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.
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.
Sometimes I get the feeling like I’m writing into a void on this thing. Knock, knock, knock. Is anybody there? Is anyone even reading this anymore?
Originally, I wasn’t sure if this blog was going to be for me or for you, the audience. What I’ve found is that in the end, it’s more for you, isn’t it? Yes, I’m recording my time here, and, of course, examining it through these entries, but the fun of it all, the amusement – that’s all for you.
The question of audience, reader-response, fun, these are all issues that I think about when I reflect on my experience here. Sometimes it feels like a burden; I know I’ve done something great or gone somewhere interesting, but sometimes I just want feelings to linger and remain in my memory. The process of describing my experiences and giving them to an audience can be a challenge at times; sometimes I worry that putting something on “paper” takes away from the sanctity of my personal memory and also makes me self-conscious of the event that I am – strangely, I suppose, in light of my previous statement – so eager to share.
What I suppose I’m trying to say is this: the process of blogging – writing down my thoughts and memories for an audience – is a difficult one, as at some point I have to become detached from my experience to write about it and make it interesting. The challenge of writing descriptive language to thoroughly convey emotion or conjure an image requires more than the act of experiencing something; it requires me to create a narrative of a trajectory of sorts.
The fact that I no longer receive comments on this blog isn’t the only thing that has brought my attention to story-telling and narrative creation lately. I’m currently applying to graduate school in order to further my literary studes (in this case, I want to pursue contemporary Chinese literature), and while composing my statement of purpose have become unusually focused on literature’s role in society, the process of creating literature, and what literature means to me.
In an effort to stop speaking to myself for hours on end, I’ve channeled a lot of my thoughts into conversations with friends. Recently, I decided to start up a blog with Sarah, Madeline, and Michelle, among others, in order to begin some sort of dialogue on our post-undergraduate thoughts regarding culture, literature, art, etc., In Beijing, I’ve gone on many an outing with friends such as Isabel, Maria, and Dario, to places such as the Literature Museum (an absolute bore!), 798, and myriad events, such as the ones I’ve previously mentioned.
Moreover, I’ve been trying to meet Chinese friends with whom I can discuss issues of Chinese literature and the future of the art form here. On Cultural Day, I met a student at Jiaoda who is studying English and loves literature. Though he is a wee freshman, his genuine interest in American culture and his ability to converse almost fluently in English made me think that we could potentially be friends and discuss culture and literature from time to time. This idea came to fruition on Saturday, when I took the student, Barry, to Wangfujing’s bookstore, the largest in Beijing. It was kind of cute, because Barry doesn’t really leave the Jiaoda area, and he became this wide-eyed kid when I told him we were going to go to a bookstore for the afternoon. We spent over two hours in the store. Besides showing him all the good classics to read and checking out China’s top ten list – Twilight is number one – we also went to the Chinese literature area, and Barry explained the difference between contemporary literature (dang dai), which is Chinese literature written between 1949 to the present, and modern literature (xian dai), which is categorized as literature written between 1919 and 1949. I ended up buying him Great Expectations, even though he already knew what to expect (I asked him if he wanted to read about England during the Industrial Revolution to see what London was like then. He said, “smelly? dirty?”). I bought five books, two written only in Chinese.
On Monday, I continued Barry’s literary education by explaining some key phrases in one of Donald Trump’s brilliant works, which Barry decided to read after making it through Kite Runner, a task which required an arduous three-day reading spree (not bad, right?). I spent some time explaining terms such as “keeping it in perspective” and “living on the edge.” Barry also came with Twilight, which he plans to read this upcoming weekend. I am not at the level to read high falutin’ Chinese literature yet, so I brought a textbook from the States that I think has much more interesting topics than the ten-year-old books we’ve been given here. Because Barry has five brothers and sisters (talk about the fees!!) I thought it’d be interesting to talk using vocabulary from the chapter, “Birth Control and Human Rights.” Our conversation ended up being quite interesting. Barry pretty much made the point that the book made, which is: with all the kids that China would have without birth control, human rights organizations would be worrying about why the children were so poor and families couldn’t support them. With birth control, people worry that China is violating people’s human rights. There are two sides to the issue; long story short, you won’t lose your job (anymore) if you have more than one child. You just have to pay the fee.
