March 19, two months after we had arrived in Beijing, was Nate’s birthday. We took the opportunity to explore the city a little bit and do some things on our Beijing Bucket List.
I knew that starting the day with waffles, even in Beijing, was a prerequisite for a good birthday. So we took the bus to the hippest coffee spot in Beijing – Maan Coffee: Waffle and Toast. Even the name, although magnificent, couldn’t do justice to the two-storied, rustic, delectable food paradise that it adorned. Seriously, though – I have never had better waffles than these. In my life. I would fly back to China just to have these once more.
After waffles, we went to an international church we were trying out. We didn’t end up settling there, but it was nice to have a place to worship with other Christians again.
For lunch, we went to the cool part of Beijing – Sanlitun, where the parties go down. For us, the part was authentic Italian pizza – pricey, in China, but worth it since it was the first good Western food we’d had in 2 months.
Next stop, Beijing Zoo! We spent a long time at the Giant Panda exhibit – we connected on a deep emotional level with this fuzzy beast that pretty much just wanted to lie on its back and eat food without moving its head.
As it was quite late in the day, a lot of the exhibits were already closed. The upside of this was that, for a Beijing public attraction, the zoo really wasn’t that crowded.
The zoo also had some really incredible birds.
For dinner we went to a hutong, which is a narrow street that is historically filled with shops and restaurants. They still are, but now they’re more touristy and less quaint and traditional. We found a Peking Duck place and enjoyed Beijing’s most famous dish!
Finally, we went to a European restaurant called M for dessert. Little did I know when I looked it up online that it would be the fanciest restaurant I had ever been in. Because most of the desserts on the menu were upwards of USD $20, Nate and I split this tiny lemon pudding. It was very tasty, but we vowed never to return there until we’re rich.
We got to see so many different pieces of Beijing that day, and eat a lot of good food. On a related note, if anyone wants to fly me to Beijing to get Maan waffles for my birthday next year, you know I’m down.
On March 4, I experienced my first of the New7Wonders of the world (it’s a thing). The Great Wall was built spanning several dynasties and centuries to protect China against attack from the north. Now it’s a landmark that rides the mountains through the middle of China, and an extremely popular tourist destination. If you want to maximize authenticity and minimize crowds of people wearing matching visors, you can go to a partially unrestored part of the wall, which means it’s more of a hike and less of a selfie booth.
The unrestored section we chose to go to is in Chenjiapu, an hour outside of Beijing. I was traveling with a group of about 50 students, mostly from either my school, Peking University, or our neighboring rival university, Tsinghua. We rented a bus that took us to Great Wall Fresh, family-run restaurant and guest house in the mountains of Chenjiapu. We enjoyed a family-style lunch before our guide, one of the Great Wall Fresh family members, led us off on our adventure.
From the point you see in the picture up there, it was about a 45-minute hike to the place where we mounted the Great Wall. And suddenly, we were standing on bricks that were laid centuries ago.
The rest of the group went left along the wall to a beacon tower, but Nate and I thought we could get a higher vantage point by taking a quick detour up the wall to the right. We were right about “higher”, but not about “quick”. An especially steep and dilapidated part of the wall, it took us nearly an hour to go up and come back down, putting us far enough behind that our group was out of sight, lost to us in the mountains of China.
Nevertheless, we did not fear. We decided to just move a little quicker until we caught up with them – besides, we were walking on a major tourist attraction that was made for walking on. It would be very difficult to actually get lost. And that’s how our coolest date ever began.
The whole walk along the Wall took about 2 hours from that point.
At one point, we reached a point on the wall that was higher than any other we could see. We climbed a teetering pile of bricks to the top of the watchtower. In every direction, the hazy mountains were layered to the horizon. We could see as far as the curve of the earth would let us. The pictures I took are a sorry representation, but that truly was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The world God created is unfathomably beautiful and wonderful, and Nate and I got to see such a unique piece of it.
Though we kept up a good pace, we never caught up to the group. As we were descending from the Wall at the end of the hike, we met a search party coming from the other direction. They thought we had gotten lost forever on the Wall. Maybe we nearly had a couple of times, but we made it in the end. And I’ve got some amazing memories to show for it.
I have so many more pictures that attempt to capture a fraction of the beauty we saw that day, so I’ll stick them here.
I have been back in America for a month and a half now. Midterms are starting at university, and it is now an inescapable fact that I won’t be going back to Japan any time soon. This is not a short vacation back in the States—I’m here to stay for now. I can’t say I like the idea. I got so used to being in Japan. I complained about it while I was there, but I also loved it. Now I’m having to adjust to being back here. However, I don’t want to become content. I don’t want to lose my drive to travel and see the world. While I’m here though I will continue searching for ways of staying globally involved.
