In the States, the day after Thanksgiving marks the commencement of holiday shopping and its attendant rampant advertising and discount campaigns. And, as much as we may not like to admit it, the month-long Christmas/Hanukkah fever is shared by many an American, unless you are Muslim or a Jehovah’s Witness.
Perhaps because the majority of Americans celebrate either Christmas or Hanukkah, the proliferation of Santa Clauses, christmas trees, elves, menorahs, and the ever-present Christmas song doesn’t stand out as strange, purely commercial, or misplaced.
In Beijing, however, everyone – Chinese or expat – can easily view the holiday season in the same way that singles perceive Valentine’s Day: as a commercialized, commodity-driven month.
Cashier wearing a Santa hat
Except this one is full of discounts and sad, sad employees who grudgingly wear floppy Santa hats.
In The Village, one of Beijing’s most popular (and posh) shopping centers, a Smart Car and a Christmas tree are enclosed in a glass bubble. On the rim of the bubble, the message, “You could be the lucky winner of a brand new Smart Car!” is written in a happy, Christmas-y font. Ten meters away, at the entrance of UniQlo, a Japanese-owned clothing store, cutouts of Christmas hats and Santa Clauses block one’s view of the store’s interior. Inside the store, Christmas discounts abound (yay!) and foreigners are lined up, 10 or 20 at any given time, at the changing rooms or registers. Of course, there are Chinese people shopping too, but they are, I must say, the minority here.
And so, at first glance, there is a holiday fervor in the shopping area. But once one steps away from The Village, all of that dissipates, and one remembers that China is not a country in which holidays are celebrated in December. Chun Jie, the Spring Festival, isn’t until the end of January. On a second take of The Village’s Christmas trees and decorations, I couldn’t help but notice that while foreigners were walking past the decorations with smiles on their faces, the Chinese patrons walked by slowly, staring at the decorations,
Christmas decorations in The Village
as if they were looking at something that wasn’t their own, in a place that didn’t belong to them, in the midst of a celebration of which they were not a part.
On seeing this disconnect, I realized that I really don’t like the holiday season in China. I like China’s holiday seasons. I really loved it when every single store and home put out a Chinese flag during National Day. And I loved it when all of the small stores sold moon cakes during the Moon Festival. But Christmas? (Hanukkah is way beyond the capacity of these international corporate designs.) I don’t like it. Not one bit! And I especially don’t like it when Chinese employees are made to wear Santa hats!!!! Do they have a choice? In the States, do all employees have to abide by their companies’ costume policies?
I’d rather not have a commercial holiday season at all. Just knowing that Hanukkah
Cooking latkes at Maria's
is going on right now is good enough for me. I don’t have a menorah, but I did make latkes!!! Tonight, at Maria’s, most of my friends got together for a holiday party, at which I made latkes from SCRATCH. We also ate salad, Swedish pancakes (American crepes), fruit with melted chocolate, and Danish sweets. The meal was 1/4 dinner fare and 3/4 dessert. It was amazing.
OK – so that’s the one thing – LATKES. I can’t do without them during the holiday season.
If you haven’t read about World AIDS Day, please do. This entry is lighter, placed as an afterthought, really.
This week, I took a few photos of my immediate surroundings and meals. Take a look at the photos, then tell me what you think. I’ll leave my comments for later – I don’t want to ruin the images with my chitchat.
The title of this blog entry may imply that I took part in Beijing’s most glamourous Thanksgiving presentation of 2009. This, unfortunately, is not true. Despite being held at the Shangri-la’s prized hotel, the Kerry Centre, the Thanksgiving feast was a disappointment.
Instead of mashed potatoes, I ate soupy potatoes. In place of yams, I consumed undercooked diced sweet potatoes. Instead of stuffing, I ate a prawn.
The dessert, however, was a success, and my friends and I took part in devouring the greater portion of the buffet offerings.
And, of course, Thanksgiving has more to do with who you’re with than what you’re eating, so I must say that I was happy with who showed up to the event. If it were only the Americans, I wouldn’t have gone (I hate one out of the three of us). Thankfully, Bolette came and so did other friends from Spain, Canada, Kazakhstan, Turkey, China, and Thailand.
