Thursday, November 24, 2011

Beijing: A Trip Done Right

Reasons I wasn't looking forward to Beijing:
- It is cold.
- The pollution is terrible. Black mucus comes out of people's noses when they sneeze.
- There's a much greater sense of the government's presence.
- I don't like Beijing people's accents. 
- To get there, I have to take the high-speed rail or a Chinese airline. I don't fully trust either.

I visited Beijing mainly because I felt it was my duty to see the Great Wall while I am in China. What I expected to be a mediocre three-day weekend characterized by complaints about terrible pollution and demanding travel ended up being my favorite trip yet. Beijing must have known we were visiting because for nearly our entire stay, we were greeted with nothing but bright blue skies. At a leisurely pace, we saw everything we had hoped to see and more – the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Old Beijing, the Summer Palace, the Bird’s Nest (Olympic Stadium), Xiùshuǐjiē (a famous indoor market known for carrying fake products), Pānjiāyuán (a lesser known antique market), and Peking University.

Our nights were equally as active, as we benefited from having friends studying in Beijing. In three nights, we went out with Kehoe’s friend from home, a fraternity brother from school, and another friend from Cornell. We ate well (mostly opting for American cuisine like burgers and pizza) and got a good taste of what Beijing’s nightlife has to offer. Yes, Beijing was indeed cold, but it gave me a friendly reminder of New York’s autumn chill to which I’ve grown so accustomed. And when I returned to Shanghai, I was that much more grateful for its much more tolerable weather.

My travel companions were my friends Justin and Kehoe. Here's a picture of us touring Beijing's hutongs, alley neighborhoods that thrived in the old days of Beijing.

On our first full day, we went to see the Forbidden City. It was alright, but as far as palaces go, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It probably would have been cool had I just arrived in China, but I’ve been in Asia for three months now. China has to step up its game at this point. Unless I start seeing some juggling pandas or monks on jet packs, I’m really not going to be that impressed.

Outside the Forbidden City.

Our hutong tour guide set us up with a personal driver (his son) to take us to see the Great Wall, Bird’s Nest (Olympic Stadium), and Summer Palace all in one day. We agreed to pay Rmb100 (about $15) for gas at the beginning and then Rmb500 (about $80) when everything was finished.

He drove us about two hours outside the city to see the Great Wall. He said he’d wait at the entrance for us and demanded that we spend no more than two hours on the Wall and return at precisely 12:55p, so as to make sure we’d have enough time for the rest of our sight-seeing.

At 12:58 pm, we arrived back at the entrance, expecting to find an anxiously awaiting driver. At first glance, he was nowhere to found.  We looked around for a little.

“Ah, there he is!” Kehoe shouted.

I looked over in the direction he was pointing and saw a group of old Chinese men gambling away in a heated game of cards.  Among the men was a skinny, younger-looking guy. Our driver. 
We approached him.

Shí fēn zhōng, shí fēn zhōng! [Ten minutes, ten minutes!] he said.

Hah, and I thought we were on a tight schedule.

Realizing we were now on his time, we idled for a little, bought some dried kiwi and mango, and watched a few minutes of animated Chinese poker.

Soon enough, we were back on the road, made a quick stop to see the Bird’s Nest, and then arrived at the Summer Palace.

Like before, we planned to spend two hours at the tourist site. This time, we agreed with our driver that at 5pm we’d reconvene. 5pm came around, and, once again, we couldn’t find our driver.
“Do you guys see anyone playing cards?” I asked.

Suddenly, from the distance, we saw our driver running towards us.
In Chinese, he said:
Do you have 100 yuan? I really need 100 yuan. I know you are supposed to pay 500 at the end, but just give 100 now and 400 later. I really need 100 yuan.

I handed him a 100 yuan bill.

I’ll be right back. I just need to go to the bathroom.

Playing cards were blatantly sticking out of his right hand.

We watched him sprint off into the distance. When he got to what I guessed was about halfway to his intended destination, undoubtedly a poker table, he had a change of heart and, all of a sudden, starting running full speed back in our direction.

Kuài, kuài, kuài! [Quick, quick, quick!]

Following him, we dashed towards the parking lot and hurriedly jumped into his shabby Volkswagen. Slamming on the pedal, he sped away from the scene, asking Justin, who was sitting in the front seat, to move his head forward to keep the driver’s face out of sight. When we reached a traffic light a good half-mile or so from the Summer Palace, the driver lowered his window. He tossed the cards out of the car.

[sigh] Sank you, sank you,” he said, patting Justin on the shoulder.

I looked up at our grateful driver. So… did you win?

