Sunday, March 29, 2009

Random bits of Beijing

For this post, there won't be a specific theme, I'll just talk about several things I've done in the past few days.

Yesterday the Americans went to the Temple of Heaven (tiantan/天坛). It's a famous temple in Beijing, and it's one of four (the others being the temples of earth, sun, and moon). In imperial China, the emperor came here just once a year to pray for a good harvest, and now it's a tourist attraction (naturally :P). You've probably seen a picture of it before, but just in case I have this picture above for you to awe at. It was okay as temples go, at this point in the trip we've all seen more than our fair share of temples, and they all look relatively the same. Our guide, Wang laoshi, was wonderful. She came to America last fall so we know her well, and she has the amazing quality of always being chipper and positive and smiling. She's really great. After the temple we went out to lunch, where we ordered everything we've come accustomed to eating here in China (eggplant, sweet and sour pork, beef and noodle soup, fried noodles, etc).

After the temple, I went with Ms Richard, Ms Kamerik, Carolyn, and Rebecca to the clothes fair. It was a fair that was running through March 31 at Ditan Park (Temple of Earth Park). The best way to describe it was the Chinese version of a flee market. There were stands everywhere selling all manner of goods, from clothes to jewelry to Santa Claus pottery and nativity scenes. About 98.5% of the clothing was so ugly I had to laugh at it, since I've grown used to seeing people wear things I wouldn't be caught dead in. The one thing I did buy were silk scarves. My mom told me that the one thing from China she wanted was silk scarves for every adult female in my extended family, and when we were in Shanghai I forgot to get some. Luckily, they were less expensive here, and I hope I chose nice ones.

Saturday night I went out for Mexican food. This may seen like an unremarkable thing to say, but it isn't. America has a long history of immigration, and with it a long history of ethnic food. Immigrants came, and with them they brought their local cuisine. China's very different. There is no real history of immigration here, and 95% of the population of 1.3 billion is Han Chinese. There are about 50 ethnic minorities and different cuisine in different regions, but everything is relatively the same, with not nearly as much variety as we have in America. Lately I've been craving Western food, so we did some research and found that there are two Mexican restaurants in Beijing (yes, only two in the entire city). My host mom found the address of one of them, and Saturday night we went. It was a small restaurant, and I noticed two things as I walked in: the staff was entirely Chinese and there was no one there. Nevertheless, we sat down for a meal of quesadillas, fajitas, and nachos. Considering it was Chinese Mexican food made by Chinese people, it was amazing. It reminded me of home, and satisfied my craving for Western food. Perhaps I can go back.

Today I went to Chinese Whole Foods. I was bored, so I called up Carolyn and suggested we go to an American food market that Hannah told me about. We hopped on the subway and went. It was in southeastern Beijing, the same area as the Mexican restaurant. According to my host mom, this area is the best/most expensive shopping in Beijing, and boy was she right. The market was in a shopping mall that housed brands such as Gucci, Versace, and Bvlgari, basically really really really expensive stuff. These malls are not China, they are America. If it weren't for all the asian people, I would forget I'm here. We walked into the market, and looked in awe at what they had. There were many products that you can't find in regular shops in China, and even things that didn't have any Chinese on them except for a small label the supermarket put on them. The highlight was when I spotted the brownie mix. I haven't had brownies in two months, so I went straight for them. I was told before I got to China that Chinese people don't have ovens, but my host parents said that we did and I trusted them even though I haven't seen ours. Jimmy says that it can get up to 350 degrees F, and I'll take his word for it. I can't wait to make them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of a cultural festival that Jingshan's hosting. Becky and Elias are MCing the event, and the Americans are singing "Beijing huanying ni" (Beijing welcomes you, one of the anthems of the Olympics). They wouldn't listen to us when we told them we can't sing, so it should be interesting. The other exciting piece of this week is that the Austrians are here. Jingshan has a relationship with a school in Austria, and every year around this time a group from Austria comes to participate in the cultural festival, and they arrived Saturday. I'm so excited to have other foreign people to talk to, especially Europeans. Apparently they're only here for a week, but that's okay. I just need to get through this week, because next week I go to Chengdu, and that's going to be awesome. I can't wait. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Half Way In/There: The Review Post

It's March 23, 2009. I've been in China for exactly two months, and I'll be here for two more. This is where I reminisce about everything that's happened and everything that will happen.

