Beijing and the Introduction of a New Character

I feel like I am always apologizing for the delay in putting up posts, but this time I have an excuse. The internet in my room has been down for well over a week now making me unable to put up anything new. It is still not working. I’m using dial-up to put up this post which is not an ideal situation. During September, I used dial-up when my internet was down, and the bill totaled over five hundred yuan. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay it, but I certainly won’t use the dial-up gratuitously from now on. This is probably twice the length of my previous posts because I haven’t written in about twice as long. It really can be divided into two sittings if you so choose: my trip to Beijing, and everything after that.

From where I last left off, I was headed to Beijing for a weekend. The intention of the trip was to go and retrieve my girlfriend, Grace, who was coming to stay with me in China. By coming to stay with me, I mean she is going to live here in Harbin with me in my apartment as long as I am here or until she gets tired of me and wants to go home. She still has not finished school yet, and her professors were so kind as to let her finish her classes from here by e-mailing her work to them. As for the reasoning that lead to her coming, we never really had a chance to see how things would work when we were at home, and we both were not comfortable letting things end without knowing how they would turn out. The intention was to just let things go when I left, but that didn’t happen. The relationship was in its very beginning phase when I left; the phase were everything is going well, so that was hard to just let go. She was ready to get away from Athens and from school, and we both wanted her to be here. So she hopped on a plane, put school on hold, and now here she is.

I told Marc that I was going to Beijing to get her, and he asked if he could come with me and if we could spend a weekend there. I thought that was a great idea. We bought train tickets to leave on a Friday night and arrive in Beijing on Saturday morning. However, these weren’t just any train tickets; we bought the lowest class of seats on the train, the hard seat. When we told people who had been in China for a while that we hard ridden on the hard seat, they looked at us with an aura of disbelief and respect. When I told them that I made Grace ride back on the hard seat after spending twenty hours on a plane, they looked at me with disgust. With both of us being relatively new here, we didn’t know what to expect from the fabled hard seat. Marc said he thought it was going to be wooden benches. When we first saw the cars with hard seats, we thought they were the next class up, the soft seat. When we found our car was the same, we were pleasantly surprised.

In the hard seat cars, there is an aisle running down the middle with three seats on one side and two on the other. The seats are arranged to face each other instead of all facing one way like a plane. There is a small table between the rows of seats which is opportune for sleeping like you would in class with your arms folded and your head on the desk. I found this the most comfortable way for me to sleep. The seat backs are nearly vertical, but the seats are padded. The only insane part of the hard seat section is the fact that people can buy standing tickets for these cars. On the trip to Beijing, the car was filled with people standing. Some chose to sit on their bags; others crowded into the areas between cars and would lay down there. It is thirteen hours to Beijing from Harbin, and I imagine it was a miserable thirteen hours for those people. We chatted with on of the guys sitting with us for a little while. I bought a big bottle of wine to take the edge off the trip, and it was enough to make both of us sleepy for the ride.

We got to Beijing early in the morning. When we walked out of the train station, one of the first things I noticed was the haze sitting over the city. It made the morning sun difficult to see. We had breakfast near by and oriented ourselves. One of the reasons Marc wanted to come with me to Beijing was to buy a winter jacket. We had heard that you could buy good jackets in Beijing for extremely cheap. We decided to take a look at one of the markets were you could buy these jackets first. All of the jackets were name brand, but they were most likely fake. Even though they weren’t real, you could tell they were really high quality. One of the test we gave the jackets was to ask if they were waterproof, and when the salesperson would say yes, I would pull a water bottle out of my back pocket and dump water on it. Every time, the water ran right off. There was some serious haggling to be done in this market. I assume many tourist or rich ex-pats come there to buy clothes, and they calculate prices in their own currency and buy readily. For example, I bought a t-shirt for twenty yuan, and Marc saw some foreign woman buy a t-shirt for seventy yuan. Haggling was both fun and stressful. It was a great way to practice our Chinese. We had just finished a lesson in which we learn some clothes shopping vocabulary. We had just learned how to say, “Can I try this on?” “It’s too big/small/long/short/narrow/wide,” “Do you have a bigger/smaller/etc. one?” and most importantly, “Its too expensive,” and “You should make it cheaper.” All the salespeople there spoke excellent English, but they were amused when we would speak with them in Chinese. One told me in a sales pitch that she was giving me a better price only because I was speaking Chinese.

