29 March 2007

So Who's the Queen Mum?

I still have no computer, as it is perhaps more dead than I originally thought, so, alas, still no pictures. My deepest apologies. This today I am off to Anyang (Tibet is in two more weeks), so if you were planning on telephoning my for my birthday, I will not be here. If you weren't planning to phone me or didn't know that my birthday is this weekend, well, you're off the hook. As I am reduced to writing posts by hand then putting it directly into Blogger, the post, typos and all, is below:

Thoguh I've been in China almost 6 weeks now, I do not, surprisingly, miss Western food. When I spent a month in Shanghai, it only took two weeks until I started using class time to remember what bread tasted like. I drifted off to sleep thinking about creamy peanut butter and oozing jelly dripping from between two inch-thick pieces of spongy wheat bread. I paced the same grocery aisle looking for cereal but finding only rice. My stomach ached so badly for Ethiopian food that I thought it would collapse around itself.

This time, I have had one craving. I was walking out the door on the way to morning class when I was suddenly struck with an intense desire for macaroni and cheese. Two minutes later the craving was gone, but I found this to be a rather strange craving, as a box of Easy Mac has been sitting on the pantry floor at home for well over a year. Please do not send me pity macaroni.

The other night was Annetta's birthday, so ten of us went to the jiaozi fan guanr. In addition to about 7 other dishes, we ordered 150 dumplings.A few of us kept track of how many dumplings we could eat. I got to 16 (though to be fair, by the time I got there there were none left for me to eat), Annetta and Jason each pulled 17, and Gabriel, calorically impervious male that he is, ate 22 dumplings, followed by cheesecake, birthday cake, a kiwi smoothy, and a plate of food from the karaoke buffet. I'm a little jealous.

Sunday night we went out for "Greek" food. Annetta is half Greek, so we were all excited to have her order us an authentic Greek meal. What we forgot to think of was that it's hard to find an authentic Greek restaurant in America; trying to find authentic non-Asian in China is like hiring a Michael Jackson impersonator who has red hair and can't do the moonwalk to come perform at a Vegas casino. Not quite the same thing.

I guess the reason I'm not craving Western food is because, excluding the aforementioned Greek tragedy, I'm eating too well here. Or maybe it's because I don't miss much about America. I don't miss the clean (seemingly) Western-style toilets, the clean tap water, or forks.

Here, the Diet Coke tastes better. Pineapple and various other fruits are sold on every corner for very cheap. Public transportation is crowded but convenient, and hot water and tea are available everywhere. Even though men and women hoc lougies on the sidewalk, I can almost ignore that now.

The other day I went out for a walk and, for a few minutes, entirely forgot that I was a waiguo ren. For a short while, I didn't notice that people were staring. I forgot that this isn't technically my home because for a moment, it was. It was that feeling of comfort and familiarity that you recognize only when you don't feel it anymore. There are few places in the world where I have that feeling, and Wellesley has not been one of them, though maybe it will be when I return.

This walk occured before the events I described in my last post, but I don't hold that against China. I've been saying for awhile that my relationship with Wellesley is like a marriage. We're separated, currently in counseling, with an iminent but amicable divorce coming in June 2008. If this is true, the China is my mistress (or, mister, rather). China is to me what Camilla Parker Bowles is to Prince Charles. Perhaps when Wellesley and I divorce, China and I will be together again when we're old and grey. Except I won't wear all those silly hats.

24 March 2007

The Scarlet Waiguo Ren

Sadly, no pictures in this update. Read on to find out why. Please excuse typos, as well. No efficient spell checker.

On Monday or Tuesday night, I had another update all set to go. Due to some unforeen circumstances, you can see that that update never made it. And circumstances have since gotten worse. Rest assured that I remain intact, however my computer is another matter. It's a rather long, complicated, hair-pulling-inducing story, so for the sake of my blood pressure and yours, I spare the details and tell you that my computer has been rendered completely unusable. The hard drive needs reformatting or something like that. This has induced, as we say here, hen da de mafan, or, crudely translated into English, a huge pain in the ass.

As Jason played something of a role in the agonizing demise of my shiny Apple, Friday he took me to guomao, an hour's schlep from school, to bring my computer to an Apple-certified service center. Actually it's more like a few counters hidden on the sixth floor of another tall building where people take their iPods to be repaired. Even when I'm speaking English I don't understand thing about computers, so trying to keep abreast of exactly what the Chinese computer nerd was saying to Jason was essentially fruitless. Long story short, I need a new hard drive. Here's another math problem for you--it's easy but the answer is infuriating: if there are 8 Yuan to 1 USD and my new hard drive costs 3646 Yuan, how many USD am I spending? It costs almost as much as my plane ticket to Tibet.