I'll start off with what I miss about home. It probably says something about me that what I miss the most is not my friends or my family (though I love you guys a ton), but the FOOD. I have spent the past few days fantasizing that I could go back to America for just a couple of days, eat, and return to China. In no particular order, I want: a bagel with lax and cream cheese (or lax spread), pepperoni pizza, pasta, jambalaya (my mom makes a killer one), a burrito, a pastrami sandwich, buffalo wings, french onion soup, and clam chowder. Just this morning, I had a conversation with Carolyn in which we talked about all the things we want to eat. I told Jimmy about this conversation, and he told me that the Chinese kids had the same talk in America. I guess it's normal to miss your local cuisine.

I've done so much so far that it's impossible to remember everything. I've taken about 1,000 pictures give or take (a completely random estimate. let's just say I've taken quite a few) of everything and everywhere. I've experienced first-hand what it's like to go to a Chinese school, and let me just say that it's not any better than an American high school. For one thing, they don't believe in heat. As long as it's not raining or windy, they have to go outside and do exercises in the morning, even when it's freezing out. In class, the teacher mostly just talks without much participation from the class. The uniforms are cool. I think the top by itself with jeans looks fine, but with the blue sweatpants it looks kinda ridiculous. There's always debate going on in America over whether we should have school uniforms, because it eliminates the pressure to dress well. After wearing a uniform to school for a month, I can say that I like wearing my own clothes to school everyday.

There are several things about China that are completely different from the US. Some things I heard in the run up to the Olympics that China/Beijing was trying to eliminate are still going strong. There's the spitting for one. People spit constantly, usually preceded by a loud clearing-of-the-throat sound that I've come to cringe at. The driving is insane, but I've gotten used to that. I've had to hone those look-both-ways-before-crossing skills that I've let slide since 2nd grade. Here, cars won't really stop, so if you don't look, you're dead. The shoving isn't so bad. If you're not careful, someone may take your spot or run up ahead of you if you're not paying attention, but other than that it's not a huge problem. The subway is always crowded, and the only time I can ever sit down is on Friday nights past 9pm. It's like Boston's rush hour, but all the time.

I've found myself thinking anything priced over 50 yuan is too expensive, even though that's only about $7. I've been to "America" a few times, and by that I mean gigantic ultra-capitalist style shopping malls. I don't generally buy anything because I've come to the conclusion that any article of clothing a Chinese person will buy is ugly. Most of the things they wear I wouldn't be caught dead in, and sometimes it genuinely makes me gag. It's also expensive. Anything you see in the big Western malls is marked up so that it's basically as expensive as it would be in the US. For example, a sweatshirt that would be $25 in America is 170 yuan here (divide{¥-$}/multipy{$-¥} by 6.84 to convert).

My goals for the rest of the exchange are to improve my Chinese and to explore more. I haven't been speaking as much Chinese as I'd like, although I can understand people pretty well now. Reading and writing's a whole different story. I'm learning more grammatical structures and useful things like conjunctions and prepositions in our Chinese class. There are also parts of Beijing that I still haven't seen, since it's such a huge city. I virtually never go to the western part of the city, and I'm not sure what's there. I've also never gone north of the Olympic Park, or much futher south than Tiananmen Square (though we're going to the Temple of Heaven this weekend, which is further south than that). I haven't seen Mao's body, which I definitely will do at some point. There's so much I want to do, but I have no idea where to start. I just hope the next two months will be as fantastic as the last two. At least it'll be warmer!!!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Forbidden City (gugong/故宫)

This is the perfect example of the contrast between new and old in modern China. Ancient buildings in the foreground, modern cranes building skyscrapers in the background. Thank you Clala.

Yesterday we went to The Forbidden City with the school. It's free for students on Tuesdays, so that's why we went during the week.

