Hey all, sorry I started the blog so late in my trip, I know everybody has been on the edge of their seats waiting to hear what is happening on this side of the world; I’ll do my best to bring everybody up to date.
I arrived in Beijing after the gazillion hour flight from DC, as anxious as everybody else on the plane to see what crazy tests they may have prepared for the US arrivals. The descent had been fairly turbulent, and the girl next to me was still wiping the vomit from her mouth (after the first gag before the storm the man on the other side of her and I were already scrambling through our seat pockets and thrusting the sick bags in her face) when about 30-40 health workers donning assortment of serious-looking equipment rushed on and proceeded to check our temperatures. What struck me was the effectiveness of their procedure for checking for fevers, they pointed a gun between our eyes. Well, not a real gun, but a little handheld device that detected heat from the forehead-I thought it was brilliant. They systematically went through every passenger pointing the gun at their heads until a presumably lucky beep went off, meaning that we were all safe from quarantine until someone was picked up; which is exactly what happened to one of my classmates that happened to be on the same plane as me, though he passed the first test. The second test was before customs, we were all shuffled through a gate that had about four larger and more high-tech guns pointed at the shuffling crowd with more serious-looking workers staring at computer screens nearby. The thing is it was hot, and crowded, of course we are going to show signs of heat under those conditions. Eric went through customs way before me and should have been out waiting for the group by the time I got out and recognized the YISA sign, but had actually been dragged behind a screen while a bunch of Chinese doctors inspected him, poor kid-welcome to China!
I shared the first taste of Chinese driving with a Korean guy from the University of Arizona, which was terrifying to say the least, but I hadn’t seen anything yet-I’ll relate some experiences later on. We stayed in a hotel in god knows where Beijing, such a big city! The next morning we were brought to the forbidden Temple, absolutely gorgeous and very intriguing. Acres upon acres upon acres of an emperor’s personal playground, ornate temples, an enormous lake, a MARBLE boat(figure that out), and plenty of room for the imagination to roam(hundreds of guards running up hundreds of stairs holding their swords; martial arts tournaments in huge squares; the emperor being carried around in a litter up a precipitous pathway, the French and English destroying everything during the Opium wars while a floundering Qing dynasty pampers their emperors). That morning I also had my first taste of xiao longbao, a sort of steamed dumplings-fantastic.
That afternoon we were brought to the embassy where we were ‘briefed’ on China, basically a bunch of state department honchos nonchalantly telling us how important their jobs are; interesting nonetheless and it does sound somewhat appetizing, though the five years I would have to spend at a consulate doing notary work is not worth the upside of getting to make those huge decisions at an embassy and following orders I probably don’t agree with. The foreign embassy area district in Beijing is interesting, it had been forced upon China once again, during the Opium wars (or the century of humiliation as the Chinese call it) in order to keep China from shutting the west from their interests in ‘the orient’. While our bus was managing its way around the narrow streets in this district, it gently backed into a van-tilted it onto two wheels before it had room to turn down another street and let it fall-while the guys standing around outside barely blinked-China!
Afterwards we went to an upscale bar area to relax-Hoa hai I believe-where another interesting (China!) moment happened. Throughout Beijing there are older people with communist arm flags that collect empty bottles in order to recycle them. While some fellow ex-pats and I were enjoying the sunset and a beer on the roof of a bar, we saw some of our group walking by and we got their attention. At this precise moment a man with a ribbon and a bicycle rides up and points to our friend’s bottle. GM, who had not finished what was left in his bottle expressed that he was not done with it yet and held the bottle away as the man started grabbing at it. At this point the man on the bicycle made a drinking motion which GM understood as him asking for a drink; this man could be understandably thirsty, clearly without the means of getting a bottle for himself in such an expensive area and seeing as there was but about a drink left, gave the man the bottle to drink. Without so much as acknowledging this gesture, the cyclist takes off. He had not gone five feet before he casually poured the water on to the ground and threw the bottle into his basket-leaving GM completely dumbfounded and an entire terrace of Americans in hysterics.
The next day was the Temple of Heaven, an absolutely solemn and anachronistic site in the middle of Beijing, a huge sacrificial altar, a large pagoda, and a nice park to walk around in where people practiced Tai Chi and Gong Fu. After which we went to Tiananmen, 2 days after the 20th anniversary of the protests that were quelled by force and set the tone for China’s repertoire with turmoil within the country. The security was tight, though not as tight as on the anniversary apparently. It would seem that the only people allowed on were those with little red badges, presumably having already professed a loyalty to the party and were no risk to cause a scene. There were memorials in other parts of the city, however, and there were groups of people dressed in white (garb of mourning) that could be spotted in the vicinity.
By the way, kids go everywhere and anywhere here. They all walk around with a huge cut in their pants so the parents can lift the by their legs while they pee or otherwise (apparently it’s so they are good at it when they are adults? Diapers are frowned upon as bad parenting). It’s somewhat disconcerting when you have to sidestep a sudden stream coming from a bubbly 4-year-old.
The Forbidden City is absolutely daunting, magnificent buildings and huge courtyards evoked even more daydreaming of a Chinese court-messengers bringing tributes from other provinces and countries; more soldiers running with their hands on their swords, litters, different Emperors in their preferred pagodas and temples meditating in their swishy silk robes. At one point, I caught the attention of a six year old that was tormenting his parents with a Pudao (Chinese staff with a blade at the end) they had clearly bought him to appease him. I saw no option than to challenge him to a Gong Fu fight to the death in the middle of the Forbidden City. He took his stance and I took mine, but when he charged, swinging a 4 foot staff with a blade at the end, I nearly screamed. He nearly took my head off. It took about four minutes of evasive maneuvers before I could make my escape, though he found me several other time throughout the day, an epic battle was fought and I lost. Though in the words of Bob Marley, He who fight and run away, lives to fight another day- if I see that kid again, I’ll break his neck, he’ll never see it coming.