However, if you are actually looking to buy something for a good price, it is very frustrating. Because people come in, think, “This is only going to cost me sixty dollars,” and pay high prices, it is really hard to get the price you know the vendors are willing to give. I was worried that I would be unable to buy a jacket that would fit in Harbin, so I was really looking to buy a good jacket. The only jacket I found in Harbin that looked warm enough and fit was one hundred eighty yuan, so I used that for my base figure for what I wanted to pay. Starting prices for good jackets ranged from one thousand two hundred yuan to eight hundred yuan, and prices usually ended around three hundred yuan. They were sure to point out whatever brand the jacket was, and I was quick to point out that the brand was not important to me at all. I managed to get the price down to two hundred a couple times, but they never went below my base figure. I ending up leaving with only a t-shirt. Marc on the other hand made some investments in a nice jacket and a windbreaker for his mother (I know he’s a better son than I). It is easier to get better prices when you buy multiple items, so he got a really good deal.

After we left the market, we went looking for lunch. We found a Subway and feasted. It was the most expensive meal I have had in China. I spent thirty yuan on a foot-long Italian BMT with everything on it. I forced myself to eat it very slowly. After indulging ourselves, we spent some time just walking around the city. The weather was absolutely perfect; it was jeans and a t-shirt weather. We were immediately impressed with the amount of trees lining the streets, the spaciousness of the city, the calm and quiet traffic, and the cleanliness of the city in relation to Harbin. I quickly realized how far off the beaten track I really am in Harbin. I had assumed that life in Harbin was as modern as anywhere in China, but I was really far off in my assumption. I made me a little more proud for being able to live and be happy in Harbin. Beijing is one of the most modern, clean, beautiful, and cosmopolitan cities I have ever seen. We stumbled across this park which, to our surprise, was free. This free park was far nicer than anything in Harbin. We relished in its beauty and lack of entrance fee for a while, and then decided to drop our purchases off back at our hostel. When we got there, we planned to go walk to Tienanmen Square, but we realized how tired we were from a poor night of sleep. An hour long nap was in order.

Another amazing thing about Beijing is the variety of lifestyles there. There is clearly a very wealthy, modern, and international life you can live there, but there is also the opposite side of the spectrum in the same city without any real boundaries or separation. Right in the middle of the city, there are many neighborhoods of one story buildings called hutong. It looks like someone dumped a bunch of little Chinese villages into the middle of a sea of towers. You can be walking alongside huge modern building covered in glass and steel one second, and then find yourself next to little buildings made of brick and concrete in the next second. After our nap, Marc and I found a restaurant in one of these neighborhoods on our way to Tienanmen Square. All day we had been surrounded by reasonable number of white people, but all of a sudden, we were a novelty and a visible minority again.

That night we made it to the Forbidden City. We came in from one of the side entrances, and the walked out the front. We came under the picture of Chairman Mao into Tienanmen Square. The stretch from the central part of the Forbidden City to Tienanmen Square is seriously impressive. It is massive and beautiful. It not quite as impressive as the stretch in Paris from the Arc du Triumph, past the Obelisk, to the Louvre, but it certainly has that same sort of epic and overwhelming feel. Actually, I would say that Paris and San Sebastian may be the only two cities I have seen that I think are more beautiful than Beijing.

