(PHOTOS) A Walk Through A Hutong

Nicole and I took a stroll through an old hutong the other day. A hutong is basically what most people think of when they think of China… narrow alleyways, single storey brick buildings, with red doors and courtyards inside. The reality of China isn’t so romantic, this is more of what Beijing is like:

The view from my apartment. This time the sky is grey because of rainclouds, not because of pollution.

Hutong life seems much more peaceful. Strangely, hutongs are typically home to poorer people, except for a few of them which have been gentrified by expats and are now home to renovated houses and boutique stores.

Sadly, the hutongs are in danger. In the not too distant past, most of Beijing was comprised of sprawling hutongs. In the last 30 to 40 years though, the large majority of them have been demolished to make way for high rises and highways. Even the ones that remain seem to be in disrepair and may not be around much longer. This hutong we were walking in had a lot of shuttered businesses.

The road in this hutong looks especially black because it had just been repaved. The paving machine was still sitting there and there were some little kids just playing on it. They said “Hallo!” and “goody-bye!” to me as I walked past.

Some more various pictures:

We also saw this guy, who invited us into his home to show off his collection of traditional instruments, and he gave us a small performance.

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What’s Going On?

It’s been a long time since my last post. I have been back in China for nearly six months now, and this is only my second post! Some recent adventures of mine have included:

Spilling water on my computer (a costly mistake) and having to take it to the Zhongguancun Technology Market to have it repaired. Zhongguancun is the specific area of the city I live in, but it is known as the “Silicon Valley of China”. My apartment is right across the street from Google’s China offices, as well as the headquarters of a few of the largest Chinese websites (which also makes them some of the largest websites in the world). The technology market I went to seems like it came straight out of a science fiction movie… aisles packed full of electronic goods, people repairing computers and unlocking iPhones, merchants shouting at you to come check out their products. Here’s a picture I found of it (not mine):

Zhongguancun Tech Market

Eating dinner with a bunch of classmates of mine at an upscale Yunnan restaurant, which, although a fancy place, featured insects on the menu and described it’s food as “Typical” and “Edible”. Side note: Yunnan food is my favorite kind of Chinese food. 

Yunnan Cuisine


Studying Chinese in a classroom setting has been really beneficial to me. Out of about 20 kids in my class, I am one of two Americans, with other students coming from Russia, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, and more that I may be forgetting. The class is conducted entirely in Chinese, and with so many people of different nationalities, often the only way to communicate with some classmates is to speak in Chinese to them.


My Chinese has improved in leaps and bounds since taking this course. When I read passages in class I like mentally noting the words that I didn’t know a few months ago, and realize that it is a very high percentage of them! I took the HSK level 3 test back in October (HSK is the international standardized test  for measuring Chinese abilities). Level 3 is knowing 1200 words, and level 4 is knowing 2500. I’m hoping to take the level 4 later this year.


These past few months have been insane for noteworthy Chinese news:


High ranking and enormously popular Communist Party official, Bo Xilai, was ousted from his position as party chief of Chongqing (one of China’s largest cities) by the Central Party, and he and his wife implicated in the murder of a British national who knew about the Bo’s secret overseas investments. The police chief of Chongqing brought evidence of the murder and the Bo’s involvement in it to the US Consulate in Chengdu, where he sought asylum. This was all over the news for days, with every newspaper running the exact same headline.


Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and made it all the way to Beijing, where he also sought asylum at the American Embassy, which sparked a pretty big international relations controversy. This just days before Gary Locke, US ambassador to China, and Hilary Clinton were scheduled to come to Beijing to engage in talks with the Chinese government. The US denied his request for asylum, but did issue he and his family student visas to come to the States. The story of his escape is incredible.


North Korea hijacked 3 Chinese ships and their crews and is holding them for ransom. A bit strange, considering China is North Korea’s most important ally.


And of most relevance to me, and a bit scary, is that in the last two weeks or so, anti-foreigner sentiment has been brewing all throughout China. It all started with a video of a British man attempting to rape a Chinese woman (and subsequently having the living daylights beat out of him), which went viral on the Chinese internet. Shortly after, which Beijing denies is in response to the aforementioned incident, the Beijing government announced a crackdown on foreigners residing illegally in the city. While every country has the right to do this, the way they are going about it is a bit scary. They have announced that they will do random passport and accommodation-registry checks of foreigners around the city (“Your papers, please?”), and have set up a hotline and are encouraging people to report foreigners residing or working illegally.


Translation: Report Hotline. Illegal entry, illegal residence, illegal working.

I especially appreciate the imagery of the clenched fist, supposedly crushing the foreign devils out of China. Luckily, these days I am living on a residence permit and not a tourist visa, so I’m in the clear. Then, a couple days ago, another video went viral, this time of a rude foreigner putting his feet on the train seat in front of him, and laughing at and cursing the woman who was telling him to remove his feet. The best part was the policeman mocking him:


Police Officer #2:”What do you do in Beijing? Do you teach?”
Foreign man: ”I play the cello.”
Police Officer #2: ”Cello? Are you sure you’re not a ballet dancer? I thought you were a ballet dancer.”

And after all this, a national anchor for CCTV (China’s state-controlled TV network), posted this rant on his Weibo (Chinese Twitter):

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

In most countries, this would lead to his swift termination, but of course, nothing of the sort has happened. He was referring to that Al Jazeera’s China branch was shut down recently and their Beijing correspondent expelled from the country.


Despite all of this, I haven’t noticed anything different in my day to day life, but it’s interesting to watch as the national conversation becomes full of anti-immigrant sentiment. It really makes me sympathize with how Hispanic people in the States probably feel.


On a lighter, and unrelated, note, I have started a daily newsletter (Monday through Friday), where every day I will feature a different book excerpt. If you’re interested, you can subscribe (free) on the Facebook page I set up for it.


That concludes this post, thanks for reading!

Beijing in Pictures

I didn’t feel like writing a bunch of paragraphs of text (which is why this blog entry is so overdue!), so I’ve decided to show some pictures of my time back in China so far.

It was pretty polluted my first few days here.

Had churros on new year’s eve

This is a thing here. It used to be called “Darkie” toothpaste, but was changed because of how blatantly racist it was. The Chinese name, 黑人牙膏,still means “Black Person Toothpaste”, though.

What kind of post would this be without some hilarious Engrish (mis)translations?

Attended a Chinese New Year office party (invited by one of my roommates, the guy in the middle of the back row in this pic).

Documented Beijing’s first flash mob, where everyone “freezes” in the middle of a public square for a few minutes.

Took a trip to the Dashanzi Art District in Beijing.

Had Turkish food on Valentine’s Day with my lovely girlfriend, Ru Ya (AKA Nicole). We went to her hometown, Xuzhou, for Chinese New Year, but I didn’t take any good pictures there, I was too busy having fun and eating way too much food!

I finally found decent Mexican food in Beijing! Even though their aesthetic is very Chipotle-inspired, the food was quite original and delicious. They didn’t actually have any avocados (or guac, bummer) when I went; I guess the city is having an avocado shortage or something. You’ll also notice that soda-cups aren’t a foot tall here, like they are back home.

