the feathery texture just made it worse so I swallowed it whole and willed it down my throat.

One (rather large) bite was all I was up for, but Jinyang devoured the other half of the brain by himself.
imagine your teeth cutting into the frontal lobe…

I stuck mostly to the safe grub for the rest of the night and thought frequently–while my sweet potatoes cooked in the spiced broth spiked with residual brain juices–of the blood, stomach, colon, and brain soup digesting in my own stomach.


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Beijing Halloweeeen

It’s 11:30pm and I have to present in lab tomorrow. I have no slides completed. But I had planned on spending three hours tonight doing flow cytometry until my advisor told me that an alternative–and much faster/cheaper–method for determining nanoparticle uptake would suffice. So it’s like I have three FREE hours tonight –> I’m writing a blog post instead of finishing my presentation three hours early and actually sleeping tonight.

It’s Halloween! I’ve heard that eastern Beijing (the international part of town) actually has festivities, but at Beida, I haven’t seen so much as a fake cobweb. I don’t even love Halloween that much (though my favorite costumes growing up include X-Men’s Cyclops where I wore sweats and safety goggles, a homemade zombie outfit [it was awesome to rip up an old suit], the hiker guy from Double Rainbow, and “change you can believe in” where I glued coins to my shirt.) but it was a great opportunity to share a lil culture with my friends. and eat copious amounts of candy.

Kai and I rode bikes to the vast underground supermarket, Carrefour, in search of pumpkins. Not totally surprising, they had no jack-o-lantern-sized pumpkins, but just baby squashes for eating. Actually, at first we couldn’t find those and considered carving watermelons (which actually might be awesome/more delicious). I also raided the candy section and got gummies and chocolate.

Ok, I’ll just stop writing and just post the photos so that I can work on my presentation.

Lemon cake. “But wait,” you say, “there aren’t ovens in China!” Well this is a microwave lava cake!!!



Room mate Bobby (yes, the 2nd Asian Bobby room mate I’ve had), Tanu, Lab mates Kai and Jie.


Lab mate Kai.
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Dawn of the panda hat

When people make a to-do list for a visit to China, I think that the list goes like

1) hike the Great Wall and ponder the engineering feat
2) consider our quests for immortality while reviewing the Terracotta Warriors
Well upon our arrival in Chengdu, we immediately booked our trip to the panda breeding center (in my opinion the video provided excessive details regarding techniques to ensure progeny). After ooh-ing and ahh-ing over pandas (!) for a few hours, we exited through the gift shop. A certain panda had quickly caught Tanu’s eye and she bought it without haste. For me, however, Jim Carey’s “The Mask” taught me to distrust any potentially enchanted masks/hats–and anything panda is most certainly enchanted.
True to Hollywood, for the next few days we had an Indian panda with us. Tanu transformed and would often speak in the third person–er.. animal: “panda is hungry” or “panda is tired” or “panda wants to do jump shot.”
feed panda!


panda must hug prayer wheel!


panda loves cheesy Chinese poses (we actually did see this pose)
The hat eventually wore my defenses down and I tried it on. But hungry for my soul, it took me about three steps too far:
Not sure what I was thinking. Oh wait, I wasn’t thinking- THE HAT WAS CONTROLLING ME.


I guess my parents’d trade me for a panda any day.

Just like my almost-was addiction to World of Warcraft, I was able to pull off the monster pretty quickly after this fiasco and returned to normal (for me).

Now it sits in Tanu’s room, perched on the top of her book shelves, waiting for another host…
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Jumpin’ Jiuzhaigou!