Jason has also suggested that we go to a huge electronic retail center, buy a new hard drive and then let him install it himself, as I'm being charged three times too much. I'm not so sure. Electronics from that place are part of what started the problem; sometimes I just want to let the professionals handle it (though I don't even know if these guys at the Apple center are professional anyway).

So first they removed my old hard drive, which only took two hours, so Jason and I decided to kill some time in Guomao. Mistake. What happened in those two hours brought me to my lowest point in a long time.

I joke a lot about being a waiguo ren. I like to think that my (very limited, it seems) knowledge of Chinese puts me above the whole 'stupid waiguo ren' stereotype. But I keep forgetting that my face betrays me, and that I am still a waiguo ren to be had.

I don't want to go into detail about what happened. It's not something overly scandalous or overly shameful, and I incurred no physical harm. I got taken, I walked right into it, and I should have known better. In the grand scheme of things, it's not that bad-- the equivalent of less than 30 USD. There was once a CET student who got stuck had a Chinese thug stick him with a 1000USD karaoke bill, so I'm lucky. But the awful feeling that stuch with me the rest of the day is hard to put into adjectives. Shame, stupidity, naivete, frustration, anger, hurt, and embarrassment probably work the best. But there's also this issue of my pride.

I have eaten well in China. In fact, I feel like I have never eaten better. I've also eaten some sketchy things, though my stomach has remained essentially intact. But the worst thing I've swallowed has been my pride. I lost face big time in front of the people for whom I had to literally empty my wallet, in front of Jason, and in front of myself. Much as I wish I could escape the stigma of being a waiguo ren, I just can't.

And what hurts the most is the fact that it's my own stupid fault. I tried (through a few tears) to explain this to Jason, though I'm pretty sure he didn't understand. The fact of the matter is, if I spoke better Chinese, I could have avoided being had so badly. If I hadn't just nodded and smiled, if I could just understand what was being said to me, if I could just speak this language and just UNDERSTAND, I could have avoided this. I don't like that they found my vulnerability and took advantage of it. I've said before that I hate feeling stupid; I hate it even more when that stupidity is used against me.

The rest of the day, I felt like my face had been stamped with a big red "WAIGUO REN." And to fane my ire, that computer place doesn't take my Visa card, so I have to take out 3646 yuan in cash (and at the few ATMs that take my card there's a 2000 yuan limit) and schlep back on monday so that they one-week repair on my computer can commence.

The thing about China is that when there's an awful day, there's always a good one coming soon. Saturday, Jason, Victoria, Annetta, Xiaotong, and I went to the Forbidden City. The first time I went it was rainy and unpleasant, but Saturday was blessedly the nicest day I've seen not just in Beijing, but in China.

The sky was blue, and since it was unshrouded by the usual lid of grey smog and pollution, I could actually see the sun and feel it's rays. And it was warm. I didn't even need my jacket. It was perfect.

It also helps that I was with my friends. I feel so lucky that I found people whom I like and continue to connect with. And did you know that there's a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City? There is. Disgusting. Victoria and Annetta bought coffee.

Maybe the reason Jason didn't understand how I felt on Friday is because I don't really understand it either. I felt like an idiot, crying on the street over something I should have just dealt with. But I can barely use my mother tongue to describe my feelings, and that hurts even more. It hurts to know that while not everyone in China will cheat me, I won't know who those people are until it's too late. This will happen again when I let my guard down and don't understand what's going on. Though I love China, it will only continue to hurt me

19 March 2007

And Your Little Dog, Too

I’d say I’ve never been one to follow trends, Tomaguchi’s and 6th grade yoyos excluded. I would also say that I’m even less of a trendsetter. I just wear what I like and try to put it into something presentable and personal. When I started having to deal with East Coast winters, I discovered how useful scarves are. And then I discovered that they’re very pretty and come in an assortment of different colors. I brought two scarves to China, and have since bought four more. The thing is, everyone likes them. I wear them every day, and I get compliments on them all the time. And now, many people are wearing them. My friends have all bought some for themselves, and then they bought them for their roommates.

