Friday, August 22, 2008

In Conclusion

China was hard, but so much fun.

I started this blog claiming that anyone who read it would be doing it out of pity. Now I've heard that for some people, reading this has become a part of their daily routine (and only one of those people was my mom). Following my stories, a habit! But all things must come to an end.

I've done a lot since I left. I was rerouted flying out of the country. I bought a cheap watch. Then tried to get a refund. I purchased a scarf for the first time, got unexcited about China, felt really embarrassed, slept in my roommate's bed. I chatted up the bakery girl, broke copyright law, ate dinner with a Chinese family and a secret vegetarian, grabbed a cab, and realized that Chinese really enjoy the NBA. And that was just in the first month.

I used to think that I wasn't good at finishing things, that I was doomed to having great ideas that I couldn't bring to completion. But I have consistently blogged for the last seven months. Cumulatively, about 75,000 words. That's long enough to be a book. Speaking of which, I've been writing a novel. I never finish my writing projects, but maybe I will this time. Anyone who's read through these posts has surely earned a look at the final product when I'm done (this time 2009?).

One final story. After I hung out with a bunch of my friends tonight, Jessica dropped me off at home. As I got out of her car, I started making sure that I hadn't forgotten anything. I hadn't been wearing a hat, I didn't have any bags, my wallet was in my pocket. Why think through this so assiduously? So that when the taxi drove off I wouldn't lose anything, of course.

That's silly, I told myself. You're not in a taxi. But my mind persisted in thinking the situation through: it's okay, I said. If I left anything behind, just make sure to write down the license plate number and I can find the driver. Who can I get to call the taxi company who speaks good enough Chinese to explain what happened?

And then, at the end of my chain of thought rested this dilemma: I could call Sophia, but now that I'm in America it'd be really expensive to get in touch with her.

And so it goes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Reentry

And Will comes back from China. It's almost 1am here in Orlando (that's right, in America), but I think my strategy for quickly overcoming jetlag has backfired. I left Beijing August 20th, at 4:10pm and arrived in Chicago August 20th, 3:50pm (it was a fast plane). Florida is twelve time zones away from Beijing, so when I got on the plane I tried to think of it as being 4 in the morning. "Just like a night out clubbing," I thought to myself. "Although this airplane seat isn't as comfortable as Emma's couch." I slept until around 11, then decided I should be awake until I got home. That way my body would be convinced that it really is night. But I'm afraid I've held out so long it thinks night has just skipped and I'm already on a new day. Gives me energy for a blog entry.

The guy I sat next to on the plane was a Chinese guy with bad English coming to America for grad school. It reminded me of me seven months ago. I had to explain how to put on an airplane seatbelt, and helped him fill in his customs card, and taught him the word "soda." All in Chinese.

In general I felt pretty good about my Chinese leaving. Someone forgot to stamp my ticket saying I had gone through security, and a random American next to me knew the word "to stamp" when they questioned me about it. I'm not perfect. But I understand some things. I recently learned 乘客是上帝, the Chinese equivalent of "the customer is always right." And then the Chinese guy two over from me used it, only in English: (to the stewardess hassling him about asking for ice too late) "But the customer is God."

Arriving in America I felt out of step, like a marching routine that I haven't done in a long time and isn't instinctual any more. I was in Chicago trying to sort out Verizon's ridiculous rules about getting my phone working. ("I need the primary account holder [my mom] to approve me helping you." If I could call my mom to ask permission, I wouldn't need to talk to Verizon.) An older woman comes up to me trying to shuffle me toward a terminal. I told her I wasn't sure where I was going, and she went off to ask her supervisor to help me or something. When she came back toward me, I said to her, "Hey, I think I actually got it worked out."

"Don't call me 'hey,'" she says. "But that's good." I was so thrown off. "Sorry," I apologized, trying to think of what I was supposed to have said. Lao dama isn't English, nor is nainai...

Then on the subway I was watching people interact and heard a middle-aged guy say to his son, "Did you hear what I said to your mom when she left us?" Then he noticed I was looking in his direction and paused, sizing me up. "Mind your folly," he said, pointing his finger at me and going back to his loud monologue. I don't even know what that phrase means. I spent the rest of the subway ride a little confused.

But now I'm home. Rosie remembers me. I ate toasted Little Caesar's bread sticks and an apple that I picked right out of our gigantic refrigerator.

I think I'll post once more, a kind of summing up of everything. Because now, I'm back! And I'm glad life is still interesting.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What I'm Returning to

My family

My friends

Shower curtains

"No smoking" policies

Real peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

The need for knives

Beaches

Little smog

No public transportation

No ring roads

Signs that I can read

Unfettered Internet access

TV stations that aren't controlled by the government

Good music

No one outside at dusk relaxing

Babies with diapers

Several kids per family

Businesses, not shops

Miles and pounds

Fruit that I don't need to disinfect before eating

Ovens

A racial mix in which Chinese are the foreigners

Religious freedom

A normalcy that I automatically understand

Hurricanes

Classes taught in English

Printers

Restaurants with less than three waitresses per customer

The pressures that face college students

Houses

Video stores

A car that the government says I'm allowed to drive

What I left

Bible studies

The extravagantly wide street winding through Waterford

Speed limits

No trains

Toilet paper in bathrooms

Nobody squatting. Ever

Not being the tallest

Not being able to pick my nose in public

Haircuts that cost more than $1.20

UF football games

Non-negotiable pricing

Exercise toys that are the least used playground equipment, not the most

People who won't have experienced the same things as I have

Money that isn't colorful

Cellphone plans

Rosie, our dog

Pets in general

Privately owned grass

My mom's spaghetti and meatballs

The End is Near

This blog entry has been in the back of my mind since the first week I came to China, so even if it's not that interesting or whatever, I'm still going to talk about it, since tonight is my last night in China, and time is short.

