The Xiaochi Scholars
Byon November 09, 2012 09:08 AM
From the farthest edges of the globe to the inner mechanics of the cell, Reedies have always loved to explore. Since 1977, Reed's study abroad program, run by the indefatigable Paul DeYoung, has sent out students to see world while making sure they come back in time to graduate. Reedies always return with stories to tell; here we present an occasional report of their adventures.
Amy Egerton-Wiley '13 was born and raised in Los Angeles. She fell in love with Chinese literature when she got to Reed, and decided to make it her major in her sophomore year. That spring she spent a semester abroad at Capital Normal, a Reed-approved university program located in Beijing. She chose Capital Normal (over an American-run program) because she wanted a truly Chinese educational experience, but the school's language-learning program, with its heavy emphasis on memorization, was uninspiring. So Amy to turned Beijing into her school: her Mandarin grew stronger with every conversation on a subway train or in a public park.
If Beijing was school, there was one classroom she visited again and again. Every noon, after classes, she and her boyfriend, fellow Reedie Patrick Johnson '13, would walk around the corner to the local xiaochi, or ‘small eat.' Xiaochi are micro restaurants, often with only a bar and stools in front, and a combination kitchen and bedroom for the proprietors in the back. Amy and Patrick would get the gaifan, a ubiquitous dish of stir fried meat and vegetables layered onto freshly steamed rice, or occasionally Kung Pao chicken, a dish that, to everyone's surprise, is quite popular in China. Amy and Patrick came to know their xiaochi by the nickname it received from some British friends, also studying abroad at Capital Normal: they called it "the smiley lady place." because of the warmth of the woman who ran it. Amy and Patrick's daily (and sometimes twice daily) trips to see the smiley lady became a "source of comfort for dealing with the difficulty of being in such a different place."
Before long Patrick developed a strong interest in Chinese chess, which is related to but distinct from the Western version; two armies, made up of unique units (the Advisor, the Horse, the Elephant, etc.), square off on opposite sides of the board, each attempting to capture the others' King. Now their trips to the xiaochi would stretch out to allow Patrick to play a game or two.
One day he was deep in a particularly close contest when he felt someone watching him; a man sitting at the bar had taken a break from his noodles and was following the game intensely. He looked on silently for a few moves, finally remarking, "I have never seen a foreigner playing Chinese chess before," before giving a slight nod and turning back to his meal.
For Amy, the moment symbolized her experience in China, of "almost feeling at home while inevitably sticking out. Of daily life being uncomfortable and funny at the same time." Amy and Patrick are back at Reed now, both working away at their theses, and looking forward to the day they can return to China. Patrick lost that game, but it didn't matter. He was back the next day.