Earlier this week, my friends and I decided we would like to eat dog meat. Dog. As in, woof woof. The restaurant we tried first wasn’t serving it that night, so we ended up going to a Korean restaurant instead. The only previous Korean experience I’ve had is an awful (Yvonne will back me up here) Korean Barbeque in Shanghai. So I was a little apprehensive at first, but this place was amazing. (All photos, sadly enough for my photography ability, are by Jason Foong. He’s like the CET paparazzo.)

In the middle of eat table is a small grill. You order lots of raw meat, they bring it to you, and you roast it yourself. You smell of grill for the rest of the night, but it’s so worth it. We ordered dog meat, but it was a cold dish. Sounds gross, I know, but it was good. A little spicy, a lot oily, and stringy, not unlike pork. Here I am putting it on my plate:

Up closer and personal:

We also had these nifty rice cake cube things. They are soft and chewy and come dusted in sugar. I ate a lot of them, as you can see since there were only three left when Jason took this photo.

But our appetites for dog meat were not sated by this small appetizer. So Friday, Victoria, Jason, Annetta, Victoria’s roommate Xiaotong, and I went to a small restaurant and ordered us some dog soup.

And it was good. It was very good. The broth was spicy, the meat was tender, like a soft, well-cooked beef, and it was served on the bone. I want to eat it again.

And no, the idea of eating dog does not disgust me. I do not think it is cruel to eat dog, because I do not think it is inherently cruel to eat beef or chicken (though the way they raise and slaughter the animals is a different matter). I have a dog at home, Sparky, whom I love and adore, but I didn’t feel bad when I ate dog soup. I didn’t think of my cute fuzzy Sparky, because I wasn’t eating him. I wouldn’t eat him, and I wouldn’t knowingly eat your dog, either, at least not without your consent. But now all the Chinese roommates are telling me it’s time to eat snake. Hm. I don’t know why that sounds so creepy, but it does. My friends also want to try scorpion, so that may also make it into my digestive tract.

Friday night was my classmate’s birthday, so 26 of us CETers went out for roast-it-yourself meat. Method-wise, it was not unlike the Korean restaurant, however here you fetch the meat yourself from refrigerators, then bring it back to the table and roast it, cooking the raw meat with the same chopsticks you use to eat. Probably not so sanitary.

The restaurant also had a little help-yourself buffet on a card table that featured non-meat dishes. They also had some buttery, wonderful cookies. For some reason, that night I needed cookies. Now I ask you: how many cookies do you think one person can physically eat, after a large meal, in one sitting? Now quadruple that number and that’s how many I ate. I couldn’t keep track, actually. But I ate enough that even the guys around me were impressed. I think I may have scared them a little. I don’t know, it’s just been so long since I’ve had starchy, non-oily, sugary vittles that something in my brain just said, “Eat, and don’t stop.” I feel guilty.

So while I was getting drunk on buttery, sugary goodness and probably doubling my risk for diabetes and an assortment of bacterial diseases, a good number of the guys were getting drunk on beer. Keep in mind that Chinese bottles of beer are much larger than those in America (I believe I heard someone mention that they were 40 oz bottles. I believe I am correct, but if anyone from CET is reading this and thinks I’m wrong, please correct me). So, I have an approximate math problem for you: 26 students go out for dinner. Let’s say that half of them are male. The table goes through 35 bottles of beer. The females collectively drink 8 bottles. If half the males drink a third of the remaining beers, how many beers do the other half of the males drink? I don’t know if the stats are right, but there was a lot of beer to be had. It was an incredibly fun night. I ate too much in good company—if I had died last night, I would have died happy.

On the subway ride home, I had a conversation with two girls, one of whom has decided that she wants to live the rest of her life in China, because she just feels at home here. She looks like a waiguo ren—blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin. I find it admirable that she has not only found the place she wants to call home, but that it is so different from her original home and that she is brave enough to live here. No matter how long she lives in China, she will always be considered a waiguo ren. No matter how perfect her Chinese gets, or if she becomes a Permanent Resident, or if she never sets foot in America ever again, she will never, ever be considered Chinese in any way. I suppose it’s much the same for foreigners who move to America, but I feel like in America, someone who is Chinese/Chinese American (or anything, really) can still pass for American, at least superficially. Here, that is not the case. Even if my parents had moved to China and given birth to me here, pretty much nobody would consider me Chinese. This must be the sort of identity crisis that immigrants and their offspring go through. It’s tough, and I’m only beginning to understand it.

