Category Archives: Stanford

How refreshing, a non-CS Stanford startup

My friend Dean just launched a startup called DC Revolutions, and it’s NOT a website. Crazy, right?

Dean and his co-founders (all recent Stanford grads) are using their awesome Stanford engineering skills to design a vertical wind turbine that integrates into city streetlights and plays nicely with the existing grid. And it’s a treat to look at, which is the whole point—apparently Americans don’t want big scary windmills anywhere near their homes and neighborhoods, and DC’s new design is anything but scary. It actually looks kinda cute.

Big scary windmills.

Now I don’t know if DC Revolutions will actually revolutionize the energy landscape—you know I’m more of a solar guy myself—but I’m happy to support any effort towards that end, and these guys are making a hell of an effort.

You can support their efforts by giving any amount of money at this site. Do it for the future. Do it for the tax deductions. Whatever. Just do it. Dean will personally thank you if you do. And if he doesn’t, feel free to send him an angry email at deanyoung@dcrevolutions.com.

-Joel

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Cardinal Numbers

Ever wonder how many Asians there really are at Stanford? Here are some numbers I threw together last year about the Farm and its people and culture. All statistics are accurate to within an order of magnitude. 🙂 Feel free to contribute your own Stanford stats!

 

The Basics

Opening day: October 1, 1891

Tuition (1891-92): $0

Tuition (2010-11): $39,000

Endowment: $14 billion

Faculty: 1100 (Student-faculty ratio: 6:1)

Student Body

Undergrads: 6,900

Grad students: 8,800

Californians: 40%

Asians: 25%

Transfer admission rate: 2% (Respect…)

From international/public/private high schools: 10/60/30%

Science & Humanities/Engineering majors: 70/30%

5-Year Graduation Rate: 92%

Student groups: 630 (Nearly one for every 10 undergrads!)

Greek: 13%

Phi Psi techie proportion: 75%

Sports

Daily gym-goers (Arrillaga): 2,000

Miles run by Stanford students each year: 1,000,000 (est.)

Average height, Men’s Crew: 6’3″

Average height, Men’s Basketball: 6’5″

Average height, Women’s Gymnastics: 5’2

Stanford Football day game record (since 2008): 6-9

Stanford Football night game record: 7-2

YouTube views of Andrew Luck’s hit against USC: 1.3 million (as of 3/11)

For Techies

Apple fanboys (i.e., Mac users): 60%

SUNet <=> external network traffic: 10TB/day = 116MB/s

RAM on Corn cluster: 32GB

Annual revenue of 3 of Stanford’s biggest start-ups (G+C+HP): $190 billion (Egypt’s GDP: $188 billion)

Continuous energy use: 22MW/11000 people living on-campus = 2000W/person

After Graduation

Average starting salary (Engineering): $70,000 (Bachelors), $84,000 (Masters)

Average starting salary (Humanities & Sciences): $51,000 (Bachelors), $66,000 (Masters)

Number of living alumni: 188,000

Weather

Average temperature: 59ºF

Warmest month: July (78ºF average)

Coldest month: December (39ºF)

Rainiest month: January (3.24″)

Avery Aquatic Centers filled up by annual rainfall (16″) on Stanford land: 1200

Around Campus

Area: 8180 acres = 12.8 square miles

Undergrad residences: 77

Undergrad residences with air conditioning: 0

When the party ends: 1AM

Square feet of cacti: 17,000 (Average Palo Alto home: 1,600 sq. ft.)

Bikes: ~13,000 (Bike parking cops: ~13,000)

Palm trees on Palm Drive: 150

Length of Campus Drive: 3.8 miles

Length of Dish loop: 3.25 miles

Dish elevation change: 500 feet

Caterpillars on campus (pre-2008, est.): 5,000,000

Dining options you’ve never explored but should: Russo Cafe (in Munger), Alumni Cafe (takes meal plan dollars), Thai Cafe (basement of Psych building), Axe & Palm (just kidding)

Distance from Stanford to…

San Jose: 20 miles (Driving: 30 min.)

San Francisco: 35 miles (45 min.)

Berkeley: 40 miles (1:00)

Santa Cruz: 40 miles (1:00)

Monterey: 80 miles (1:30)

Yosemite: 190 miles (4:00)

Lake Tahoe: 220 miles (4:15)

LA: 350 miles (6:00)

Las Vegas: 540 miles (9:00)

Beavercreek, OH: 2400 miles (38:00)

Hawaii: 2400 miles (∞)

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A Stanford Farewell

I’m officially a Stanford alumnus.

On Monday, for the first time, I left Stanford not knowing when or whether I would return. Before this final departure, I could always count on another quarter on the Farm. After my first visit on April 7, 2007. After an unforgettable freshman year in Roble. After a quarter abroad in Beijing. After Thanksgiving break in 2007. And 2008. And 2009. And 2010. After every winter, spring, and summer vacation for the last four years, I always knew I would be back. But I don’t know anymore.

Commencement Weekend left me in a state of emotional deshabille, caught off-guard by the swift rate of change, tripped up by the steep derivative of college life. I cherished Senior Dinner on the Quad on Thursday night somewhat more than I have most of the other class events scattered throughout senior year, but no more than necessary: I fully expected to see all my friends for the rest of the weekend, to meet their friends and families at graduation parties, at the Class Day Lecture, at Wacky Walk, at Commencement, at our department ceremony. That didn’t happen. I blinked, and they were gone. I managed to catch a few on Sunday night, but the vast majority of my Stanford community packed up and peaced out without a final hug or backward glance.

I suppose it’s understandable. Once we leave behind our hometowns to pursue our college dreams at the college of our dreams, we rarely see our own parents and siblings, let alone grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant members of our genetic networks. And Commencement is like a wedding: Families reconvene, people meet, worlds collide. Parts of your life that you’ve always kept filed away neatly and separately—freshman-year dormmates, IHUM section-mates, classmates, roommates, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, professors, mentors, TFs, TAs, RAs—all come together in a mishmash of Cardinal-Red emotion. Your furious underwater paddling starts to splash. The Stanford Bubble pops. With every senior busy trying to keep so many balls in the air, all the while packing up 4 years of Stanford memories and charting a course for those first wobbly steps off the Farm, it really is too much to ask for a full and satisfying goodbye.

Leaving us right back where we started. Sitting in our parents’ homes around the country, around the world, clicking through commencement photos on Facebook, wondering how we—the Class of Oh-Leven—went from Stanford’s newest admits to Stanford’s newest alumni when we still remember our first hall meeting like it was yesterday. It had to end someday, but did it have to end Sunday?

Maybe it did. For four years, long while they lasted, we owned that campus. Stanford belonged to us, just as we belonged to it. But for me, and I suspect for many of my classmates as well, it’s time to let go. We set off into the world now to improve and enrich lives, both others’ and our own, and even if we never return to 94305 (or collect our mail at 94309), we will forever see life through Cardinal-tinted goggles. We will always have a little Stanford in us. So this really isn’t goodbye.

Remember how we used to sign off emails to our freshman dorm lists?

Roble Love. Stanford Love.

It never gets old.

-Joel

Proud Stanford parents.