First off, the weather was spectacular. It was in the mid-70's (today was mid-80's), with mostly clear blue skies. Nothing really falls from the sky here, at least not this time of year, so the only thing obscuring the sun and the sky is generally a hazy layer of smog. It sounds worse than it is. You don't really notice it, at least I certainly don't (at least I mean in terms of difficulty breathing or anything like that. The level to which it disgusts me on an emotional and ethical level is an entirely different story). Anyways, It was great to be going on a day like yesterday.

I'd love to tell you that it was the best experience of my life, but it wasn't. It was interesting, don't get me wrong, but in the end it was just layer after layer after layer of really old buildings that all look the same. It was cool to think that centuries of emperors once ruled all of China from where I was. The school got us audio guides to help us appreciate the site more. Mostly it told us stories like "This is where the emperor housed all his concubines. He slept with a different one every night. One emperor even, according to legend, died from over-excitement with his concubines." Lots of stuff I really would rather not know. Interesting, but a little creepy (don't forget the eunuchs too).

Overall, I'm glad I went. The Forbidden City is like the Great Wall, one of those things that if you come to Beijing (and frankly any part of China) you have to go to, if not purely for their I've-been-there story value. If you ever find yourself in Beijing, I highly recommend you visit it.

Tomorrow we're going to an exhibit on Tibet that my host mom told me about with our geography class. I'm really excited, because anything about Tibet interests me. I'll write about that probably this weekend at some point.

One last thing. I haven't seen Mao's body yet. It's housed in a building to the south of the Forbidden City, in Tiananmen Square. I'm not sure if/how you get tickets, but I'm definitely going to try before I leave China. Because that's also something you have to do when you come to Beijing. I'm positive you can't take pictures of that though. Darn!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring in Beijing

Sorry I haven't written a new post all week. I've been otherwise engaged, and just generally lazy. What can you do.

The only thing I can remember that happened last week was our presentation to the sixth grade, which basically means that last week was pretty boring.

While we're here, we have to give several presentations to various people/grades on America culture. When the Jingshan kids were in America last fall, they gave the same kinds of presentations on Chinese culture. We gave this one to the sixth grade, which is about 100 kids (I think). We made a massively large powerpoint presentation, in which we talked about various aspects of American culture, such as school, food, hobbies, TV/movies, etc. My topic was TV/movies, so I made a short slideshow with pictures of different genres of movies and TV, including The Dark Knight, Grey's Anatomy, Law and Order: SVU, Gossip Girl (at the urging of Hannah), and Slumdog Millionaire. I simply explained each type of movie or TV show, and asked the kids which one they liked the most.

The funnier parts of our presentation were as follows: Elias "singing" the YMCA song, teaching the kids the wave, teaching them "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", and mistakenly writing in Chinese next to the picture of the swimming pool "swimming car" instead of "swimming pool" (the word for pool and car sound the same, but are NOT the same character). It was overall a really fun/funny experience and I'm psyched to do it again this Friday, this time with the 8th graders.

This week will definitely be an eventful one. Monday, we go to Beihai Park which is a little NW of the Forbidden City. On Tuesday, we turn in our first paper (yay!) of the trip and then venture to the Forbidden City. I'm really excited for that not so much because we're going to the Forbidden City, but because we're going to the Forbidden City in 75 degree weather!!! Thursday we're going to an exhibit on Tibet at the Nationalities Center, and Friday we give our second presentation. Hopefully it will be a fun week.

On another note, Spring has arrived!!! In Beijing, it switches from winter to spring almost overnight, with no real transitional period. One week it was cold and cloudy, the next it was warm and sunny. Today it was a balmy 65 degrees!! I'm loving the warmth, after what seemed like such a snowy winter (in Newton, I mean. I didn't even get half the snow, after I left Boston got hit with a few more feet of snow!). It's great to feel spring in the air again, though it makes me miss home a bit. I always love the way spring smells in Newton, especially right after it rains. That's what I miss most about home, the feeling I get after a spring rain, when you can smell the flowers blooming and the warmth of the sun and that nice breeze just take you away.