Here's me on the Great Wall in a banana suit. As the Chinese would say dúyīwú'èr (unique and unmatched). Well, at least I hope they'd say that.
The Great Wall and surrounding area was absolutely breathtaking. It really made me want to thank the Mongolians. If they weren't so damn annoying, the Chinese would never have gone to such an extreme to build such a large and beautiful structure for us all to enjoy.
Between Seoul and Beijing, I really have come to master the art of trip planning. To plan a good trip, well, you don’t want to do much planning at all. The way I see it is you go on a vacation to relax and have fun. Why spend hours tirelessly researching a place when you can just ask a few people where to go, get a general idea of where everything is located, and allow some room for spontaneity?

My realization about how little planning I had done for Beijing came with our visit to the Summer Palace. The only thing I know about the Summer Palace was its Chinese name (Yíhéyuán), which I had remembered from an old Chinese lesson about tourism. Other than that, I knew nothing. I just assumed the Summer Palace was some building, maybe with some nice chairs and flower pots.

We walked through the main entrance of the Summer Palace, took a few steps forward, and just stopped dead in our tracks.

“Holyyy $#!%, this is beautiful…”

Take-away: Don’t stress over planning trips. Know the essential places to go and ask past travelers about their trip highlights. If you know too much about every little tourist site, you’re bound to be disappointed, and your travel mates will probably be annoyed by your intensity. If you do very little planning then yes, you will feel extremely ignorant, but you will also experience an exhilarating sensation when you discover that the Summer Palace is not a building with some nice chairs and flower pots, but, in fact, a palace on a 60 meter high hill in a prepossessing imperial garden that expands 2.9 square kilometers, three quarters of which is water.

Peking University outdoor track.
Běijīng kǎoyā (Peking duck)

Pānjiāyuán, an outdoor antique market.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Magical Market

There’s no place in Shanghai more beautiful, more magical than the South Bund Fabric Market. The Fabric Market is by no means immaculate or breathtaking, but it’s the sheer quantity of options that makes me giddy inside. It’s a three story building of seemingly endless jackets, pants, belts, coats, ties, shoes, dresses, scarves, shirts, hats, and cloths, from which you can walk away adorned in any garment of your imagination. And in a city where people seem to just assume all Westerners are trendy and fashionable, I’ve gotten the idea that I can just about get away with wearing anything.

I’m also obsessed with listening to the shopkeepers’ robotic English as foreigners walk by. Pants, suits, you want, you come looking now. Their faces are motionless as words spill from their mouths. Hello, I give you best price, anything you want.

I’ve been to the Fabric Market about six times now, making it my most frequented tourist destination. The Fabric Market is everything I love about China: vendors who would kiss your derrière to get you to buy from their shop, the thrill of intense and passionate bargaining*, and the too-good-to-be-true prices that make me think I’m spending Monopoly money.

So far, I’ve bought three custom-fit jackets, three ties, three pairs of sunglasses, a custom-fit suit, a hat, a belt, and two custom-fit shirts (my grand total is probably like $270), and I can’t be sure that my work is finished. Getting a good deal on good-looking clothing feels great, and one of the things I’m looking forward to most about my return home to the U.S. is being able to dress to impress a lot more.

The Fabric Market will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ve never been much of a fan of shopping for clothes, but I think I’ve left the Market every time with a huge smile on my face. There’s just something about walking in somewhere, and being able to get exactly what you want for an incredible price that just brings out the inner deal-seeking consumer in me. It’s almost as if every time I leave the Fabric Market, I feel like I beat the system, that someone else ended up with the short end of the stick, that I found some loophole. But this is China for you. And the only loopholes are the ones on my brand-new belt.

*China is a cash economy, and subsequently almost everything here is negotiable. Learning to bargain isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take some confidence to do it right. Here are my bargaining tips: 1. In your head, choose a reasonable price you’re willing to pay for the item; 2. Ask the vendor to name a price and immediately complain that it’s too expensive (I especially like “Huāngmiù!” [That’s absurd!]); 3. Name a price that’s well below what you plan on paying and then wait for the vendor to get upset and offer a lower but still unsatisfactory price; 4. Shout “Tài guì le!" [Too expensive!] and storm off, knowing that the vendor will call for you to come back by offering a price that you’re willing to pay; 5. Pretend to be hesitant at first just to further upset the vendor and then accept the now reasonable price.
Me, and my fabric market girl. She's sold me all my jackets.

Displaying my new wardrobe.