At the end of our converation, Barry told me that he really liked talking about the one child policy, and was eager to talk with me about other policies that China has taken and ideas that are specific to China, especially those which sprout from Confucian thought (he showed me a Confucian saying that says that a man should be independent at thirty, and explained that there’s one for forty, too). In the States, we hear a lot about complacency of the people. We read about convictions of corrupt financiers and of horror stories about corrupt officials. It’s also important that we keep in mind that news is carefully chosen; how often do you read about students’ healthy inquiry into Chinese policy without condemning it? (Also, how often do you read about manufactured snow, which is what we had on Halloween!) In the two times that I have seen Barry, he’s both quoted Obama (”Obama says that the government can’t do everything. You have to leave it in the hands of the people.”) and Confucius. He’s praised policies made by the Chinese government – especially regarding the reform and open up (gai ge kai fang) movement - and talked about the fact that the government has smart people running it, but people have to contribute ideas for things to change.
I look forward to more talks with Barry, though he is a young’n. Speaking with him about literature, about the influence that the works that he’s reading has had on him, makes me think more about the role that literature plays in social environments. It also reminds me of why I enjoy the practice of examining the creation of narratives. What sort of narratives inspire Barry? If he knows about the world mainly through books, which ones are they, and what do they do for him?
One of Barry’s favorite authors is Ernest Hemingway. He recently read his novella The Old Man and the Sea. I had never read it before, so I picked it up in Wangfujing and read it last night. In the story, an old fisherman tells himself, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” This is Barry’s favorite line in the book, perhaps because his mother always told him never to give up, even if he meets challenges. While Barry took the advice of Hemingway, which happened to also be that of his mother, and perhaps Confucian thought (?), I read the novella as a Daoist allegory. In Daoist theory, life is generational, there is no linear history, and man and animal are one. In the one hundred-and-ten page work, the passage that resonated for me was: “The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”
To me, my existence here cannot be a linear one. Perhaps I will leave as a person who is better at Chinese. But each time I learn something new or meet someone new, I feel like I can know everything, that I am getting closer to understanding the status of contemporary Chinese culture. Yet, my perpetual distancing of myself from this fact, my knowledge that everything I learn can be isolated, shows that I don’t truly condone the act of possessing full knowledge of anything. I hope that when I return from Beijing, I’m still thirsty – no, parched - for experience and for reception of others’ experiences, without feeling like I’ve missed out – only that I know that I want more.
Life was pretty miserable between Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning, as I had the Jiayuan Czuoganmao, better known as my dormitory’s common cold. Coughing and sweating (and the composition of an occasional blog post) comprised most of my daily activity; a friend or two stopped by in the interim.
On Friday morning, I woke up in a pool of my own sweat and decided that I really didn’t want to be sick anymore. Moreover, when I took my temperature and realized that it was 37.9 for the billionth time, I decided to throw it away, as only a broken thermometer would show the same exact temperature that many times. Without knowing whether or not I had a fever (or whether I ever had a fever, or whether the fever I had was higher or lower than 37.9), I gave Isabel a call and asked if we could do something. Luckily, she had read about an ongoing series at 798 (Beijing’s trendy art district located in renovated warehouses on the east side of of the city) entitled “China Stories,” which features weekly interviews with successful foreigners living in Beijing. Friday’s interview gave the spotlight to Johannes Neubacher, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese edition of Madame Figaro, a French fashion magazine.