P.S. This post sounds like the writings of a religious cult. The Cardinal Cult? I’m a proud member. So is Dean Julie. Here are her farewell remarks, too good to be abridged, from the Class of 2011 Plaque Dedication (courtesy of my friend Racquel and the SAA). Readers from the Class of Oh-Leven, be careful, this will make you cry.

“The Next Truly Great Class”
Julie Lythcott-Haims
June 10, 2011

Thank you, Mona, for that kind introduction, and I want to thank you, Molly, Pamon, and Dante for the exceptional leadership you’ve brought to the role of senior class president. A role I know well from having done it myself 22 years ago (though I was not as good at it as you have been). I hear from the staff who work with you that you are among the very best senior class presidents they’ve seen ever. You gathered Oh Leven up after the scattering that is the Junior Year, refocused them on togetherness, community, belonging, put on amazing and well-attended events, and took the class pride – class love – to a whole new frothy level as seniors. And you made those dank, bomb-diggity, off the chain, prime, wicked, absolutely badass tank tops everyone is now sporting. At the next event – Senior Class Gift – we’ll talk about other ways in which you have led the class in historic ways. For now, let’s just give Dante, Molly, Mona, and Pamon a big round of applause.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh Leven. [Oh Leven] I have done this before, as a senior class president standing with my own, great, class, right here, 22 years ago. And I’ve been lucky enough to stand here with all the classes I’ve seen graduate since being Dean. But there is something different in it for me today. Because you are one helluva class, Oh Leven. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Yeah, I know what you want me to say. To acknowledge. Just hold on. Let me get there.

When you were just juniors in high school, we decided what to call you. The class of 2010 was being admitted and after oh six, oh seven, oh eight and oh nine, our potential transition out of the “ohs” and the single digits was upon us – twenty ten? One-oh? But in the middle of those head-scratching, vexing discussions about what to call the class of 2010, a student on the NSO team, Brian Salomaki ’06 said, “I don’t know what we’ll end up calling 2010, but the next one can be Oh Leven!” “Get it,” he said? “Not ‘oh-eleven’ or even ‘eeee-leven’ but Oh Leven.” I got it. I liked it. Actually I loved it. Loved what we would call you even before we’d ever laid eyes on you. We had a full year to wait to try it on you, when we discovered to our delight that you liked it too. Most of you. Took some of you some time to warm to it. Right Doc? But you love it now. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven]

A year later, it was May 1, 2007. “Heads up,” the admissions office called us to say. “The frosh yield numbers are way up. We’re going to have 1750 freshmen. 75 over target.” I swore. I’m sure I swore. Because if you know me you know I have a mouth like a sailor at times. Part of my alternate identity. The part that loves I’m on a Boat, and the other version of Forget You. So after an appropriate expletive I laughed exasperatedly, “The next truly large class.” And then UAR began to spread the news to those who would need to find more IHUM fellows, more PWR lecturers, more beds. Don’t get me wrong, in UAR we love undergraduates. Some of my colleagues are here in the audience right now because you were their first class, or because you’ve been just so great to work with over these years. So for us, nothing is better than starting the four-year cycle again with a new class, just as today we are excited about FIF-TEEN as they start to round the bend toward Stanford. But let’s be real. Learning on May 1, 2007, how many of you had said yes to the admission offer was sort of like finding out in the ninth month of your pregnancy that you’re going to have twins. Our thoughts of “Oh Leven” quickly turned to “oh no,” “oh gosh,” and, well, worse.

Then you showed up. Move-in Day, Tuesday, September 18. When Dean Shaw spoke at Convocation, making an official handoff of the class from admissions to the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, he shouted “Oh Leven” at you. You know what you did? You applauded. Wildly, yes, but it was just applause. When he glanced over his shoulder at me somewhat bewilderedly, I whispered, “Tomorrow.” It’s somehow so poignant at this point to think back to that day when you didn’t yet know who were. Here. What to do. Or maybe you knew, but wondered if the rowdiness of class pride was appropriate within the formal construct of Opening Convocation in this sacred Inner Quad. After all, you had not yet been on Band Run, so you had not yet been inducted into the complete congruity of intellectualism and irreverence that is the hallmark of the Stanford undergraduate experience. You would come to know, love and live that intersection so well.

I got to meet you the next morning, Wednesday, September 19, the morning after your first night here, the drum beat of the Band Run still thudding in your head, the day after your loved ones made a tearful goodbye and went home to the place of your childhood. We had asked your dorm staff to choose who among them would bring you to MemAud – MemAud was built to hold only 1710 after all. On that morning, you came roaring into MemAud waving dorm flags and chanting cheers with people you had not known 24 hours before, with a rapturously excited innocence that brought tears to my eyes and took my breath away. “Look at them,” I thought to myself, taking deep breaths to calm my mounting emotion. “Listen to them.” You were well louder than should have been the case with 75 extra freshmen. Louder and prouder than any class had ever been. Spinal Tap’s “This one goes to e-leven” came to mind. It was your second day.

On that morning of your second day, I told you that “To get a real sense of your place in the Stanford family, you need to Walk the Walk – that is, go check out those bronze-covered time capsules commemorating each class that has preceded yours, located in the Inner Quad.” I suggested ways in which you might make that walk and what to think about along the way. And then I said, “And finally, although it is not yet there, stand and gaze four stones ahead to where ’11 will be.”

Welcome to the purpose of our gathering today. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Thinking back to the first of your days on the Farm, I realize now that you had me at hello. Intellectually curious AND kindhearted. Clever. Funny. Fun-loving. Giving. Selfless. Humble. Loving. And exuberant about being here and about each other. Grateful. By the end of your first few weeks, people all over campus were buzzing about your class. “There‟s something different about them,” people said to me. “Not quite sure what. Not more humanists or more engineers or things that are easy to measure.” I asked for examples, and people said things like, “they stayed behind after a frosh event and helped us break down the tables and chairs and recycle the water bottles.” Things like that. That spoke to your character. Your spirit. How you were raised. How you show up in the world. I called Dean Shaw. “Did you do something different this year?” “Yeah,” he said, “we want smart and kind. The other kids can go somewhere else.” People ask me if I love my job… How could I not love a job where that is the objective and you are the result?

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better came the piece of evidence that Oh Leven would be in a category of its own: Your frosh council was the first to wear the class banners as capes, Winter Quarter freshman year. With that small gesture on the part of your dorm leaders, you became superheroes to me. Superhero geeks, in paradise, with a band run. That early on, I was forced to ask myself, “Are they going to be a great class? One of those truly great classes that comes around only every, uh, 22 years?” I have never owned another class’s t-shirt. But seeing yours around campus these last few weeks, I felt yeah, it would be an honor. I know what you want me to say. Hold on. I’m getting there.

Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] From September 2007 to June 2011, it was your time here. And now, it is over, your time. Great class, go back with me now across the moments of which your Stanford life was made. You studied and wrote and solved — and invented and unearthed and discovered — and created and spoke and inspired — and cried and tried and achieved – and praised and preached and swore — and coped and failed and survived — and danced and sweated –and drank and sang — and yelled and cheered and my god, cheered until your heart was spent in the Red Zone, here and at the Orange Bowl — and whispered and smiled –and liked and like-liked — and hooked up and left and inexplicably hooked up again — and left, this time for good — and met and laughed — and found and loved and said it – to the person, and declared it on Facebook — and crashed and burned — and texted and tweeted and blogged — and friended and broke up, again on Facebook. And you discovered. New knowledge in your field. An empty practice room. A sandstone sculpture hidden from view. A sense of self. And you ran. The Dish. An organization. Away from other peoples’ expectations. For office. And you gave. Your time. Your effort. Your heart. Of yourselves. And sometimes it was more about Farmville than the Farm. And then you were tryna. Tryna get a drink. Tryna get with that girl or guy, yo. And you chose. A major. A mentor. To come out. To love yourself. This is some of what it looked like, felt like, to be an undergraduate here at Stanford.

Oh Leven, whatever happened here, wherever you go, whomever you are, whomever you become, whenever you actually graduate, whether you actually graduate at all, to be honest, you will forever and for always be a member of the class of 2011 at Stanford, whose time here is marked for ever more with the placement of this time capsule and the laying of this plaque which commemorates your place in the Stanford family. We are a family. And the Stanford family’s future is as much yours to write as it is anyone’s.

You know, speaking of the time capsules, rumor has it there is a piece of pizza in one of them. Ratchet, I know. What can I say? The world was far less amusing back then. No Angry Birds. No Xbox. No cell phones. No internet. No electricity. No wait. Yeah, we had that. But still, back in the twentieth century, we had to do things like put pizza in a sealed time capsule for amusement. Eighty-nine.

Forgive my trip down memory lane; to you it’s irrelevant when I went here or what I did here, I know, I know, and I’m sorry, but, this is what alumni do. And guess what? You’ll do it too. And trust me, if you reminisce near an undergrad at your 10th reunion in 2021, they’ll smile vacantly while trying not to roll their eyes thinking “like I care?” Of course they’ll have some newfangled way to diss you that even YOU will have trouble understanding. It’s just hard to relate to a different generation. This, my dear Oh Leven, is the reason we focus on the class numerals. It is our secret handshake, our password whispered through the door. It’s how we tolerate each other. Here’s what I mean. Some guy from the class of ’59 walks by me and wants to talk about when he and his buds pulled a great prank on the all-female residents of Branner. And I want to just go (in my best eighties voice), “whatever.” But instead I smile and point at his name tag and say ’59 and he beams. Get it? So it is with me and you. I can’t understand what you’re talking about most of the time, word woot whomp whatever. That’s why I’ve got you all to memorize my class year so we have something to talk about. I mean, I can figure out the abbrevs and I know when to say FML and then SMH, but when did dope become dope? And don’t get me started on ballin’ versus baller. But if you say ’89, I light up, right? And while you’re humoring me now, I’m here to tell you one day it WILL be you. You’ll be back in 2036 for your 25th, yawing about how you went steam tunneling and broke into old chem, and the seniors, the class of 2037, will be all, ee-yeah. And you’ll be all, no really, it was dope. And you’ll try to reel their youthful attention in with, “wait, wait, we had George Clooney, The Roots, and Natalie Portman on campus,” and they’ll have this look of non-comprehension that says, “who?” and you’ll be like, “What is wrong with the youth of today?” And then you’ll say, “OK. We beat USC football THREE OUT OF FOUR YEARS. And they’ll go, “USC had a football team?” as they politely turn away. But then they’ll see the ’11 on your name tag and smile, and go E-Leven [thumbs up]. And you’ll beam. And you’ll correct them – “it’s Oh Leven actually…” And you’ll start to tell a story, and they’ll glaze over. You will. They will.

And why do we beam when we hear our class year? It’s not because of the technical fact of when we went here, but because it represents all the people who walked alongside us on these pathways as we grew up here. The people who made a difference. The people we loved. Oh Leven, you were 18 together and you’re 22 together, and one day you’ll be 30, then 40, 60 and 80 together, and you’ll still look the same, at least to each other, and you’ll always be Oh Leven. And that, my friends, is what the class numerals are all about. A way to represent your love for your class, each other, this place. The class diamond symbol has been on T-shirts, decals, videos, emails, keychains, hats, sunglasses, flip-flops. Today you get to see the real live everlasting class diamond itself. When I first walked up on it today, tears sprang to my eyes. Could it be? You’re leaving us? So soon?

These bronze numerals that officially mark your time here literally protect the artifacts you chose to place beneath. It also symbolizes the memories, all of the things that can’t be put into a box and retrieved later. I was there. With those people. This is what we did. And I am different for it. Changed for the good.

This plaque goes in the ground today and commemorates those memories. Becomes the space you will always visit when you return. As a way to call up the ancestry of your Stanford experience. The faces. The places. These halls are sacred to us alumni. We come here to be flooded with the feelings, awash with appreciation, gushing with gratitude. We come here to feel tenderness, our feet at these time capsules, time and time and time again. We alumni feel tremendous love for what we cherished about our experience here. For the people. For Stanford.

You are about to be one of those alumni. You also know you’re a very special class. You’ve known since you got here. You’ve demonstrated it in every imaginable way. Shoot, at the dinner last night someone handed me one of those sick tank tops and I put it on over my black velvet dress. Never worn another class’s stuff. Symbolically, for me, I can give you no higher praise.

Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Speaking of that incredible dinner, the man behind the office that says “We need to do that dinner. For those seniors. No matter what,” is Howard Wolf, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and President of the Stanford Alumni Association. Standing right over there, this extraordinary human, Class of 1980, is responsible for how we nurture the relationship between Stanford and her alumni. A relationship that is about mutual respect, trust, shared experience, ongoing education, fun. And yes, it is also about love. So now, just as Dean Shaw handed you over to Vice Provost Bravman at Opening Convocation in September 2007, today I don’t have to, I get to be the one from your past who hands you off to the person of your future. Howard, I present to you the Class of 2011. In my humble opinion, they have in fact earned the title of the last truly great class at Stanford.

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An Accidental Nuclear War

Do you know who Stanislav Petrov is? 

You should. Back in the 80s, when the U.S. and Russia were being all ridiculous and arms-race-y, Col. Petrov managed to save the world while hunkered down in a bunker near Moscow. Check out this article I wrote about Petrov and why the future of the world rested on his shoulders on one September day in 1983.

Time to get back to writing my final paper as a Stanford student…

-Joel

So true.

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Are Stanford Students Just (Really Excellent) Sheep?

Does this sound familiar?

In our conversations I would ask the students when they got around to sleeping. One senior told me that she went to bed around two and woke up each morning at seven; she could afford that much rest because she had learned to supplement her full day of work by studying in her sleep. As she was falling asleep she would recite a math problem or a paper topic to herself; she would then sometimes dream about it, and when she woke up, the problem might be solved. I asked several students to describe their daily schedules, and their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more. One young man told me that he had to schedule appointment times for chatting with his friends. I mentioned this to other groups, and usually one or two people would volunteer that they did the same thing. “I just had an appointment with my best friend at seven this morning,” one woman said. “Or else you lose touch.”

Check out this 2001 David Brooks article, entitled The Organization Kid, on the life and philosophy of today’s elite college student. It has a similar tone to William Deresiewicz’s 2008 essay on The Disadvantages of an Elite Education; both give us all something to think about, whether or not we agree with them.