In pursuit of this goal, I’m trying to engage with other countries and language associations outside those I have been involved with in the past. Across campus there are seminars about myriad places and cultures, and I want to learn more about all of them. This week I attended a lecture by Dr. Liu on the history of Chinese radicals. I was probably the only person in the room who’d never studied Chinese, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I was able to learn more about the relationship between Japanese and Chinese and their shared history, as well as continue my study of kanji, the Japanese writing system derived from Han Chinese.
Even as my classes focus on business and economics, I am actively working to continue a rounded and global education both through my continued study of Japanese and Spanish as well as through lectures on campus and personal conversations. I learned a great deal about the world while I was abroad, and I’m more aware than ever that there is much more to learn. I’ve traveled far, but the road ahead of me will hopefully take me many more places before my journey ends.
I arrived in Beijing the afternoon of February 13, and was met by stinging smog and smothering crowds, two of Beijing’s most distinctive characteristics. I had three things on my mental to-do list that scrolled through my head on repeat: Find a bathroom. Buy a SIM card. Get a taxi. The first was easy; the second proved impossible, after over an hour of searching; and the third was deceptively easy (I later figured out I had been charged about 8 times what I should have for the cab). But I arrived at my hotel complex by late afternoon, and, after wandering around for quite some time trying to find the correct building, I collapsed into my first bed in China.
Findfood. Since I hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours, I stepped back out into the gray China dusk, intending to walk towards the main road until I found something to eat. Thankfully, I ran into a little cafe right across the parking lot from my hotel. I sat there a long time, reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child while I ate. It was such a relief to submerge myself in English, my to-do list momentarily empty.
When I started making tomorrow’s to-do list back in my hotel room, though, I lost it. Complete breakdown. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, was completely overcome by loneliness. I was in the largest, most-populated country on earth, and I knew not a soul. I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me or spoke my language in 24 hours, and everyone I loved was asleep half a world away. By the time my parents called soon after, when they woke up and saw my texts, I was just lying on my bed shuddering and gasping. Their comfort and reminder of God’s protection was just what I needed, and when we hung up I went to sleep for a long time.
The next morning, I put off leaving my room for as long as possible. The breakdown of the previous night had pushed me a little further away from denial, but inside the room I could still pretend I was wherever I wanted. Outside the room, denial would no longer be an option. Stepping into the hotel hallway and closing the door behind me took a measure of bravery I have rarely used.
Register, find food, buy a SIM card.
The greatest victory of that first day was discovering that I would, in fact, have a place to live for the next four months. After being unable to register for housing on the Peking University housing portal in mid-January, I had tried unsuccessfully for a month to contact PKU about my housing situation. On the PKU campus, after roundaboutedly arriving at the international student office, the director viewed my online profile with a surprised “What? You haven’t checked into your dorm yet?” Indeed, I had a room!
After registering, I received a list of tasks in addition to my student card. As I was wandering about trying to complete these to-dos, I ran into a group of five or six international students, mostly from Australia, who were on the same mission. Together we checked off a lot of the things on the list, and then we ventured into one of the on-campus canteens (dining halls) for the first time.
After dinner, we had nothing to do, and so we decided the best time to try out the Beijing public transportation system was at 7 p.m. in our group of foreigners with limited English. Continuing in the study-abroad spirit of throwing oneself headfirst into uncertain situations, we descended into the bowels of the Beijing underground and, upon seeing a picture of the Forbidden City at the center of the subway map, decided where to go.
I have to say, after a day and half of feeling quite thwarted by the country I had once anticipated loving, it was very encouraging to visit Tiananmen (the entrance to the Imperial City), a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. It was a reminder that, despite the challenges of getting used to this new life, everything I looked forward to in China was still waiting for me.
And challenges there were. I won’t bore you with my to-do list every day, but here’s a snapshot: it was the same. Every day. For the first few days, at least. Each day, I would get up and try to complete each task one-by-one, and each day I would hit a new obstacle. Before bed each evening, I would think, “What should I do tomorrow?” And then I would look at my list, and be like, “Oh, same as today, just trying everything I’ve failed at so far, cool.” I learned quickly that everything in China takes four times longer than you think it should, at least for someone unfamiliar with the processes, geography, and language.
There were many good moments, though! I continued hanging out with the group of people I met that second day, and we added more to our cohort. Little by little, I started crossing things off of my to-do list. By the time Nate arrived a few days later, it felt like I’d been in Beijing for several weeks.
The first weekend, PKU gave the international students a tour of the Forbidden City. Here’s my funnest fact: the bricks laid out on the ground covering the entire palace grounds are the original bricks from when the palace was built. Knowing that I was stepping not just on the same ground, but the same exact bricks, as dynasties of historic Chinese emperors was pretty exciting. The architecture of the Forbidden City was, of course, beautiful.