What we expected to gain from going to this interview we couldn’t quite decipher, but we nevertheless headed to the art district to see Mr. Neubacher and two art exhibits by Ai Wei Wei and Zhang Xiaogang, two of China’s most prominent contemporary artists. Between bouts of sporadic coughs and nose-blows, I managed to tip-toe appropriately through the exhibits, but didn’t hold back from gingerly touching Ai Wei Wei’s three-dimensional world – made out of hundreds of layers of thin cotton strips, which are meant to represent how China is inextricably linked to the rest of the world (and vice versa) through the cotton trade, among other things – and Zhang Xiaogang’s cement figures of the relics of his youth.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the interview with Heubacher ended up being weak in comparison to the exhibits. Though we arrived on time, Isabel and I were dismayed to find only a handful of attendees at the free event; the translator arrived late – hence, the interview started late – and she only translated questions she deemed “important”; and Heubacher only skimmed the surface of the cultural issues inherent in such a transitory and generally insidious atmosphere as the fashion magazine industry. (My nose blowing and general coughing didn’t exactly make the event more enjoyable.)
On leaving the event, our information regarding fashion magazine culture in Beijing had increased to the extent that we knew that the three tenets of personal fashion are: 1. people want to show off wealth by wearing name brands 2. people want to distinguish themselves from other people, and 3. people want to make sure that the way in which people distinguish themselves corresponds with their personalities. We also found out that magazines in Beijing make much more money on advertising than on distribution, so that’s why all of the fashion magazines look like magazine-length Jimmy Choo ads.
What we felt like we were missing was a discussion that pursued larger questions such as why foreigners become editor-in-chiefs of magazines that serve to represent Beijing fashion, or how this EIC perceives his role as a contributor to the rampant consumerism taking place in Beijing’s 26-35 year old women – the age group that Madame Figaro represents. Interestingly, we ended up using these lingering questions as prompts for what became a two-hour discussion at a nearby Japanese restaurant on topics ranging from the possiblity of fluency in Chinese to examinations of our own reactions to our Chinese friends’ perspectives on government structures and current policies.
For me, the conversation was long overdue, as I have been trying to grapple with many feelings of alienation and frustration in a culture that can sometimes seem inaccessible. Moreover, our talk set the stage for my outing today with a Chinese student I met during Cultural Day, whose outlook on China and its future was a stark comparison to what I have previously observed and/or assumed. I’ll get into this more in my next entry, which will also feature pictures of the top sellers in the foreign book market at Beijing’s largest book store.
Look forward to details of Obama-praising, Twilight hype, and the wide-eyed hopes of a young college student in Beijing.
A short note: From now on, I plan on responding to comments in the comments section of each entry. So, if you leave a comment, you can now expect a response.
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 wrote my last entry just as I was heading out the door to go to Xi’an, a very old and famous city twelve hours southwest of Beijing – by train, that is. The trip was short and sweet; I, along with four others, left Beijing at 9:24 PM on Saturday the third and returned at 7 AM on Tuesday the sixth. I have a lot of fun stories and beautiful pictures. I’ll write about it all shortly. But first I’d like to talk about something else: the Beijing nightlife scene.
Last night I went to three different party spots in the city, all located in the middle and east sections of the city, but all vastly different and inordinately fun. If you want to see Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese bands – male bands, that is – playing original work, you must go to Mao’s Livehouse (www.maolive.com). The venue is similar to one you may find in Williamsburg or Alphabet City. The outside facade is designed to look like a warehouse and the interior is similar. The walls are adorned with graffiti and record label banners; the hall itself is a big room with a fairly large floor space with a raised stage. Though the venue can accomodate rocked-out scene, the fun level varies immensely depending on the nights you go, so it’s important to choose your date of attendance wisely. (A group of us hit up this spot a few weeks ago and found the lights on and some fans sitting on the ground watching a mellow band – suffice it to say we left immediately.) Last night was a brilliant night to go, as bands were lined up to play all night and all of the Chinese students were still on vacation. Maria, Isabel, and I got there at around 9:30 and caught a Taiwanese band, Burn, finishing up a set. Their music is pretty catchy if you like alternative rock from the late 80s and early 90s. We heard a song that I’m pretty sure was a rip off of R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.” The lead singer was an adorable, skinny, suspender-wearing Taiwanese guy with bleached hair (well, partially bleached) and a not-so-great voice. His energy was there, but his sound just didn’t deliver. Nevertheless, we all found ourselves nodding to the beat and enjoying the scene, which, I must say, did not resemble that of a Williamsburg one at all.