In other news, Deresiewicz will be speaking on campus next Tuesday, April 12, at 4:30PM in Annenberg. Find out more on the event page and on host Prof. Rob Reich’s page, and RSVP here.

-Joel

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Life: Applied.

Grad school? Nah. Let's just be astronauts.

I finally finished my grad school (for a PhD in EE) and fellowship (for money) apps! Now it’s time to relax, run, and read some books. But first, let’s reflect

A few years have gone by, but most of us still remember our senior year of high school and the ups and downs of college admissions. Forms. Long essays. Short answers. 500 words. All kinds of letters: ECs. SATs. ACTs. Rec letters. Brag sheets. College Confidential. Common App supplements (WHY?). And of course, the all-important US News & World Report rankings. Man, I’m glad all that’s behind us.

I guess the admissions people have it pretty rough too...

But there are plenty of letters in the grad school application process too: GPAs. GREs. Rec letters. Nothing but a big rat race. Right?

The main difference between applying to college and applying to grad school is what you’ve learned in the intervening years. You can equate research statements to admission essays, GREs to SATs, rec letters to rec letters, but nothing takes away the fact that you’ve lived and learned and attended college for 1461 days from one stepping stone to the next. But… so what?

When you apply to college, you don’t really have any other options. Sure, you can take a year (or even two!) off to travel or start a company or build character or do any number of interesting gap-year activities, but let’s be honest, you—you being the type of person who wants to go to, whose parents went to, Stanford or Duke or OSU or any other seat of higher learning—are going to end up in college, sooner or later. No one questions that: It’s simply, well, expected. And sure, why not? Very few people know at the age of 18 what they want to do with their lives, and everyone knows that college is the ultimate guarantor, the yellow brick road to a successful future. Seems like a no-brainer: Go to college. Apply to a few, choose one, and go.

Now fast-forward 4 years. You spent the last 3+ years pursuing what you hope is your life’s calling, or at least a step in the right direction, which it might be, but maybe not, and who really knows anyway? The real dilemma is that, for the first time in your life, you’re an adult, and you have a real choice to make. College is college, but PhD program ≠ med school ≠ software engineering job ≠ consulting job ≠ freelancing ≠ … It’s not until senior year that you finally feel the weight of all those pesky little underclass decisions. Suddenly you’re 21, your undergrad career turns into your career career, and you still don’t know if you chose the right major.

Seniors always get asked The Question—”What are you doing next year?”—which only adds to the feeling that what we choose to do immediately after graduation will define our life’s direction. Maybe it will. But honestly, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. Just as there’s no right major, only the right motivations for choosing it (i.e., it’s interesting to me, right now), there’s probably no single right career path for anyone. As far as I can tell, pretty much nothing career-related turns out quite the way you expect it to—how many of us have changed our majors, our hopes, our dreams since freshman year?—and it takes just as much courage to pursue a possible passion as it does to pursue a true passion. How are you going to find out which is which, unless you follow through with one?

And that brings us back to the difference between applying to college and applying to grad school: As a high school senior, applying to college, I had every possible career available to me: astronaut, surgeon, chef, engineer, lawyer, anything. It didn’t matter where I went to school; East Coast or West, all those opportunities—all possible responses to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—would remain open to me. In that sense, the college decision wasn’t all that important. But the further I got into college, the more that space of future possibility funneled down into a cone of menacing definiteness—for me, {everything} => {physics, engineering, psychology} => {engineering} => {electrical engineering} => {solid-state devices and optoelectronics}. And that’s scary. But it’s also something of a blessing.

As a Stanford senior, applying to grad school, I know much more precisely what I like and what I don’t like, which means that I can narrow my options in the direction of the former and pursue it without fear. It doesn’t matter if my aim isn’t perfect. (Who knows? Maybe I’m meant to be a coder. God forbid. :)) As long as I’m headed in the right general direction—anywhere in the mouth of that funnel of life—I’m sure I’ll end up where I want to be. Wherever that is.

And I can still be anything I want when I grow up, as long as a PhD in EE doesn’t make me overqualified.

-Joel

P.S. If you’re a college student (±5 years), I highly, highly recommend reading this essay by William Deresiewicz, “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” “That” being your college degree. I think you’ll find it instructive, inspiring, and even a little disturbing in its acuity.

P.P.S. Merry Christmas!

 

Get a room, guys.

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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to China

Unless you want to be human-trafficked or see your face on the evening news, hitchhiking is one game you really shouldn’t play. Especially in China. Especially in southern China. Especially in the mountains of Yunnan Province.

But there we were last Sunday, lost in southern China, in the mountains of Yunnan Province. What choice did we have?

That particular adventure began peacefully, innocently, with a taxi ride from Peking University to Beijing Capital International Airport. It was the Chinese May Day holiday weekend, and the eight of us––7 students from Stanford, 1 from Peking University––had planned a 5-day expedition to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan. A 3-hour Hainan Airlines flight later, we were breathing in the clean (!) air of Yunnan and facing the imminent danger of having our body parts sold by a predatory swarm of strangers offering us cheap rides to our hotel in unmarked, windowless vans. We declined politely and took legit taxis to our home-away-from-home-away-from-home, the 4-star Kunming Jin Jiang Hotel. Granted, that’s 4 “Chinese stars,” as my roommate put it––1 for a bed, 1 for a TV, 1 for a working toilet, and 1 more for a shower––but even with 8 people stuffed into 2 rooms, we were living the good life.

Friday

Having banned early morning activity for the weekend, we set off at noon the next day in a rented bus with hired driver, in search of a real Chinese adventure. Our first stop: Jiuxiang Scenic Area (the equivalent of a state park in the US), 2 hours southeast of Kunming. On the way, we got a glimpse of the “real” China: sun-browned farmers knee-deep in rice paddies, a bevy of sad-looking oxen, and, in a representative juxtaposition of rich and poor, lavish country clubs with 18-hole courses right next to crumbling peasant abodes.

Jiuxiang Scenic Area

Chris, Me, Adriana, Lili, and Marty outside the caves of Jiuxiang

Still water.

I'm not quite sure what was going on here...

Jiuxiang is arranged as a linear passage, leading visitors through dazzling caves and spectacular gorges, and although the views alone were worth the trip, I was most impressed by the preferred mode of transportation back to the entrance…

Horses!

Buck-wild on a bucking bronco. Or something like that.

My horse couldn't hold it in, and Adriana couldn't help taking a picture.

Who knew horses could climb stairs?

Adriana, Marty, and Lili

That 20-minute ride on a Yunnan farmer’s horse––and a friendly chat with the farmer himself––was one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. Upon reaching the entrance of the park, we proceeded to spend tourist-worthy amounts of money on dried fruit, fresh fruit, and souvenirs.

Back in the bus, our questionable young driver was stewing in discontent. Hoping to shirk half a day’s paid work and get home before sunset, he lied to our faces, saying that we were out of time, that our next planned destination, the Stone Forest (Shilin), closed daily at 5PM. We insisted on going anyway.

The Stone Forest, which covers a vast area extending beyond our field of view, turned out to be a climber’s paradise. Rocks of all sizes sprout out of the ground in clusters, with hidden crevices, weathered cracks, and natural handholds aiding our efforts to scale them. Our late evening arrival meant the park was completely devoid of tourists, and we did our best Spiderman impressions in clinging to sheer rock faces and posing for sensationalistic photos. And from our vantage point atop the tallest stone cluster in the park, we had the opportunity to watch the sun set over the rock-dotted horizon. Beautiful.

