Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Witnessing a new world

We’ve finally arrived in Beijing after an excruciatingly uncomfortable 14-hour flight! There were some pluses to the flight such as two Chinese meals that were served at intervals. These meals were definitely different than what I was used to on an airline. We had some interestingly flavored beef and a salad and some small Chinese pineapple shortcakes (that I really liked).

As we walked into the airport from the plane it already seemed like we were witnessing a new world. After claiming our baggage and taking a small tram to the airport exit, we were greeted by a large crowd of people, mostly Chinese, looking for their friends and family members arriving on the same flight as ours. 

In a strange way it felt like we were movie stars walking down the runway into a dimly lit area with flashing colored lights. As we walked outside we were, to our discontent, exposed to copious amounts of thick smog in the air, which at first appeared to simply be fog in the humid air. We drove to our dormitory through the city while gazing at foreign street signs and a new strange environment.

The dormitory is a common style of student housing with a mutual sitting area and a bathroom for three individual rooms for three students. Although we arrived late, a Chinese student named Jack, whose name is most likely his chosen American name, greeted me. There are some strange features about the dorms here in China. We were told that there is actually a limit on hot water in the dorms and that it must be recharged when it runs out by using a key card. Also the running water is not safe to drink in any areas of China so we all have water boilers in our room. Other than that, it is very similar to the dormitories in the U.S. We even have a normal sit-down toilet, which I actually did not expect to see.

Since everyone was hungry and thirsty, we all went to a convenience store on campus very close to our dorm where Dr. Luo bought us some small snacks since we were yet unable to access the ATM and draw Chinese money (Yuan/Kuai) to pay for ourselves. Tonight I’m going to bed early because we have a placement test in the morning, which dictates what class we will be placed in for the month. I’m nervous but at the same time excited to start classes. Ah! The excitement has risen here in Beijing University. I’m finally gaining a sense of direction in this absolutely insane city.

I had my second day of classes today, which was pretty great. I was placed in the first level of Chinese due to the placement test being really difficult. Luckily, I was placed with a few members of our trip’s group, which made making friends rather simple. All of the material covered for the past few days was learned from previous semesters in Chinese class. The teachers attempt to speak mostly in Chinese but break the trend in order to decipher what exactly they mean. The constant exposure to the language was definitely a big plus in terms of being able to begin to understand spoken words.

The food here is quite interesting. I don’t think I’ve actually eaten anything yet that I was actually really in love with besides the cake, which is a swirled soft cake with some icing on the edges. It’s kind of something that I know I can fall back on if I’m extremely desperate for food.

 Our ability to order food is almost completely compromised due to our nearly complete lack of Chinese-speaking abilities. The way we’ve been ordering food is simply to point and say “this” in Chinese although at times we aren’t even sure what exactly we are ordering. There are foods such as noodles, dumplings, eggs, ham, salads, fried dough, and soups. Everyone seemed to think that a lot of the things are very slimy. Interestingly enough, in the places we visited a lot of the food items were actually not available due to them either running out or only featuring certain things each day.

Yesterday we, as a group, went to the KFC about a mile north of campus in order to experience the difference in taste between the Chinese and American versions of KFC. It was very interesting but not like the KFCs in the U.S. at all. It was more of a chicken sandwich and seafood place in addition to the Chinese dishes implemented to give interest and familiarity to the Chinese people. The Colonel would be proud to know that all eleven original spices are in every dish haha. My new friend Josh ordered a shrimp sandwich and a black fungus, which was particularly interesting, but we thoroughly enjoyed his meal although we all thought our meals were smaller than we expected.

On our way back we were surprised and excited to find the Google building although we were not admitted into the building past the front desk. We also partook in the purchasing of two small elephant souvenirs from a street vendor. Sadly, we were scammed since we are unfamiliar with the bargaining techniques but I enjoyed the experience.

Around 20:00 three students in our group made presentations at the “Marble Boat” on the north west side of campus. It was surprisingly scenic despite our location in Beijing. The presentations covered the Chinese government, censorship, food chain adaptations and military issues. Everyone did very well and I actually learned a lot about some Chinese Culture despite the short duration.

I’m finally getting used to the food here, especially breakfast. I’ve been consistently eating eggs, ham, fried dough, and cake every morning. A strange feature of Chinese breakfast is that they don’t have drinks. It seems as though the majority of people sip on soup in the mornings but then have drinks for lunch and dinner. I’m accustomed to having a drink for breakfast so I’ve been bringing water each day. Today we took an excursion to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City with two other groups of students.

 Our tour guide Linda explained the history and current standings of these locations as we weaved in and out of traffic in our large bus. The traffic laws, whether or not they are obeyed, in China are vastly different than what we are accustomed to in the U.S. In the four car-lanes and one bike-lane we found ourselves surrounded by countless vehicles merging in and out of lanes seemingly without rhyme or reason but with an elegantly chaotic “structure.”

Tienanmen Square was our first stop and we were able to take pictures of all the structures in the vast area. There were statues of revolutionary Chinese people that resembled statues of the famous raising of the flag in the U.S.

The sheer magnitude and intricacy of the architecture were amazing. The amount of time and attention to detail that was put into these buildings is almost unfathomable. Seeing the historic picture of Mao Zedong and his mausoleum was surreal and larger than I thought they would be. Standing on such historic ground was a great honor.

In a humorous moment we were all getting a group photo by one of our instructors and a group of Chinese joined in taking pictures of us. Random Chinese people also frequently asked us during our journey if we wouldn’t mind getting pictures taken with them. In contrast there were also people wanting pity and begging for money in the street knowing that there were many wealthy tourists visiting the sites.

We were hurried along to visit the Forbidden City, which had security checks and a long line of people wishing to get in. This area was extremely large and is said to contain 9,999 rooms. This awkward number is usually said because the Chinese see the number 9 as lucky and don’t interpret the number 10,000 as being as meaningful.

 The structures in the Forbidden City were equally or more elegant than the ones in Tiananmen Square. There were countless buildings with beautiful architecture such as the ones in the picture below.

Although the tour was hurried along and rather short in my opinion, it was great to witness such ancient and historic landmarks. That night we decided to go out on the city. We decided to start out by going to a place called Laker’s which was an Americanized restaurant which offered many drinks and foods we are accustomed to in the U.S. After having a few drinks and snacks we headed to a place called V Club.

 It was a dimly lit club on the third floor of a building, which had a security check upon entering. When we went in we were blasted with unpleasantly loud music and flashing lights. The music was all American music with beats and sounds implemented to give it a Chinese feel. We had a bunch of drinks and danced with some Chinese people and at one point the manager of the club bought us all drinks. Everyone had a great time meeting new people and learning new things. We all returned home safe and sound after a long night of fun.
    — Edward Davis, physics major

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