Saturday, March 31, 2007

A little of this and that on Sunday Morning....

We went to a networking event last Tuesday that I forgot to mention. The American, European, Swiss Chambers of commerce put it together. I met a couple of interesting people got some more experience shaking hands...or as Adam calls it..."pressing flesh." I've yet to figure out how much of the talk is just talk, and how much people actually follow through with things. For example...when someone in the U.S. takes your card and says they will follow up on something, they normally do. But I think that might not be standard practice here and part of the indirect communication pattern.

Tomorrow I have a dictation and am sitting here writing characters. For those of you who don't know...this is how you learn characters: you write until you can't write anymore. This picture is a typical school-night routine for us. The three of us sit at the table with a pot of tea and go for it. Our notebooks have little squares that we need to try and use to guide us. Fun fun fun. No wonder this is a category 3 language...
We also signed up in a Chinese gym and it cost us about $130 for the annual student membership. This is on the cheap side here in Beijing, even though it hurt to have to pay for a gym for the first time. We are quite a scene when we go in there, and get a lot of interesting looks. The gym, like everywhere else, is overemployed. There are always trainers standing around waiting to show you how to use machines, or even just talk to you. Sarah's going to try out the yoga classes on Monday and Adam is looking for a kung fu teacher. Me? I just can't wait until dance lessons Tuesday night!
This was the first dinner last night with Adrian's Mom. This might have been the best meal yet. The best dish was prawns something-or-other, and the Sichuan style chicken had an amazing sauce. Of course, we also had a beef dish, Beijing duck, soup, vegetables, etc. We definitely don't get treated better than this anywhere else in the city. The Japanese owner loves us, and always practices her Chinese with me. The whole wait staff lights up when we come in, and we always get treated with free fruit and mango or almond custard at the end. Always a very happy experience. Everyone has decided that when we have a guest...we will go here!

Tonight is the big party for Adrian's birthday. The Mom has made cabbage-wrapped something, and chocolate sauce, and oh-so-many sweets and she has just started. Directions have been e-mailed to 30+ people so we can't wait!

A Great Saturday!

The Romanian mother is here, and it is great. She brought a suitcase full of goodies, including a lot of stuff that she cooked in Romania. (She's a caterer and owns her own business there.) Adrian picked her up early in the morning and they instantly began shopping for the big party at our house tomorrow night. When Sarah and I got home, we immediately noticed the mother details...the extra food, the Easter decorations, the curtains drawn in every room. She set out the bunny and eggs in this picture for Easter next week and arranged the flowers!

Meanwhile...the rest of us headed off early with 8 buses of international students and went to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. This was my third section that I've visited, and it was very cool. I took the cable car up to the top, and then hiked as high as we could go until the wall hadn't been restored anymore. It was a beautiful day and it was great being around all of the friends from school. The following video was a fun little "yelling" contest that I started with some Chinese buddies we made during the hike up...

This is me at the beginning of the climb. Yes...I went all the way up that wall behind me!

Sarah bought this hat at the bottom of the Great Wall. These are the THREE CHINESE ROOMIES!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

We're officially spoiled.

This is the life. We had a woman come today and clean because Adrian's mom is coming on Saturday to stay for three weeks. Let me just say...I can't wait to meet a Romanian mother...and eat mother-made will be fabulous. But this woman came from 1:30-6, and it cost us $5.50. That's right. $1.25 per hour. It felt bad, and she refused a tip. Needless to say, we booked her for 2:00 every single Tuesday. :-)
A most interesting construction project has begun outside of our window and we admittedly spend lots of time looking, laughing and trying to understand the charades going on 10 floors below. The first day there was a bulldozer moving dirt and concrete from one pile to another only to start again at 10:30 PM and put it into a truck from the second pile. Why not put it in directly? But this was not the most inefficient sight of the day because right next to the bulldozer was a single guy with a shovel and a wheelbarrow moving a little pile for a total distance of about 15 feet. We watched the scavengers in the picture below trying to get some steel and breaking up the concrete to get to it. The ratio of watchers to doers was about 7:1, and although the hammering went on for an hour, there was never any progress. At least a good show for us!

Just stuff....