Saturday night was the night that all the foreigners in Beijing had chosen to celebrate Halloween. We hopped on subway from Tienanmen Square and headed to one of the bar districts, Sanlitun. We realized we were a bit early, and we were unwilling to pay the high prices to drink in bars the rest of the night. A grocery store was conveniently placed near by, so we grabbed some wine that, according to the bottle, had been “aged for years”, and strolled around the bar district with bottles in hand. Wine labels tend to be pretty funny here. Another example is a bottle that said, “Drinking this wine continuously is good for your health.” The wine here tastes like fermented grape juice. Being able to drink on the street is quite the luxury that we miss out on at home. All the bouncers at the bars were interested in what we were carrying when we went walking by their bars. The bars of Sanlitun are very nice and generally have Western prices to compliment their Western look and feel. On the street, we met some Argentinian girls. I was incredibly excited to speak to them in Spanish, but I was frustrated when I found out that all the words that I had mastered in Chinese had slurred into my Spanish. Eventually, we made it to one of the clubs. It was a good night. I have a picture to prove it.

The next morning, Marc and I rented bicycles. I seemed like a good way to have an authentic Beijing experience, see the city, and cover great distances for cheap in a short period of time. It was ten yuan for a day. Marc had a low-class mountain bike, but I had the authentic Chinese bicycle. It was black and complete with a basket on the front, steal platform on the back, and weighed a metric ton. I have to confess, I looked good on it. Riding around the city was a lot of fun. Traffic was a breeze compared to Harbin. I am still more afraid crossing the street here than I was riding a bike in Beijing. We started at our hostel, and went to the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. When we were goofing off and trying to take pictures of each other riding our bikes around Tienanmen Square, I almost ran over a Chinese pedestrian. This Chinese guy and I saw we were on a collision course. I had my camera in my hand, so I couldn’t hit one of my brakes (which were not that great anyway). I went right; he went right too. We both went back left. Finally, I put my feet on the ground, and we managed to avoid each other. After that near crisis, we went to a park on the north side of the Forbidden City. This park had a hill where you could overlook the Forbidden City. I assume the hill was from the dirt used to dig out the moats around the Forbidden City because Beijing is perfectly flat. The view was nice, but it was impeded by the haze. You could see right into the Forbidden City. There is a giant square around the Forbidden City where there are no tall buildings and there are tons to trees, lakes, and small neighborhoods. This square is completely surrounded by towers. Its quite a sight.

We continued north past the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. We went to the construction site for their new stadium. It is being build for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The stadium looks like a steel bird’s nest. Beams are bent and crossing in every direction to form the bowl of the stadium. We took a couple pictures and headed west toward Tsinghua University. Tsinghua University is recognized as the best university in China, and Marc was considering transferring there for his language training next semester. After seeing Beijing and then the school itself, I think it was easy for him to end his period of consideration and decide thats where he wants to be in the spring. I can’t blame him; the school and the city are both beautiful, but I will hate to see him go. And I’m also going to be pretty jealous.

We had a long ride back to our hostel form Tsinghua. Along the way, we picked up a friend. Karin, one of the German girls, was on her way back home from Harbin and was also in Beijing for a couple days. We put her on the back of my bike and went to dinner together. Afterwards, we walked around for a little while. Karin went back to her hotel to get ready to fly out later that night, and Marc and I went to go meet up with one of Marc’s friends from his time in Singapore. We had a couple beers and then turned in early after having late night followed by a long day.

On Monday, we rented our bikes again. Marc upgraded (or downgraded) to the Chinese model that day as well. We went to another market for a while, and then we went to a bookstore where we heard there were good language learning materials. Marc and I parted ways at the bookstore. He stayed to look around, and I went to find the bus that would take me to the airport to meet Grace. I locked up my bike at the train station, found the bus to the airport, and hopped on. It took about an hour to get there, and I had a little nap along the way. When I arrived at the airport, I found out that her plane was delayed an hour and a half. I had set at time to meet with Marc back at the hostel after Grace had arrived, but there was no way we would be able to make it back in time. In a state of stupidity, I had left my cell phone in my bags which were sitting in the hostel, so there was no way I could call him and let him know. Also, I had to bring back my bike by seven o’clock to the rental place before it closed to get my deposit back, so the extra wait was a bit stressful. I went ahead and bought the bus tickets back, and I milled around impatiently. After the boards at the airport told me her plane had landed, I assumed a waiting position where I could see into baggage claim. People from Grace’s plane slowly began gathering around their baggage carousel, but I still couldn’t spot her. After it seemed like everyone from the plane had made it out to baggage claim, I saw Grace mosey up like a lost puppy. She has only been on a plane once, and she was too young to remember the experience. I imagine that it was pretty stressful to fly to another country for her first aeronautical adventure. She slowly shuffled into the crowd, and I lost track of her. Most everyone from the plane had taken their bags and left when I finally saw her coming out of baggage claim. I yelled at her, and she spotted me. I told her to go to the end of the long railing where people had to wait. We met at the end, but the potential of the moment wasn’t realized because I had to rush her to the bus back to the train station. The hour long bus ride back lent itself to a better greeting.