Entering the Stone Forest

Stanford students can fly. Briefly.

King(s) of the Hill.

Sitting Stanford ducks: Marty, Bill, Me, Adriana, Lili, Chris, Bella, Beatrice.

Climbing is way harder than it looks...

Success.

Adriana did me one better.

As did Lili.

Meanwhile, snoozing alone in the bus, our driver had reached a tipping point. When he realized that his contracting manager (basically his pimp) had signed him up for the extra drive to Shilin for a meager 200¥, he exploded. We feared for our lives, as the crazy kid floored the gas pedal and started passing cars left and right. At 80 miles per hour. On a 2-lane mountain road. We made the 2.5-hour trip back to Kunming in 1 hour, but by the time we reached our hotel, none of us ever wanted to see a bus again.

Saturday

Saturday was a day for relaxing. After a massive Western-style breakfast––our first since coming to China––at the hotel’s 20th floor “revolving” (it didn’t revolve) restaurant, we explored downtown Kunming, wandering through a crowded but charming city park, a minority food and music festival, and various roadside shops. With the evening approaching, we took a cab over to Dianchi (Dian Lake) and watched the sun set over the Western Mountains (Xishan)––yet another unforgettable view.

Public dating boards: Find your true love, by age, hometown, and major (?!?)

Adriana admiring the lily pads.

Chinese civil disobedience: Uncensored (proxied) web access at an internet bar

Stanford + Chinese minority girl

I hate getting inattentive advice.

Outside the Yunnan Minority Village... Check out Xishan in the background.

Many horses were ridden on this trip.

Bella, Marty, and Adriana. Looking mighty gangsta there, Marty.

Beautiful sunset over Dian Lake and the Western Mountains

That evening, we were all tired, but we decided that we couldn’t leave Yunnan without experiencing a night out on the town. The concierge recommended checking out the Kundu Night Market. The party didn’t start ’til we walked in, and when one club started blasting Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” just as we walked in, we knew we were in the right place. Brash Americans the lot of us, we had no shame taking over the stage at each venue––the moment we got on, everyone else got off––and, there in the middle of downtown Kunming, we danced the night away.

Clubbing in Kunming. I love the picture of the little girl in the background.

Sunday

It was supposed to be a day of rest.

With grand plans of climbing the Western Mountains, we set off for the park gate around noon on Sunday. A navigational debacle ensued, with half the group ending up on the wrong side of the largest lake in Yunnan, and the rest of us baked in the sun for an hour waiting for our lost companions. Once we were all together, a gondola whisked us over Dianchi and halfway up the mountain.

Repping Stanford AND Peking University.

Climbing Xishan was like trying to wear out a Stairmaster. The stone steps seemed to never end, and when we reached a summit of sorts––so what if it wasn’t the actual mountain peak––we declared victory and celebrated with a picnic of eggs, Chinese bread, and jackfruit chips.

Nice umbrella, Bill.

Kunming from ahigh. (Xishan summit)

A quick downhill walk and a rocky bus ride later, we found ourselves at the base of the mountain, with no transportation and no idea where to find transportation. Our Holy Grail was the hot springs district of Anning, a small town 30 kilometers away, but how would we get there? We started to walk, hugging the shoulder of the mountain road and winding our way through shabby little towns before realizing that we had no chance in hell of finding our way alone.

After finding out that taxi companies in Yunnan do not, in fact, dispatch drivers, we set off on a wild goose chase, taking a series of rickety, peasant-filled buses and ending up in the middle of some sort of city, which we were first told was close to Anning, then were told was as far from Anning as it was humanly possible to be. With each passing moment, hitchhiking was becoming more and more attractive an option.

We were saved by a couple brave men, Kunming taxi drivers willing to ferry us through the mountains to our destination for a reasonable fee. We arrived at the Jinfang Shenlin Wenquan Resort––it was truly a resort––around 8PM,  paid 128¥ RMB per person, and hightailed it out back to the springs. Each spring was like a big hot tub, minus the bubbles and the grime, and several were flavored: milk, rose, various Chinese fruits/vegetables. Befitting the theme of our trip, every time our group entered a spring, the incumbent Chinese family immediately departed. We didn’t mind. After our trying day, it took 4 hours of physical and spiritual cleansing before we were ready to part from the heavenly warmth of those hot springs. The experience was worth every penny and every wrinkled finger and toe.

Ready to hit the hot springs.

Hot milk. Mmmm...

Me and Chris.

Rose-flavored hot spring. 🙂

All in all, one of the most exciting weekends of my life.

-Joel

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Beijing: More Than We Bargained For

Stanford in Beijing at T–– Square

On our first Friday (no classes!), we rolled out as a crew for a day trip to the must-see tourist sites in Beijing proper: T–– (I’m trying to avoid the censors…) Square and the Forbidden City. We first took a Beida bus to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition, where Shen Laoshi attempted to convey to us the spirit of the re-imagining––the rebirth––of the city of Beijing on a massive scale, in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The massive model of Beijing was spectacular, and as a map-lover, I was particularly thrilled. After an IMAX-style 3-D plunge into the history of Beijing, stomachs were growling left and right, and we headed straight for a feast of Peking duck and all sorts of Chinese dishes at a classy restaurant south of the Forbidden City. Fully satiated, we stumbled out the door and into a hutong, the traditional Chinese neighborhood arrangement, consisting of roads lined with fully-connected adjoining houses. We managed to ramble our way onto the store-lined central (north-south) axis of Beijing, just south of T––, and finally bypassed security to reach the famed Square.

The largest public square in the world, T–– Square is at once monumentally oppressive and grandly liberating; if you could decouple the physical location from its grim history, you would find yourself in a spectacular venue, perfectly fit for kite-flying or photo-taking. The gargantuan portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the gate to the Forbidden City, however, quickly quashes any possibility of that, a constant reminder of the atrocities once perpetrated on the spot where tourists now pose smiling for pictures to email home, and evidence that the Chinese Communist Party endures today. Our tour of the Forbidden City blurs in my mind as an exceedingly long and vaguely interesting history lesson, taught by an eager Shen Laoshi. One memorable observation was that just 100 years ago, the imperial palace that we were touring was still occupied by a Qing Dynasty emperor and empress, as well as up to the oddly-specific official limit of 72 concubines.

A close-up of everybody's favorite chairman.

The emperor, of course, needs his star-rated toilet. I wasn't impressed.

After sneaking out the back door of the Forbidden City in the tradition of the last emperor of China, we decided to climb Jingshan (“Coal Mountain”), the manmade hill made of the dirt removed to form the moat of the Forbidden City. It was truly a magnificent view, and we did our best tourist impression by taking as many photos as humanly possible.

On the summit of Coal Mountain. The Forbidden City is in the background.