Tanu and I are basically rock stars.Proof:

Exhibit A: Amazing Jump Pic abilities
During National Holiday (where everyone in China goes on vacation for a week, making it impossible to import some cells that you really really need for research), my parents, Tanu, and I visited southwestern China, including the national park, Jiuzhaigou. It used to be home to nine (that’s the “jiu” part of “jiuzhaigou”) Tibetan-esque villages dotted among gorgeous landscapes of waterfalls and lakes of vivid colors.
At one lake, some hawkers offered traditional Tibetan clothing to prance around in. Initially we poo-pooed the idea, but after seeing how much fun the Chinese tourists were having in fur-lined garments, we donned the robes (much to their delight). And as ambassadors of awesomeness, we effected cultural exchange by introducing jump shots to our pictures.
Judging from the gasps in the crowd, this was an entirely new concept for them. Now, the Chinese are very inventive when it comes to poses, but we got similar reactions when we’d add some air into our shots.
this is a lil twist on the jump pic. think pairs’ ice skating.
okay, so sometimes our timing is off. but even olympic synchronized swimmers make mistakes!
These observers came over afterwards to look at the pictures.
At one point, the crowd was especially interactive. First they observed.
Then one woman tried some herself. We jumped in for support.
This spawned others’ jump pictures.
And one novice hopper requested I document her glee.
All in all, I would say it was a successful day: we got to see beautiful natural scenery andstart a photographic trend in China!
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Portraits of a hutong

Last weekend I visited Shique Hutong to try my hand at portrait photography. In case you don’t know what a hutong is or how to wikipedia, it is a traditional community (especially in Beijing) characterized by winding, narrow streets and small communes where extended families would live. At least, that’s my definition. They’re where you can go to find pre-skyscraper Beijing, but they’re becoming endangered as they’re torn down in the name of modernization. However, there’s also a movement to commercialize them for tourists and also the renovate parts with swanky new clubs, artsy spots, etc.
Anyway, I spent a few hours taking shots, practicing how to ask for permission to take photos, and looking not-at-all creepy. Here are a few of my favorites:







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Hello, how ErHu?

While I rode my bike across campus this evening, I saw a student orchestra rehearsing. Pangs of nostalgia hit me- there are few experiences comparable to being part of a surging, pulsating musical group. In response to my initial desire to join the group, my responses were (in this order):
1) I don’t have my violin in China. (well maybe I could borrow one)
2) I can’t devote an evening to rehearsal, let alone all the at-home practicing involved. (that is always a drawback)
3) I wouldn’t be able to follow directions from the loudspeaker-yielding conductor. (but music is an international language!)
4) I can already play the violin. Shouldn’t I take the opportunity to learn new things?
hmm.. this last one hit a chord (*wink). As part of my eternal quest to be proficient at all things, I did have a few hunches recently to learn how to play the Erhu (“are who”), or Chinese violin.
“Yeah, but how can I do that? Sure I’m in China, but I’ll have to find the Chinese Craigslist or something.”
Just a few minutes later, I was walking through my dorm hallway when I saw this sign (heh.):
Do I wanna learn some Chinese violin?? Do I ever!
So I sent an email off to the poster to inquire about lesson(s)! We’ll see what arrangements can be made. She did say that if I can teach her something cool then we could trade lessons. She might already know violin, and realistically she prolly wouldn’t consider biomedical engineering research “cool” (or useful for her), so I may end up shelling out some dough.
Of course, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I am here to do BME research, so I’ll have to consider if I can reasonably balance research with a weekly lesson. But I’m thinking I could…
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Beijing Photowalk

I love my iphone. That’s an understatement, really, considering how much we’ve gone through. Each generation has been my faithful companion, and the picture skills of the latest gen have really shone. However, well, sometimes there are limitations to the iphone. There, I said it. Although it’s better than any point-and-shoot I’ve ever had, I have no control over its camera functions except digital zoom and some focus.

So I got an SLR. And my iphone is alright with it. We talked it over.
And tonight I went on my first photo shoot with new SLR (the iphone chaperoned us). Tanu found a group on facebook called “Beijing Photowalks.” It’s a small group of foto aficionados who go around Beijing for photo shoots. Some of the participants have lived here for several years, so they have LOTS of good ideas in mind.
Tonight we went to the National Center for the Performing Arts, or “The Egg” (lots of new structures in Beijing have nicknames: Bird’s Nest and WaterCube are internationally known; “Pants” and “Egg” are lesser-known). It’s adjacent to the Forbidden City and Tianenmen Square and has been surrounded by some controversy, for its proximity to historic sites and its designer (a DUTCH fellow!).
part of THE EGG
Adjacent to the Center is the Great Hall of the People, which may be where the Chinese Congress meets.