When we finally made it through afternoon traffic and back to the train station, it was already a few minutes past seven. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the the deposit back for my bike, and there would be nothing I could do with a bicycle in Beijing. I presented Grace with a couple options. She could take a cab to the hostel, meet Marc there, and wait for me to ride the bike back and return it. We could check her bags at the train station, she could get on the back of my bike, and we could both return the bike and meet up with Marc. She could also just wait with her bags at the train station for me to return the bike and Marc and I would take a cab to the train station. After seeing how much it cost to check bags, we determined it was too expensive to leave them there for the twenty minutes it would take to get tot the hostel and back. She chose to just wait at the train station. I set her next to two police officers and ran to my bike. After two days of riding my bike for endurance, I concluded my Tour de Beijing with a sprint back to the hostel. When I got back to the hostel, the guy who rented bikes was gone. I went in, found Marc, apologized to him, and asked someone about the bikes. The hostel employees asked around for a little while about the bike guy, but no one knew were he was. Marc and I got our bags together and took the bike back to the rental place. Right when we walked up, the guy came back, gave me my deposit, and we jumped into a cab back to the train station. We got back to Grace twenty minutes later. She was still safely guarded by the police, and we still had time to catch our train. I took a deep breath, and we got some dinner at a little place by the station and got on the train.

This is the intermission in this post if you want to take that opportunity.

When we got to Harbin, it was cold. The weather in Beijing was so nice, and it was hard to come back to a place where you can see your breath all day, everyday. Grace and I napped for the remainder of morning to recover from the train. That night, a group of foreigners had dinner for Sara’s birthday. Sara is from Portugal, and she is here with the same internship program that brought all the Germans to Harbin. It was a good opportunity to introduce Grace to the people with whom I’ve spend most of my free time. I enjoyed getting together with everyone, but Grace was still beat from all the traveling. That is not to say she didn’t enjoy meeting everyone, but its tough to have a good time when you really just want to go to bed.

The next day we got to walk around the city a bit. I took her to St. Sophia Cathedral. Since I’ve been here, a lot of construction has been going on in that area. It had been a while since I had been down there, and all the construction is beginning to take shape. They are doing a good job playing to the strengths of the area. All the preexisting buildings are having Russian facades put on them, and the frames of the new buildings look like they will feature Russian style architecture. It appears that they are trying to finish everything before the big tourist season which is the Snow and Ice Festival in January, so I’m excited about getting to see the finished product soon. Then we walked down Zhongyang Dajie all the way to the river. I think Grace was impressed with the city, but since then, she has revised her opinion after seeing more of it while being freezing cold and having dirt blown in her eyes.

That night, I invited some of my favorite students to dinner to introduce them to Grace. I enjoyed some fun at Grace’s expense by talking bad about her in Chinese. After hearing about her and showing some of them pictures, they were very excited to meet her but also nervous. Some of them didn’t speak too much, but we had a good time nonetheless. I had to explain to them that “cheers” does not necessarily mean drink the whole glass like their version of “cheers”. Given that they have humorously low tolerance for alcohol, they were thankful for that clarification. Over dinner we were talking about cooking, and Fred told me that he could make jaozi which are Chinese dumplings. I asked him he could cook them for us, and he agreed. We set a time for the next Saturday. We concluded the evening with some karaoke.