Finally, the night wouldn’t have been the same without the bottle of red wine I drank in the cab and the one that I imbibed at the dinner table.
Here are the pictures in chronological order. Towards the end of the night, I couldn’t exactly breathe nor stand up straight.
Walk under the overpass to the right of Jiaoda’s south gate and you’ll find an entrance to the Meiyuan Hotel’s courtyard. Enter the courtyard and stroll around the corner and you’ll find one of the best vegetarian establishments in Hai Dian, and perhaps even Beijing: Jingsi Vegetarian Restaurant.
I was introduced to this restaurant by Jesse, a fellow American student who wanted to show his appreciation to our Chinese helper, Wu Fanqing, by taking him out to lunch this afternoon. When Jesse called me around the time of our meeting, I offered to meet him at the restaurant, which I knew was right around the corner from the school’s south gate, but he was convinced I wouldn’t know where to find it. His conviction, though simple, was bewildering to me. How could I not know where a restaurant is in this area? Honestly, I eat out two times a day and, so I thought, I’ve tried out every restaurant there is to try out within a square kilometer. Yet, when Jesse led Wu Fanqing and me into a small fenced courtyard to the right of a large overpass, I realized that I had no idea what I was thinking. Of course the best restaurants are tucked into places like this. Of course I didn’t know about it.
“The best places to go in Beijing are all secrets,” Jesse said when we sat down to eat. “There’s a secret city hidden underground. The Soviets built it during the Cold War.” Whenever I hang out with Jesse I learn something new about Beijing. As a PhD candidate at Jiaoda, Jesse’s had the opportunity to live here for over two years, and he also has a job with the government – something related with computer systems. So, he knows a thing or two about the city, and I really hope that while I’m here I’ll be able to see some of the more hidden sites. Last week, I know Jesse got to go inside Empress Cixi’s courtyard and swing on her favorite swing with a CCTV crew…can I finagle a PA job?
I sat daydreaming about all of these unmined opportunities while devouring the most sumptuous vegetarian food I think I’ve ever eaten. Our meal consisted of mock roasted duck, cow brain, braised pork, and chicken with vegetables. It was so good to taste all of the flavors without having to eat the meat. The only dish that really didn’t taste like the real thing was the cow brain, which was stuffed with eggplant and mock shrimp, so I think I’m going to have to order the original if I really want to taste frontal lobes.
It’s not that vegetarian food is an unusual delicacy in Beijing (I actually mostly eat vegetarian dishes), but happening upon a restaurant that innovatively produces meat-flavored vegetarian dishes is a whole different ball game. (Wu Fanqing deems the food te se cai, specialty food.) I’m honestly surprised that I found this type of cuisine here, right around the corner from my dorm. I’m looking forward to going home and ripping neo-American cuisine fanaticists a new one. “Did you know that China’s been doing this for way longer than you have?” I’ll say (only if I meet someone who thinks that America is the forerunner of mock meat dishes).
I’m also looking forward to discovering more of the Beijing that I can’t read about in a Lonely Planet guide. Until then, I’ll be going back to Jingsi Vegetarian Restaurant. Tonight, in fact. It’s Mei Mei’s birthday and we’re all taking her out to eat. For her gift, I blew up a collage of pictures of us and different scenes from our trip to Jingshan and Beihai Parks a few weeks ago and put it on the wall above her bed while she was sleeping last night. I think she thought it was a fabulous surprise. “Everytime I look at it, it makes me smile,” she keeps telling me.
Tucked neatly in between the braised donkey and the beef is a fine little dish that we all know as Lady, Charlie, Lucy, Rufus, Prince, Barney, and Chloe, and that the Chinese population knows as gou rou. Dog meat.
Last week, my Swedish friend, Per, decided to fuck it all and eat some dog. I’m not surprised, actually, that Per was the first one to try eating a household pet. Like Sarah Palin (Are Palin jokes still funny? Someone let me know.), Per shoots moose during moose season and a slew of other animals during the off months. More than any of the people I know, Per has a connection to the live animal writhing and screaming underneath the crispy outer layer of your beautiful sirloin. He once told me at a party that he prefers to only eat what he shoots, which really isn’t an option out here, unless you want to shoot the random bird flying in the sky or a small turtle swimming in a tank. (I did see one rodent once at a market, though…but there aren’t any squirrels out here, and the birds most likely have some type of lung cancer that will metastasize in your body before you can even get a bite down your throat.)