I saw some kids trying to run up this concrete post on the street today. The last two pictures I took with an app called Instagram on Nicole’s iPhone. It’s got some pretty cool filter effects built in.

In case you are wondering what I’m up to, I’m about to begin taking classes at the Beijing Language & Culture University, studying Chinese. My classes haven’t actually begun yet, but I’m sure I’ll have more to write about by then! That’s all for this post, thanks for reading!

The End of an Adventure

Welp, I’m finally back in the States. And what a journey it’s been (both my entire journey in and around China, and the journey back home). Right now I’m sitting on an Amtrak train bound for San Diego, where I will stay with a friend of a friend, who I’ve never even met before.

My last night in China, I first ate dinner with my wonderful cousins who were in town for the week, and after that, I had a gathering at a bar, and all of my good China friends came to say goodbye. We had a great time listening to music, drinking, talking, and sharing stories. I came back home to my apartment, made the rounds to the convenience store and the late night BBQ restaurant, saying goodbye to the friends I’ve made in those places and seen pretty much daily for the last 8 months.

The next day I hurriedly packed my bag (yes, just one duffel bag), and double, triple, and quadruple checked my room to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything important, as it’s my tendency to always forget something, and that something is usually something important.

I had a late afternoon flight, and on Tuesday afternoon, too, which was nice. The plane was barely full, and there were enough empty rows for most people to stretch out and sleep laying down. That marks the first time I’ve ever had a decent sleep on an airplane. I also made friends with a couple of Chinese people also headed for L.A. (the flight from Beijing was bound for Vancouver).

I’ve always heard stories of passengers on an airplane getting stuck on the tarmac for hours without going anywhere, and that finally happened to me. We taxied all the way to the runway and waited in line for about an hour, and by the time it was my flight’s turn to go, the captain came on and said that they had been waiting so long that we needed to turn back and add more fuel. That took another 30 minutes, and during that time, we got hit by a big thunderstorm, so then we waited another hour and a half for that to pass. Finally, we were off!

The delays caused me and the only other 2 people on the flight going to LA to miss our flight on Alaska Airlines, but instead we got to fly Air Canada again, which I was glad about, because Air Canada is better than any American airline that I have ever flown on. Also, they gave us all free food as an apology for the short haul flight… a nice bonus.


So I’ve been in San Diego (Oceanside, to be specific) for about a week now, just relaxing and having fun. I found my place to stay here the morning I flew out of Beijing, through a friend of a friend. I’m staying with a great woman and her two kids. The woman and I hang out and talk about music a lot, and I play video games with her son and daughter. Also, her dad lives next door, so I go visit him and we chat too. Pretty low key, but lots of fun.

I’ve been reflecting on the goals I laid out for myself when I first left for China, so here they are again:

  1. Become immersed in and hopefully understand more about the Chinese culture.

Absolutely! I think I did a really good job of dividing my time between hanging out with Chinese people, and hanging out with foreigners. I definitely understand a LOT more about the way Chinese people think about things, and why they do the things they do. It has changed my perception on their government, and reveals a lot about their history. I guess I understand certain things, but I don’t really “get” them, like all of the silly superstitions that are so prevalent there.

  1. Become fluent in Chinese, both written and spoken.

Fluency? Not so much… but I’ve learned a LOT, and I get complimented on my Chinese often. Not only by Chinese people (who will tell you your Chinese is amazing if you can say anything beyond “hello”), but I’ve also made a lot of foreigners jealous by learning more than them and in a shorter time. Sometimes, if they’ve been drinking, they even get angry. But I love them anyways! We’re all good friends 🙂 My Chinese is at least good enough to have basic conversations and do almost all the functions of day-to-day life, but I have a looong way to go! I intend to keep working on that, though.

  1. Have experiences and make great friends I will remember for the rest of my life.

This one is a resounding YES! Leaving Beijing was a bit emotional for me, as I had spent nearly the last year making all of these great friendships and always doing fun things, and all of a sudden leaving all that behind. I have made some of the greatest friends I have ever known, and we always have lots of fun! I will most likely go back sometime in the not too distant future to visit all of them, and who knows? Maybe even stay for a long time again. I’m definitely not sick of life in the ‘jing!

  1. Become more open minded about the ways other cultures do things, and try to understand why they think they way they do.

I guess this one is hard to objectively answer, but I’d like to think I have. I no longer bat an eye at parents helping their small children drop a deuce on the public sidewalk, or Chinese table manners (elbows on the table is the way to go, you don’t know what you’re missing!), or any of their other innumerable customs that most people, including myself, consider strange. I understand it more, and am way more open minded, but I don’t think I will ever stop thinking that a lot of the things they do are completely strange. But heck, I feel the same way about many things Americans do as well.

This past year has, without a doubt, been the most defining year of my life so far, and has helped shape me as a person. I’ve learned a lot about myself, other cultures, and the world in general. I’ve truly realized my passions for traveling and language learning! I am so glad that I made the decision I did to go to China, and I don’t think I would ever change that. Now, I just have to decide what my next big decision will be. Here’s hoping it’s as great as the decision I made to spend my year in Beijing!

Well, that’s all for this post! Feel free to leave your thoughts and questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to get back to you! Also, you can easily subscribe to my blog to receive my posts directly in your email inbox as I publish them, by signing up at the bottom of this page (and you will never receive spam– I promise!). Stay tuned for my next adventure, it will be a good one! And it may come sooner than you think!

Back to my Chinese Roots

A week ago marked the last class I had to teach in Beijing. I decided to take my last two weeks in China off to travel around a little and have some fun. I’ve been telling my friends in Jiujiang, the place I spent 3 weeks in, teaching, last summer, that I would definitely visit before I went back to the US, so that’s just what I did. It was definitely the most fun trip I’ve taken within China so far, thanks in part to the great crowd of foreign teachers I met and hung out with at Jiujiang University. Jiujiang is a city of 5 million people, yet most people who live here will describe it as a “small town”. In their defense though, I believe it doesn’t even qualify as one of the hundred largest cities in China. And after spending so much time in Beijing, it really does feel tiny.

Beautiful Lu Shan

The Chinese people who I thought I would stay with never invited me to stay in their homes, and in Chinese culture it is impolite to ask (because that would mean it would be impolite of them to refuse, and I might have ended up inconveniencing them), so I had to get creative. With less than 48 hours before my train left from Beijing, I logged into Couchsurfing, and messaged everyone on there who lives near Jiujiang, in Jiangxi province. All seven of them. Lucky for me, I received a quick reply from one of the couple of foreigners on there, and while he couldn’t host me himself at first, he connected me with one of his coworkers who was able to let me sleep on a mattress on the floor of her apartment.