On Saturday, we had another soccer match. It wasn’t a good one for me. I made a couple mistakes that directly lead to two goals. Its much more fun when you’re running around and things are going well. Even though I’m not particularly invested in the outcome, I know most of my teammates are, so I felt pretty bad. We ended up losing by a goal. The weather was so strange that day. In the morning, it was nice and warm. As the day went by it got windy. A front was coming through. On October 15th, the people of Harbin rejoiced because Heating Day had finally come. Heating Day isn’t actually a holiday people celebrate (Marc and I did ponder celebrating it for a little while), but it is the day that almost all the buildings in the city turn on their heating systems. Everything is heated with coal, so since then, the city has been getting covered with a low, gray coal cloud. On that Saturday, the smog combined with the dirty being blow into the air by the wind make the city look nearly black in all directions, but if you looked straight up, you could see blue sky. What started as a warm, clear day, ended in a gray, freezing afternoon. Grace ended up being under-clothed sitting on the sidelines. However, that front brought with it the first real snow of the year. It was snowing hard that night, and by the morning, an inch of snow had accumulated over the city.

The next day, we had dinner with the family of one of my students. During one of my lessons, I mentioned that I like Chinese traditional music, and one of my students, Eve, told me that she plays a traditional instrument. Her mother is a professor at our university, so she lives very close by. She invited me to come over to hear her play and have dinner with her family. Grace came with me, and we had quite an interesting experience. First we got to hear Eve play for a little while. I can not remember the name of the instrument. It a long string instrument that is placed on a stand. The strings are raised in the middle. She plucked the strings on the right side of where the strings are raised, and on the left side, she would bend the strings to change their pitch. She was very humble about her abilities, but it sounded glorious. Then we got to peruse the family photo albums. There are advertisements all over the city for photography studios, but they are more like ‘glamor shots’ than what we think of as family photos. For example, a typical advertisement for children’s photography studio has the kids looking tough and dressed in military outfits while holding guns. In Eve’s family’s pictures, they were very dolled up to the point of almost being unrecognizable. The cultural difference in what is cool was clearly apparent in these pictures. Grace asked how much they cost, and Eve said they were very expensive. When we were on the bus later, we saw a photography studio advertisement that had there cheapest package listed at eight hundred yuan. We also got to watch her mother cook. She explained the steps and ingredients while Eve translated. I was amazed how much oil and sugar goes into their food, and I felt my diet has been much less healthy than I though. I enjoyed the meal itself for the most part. Grace is struggling with Chinese food and chopsticks a bit, so she eats until she is tired of eating rather than until she doesn’t want to eat anymore.

Before my Chinese class on Monday, we went to go invest in some warm clothes. I figured it was time for me to get a big jacket, and I got a monstrosity of a jacket. I feel like I’m going to climb Mount Everest or I’m in an astronaut suit, and I’m sure I look like the Michelin Man with a little head. Its not beautiful, but it certainly will be practical. If this thing can not keep me warm, I don’t think anything will. I bought it for one hundred seventy yuan, so I ended up feeling good about passing on the jackets in Beijing. Grace bought a wool beanie that is lined with fleece and ties below her chin. She also got some long soccer socks. Later in the week, we went to some of the stores in the market under the street in the middle of the city. We bought the thick, wool, long underwear that the locals wear. When I tried to haggle with this lady who was selling them, she wouldn’t lower her price. She just kept going on and on about how good they were and how cheap they were. Then she would conclude by saying, “O.K. le?” Some phrases for agreement in Chinese are, “dui le,” and “hao le.” She used her knowledge of OK to make some pretty mean Chinglish. We were cracking up, and she did have a good price. We ending up buying them from her.