My first week in Beijing was definitely up-and-down, but by the end I had already learned so much about how to live in China.
The other panel that I attended during Global Engagement Day was the Digital Stories panel. I was really looking forward to actually being able to see what other Fellows have seen on their travels. I will try my best to recall what I remember from these stories:
One of the fellows brought in a book full of photo collages from her trip to China, along with a video that was mostly about her freshman year roommate that was from China and who she had visited in China the next year. The buildings and food were so different that what I am used to. One thing that I remember was that her friend from China ate her spaghetti with I think I recall as peanut butter, which is not something we see everyday in America.
Another fellow told the story of how she and a few other students visited Rio during spring break. During one particularly rainy day, they happened to go on a hike through a forest around Rio they went for a hike. The girl ended up slipping and falling, the group just walked on without her because they did not hear through all the rain. A friendly Brazilian man happened to be walking by and, although she understood little of the Portuguese they spoke, she knew he meant well and he helped her all the way down the trail until they met back up with the group.
I have not studied abroad yet — I hope to next summer, but it is still a work in progress. However, to hear positive stories from other Fellows was so amazing. One girl who studied abroad in China signed herself up for a 30 K (or something along those lines) on a whim, which is a very, very long run. It started in a car dealership, went down a high way, through the woods, passed what she described as a Buddhist temple and up hills that were basically vertical — all the while surrounded by people that she barely spoke the language. Another guy who studied in Italy told a story of when a few friends and he visited a secret beach that he got to via a tunnel through the woods. It was a beautiful beach, with white sand and bright blue water — that also happened to be full of jelly fish. The guy ended up being stung, but he and his friends were at this secluded beach in the middle of Italy with no medicine to fix it. Just when one of his friends suggested to pee on it, an elderly Italian man wearing nothing but a speedo waved him over and gave him some random medicine (which, thinking back, he said may not have been a good decision– taking mysterious drugs from a stranger) that stopped the pain.
Moral of these stories: I cannot wait to study abroad. Although I do not necessarily want to get stung by a jelly fish in a secret Italian beach or run through a Buddhist temple in China, I want to have the random and amusing stories to tell.
This semester, I am co-moderating a reading group on The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. Like the name suggests, the book is an introduction to the world’s main religious traditions, and it includes chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The other moderator and I hoped that a discussion of this book would introduce students to other cultures and ideologies that they would not have otherwise interacted with. And, so far, it is going well! This week we read the chapter on Confucianism, and we had an interesting discussion about immigration and the role religion plays in it. As the book highlights, Confucian culture, which focuses on the collective, is very different from Western culture, which tends to focus on the individual. This fostered a debate about the difficulties immigrants face when trying to retain their own sense of cultural identity when they move to a new country.
At the end of the chapter, Smith includes an interesting claim about the future of Confucianism: that it will not survive in a Westernizing world. This statement created a furious debate about the validity of the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative and whether these two world views can coexist. All of the members ultimately agreed that globalization will not spell the end for Confucianism, although its emphasis on the collective might be in danger. In the end, this reading group is doing exactly what I hoped it would do—introduce the members to different ideas and world views that they may not have known much about.
Last week was the 10th anniversary of the Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma, the same organization that sent me to Beijing Normal University last spring and has partnerships with dozens of other outstanding universities in China. To commemorate the 10th anniversary, the Confucius Institute flew a whole art troupe to OU, from musicians to dancers, to martial arts fighters. I volunteered during my one hour break between a full day of science classes to help out at one of the booths to promote the Confucius Institute’s study abroad exchange program. Instead, I ended up spending most of the time learning to play a traditional Chinese instrument called a guzheng (古筝), which is a long wooden box-like instrument that is played by plucking the long strings and pressing down on them to change the pitch or add vibrato. Just imagine yourself hiking up the Great Wall of China or wearing a straw hat in a rice field — that typical Chinese-y background music that’s playing in your head right now is probably coming from a guzheng. Me and Louise mustered up the courage (and our Chinese) to ask one of the guzheng players if we could try out her instrument. We bonded really quickly. She taught us a few scales and then we taught her how to play OU’s fight song, “Boomer Sooner.” As we sat under a tree on the South Oval, Oklahoma football and Chinese culture, two seemingly immiscible entities, blended together as she plucked out the chorus and we sang along. Before I ran off to class, I added her on WeChat and we decided we should try to hang out again before she leaves.
After class I ran into the group of them again, and then recognized a guy who had taught me Taichi when I was in Beijing (even though I only took one class…). But he still remembered me, and then I got him to re-teach me some of the moves I had learned before.