Our new favorite coffee shop is across from the West gate of the school. It is quaint, and a pretty good attempt at a Western-style cafe with its bilingual menus, Natalie Cole CD on repeat and scattered, eclectic decor. But I love how the Chineseness always manages to seep through the best attempts at Western. Example: it is still highly over-employed, so much so that I watched a guy dust the leaves of plants for half an hour out of pure boredom. The blueberry muffin lacks the infamous muffin-top experience and most of its sugar, and the large latte comes in a bowl with no handle, like the way a Chinese would eat their morning porridge. But it is comfortable and the people are so could you not go back?
Every day on our way to school we pass by a long string of advertisements. In the States these would be corporate-sponsored, but here they are from the government. The picture below is one that I found to be particularly interesting. It says: "Control the increasing population and promote the progress of society." Of course, accompanied by a picture of a happy single-child family with baseball gloves...


This is a video at the request of Aunt Net....she wanted to see us actually interacting with Chinese folk. This is one of our crazy trips to the supermarket with the landlord you've already read about...

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Blog is Blocked...

Well, I can't see my own blog....but I can post via a different page. So if you're seeing this, leave me a comment and I will get it in my e-mail. Lots of webpages are blocked in China, including some of our favorites, but we shall try to keep lines of communication open!

This week has been pretty normal, with everyone getting their first colds and adjusting to homework. I have one interesting teacher that makes students sit outside if they are late for class...and I suddenly feel like I'm in elementary school in the 1950s. I have another older, well-educated professor who is a gentle spirit and full of good history. He tells stories of when he was exiled to the Northern countryside during Mao's "re-education" of the cultural revolution. It was so cold that tears froze before you could cry, and several of his classmates lost their earlobes to frostbite! I can't even imagine...

There is a Wu Mart across the street from our apartment complex. Gotta love the name. It is busier than its American counterpart, in that it has lines ever hour of every day that are like the Wal-mart lines the week before Christmas. We go there and buy entire little chickens for dinner that are so small because they aren't stuffed with the same hormones as the States. Every large chain grocery store is a noisy experience because people are paid by distributers to advertise individual products all day long. There is a lot of noise as people try to out-yell their counterparts and promote their samples in hopes of a sale.

We had an orientation this week from the Beijing police. It turns out that if you get into a fight with a local, you may be forced to leave the country. And if you buy a dog, you have to take it's picture and pay $75 to get it's picture ID and registration. One American stood up and said, "So what do I do if a guy is stealing my wallet? Can I punch him?" The answer: "It is illegal to fight, so you should just call the police phone number #110." Gotta love it...

We eat family meals at our apartment, and I love it. During breakfast and dinner almost every day, all three of us sit at the table together and drink lots of tea and talk about the day. Because they haven't been here before, I don't think my roomies realize exactly how great it is to be surrounded by good friends during the first weeks of living in China. It lessens the severity of culture and language shock and enhances experiences in general as you can share them with each other. It is a pleasant lifestyle...definitely the most pleasant out of the three times I've been in China.

Yesterday my class and some other new friends all went out to lunch for a group of 12 people. We were from the U.S., France, Germany, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Romania and maybe somewhere else. Walking away from the restaurant, I had such an immense appreciation for the existence of a common language, (English). I wouldn't care if it was Japanese, but without a common language, how would we all communicate? In that moment I was very thankful...First for having such a varied group of friends and second for even having the ability to exchange ideas and cultures at all.

Our group at lunch:

Monday, March 19, 2007

The bets are off!

So for all of you Beaufortonians that had money riding on it, you can pay up. It took exactly 2 weeks and 5 days for me to find my way to a Chinese hospital. The fourth...and hopefully final one. Don't get your feathers ruffled though, there is no surgery this time! I am actually mostly recovered now, just had a bacteria or virus thing. With a no-food diet, some antibiotics and some good roommates...I'm back in classes this Monday. I'm quite the model student...dropping down a year's level and missing two days all in the first five days of class.

Last night a group of Beaufortonians (for those of you that don't know, that is Beaufort, SC) met in Beijing at a duck restaurant. Thirteen were there: students, teachers, kids, travelers...all initiated by Mr. Cato. I was extremely impressed with one woman who has been here for 12 years, owns her own consulting firm with an all-Chinese staff, stayed through SARS with the staff, and speaks so fluently that she understands all of the political humor in a comedy routine. What?! Needless to say, there was good conversation. I am also impressed with the international school system that many were affiliated with. Apparently Beijing has suburbs that look like American suburbs, with real houses instead of apartments and a bunch of foreigners running around. One exception: these teachers have their housing paid for and drivers to take them everywhere. A pretty sweet deal.

I also learned about Beijing and cloud seeding last night. It is a modern-day rain dance. Aircraft shoot chemicals into the clouds, making them heavy and forcing rain. This will most likely be used to prevent it from raining during the opening of the Olympics, as it has been used in the past for other important events. For some people at the table, this was common knowledge...but I'm still in shock of the fact that they can control the weather.