So, yes, it’s no wonder Per ate dog. And he ate it with soy sauce and green peppers.
Pretty dish, isn't it?
On recounting the episode – at least I consider it an episode – he told us that the dog wasn’t as good as he had hoped, and that it had a texture and taste in between that of pork or beef. I wonder if the issue with the dog had more to do with the breed than the overarching taste of all dog meat. I mean, did he eat a golden retriever? A poodle? He doesn’t know.
If I were the one eating dog, I definitely would have looked up all of the breed names and asked the waitress exactlywhich breed I was about to consume.
At the south gate before departing (everyone sans Maria)
During my trip to Xi’an last week, I promised myself that I would write down every minute of it for all to see and enjoy. Now, seven days later and with a load of new memories under my belt, I am reluctant to write down everything. I’ve just copied Maria and Johnny’s pictures to my computer and found some really funny and illustrative photos, plus I have a lot of my own that I’d like to feature here. So, I think it’s best to describe my trip mostly through the photos that I think capture the essence of our 36 hours in a small, yet crowded and bustling city twelve hours southwest of Beijing.
Heading onto the train
Though we went to Xi’an during the second-busiest holiday during the year (the first being the Chinese New Year), we managed to get tickets on one of the night trains. There are five types of tickets for each train: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat, standing ticket. Ideally, we would have liked to have soft sleepers for the twelve-hour trip – you get your own bed and cabin – but we only managed to get soft seat tickets. Third best, I guess. Going there, the train was fairly empty, so we each found two seats to lay across. Sleep was tenuous though, as the sounds of snacking passengers and interminably long Chinese ballads pervaded the car.
Catching some sleep
Johnny, a photography aesthete, found himself working the nocturnal shift and decided to take pictures of all of us mid-sleep.
We went straight to the hotel after arriving in Xi’an, but first had to walk through the bustling train station, where we were surprised to find several people screaming “bing ma yong!” in our faces. Bing ma yong, or the terracotta army – one of China’s most famous tourist sites, second only to the Great Wall – is literally an army of clay soldiers that was dug up by archaelogists in the 1970s (well, discovered by laborers building a highway, one of whom sells his autograph at the main site).
Train station grounds
The army was built in 200 BC (-ish) to protect the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the emperor who, as it turns out, was the first to charter the building of the Great Wall during the Qin dynasty. Anyway, the buses that go to the site, around an hour away from Xi’an, are located right outside the train station, and hawkers will stop at almost nothing to get you on their tour buses, which are priced over 100 rmb more than the city’s bus, which costs a pleasant 7 rmb.
Johnny had booked the hotel online, haphazardly choosing the only one that wasn’t already full. The empty hotel is usually the one that you don’t want to go to, but we actually found ourselves in luck when we realized that the only cost of buying the cheaper chicken was that we had to walk through a filth-laden street to get to our destination.
posing in the hotel room
The hotel was located on a small street full of wholesale vendors and garbarge. After a brutal beating of our olfactory senses, we hit upon a fairly nice hotel; the rooms had individual bathrooms and only cost us 50 rmb/night.
Because we only had 36 hours to travel around Xi’an (there were no tickets left for a return three days later, and we didn’t want to stay for four), we headed out that day to bing ma yong and later to a very famous Muslim market, where one can buy wares and baubles from the Hui Chinese, a group of Muslim Chinese who represent one of many minority groups in China.
The Terracotta Soldiers
Kabobs at the Market
Walking through the market is certainly my favorite memory from Xi’an. While the avenues were as crowded as those in markets in Beijing, the energy was calmer. I didn’t come across clawing vendors or animal cruelty (I really just hate the rabbits in the little box cages). The setting, though, really made me catch my breath.