The next day I met up with them at Couch Cafeteria to give my new guzheng-player friend a small letter and gift to deliver to Esther. It was so amusing to me to see them go up to all the different food stations and get plate after plate of food. I introduced guacamole to them and then they all shared a piece of cake from the Sooner Sweet Shop. In contrast to the Couch Cafeteria, “New Happy Group Canteen” at Beijing Normal University is not all-you-can-eat, has rows and rows of benches (although you typically have to hunt to find a seat next to a stranger), and is all Chinese food. We laughed and chatted together as we compared and contrasted the two school’s cafeterias, dorms, classrooms, and bathrooms. Even though I only got to meet up with them a few times, I still was really sad to see them go. It was so easy for them to become my close friends since we have shared similar experiences. They’ve made me really Beijing home-sick.
I am beyond thankful that the Confucius Institute at OU and BNU not only allowed students like me to go to Beijing and make friends and learn Chinese while in China, but also joined me to an entire country and 1.4 billion people who I can make connections with, whether those connections be only for a couple days, or life-long.
After Skyping my friends back home one time and telling them all about China, one of them said, “You’re like an egg! White on the outside, yellow on the inside!” At first I was shocked and a little offended, but later I had to admit it was pretty accurate. After getting over culture shock where I pretty much hated everything China and missed everything America, I started to appreciate some of the creative inventions and customs that I found incredibly fascinating. I’d just like to share with you a few Chinese practical inventions or interesting customs that I have adopted as my own that made my friends think I’ve turned into an egg.
Ear spoons: Regardless of your view on the benefits or hazards of using q-tips, I think this slender, tiny, metal spoon is fantastic, convenient, and works way better than a q-tip. I have one on my key chain.
House shoes: I honestly don’t know if I could walk around barefoot in my house back home anymore. Although I’ll admit that most of the time guest house shoes aren’t really big enough for my size 11 feet and I have to wear men’s house shoes in my dorm, the concept of house shoes is great. If you wear shoes inside the house, that brings in all the stuff you stepped on outside inside the house, and is also not very comfortable. If you usually go barefoot or wear socks (as in my case back home), well, it’s easy to pick up crumbs or dust bunnies on the floor. House shoes are the perfect balance between comfort and sanitation.
Drain: I don’t know how to describe this to you, but it’s really ingenious. Ok, so, picture your bathroom sink. Now picture the drain at the bottom of the sink. It probably closes by a little lever that you pull up on near the back of the tap, right? Well here, the drain itself flips up and down, swivels left and right, and rotates, so you can make the water drain out by pushing on it to make it stand upright, or pressing on the opposite side to make it seal.
Round tables with spinners: I think that the whole concept of eating around a round table is something the US should learn. There’s never that awkward seat near the corner where you can only talk to the people next to you or across from you. A round table allows you to easily talk to anyone at the table. And the spinner in the middle solves the problem of your chopsticks not being long enough to reach the dish on the opposite side of the table.
WeChat Wallet and Alipay: I mentioned it in a previous blog post, but the way most people here spend money is by scanning a QR code on their phone that’s synced to their bank account. At first it sounded way to sketchy and dangerous, but after finding myself out when I had forgotten to bring my wallet or didn’t have any cash, I could just use my phone to make a purchase. It is extremely convenient (maybe a little too convenient, as my bank account quickly dwindled once I started using it -__-). You can also send red envelopes to other people on WeChat and use it to pay people back.
Are there any things that you have discovered while studying abroad that you wish you could take back home?
Although Beijing is a booming modern city, and despite being told that there would be a lot of foreigners in Beijing, I still found myself being stared at all the time. When my Chinese friends and I would go out, we would be stared at by other people taking the bus, especially if we conversed in Chinese. That old man toting a giant rice bag shamelessly maintained his wide-eyed gaze, even after I glanced his way to acknowledge that I noticed he was staring. My height and hair color did not help either. It made for quite a few uncomfortable bus rides at first, but eventually I got used to it, and ok, maybe I enjoyed it a little too. Sometimes when I overhead people on the street saying something like, “Hey look! A foreigner! (waiguoren)” or, “Wow look how tall that waiguoren is!” I would just glance back at them to let them know I understood Chinese.
More than just a couple times, I was approached and asked if I would pose for a photo. After it started becoming a common occurrence, I decided to also make sure to snap a photo with them, to keep a running total. Here’s what I’ve got.
At the Beijing zoo (sorry it’s a little fuzzy). The dad wanted to get his daughter to have a photo with a foreigner. I took quite a few photos with kids. It gave the parents an excuse.
Another photo with a cute kid.
On the bus on the way to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors in in Xi’an. She grabbed the seat next to me and then asked for a photo. Well played.
Not just women and children, but also grown men apparently find it necessary to get a photo with a foreigner. After he worked up the gut to get a photo with me, another one of his guy friends snapped a photo with me.
I can think of at least three other occasions where I didn’t get a photo on my phone. So that puts me at about eight. I’d like to think that’s enough to make me a Chinese celebrity.