Hanging out with Artists / Working

WOW! I’ve come a long way here in Beijing. Two weeks ago, I had hours of free time every day, was nervous about job prospects, etc. Now I’m out of the apartment for 12 hours a day, teaching anywhere from 2 to 6 hours of class per day, and going on all kinds of exciting adventures (mostly working though; I barely have time for adventuring!)

My friend Valery asked me if I wanted to go to an “artist village” today during the day. I had no idea what that was, but it sounded interesting so I said “sure”, and Holy Crap! I had no idea how awesome it would be. I finished a one-on-one tutoring job up at noon, and took the subway down to the Central Business District to meet Valery and our mutual friend, Mike. We almost ate lunch at Subway, which would have broken my two year streak of not eating there since I stopped working as a “Sandwich Artist”, but fortunately we couldn’t find it. (I’d like to stick to my guns, but I did used to make the best roast beef+pepperoni+bacon+chipotle mayo+jalapeno sandwich in the world; I wouldn’t mind eating it again). Instead we ended up eating some artisan bread from a bakery, which was very interesting. There was bread with pineapple in it, and bacon-bread, and well, all kinds of bread. All that bread only cost ¥12, less than 2 USD.

We caught a bus out to the suburbs of Beijing, and the further out we went, the closer to “real China” we got. I was taken back to my time in Jiujiang this summer. Dirty streets, no skyscrapers, etc. It made me realize how hyper-modern the city center of Beijing is, and how isolated that is from the rest of the country. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After the hour long bus ride, we waited at the bus stop for about ten minutes for our ride to show up. Our ride happened to be a man in his early 40s driving a relatively new Subaru WRX. We got in his car and drove to his artist compound/mansion, which seemed totally out of place with the developing-nation China I had been in just minutes before.

His house was designed by world famous artist (and his personal friend) Ai Wei Wei, who also designed the Birds Nest stadium and who you may have read about in the news recently. We hung out with him for a couple hours, drinking tea, shooting the breeze, exploring his house, trying to feed his horse apples (his horse was really shy and wouldn’t take them). The artist, Wang Nengtao, spent about half an hour waxing about how Chinese girls are the best girls in the world, which was pretty hilarious to listen to. By the way, he spoke no English, so all of this was from what little Chinese I understand or translated through one of my friends. His home was undoubtedly the coolest house I have ever been in, check it out:

Valery, Mike, and Wang Nengtao

The coolest part is, he wants me to tutor his son in English! So hopefully I’ll be hanging around with him and other artists of Beijing a lot more. Also, if you’re in Denver, he has some pieces on display at the Robischon gallery located at 1740 Wazee Street. Here I am in front of the original version of his masterpiece:

Immediately after that, it was back to the CBD to teach an oral English class. The school I’m working at gives a topic which is to be discussed during the 2 hour class, but it being a discussion class, we rarely stay on that subject for long. I have six students in that class, the youngest being a 13-year old Singaporean kid who’s incredibly intelligent, and the oldest is a Chinese woman in her fifties. The assigned subject for today was “John Lennon”, but pretty soon we were having an in depth discussion about different schools of philosophy… it was probably the best class I’ve had yet.

Welp, that’s whats been going on in my life lately. I also want to give a shout out to my buddy and former coworker, Jordan, who is currently doing the teaching thing in Ghana. Check out his blog, he’s got a lot of interesting tales to tell.

PS – Continuing with my “hobby” of collecting encounters with foreigners, I’ve recently met Mexicans, a Bolivian, some Colombians, a Portuguese girl, a German, and a Mongolian/British guy. Oh, one other thing: I like to ask my students to guess which country I’m from… most of them guess France, Germany, or Russia, but they rarely say America the first time; I think that’s kinda interesting.

Happy Halloween!

Even though there are a lot of foreigner halloween celebrations here (Chinese people don’t celebrate it), I’m sad to say that due to money and work restrictions, I’m unable to participate this year 😦 Most of the celebrations were last night, since Halloween falls on a Sunday this year, and I wanted to go out and have fun anyways, but I had to get up early this morning to give some demo classes to potential students.