The Drum Tower
A view of the market from the top of the Drum Tower
The market is located directly under the Drum Tower, which is lit up at night and shines over the entire market, shedding a gold and red light on all of the small tables and their wares. Once you walk through the maze of streets and alleys, you find yourself back at the Tower, where tourists and locals alike mill around eating food and buying postcards. The night ended with a few beers at an outside stand, where all was well except for the drunkard at the table to our left, who made a point to chew rice and then spit it back into his bowl, one mouthful at a time.
Our second and final day was spent climbing the Wild Goose Pagoda (I may have forgotten to mention that Xi’an was the eastern terminus for the Silk Road, which brought Buddhism to China. The pagoda is famous for the massive translations that went on in there, specifically the translating of Buddhist texts from Hindi to Chinese in the year 652 AD.), walking through a beautiful park (and playing ping pong with some local experts), biking along the city wall, and taking the train back home. I’ll leave the rest of my story to my photos and those shot by Maria and Johnny.
I have been actively taking notes these past few days, but haven’t found the time to transfer them over to the blog. There are some interesting topics that I’d like to combine – for instance hutongsand my trip to the Great Wall tomorrow – so look forward to some themed entries.
A hint of what's to come
While traveling around and seeing the famous sites of Beijing is very entertaining and informative (though I haven’t seen enough of anything yet…I can’t wait to go to the temples!), I am finding that my everyday life supplies me with more fodder for writing than anything else.
For instance, a group of us recently discovered the best campus cafeteria (out of four), where you can get a quickly cooked meal for 1/3 of the price at one of the nearby restaurants. Each cafeteria (or canteen, actually) has three levels. The first level offers buffet-style meals which you need your student card to buy, as they do not accept cash. The second floor has another buffet-style set-up. On the third floor, however, you can use cash and you get to order a dish of your choice. After you order your food at a large counter, you bring one out of the two receipts you receive to a person who stands in front of the kitchen. This person then gives the receipt to a cook. After the food is made, the cook gives the dish to a waiter/waitress, who must find you at the random table you have chosen to dine at.
Okay – so eating at the canteen may not seem that strange, but most of us have never been anywhere where someone must haphazardly find you…if you go to Cosi or a similar chain where the food is brough to you, you usually have a number. But here, there are people who are incredibly skilled at remembering faces telling a waiter where you are sitting and what you have ordered. The system does have its own check built in, though: you must give your receipt to the waiter who brings your food to you, so you can’t be given the wrong food.
Other moments in one’s daily life: I went swimming at the gym, where I recently bought a 3-month membership, yesterday with Maria. This gym is not as lavish/fabulous/posh as the Shangri-La hotel pools that I’ve been swimming in with Scott and Matt, but it is pretty cute and up to date , AND I don’t have to teach a swim lesson to gain access to it.
The pool is really nice, but it’s located in the basement and is always crowded. On the wall on the far side of the pool there’s a sign written in large red letters that reads: ”Slapstick is stricty prohibited…”
I wonder, do they mean roughhousing or slapstick comedy? Next time I go to the gym, I’ll write the characters down and find the translation…forgot to do that this time around. On another note, the lanes in the pool are much larger than one might find at a gym in the States. One should not assume that the lanes were designed to increase the comfort level of each swimmer. Rather, each lane proffers room for 10-20 swimmers at a time, so swimming in a lane is similar to crossing a Beijing street during lunch time.
Average Beijing crowd during lunch hours (12:30-2:30 PM)
Moreover, there are small spittoons placed at the end of each lane. (You can see a small pink one in the photo.) I made the mistake of looking into one once and was duly rewarded by my body in the form of a long and overwrought gag. I tried to get Maria to come over to see the pools of brown-tinted spittle by the poolside, but she told me that she gets queasy easily and refused to take a peek.
I’m going to head out to get my weekly massage now, so I will update further over the weekend. More to come about weekend classes, the National Day parade, the Great Wall, and other local happenings.
Hello to all who are diligently reading this blog. I’m really sorry that I haven’t been updating more often, but I’m just having some difficulty finding time to write really thorough entries about my experiences here.