One thing I love about China is their incredibly developed passenger rail network, and how easy and stress-free traveling by train is. On my way to the station in Beijing, I was stopped by a foreigner who had just arrived in Beijing and was totally lost. I helped her buy a map and hail a cab, and by the time I made it to the station it was just 10 minutes before my train left — yet that proved to be no problem at all. China has 4 main types of train — hard seat, soft seat (more spacious and luxurious than hard), and hard sleeper and soft sleeper. My favorite to travel on is the hard sleeper, because it is both a bed, and cheap. I forgot to specify that when I bought my ticket, though, and ended up on the more expensive soft sleeper. While definitely more comfortable, I was stuck in a compartment with 4 old men, who snored through the night and kept me awake. The last time I was here, the heat and humidity were more oppressive than the Taliban, so I only packed shorts and t-shirts, and unfortunately, the first day I was there was quite cold (it warmed up by the time I left though).

The next few days were filled with seeing old friends, catching up, and exploring the city during the day, and hanging out with the foreign teachers of JJU every night. Jiujiang has changed a lot in the past year, I’m gonna compare and contrast some things from my trip last year, and this time.

Last Year

I stayed in an apartment just up this street for the duration of my stay in Jiujiang a year ago. Walking just a ways up, you could find people selling all kinds of live fish, frogs, lobster, crawfish, etc, in bins, and chickens and ducks in cramped cages. It smelled really bad, and there were often two cars squeezing by each other on this tiny road that barely had room for both of them.

This Year

This year, the main thoroughfare next to the small street has been closed off to traffic and had been turned into a pedestrian mall, the storefronts have all been renovated, and the small road is no longer full of traffic and animals. There was a small foot massage place just up the road, that I always used to go to for their $3, hour-and-a-half massages… I returned to it this year to get another massage and see how they were doing, and it turns out the guy who owns the place and one of his employees (who also was there last year), got married. Speaking of weddings…

Last Year

My friend He Juan invited me to her cousin’s wedding last summer (they call their cousins their brothers and sisters though, it’s kind of interesting). This time, while hanging out with He Juan, she mentioned that her “brother” and his wife had just had  a baby, three days before I arrived. So we went to the hospital to visit the above couple’s new baby, who was, when I saw it, still unnamed.

This Year

It was probably the weirdest hospital I’ve ever been inside of. It was surprisingly clean, compared to some of the hospitals I’ve seen here, but what struck me as odd is how totally empty it was. There were no employees to be seen on the entire ground floor, nor were there nurses walking the halls or reception desks on the other floors. Also, the elevator was broken, so only the stairs were available. We went to the maternity floor, where every room had three women and their newborn children. There were no curtains or dividers between the women sleeping in their beds, and their children were kept in uncovered tubs, as pictured here. It seems like this would be an unsafe way to deal with a bunch of newborns, but on the other hand, it’s probably good preparation for growing up in one of the dirtiest countries.

Last Year

There’s this old Catholic church in downtown Jiujiang, which I walked by nearly every day last year, and every day, without fail, it was all locked up and I couldn’t go inside. I’m always fascinated by religion in China, because while it clearly exists, it’s not something that’s openly celebrated or even totally approved by the government. So imagine my surprise, when walking past it again this time around, the door was open, and there were workmen inside renovating the place. I walked in and asked if I could take pictures, and the guy in charge was kind enough to say yes, and even turn on all the lights for me.

This Year

It was a very surreal church. It had the same layout as any other Catholic church, but between the different art style, the christmas-type lights at the altar (see pic), and everything else, it felt more like a Disneyland-esque re-creation of what a Catholic church is supposed to be like. An interesting story told to me by one of the American teachers at Jiujiang University: he and some friends came to this church to check it out this past Christmas. Following the Disney motif, he said that there were robotic statues of Santa Claus playing saxophone and little kids dressed as Angels singing Christmas carols, along with a bunch of police officers (who were there to make sure nothing bad was said about the Communist party). My friend told me that most of the cops were respectful, but that there was one, sitting in the back of the congregation smoking a cigarette, which I think even in China is considered to be very disrespectful in a religious institution.

I had a taxi driver in Jiujiang, who kept silent the entire trip, until he saw a cop directing traffic, when he started cursing in Chinese and talking about how bad the police are. I think a dislike or a distrust of the police is something most people in this world have in common, and it is an interesting thing to bond over. Another time, I was standing outside of KFC waiting for a friend, and I was talking to this guy selling betta fish. He pulled out a bamboo waterpipe, and started smoking a cigarette through it. He offered it to me, and again, Chinese manners, I agreed to try his cigarette bong. Just at that moment, though, a guy in an army uniform started walking down the street, one of the street vendors let out a whistle, and betta fish guy and all his other illegal street vendor friends, who were selling rabbits, turtles, pirated DVDs, and cheap clothing, grabbed all their goods and just RAN away, leaving me there on the sidewalk holding a water pipe as a government official walked past. They’re legal here (for tobacco of course), but it was quite a surreal experience. I went and I found the guy in his hiding place in a nearby alley, and gave him his device back.

One of my goals for my trip was to find the woman who made my whole trip possible last year (and who without, I wouldn’t even be in China today). I had lost all of her contact info, and she didn’t check her email often enough to see my one-week’s notice that I’d be coming to her city. So I walked around until I found the old school I worked at. The school has changed a lot, too. Last year it was a bunch of very bare, empty classrooms, and was only for teaching English. Now half the school is for teaching English, and the other half for teaching music, and every classroom looks like a proper one now. I waited around for a little bit until my friend, Lily showed up… she was so surprised to see me there, it was a great reunion.

This whole trip was a blast, and it wouldn’t have been the same were it not for the many foreigner friends I made who work at the university. I met one guy there who actually graduated from the same high school as me, which was one of those “small world” moments, and his girlfriend, who went to a different high school but also grew up in Littleton. Other good times with them were going to the only authentic foreign food– Indian– “restaurant” (its in an open air vegetable market) in the city, hanging with a really diverse crowd– like 7 or 8 nationalities were represented. We also went to a “battle of the bands”, which was a really big deal, as Jiujiang doesn’t often have live music. There was a rap/beatboxing group, and some great punk music bands. We also went to a “secret restaurant”… it’s a restaurant that doesn’t have a business license, and it’s entrance is tucked away in a small, dark alley. The inside totally feels kind of sketchy, but the boss was a really cool, friendly guy, and the food was totally delicious!

For the trip back home, I made sure to buy the hard sleeper ticket, and I was lucky enough to be put in a compartment with a younger crowd, who I talked to and had a good time with. Unfortunately, a few of them were also snorers, making falling asleep difficult (once I did fall asleep, I was out like a light till we got to Beijing).

I have so many fun stories from this short, one week vacation, but this post is already getting too long! You can click here to see more photos from my trip. And now that I’m back in Beijing, there’s just one week left in China, before heading home to The US. I must say, I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m also really glad to be coming home.

New Cities, New Adventures

For my next visa run and mini-vacation, I chose to go to “Asia’s World City” – Xianggang, in Mandarin, though most people are far more familiar with the name the city calls itself – Hong Kong. While technically part of China, like Puerto Rico to the U.S., it still works for getting my visa stamped because, for all intents and purposes, Hong Kong is essentially it’s own country, called “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”. It has its own government, laws, language (Cantonese), and currency. Hong Kong’s money is awesome, it looks and feels like it comes from the future! The $10 bill is made of paper-thin plastic, and is pretty much impossible to tear with your hands.