Friday, November 11, 2011

No Laughing Matter

As I become more and more accustomed to living in China, I find that a lot of the novelty of life in China is slowly wearing off. I’ve gotten used to seeing little children defecate on the streets, to shoving my way into an already over-crowded subway car, and to shouting fuwuyuan! [waiter!] at the top of my lungs (a total accepted practice at low-end restaurants - otherwise the server may easily forget about your food). Even the Shanghai Bellies, which are just too funny to get accustomed to, have vanished with the arrival of colder weather.

Because I was initially so unfamiliar with life here, I’ve been inclined to project my humor upon what I see as different or strange. But, beyond the little things that I find comical, there really are some aspects of living in China that I cannot accept, and I think rightfully so.

China does not have a democracy and, while its economy may only be a few years away from a free market, its authoritarian rule does make a world of difference. Such a great sense of hopelessness exists among the young people here because they know that their chances of success are slim. The wealth disparity here is disgustingly large, and the government, through connections with elite businessmen and much corruption, dominates the economy. Only the cream of the crop gets accepted into universities (note: the population of China is well over four times that of America so competition is that much more fierce), and students often need to attend graduate school to even get a good job.

My roommate teaches a class at a nearby university and once asked his students to raise their hand if they would want to move abroad to continue their studies. Every single hand went up. It’s true. Many young people want to move to other countries. They feel oppressed by the government and know that they can live better elsewhere. Well-to-do families often hire private English tutors for their children so that they will be able to enroll in universities in the U.S. or England. I think the extent to which some kids are pushed here is crazy. I can’t imagine needing to master a foreign language just to qualify for a college. It’s depressing that some Chinese people don’t want to live in their own country. It gives me that much more reason to take pride in being American.

My roommate loves to tell me about all the bad things about China. I think he recently had the realization that because of him, I don’t have that many good things to say about his country. The most unsettling story he’s told me is about an elderly woman who fell off her bicycle and onto the ground. No one came to help the woman, who was clearly in pain, until a few minutes later when a young man walked by and saw her. Instead of praising the man for helping her, the woman reported to authorities that the man had pushed her off the bicycle. A lawsuit was filed, and, in the end, the court declared the young man guilty, ruling that if the woman’s falling off her bicycle wasn’t his fault then he needn’t help her. Guo Jiang then added, “It’s hard to be a good man in China”.
There are stray cats that roam our campus. In fact, during my Chinese economics class yesterday, a cat literally walked into our classroom, made his rounds, and then walked out. This one here is my favorite.
Today is a very special holiday in China. It’s Guānggùnjié or Singles’ Day. Singles’ Day grew out of university culture and got its name from the four ones in the date 11/11. On this day, a lot of Chinese single people go out to dinner with their single friends to celebrate being single. Just as popular though is attending “blind date” parties in hopes of ending one’s single life. Today, to celebrate, I bought some Kraft Singles and played tennis with just one friend.
I still haven't been able to figure this one out. It's next to a little waiting room inside the gym that I've never seen anyone use.
Yesterday, my roommate and I went out to eat at a great Xi’an style restaurant. Afterwards, he took me to his family friends’ apartment to see what typical family life is like. While my involvement in our conversation was rather limited, my favorite part of the experience was seeing their daughter’s bedroom. Now don’t get any ideas. She is 15, and what I’m referring to is the contents of her room. Her room wasn’t much bigger than the standard college dorm room, and yet she had a huge piano up against her wall. I got one of those inner gleeful sensations you get when you see a stereotype realized. I asked her to play. She dismissed the idea at first but then sat down and pulled out some Mozart (Mòzhātè). Her fingers began to move gracefully across the keys. She was insanely good. I looked over at Guo Jiang and the daughter’s father to see if they were as impressed as I. They weren’t. The father’s face wore an expression more of approval than of pride. He stood with his hands placed firmly on his hips. When his daughter finished the piece, I was fairly certain he was going to angrily shout “Again!”

In all seriousness though, the father and daughter were very friendly, and I enjoyed the little visit. When we were leaving, our host eagerly tried to send us home with every possible gift he could find. He was so forceful that Guo Jiang ended up having to shout “Bùyòng bùyòng, tài kèqi le!”  [No need, no need, you’re too kind!]. Although I could have guessed such a display of generosity was coming, it’s just funny when the culture you know is turned on its head. In the States, the guest traditionally arrives with a gift for the host. And as for the host’s duties, just providing the comfort of one’s home and some refreshments is considered quite sufficient.