On Saturday, April 3rd, I met up with my aunt’s friend’s son, Luo Zhuo Kai, AKA Roger. He’s a 4th year med student at Beida, which means he lives off campus near a hospital where he’s interning. Here in China, aspiring doctors start med school immediately after high school, so Roger is only one year older than I. He took me to Lush, an expat bar overlooking the Wudaokou subway station, for a tasty American lunch. Roger grew up in Taipei, then after his mandatory military service came to Beida. He’s something of a cultural anomaly, a young Taiwanese guy in Beijing who just broke up with his 30-year-old girlfriend because she was ready to get married and he wasn’t. After promising Roger that we would get together again during my stay in Beijing, I met up with the Stanford kids at the subway station for our first trip to Silk Street, the legendary tourist market where hordes of Westerners are the norm and bargaining is essential.

The subway station opens up directly into the basement of the Silk Street building, providing easy access to all in need of fake designer clothes and awkward exchanges with aggressive saleswomen. There’s certainly an art to bargaining, and the road to mastery is littered with overpriced regret––usually in the form of tacky t-shirts––good intentions lost in translation, and premature “walk-aways.” I experienced the first on a grand scale when I attempted to purchase a North Face (North Fake?) jacket from a couple young female vendors. Initial asking price: 600¥ RMB. I instinctively reacted with an open-mouthed facade of disbelief, and so commenced the haggling game. It was a verbal sparring match, both the vendor and I bobbing and weaving, looking for a weak spot to jab in our desired price. After a few landed punches, I managed to pull off the “walk-away” maneuver successfully: I turned my back and started to walk away, and like clockwork, my adversary chased me down, grabbed my elbow, and agreed to my final price with an air of magnanimity. I handed over the cash––a quarter of what I would have paid in the US––and in return was handed a comfy new North Face jacket. In hindsight, the entire deal was more dance than dispute, both parties sharing a tacit understanding that the initial asking price was far above the jacket’s value and my initial counteroffer far below. We played the game simply to determine where in that range the final price would rest––and to have a little fun in the process. No China experience is complete without a trip to Silk Street or one of the countless other markets strewn throughout China’s major cities. Who would have imagined arguing over a price tag could have such grand cultural implications?

During our second week here in Beijing, things started to settle down. We realized that to venture into the heart of Beijing every single evening of the week would require a monumental and ultimately unsustainable effort––indeed, we were all so exhausted from our first such week that the subsequent 4-day Chinese Memorial Day weekend was fully devoted to recovery. I’ve developed a weekday day-to-day routine of such simplicity that I could not even imagine living this life back at Stanford, or anywhere else in the real world: Wake up between 9 and 10AM, Skype with friends and family and do some EE research, eat lunch with my fellow Stanford or Beida students, attend Chinese class from 1:30-2:30PM, go to the gym to run or lift, grab dinner with the Stanford crew, and spend the evening watching a movie and hanging out in the student lounge.

A pleasant deviation from the schedule came up that Wednesday, when we began our weekly Stanford-organized cooking classes hosted by local families. Kelsey, Beatrice, and I were assigned to the nicest old man in the world and his equally-nice wife, and upon arriving at their tiny apartment, we were showered with oranges and tea and chocolate. We rolled up our sleeves and learned how to make dumplings and a variety of other Chinese dishes: tomatoes and egg, a pork and squash dish, and Chinese-style potatoes. Turns out Chinese cooking is very simple: Just stir-fry everything. Once our meticulously stir-fried dishes were ready, we stuffed ourselves until we 走不动了 (couldn’t walk anymore), recovered with some after-dinner tea, and waddled back to Shaoyuan.

The next evening, we had a pizza and movie night (Raise the Red Lantern) with some Yale students, and after the movie, we all decided to go clubbing in Sanlitun, THE expat nightlife district. If you’ve ever seen a ridiculously glitzy club scene in a movie and wondered where in the world such an actual club exists, I now have the answer: It’s in Beijing. And it’s called Vics. Or Latte. Or Mix. Whatever. The evening was a blur of neon lights, rows of DJs spinning simultaneously, and rocking out on stage with the Stanford crew, eardrums bursting from the deep bass that seemed to emanate from the floors, the ceilings, the walls, everywhere.

The next day, no one had the energy to party hard again, so we went out exploring on foot, wandering through Tsinghua University’s massive campus. Known as the “MIT of China”––which means it’s without a doubt the second-best engineering school in the country 🙂 ––Tsinghua has an overwhelmingly male student population and a campus overflowing with Western architecture. Many Tsinghua landmarks would fit right in on the campus of any university in the US. We ended the evening in Wudaokou with a tasty Japanese dinner and a brief detour to a roadside peanut stand and the Golden Phoenix Bakery. Side note: If I could live anywhere, I’d choose to spend the rest of my days in a Chinese bakery.

Tsinghua University: The "MIT of China." Check out my new North Face jacket.

Our 8AM departure for the Great Wall on Saturday, April 10, was a rude awakening. The bus ride from Beida to the Mutianyu section of the Wall took nearly 2 hours, and everyone passed out for the duration of the trip. We awoke to the sight of mountain peaks and the winding, awe-inspiring stone wall that stands as the protector of China past and the pride of China present. The first thing I noticed was that I could breathe again, for the first time in weeks: We had left the flatlands and the pollution of Beijing behind, and all that remained was clean, fresh mountain air. A quick chair lift ride later, we were clambering up the steps of the wall itself, with legs and lungs burning and cameras at the ready.

Marty, Lianna, Me, and Adriana. We told Marty, "No gangster signs," but he was too gangster to listen.

Can you read the Chinese characters far off in the distance? "Loyalty to Chairman Mao"

Conquering the Great Wall.

From seeing pictures of the Great Wall and watching Mulan, I imagined the trail at the top would be a smooth, continuous surface––not so. The stone steps ranged from door jam-sized ledges to countertop-height plateaus, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a common soldier, burdened with sword and shield, could possibly make it to his post in time to keep the invading Mongol horsemen at bay. After taking hundreds and hundreds of group and individual photos, we finally made our way back to the top of the chair lift, where we found ourselves with just one option for transportation down the mountainside: toboggans. Plastic toboggans on a sheet metal track, to be specific. As I careened down the sheer rock face, a park official yelled out, “发疯了!”––which translates to “You’ve gone crazy!”

Look, Ma, I found the horizon!

We were happy because we could breathe at last.

Stanford students: Too weary to walk, but still smiling.

My new ride: The preferred form of downhill transportation in China.

And the fun didn’t stop there. We broke for lunch at an open-air restaurant in the mountains, and were met at the door by a young Chinese man holding several huge nets and bamboo fishing poles. It seemed he wanted us to catch our own lunch. Our gracious host then ushered us over to a nearby pond and left us to our own devices. I’ve always found that food tastes better if you’ve worked for it, but it soon became apparent that unless we changed tack soon, we weren’t going to have any food to taste. After half an hour of unsuccessful man (Stanford student?) vs. fish action––I maintain that “survival of the fittest” worked against us, for the remaining fish were those that had already evaded capture by bumbling humans countless times––the Beida program director, whom we have affectionately dubbed “The Godfather,” swooped in and netted three of the slippery beasts in quick succession, and we had our lunch. The return trip to Beida passed by in that tranquil, post-exertion state of euphoria, and so ended the second week of our Beijing adventure.

Working for our food.