Afterwards, I walked along the wall to the Forbidden City and got this shot.

brick wall!

and don’t worry, iphone and I are doing well. I won’t be sleeping on the couch tonight.

Update: Photowalk with Trey Ratcliffe of a few days later. The sky was blue with scattered clouds (!) and I got some great shots:




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Mid-Autumn party with lab mates

It’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which means MOON CAKES! all the time!! My only disappointment is the lack of chocolate content.
Yesterday lab mates told me how a chemical supplier gave us a bunch of gift certificates as thanks for our orders (um, Atlanta Sigma-Aldrich vendors, are you reading this?) so we decided to have a lil Mid-Autumn party funded by the supplier. To get to lab mate’s apartment, we all road our bikes like the Buttercream Gang across town where we met friends who’d done the grocery shopping.
Mates prepared some common things, like vegetarian meatballs and fried chicken (and moon cakes!), and then some more uncommon (to me) dishes: bean skin, duck stomach, fungus things, (duck?) liver, jellyfish. To prove that I’m not a finicky eater, I did at leasttry all of the dishes. I think Tanu enjoyed eating the jellyfish mostly to make me squirm (and squirm I did).
Sometimes I feel like what my nephew Logan (1 yr old) must feel: where he’s around people he knows, but doesn’t understand a thing they’re saying except occasionally his name. But tonight I didn’t feel isolated; although I understood only some of what they said, we still chatted in English and Chinese, talked/laughed about the people dancing on the tv, and generally had a fantastic time.
But I was mostly stricken by how wonderful my friends are. I have to admit that before moving here, I was afraid that I’d be with stick-in-the mud over-studying Chinese lab mates. One of the perceptions I’ve looked forward to in/validating is the homogeneity and demeanor of Chinese people. The reality is that (at least) my lab mates are helpful, compassionate, and funny (and hard-working!). I mean, there’s always at least one person in lab who’s humming or singing The Phantom of the Opera. I think I’ve found my niche.
To cap off the evening, we rode our bikes back across town to campus. This time, it felt more like E.T. where they’re riding their bikes away from the cops/evil scientists. But we dodged busses and rickshaws instead of police cars, and instead of carrying E.T. in a front basket, I had a lab mate balancing on the rack over my rear wheel.
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Gail Visits Beijing

A few weeks ago we held our annual faculty workshop for the joint venture in Bejing. As the program coordinator from the Atlanta side, I was fortunate enough to attend, and even more fortunate that the students allowed me to post a guest blog entry. Does this mean I’m famous?

The workshop began Sunday evening so I arrived in Beijing Saturday night. Fortunately I was on the same flight as Cheng, who knows just a little more about Beijing than I do. I spent part of Sunday in preparations for the workshop but also had a chance to meet up with Warren and Tanu, who by all accounts are taking the city by storm. They gave me a grand (but at the same time, abbreviated) tour of campus so I got to see their accommodations, one of the dining halls and Warren’s lab (apparently Tanu does not have a key to her lab yet . . . possibly because she is shady and untrustworthy?).  While I was unsure exactly what to expect, their rooms did match up to the pictures we had seen in advance, so I found that reassuring.  Where you live is such a huge part of your happiness in any setting, so I wanted to be certain we weren’t sending students to live someplace that would be completely unfamiliar and overwhelming.  Both of them have single rooms, but Tanu is sharing her suite with 2 girls while Warren only has 1 roommate.   Tanu also has an extra bed in her room which appears to be difficult to remove, but it’s a plus if she has any visitors.   The suite bathrooms were absolutely “normal” by my biased Western standards and the main drawback to the living situation seems to be that there is no real way to prepare food in the suite, though it’s possible to keep a mini-fridge for a few necessities.  I suppose with the average campus meal costing about $1, that’s not the end of the world.