Chinese college students don’t go out as much as American students (really, students anywhere else in the world) do. That’s number one. Secondly, if students or young people go out, they won’t drink nearly as much as one would expect at a club scene or concert. Women, especially, drink less than men. While we were in Xi’an, Isabel told me that her language partner never goes out, because, to her, going out is considered dirty, gross, obscene. Of course I can go into an analysis of this attitude towards drinking – but I think I should keep it simple. I actually think that the situation is fairly simple. Either you go out and you’re not studious or dedicated enough, or you stay in and you are a good girl or boy. On this particular night at Livehouse, the venue was filled to half of the hall’s capacity – there were only around six foreigners in the spot. It was nice to see so many people out, but it was clear that people were going out to hear music; no one was holding a drink, and no one stopped off at the bar after the show was over. The lack of drinkers did make me feel a bit more conscious of the beer (or two, or three?) that I inevitably hold in my hand on a night out, but I’m alright with it.
I haven’t even made it to the second set, have I? I must talk briefly about it, because it was much better than Burn. The band had six or so musicians, all men, all young, all about rock and hip-hop and beards and generally being more beautiful than any of the other Chinese men any of us had seen in Bejing up until that point.
Lucky Monkey playing at Mao Livehouse
Anyway, I have their album, and I will make everyone that I know in the States listen to Lucky Monkey (www.luckymonkey.org), not because their music is especially amazing, but because they do a hip-hop rendition of a popular nationalist song we heard for 24 hours straight on October 1st. Aren’t rock and hip-hop about counter-cultural sentiments at their foundations? The utter irony is enough to warrant constant listening.
The concert ended after Lucky Monkey’s set. While the Beijing crowd piled out as if the building was about to burn down, the foreigners (waiguoren) lingered to chat with the boys of Burn and LM. I ended striking up a conversation with one of the guitarists from Burn, who spoke a bit of English and wanted to practice on me, but let me speak Chinese for the majority of the conversation. “Oec” – as he’s called by his friends – explained that while playing in a band is fun, his real dream is to graduate with a PhD from Princeton (okay, yes, I got excited and did talk a little bit about you, Joe) in Physics. First though, he has to complete a mandatory year in Taiwan’s military. Because I’ll be in Taiwan next spring, I thought it’d be good to exchange number and emails, so we’ll be hanging out next spring! I told him I’d help him prepare for the TOEFL, an English proficiency examination for foreigners, and he said he’d help me prepare for the HSK, a Mandarin proficiency test.
When the conversations all but died out, we decided to go to an opium den-themed bar, Bed, which is located in a small hutong that even taxi drivers don’t recognize (or is it our Chinese?? No, this time the driver really didn’t know the hutong. But I’ve actually been kicked out of a cab before because the driver didn’t understand what I was saying – okay, that’s not true. He understood what I was saying, he just didn’t want to go to the destination….another cab driver understood it perfectly!!) Remember when I said that young people don’t really go out in Beijing?
Isabel on a bed in Bed
Well, that’s true of the savvier scene too during the weekdays. Bed, which is considered one of trendier bars in the city, was empty when we arrived at 11:30. It didn’t matter though, because the owner of the place let us sit anywhere we wanted. Usually you’d have to pay 400 rmb to sit in the nicer sections of the bar, which feature nineteenth-century style beds that patrons actually have to take their shoes off for before climbing in. The bar is dimly lit and must be really nice on a Saturday, when the owner brings in a DJ to play house and techno beats. The three of us got to scramble into the nicest bed and tried to imagine what being an opium addict at a opium den in a narrow hutong in Beijing must have been like 150 years ago. It was hard to imagine, since we were drinking whiskey and cokes and smoking cigarettes with Jack Daniels ashtrays (I’ve only been bumming, if anyone cares - just trying to be honest).