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A Week To Remember

Prerequisites for full appreciation of this post: Knowledge of US dollar to Chinese yuan exchange rate ($1 = 6.83¥ RMB, as of April 3), Love of food, An open mind and iron stomach, Fluency in Mandarin (just kidding… kind of)

After a week in Beijing, I’ve come to be a firm believer in the subjectivity of time. Every day has been so packed with new sights and sounds and people and places that I feel like I’ve been a 北京人, or Beijing resident, for a lifetime.

This story––my Beijing story––begins just one week ago, on the morning of Saturday, March 27. I rolled out of my unforgiving Peking University (北京大学, or Beida, or PKU) standard-issue bed at 6AM, just in time for our Logistics Orientation at… 10AM. Stupid jet lag. The orientation was unremarkable, but our first lunch in China was anything but. We got our first taste of Chinese cuisine and American wealth when we stopped by one of PKU’s many canteens for 包子 (baozi), steamed buns filled with meat and vegetables and occasionally soup (How do they get soup in there? Must be ancient Chinese wisdom). So delicious. And so cheap.

A delicious meal of baozi for $1

A lion’s share of 包子 costs about as much as a kiddie cone at your neighborhood McDonald’s––i.e., nothing at all, by American standards. If you managed to sneak into PKU past the 24-7 security at the gate and perhaps into the no-males-allowed female student dorms (they remind me of the spiral staircases in Harry Potter that turn into slides when a boy wizard tries to climb up into the girls’ living quarters), you could subsist indefinitely, even comfortably, on a couple US dollars a day. Our meal allowance? $10/day. Here in Beijing, we live like kings among men (and just a few women) on a daily stipend that would barely cover an Axe & Palm cheeseburger back at Stanford. And Stanford would do well to copy the meal plan system at Beida: Students get a simple debit-type meal card that has real monetary value and no minimum or maximum limit, is rechargeable with cash at any time, and is accepted everywhere on campus, from the noodle restaurant to the 包子 place to the blue-roofed 小白房 snack house to the fruit stand down the street. Compare that with Stanford Dining’s meal plan Cardinal Dollars, which have no monetary value, must be purchased but come only in fixed, arbitrary increments, expire every few months, can’t be used without a card with your nerdy picture from high school on it, and are called CARDINAL DOLLARS.

1 Cardinal Dollar ≈ $0

The next day, we survived another orientation and were rewarded with lunch (hmmm… Pavlovian tactics?) at Ho’s Restaurant, a classy Cantonese eatery right outside PKU’s Little Southwest Gate (小西南门). The assortment of traditional Chinese dishes brought me back to family vacations of yore, when Mom and Dad would somehow manage to find the one authentic Chinese restaurant in that backwards town in the middle of nowhere, and the food would invariably turn out to be delicious. We then met our language partners, PKU students whom we’re matched up with for the quarter for mutually beneficial Chinese/English language practice and singly beneficial cultural guidance. My 语伴 is a sophomore English major from Xi’an (the former capital of China) named Sherry. Her English makes my Chinese seem terribly inadequate, but I don’t feel too bad because 1) she’s an English major and 2) she speaks better English than many Americans. Together with our language partners––14 Stanford students and 14 PKU students in all––we took a trip to the Summer Palace, where the emperors and empresses procrastinated on the actual act of ruling the country. Given Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality standards (stand outside for too long and you might as well be smoking a pack a day), it was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies and the sun shining splendidly over the lake on the palatial grounds.

The Summer Palace

With my language partner Sherry

Since she goes to the gym every night, Sherry invited me to come along with her that evening. The PKU gym (one of several) is small but perfectly adequate, comparable to the gym in Tresidder, but with separate rooms for ping-pong, taekwondo, and pool. And after hearing about life as a non-international Beida student, I realized that we have it pretty good at Stanford (surprise). It’s bad enough that the regular student dorms don’t have power after 11PM––take a moment to let that sink in––but even worse, some of the dorms at PKU lack running water, which means residents have to walk outside to the public bathroom to take a shower. Sherry told me the tragic story of a Beida girl, one of her friends, who once went to take a shower during the winter and returned with a head full of frozen hair. Sherry’s all-girls dorm is a little better, but she lives in a standard one-room quad on the 6th floor (no elevator), and guys aren’t allowed in, except to make deliveries or carry things for girls. Apparently that’s all guys are good for. Seriously. The social scene at Beida is totally different from what we’re used to in the US. Since students here are super-focused on their studies, they rarely party or drink or go off-campus. The PKU-sponsored social events are “kind of lame,” according to Sherry, and the guys “aren’t very cool.” Perhaps for that reason, there’s only a bit of traditional dating at PKU, and it’s nothing at all like Stanford’s ternary dating culture (Choose one: single, hooking up, joined at the hip).

The academic quarter kicked off on Monday with a single hour of Chinese class. With a total of 3 classes on my study list, I have the easiest quarter of my life ahead of me: 1 hour of Chinese a day, Monday through Thursday; a 3-hour sociology class on Tuesday morning; and a 2-hour speaker series on Tuesday afternoon. That’s it. 🙂 Between classes and exploring Beijing though, I think I’ll have plenty on my plate (literally and figuratively) in the weeks to come.

Kind of like the trailers where we used to have classes back in elementary school, except not a trailer, but a shipping container.

After another mildly entertaining Chinese class and guest speaker on Tuesday afternoon, 7 of us Stanford kids––me, Kelsey, Adriana, Marty, Chris, Mai, and Lili––took the subway right outside PKU’s East Gate 2 stops down, to the famed Zhongguancun Shopping Center. This was my first time really leaving the campus, and it was spectacular, despite the rain and the crazy drivers. We wandered into a shopping mall and ended up at Shabu-Shabu, a hotpot restaurant that Kelsey recommended. We sat at the counter and had the hardest time ordering the food, since the menus were all in Chinese; I think the waitress thought we were all mildly deaf and entirely dumb. But after I told her that we were from America, she was quite understanding. I finally managed to order an array of raw food (beef, pork, shrimp, eggs, veggies) for everyone to share, and we each had our own personal cooking pot of boiling garlic broth. The meal was delicious and we walked out stuffed to the gills. Our by-then friendly waitress ushered us out with a fitting farewell: “慢慢走! (Walk slowly!)” As if we had any other choice.

We couldn’t have asked for a better final destination that night than Carrefour, a French supermarket chain with the biggest selection of goods I’d seen in Beijing so far. The range of prices blew my mind (e.g., electric razors cost 4 times as much as new bikes, shoes cost about 20¥), and we had a great time just wandering around, marveling at the cheap consumer goods and the ridiculous foods that Chinese people eat (duck feet in a bag or MSG, anyone?). I bought some snacks, including a few throwbacks to my childhood, like Chinese bread, cuttlefish shreds, and a huge bag of sweet rice crackers. We all got lost or separated in the crowd several times, but we managed at last to make our way out of the store, onto the subway, and all the way back to Shaoyuan 7.

How about some MSG?

Kelsey: Sorry Jonah, you've been replaced by a fossilized duck.