This conversation also got me thinking about where, if money were no object, I would consider home. I guess I haven’t seen enough of the world to know where I belong, but knowing how I get, I would need to be changing scenery with some frequency. I always want to have a home to come back to, a place to which I feel attached, but I also suffer from what my dad calls “itchy feet.” I get stuck in geographical ruts. I want the world to be my home.

Friday afternoon before the big roast-athon, I went with Jason to the coolest part of Beijing (in my opinion). In the Chaoyang district way out on the Fifth Ring road is a place with a bunch of buildings that used to be factories but that are now small art galleries. Jason was going there to do an article on a company that produces high-quality stereos and amplifiers and such, and he let me come along since I didn’t want to stay at school (geographical rut).

We also walked around tons of little art galleries all afternoon. I kept thinking of my dad, because he’s a sculptor, and I think he would have fit right in and loved looking at all the Chinese contemporary art. Actually, I found two paintings that I really, really wanted to buy. Here they are:

I don’t know how much they are. I’ll have to email the gallery and ask so I can find out how much money I should wish I had.

One of the galleries we went to was actually an artist’s studio. He was there painting and took to me right away because he though I was pretty. He also thought I was 17 or 18 years old.

I felt like a total idiot because I could hardly understand a word he said to me, but Jason had been to his studio last year and said that the guy had barely talked to him then, so I guess my waiguo ren-ness opened him up despite my shortcomings in communication.

This gallery/restaurant was a factory, and there’s still original paint on the walls from the Mao era that say (in Chinese) “long live Chairman Mao” and something about building a great country.

My internet’s not working so well (actually it’s not working at all), so sorry that these updates are rather far between. They also take a long time to write, prepare the pictures, and find internet that works for periods of 10 minutes or more. I’m also a little busy going out and having fun.

It’s nighttime as I write this, so zhu nimen hao meng.

13 March 2007

Fly Me to the Moon

Like a Phoenix, I have burst into flames and been reborn. Yes, that’s right—I’ve changed my name AGAIN. Long story short, I got lots of comments on the strangeness of my name and a professor told me she would give me a Chinese name. And so I am
ไป˜ ้›ฏ ่Ž‰
fu(4) wen(2) li(4)
Wen means ‘patterned cloud’ and Li is a type of Jasmine flower. Pretty, no? It’s a very girl name.

So with that out of the way, let’s continue.

As you can see from the photo, I have left CET, cashed in my plane ticket, and jetted off to Paris.

Ok, Jake, tell your heart to resume beating. Actually, on Saturday Victoria, Jason, Annetta and I went to Shijie Gongyuan, or as you English speakers would say, The World Amusement Park. The park is a bunch of to scale models of some of the world’s most famous landmarks, and also very convenient for endless puns, like “It’s a small world after all.” You can see the world without actually going anywhere, and you don’t even need your passport. Interestingly, there is a scale model of the Great Wall, which I guess was constructed for the extraordinarily lazy, since like 40 miles outside of Beijing is the real thing. The “Great Wall” also happens to be in the center of the park, giving new meaning to the name “Zhongguo” (China),which literally means “Middle Kingdom.”

Now, we four affectionately call ourselves ‘eating friends,’ because not only have we not picked a bad restaurant, we haven’t ordered a bad meal, and we’ve eaten pretty much every meal together. Adept as we are at ordering food, alas we are not so good at choosing days to go out. Saturday was freezing and windy and made walking around the amusement park not so fun, though we all relished saying things like “I’m walking over to India” or “Ooh, Egypt is behind the Sydney Opera House.” So we left after about an hour and went to eat (an amazing) lunch and go shopping.

I feel like by now I should be used to this waiguo ren thing. Sunday night as we were leaving dinner, I stood up and put on my jacket. A woman at the table next to ours not so subtly pointed at me with her chopsticks and alerted her numerous dining companions, who, of course, turned to look, to the presence of this wiaguo ren giant. According to Jason, people point at me everywhere I go; I guess I just don’t notice. I notice the stares as I walk by, but not the pointing. I remember after returning from Shanghai last summer, I had to get used to the fact that nobody looked at me anymore. It’s not that I missed it, it’s just that in China I condition myself to be looked at, or to getting weird looks from cab drivers. I also receive endless remarks about every facet of my appearance, which is stressful and tiring.