I am keeping a journal, though, and I have a bunch of topics that I have yet to write about. So, here’s my plan: in order to catch up, I’m going to give some short summaries about what I’ve been up to. I will write more detailed entries about these experiences later, or I will incorporate them into other entries at some point during the semester. If you’re reading this and you’d like to hear more about one of my many excursions/experiences, let me know! I check all of my comments. Oh, and thanks for reading this blog! It’s great to know that people are staying up to date on my life in Beijing!
1. I recently went to one of the famous markets in Beijing, Yashow Market, and
Great buys at Yashow
managed to bargain my way into some really great prices for several “luxury” items. My favorite bargain was a camera case that the saleswoman originally priced at 25 RMB that I got down to 9 RMB. Though this wasn’t my most successful bargain, it was fun because I held my own and kept my price at 9 RMB, even when the woman was offering it to me for 10 RMB. She knew I knew Chinese, so she kept saying, “Ni hen ma fan!” which literally means, “You are very annoying!” I was really elated by her dissatisfaction with me, I guess because bargaining is just so much fun, and I knew she was putting on a show, just like I was.
2. On Friday, I went to the Beijing Zoo (Beijing dong wu yuan) to see the pandas. Along the way, we saw a few really sad rhinoceroses who probably hated the fact that they were dying a very slow death. It looked like they didn’t have enough (or any)
A sad rhinoceros
water, but then we saw that it was possible for them to walk into a big holding room, so we hoped that there was water in there. We also saw a lot of other animals, including an elephant who looked really upset about being outside, and was sticking his trunk into a closed
A happy panda
door, but was getting no answer. The pandas looked like they were well taken care of, and were a good end to a pretty sad visit. I mean, all zoos are terrible, so even a trip to the Bronx zoo may have left me feeling the same way.
3. The employed: There are so many service-employees in China. Every restaurant, store, subway station, etc. is overstaffed. While this can be really great for situations when one puts her subway card into a machine when she’s not supposed to and someone has to fetch it out and is immediately at her service (not me, of course!) it’s great. But when five waiters are staring at your table and giggling, it can get a little weird and uncomfortable.
4. I went to two places of extreme interest to some readers today: McDonalds and
Me with a Swede and a Spaniard in front of Ikea
Ikea. The McDonalds experience was interesting because nothing was really different.On the walls, there were many pictures of white people laughing, and the menu was exactly the same as in New York, but perhaps without the triple burger. Ikea, on the other hand – wait a minute here, it was also the same as in the States!! Perhaps most interesting, though, was the pile of woks available for purchase and a Chinese woman who was eating Swedish meatballs
Eating Swedish meatballs with chopsticks
with chopsticks. The experience was especially cool because I went with two Swedes, who showed me a side to Ikea that I have never known before, like which candies to buy and what the names of the furniture mean.
5. On Saturday, Maria and I got full body massages at a place for 45 RMB/ hour (that’s less than $7.00/hour). It was amazing, but painful. I felt good afterwards, so I think I’ll go back again.
6. I have a language partner! Her name is Victoria (Chinese name: Li Hua). She’s really funny – asked about Oprah and American Idol today. She loves Michael Jackson, as well. Awesome point: She’s from Xi’An, a city that I really want to go to during my October holiday. She said that if I went she’d be a tourist guide for me and my friends, and she’d also help us with finding a cheap and clean hotel to stay in for a few days.
7. To Dad: No, everyone does not smell bad in China. I’m confident in the fact that everyone brings tissue, or if they don’t, they have a way of going that doesn’t allow for much drippage. Also, I don’t know how everyone stays so thin. There’s a shit-ton of oil in all of the food. Perhaps it’s because they don’t eat food in very high quantities.
As I was looking through my entries today, I realized that I haven’t spoken much about food since my takeout experiences last week and my special Peking duck dinner. I think I should take a moment to update on what (and how) I eat on a daily basis over here.
Monday through Friday, I have class from 8:00 am-12:00 pm, so I tend to eat breakfast at around 10:00 am, lunch at 12:30 pm, and dinner at around 6:00 or 7:00 pm.