 

Future money!

I first flew to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, which sits across a small river from Hong Kong. I did this because flying domestic is about half as expensive as an international flight. I took an illegal taxi cab from the airport to Luohu Railway station, which is where one can cross the border. During the hour long drive, I chatted with the driver, learning a few things about Shenzhen. He told me that it has the 4th highest GDP of any Chinese city, and it showed. Even though Beijing is #1 in GDP, Shenzhen seemed a lot cleaner and more modern, perhaps because it’s where many technology companies base their Chinese operations. It also reminded me a bit of Los Angeles, in that there were many palm trees and lush tropical plants. Going through customs was a breeze, I was issued a 90-day Hong Kong visa, and boarded the subway into the city. The whole process took about 15 minutes.

 

Hong Kong is pretty Fooking cool.

Hong Kong is an interesting experiment in what happens when East meets West. It was under British colonial rule until just 1997, when the British gave it back to China, and the influence of the United Kingdom definitely shows. Streets have names like “Nathan” and “Salisbury”, opposed to “Qisheng Rd” (the street I live on in Beijing). The architecture is most certainly British influenced, the streets are narrow, the cars drive on the left, and double decker buses wander the city streets. As a government, it seems to be much closer to a Western government than the Chinese one. Littering is punishable by a HKD$1500 fine (and judging by the pristine streets, it’s actually enforced, unlike on the mainland). The press is free – one of the first images I saw was coming in on the metro, on the onboard TV, was video of Hong Kong police fighting with protesters. Compare that to China’s “Jasmine Revolution”, of which no mention can be found in the news media there. The government is very preoccupied with the issue of public health… there’s PSAs everywhere reminding people that smoking kills, exercise is good, not to eat too much fatty foods, etc. The packs of cigarettes have images of lung and mouth cancer on them.

In a previous post, I mentioned that Beijing was a very international city. Well, I redact that statement – it’s only international relative to the rest of China. Beijing’s paltry quarter-million foreigners doesn’t even hold a flame to Hong Kong’s foreign population, which seems to be about 50% of the city. British, Australians, Americans, Africans, Indians, you name it, they’re all here. It’s also a very opulent city; I saw more Bentleys and Rolls Royces in the past couple of days than I have seen in my entire life up to that point! I even saw one big Rolls Royce with a custom license plate that simply said “CHESTER” or “FELIX” or some other similarly upper-crust sounding name.

 

A junk (that's what that boat's called) in front of the HK skyline.

The evening of my only full day in Hong Kong, I took the subway across the harbor (it goes underground beneath the water!), and caught a double decker bus up to “The Peak” – Victoria Peak, which offers amazing views of the city. The bus ride was an hour long, and I caught it at just the right time, arriving at the peak just as the sun was setting and the city began to light up. It was beautiful! I headed back towards my hotel, the luxurious Sheraton, and stopped at a bar on the way for some pizza and beer. Then I went for a swim (on the rooftop, no less) for the first time in six months, and took the nicest shower I’ve had since coming to China.

The view from Victoria Peak

The next day, I had to wake up at the ungodly early hour of 10 AM (gasp), check out of the hotel, call my taxi driver, etc. A few hours later I was back at Luohu going through customs. I was asking people who looked like they were taking a flight if they were headed to the airport, hoping to find someone to split the cab fare with. I found one guy, but he said he was traveling with not much money and was just going to take a bus there. I went on my way, but when I saw him a few minutes later, I thought what the hell, I have to pay the cab driver anyways, so I invited him along for the ride.

This trip to Hong Kong was the first trip I have ever taken completely solo, without either someone going with me, or someone to meet me on the other side, and I realized that, traveling alone is kind of boring! Things are so much better when you have someone, anyone, to share experiences, good and bad, with. At this point, it had been 2 whole days since I had had a real conversation with anybody, so chatting with my new friend from London was a very welcome change. He lives in a small city in central China, where he is one of only two foreigners! That was fun for three weeks in Jiangxi, but I don’t think I could handle it long term, like I do in Beijing. Before we could set off, we had to find the taxi driver, who I spent about 15 minutes on the phone with trying to find each other. All I could understand the driver saying on the phone was “I’m wearing a black shirt!” and “I’m at the entrance!”, but there were dozens of entrances spread across a few different levels. Eventually, I gave up on trying to use my Chinese to find this guy, and handed my phone to a random stranger, who told the guy where we were. I’ve done this many times before when I was lost, and Chinese strangers always seem so willing to oblige me and help me out.

The drive back to the airport was fun, having someone to converse with. The British guy confirmed my suspicions that Hong Kong was just like London, and we talked about the cultural differences between central China and big cities like Beijing. He has to suffer with being stared at all the time for being white, I’m really glad that that doesn’t happen so much in Beijing. He also told me that he lived in India for a year, and proved wrong my misconception that Indian people use their left hands instead of toilet paper (and he lived in a rural village there). Other than that, the drive was mostly uneventful, except for something hilarious I saw: An old man standing on the side of the highway, holding a stick. Attached to the stick, by a piece of rope, was a tortoise, which was moving its legs as though it was trying to walk on air away from this man. I have no idea what he was trying to accomplish by dangling a tortoise over the shoulder of the highway, but it was good for a laugh.

I didn't get a chance to take a picture, so I illustrated it instead!

Chinese airlines are awesome. They remind me of what I imagine the golden age of the airline industry was like in the United States; they serve hot meals, even on the shortest of flights1, and the stewardesses are exclusively beautiful young women. They actually hand out free newspapers; I don’t think I’ve seen that on an American airline in years! On the flight back to Beijing, I experienced something I had never before seen on a flight… as we began our descent from cruising altitude, the stewardesses came into the aisle, like they do when they give the safety demonstration, and began to conduct all the passengers in some stretches and calisthenic exercises! It was hilarious to watch (and participate!), as everyone rolled their necks and clapped their hands to “yi, er, san! Yi, er, san!” [one, two, three]. I stopped the exercises long enough to take this picture, and then resumed with what must have been the biggest grin plastered on my face. Everyone else was acting like this was totally normal, but I’ve taken numerous domestic flights within China and have never seen that before.

1 Delta Airlines: Here, we hope these five peanuts and 2 ounces of soda will tide you over for the four hour flight!

Plane exercises

Welp, that’s it for this update! I’m still not sure what my next adventure here in China will be, so stay tuned! If you would like to receive my posts in your email inbox, simply go to the bottom of the page, and enter your email address in the box that says “Email Subscription”. You won’t receive any spam, I promise!

The rest of my Hong Kong photos can be found here.

Happy Chunjie to You!

This past week in China marks the country’s biggest and most culturally important holiday, Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, or in Chinese, Chunjie. It’s basically Christmas and New Years and Thanksgiving all rolled into one for China. People celebrate by visiting relatives, taking the week off from work, and shooting off lots, and lots, and LOTS of fireworks. (When I said they were earth-shaking in my last post, I really wasn’t exaggerating. Imagine NON STOP fireworks from the afternoon, through the wee hours of the morning.)