Immediately after that, I went to an Expatriate Expo on a whim and I had a lot of fun. My friend Valery was working the booth for “China Cultural Center” there, and she told me about it. I spent about an hour walking around picking up free toothpaste, drinking free wine and eating free cheese, getting a free massage and acupuncture… it was great! It was also a great place to meet other foreigners. I met a woman from Barbados who shares the same birthday as me, a couple of cool guys from Zambia, an Austrian, a French guy, and a nice Hungarian girl. I was reading this blog post earlier (well worth the read, by the way), and in point #6 the author says:

This stereotype is true. Americans don’t travel overseas as much as Brits, Dutch, Germans, Canadians or Scandinavians. There are some good reasons for this (big country, short vacation time) and bad ones (fear and ignorance). We don’t have a gap year culture like they have in the UK and we don’t tend to take vacations longer than a week. I can’t think of a single place I visited where I met Americans in numbers anywhere close to our relative population.

And I’m starting to realize just how true this is. I can count the number of fellow Americans I have met here, including my own roommate, on one hand. Meanwhile, I have met people from:

France, Italy, The United Kingdom, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Barbados, Zambia, South Africa, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia

I feel like I’m trying to “collect” encounters with people from all different countries; maybe I’ll make a map of where all the people I’ve met hail from 🙂 I love living in an international city like this, and every day I remind myself how lucky I am to have grown up speaking English as my native language. The one thing that every single foreign person I have met has in common is that they all speak English… many of them are trilingual, even. I think America should definitely put more emphasis on gaining fluency in a foreign language, from a much younger age, considering that so many other people in the world are expected to do the same with English.

On an unrelated note, one of my jobs has me working directly across the street from the most expensive office building in the world, which I find pretty cool. They call it the “pants building”, you can probably guess why:

My New Apartment

Sorry for the really long time between updates!

It feels pretty great to have my own place now, even if there are roaches and the bathroom (which is shared by five people) is completely filthy. It’s a piece of crap, but it’s my piece of crap, and I love it. I lucked out on my roommate situation; there happens to be a young American guy living in my apartment who is here doing the exact same thing as I am, in addition to one other guy and four girls, and a baby. I was hoping to at least have a roommate who spoke English, but the fact that I got an American I can also share culture with makes it all the better. The apartment is also only a five minute walk from a subway station, and just ten from Alvin & Valery’s campus. Here’s what it looked like when I first moved in:

 

I live on the 8th floor

 

 

And here it is, the next day, after a shopping trip to Ikea and a local market where I got to practice my bargaining skills, which definitely are not up to PAR:

 

The girly wall decorations are left over from the previous tenant… I’ve decided to leave them up until I can get something better to throw on there, because it’s better than having bare walls.

I’ve been going to job interviews like crazy… I’ve been to about ten, I would estimate, with one more per day for the next two days. A lot of places just keep your information and then students will request to meet you and you give them a lesson and they decide whether or not to hire you. Even though I’m on retainer in five different places (or more, I’m really losing track of all the different language schools I’ve been to), I haven’t had much teaching activity going on.

Anyways, I’m having a great time over here, and enjoying every minute. I’ll try not to wait so long before my next post!

Some E’erguna Stories

I’m writing this post at 7 AM, halfway through the extremely long train journey back to Beijing. At least this time we got tickets for a sleeper car, so it’s not totally uncomfortable and cramped, and I’m actually able to stretch out! Here are some highlights from the past two weeks I spent in E’erguna:

The Bathhouse

Since Alvin, AKA Chang Meng’s (pronounced chong mung) family has no running water, all showers must be taken at a local bathhouse, an ancient staple of Chinese culture. The whole experience is very interesting, and its like this: you enter the bathhouse and go up to the counter and take off your shoes, and are given a pair of shower sandals and a key on a wristband. The showers are separated by gender, so it’s off to the right side of the building to enter the male locker room. You get undressed, weigh yourself on the scale, then go take a shower in a big room filled with a bunch of individual shower stalls, which of course have no doors. At this point, you can choose to lie on a table and have an old dude in a speedo wash your whole body with a cloth, but that’s a little too weird for me, and also more money to spend (even if it only costs one US dollar, haha). Then you go to one of the sinks, where you brush your teeth and shave with the disposable toothbrushes and razors which are conveniently provided for you, along with toothpaste and shaving cream. After that, its off to go sit in the sauna for a few minutes to sweat out toxins or something– I just think it feels good. Then you rinse yourself off and re-enter the locker room, where the friendly attendant hands you a towel that is supposed to be warm, but I have never seen the towel warmer turned on. Now you can either finish up and leave, or put on the provided plush robe and shorts (which are extremely comfortable), and continue on to the second floor. The second floor offers a multitude of services… you can purchase beverages, take a nap in these big cozy recliners, watch news in said recliners, have a number of traditional Chinese medicine things performed on you (acupuncture, fire-cups, etc.), or even, gasp, hire a prostitute. All in all, I love going to the bathhouse; it’s like a complete spa experience and I come out feeling totally and thoroughly cleansed for only ¥6 ($1). The public nudity thing took a little getting used to, but I feel that I’m coming along well with adapting to Chinese culture and customs.

The Wedding

I got to attend my second-ever Chinese wedding here in E’erguna; Alvin told me the weddings up here are totally different, but it was actually almost exactly the same as the one I went to in Jiujiang over the summer: tons of great food, lots of singing, drinking, merry-making… very similar to a Western style wedding. When the announcer/DJ found out that there was an American in the audience, he called me up on stage and gave me a little mini-interview in Chinese… my answers got lots of laughs from the audience (I’m guessing because of my accent; I didn’t say anything other than some basic information about myself and “I love China!”). The bride and groom walked down the aisle to the song “Chariots of Fire”, which had me trying not to laugh, due to how cliched that song seems from my perspective.

The Debate

Alvin, his parents, and I were invited to have dinner at the apartment of his father’s boss and family a few nights ago. By E’erguna standards, they were really wealthy: they lived in an apartment, for one. Most people in E’erguna live in little houses, which strangely are less expensive than living in an apartment. They also had running water, and gasp!, an actual sit down toilet. You better believe I seized the opportunity to use a toilet that wasn’t a smelly hole outdoors or an also-smelly hole indoors! After the delicious meal, we were sitting around shooting the breeze, when Alvin mentioned to the man of the house, who is a high level government worker, that I believed Taiwan is it’s own sovereign nation. What followed was a very cordial and friendly debate on the nation-status of both Taiwan and Tibet. He maintained that they are part of China, while I was arguing that Taiwan is it’s own country and that while China controls Tibet, it should be it’s own country. I was a little bit scared that I was having this conversation with a government employee, considering the Communist Party’s position on these matters, but at no point were there any negative feelings between us. (I’m not worried about posting this from Chinese internet because I’m connecting through a VPN; I can also view youtube and facebook and other sites that have been blocked by their government– including this one.) Neither of us changed the other’s mind, but I feel like this was a very good experience to have regardless.

TV Tower Hill

Chang Meng, his cousin Wu Yang and I spent an afternoon one day going to the top of a big hill overlooking the city. It was freezing cold and very windy, but I got a lot of beautiful photos of the city and the wide open grassland, looking out into Russia. The three of us also had a lot of fun just taking goofy photos of ourselves and messing around. Even though Wu Yang only speaks like 20 words of English, we became pretty good friends on this trip. Whenever we went shopping, she would come with us, and we often had lunch at she & her parents’ home; I even became the honorary “American Uncle” to her year old son An Zi Bang.

—–

Well, I’m back in Beijing, and I just moved into my new apartment. I’ll make a post about it within the next couple days.