To some extent, I enjoy the attention. Most people like to feel important or special; I guess it affirms my existence, makes me feel like somebody in a country where somebodies are very few and individuality isn’t a big thing. I suppose it’s why some people enjoy being famous. And as someone who wants to work in Hollywood (albeit behind the camera), I suppose I must have threads of narcissism in my personality. But I don’t like being scrutinized, or noting that someone’s looking or pointing or staring at me, or having people comment on how I look. It’s quite complex and paradoxical. But when it really comes down to it, I don’t like it. It’s weird and uncomfortable.

But back to dinner Sunday night. Sunday we went out for Hakka , a Chinese minority cuisine. Phenomenal. One of the best meals I’ve had here (but aren’t they all).

I never eat fish, but this fish I ate multiple helpings of. It was sweet and a little bit spicy and sour.

We also had this tofu, which had a crisp outside and a soft inside. The broth it was in was a little bit salty and herby tasting.

Then there was this beef. If my taste buds had hearts, they would have gone into cardiac arrest from their euphoric rejoicing. The beef was served in a flavorful sweet/salty marinade, not a thick sauce, and the meat was tender and perfectly done and served in this cute leaf.

We also had these fat, clear noodles served with a salty sauce and salty, ground meat. Also fantastic. I must return to this restaurant!

After dinner we went for a walk in an attempt to counterbalance the obscene amount of food in our stomachs. And on our walk we ran into:

A film/TV show set! It was so exciting! They had a dolly track and some lights and a digital camera and lots of men shouting. We didn’t stay for very long, sadly. I would have stayed all night but I don’t think my friends would have gone for that. I don’t know what they were shooting because I didn’t ask because I probably wouldn’t understand what they said anyway. I know—I’m a wimp.

Monday was a rough day for me in more ways than one, but I definitely perked up when we went out for Japanese food. Unfortunately, to get to the restaurant we had to take a cab to the other side of the city (I’m so glad I found others willing to trek for good food!) during rush hour.

But isn’t every hour rush hour in Beijing? one might say? And one might be correct, but in Beijing there is rush hour and then there’s RUSH hour. We went out during RUSH hour. It took us an hour to get to the restaurant (it took us maybe 20 minutes to get back). It was stop and go the whole time. The drivers here like to play a game, and that game is: don’t let anyone else merge into your lane, just honk and flash your lights. They also do not drive in the lane lines—our driver straddled lanes for much of the drive.

Those of you who know me know that traffic gets me very irritated, and our driver wasn’t helping. Throughout the course of our pilgrimage, he smoked, picked his nose, repeatedly scratched himself, snorted, smacked his mouth continuously and nearly got us killed more times than I can count. He was awful.

But that all went away when the food came. I haven’t really had much Japanese before, I just know I like wasabi. My friends ordered lots of rolls.

These are called Pimp My Rolls:

These had salmon and cream cheese:

And these are called the Wasabi Challenge:

Clearly, lots of wasabi is involved, along with some crying, coughing, and intense blushing, that is if you’re a normal human being. Apparently I am not of the human form, because while it went up my nose and such, it really wasn’t that intense. I just ate the wasabi plain.

After dinner last night it was back to the study-Chinese grindstone, but, my pengyou, I’ll always have Paris.

09 March 2007

Like the Chinese Einstein

***Once I can get the internet to behave, the pictures to which I refer will be posted.****

It seems to me that China operates on its own theory of relativity. If the sky isn’t completely obscured by a lid of smoky haze, the air is good. If it doesn’t look or smell dirty, it’s clean. If you can get it for cheaper, it’s expensive. If it looks modern, it is, no matter the internal problems it suffers. In China, as long as you don’t look too deep or think too hard, you can still live life fairly happily.

Sometimes, I don’t know how people could live an entire life the way they do. On the streets all around our school, there are men and women on bicycles who tow around little trashcan-like ovens/grills. On this grill-esque apparatus, they sell baked sweet potatoes (and boy do they smell good). The thing is, they don’t have a permit to sell their food, so whenever the police come, they have to pedal hastily away and act like they weren’t just selling baked yams. And if the police don’t see them, they weren’t there. I can’t imagine how hard it must be not only to try and make a living that way, but also to try and do so while constantly on the lookout for cops.

These yam sellers are essentially invisible. No one remembers who they are, and the police will act like they don’t exist, since no one really cares if they’re selling yams anyway. It is so easy to be invisible in China—there are just too many people and too many problems.