Enough daydreaming, I'm off to bed. I promise I'll post more this week, as I'll definitely have more to talk about. Zaijian!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Olympic Park

The seats are designed like they were in the water cube, though I'm not sure why. After all, earth doesn't splash up, unless it's lava I suppose.

Today we went to the Olympic Village. It's not the first time I've seen the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, since I walked around them about a week after I got here. This time, however, we got to go inside them. The Jingshan School takes every exchange group on several outings to all the really touristy places in Beijing, like the Forbidden City, Great Wall, and the like. Our group, being the first to go after the Olympics, is the first to be taken to see the stadiums by the school.

We arrived at the school at around 9am, and hopped on a bus to take us to the village. When we got there, we walked to the Forest Park. The Park is at the northern edge of the Olympic Village (called ao yun cun, 奥运村 in Mandarin), and I have to say it isn't very exciting. It's called a "Forest" Park, but there's not that much forest to speak of. It's more like a lot of brown grass with a tree planted every few meters or so. We found a coffee shop near a lake, and got lattes. Then we went back.

Walking down from the Park to the Nest/Cube, there are these really funky looking lampposts everywhere. Each of them is outfitted with speakers, and they kept broadcasting the same three songs over and over. It was a little weird to be hearing music outside like that, but it was fun to dance to it.

The Water Cube was our first stop. You've all seen pictures of it, so you know that the outside looks like bubbles. When we first stepped inside, it was very bluish-white looking, which I guess you'd expect. What made me laugh was that they were selling bottled water. It seemed somewhat ironic that bottled water was on sale inside a giant "water cube". Anyways, we promptly walked into the room with the pools. It looked just like it did during the Olympics and in pictures online, though today it was noticeably more serene. The seats are colored so that towards the pools there are more blue seats, and the farther you go up the less blue there is. It's designed to look like splashing water. Becky and I decided to sit down and absorb the atmosphere for a while. We sat and listened to the music, which was very peaceful and relaxing. After we were finished taking pictures (literally everyone had a camera. Usually I feel too touristy in these situations, but everyone else was taking pictures, so I didn't feel weird) we sat and almost fell asleep it was so nice. I kept thinking to myself, "This is where Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals. Here he defeated that guy by 0.01 seconds. That actually happened in this room. Holy crap." It was a somewhat surreal feeling.

Next stop was the Bird's Nest, site of the opening/closing ceremonies and the track and field events. I'd read before that during the Olympics it had a seating capacity of 91,000 people, although post-Olympics it has been decreased to 80,000. That's still a ton of people, and for some regional perspective Fenway Park had a capacity of around 35,000 (granted, that was built in 1912, when I'm sure attendance at sporting events was smaller. If only Boston could ever make plans to rebuild that darn thing. That's another tangent altogether). As we walked towards the main field, it looked to me a lot like the stadium for the Washington Nationals in DC. That is until we made it onto the field. My first impression was that it was gigantic. I mean like epically big, so huge you can't imagine it. We walked around the stadium, where there were the Olympic Mascots (called Fuwa). There was a jumbo tron playing the same sort of video as in the Water Cube. The Olympic torch was noticeably gone. On one side, people dressed up in the mascots put on a little show for the audience. It was hilarious, because the music was really funny and those poor people could barely move in their costumes. As we exited, we walked through the gift shop where I considered buying Olympic paraphernalia, but reconsidered thinking what my host brother brought to me in America was sufficient.

After that, we had lunch and went home. It was a really fun experience and I'm really glad the school took us.

One last thing. I was talking with my mom (my real mom) last night, and she said she saw a news report by one of the networks about how Beijing is struggling to find a use for the Bird's Nest and Water Cube post-Olympics. I can attest to that. The city spent millions of dollars on these facilities, even building a 3-stop subway line for easier access to them (although I'm sure the subway was extremely packed during the Olympics). Now, however, they lie there more or less unused, their only purpose being to charge visitors to see them. I really hope the city finds some use for them, since it would be a real shame to let such fascinating and amazing facilities go to waste.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Morning Exercises and Teaching 6th Graders

Today was a fairly eventful day in my life here in Beijing. Several things happened for the first time, and they're all at least mildly exciting.

