Sunday, November 12, 2017


"I was inside looking outside
The millions of faces
But I'm still alone"
- "Long, long way from home" by Foreigner

Right now, I am sitting cross-legged on a king-size bed in a hotel room with a view. I am barefoot and grateful for the space around me after more than 20 hours of sitting in a plane. I am overlooking glass skyscrapers and brick high-rise apartment buildings. I can hear honking horns on the street below and a softly whirring fan behind me. I am in Qingdao, China.

It’s been an interesting day. Got to admit, I was a little nervous before I left Boston, because I was headed to a completely new part of the world and didn’t know what to expect. This is my first time in China and my first time in Asia. I’m here with another WHOI scientist to try and build up collaborations with researchers in Qingdao. We have a packed schedule for the next few days, but I’m excited to see what comes out of our meetings.

I want to share just a couple stories and observations that I’ve made so far with you. First, bathrooms. The women’s restroom in the airport had stalls just like you would expect in an American public restroom, but there were only 2 stalls with European-style toilets. The rest had pits. Picture a toilet bowl that’s embedded in the floor, with grips on either side for your feet. It caught me off-guard to say the least, but afterward, I started remembering similar reports from my dad when he was in China years ago on business. It was a very different experience.

Second (and I highly suspected this coming in), not everyone in China speaks English well – or at all. When I landed, I was picked up by two Chinese graduate students who guided me to my hotel. I was greatly appreciative of their help, because by the time I made it up to my room, I realized that the simple operations I was attempting (getting a taxi, driving to the hotel, checking in, finding my room) would have taken at least twice as long without the grad students to assist in translation. I’m referring to cultural, not just linguistic translation, because the grad students knew how to properly hail a cab and get a receptionist’s attention – things I would have been uncomfortable doing aggressively. They guided me around successfully, and I was deeply grateful for their help.

Speaking of translation, I want to tell you a story. The other WHOI scientist on this trip took a different route to China and landed later than me, so I was on my own for dinner tonight. I took his recommendation of looking for restaurants in the mall behind our hotel, and I was actually quite proud of myself when I found the food court. I hate sitting in restaurants alone, so I thought the food court would be a better solution, and plus, most of the booths had plastic displays of their dishes lined up along the edge of the counter. How perfect! I could just point to the dish that I wanted and order without speaking. I scanned around the room; I selected the dish I wanted and the booth I wanted to buy it from; I approached, pointed, and was even understood. Kirstin: 1. Mandarin Chinese: 0.

The cashier rang up my meal, and I pulled out my credit card to pay. She shook her head. Ok, I thought, maybe it’s cash-only. I pulled out my Chinese cash. She shook her head again, then held up a pink debit card. Actually, it was missing the row of numbers typical on debit and credit cards, so it looked more like a hotel key card than anything. I was confused. The cashier searched in the back of her brain, came up with the words “bank card,” and pointed across the food court behind me. By this time, I had figured out that only pink bank cards could be used to pay in the food court, but I couldn’t tell where the cashier was pointing that I could go get one. (Kirstin: 1. Mandarin Chinese: 1.) Thankfully, just then, one of her co-workers emerged from the back and volunteered to show me to the mall’s information desk, where the magic pink cards were sold. The co-worker walked me over, told the info desk clerk how much I needed on my card, waited with me until I had it, and then walked me back. I was deeply impressed by the helpfulness of the women in the food court, and I enjoyed a bowl of noodles, vegetables, ground meat, and spicy broth as a result.

Qingdao waterfront
I have to admit China feels very different than I thought it would. Well, let’s be honest, I’m not quite sure what I expected, except maybe Chinatown. Qingdao is actually a very western city. It has skyscrapers and public sculptures and sewer smells and traffic just like I’d expect to find in any major city in the U.S. or Europe. The tall glass towers remind me of Chicago. The wide streets remind me of California. The waterfront with its algae-covered stone steps makes me think of Venice. My surroundings feel familiar, but in all honesty, I have never felt like more of a foreigner. China presents unique challenges, but I look forward to exploring more. Stay tuned for more adventures in Qingdao! 

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