At around 7:40 am I pick up a refrigerated beverage by the name of Caffe Latte. I need it to hold me over for the first two hours of class. For breakfast, I’ve been eating a guan bing, a pancake with an egg in the middle that closes in on lettuce and smoked chicken in a taco-esque fashion, which you can find being sold on major streets or in small alley ways. Though it’s delicious, it’s around a trillion calories, so I don’t think I’ll be eating it every morning this semester.
Lunch is a bit more exciting, as the fourth-level class (si ban) tends to go to lunch together. We don’t travel more than a few blocks away from campus, but we try to go to a different restaurant every day.
Flower Tea Water
Ordering gets a little bit easier with each meal, but sometimes it’s a challenge. It took until yesterday to order the right flavored tea, as we kept forgetting to say shui, which means water, after saying the words hua cha, which means flower tea. In China, restaurants do not serve tea, they serve tea water. Tea water looks a lot like tea. We’re really not sure why our fu yuan - waiters/waitresses – have had such a difficult time working through our language deficiencies, but we think it’s because they think that we want tea bags, which really isn’t the case.
OK. Enough about the tea. Let’s get to the real food. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten more eggplant, or qie zi, in my whole life. All we order is chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, noodle, and eggplant dishes. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever ingested more oil in the 22 years that I’ve been alive. Every single dish is cooked with oil, and arrives at our table glistening with it. We eat the dishes as fast as we can, because we know
Our usual eggplant dish
that when the food gets cold, the magic is over. What was once a beautiful dish of vegetables becomes a plate of wilted vegetables sitting in a pool – literally, a pool – of oil.
For dinner, many of the international students regroup into a horde and we head out to one of the local restaurants. While dinner is usually a copy of lunch, lately I’ve been considering heading out to wudaokou or another area to try some other cuisines.
On Thursday, Bolette and I tried out some Italian cuisine in sanlitun, the area where all the shooter bars are and also where all of the embassies are located. Though we didn’t plan on eating international cuisine, we saw some red-and-white-checkered tableclothes and immediately became moths to the flame that was this small, dinky Italian restaurant.
Bolette, in a moment of haste and delusion, ordered an entire pizza for
herself. I, in a similar state of delirium, ordered a four-cheese penne dish. Despite our restaurant choice, we couldn’t help but speak Chinese to the waiter, who was pleasantly surprised by our ability to speak at all. I asked him if the people that usually dine at this restaurant speak Chinese, and he said that most people in the area don’t. This fact made me (and Bolette) remember how lucky we are to live wayyy on the west side of town, where the trees aren’t manicured and HSBC banks are nowhere in the near distance. Rather, we have toilet paper-less squatter toilets to deal with (I carry around single-wrapped wipes in a cute knock-off LeSportsSac bag) and street vendors to talk to (and yes, Uncle Jake, they speak the same dialect of Chinese that we all do). A New Yorker - a nuyorican, I should say – can think of it like this: it’s like living in Washington Heights and going to 72nd and Park for dinner.So, while it’s nice to go to the fancy part of town, it’s still great to go back home to xizhemen, home sweet home.
Interestingly, because Bolette and I have been eating Chinese food – and only Chinese food – for around two weeks, our bodies did not take well to our Italian meals. I felt a bit under the weather when I got home, but thankfully my body’s lactose-intolerant bout lasted only a bit, because I got to skip the whole diarrhea experience that could have been the next step in my body’s effort to rid itself of new food.
My first weekend out of quarantine was like the first weekend out of, well, prison. I traveled in a horde of international students for the better part of Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday stayed in my dorm to do some homework and laundry before going out to dinner with Scott, a camp professional that I met in the States, and his family. I took a lot of great pictures, so brace yourselves for a long entry o’ fun.
The weekend started on Friday, a day full of rain and really really dark clouds. Because it rained pretty hard, I got a chance to see how Beijing handles drainage. I learned that drainage is handled in a mediocre fashion in the city (at least my area, the northwest district, Haidian) and that one must be creative when trying to avoid very large puddles on one’s way to class. For instance, I had to jump onto a ledge to dodge a gigantic pool of brownish water and figure out how the two-way traffic had to run on this ledge, which was not more than a foot wide.