The bar was nice, but too silent for our last night out before resuming our daily classes (Saturday-Friday this upcoming week – weekend classes to make up for our extravagant holiday). Dario and Mechal kept calling us, anyway, to remind us that it was imperative that we celebrate Mechal and Vincente’s birthdays at Mix, a gigantic meatmarket of a club, in front of which everyone had collected themselves. After gingerly exiting our bed, we headed out of the hutong (not before I mistakenly told the owner of the bar that I’d be back with all of friends. This Saturday? she asked. I had to tell her that we all had class and assured her that Yexu xia ge xing qi de zhou mo wo men yao hui lai! (Maybe next weekend we’ll come back!)). When we got to Mix, we found around fifteen of our people there, who informed us that girls were free, the club was crowded as all hell, and it was time to go in, NOW.
The club is housed in a mammoth building. Security guards greet you at the door and shove flashlights in your bags, then they make your check your coats and bags (I held on to mine) before corralling you onto the dance floor. Before you can enter the gyrating mass of bodies,
The only image my camera would pick up of the scene at Mix
a free drink is handed to you by the bartender (no explanation as to the contents), and then, finally, you make your way to the fun. The three hours that I was there was a bit of a whirlwind. The club is a really great place for dancing, as the DJ spins really current hip-hop beats and mixes in some pop songs in between. No Chinese songs, though, just American and British. Somepeople acquired a corner table in the back of the bar, so I hopped from table to floor over the course of the nether hours.
We ended up leaving at 3:30-ish. Before going to my dorm, though, I picked up some circular dumplings (baozi) at our favorite spot right outside of the south gate. It was great to be there so late, because we got to see a young guy and his mom (?) preparing the baozi for the morning’s breakfast crowd. I asked him how many they make every day, and he said around 2000 pieces, which is quite a lot, don’t you think?
Tonight marks the last night of our vacation. We’re celebrating by going to a sushi restaurant on the other side of town. It’s a little pricey (we have to make reservations), but it’s a necessary ending to a peaceful yet productive and active break. Thank you, Chairman Mao, for kicking out the Nationalists sixty years ago. But, also, thanks to those involved in Cross-Strait relations for allowing Taiwanese people (young musicians, especially) to come back to China and show us a good time.
Last night, eight of us went to jishuitan, an area a little northeast of Jiaoda, to watch The Shop Around the Corner on the rooftop of Club Obiwan (check my entry “A Good Weekend” to hear more about the spot).
We got there pretty early because we thought every student around would want to see a movie from 1940, but only a few more people ended up joining us.
Though only expats/students attended, the film had Chinese subtitles, which made the movie even more fun to watch, as most of us could read a lot of the characters. The translations didn’t do the movie justice. For instance, when Klara sees the necklace that Alfred secretly plans on giving to her, she is utterly taken aback. Per the Chinese translation, however, Klara just says, “Pretty (mei hao).” It was hysterical.
On the topic of film, I am really interested to see a film coming up about Tiananmen Square. A few of us are interested in the depiction, and I’ll be sure to write about it when I see it.
In response to a comment about film, art, and literature in Beijing, I will say that contemporary art has risen in popularity since the 1970s and is widely displayed in art galleries around Beijing. Film, on the other hand, is perhaps stifled a bit more, as no film is able to be in wide release unless it is approved by the government. Evan Osnos, from the New Yorker, has written extensively about this in an article on Jia Zhangke, a famous auteur here who is gigantic in the independent world and has just sold out (a bit) by making a Kung Fu movie. I suggest that you google Jia Zhangke rather than look for the article, as it is not available for non-subscribers.
Literature, my discipline of choice, I do not know much about. Part of the reason that I am in China is to learn more about the literary scene and the authors that are big here. I haven’t really started my research on this yet, but I have begun perusing small bookstores and large ones for information. I also plan on meeting with a professor or two at Beijing Language and Culture University and Peking University, the two most famous schools in China for the humanities.
Going back to The Shop Around the Corner, I forgot to mention that I didn’t know that You’ve Got Mail is a re-make (of sorts) of this movie. If you’ve never seen either film, I suggest you set aside a few hours, because the movies are both really cute!