That night we went to the night market where we had the choice of any animal you can think of on a stick. Sorry, Tim, but for the sake of being adventurous I had to dabble in some questionable delicacies. I enjoyed the snake, reminiscent of spiced calamari, the shark was interesting while the cuttle fish was gross. The scorpion was outright fried and while you had to avoid the stinger, it was fairly tasty. The lamb’s testicle was very spicy and while the taste was not so bad, the texture was unmistakably testicle and I had a very hard time keeping it down. After this exposure to Chinese eccentricities, we bargained a massage parlor down to 12 dollars a person for a full body massage where I was contorted in many different ways by a girl half my size, attempting unsuccessfully to loosen me up.
The next day was the Great Wall, a hike and a half but absolutely breathtaking, literally, I need to get back in shape because those stairs kicked my butt. It was an amazing experience, though it would be worth another visit to see even more of it, perhaps on a different, more secluded section. The stations are absolutely fantastic and while it was only a bit chilly up on the mountain, the fog was so dense we could barely get an idea of what the guards might be looking at (why do I keep imagining them running with their hands on their swords? Should I get checked out for this?)
After the wall we went to the Pearl Market, the epicenter of Chinese mercantilism. I had honed my bargaining skills on the great wall, so I attempted to put them to use-walking away works well, never go over a quarter of what they ask for- my friend bought a shirt for 10 Yuan that was ticketed at 4000 Yuan(China!)
Come to think of it, I am too lazy to go back and rearrange this, but keep in mind that we went to see the Great Wall a day earlier and Tiananmen/Forbidden City/Pearl Market on the last day before embarking on an overnight train to Nanjing.
Nanjing has been fun, and I am happy that I got to spend this amount of time and get so familiar with a place that is off the proverbial beaten tourist path. Our apartment is fantastic, we are living in Wu Tai Huayuan (The Wu), one of the nicer communities in Nanjing, right in the middle of town and very close to Nan Shi Da; the University we take classes at. I feel as though Nanjing is an interesting place historically speaking, as its role in China’s recent history is very symbolic. It has been the capital of several dynasties, though most notably the Ming dynasty before being usurped by the northern Manchus who started the Qing dynasty and moved the capital to Beijing (note-when Beijing is not the capital of China it is referred to as Beiping) When the Qing dynasty fell and the Guomingdang eventually took over, Nanjing was made the capital again for ten years until Chiang Kai Shek was forced to flee the Japanese army, who proceeded to kill a disputed 300,000 people-the memorial built in memory of this very moving. Although I have to ask myself whether the impetus behind picking Nanjing as a place for the program was affected in any part by the fact that one of the co-directors is Chinese-Taiwanese and the other is formerly of the state department.
Either way, the Universities here are fairly prestigious and there are a good number of foreigners here studying, others who are living here. Those that have spent several years here are an interesting hodgepodge of characters that have assimilated as well as one can to this country. I say this because unlike the United States which is used to being a melting pot of different ethnicities and backgrounds-the Chinese are dominated by the Han and believe they are ethnically superior to other races (a reason the 100 years of humiliation is still a sore point). This is not expressed openly and it is a sentiment that is clearly not as prevalent as it may have been before, but these people are clearly not exposed to seeing foreigners walking around comfortably.
There are a number of interesting areas around Nanjing, Purple Mountain: a mountain within the city with a lake at it’s base; has several pagodas and Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum scattered around it. The old City wall: built by the Ming dynasty, one of the only city walls still intact in China and is special because it has characters written on every brick. These characters are the names of the bricklayers who built the wall because if it were to fail in it’s purpose, the emperor wanted to know who was responsible. Confucius Temple: an area that has become full of shops and is completely lit up at night to the point of exaggeration; though the side streets and temple itself are an interesting taste of the architecture in the old city. XinJieKou: a brand new shopping center with very modern buildings and tunnels that connect the entire complex, a maze of underground clothes stores collectively called ‘Fashion Lady’ makes for an interesting experience; I stand out fairly visibly in the sea of Chinese though, not only am I American, but I am at least 3 inches taller than 90% of the crowd. 1912 is the clubbing district, if you want to go out, there will be people at 1912(ee-joe-ee-arr). Clubs filled with American pop music dating back 10 years with some Chinese ballads mixed in. The DJs yell over the microphone and everybody screams from their tables which they are dancing at(no to little dance floor). Every 10-15 songs an employee gets on a stand and sings along with the song, the obsession with karaoke is unmatched. Besides this, there are a few clubs spread throughout the city and a couple of chill bars including Don Quixote, a bar with live music and a FAILED attempt at Spanish food, a C+ for effort though (I considered applying for a job to teach them a couple of things as a matter of principle).
TV here, while I haven’t watched much of it, has been fantastic. I love being able to watch important ping-pong and badminton matches or war dramas and kung fu. The best, however, has been the Beijing Opera that is on all the time. I find it incredibly interesting and beautiful, but mostly I find it very funny-the shrill voices and imaginative props are great. My roommate and I joke that they simply let a monkey loose in a percussion room and give it a treat whenever they want it to go crazy, it makes for some fun comments (though this does not give justice to the training and precision that is involved with the entire troupe of the Beijing Opera which is wholly impressive).
More to come after my nap