I’ve had a blast this whole week… pub quiz, video games, dungeons n dragons, karaoke, playing pool, eating enchiladas and churros. I also went to a book reading by American author David Sedaris, who you may have heard on NPR. Admittedly not a very Chinese Chinese New Year!

In my last post, I asked for questions anyone may have about life in China, and I got quite a few of them! One of my teachers from high school showed his students my blog, so I got a bunch of questions from them too, so here they are:

Do they have a Chipotle there? -Uncle “I Love Chipotle” Ron

No 😦 Sometimes I get really big cravings for a big Chipotle burrito. It’ll be one of the first things I eat when I get back!

Did you get any red envelopes? -Aunt Kathy

For those who don’t know, during Spring Festival, parents and other older relatives give the young people red envelopes full of money. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any 😦

You have said Beijing has many foreigners living there. Who are they and what do they do? What drew them to China? -Dad

There really are quite a few foreigners here. Most of the younger people in their early twenties do the same thing as I do, with the English teaching, but lately I’ve been getting to know more and more people who work in all sorts of businesses… there’s foreign architecture firms, video game companies, international sales, theatre troupes, design agencies, fashionistas… you name it. I’ve even become acquainted with a few people who came here back in the old days, when the country had just opened its borders to outsiders, and when China really was the Communist dystopia most people still think the country is today. They tell stories about how if you could get pork, it was a luxury, and even then it was of terrible quality. How it was nearly impossible to find fresh fruit anywhere. The foreigners all had to live in a single housing unit, and they all had to share a single telephone, which would only operate during daylight hours, because they were still using the old-fashioned operator-switchboard system of telecommunications. I think the uniting factor that drew most people here is just a sense of adventure, and experiencing something new. I think the reason so many people end up staying is how damn easy it is for a foreigner to maintain an upper-class lifestyle on a comparatively modest salary.

What is the most practiced religion in China? -Greg R

The most practiced religion in China, by a wide, wide, margin, is absolutely none! I’ve never seen a Hindu here, a few really old people still practice Buddhism, and Buddhism is still alive as a cultural thing, but 95% of people in China, by and large, have no religion. I was once approached by a Chinese guy on the street and invited to his Christian church, but that’s the only Chinese Christian I’ve ever seen. Most of the Korean people here do practice Christianity though.

Jake, I am thinking about traveling abroad for part of my college experience. Do you suggest it? Do you ever get homesick? -Alex D

I absolutely suggest it! It’s definitely been the greatest experience of my life… this is gonna be one of those things I look back on when I’m an old man in a rocking chair and say to myself or my grandchildren, “damn, that was pretty cool!” You learn so much, not only about other cultures, and languages, but about yourself. I think every person should spend some considerable time (doing more than just traveling through) in another country. I never get homesick in the sense that I sit around wishing I wasn’t here and was in Colorado instead, but every so often I really miss certain things from back in the US. Things I think about a lot are the mountains, wide open spaces, Winston Hills BBQ, and playing frisbee with my friends.

Do they really eat dogs and cats in China?! -Alex D

Certainly not in Beijing, or other major cities, but in Inner Mongolia, they love eating dog meat. They have so many stray dogs there, come wintertime, people will just pluck a dog off the street and eat it. Yuck! I’ve never admitted this publicly before, but when I was there, one time I went out for lunch with my friend’s family, and the only thing they ordered was a big pot of dog meat stew. Not only would it have offended them big time if I refused to eat it, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about trying some. The taste was actually quite good, but the good taste was strongly outweighed by the feeling of guilt I had about eating dog meat. I felt like there was a pit inside of me. I haven’t experienced it, but I hear they eat cats in the southern parts of China. They also eat baby mice, alive. (So think about that next time you order Cantonese food!)

When did you decide to up and go to China? -Rose R

Well, I really wasn’t sure about what I was going to study in college or do afterwards, and I had come to China over the summer, and realized how many opportunities an English native speaker has here. Living in a foreign country is something I always wanted to, but I never even had an idea I would be doing it at such a young age till about 2 months before I flew out here! Coming here has allowed me to sort some of those feelings out, and I’ve decided to go into college doing International Studies and to keep improving my Chinese language skills.

What is the healthcare system like in China? -Georgianne

In Beijing, most people working full time jobs have health insurance. The insurer gives them a card, and if they spend more than ¥1800 ($250) in a year, the insurer will pay for everything above that. The situation is more dire for people without money. In America, you get care first and have to pay later. In China, if you can’t pay up front, you don’t get care at all, and the doctors will leave you to die. How depressing.

Do you find the ways of life easier in China than in America, or the other way around? -Kelsey C

That’s a good question, and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. Both have their positives and negatives. Finding work in China is much, much, much easier, being a foreigner (I can find and get a job in less than 24 hours here). Here I have to worry about rent payments, leaving the country every 90 days and such. The work also pays more than I could be making in America, but sometimes the language barrier can lead to considerable difficulty. Public transportation is much easier to use here, so it’s easier to get where I’m going. I don’t know if I’d say living here is easier, but life is more of an adventure, which I think is fun!

Can you bargain in any store, or only the street vendors/markets? What behavior and manners differ from America? -Serena L

Bargaining is only allowed with street vendors and in markets. Most stores are actually quite westernized in the way they operate. Some behavioral differences are, Chinese people don’t stand in line for anything, so you have to have a cold heart and shove your way to the front of anything you are trying to get to. They don’t say anything like “bless you” or “excuse me” for sneezes and other bodily functions. At a table, you don’t ask anyone to pass anything, you just stand up and grab it yourself. But you can be sure that whoever you are eating with makes sure your beer glass is never anything other than full! Also, they love saying cheers! (ganbei! in chinese) when they drink alcohol. Like, in an average meal, we might say cheers 20 or 30 times.

 

Do you think it will be a culture shock when you come back to America? -Nicole K

Yeah, “re-entry” is actually one of the stages of culture shock, according to wikipedia. Last time I was here, I only stayed for a month, and when I got back I found myself a more agressive driver and pedestrian. When I get back I’ll probably have to re-adjust to actually crossing streets at the designated place and waiting for the traffic signal. Also, I’m guessing I’ll be shocked at how expensive everything will have suddenly become.

What is the apartment like now? -Matt L

Well, it’s got more stuff in it, and I guess my room looks more like a teenager’s bedroom now. The roaches turned out to be not as problematic as I thought; because my room is the furthest away from the kitchen, I never see them in my room. I’ve only found two in here the entire time I’ve lived here. Also, I don’t use the kitchen really, so it doesn’t bother me. My American roommate just moved back to the States, so now it’s just me and 5 other Chinese people.

Thats a weird thing that you have to leave every three months because you can only be in the country for a year. Is that like a common thing? because I never have been to another country. What, do the police come to your house every three months and make sure your not home, and if you are than they are going to deport you? -Cody S

I’m not sure how common it is, but I think it’s universal that in any country it’s not a good idea to break the terms of your visa. The police don’t even know where I live, so I’m safe on that front, luckily… they catch you when you leave the country and they look at your passport. I’ve talked to foreigners who stayed for too long, and when they were leaving, depending on how much extra time they stayed, either had to pay a hefty fine or spend a couple weeks in a Chinese jail.