Photos from Beijing and E’erguna

I’ve put some pictures of my travels so far up online. The full gallery can be seen here.

A huge incense burner

National Day

I once again find myself in the frigid northlands of China’s Inner Mongolia, having returned to Alvin’s hometown with him. The very small city of E’erguna is a mere 15km from both the Russian and Mongolian borders, and Alvin (Chang Fusheng) tells me that it is the smallest population center classified as a city in all of China (the population is 80,000).

The city of E'erguna

My first and only full day in Beijing before we left for up here was a lot of fun. Sharing a hotel room with long time acquaintance and world traveler, Eck, we spent my first morning in the city touring about and doing some sightseeing: we took the subway from Wangfujing street (which by the way, has come a long, LONG way from the filthy avenue full of street food vendors and beggars that I first saw it as two years ago) up to the Olympic center to check out the stadiums. After that, it was a walking tour of the hutongs, Beijing’s old neighborhoods, which, while very beautiful and interesting, are a major tourist trap. We could hardly go a minute without someone shouting “HELLO! RICKSHAW TOUR?”, which more often than not were the only three English words spoken by the drivers. We opted to go on foot instead, and we spent 6 hours walking all over that section of town.



In the afternoon, Alvin and I met up with a solo traveler named Peter, from Canada, who had also arrived in Beijing the day before. I actually met Peter on an online travel board, when I found out we were both flying out of Vancouver airport just a few hours apart from each other. We wandered aimlessly around Wangfujing for an hour, checking out another one of the enormous shopping malls that seem to be a dime a dozen here, before taking the subway back up to Alvin’s school in Chaoyang district, where we ate dinner at a really good restaurant near his campus. I finally got to try Peking Duck, and it was indeed very delicious. After that, we went to the Carrefour supermarket to stock up on food and water for the thirty hour train ride ahead of us; and going to the supermarket was an experience in and of itself.


I once again saw all the bins of meat hanging out in the open air, only this time it was actually clean, refrigerated, and free of insects. I was most surprised by all of the American import products which are available: Progresso soup, Old El Paso refried beans, Hunt’s Tomatoes, along with all the classic American cereals… even Honey Nut Cheerios, king of all breakfast cereals. Also, they actually sell real, refrigerated milk there; all the milk I had seen before was served warm in a can, and didn’t even taste like the milk back home. One thing I found humorous was that all of the cereal mascots had been converted to Asian characters, as you can see here with Snap, Crackle, and Pop.


The thirty hour train ride the next day was made no easier by the fact that I’d done it once before. It was insanely crowded, as they sell standing room only seats (and it being the day before a major national holiday). Just to get to the bathroom you have to squeeze past, push, and shove your way through about twenty people… when you are in the most populous nation on Earth, you really can’t have any pretensions about your own personal space. The only way I was able to sleep in those really uncomfortable seats, hunched over on a tiny little table, was by drinking lots of beer. Oddly enough, thirty hours on a train feels like about the same amount of time as twelve hours on a plane.


E’erguna is cold as hell (in a frozen over state, of course), and the fleece pullover I brought was definitely not enough to keep me warm. Also, I forgot my hat in Beijing and didn’t listen to my mom when she said to bring gloves. Fortunately, I was able to buy a really warm hat and gloves for ¥10, a little over $1.50. I also got an extra jacket, a really nice leather messenger bag, and a beautiful leather wallet, all for under $50 total. The prices were heavily discounted as yesterday was National Day, China’s third major holiday after Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and Mid-Autumn day, which was just a week ago.

National Day is to China as the Fourth of July is to America, minus the whole thing about gaining independence. The People’s Republic of China was formally established on October 1st, 1949, and the government has given a week’s holiday to all the workers since then. Alvin tells me that a couple of years ago, the government tried to reduce the number of days off from seven to three, but the people wouldn’t stand for it, so they changed it back. The celebrations are more low key than we are used to… primarily families will just cook an extra special meal, and fireworks could be heard going off throughout the day. I watched Alvin’s dad kill two turkeys in the afternoon, and a couple of hours later we were eating them; excluding fish, that was definitely the freshest meat I’ve ever eaten.