I love Beijing bicycles...

and fruit markets...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


The honeymoon is over. Our relaxing yet busy week and a half without classes is gone and we're up at 6:30 every morning! We thoroughly enjoyed taking our time, playing in Beijing, getting stuff we needed. Now our nights are spent doing late night homework...(with slight blog interruptions, of course.) I tested into the most advanced section of the third chinese...but seem to just be a good test-taker. I wish I could blame it on the fact that there is no heat in the classrooms! There are five classes and six different books. Although we speak about the same, my classmates are much more advanced in terms of character recognition and writing. Of course, they are mostly Japanese and Korean with the exception of a that doesn't hurt their ability. Needless to say, after two days, I think these classes will certainly murder me and am considering dropping down a level. One of my teachers we'll see on Thursday when I go to the office...

A Weird Food Weekend!

This weekend Sarah's friend Barbara came from Korea to visit and was excited about trying every type of food she could! We went to the Wangfujing snack street and ordered everything from cricket to scorpion to locust to seahorse to sea urchin. Barbara ate everything, of course!...but I only ate locust and cricket. That was a huuuge start for me. Nothing surprising, really. Everything is fried so there is not much taste, but the locust shell was too chewy!

We also went to see the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) and this was a corridor that was particularly lively!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A few pictures that I couldn't get to upload earlier!

At the Temple of Heaven...

The Pearl Market!

And a video from the bday party...sometimes the Chinese eat foods in odd combinations!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Videos, Temple of Heaven and Violin!

This is an older video from when we first moved into our apartment and had to pay four months of rent in cash!

And from the YaShow market:

And from my birthday party at our house!

It is pretty difficult to upload videos with the slow internet, so apologies if they are a little late sometimes!

Yesterday we went to see the Temple of Heaven and spent an hour and a half in the pearl market before going home. I love this pearl market, despite it's fishy smell (because there is a fish market in the basement) but the other five floors are full of goodies at very low prices! It is sooo cold that being a tourist is almost unbearable. We decided that we definitely have to come back in warmer weather to enjoy the park.

Another great accomplishment of the weekend was purchasing a violin! We actually went on a search for someone else's hookah, which was surprising hard to find, and stumbled upon all kinds of great spots in the meantime. I met a nice old man with a handful of old violins, and asked him if I could play some. I got the violin, bow, case and rosin for a total of $100. For the quality of violin, this was a amazing deal that I would never find in the states. My guess is that the equivalent set is worth about $1000 in the states.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Internet! and Chinese tests...

This morning I took a Chinese level test with hundreds of other international students, to put me in the correct class. There was probably only 3-5% Westerners. Almost everyone was from Asia...Korea and Japan mostly. These will be my classmates, and that I a super thing, because our common language will be Chinese, and I won't speak so much English. The test was crazy hard...10 pages of Chinese characters..and it even had an essay at the end. I'll find out in two days where they placed me.

We FINALLY got internet Adrian said, "This is sucking the life out of me." In today's world, we can't go for more than one or two days or even hours without email until we are in withdrawal. Thankfully we already had bought a wireless router. Adrian and I went to a hugeungeous five-story electronic market and I now can say "tv cable" "wireless/wired router" and "electric outlet" in Chinese. These experiences are always good for one's vocabulary. There were sooo many products there, and all bargainable. The vendors interact, share inventory, etc. When one doesn't have something, he runs down the hall and gets it from someone else. It makes you wonder how this retail system works. But back to my internet story: The router is in my room near the plug, so we spent the first hour or two on my bed...all three of us with our laptops...soaking it up. THEN I had the wonderful experience of calling the apartment manager and telling him our toilet was stopped up in Chinese. (I won't mention which roommate was the source of this problem.) It was pretty embarrasing, not to mention that I didn't know how to say "stopped up" on the who knows what I ended up saying. At one point there were four or five Chinese people standing in the bathroom all looking at the toilet!

Yesterday I took them to a market that I used to go to in 2004. We had our very first public bus experience together. A little crowded...but only costs us a nickel! We got off at the wrong place, but eventually got there. We bought fake bags, games, tea, etc. We had some interesting bargaining lessons, and I think everyone was surprised with the forceful sales tactics of the vendors. The weirdest thing we saw there was this tour group of Westerners that all had strollers with Chinese babies. It must have been an adoption agency that gets you your child and then shows you some of China before you leave.