This week I got some semi-bad news. I received at text message from Mr. Lu on Wednesday morning. He told me to use my phone line to check my e-mail. He had written to tell me that they had miscalculated the number of hours I was teaching and that I would be getting four new classes. Given that I had only been teaching eight hours and I was on contract to teach sixteen, there was not much I could do. The new classes fell right into my Chinese classes. Mr. Lu offered to change the schedule of the new classes to fit around my class schedule, but I declined. Even though it sucks that I wouldn’t be able to take the class, it think it may turn out to be a good thing. Before adding the new classes, I had class for twenty hours a week. Travel to and from class at an hour each way totaled ten hours a week, and then add eight hours of teaching on top of that. It was a thirty-eight hour week before I ever planned a lesson or studied. It was manageable, but it was never the life I intended to live here. With the extra classes, I could still do it in terms of time, but I don’t think I would have been happy at all doing it. Also, I felt I had been spending too much of my time studying characters with my class when I was really interested in learning oral Chinese. I almost never studied anything but characters outside of class. The commute was become worse as well. Standing, packed in on a bus for two hours a day was beginning to wear on me, and as it has gotten colder, it seems like more people are riding the bus. I have to say that I’m a little relieved that this happened. I can’t imagine making the hour long commute at seven in the morning in December; it would have been miserable. So I went from a thirty-eight hour week to a sixteen hour week starting next week, and I feel like I can get more out of my Chinese studies if I have the discipline to study the same amount of time on my own (which is a big if). I’m happy with what the class has done for me, but I think I will also happy to be done with it.

This Saturday rolled around and with it came Jaozi Day. Fred and six other students came over to our apartment. Making the dumplings was quite the process. Grace said it felt like Thanksgiving or Christmas because so many people were cooking. I agreed because we were not only cooking but Frank Sinatra was also playing. The only time I really ever listened to crooners with any frequency was when our family would listen to listen to a Bing Crosby Christmas album. We cleared off one of my desks and pulled it into the middle of the room. First, Fred made the dough while people sliced vegetables. Minced onions and garlic were mixed with ground beef, oil, and salt to make the first filling. The dough was stretched into a long cylinder. Little balls were torn off and rolled with speed and precision into circles. A ball of filling was placed on the circles of dough, and the dough was pinched off around the filling. After we used all the beef filling, we made a filling with ground pork and celery. That filling was all placed into dumplings. We must have made over three hundred dumplings. We boiled a little at a time in a pot, and everyone ate them as they came out. Whenever a dumpling fell apart, it was blamed on me. Fred told me that Grace made better dumplings than me, but I think I unfairly got a bad rap. There was wine as well. It turned my students faces red very quickly, but I eventually caught up with them. We feasted. They were easily the most delicious food I’ve had since I’ve been here. Fred was probably the most drunk of all by the end of the meal. He challenged me to see how many dumplings we could fit into our mouths at one time and eat. Eager to defend our nation’s honor and confident in the size of my mouth, I accepted the challenge and easily defeated him. I ate six dumplings at once for a new world record. Eating multiple dumplings was named a “Chinese sandwich.” That afternoon was one of the most enjoyable moments I’ve had in China.

Life with Grace has been delightful so far. She has been a great companion for the two weeks she has been here. Of course, we are still in our ‘honeymoon period’, but I feel confident that things will go well. A winter stuck inside a small apartment will certainly be a test. I was really starting to enjoy myself before she came, but when I was not happy, it was because I was by myself. I am on the opposite side of town from all my foreign friends, and it takes so much effort, time, and planning to hang out. My student friends are great people, but there is a limit to how much time I can spend with them before communication becomes a chore. I knew she was going to fill the holes in my life nicely, but I was less confident in her being happy here. I think all in all she has adjusted well. Food has been a little tough, so we have eaten more Western food. That has been hard on me because I had completely gone into Chinese food, and going back to Western food makes eating Chinese food so much harder. Also, I am completely responsible for her physical and emotional well-being, so when she has gotten upset in her adjustments to China, it also makes me upset. Other than that, this having been going smoothly. She has found a job at a place close by that will pay her just as much as me for sixteen hours of work a week. The working conditions seem very nice, and she will only have a five minute walk to get there. Most of the other employees are Chinese woman about our age, and they seem very nice. She should get her schedule tomorrow. We are going to have a lot of time to be with each other, so we will certainly find out if this is going to work.

I have a lot of good pictures to put up from Beijing and Jaozi Day, but I can’t do that until my internet is working. Hopefully, that should be up and running soon. Sorry about the wait and the length of this post. Stay in touch.