On Monday I spent most of the day in the workshop, but Gilda and I were able to meet up with most of the Joint PhD students (the Beijing-based ones, of course, as well as Warren and Tanu) for dinner.  We went to a restaurant inside a mall (I was trying to gauge if we were at the Applebee’s of Beijing) that was a definite experience, but in a good way.  I think there were 16 of us total so we took up 2 tables, but we were nowhere near as disruptive as the large table next to us where several “kids” (probably college students, but they looked younger than that to me) were drinking heavily.   (Sidebar: it turns out that we were in Beijing during the Autumn festival, so Monday was actually a holiday.  By my unscientific observations, it seemed that most of the people who were out and about that night were college students which I attribute – again, with no factual backup whatsoever – to the fact that their families probably live too far for them to go home.)  In any case, no one in our group ordered anything alcoholic, which surprised me a little, but not wanting to break any taboos I decided not to be the only one drinking and partook of some delicious plum juice instead.  For a few of the dishes on the table, though, I could have used a beer to gather my courage.

When eating meals with the PKU faculty, we are somewhat sheltered because most of them were educated at exotic schools like “Duke” and “MIT.”  By my sarcasm I’m trying to explain that the faculty are very familiar with Americans, what we do and don’t consider edible, and while there are always a couple of surprises on the table there are always a few things – like the cod we had eaten the night before – that even the most skeptical American eater can consume without fear.  Going out with the students, I completely forgot — before food started arriving on the table — that none of them had been to the US before, so of course they had no clue what we would and wouldn’t want to eat.  To be honest, most of it I sampled without asking about because I figured I might not want to know, but there were a few things I couldn’t get past.  With apologies to Warren, I am stealing his photos .  .  .

Yup, that’s Warren, eating chicken feet

This rice ball was actually very American-friendly

I don’t know what this was and I suspect I don’t ever want to find out.

After dinner Jialei treated Gilda and I to our first Chinese foot massage.  It was, by all measures, amazing.  And by the way, the foot massage is actually a foot, leg, hand, arm, head, shoulders and back massage.  The three of us were in a room on our own with four chairs that were essentially a cross between La-Z-Boys and pedicure chairs (did I mention the hot foot soak?) and we each had our own personal masseuse.  I think it was 90 minutes and, while I didn’t pay and my conversion of Chinese money isn’t that great, I estimated that it cost about $30.  One thing I thought was interesting as we were walking around that night was that there were signs at several massage places advertising “blind masseuses.”  Jialei explained to us that it’s a selling point because in theory, a blind masseuse would have a better sense of touch than the average person.  Fasinating.

Tuesday brought lots more meeting time, followed by dinner with Cheng, Warren, and Tanu at a hot pot place.  This was my first time eating hot pot and it was a lot of fun.  Think fondue but slightly more exotic, and with many more options in terms of flavors.  You select a couple of soups that cook at the table and then you dip everything else into those.  So it was again a good meal for those of us with an American bias to fill up on the familiar (e.g. potatoes, shrimp) but still be able to sample some of the more unfamiliar dishes.  Oh, and you can create your own sauce, not unlike when you go to Chow Baby in Atlanta and figure out what you want on your stir fry.  (Yes, I realize Chinese hot pot existed long before Chow Baby.  But not in my world.)

Wednesday was the final day of the official workshop and since the students and some of the faculty were busy with qualifying exams, I took the opportunity to go over to the medical school for the first time.  The campus was actually really nice .  .  . very green and quiet even though it’s in the heart of the city.  Dr. Pu was kind enough to show me around his lab and talk to me about the research he’s doing, which is pretty fascinating.  After that I met up with Tanu and Warren for a little bit of souvenir shopping and a quick visit to PKU’s famous unnamed lake.  (On a side note, the students happened to have an extra local cell phone for me to use during my visit and that was absolutely great.  I’d recommend that anyone going over get a cheap local phone; otherwise it becomes very difficult to meet up.  In fact, on that particular day we would have missed each other completely without phones because we were waiting on opposite sides of a giant street.)  We wrapped up the workshop that afternoon and then went for a very fun dinner at Bai Jia Da Yuan, which was definitely a tourist trap but also pretty entertaining.  I believe the idea was to feel like we were dining in the emperor’s palace, and there were lots of performances and photo ops throughout the night.

Thursday meant saying goodbye to Beijing (though several hours later than I’d planned, thanks to flight issues) and certainly I was happy to be heading back home.  But it was a great trip and I’m excited for others to experience the city, especially our wonderfully enthusiastic students.  They are lucky to have Warren and Tanu to show them the ropes!


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