Oh, and the other day I had to translate for a haircut for Adrian. Terrifying, really. A Chinese haircut is scary enough, but then to have to translate for someone else is even scarier. They barber that washes hair is different from the barber that cuts hair...and they all have crazy/funky hair styles and perms. All in all, it was a good first experience. Maybe a little too short for Adrian's taste...but you can ask him!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Chinese Birthday and some thoughts...

It was a wonderful birthday in China! On the way back from this beautiful three-story tea house the night before, Adrian, Sarah and Adam sang happy birthday at exactly 12:00 AM. During the night we had our very first party in our new apartment! China Abroad brought a signed card and birthday cake and we made a very eclectic mix of food. We saw Chinese people eat birthday cake with chopsticks and then combine the cake with sausage and dumplings. What?!

China has been truly wonderful since I got here. I know a lot of the IMBAs think we're crazy, but we are living like kings...and on a student budget. We may even have the other tracks beat! A beautiful apartment, crazy new experiences,
fascinating challenges, so much good food...we really think we are a little spoiled. We are very fortunate to have made some local friends already. They are making the experience that much better, and are showing us a true side of Beijing. Also, for most Westerners, I think it is hard to imagine a society in which everything is so completely different from what you are used to. The language, society, procedures, mannerisms, logistics, relationships, habits, etc. The polar differences is what creates such curiousity in us and enhances the experience. For people that love to learn, it is an ideal local. If you want to order tea, you have to learn something. If you want to go to the bathroom, you need to know how to get there or how to use it. If you need to find internet, watch TV, meet a new person, or even walk down the street, you will have to learn something and do something differently. I find the challenge motivating, but have also loved seeing everyone else experience it for the first time. They get so excited...and every single thing is new and beautiful for them....that it reminds me of the beauty I might have overlooked. I am truly thankful for the opportunity to be around them and help them get through these first few weeks without being able to speak Chinese. I am learning as much as they are...

Check out our apartment!!

Yay! For new photos!:

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Restaurants, "Face" and Landlords!

Thursday, March 1

For dinner, we were taken to a welcome banquet at HuaJian YiYuan, a very good restaurant that had already been recommended to us from a native Beijinger in the states. We ate everything from pork to beef to chicken with cashews to Beijing duck to a crazy fish dish. When we ordered it, the guy returned in a little while with a live fish flopping around in a bucket. After our table approved it, he went off and prepared the dish. This is pretty standard and you can always see many fish tanks near the entrance of most restaurants that serve seafood. This was also the group’s first experience with Baijiu or China’s white liquor. It is between 50 and 60% alcohol and, in my opinion, should only be used as a disinfectant. The dinner was altogether amazing with great conversation and a very fun crowd. The funny thing is, that whole meal, with all of those different kinds of meat, probably only cost $5.00 per person, and that is pricey for China! We can’t wait to go back to that restaurant again…
The way home was a great example of the Chinese concept of “face.” After we ate at the restaurant, Claudia fully described the location of our apartment to the taxi driver and he verified that he knew where it was…only for us to get down the road and he had no idea where he was going. I asked him, “So do you know where it is,” and he emphatically said, “No.” But he had previously nodded and agreed…not wanted to lose face with Claudia. This was funny because we had been warned about this very thing only a couple of hours before during orientation. I think the lack of the “I don’t know” phrase might prove to be a little frustrating for us, but at least we understand where it comes from culturally. Knowing is half the battle…