In our textbook, we study a new society problem every chapter—family structure and divorce, marriage, population, and being an old person. When our teachers ask us if we think it’s a societal problem or an individual decision (say, to have kids, keeping in mind population), we, being liberal Americans, say it’s an individual problem. But in China, there’s no such thing as an individual problem. Guaranteed you’re not the only one who’s got a problem, and pretty much everyone suffers from the same problems. The big problem is that to fix one problem, you have to either fix five others first one or create an entirely new problem. That’s why while Beijing says the air will be clean for the 2008 Olympics, it won’t be. To clean the air they would have to shut down construction, severely limit driving, and tell people to stop using their outdoor stoves. No one would listen, and no one would enforce the rules. It’s just totally pointless.

They key to living in China is to go about you business and not think too hard about what the pollution is doing to your lungs, what that food is doing to your stomach, where those chopsticks have been, or what that cook has been touching.

And yet, with all the people in this country, in this city, in this neighborhood, I went out alone yesterday just to walk around, and I felt like the loneliest person on Earth. There are lots of barriers between me and the Chinese—language, looks, ideals. I was walking through a public square and someone deliberately flew a kite into my face. I know it was deliberate because I heard them laughing at me. That’s it—make fun of the waiguo ren giant.

Feeling lonely is really intimidating. I wanted to go into some of the shops and look around and maybe buy some more long sleeved shirts, but, and I grudgingly admit this, I was too scared. Whenever I go into a big store place, shop owners yell out at me to buy things. This annoys me and makes me feel very self-conscious. Furthermore, I’m a very underconfident bargainer. I can do pretty well if I’m with one or more people, but I know that if I go alone, I’ll pay too much and I’ll feel stupid. I know that this is reason enough to just go and DO IT ALREADY and quit being such a wimp, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. However I have vowed to myself that before I leave, I will go out alone and bargain for something.

But I must tell you that I am not imagining my obviousness. When I went out shopping last week, I was standing waiting for a friend to finish bargaining for her shoes. Another shop owner comes up to me, looks me up and down a few times. I look at him and say, “Shenme (what)?” He just looks at me and says, in English, “Tall.” Thanks. I hadn’t noticed.

Yesterday we had a little practicum in class, or what I like to call “Time to Make You Feel Dumb.” Our class went to a little park by school and had to interview the old people there. In China, parks are to old people what bars are to young people—the hub of activity and where you go when you want to go out.

The thing about a lot of Chinese is that they don’t want to waste their time to bad waiguo ren Chinese. Some of the old people pretend to be deaf; others just wave their had and you in dismissal.

I hate interviewing random people; I wouldn’t like doing it in English. Luckily we were allowed to do it in partners, and luckily the woman in the red cap who ended up agreeing to talk to us was awesome.

As you can see from Jason Foong’s photo, I am a giant. I understood about half of what she was saying, which made me feel good, or at least only half lost. (Un)fortunately, I have many more interviews with random people to go, and honestly, trying to figure out what some people are saying is like trying to decipher what a singing bird is saying.

Monday we went out for hot pot, since it was bitter cold outside. Actually, that’s an understatement. Coupled with the wind, the -1C temperature made me feel as though I was fresh out of an ice water bath and blasted with Arizona-in-the-summertime air conditioning.

This is a typical meal out—lots of people and lots of cameras. These photos also by Jason, since the few pictures I took didn’t look this pretty.

Last night CET arranged a class to learn how to bao jiaozi (make dumplings). It was nice not only to prepare food again, but also to experience what a pain in the ass it is to make dumplings, especially if you’re only one person. Since there were like 30 of us, it wasn’t a problem, but I can’t imagine being a wife and having to single-handedly make enough jiaozi to feed my family of 12.

Clearly we are not jiaozi aficionados, so most of the jiaozi had skin that was too thick or jiaozi that broke upon cooking. And yet I still ate 3 bowls of them. Soon I’ll be walking around in pajama pants, since my jeans won’t fit, and clothing in China is all too small for me.

And of course, a very happy 50th birthday to my awesome dad, who, though still a spry 49 at home, is actually 50 here. Cling to it while you can. I love you!

04 March 2007

yuanxiao jie kuaile!

Are you all ready for this? Because it’s a very long update (though I truly hope you read it, maybe in multiple sittings), with lots of pictures. It’s kind of weird how so much, and yet so little, can happen to me in one day, or even in an afternoon. Anyway, I”ll go in a rough chronological order.