 

I was wondering what American stereotypes are right and wrong, and also, what are some Chinese stereotypes that they have about Americans? -Ryan B

I’m assuming that by American stereotypes, you mean ones that we hold about Chinese people. One correct stereotype is that Chinese students work really hard. Students spend 10 or more hours a day in school, and most young children spend all of their free time studying or practicing instruments. Also, their parents only let them play classical instruments, like piano, violin, or erhu. If your parents let you learn classical guitar, they’re considered progressive, and if you play electric guitar, you’re considered somewhat of a hooligan. One incorrect stereotype is that Chinese people go to work and work non-stop. In reality, people spend most of their working hours chatting on QQ, which is the most common instant messenger, or playing a farmville-like game. Renren.com is also really popular website, which is exactly the same as facebook. Also, that Chinese people are reserved and quiet in public. People are loud, boisterous, and irreverent. I’ve seen fights break out in the street on multiple occasions. One time on the subway I heard two guys in business suits arguing, in Chinese. One shouted “F— your mother!”, and the other guy shouted back, “you f—ing c—!”.

They think that we all own guns and enjoy watching the NBA. American basketball is the most popular sport in China, you can strike up a conversation with pretty much any guy about the NBA. Most people don’t know Denver, but they do know the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony! They also expect Americans to all be fat, and really religious. It’s not uncommon for someone you have just met to ask you if you believe in God or own guns. They won’t ask you if you like basketball, because they assume it’s a given.

In your first post, you mention 4 goals that you have for your experience in China, I was wondering if you have accomplished any of these goals? If so, which did you find most difficult? -Ryan B

Another great question. I’ve accomplished all of them, to varying degrees, but for some of them, like becoming fluent in Chinese and actually understanding why China behaves like China, I think I’ve got a ways to go. I wouldn’t classify any of them as difficult, per se, since just by being here and doing stuff I’m working towards them all the time. The goal that will take the longest to accomplish though is definitely the fluency in the language. I can get by day to day, give directions to cab drivers, and even read children’s books (one boasts that it uses only 300 different characters), but if I wish to consider myself fluent I’ve got years of study and practice ahead of me.

Do the people in China respect/support the government or are there hard feelings about the Communist Party? -Brian C

Most people will admit to you, in private, that they don’t like the government much. They envy Americans for the common freedom to vote.

I am curious about your diet in “the jing” compared to your diet over the summer in Jiujiang. -Mom

In Jiujiang, I ate Chinese food every day, for every meal. Jiujiang is surrounded by lakes and rivers, so I ate a LOT of seafood. Shrimp, crawfish, frog legs, etc. In Beijing, I eat Chinese food about half the time, usually getting noodles, hot pot, fish, duck, kung pow chicken, etc. The rest of the time I like getting various international foods, like Mexican, or Italian, but nothing beats a good hamburger either. I often go to a little hamburger stand run by a Dutch man, his burgers beat out McDonald’s by a long shot!

What do the Chinese people think of us westerners? -Christian L.H.

I think that most Chinese people seem to look up to us. It’s actually kind of sad. In America, you expect most immigrants to work jobs that most Americans consider beneath them, for at least a generation till they can send their kids to university. Here, foreigners, and westerners especially, can make much more than Chinese people. McDonald’s hourly wage: 10RMB per hour ($1.50). Foreigner average wage (fresh off boat, no experience or language required): 150RMB per hour ($22.)

It seems like whenever I get chinese food in America, my choices are sesame chicken, rice and mushu pork. What is Chinese food like IN china, and how does it differ from American Chinese food? -bankss03

Chinese people do eat a lot of rice, and some more famous dishes are common here as well. Gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken), mu shu rou (mushu pork), and jiaozi (pot-stickers) are all pretty popular foods. The real Chinese food is generally not as sweet, and uses less meat and much more vegetables. I think it tastes much better than what is available in America. I like to eat a Chinese breakfast burrito, which is a tortilla-esque thing, filled with duck meat, cucumber, some other vegetables I don’t know the names of, and la jiao, which is a hot pepper sauce.

Do the Chinese take ancestral rivalries, such as theirs with Japan, seriously? -Chris H

Great question! Oh yeah. There’s bad blood between all the Asian countries. It seems like they all think their country is best and the other Asian countries are inferior to their’s. At least that’s the impression I get from China. But yeah, especially Japan. Most Chinese people will admit to hating Japan. One time a guy started talking to me on the subway. The first thing he said after hello was to ask me what I thought of Japan. I just said “I like China more.”, and then like ten people who had been listening in started laughing.

What is the music like? -Ryan C

In general, I’m not a fan of the music. I’ve found a couple Chinese bands or songs that I like, like Nan Quan Ma Ma, Jay Chou, or Hua Er Yue Dui (click to hear a song of theirs). But for the most part, it seems with Chinese music, the slower, more ooey-gooey lovey-dovey a song is, the more well-received it is. For example, Chinese people love “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Also, most Chinese background instrumentals are really boring, like a stale drum beat or the same boring guitar chords. Chinese young people almost all know and love The Backstreet Boys, Avril Lavigne, Michael Jackson, and Linkin Park.

Do they have richer areas or mansions like we have here? -Stephanie F

Of course! The gap between the rich and poor here is huge. Walking around the city, you can see people living in slums. The roofs of the houses are a sheet of metal and often times have holes in them. Contrasted to some of my students, who live in four story houses and drive two Mercedes.

How do you deal with all the pollution? Is it really as bad as they’ve made it out to be? -Nancy D

Yeah, the pollution is quite bad and it is a big problem. Some people wear cotton surgical-style face masks, but most people don’t do anything preventative. Some days you can’t even see buildings a half a mile away because the pollution is so bad. Other days, especially when it’s windy, the sky is clear and blue though.

How does Beijing differ from Jiu Jiang and China’s Inner Mongolia? – Dad

Having been to many different places in China, I believe I’ve experienced both extremes of the country. If it’s on a linear scale, Inner Mongolia is over on the far left… homes didn’t have running water, donkey drawn carts comprised half the traffic on the roads, you could buy clothes and butchered animal parts in the same market. Beijing is the polar opposite… people drive expensive cars, everyone uses smartphones, iPads are immensely popular. Brand name clothing, fancy subways, extremely upper-crust shopping malls. Beijing is a thoroughly modern city, I imagine a lot like New York City (though I’ve never been there). Jiujiang was kind of in the middle of the scale. You had the culture of trendy clothes and many people had smart phones, but to get to the fancy shops or go to an internet cafe, you had to walk past people slaughtering animals on the sidewalk or peeing in an alley.