More interesting than puddles are the mini floods that dot the city
A flooded street in Haidian
after a long rain. On a walk with Renata after my morning classes, I discovered a street that was flooded up to the curb, but the street on the other side of it (it was separated by a divider) was just fine. I came across a few more of those streets on a short sojourn at to Central University of Finance and Economics, which is only a few blocks away from Jiaoda.
After relaxing for a bit in the afternoon, I headed out with a bunch of people to a small restaurant right off campus,
where we ate a lot of delicious food and drank Tsingtao, a beer that is only 3.1% alcohol (most beer is 5%) but comes in a gigantic bottle. (This weekend was full of Tsingtao – which may contribute to my returning to the States looking like a balloon.)
After dinner, I went with a few people to Sanlitun, the “hip” bar and club area on the northeast side of Beijing (my school is located in the northwest area) where you can find all of the young foreigners who are on vacation in the city. What is really cool about the area is that the most fun outside drinking spots are located in wide alleys. The layout is slightly reminiscent of outdoor seating in areas of the village, except that everything is much closer together and you really can’t tell which club you’re buying drinks from. After hanging outside for a while, around nine more international students showed up, and we headed to a bar
Taiwan Duck Fart, Quick Fuck, and Slippery Nipple are perhaps my favorite names
that featured specialty shots (or “shooters” as they’re called here). In all honesty, I’ve never seen a funnier array of shooter names in all of my life. I know there are some young people reading this blog (ahem, Maddy), but I have to post a picture of the shooter names. Vincent, a Spaniard who loves to party (don’t they all?), made me and my two friends Bolette (from Denmark) and Maria (from Sweden) take shots of Taiwan Duck Fart. The drink was actually quite good – Bailey’s and whiskey mixed together. After partying at the shooter bar, a bunch of us decided to go home while the others decided to go to a Salsa bar. Before grabbing the cab home, however, the early birds went to a Pakistani restaurant, where Habib, a student from Pakistan, wanted to eat a bit more before restarting his fast in the morning (as many of you probably know, it’s Ramadan). Though I was a bit drunk, I was coherent enough to watch a tennis match between Serena Williams and someone else (not sure…) while chewing on a lamb kabob with Barry, a software engineering student from Ghana. The night ended when we finally trekked home at about 3:00 am.
I wanted to sleep more than six hours, but was rudely awoken by a telephone ringing in our room on Saturday morning. It was Mei Mei’s friend asking her if she wanted to check out the bird’s nest, where all of the international students happened to be going. Mei Mei headed out with her Thai posse at about 11:00 am, but it took until two for us all to get out of our dorms. I, along with nine people, then started my ten-hour exploration around Beijing.
Before hopping on to the subway, we grabbed qian bing from a local vendor, which is kind of like a Chinese omelet. The ingredients are dough, egg, and various vegetables, and it looks like a folded pancake. I’m really happy that I’m not listening to people’s warnings against vendor food. The only things that you can really contract from it are hepatitis A and traveler’s diarrhea, and I’m vaccinated for the former and I have medication for the latter. I’m taking my chances.
After grabbing some food, we headed down to the subway, where Rob – an American from San Francisco – proceeded to assist Bolette and me with getting a subway card. In order to enter the subway station, you have to put your bags on a security belt; it feels like you’re in an airport. Grabbing a subway card wasn’t difficult, but it is hard just to buy one trip. Many of the automated machines don’t give change and don’t take $1 bills, so it’s kind of hard to buy one trip, which costs 2 RMB. Before heading out to our first destination, the bird’s nest, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Rob and Barry had a bit of a tiff over how to get to the north side of Beijing most efficiently. Barry won the fight, but ultimately lost it, because we ended up transferring trains three times. Rob’s route would have only required one transfer. Though the argument was all in good fun, it got a bit annoying towards the end of the night when the boys were still talking about it.