The other day Tianqi took me to her favorite Sichuan restaurant. She warned me it was small, but I invited some friends along anyway. Well those few friends turned into like twelve people, which was totally cool with me. But clearly, I didn’t take Tianqi’s words literally enough, because the restaurant was less than twice the size of my room. So we got food there with another Chinese (male) roommate who lives two doors down while everyone else went to eat somewhere else to eat, and then we brought our food to their restaurant and ate with them.

Now, a little bit about this restaurant. Tianqi told me that she eats there at least once a month. That afternoon, she told me that she had taken her father there once and he refused to eat there because he thought it was too dirty, though she’s never had a problem. It made me just a little wary, but honestly, only a truly disgusting-looking place will stand between me and good Sichuan cuisine.

So we got to the restaurant. In addition to its aforementioned size (or lack thereof), the place was packed with people. I don’t think that the tables could have been smaller or closer. It was almost impossible to navigate the place without becoming awkwardly intimate with the other people trying to get through. I was the only waiguo ren in the place and felt a little unwelcome. Getting a table and a basket for food was a rather competitive endeavor.

So how the restaurant works is against one wall, there are plastic baskets filled with skewers of uncooked food: meats, tofu, vegetables. You go up to a window and they had you a (likely unwashed) plastic basket, and you take whatever food you want in your chao fan (stir fry) into your basket. It’s like a low-tech version of YC’s Mongolian BBQ, for those of you who would know. Then you pay, return your basket, and they serve you your chaofan in a bowl. But it’s not just any bowl. This is a bowl that many people have used before you and has not been washed. Instead of washing the bowl, they just serve everything in a plastic bag and put the plastic bag in the bowl. Easy clean up, quick turn around.

One thought that kept entering my mind the entire night: If Papa knew I were here, he may question my mental capacity. Papa is my ultra-amazing, wonderful grandfather. He is an excellent doctor and very cautious about sanitary conditions, especially those I encounter in China. He sent me here with a pharmacy of medications, gloves, and masks just in case. I love him, but I can imagine that with all the experience he has with germs, this place would look like a Petri dish of impending infection. Luckily, I haven’t had medical training, so I had no idea of the potential destruction I could be wreaking on my intestines.

I hardly need to tell you that the food was amazing. Spicy, oily, wonderful, and of no consequence to my bowels. I’m so going back. Sorry, Papa.

After a nice first week of classes, on Friday afternoon, three friends and I went to the Silk Road Market, a notorious waiguo ren draw and a place of massive bargaining. You can see here that they have signs of translation of how to say things.

I first I thought it was for the benefit of the waiguo ren so that they wouldn’t get totally taken advantage of. But there was no pinyin translation, so the ignorant laowai wouldn’t know how to say the things in Chinese. Then I realized it was for the stall owners so that they could better take advantage of the loaded, ignorant, obnoxious waiguo ren.

Bargaining is really hard, and the key to it is to act like it’s too expensive and then walk away. Usually you will get the price you want. We did pretty well bargaining; we definitely got lower prices than most waiguo ren since we speak Chinese, but since we’re obviously foreign, we were basically just less ripped-off. Still, 6 bucks for a knock-off Coach wallet is alright with me.

After shopping we discovered that, by a beautiful twist of fate, Beijing most famous roast duck restaurant was on the top floor of the Silk Road Market. Henry Kissinger ate there! Realizing we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, we went, spent 110 Yuan a person (most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for in China), and stuffed ourselves to the brim with roast duck.

That night pretty much everyone went out to a bar area called Sanlintunr, and I went too. I am a notorious bar hater. I hate it when music so loud the place sounds quiet, when there are so many people that it’s impossible to move, when the collective body heat turns it into a sauna of sweat. No thank you. But I went anyway, because I want to be with my friends and make new ones.

The thing about Sanlintunr is that it is a notorious waiguo ren district. Honestly, they only Chinese people there were selling street food or driving cabs. And these aren’t just any waiguo ren. They are, from what I observed, the most ignorant, obnoxious, and spoiled waiguo ren. And they are not just Americans.

The other thing about Sanlintunr is that, since it is such a waiguo ren draw, it is also a huge hub for drugs. The streets are lined with African Americans offering hashish, coke, pretty much anything you want. I’m not being racist or stereotyping, because it’s just the truth. They come from Africa to sell tourists drugs. Chinese children run around the street, try to hug you, and then steal your wallet. Doesn’t it sound fun?