I’m off to teach a swim lesson now – hopefully I won’t get sick again from the water. Did I mention my sniffles/diarrhea bout earlier this week? I’m okay now, just trying to purell as much as possible.
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.
Yesterday, I got a haircut. Of course, because I don’t really know many words around the haircut industry, it was an interesting experience. I had to put all of my faith in my uber hip hairstylist (who, while he was cutting his hair, told me how much he loves to dance and go clubbing) who didn’t speak a lick of English. The conversation pretty much went like this:
Me: Ni hao! Jin tian wo xiang ni nong duan wo de tou fa. Zai zher. (Hi! Today I want you to cut my hair. Right here.)Razored/awesome/crazy haired-stylist: Zai zher? Hai ke yi. (Right here? Okay.)
Me: Wo de tou fa hen da. Wo xiang yi dian shou de tou fa. Ke yi ma? (My hair is really big. I want thinner hair. Is that okay.)
Hairstylist: Ni de tou fa hen ping. Hai ke yi. (Your hair is really thick. I can do it.)
The conversation had a lot more umms and ahhs and I really should have known the word for “thick” all along. It was alright though, and I got a last minute bang, which I happen to love. Isabel, who is from Spain and already has straight hair (like everyone in China), went about getting her haircut another way. She pointed at a girl whose hair she liked and said, “Like that.” Her cut turned out really nice, but today she was complaining that it looked too Asian. She did point at an Asian, so it makes a lot of sense. And, as a clincher, the haircut cost a mere 10 RMB. Isabel and I were expecting a 50-100 RMB price for each. So, I got a great cut from a real stylist for $1.50 USD. I never want to leave China!
Today my friend Maria and I went on a bus adventure three stops away to China’s Best Buy, Guo Mei (the characters are actually the reverse of those for America, which is mei guo, beautiful country). We were in the market for an electronic dictionary, one that we could write characters on with a fancy pen. We found a really awesome little green and white one with a picture of a ten year old boy on the outside cover, which we figured was appropriate, since ten year olds probably need to write down characters as much as we do. What we didn’t bargain for was all the fun features and games that come with a dictionary made for a ten year old. Before we bought the dictionary, we ran into a few snags. First, before the sales associate knew that I know enough Chinese to buy something, she spoke a shit ton of broken English and then snickered when we started speaking Chinese. Offended by our means of communication, Maria and I went downstairs to a large supermarket that also sold electronic dictionaries. We found one that we liked, but there was only one new one, and they weren’t offering the awesome deal that Guo Mei was, which
My beautiful new dictionary!
was a free 2 GB SD along with your 800RMB purchase (yeah, they’re kind of pricey). While it’s practically a sin to “lose face” in China, Swedes and Americans don’t worry about that so much, so we decided to go back to the snickering associate and buy a dictionary from her. When we got back, we talked for a bit and decided to be nicer than she had been, which went over well, because she decided to compliment us on our Chinese instead of laugh at it. When we were just about to make our purchase, she brought up – can I hear the “dun dun dunnnnns” – a fa piao issue. Look back at my quarantine entries for my problems with these last week. Apparently, the machine that prints these government-stamped receipts wasn’t working today, so they had to give us – and try to imagine this happening at Best Buy – hand-written receipts, with the promise that they’d call us when the fa piao were ready for us to pick up. That means we’d have to go all the way back for the receipt. Plus, they had some enigmatic issue with my name, so they wanted to put both purchases on Maria’s name, which we both did not concede to. It was quite bizarro, I must say.
Tomorrow, Bolette and I will continue our exploration of the city. I’m looking forward to bargaining and purchasing a fall scarf or two. I really like traveling with Bolette because we’re both not fantastic at kou yu,which means spoken Chinese, and we’re usually underheard when we’re with speakers who are better than us. So, tomorrow we’re going to try to speak as much as possible.
On Thursday, I”ll be heading over to the east side of Beijing to teach my first swim lesson with Matt. I really hope that teaching these lessons will also coincide with my being able to use the pool facilities for a swim or eight this semester. A bunch of people just joined a gym for 1200RMB, but I really don’t want to commit to that if I can help it.
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.