Lotte World, the indoor amusement park we went to in Seoul.
Part of being a successful laowai (foreigner) is knowing when to speak Chinese and when to deny all knowledge of the Chinese language. For instance, if you want to successfully bargain, you should definitely use Chinese to get the best possible price. If you want a cab driver to take you somewhere, you should probably speak Chinese to him or he’ll drop you off wherever he feels like. If some guy wants to make you pay to enter a skate park to simply watch your friend skateboard, you should act dumb and just sneak into the park. If you are on a plane and are told to turn off all electronic devices but are in the middle of listening to a really good song, you should pretend that you cannot comprehend anything coming out of the flight attendant’s mouth and keep your earbuds plugged in.
Definitely worth sneaking in to the skate park to get some action shots of Morrison.

Next weekend, out of a strong feeling of obligation, I’m heading to the country’s capital: Beijing. There, I’ll experience the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and some Peking duck in what’s sure to be a jam-packed weekend. 

Here's a link to a video I took a while ago in Zhuhai when we were on our field study trip. It's of a homeless old man who truly moved me with his music. Enjoy.
A True Virtuoso

Friday, November 4, 2011

Seoul Searchin'

I felt a little stupid for choosing Seoul as my fall break destination, given that I came to Asia primarily to study Chinese. China has many cities that are ideal for tourism and language practice, but I ultimately gave in to the desire to explore, to look beyond China, to take advantage of being on the other side of the globe for the first time in my life. For me, exploring the city of Seoul not only means seeing my first fully developed Asian country, but also presents a great chance to relieve myself from the mental strain of speaking and studying Chinese everyday.  I’ve made a conscious effort to not learn any Korean while I’m here in order to give my brain some rest. I’ve survived so far with knowing just one word, hana, which means “one”.  It comes in handy when I only want one of something. For some reason, I don’t mind being the American tourist who can’t understand the people around him. I’ve come to truly appreciate the power of body language, and of Koreans knowing how to speak English.

I’m traveling with my two friends, Andrew and Kehoe. Here’s what we’ve done:

Gyeongbokgung, Korea's imperial palace.
·      Visited one of Seoul's many palaces
·      Took a cable car to the Seoul Nam San Tower
·      Went to the Demilitarized Zone
·      Shopped in the famous Myeongdong district
·      Ate at an awesome seafood market
·      Visited Lotte World, an indoor amusement park
·      Went to an art museum

Fresh sashimi from the seafood market. 
Stil left to do:
·      Seoul City bus tour
·      Ride bicycles in Cheonggyecheon, an urban park that runs through the city
·      Go back to the seafood market

Along the way we’ve also been sampling all the street food and convenience store snacks. So far, more successes than failures.

Although I’ve been to Hong Kong and Macau, South Korea, as I mentioned, is the first fully developed Asian country that I’ve ever been to. After being in China for so long, I don’t take for granted the soap in public bathrooms, the available drinking water at restaurants, and the overall cleanliness of the city (fun fact: if you say “Korean” in an Asian accent, it sounds like “clean”). While Shanghai will not likely resemble Seoul in the future (Shanghai has many more skyscrapers), it is cool to get a glimpse of what a developed China might be like in a few years. From observing Korean life, I’ve determined that Asians with blond hair and pet grooming stores are defining characteristics of a developed nation.

Even in Korea, there is no escaping the Chinese foreigner picture frenzy. When we were on the DMZ tour, we were attacked by a group of Chinese tourists who all wanted to take individual pictures with us.  If you ever start feeling lost in the crowd, you should really head over to Asia. I’m constantly being reminded how cool it is to be white and over 5’7’’.

We went on an awesome tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. The highlight was walking through one of the infiltration tunnels that North Korea had built in hopes of attacking the South.

The average day here has been 60°F with sunny skies, and yet I’d be hard pressed to find a Korean that isn’t wearing pants and at least two layers of clothing. I’ve noticed the same thing back in China. Weather that I find to be very comfortable is often considered quite cold by Chinese standards.
We asked our Chinese teacher about this phenomenon in class. Her response: “You all have white skin; we have yellow skin.” I was really shocked by this explanation and find it difficult to accept that tolerance for cold temperatures is a racial characteristic. In any event, I find it hilarious when I’m reminded of this racial difference. One time I walked into work in a short-sleeved Polo shirt on a beautiful, sunny day, and a co-worker asked me “Nǐ bù lěng ma?” [Aren’t you cold?]. In addition, my marketing professor once warned our class, “Be prepared; Shanghai gets very cold in the winter”. Hah, he doesn’t even know what cold is. I’d love to take him to Ithaca.

This is what happens when a country becomes too developed.
My first night in Seoul was spent at a club in a banana suit. There, I quickly discovered that most Koreans don't celebrate Halloween. That didn't mean that the banana was not a huge hit though. 

Doing our best to be culturally sensitive.