China can be really refreshing in that there is no debate that things such as evolution and global warming are fact, as they are, but some of the other superstitions they have are simply baffling. On the train, an old lady sitting in our compartment said that she could tell by the style of clouds in the sky that the people that lived in a certain town weren’t nice people. Also, there’s a lot of belief in luck… they think certain people have innate luck and they’ll let these people do things like pick out their ducks eggs for them, in the hopes that they’ll get a higher percentage of female ducks to hatch.

Anyways, I’m having lots of fun here, and having experienced much of this before, China’s feeling a lot less like a foreign country and a lot more like my new home. Alvin’s hometown is very relaxing, and the fresh air is a relief, and the home cooked meals can’t be beat, but I’m excited to get back to Beijing to pick out an apartment and start finding some work. My friend Valery gave me some expat magazines containing dozens of things to do in Beijing on a nightly basis… I can’t wait to go try to win some money in a pub quiz or go to some of the crazy concerts they have here (there’s one thats Gorillaz-style hip hop as performed by puppets, haha).

Till next time,

再见

I’m On My Way

I spent the last couple nights sleeping on a gigantic, 80-pound bean bag at Chapman University in sunny Orange County, where my friend Phil attends film school. I had a ton of fun out there, and it felt good to get a taste of the college life, since I’m missing out on it right now. Even though we didn’t do anything notable or crazy exciting, just hanging out in the dorms and going to the beach, it was a great time and incredibly relaxing… and I certainly didn’t take the sunshine, warm weather, and blue skies for granted, as I probably won’t be seeing those for a long time 🙂

I love the carefree attitude that everyone seems to have in the dorms. When the roommates come home to find a hammock set up in the kitchen, rather than say anything about it or take it down, someone will just end up crashing there for the night.

On the drive from Orange County to LA, I saw both the Goodyear Blimp, in it’s parking spot, AND the famous Randy’s Donuts, which happens to be pretty close to LAX.

Right now I’m writing this post from the airport in Vancouver… definitely one of the nicer airports I have been in. The staff is very friendly (except for you, border control agent), and its interesting to note that none of the security in here is carrying firearms. Strangely enough, this makes me feel MORE safe, not less. When I try to watch certain Youtube videos, it won’t let me because you can only access them from the USA. That’s still better than China, though, where the government blocks ALL Youtube access.

Anyways, I’ll be in Beijing in approximately 12 hours. I’m pretty sure the plane is going to warp through time and I will get to see the end of this day and all the way through the night, and then land in Beijing at 2 in the afternoon on Monday (tomorrow). I’m totally excited and I’m sure it will be a blast! Keep checking back to see more of my adventures, and if you’d like to receive an email whenever a new post goes up, there’s a little box at the bottom of the page to do so.

再见 zai jian

PS- Some goals I have for when I’m in China:

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

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

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

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

Back to Beijing

Towards the end of my most recent trip to China, two months ago, I was offered a job teaching English in a school to Korean students, and I decided to put my college plans on the back burner for a year or two and take it. So here I am, getting ready to head back to China’s capitol in less than two weeks.

Beijing West Railway Station

My plan is to live and work in Beijing for six months to a year, either getting a room in an apartment, or if I’m lucky, staying with a host family while I’m there. I’m still ironing that part out. After Beijing, I’d like to take the money that I’ve (hopefully) saved from working there, and continuing to travel around the world for a while longer.

I’ve created this blog to keep my family and friends back home aware of what I’m up to. I hope to share some cool culture, stories, and photos, and I’ll hopefully make some lifelong friends in the course of my adventure. (I had to choose between wordpress and blogspot…. but blogger is blocked by the Chinese government O_o)

Feel free to drop me a comment or an email at any time, I enjoy corresponding with everyone.