A bird's eye view of the nest
I usually hate going sightseeing to places like stadiums, but seeing the bird’s nest nest was quite an experience. The scale of the Olympic Park (or the niao chao if you want to be fancy) is almost jarring. It’s just SO BIG. A lot of us wondered how such a large park was able to be built – was this space always available? I haven’t been able to dig up any articles that say otherwise, but I am pretty sure that some businesses and homes kindly stepped out of the way for the Olympics to come through last year. Because the Bird’s Nest is so large, the government has had a difficult time renting it out to people willing to pay enough money to have an event there (or so says my friend Maria). Despite the absolute lack of events in the entire Olympic Park at the time, there were plenty of tourists paying 50RMB (about $7) to take a tour of the place. We decided to follow the crowd and did so, but luckily asked the right questions and got to pay the student discount of 25RMB (just divide by 7 to find out the USD amount), which wasn’t listed on the information board.
After spending an inordinate amoung of time in the park, we decided to hop back on the train and go to another area of the city for hotpot, a Japanese-style of eating that involves a steaming pot of hot water and a lot of raw vegetables. As one can imagine, I made a ridiculous mess out of my area of the table. Plopping raw vegetables and meat into boiling water and then scooping it out, all with one pair of chopsticks (let’s just call them kuai zi from now on), was fun and awful at the same time. I tried out some fishballs that looked like gefilte fish, but tasted a bit like the smell of what used to be the South Street Seaport.
While eating at the hotpot spot was a good time, the really good time
started when we went to wudaokou, an area of the Haidian district (the northwest district of Beijing) where all of the students/foreigners go for pizza, beer, Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, and the restaurant/bar that we hit up, La Bamba. What’s really interesting about La Bamba is that there are absolutely no Chinese people there. However, the squatting toilets are surely there, just to remind you that you’re still in China, in case you had forgotten. At 11:30, I left La Bamba with Barry, and we headed over to a club in jisuitan, an area south of wudaokou and west of Jiaoda. In order to get to the club, you tell the taxi driver to let you off on the side of a highway-esque road. Then you walk in an absolutely deserted area with seemingly nothing around it. After doing this for a bit, you make a right down into an alley that looks like it leads into an oblivion. Right before you hit that oblivion though, the path opens up onto a lake, one of the many that was built by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. After walking along the lake for a bit, you come to our club, Club Obiwan, a structure that was once a house, and looks like a deserted one. On entering the club, you realize that there aren’t any Chinese nationals there, either. Renata’s friend was DJ-ing and had seemingly attracted all of the twenty- and thirty-somethings from CRI (China Radio International) and expat journalists from around the area. It was good to be around real working folk, but I quickly tired of the scene and peaced out with Barry at about 12:30.
So a little backstory before we go into Sunday: a few weeks before camp was over, a budding camp professional named Scott stopped by to talk to Jani about sending students from China over to CKM for an immersion/camp experience. Though he was all about business, Scott took a minute to talk to me about Beijing and offered to take me out for Peking duck when I arrived. When I was in quarantine, I gave Scott a call and asked if he’d like to meet up when I was out. He made good on his offer and asked me out to eat with his wife and four-year-old son on Sunday. Thankfully, Scott found me at Jiaoda, as it was pouring all day and I was up for subway exploration after Friday and Saturday’s long days and nights. Scott, his wife, Janet, and their son, Matt, and I ended up going to the fanciest place in town for Peking duck. Not only was the food delicious (there’s nothing like the fat off of a duck’s chest dipped in sugar), but I also got to see the best of Beijing’s restaurant entertainment. While the diners (all foreigners, again) ate, several dancers, singers, and
miscellaneously talented people came up and performed. Scott was also nice enough to give me a cultural lesson on corruption, capitalism, and politics in Beijing (”Everyone’s corrupt. It’s just a matter of who’s out of favor.”). After our dinner, we’ve since kept in touch, and Scott has actually offered me two jobs: one as Matt’s swim instructor and as an English teacher for a friend’s child. I really need some extra money (though I have the buying power of Donald Trump in China) to go to Ikea and buy a down blanket and to keep up my extravagant lifestyle here (just bought an electronic dictionary for 800RMB), so I think I’m going to take him up on his offers.
All in all, the weekend was one that I hope to repeat this upcoming zhou mo (you can imagine what that means). The following weekend’s posts won’t be as detailed, but I wanted to give everyone a chance to see what a weekend is generally like for me out here.