The next day, five of us––me, Kelsey, Chris, Beatrice, and Marty––went to the city, supposedly to see “some soccer game.” I thought we’d be seeing a local league game at some community park. Boy, was I wrong. The moment we stepped off the subway, crowds of vendors surrounded us, offering Beijing Guo’an (the game was an Asian Football Confederation Champions League game between the local Guo’an team and Seongnam Ilhwa, a Korean team) t-shirts, jerseys, scarves, and earsplitting horns. It was a 10-minute walk to the colossal Workers’ Stadium (工人体育场), where much of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was held, and since we didn’t have tickets, we had no choice but to find a scalper. I spotted a girl in a pink puffy jacket holding a half-concealed stack of tickets, so we approached her and managed to haggle the price down to 40¥ per ticket. With that settled, since we had an hour and half until the 7:30 start time, we decided to stop by the nearby Hooters Beijing to conduct some cultural fieldwork. The restaurant itself was no different from any American Hooters––except the waitresses were Chinese––and even the clientele was identical: predominantly middle-aged American businessmen.

At a family-friendly establishment in the heart of Beijing

We then crossed the street to the huge stadium, navigated through the metal detectors and legions of armed guards with riot shields, and finally made our way into the stadium. The scene was surreal, with thousands of heads of black hair in the crowd and policemen and Communist Party officials swarming all over the place. A row of official-looking men sat on the track stoically looking up at the crowd the entire game, presumably watching out for dissent or bad behavior. I don’t know if it was the lack of scoring (0-0 for most of the game) or my lack of emotional investment in either team, but I soon got bored, and with the frigid wind nipping at our faces and necks and hands, we skirted the post-game crowds and headed home in the middle of the second half, with Guo’an down by 1 on an anticlimactic free kick by Ilhwa.

A surreal scene at the Workers' (Olympic) Stadium

Me, Chris, Marty, Beatrice, and Kelsey at the soccer game. The Beijing Guo'an fan club in the background was the most synchronized group of fans I've ever seen at a professional sports event.

The surging crescendo of our first week in China came to a thundering climax on Thursday, when the entire Stanford group descended upon 王府井 (Wangfujing), the famous touristy shopping district in Beijing with a side street full of 小吃, or “little eats.” With Adriana’s language partner Felix as our trusty guide, we headed into downtown Beijing on the subway. Less than an hour later, we emerged from the subterranean train station on Wangfujing Road, blinking into the blinding sun and the bright neon lights. Being the perpetually hungry foreigners we are, we immediately made a beeline for the 小吃 street, hidden from direct view on our left as we made our way down the Main Street of Wangfujing.

The famed Wangfujing tourist district

Wangfujing's Street of Snacks: The gateway to gustatory pleasures of all shapes, sizes, and lethalities. Not for the faint of heart.

And so the madness began. The first stand on the right delivered, right on cue, an array of still-thrashing scorpions and sea horses on skewers. Kelsey and I had pledged to eat a scorpion today, so we asked the price (20¥ for 4) and watched as the vendor took a skewer of still-squirming scorpions and dunked them in boiling oil. I’d heard the deep-frying process neutralizes the poison, but I was skeptical. With onlookers watching in fascinated disgust, we took our turns posing, hesitating, then crunching down on our respective crispy scorpions. It tasted a bit like soft-shell crab, but if I’d thought any harder about what I was actually eating, the street cleaners would have had a little more work that day.

Still-squirming scorpions and sea horses on skewers (Say that three times fast)

What a cute little fellow. My first instinct definitely was not "Look, more food!"

I wonder who first decided to pick up and eat an insect with pincers and a massive poison stinger…

A little farther down the street, I found myself standing in front of a similar but significantly more hardcore food stand, offering deep-fried giant scorpion, centipede, lizard, and starfish. I couldn’t pass up the starfish. It felt like ashes and tasted like deep-fried nothing, like a piece of bread burned so badly it’s lost all its flavor. Yum. We washed the taste out of our mouths with bingtang hulu (sugar-coated haw and strawberry skewers) and watched in fascination as Troy haggled for tens of minutes with a young Chinese girl over the price of a Chinese scroll painting. After that, we got bored of the food and returned to the main Wangfujing Dajie. The whole area was super touristy, with high-end Western stores flourishing and Nike, Rolex, and other brand names maintaining American-priced storefronts on the main road. We found a giant cylindrical shopping mall and splurged on dinner at a restaurant suggestively named Spicy Grandma (辣婆婆). Quick observation: It’s amazing how quickly we’ve become accustomed to Chinese pecuniary standards; prices that we wouldn’t blink an eye at in the Bay Area (80¥ or about $12 for a fancy meat dish) now seem outrageously inflated.

It was too cute to pass up. And… yuck. I really have to stop judging things based on looks.

The whole Wangfujing/scorpion/starfish experience kicked off our Beijing adventure all too perfectly––if you can eat a scorpion, you can handle just about anything, right?––and I can’t wait to explore more of the city in the next couple months.

Send your suggestions for exciting places to go and things to do in China to: jjean@stanford.edu.

Check back in a week or so for more adventures from Stanford in Beijing!

-Joel

 

P.S. This blog post is symbolic of the way we foreigners (老外) eat food here in Beijing: Too much at once, too fast to digest, and even more substantial when you actually stop to think about it. And don’t worry, there’s always another dish to look forward to… 🙂

Stanford Greetings from Beijing!

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A Quarter in Beijing

I just got settled into the international student dorm (read: hotel) at Peking University (PKU), where I’ll be spending the rest of my junior year. Since the Great Firewall of China won’t let me get on Facebook, I’ll post pictures and updates on this blog throughout the quarter.

After spending over 30 hours on planes and in airports, I’m pretty glad to finally be able to leave my baggage unattended and get some rest. On the plus side, today I discovered an airline that stands head-and-shoulders above any other I’ve flown, bar none: Korean Air.

What makes Korean Airlines the best airline in the world?

1. Comfortable seats – So. Much. Legroom. It made me wish I were taller, just so I could take better advantage of the ample airspace between me and the screaming baby ahead of me.

2. Thoughtful service – The (seemingly) all-female flight crew swarmed us, offering complimentary water bottles, headphones, hot towels, steamed bread, pineapple juice, and just about anything else you could ever want or need on a 13-hour trans-Pacific flight. They adjusted the blinds in sync to get everyone accustomed to the time zone at our destination, Seoul-Incheon International Airport. They even put disposable toothbrushes and toothpaste in the lavatories. Did I mention the flight crew?

3. Free in-flight entertainment – “Hollywood Hits,” games, music, and kids options––all free. I witnessed The Invention of Lying and Twilight: New Moon… OK, bad example. I also read Camus’s The Stranger, which was more exciting than both movies combined.

After years of flying domestic carriers and running around domestic airports, I realized today that Korea has us beat, at least when it comes to traveling in style. Seoul International Airport was all class, with lounges and comfortable waiting areas, open even to the commoners without 7 million frequent flyer miles to their name. Even the walkways for getting on and off planes were all-glass and infinitely more inviting than their gloomy American counterparts.

I met up with 6 other Stanford students at Gate 21 in Seoul, and a quick 2-hour flight later, we were taxiing into the terminal in Beijing. Peking University sent a bus with 4 students to pick us up and act as impromptu tour guides. We passed the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, artifacts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on our way to the PKU campus, and finally arrived at the dorm around 10PM.

Orientation starts tomorrow at 10AM. I can’t wait.

-Joel

Our common room - The room consists of 2 singles, a bathroom, and this shared space.

My room at PKU

Inscription on the free backpack waiting in our rooms. (Translation: Stanford Program at Peking University)

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