Saturday March 3

This morning was the craziest morning yet. We had all been sound asleep late into the morning because we had stayed up late the night before. I woke up to hearing Sarah and Adrian sounding confused with a random Chinese voice. I ran out of my bedroom to find them at the door with about five people all very confused and about to walk into our apartment. It turns out that it was our landlord from Guangzhou and she had come to visit us. But she had knocked so many times that it disturbed all the doormen and neighbors, so they came too. We were all looking bad, only dressed in pajamas, but she came in and made herself at home. She was such a character. She arrived and it took us a few minutes to even figure out who she was. I might have understood a lot of her meaning, but only about 40% of what she said. We talked some business, but she constantly went off on tangents. Her tangents involved things like taiji demonstrations, philosophical comments about fate and friendship, information about herself, the importance of exercise, reflexology, and demonstrations of all of the above. Within the first 15 minutes of knowing her, we knew that she was almost 70 and she did a split on the floor followed by a yoga position where she held her foot up by her head! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. I waded through the difficulties with the Chinese while Sarah and Adrian just tried to figure out what was going on, but we truly soaked up this Chinese experience. She ended up leaving us three hours later with an invitation for lunch tomorrow, the possibility of finding Olympic tickets for 2008, all the information we ever needed about Chinese exercise, and some good bus routes and names of restaurants and good dishes. As she left, I expressed that we were extremely happy to meet her, etc. and she said that it was fate that brought us together and we were all good friends. There is no need for such gratitude between friends! When we closed the door, we were starving for some lunch or breakfast, (because it was now 1:30PM) but we took a few minutes to sit and digest what we had just experienced. How random and cool can you get during your first week in Beijing?...
We finally recovered and got ready and made our way to Carrefour to buy some stuff for the house around 3PM. The store was jam-packed with Chinese people shopping on a Saturday afternoon and people were yelling promotions on every aisle adding to the noise. We bought everything we needed including cell phones, irons, pans, food, tea kettles, etc and only ended up spending about $35 each. Amazing. Getting back in the cabs was complicated with all of the stuff so we had to take two. This was the first time that I left anyone that didn’t speak Chinese by themselves, but Adrian and Sarah actually beat Adam and me back to the apartments with his GPS thing and even taught the driver how to use the defrost on his car!
For dinner we all went out to eat Hotpot at this place that Adam had seen in passing. It was a little showy, since the restaurant was in the bottom of a hotel, and the service was definitely the worst we have had thus far in China, but at least the idea of what Hotpot is and how you eat it was conveyed to the first-timers. We had lamb, beef, some weird stuff from the sea, veggies, tofu and seasonings to put in our pots with different sauces. Very tasty, but also our most expensive meal yet.

We're here!

We arrived in China! We're actually here, and I don't think it has set in yet. Despite some cancelled flights, we got here on Monday or Tuesday and were moved into an apartment by Thursday. Adrian, Sarah and I are living in the most beautiful apartment I have ever lived in. We have already done so much! We've been house shopping, taken a bunch of taxis, gone dancing, visited Ikea, Carrefour, the Chinese 'Wu Mart' and many more places. Our internet connection is very poor at the moment, so I can't post any videos or pictures from the past week, but here are a couple of excerpts from the journal if you care to see what's up with us!

Wednesday February 28, 2007

Today was apartment shopping day. Shirley came with two apartment brokers and we set off to see their apartments. We started out with a dirty apartment that stunk and was seriously lacking in furnishings. We got slightly depressed and moved on to the second one. This one had a lot of interesting furnishings but we were worried about it being too far from the school. An interesting cultural difference arose as negotiations got a little tight and both sides became frustrated. The Americans had some doubts and questions because the Chinese had not put all of the information and variables up front. We didn’t understand, so we were pressuring for answers, angering the Chinese because we were so direct. Our first cultural frustration…but it quickly passed, we expressed our appreciation for their services, and we were back to joking and laughing by the next apartment.
We ended up seeing all of the three bedrooms for the three of us that wanted to live together, and we also saw one and two bedrooms for a guy that wanted his own apartment. We went to lunch with the single person decided and the three of us still in the air. Lunch was excellent, but I was praying under my breath for this apartment thing to be settled. I really wanted a close, convenient place that was also comfortable and ready-to-live. Amazingly, the brokers got a call right as we were leaving, saying that another 3 bedroom was available to look at, but it was our very last option. It turned out to be the MOST beautiful apartment we had seen, and better than all of the apartments we had ever lived in. It had never been lived in, had beautiful wood floors and doors, two bathrooms, three different sized bedrooms, an excellent kitchen, furnishings and décor. We all very excitedly decided to take it, paying a deposit and signing a lease and being thankful that the grueling (although only one day) apartment search was over.
The signing and discussions went on pretty late until the brokers went home and we went to find cell phones for the others. This was another interesting experience. There are many different cell phones and several types of Sim cards and distinguishing between them was so complicated that you had to just take your best guess. After a while, Adam decided and bought a phone while Sarah decided, tried to pay with a credit card, and quickly learned that cash is king in China.
We decided to walk back to the hotel with minimal directions and Adrian’s GPS. We walked for a long time having a good conversation and getting stared at by every bicycler that passed. Stumbling upon an interesting tea house, we decided to go in and it was a wonderful experience. The décor was beautiful and they sat us at a large driftwood table and handed us a menu written on a fan. I didn’t understand all of the vocab for a tea menu, so I asked her to bring her favorite kind and she did a whole show. The actual tea-making and tea-serving process is very complex and we had to video it to make sure that we got all of the steps.
A good ending to the day… We got back to our hotel for our last night there, as we would be moving into the apartments in the morning.