Sunday, September 6, 2009

First Week Impressions

So here I am, in China. I’ve now been here about 1 week. This week has mostly consisted of getting oriented, exploring my neighborhood and district and hanging out with friends from Dickinson. I got here early, so I don’t actually register and start orientation at Beida until Sunday and don’t start most of my classes until the next Monday. But its actually been nice to have this time to ease into life in Beijing.

Its funny, but Beijing is much less different than I thought it would be. I expected major culture shock, but for the most part I haven’t really experienced it- I’ve been uncomfortable at times, especially in the first few days. Setting up a bank account, registering with the police and getting a cell phone on the first day were very stressful in a different language. But it got much better once I met up with other American friends, some of whose Chinese is much better than mine. I’ve been trying to take my cues from them and now Beijing is in the process of morphing from a big scary intimidating place to just another city.

There are some things that are different, of course. One thing that really struck me the first day, and still does actually, was how I will never be able to blend in here. I mean, I did know before I got here that Beijing was full of people who looked different than me and that I, with blonde hair and white skin, would stick out here even more than I do at college in PA (not even counting Scandihoovian Minnesota- I really think the fact that there is a whole state full of people who look just like me would be beyond the people here’s grasp.). But its one thing to know, and another to be here in a sea of Chinese people, being stared at, called at in horrible English and even asked to take pictures with strangers on a fairly regular basis. It’s really strange. One sort of nice thing about it is that people don’t expect me to know anything- any cultural mistake I make or language mix-up is written off: oh, she’s a foreigner, she doesn’t know better. Right now that’s ok, because I really don’t know better. But I imagine it might get annoying if I ever spoke Chinese really well to have people constantly talking down to me. Even now when I’m walking with friends people on the street will whip around and gape at me if I speak Chinese. I feel a little like a carnival sideshow. Look everyone at that weird ghostly thing! Ooooh and it TALKS! And I have to keep in mind that this is the University district in Beijing, flooded with foreigners. If I ever visit the countryside, it would probably get a million times worse. I’m not sure if the constant scrutiny and the surprise that I’m not just another stupid tourist is something that I’ll ever get used to or not.

Another place its easy to forget I’m in a foreign country is in the shopping mall district near my house called Zhongguancun. The newest malls are filled with western shops and Western ads. Its sometimes easy to make believe I’m in Mall of America or King of Prussia. But then, inevitably I am confronted with something than jars me into remembering where I really am. Billboards and t-shirts that try to have English, but often end up with unfortunate meanings or really bad spelling. Beijingers seem to think T-shirts with English are fashionable (along with a lot of other questionable things, like lots of sequins, moon boots, mismatched camo and matching outfits for couples and friends) even if the English makes absolutely no sense. For example, I saw a shirt today with “Bathing” and “Bath” scrawled all over it and another with We live Amerika, Sometimes War and Under the Red flag on it. Just odd, but mostly resembling the English of an average Beijinger. There’s things like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen (which, no, I haven’t visited but are popular) with strange quirks like ice cream mooncakes and McDonalds delivery men (the only bikers in the city who wear helmets!). Anything that truly resembles home is, of course, 10 times more expensive. Coffee shops, pizza places and any drink that’s not Chinese beer or baijiu (vile Chinese drink like vodka) are common enough, but almost not worth the extra kuai (money). Which I suppose is good, because those of us with smaller budgets will get weaned from American things faster. And then there are the things that are really out there and make me think “Oh, Sarah you’re not in Minnesota anymore.” One really interesting example: Today at the mall my friends and I kept seeing a certain stuffed animal/character in kitschy cutesy kind of shops. It was a three brown fat lumps on top of eachother with googly eyes. In other words, it looked like a googly-eyed, cutesy, pile of poo. But it couldn’t be. Or so we thought. But sure enough, we saw the same thing, on a pair of slippers no less, which were labeled “Excrement slippers” and identified the googly-eyed poo as “Poo poo the mascot.” Only in Asia would something like that fly. Completely bizarre stuff like that spice up the days quite nicely.

Wow, this post has become a novel. Anyway, the most important thing is that I’m having a good time so far. Thanks for reading!

Things I really like about Beijing so far/ things that amuse me:

-Street vendors and small hole in the wall restaurants. Somehow the food here is just as good as, or better than, the food in fancier restaurants. Before someone jumps on me- I’m being careful. I haven’t gotten sick yet. And anyway, I tend to think that these kinds of places couldn’t afford to have substandard products, because they’d be giving food poisoning to their neighbors, who then wouldn’t come back the next day. Any business like that would fail. I tend to think the places where normal people eat less often are more suspect!

-Chinese bakeries. Cheap, nice and quiet and very very good. A potential stop for breakfast on my way to class.

-The Peking University (Beida) campus. Its absolutely gorgeous, with tons of green spaces, trees, lakes and temples/statues. I’ll try to put up pictures when I can.

-Along the same lines, Chinese parks. There are lots and they are big and beautiful, decorated with small lakes, rock formations and temples and pavilions sumptuously painted. It’s just so nice after walking in the city all day to relax at one of these, watching kids play on the playground or older people playing checkers or cards. I haven’t yet seen anyone practicing martial arts or tai chi but I look forward to it! There are few tourists, so you meet the most interesting people who want to practice English or talk to you about America.

-Chinese markets and prices. The other day we visited the silk market (partly by accident) and at first were pretty overwhelmed by all the people yelling at us (keep in mind I was with my other blonde friend at the time) but then we met our Chinese American friends who helped us navigate it all. The selection was huge- any knock off you could ever want. After a while my eyes were tired from looking at all the beautiful, colorful things. I bought a “Jimmy Choo” purse for under 20 American dollars. I probably would have been able to get the price lower, too, if I had been able to speak to the vendor in Chinese. I’m definitely going back there to buy souvenirs.

-My host family, who are very welcoming and are making a lot of effort to make me feel comfortable and to communicate with me. I also love the fact that their house is both very close to Beida and close to a lot of other people from Dickinson’s host families. Zhen fangbian, a!

-Watching Chinese TV with my host family. I especially like dramatic shows and commercials, mostly because I can understand them at times and they’re funny. But the whole variety of Chinese TV is just fascinating. From a show where foreigners who speak Chinese to news-type programs that, as far as I can tell, focus on things like hazardous tree holes in sidewalks and how CNN is evil for 20 minutes at a time.

-The people I’ve gotten to know- mostly students in my own group or other foreign students. Some are from the U.S. but I’ve also met people from Argentina, East Africa, Nepal, and Korea and several from Germany. I’ve even been mistaken for German a few times, by both Germans and Chinese people. Which makes sense, of course, since I am a third German or something like that, but it still amuses me.

Things I don’t like so far (a little pessimistic I know, but also good to know):

-Pollution. The first few days we were here you could see the sky, but since then I haven’t seen it much. A fog of sand and smog and humidity seems to descend over the city on certain days, obscuring everything. And the water- there’s a canal by my house that apparently people swim in, but the thought makes me queasy. Oh, clear lakes and air of MN, I miss you so!

-The traffic. Nobody here seems to follow traffic laws- not pedestrians, cars, busses or bikers. Bikes are some of the worst. If I get through this semester without being hit by a bike (NOT a car, don’t worry) it will be a miracle.

-Trying to buy an English-Chinese handheld electronic dictionary. First of all, electronic stores are scary, with small winding halls in between brands and every employee yelling at you to come look at their product. Second of all, there’s not a lot of selection for dictionaries with English menus or instruction manuals and the ones that have them are really expensive. I’m planning on enlisting a Chinese friend to go with me to help me pick one out, because the sellers don’t speak much English.

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