First, today was the first day that we did morning exercises. Every morning since we've been here before the first block the entire school goes onto the track area. However, up until today it's been too cold in the morning (we do this at around 7:45, the first block starts at 8) to do the classic morning exercises, so the school just runs around the school and the track several times. It's cold, but it's nice at the same time because it wakes me up, which is necessary after waking up at 6:20. This morning the school administration decided it was warm enough to do the real morning exercises. Every class lined up single-file next to each other (with 50+ kids in each class, they were long lines) and waited for instructions. A male teacher got up to a microphone that's on a raised podium in the middle of a wall fence that faces another school next door. He talked for a minute or two, and I didn't understand anything he was saying. Then, we started the exercises. First, he told us to spread our legs and link our hands behind our backs. Then he told us to go back to our original position. He told us to do this about five times, and then he had us raise our hands in several different positions. Then we turned to the right, took a step, turned right again, did a 180, then repeated the same thing. That was about it. It wasn't what I expected, but I'm guessing that once it gets warmer out we'll do the full exercises I've heard so much about (and I'll get a chance to make a bigger fool out of myself :P). I'll bring my camera to school this week and film it, because seeing it for yourself is probably better than my terrible description. It was almost 12 hours ago, and my brain can't remember. Sorry :(.

The next thing that happened in our English class. We Bounders (the term the program uses to refer to the Newton kids who go to China. I think it's because we're "bound" for China. Don't ask me, I didn't come up with it) have this English seminar so we can get our final 2.5 credits in English and graduate. I think I've mentioned it before. Anyways, every Tuesday and Friday, we have one block where our teacher chaperones facilitate discussions on China, based on what we've read and seen. Today, they gave us our first real assignment. We each chose pieces of paper out of a hat, each describing a person. Our assignment was to answer a list of questions about that person in a creative format (i.e. dialogue, journal entry, interview, etc). Mine is "You are a 13 year old girl in the 12th century. You are the daughter of peasant farmers (tenant farmers) in the Yellow River basin." This basically means that I have a pretty crappy life. I'm a girl, which in traditional imperial China is never nice. I'm poor, which also isn't great. And I'm 13, which means I'll be married off soon. My feet are also bound, a particularly excruciating process (ever read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?). I got frustrated when I was told I couldn't do a powerpoint or a video diary because computers and powerpoint didn't exist in the 12th century, but I'm sure I'll think of something. Feel free to give suggestions.

The last exciting thing that happened today was I got to help teach a class. Our teachers each assigned us a block or two during the week when we get to assist in their class. They teach English to the middle schoolers, and it can be especially tiring for them. We want to get taken out of class, so it all works out. I'm helping Ms. Richard teach a 6th grade class. It was really fun. They read these really thin (like 40 pages) books about different people and topics (Prince William, Surfers, MLK, The Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick to name a few). Today she taught them about Leonardo DiCaprio. She had a timeline of all the movies he's been in (I didn't realize it was so many), the only one they knew of was of course Titanic (which I believe is still the top grossing movie of all time). She then had them write details of DiCaprio's life, the ultimate goal being to write their own autobiography. She had me walk up and down the ailes, making sure kids were doing what they were supposed to be doing and such. When they started writing their autobiographies, I noticed they were all born in 1996/1997. This surprised me because while I know 12 year olds exist, it didn't dawn on me that there are people born in 1997. It was a little weird, perhaps my first "mid-life crisis" of sorts. Who knows. The class was really fun, and I'm looking forward to getting to know some of the kids, rather than sitting in Chemistry class.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More Pictures from the Museum

This is the plaque that was at the entrance to the Propaganda Wing. I know it's annoying that it's in three images, my camera couldn't take one that was readable. You really should read the whole thing, even if it takes a minute. It's really interesting and enlightening.


Pictures from the Military Museum

The Military Museum

Yesterday we went to the Military Museum of Beijing. It was one of the most fascinating museums I've ever been to, and you'll see why.