A Day in the Life

I haven’t posted a blog in more than a month mainly because there hasn’t been anything particularly interesting to write about. I feel like I’ve come out of the “honeymoon” stage of culture shock, and life has become quite routine for me. My schedule has finally reached a healthy balance between work and play, I see the same students every week… it’s a lot less stressful and while not as exciting, life seems quite satisfying right now. Since I don’t have any big time stories to tell, I’m just gonna use this post to write about some interesting day to day things that go on here in the ‘jing:

One thing I love is all the delivery food options we have here. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and a bunch of other local business all offer cheap and fast delivery… within 30 minutes! McDonald’s is cheaper than in America (a Big Mac + fries & coke comes to only $3), while Pizza Hut, which here is a sit-down restaurant with waitstaff and a waiting list to get inside is more expensive (8″ pizza – $10). If you order from smaller places, you can get stuff delivered for $1.50 or so. Also I love that McDonald’s has pies in such flavors as Pineapple (my favorite!) and Taro, which is also delicious.

I wanted to buy a pair of shoes the other day. I’ve been shoe shopping here before, usually with disastrous results. The problem is that Chinese people all have tiny feet compared with Westerners (and my feet aren’t even that big), and it’s very difficult to find a regular shoe-seller that carries my size. At the one or two places I did ever find with my size, when I tried the shoe on, it was way too narrow. So I went to one of Beijing’s biggest tourist traps, the Yonganli Silk Market. As I walked through the stalls, all the pushy shopkeepers were shouting at me “Hey, boy! You want buy a shoes!? You need cashmere? Want a gloves? T-shirt!” I finally saw some shoes I liked, which happen to be (knock off) Diesel brand sneakers. The seller asked 400 RMB ($60), and 5 minutes later I walked away with a new pair of 100 RMB ($15) shoes. The girl who sold them to me told me that I drive a hard bargain, though I imagine they say that to most people who attempt to haggle with them.

There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as cell phone bills here… as far as I can tell, it’s all done on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can buy cell phone cards at most convenience stores and newsstands, and a 100 yuan shou ji ka pays for about a month’s worth of service. While I do have a gas and water bill, unfortunately electricity is also done on a pay as you go basis here. You have to buy a card somewhere,  and then swipe the card in your electrical meter outside your apartment door. This leads to lots of power outages. I can stand 4 hours without power at home, but twice now at my voice recording job, the power has gone out in the middle of recording, forcing me to go back and rerecord as much of an hour of material.

A Chinese slang word that originated on the internet recently and is being picked up by everybody is “gei li” 给力, which literally means “give power”, but is used to mean “cool”. From this came the Engrish (or Chinglish, as the Chinese say) words, geilivable (that’s awesome!) and ungeilivable (that sucks!). There’s also 牛屄 “niu bi” (said like “newbie”) which refers to a certain bovine body part but colloquially means “effing awesome”. This has evolved into “niubility” — the ability to do something in a f–king awesome manner. Then there’s “oh my Lady Gaga!”, but this has become kind of dated since I was here over the summer.

Some other small observations:
  • Santa decorations are still everywhere (even in the sidebar of my blog!). It still hasn’t snowed in Beijing, either.
  • You’d think in a city of 25 million people, running into someone you know on the street or in the subway would be very unlikely, but it happens to me at least a couple times a week.
  • We all know the Great Wall of China… China seems to love walls. There’s no such thing as a shortcut here. There’s so many walls and gates everywhere. Every university I’ve been to is surrounded by a wall with only a few gates.

Chinese New Year — also known as Spring Festival, is China’s biggest holiday, and it happens next week. Only for the week before, during, and after this holiday are fireworks allowed in the city… already I hear a bunch of them. It’s supposed to be earth shaking and deafening during the holiday itself. Last year fireworks during spring festival caused an under construction building next to the most expensive office building in the world to catch fire.

 

The charred ruins of the 50+ story building are still being dismantled to this day. China basically shuts down during Spring Festival as all the businesses close and everyone returns home to see their family. I was going to try to go back to Jiujiang to visit friends, but it’s pretty much impossible to get a train ticket right now, with all the people going to their homes.

I have an idea for my next post to answer any questions people might have about life in China. So if you’ve got questions, post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them in my next post. ‘Til next time — zai jian!

Trip to Mongolia

I’m writing this (half of the) blog post at 4am, sitting in a Wang Ba (internet bar) in freezing cold Erlianhaote, China, right next to the Mongolian border. The weather report tells me its 0 degrees fahrenheit outside, but with windchill it feels like -11. I came here with my roommate Dustin to do what foreigners in China call a “visa run”: Even though my Chinese visa is valid for a year, I’m only permitted to stay in the country for 90 days at a time. So, every three months, I have to make a trip like this and cross an international border.
Dustin and I came here by taking an overnight sleeper bus from Beijing. I had never heard of a sleeper bus before, and I was surprised at how cramped it was and how tiny the beds were. Fortunately for us, Erlianhaote (Erlian, for short) is a tiny border town of only 16,000 people, and out of the 30 or so beds on the bus, less than ten were occupied.
The bus pulled into the station in Erlian at 3 AM, and we had many hours to kill before the border crossing opened at 9 AM. We took an extremely overpriced cab ride about 1 kilometer to the nearest netbar (10RMB per person… the real taxis in this city start the meter at 3RMB), and hung out there with a bunch of the kind of Chinese person who stays up through the wee hours of the night playing computer games at an internet cafe. That experience was interesting in and of itself. Erlian is known for two things, and two things only: the border crossing, and that some dinosaur fossils were discovered there. So the town has dinosaur statues all throughout (and the main road is called Konglong Dajie, or Dinosaur Street), with a park in the city center, surprisingly named “Dinosaur Park”. Dustin and I thought we could get some cool photos by heading to the park around sunrise and checking out the sculptures. Even though the whole town was maybe two kilometers across, and everything was easily within walking distance, we were taking cabs all over the place to escape the weather. We did get some cool photos there, my favorite being this one of me trying to climb a dinosaur:
After this, we were both feeling pretty hungry, so we decided to find someplace to eat. At this point, it was already 8 AM, and this is when we discovered that due to the extreme cold here, no place actually opens up before 9 or 10 in the morning. So we went to the train station to see if we could take a train back to Beijing (we couldn’t, they only run twice a week), and it still being too early for breakfast, took naps on the train station benches. At about 930 we finally ventured back out into the cold and walked past dozens of shops and restaurants before we finally found an open breakfast food place. We ate warm baozi rolls and warm milk tea, which totally hit the spot!
After breakfast, we had to find a jeep to drive across the border. For some reason, jeeps are classified differently for Mongolian border crossings than trucks and normal cars. We didn’t know where to find them, so we had to rely on a cab, asking the driver to take us to “jie pu che” (Jeep car). After some haggling over price, we hopped into a jeep stuffed with a bunch of Mongolian people. Between the 4 open seats, there were 6 people… one of the Mongolians riding in the hatch. I find it hilarious that sitting in the back of a car is a perfectly acceptable form of international border crossing here. The border crossing happened without a hitch, and now we found ourselves in Mongolia! We continued on for a few kilometers to the town of Zamyn-Üüd, which is even smaller than Erlian.
the border crossing
For the first time in months, I felt like a totally helpless traveler. As soon as the border was crossed, it seems no one could speak English or Chinese, so the language barrier was less like a barrier and more like a 20 foot high electrified razor wire fence. We walked into a good looking restaurant, but unable to communicate with the waitstaff or even read the menu, which was entirely in Cyrillic, we relied on the “point to a random menu item and hope for the best” method of ordering. I was hoping to sample some local Mongolian cuisine here, but I ended up with Spaghetti Bolognese, and Dustin got some kind of steak and mashed potato dish. In the middle of the meal, our jeep-buddies who we had spent the last hour or so with came into the restaurant, so we all moved to a bigger table and had a great time talking and laughing and eating together. The differences between Chinese and Mongolian culture are huge. Chinese guys are quiet, humble, and reserved. Mongolians are big, smiling, gregarious guys who love joking around and laughing REALLY loudly (and trash-talking about China and Chinese people, haha).
Some other interesting things about Mongolia: It’s a hell of a lot cleaner than China. The supermarket I went into was spotless, there was some, but much less litter in the streets, the restaurant felt a lot cleaner than Chinese restaurants. In China, they drive on the right side of the road, and in Mongolia, they drive on the left, so the border crossing is quite confusing as all the cars are crossing over to change directions.
That was a lot of adventure packed into a 36 hour excursion (24 of those hours being spent on a bus). I also think it’s amazing that I was able to travel 1000km and back and make an international border crossing, and do it all for under $100. I’ve decided that at some point in the future I’d like to go back to Mongolia and maybe spend a week in Ulaanbaatar.
再见!