So basically, it wasn’t. I got to hang out with people from CET, but my friends and I went back early after the police shut down the bar we were in.

Yesterday CET organized a trip to the Summer Palace. I went to the Summer Palace the first time I came to China, back when I was an ignorant waiguo ren (now I’m only semi-ignorant). Unfortunately, the day we went, it was raining so hard that all we did was walk through as quickly as possible. So I was looking forward to seeing what it was that I had supposedly already seen.

Well the weather and I seem to have gotten our wires crossed, because in addition to being absolutely freezing, yesterday was rainy and foggy. So Tianqi, Jason, and I trolled around Yihe Yuan for four hours in the cold rain. Despite the sick twist of fate, it was still fun. This photo of me and Tianqi was taken by my friend Jason Foong.

The day improved significantly when Tianqi invite me and Jason (since he has no roommate) back to her house to eat dinner. Before I came here, one of my biggest hopes was that I would make friends with my roommate and then go to her house, meet her family, and eat their food. And it came true after only a week and a half. This is the entrance to her building:

Here I am with her mom:

It was amazing. Her dad cooked so much food. My favorite (though honestly, it was all spectacular) was this chicken. I forget what it’s called, but it’s like sweet, spicy chicken wings only a million times better.

He also made a potato and meat dish:

And this nifty chicken and egg dish:

And two vegetable dishes, sweet potatoes, and this amazing sweet soup that’s designed for some holiday that happens to be today. The soup has these large, soft white balls filled with black, grainy stuff that tastes a little bit peanut butter-y. So so SO good. I ate a lot.

Eating was so interesting. You try eating chicken wings with chopsticks. It’s hard. They also put their bones on the table, which I found out only after her mom told me to do so, though I didn't understand so Jason had to translate. Table manners are also different: slurping, burping… seems more comfortable and relaxed than in America.

Tianqi’s parents are wonderful people. They were warm and welcoming, and told me to consider them my Beijing mother and father, which I now do. However, last night was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life.

I’ve discussed how accents are very hard to understand, and the speed with which people speak makes it even harder to decode just what people are saying. Well, clearly there was lots of talking going on last night, and I understood 40%, maybe 50% of what was being said. I know that they were asking me things or making conversation with me, but since I only got about half of what they were saying, all I could do was smile awkwardly, bite my lip, and feel like a total idiot. It’s times like this when I really question whether I have actually learned Chinese. I felt SO STUPID. Lacking the ability to understand or express myself is so maddening and embarrassing. When I tell them that I’ve been studying for two and a half years, I feel like a total joke.

Furthermore, there’s a lot of cultural stuff that I know I don’t understand. I probably offended Tianqi’s parents numerous times and made egregious breaches in etiquette, but they’re all too polite to tell me.

Later that night, a bunch of us went to KTV and rented a room and sang karaoke until 2:30 in the morning. Tons of fun. It was great. I sang a few times, but the music was pretty bad. I was forced into singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and “My Heart Will Go On,” though I voluntarily sang some Chinese songs. This photo also by Jason Foong:

And then, when we left at 2:45, it was snowing. Oh, weather, why dost thou hate me so? The snow is pretty much gone now, but it’s cold and windy.

And then today, my friend’s roommate invited me, her roommate, and our other friend to her house for lunch. I ate SO much that I plan on skipping dinner. We had tons of food.

There was this baicai (vegetable) stuff that was vinegary and a little spicy:

This gelatinized salty thing the grandfather made to look like a fish:

Quail eggs (which I didn’t eat because I don’t do eggs):

Cucumber/carrot/noodle liangcai, salty meat, the amazing fried sweet potato glazed with sugar and sesame seeds, two kinds of dumplings and two kinds of soup: the kind I had at Tianqi’s house, and another one with white balls filled with fruity preserve-like stuff. I am going to gain so much weight here. Forget the Freshman 15, we’re talking the China 20 (at least), though I really hope to thwart that.

Just a few little end notes. More than one person has compared me to a Barbie, which I find strange, since I bear no physical (or really, ideological) resemblance to a blonde, anatomically incorrect plastic toy. But hey, it’s meant as a compliment. I think.

Despite my frustrations, I am happy here. As most know, my first year of college was pretty much the worst of my life. Even though I’ve only been here a week and a half, I feel like this is what my first year of college was supposed to be like. I know that my feelings can and may change, but the transition has been painless and fun. Fingers crossed that it stays like this.