At first, we were only really going because of Elias. He had wanted to go the previous weekend, but we ended up getting sidetracked with lunch (it seems like we're always eating over here), and so it was postponed to this Saturday. The only reason I wanted to go was to hang out with the Newton kids, because my relationship with museums has always been strained and I usually end up being bored out of my mind. This was different.

We got to the museum, which is conveniently right next to a subway stop (called Military Museum, easy enough) at around noon. The museum's free as long as you don't want to go into a boat that's on display near the entrance, in which case the cost is 5 yuan (about $.73). I went, and it wasn't all that remarkable. As you enter the museum, you're greeted by a stone statue of Mao that stands about 30 feet tall, with chambers to his sides. The first one we went into was the one dedicated to the early history of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) during the Chinese Civil War. There were lots of statues of revolutionaries cast out of different medals. In the display cases were artifacts such as letters, rifles, and paintings commissioned later to depict certain important events. It was all set up very neatly (in both senses of the word) and was interesting to look at.

The next wing we went to was the one dedicated to weapons. I'm not sure whether what we saw was real or fake, but nevertheless I wouldn't want to face it in combat. There were tanks, planes, missiles, and guns of all kinds. Some were made in China, others in Japan, and others in the USA (I know this because the signs describing them were in English and Chinese, although I can read all three in Chinese. That's very common throughout all of China). The fact that they displayed weapons made in Japan surprised us, for China and Japan have not had a history of good will. Outside they showcased more weapons and tanks, and Elias had fun playing on some of the weapons (it was really for little kids, but we're all 6 at heart :P).

The last wing we visited was by far the most interesting. I'm not sure what it was really called, but for our purposes let's call it the Propaganda Wing. At the entrance, there was a plaque describing what the wing was about. In it, it described how the Chinese people and their civilization are amazing and that all they've done has contributed invaluably to the advancement of mankind. It even mentioned Hu Jintao as "comrade," something I haven't seen since arriving in China, and a term that has fallen out of common use in the past few decades. As we made our way through the hall, we saw many very interesting things. There was a wall dedicated to Hu Jintao (as a side note, my host brother's real name, Hu Xinyuan, is the same Hu (胡) as Hu Jintao), with pictures from recent meetings with world leaders and his accomplishments since becoming Party Chairman. They showcased China's pride in being awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, which pictures of people cheering in the streets and waving signs. There were plaques commemorating the return of Hong Kong and Macao ("wiping out the hundred-year humiliation of the Chinese nation"), and the overall accomplishments of the Chinese people/nation. 

There was an entire section devoted to the Communist Party and its achievements, along with all the good things it did/has done/will do for China. This wing was extremely interesting because of just how blatant and obvious it was that it was all propaganda. Ever since coming to China, I've been keeping my eyes open so I can recognize when something has obviously been censored/Party approved, but never before has it been so obvious and in-your-face as it was here. Looking at all of it, I was thinking of how the Party controls information and tries to have people think in a certain way. Everything I saw was somehow either positive about China, or ridiculing something negative. Don't get me wrong, of course China has done many good things for its people and the world not only over the past few decades, but for thousands of years (they did invent paper, the compass, gunpowder, etc). But that doesn't erase all the bad things they've done and the bad things that have happened to them (the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, and their continued destruction of the environment), none of which got a single word of mention in the entire wing. This museum was a wonderful example to me of how the Communist Party controls what its people see and how the Chinese people perceive their nation and the Party. As we walked through this wing, we discussed how in America, if the government ever tried to create a wing of a museum that only showcased its positive accomplishments, there would likely be such an outcry from the public and the media that any plans would have to be abandoned. In China, that's not the case because the Party's word is law, but also because the Chinese people generally don't want to talk about the negative aspects of their society they know exist (the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward aren't taught in schools), and would rather flaunt the positive elements.

I'm going to post several pictures of the museum here and in other posts, including all the plaques I described above. I encourage you to read all of them so you can see what I'm talking about with your own eyes.