Long Time No Update!

Wow, so it’s been nearly a month since my last update! No, I haven’t been kidnapped or relaxing in a Chinese prison or anything else that would make for a crazy story. I’ve just been quite busy working hard and also playing hard (but working harder!).  It’s amazing how quickly my work has progressed… from fretting about getting enough jobs, to having too many jobs, to teaching group classes… finally I’m at a comfortable level where I spend about 20 hours per week teaching one-on-one classes with students, many of whom are private clients, opposed to going through a school. 20 hours doesn’t sound like much, but travel time included, I’m out of my apartment for work related stuff 40-50 hours a week. An average day for me might look like this: Take the subway one stop, change lines, go two stops, get out and catch a bus, ride bus for 30 minutes, get off, wait for 15 minutes to change buses, get off bus, walk half a kilometer to my student’s house. After that, I have to get back to the subway station the same way I got there (though sometimes unlicensed cabs will stop and offer me a ride… if the price is low enough I usually take it), then get on the subway and ride for an hour to the opposite side of Beijing, teach another class, then ride the subway for an hour back home. Needless to say, I’m a busy guy these days! It doesn’t help that many students want classes on the weekends as well. Today is the first legitimate day off from everything I’ve had in about 2 weeks.

I really enjoy the teaching work… it’s much more satisfying than any job I worked back in America, and even though it can be stressful and tiring sometimes, all things considered I have a lot of fun in my work. I also get to wear jeans and t-shirts for work, which is a HUGE plus for me. For a couple of weeks last month I was teaching small group classes, which had from 3-12 students in them. I really liked those classes, but travel time, coupled with that they wanted me to dress up and that most of my one-on-one students pay more means that I don’t do that as much anymore, though I can go get more classes from them at any time, which I’ll probably do someday. I’ve also been doing some voice recording work for textbook materials on the side, which is easy and pays as much as teaching, so that’s also a good job.

A few weeks back, I went to a “Christmas Bazaar” thing I had read about on thebeijinger.com (I like going to these things to cruise for free samples — other than that they’re aimed at foreigners and everything is extremely expensive!). While there, I ran into a guy I had met at the last Expo I wrote about going to, and he told me he was organizing this thing to hand-deliver warm meals and scarves to homeless people on Thanksgiving. I thought it sounded interesting, so I agreed.

I met my friend AJ at the subway station, and we drove on his electric scooter on the sidewalks to our destination… everyone does this here, but it’s scary as hell when you’re weaving through people and narrowly avoiding hitting them. My roommate and one of my coworkers also agreed to go, and there was a group of Swedish expats volunteering as well. We split up into two teams, and carrying our loot in our hands, set out to find some homeless people. Beijing is freezing cold this time of year, so we had some difficulty finding anyone on the street. In fact, we walked around for an hour without seeing anyone. We thought we might try our luck in a subway station, and that proved to be correct, as we found two people sleeping behind the ticketing machines.

They were genuinely grateful and happy for it… I think they would be the only ones of the night.  After dispensing two of our care packages, there were still 8 left to go. We continued to try our luck in subway stations, but most of them have staff that kick the homeless people out, so that didn’t work either. As a last ditch effort, we headed where we knew we could find plenty of homeless people: Beijing Railway Station. Beijing Railway Station is one of my least favorite places here. It really makes you feel like you are living in a country that has 25% of the world’s population. Even in the middle of the night, it is bustling with tens of thousands of people. With all these people come the beggars and the homeless. We managed to get rid of our meals quickly enough, because as soon as it was realized that we were giving out free stuff, we were swarmed and mobbed by dozens of beggars — homeless and not. Even the greedy street merchants were begging for scarves and stuff, because hey, they could sell it. This was pretty disheartening to see… I felt like no one was actually grateful for what we did. After the fact though, I’ve learned that this kind of altruistic behavior is totally foreign to Chinese people. Talking to my coworker, the one who came with us, she said that her friends not only thought the guy who organized this whole charity effort was a weird guy, for simply wanting to help, but that he was a bad person. This is totally baffling to me… the Chinese collective consciousness can be very confusing and backwards-seeming at times.

Last week, some friends and I went skiing near The Great Wall. Even though it’s freezing this time of year, Beijing is right next to the fifth largest desert in the world, the Gobi, so it’s actually incredibly dry. In the 3 months or so that I’ve been here, it’s only precipitated in Beijing once, and that was right after I got here. So the snow was all man-made of course. It’s interesting that despite growing up in Colorado, I had never been skiing before, and I finally go for the first time in China of all places. There were only two runs open, the bunny hill, and the slightly steeper bunny hill. Even the runs that weren’t open looked like they would only be green-circle or blue-square in difficulty. There was only one lift open per hill, with about a 20 minute wait time, but I had more fun and spent less time waiting by going up the hill a few meters from the lift and waiting for people to fall off (it’s the kind where you just hold onto a pole). It was kind of a sport competing for the newly-freed lift poles with the couple of other people also doing the same thing. Through trial and error, I managed to teach myself how to ski throughout the day, which I thought was pretty cool. There’s a ton of improvement to be made, but I can make it down a bunny slope without falling off or crashing into anyone, which I consider a success! 

I’ll try not to wait so long between updates in the future. Tomorrow I’m making my first visa-run to Mongolia (the country, not the Chinese province this time), so I’m sure I’ll have a post to make about that.

Also, here’s the blog of another friend I’ve made here: afkforayear.com. If you enjoy reading travel stories, check it out. His travels have certainly been much more adventurous than mine!

This year will be my first Christmas away from home. It’s a little disappointing to not get to spend the winter season with my family and friends, but I have a good network of close friends and other expats here, I think the holidays can be special wherever you are or whoever you are with. I also just tried my hand at some Christmas themed blatant donation solicitation photoshopping, over on the right side, check it out —->

Peace! Never hesitate to shoot me an email or something.

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