I want to mention all the experiences I've had with music since I've been overseas.

On my first day in Chengdu, back in January, our group ate lunch a few tables away from a wedding ceremony. Weddings in China are a little strange, since they don't have the traditions we do--hence pastel blue wedding dresses. But what I haven't forgotten is that one of the songs they sang was "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands."

I went in to a music store once and tried to buy authentic Chinese music. One CD was Jay Chou, who's like a Chinese Backstreet Boy in popularity, and the other is... erhu. That's a two-stringed instrument which, played well, sounds like someone is moaning to death. I've gotten used to it, though, just like Mom taught us to eat fish.

When I went to Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of the summer, I had a picnic lunch with a few 10 year old boys I met. As we hiked, they broke out into an accented, thankfully incomplete rendition of "Smack That."

Later in Kyrgyzstan, I heard the latest American hip-hop song for the first time. I disliked it so much I was going to write an entry about how bad it was, but then I had other things to do.

When I was really overwhelmed living at the train station in Kazhakstan, I bought a CD of My Chemical Romance, a classic emo band. Most of their songs are about dying, but I've enjoyed having new music anyway.

I think I was in Turpan (that is, remote desert in China) when my taxi driver played "Numa, Numa." Several times. I doubt he's seen the video. (I'd link to it but China won't let me.)

And finally, during the Olympics, they play the Pirates of the Caribbean theme.

Links to old posts to remind myself what all has happened in the last seven months.

Monday, August 18, 2008

No, Fifth Time Really is the Charm

If you don't have an amazing time at the Olympics, try, try, try again. I met some cool people recently and hung out with them this afternoon. They had bought tickets online for the women's soccer semis, and I went with them on the subway since I didn't have anywhere I had to be. Then we got closer to the stadium and saw people selling tickets, and I couldn't resist. 300 kuai lighter (100 of that being Bekah's loan) I had a ticket to an important Olympic game.


America was playing, which made this twice as cool. And, of course, you might even have watched it (or will watch it, depending on NBC's mood) on tv. The New York Times had the result of this game on their home page! I was there. Watching us kick Japan's butt.


Japan was actually the best opponent we could have had, because after WWII, the Chinese hate Japanese. The 40,000+ crowd joined in bilingual cheers rooting on America.

The ticket I bought gave me a perfect seat: at the front of the second tier, right in center field. But I snuck into the lower level for the second half to hang out with the people I came with. We had a great time.

Afterward, we talked to one of the players' mom, since my friends knew their family.

Coming back home is part of the story, of course, but this time it has a happy ending. The game ended late and I only took the subway partway home. When I got a taxi, I told the driver, "Take me to Wangjing Bridge, South Nanhu Street." He said sure, then asked which place on the street. "I'll tell you when we get there," I said.

Again he agreed. "But there's a different way I could go," he said. Since I've been in Beijing a while, I knew that the road I was talking about was really long.

"The place I'm going is right by the bridge," I said. And that was the right answer, because then he said that his other route wouldn't be helpful.

I leave the day after tomorrow, (although with a hurricane coming, when I'll actually get home is a different question) and it was nice to have a chance to use the local knowledge I've acquired being in China so long.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fourth Time's the Charm--Almost

By far the most exciting (and expensive) tickets I had to the Olympics was for a morning of athletics events in the Bird's Nest. That is, this Bird's Nest, the steel nurturer for a nation ready to spread its wings, easing its way into Beijing's once-in-an-Olympics blue sky:


And from close up:


All I knew going into the morning is that our ticket covered whatever happened from 9am to 1pm, and that we wouldn't be seeing the finals of anything. But then we got there, Emma, another girl, and I, and the first thing to start was the finals... for the 20k walk. Don't worry, if you didn't catch the hour plus event on tv, I took pictures:


They're in a pack like that partially because it's the beginning, and you can't get a huge lead when you've walked half a lap; and partially because packs make things respectable, even if that's waddling like a seven-year-old rushing for the bathroom. Coming in first was Mr. Borchin, a Russian whose life story likely begins, "Back in my day we had to walk 10 miles to get to an outhouse..." I'm joking, of course. 20 kilometers is 12.4 miles, not 10.

The morning was really exciting. What I didn't understand was that they do three or four events at once. So while the women's shot put is under way on the field, the women's heptathletes are warming up for the long jump and the men's steeplechase heats are taking place. It was like having seven tvs, and whenever one thing finished--the women's 100m heats, for instance--a flying discus would catch my eye until it fell, and then I'd notice half of a pole vaulting attempt.

I took pictures of all of the events, but they're uninspiring. But, when I slipped past the "don't cross this unless you have a ticket" rope to get a picture of the women lining up for the 100m dash, the picture came out pretty well. Credits to Grandad for teaching me that it's not a real picture unless you broke a rule to get it:


But then I had to get home from the Olympics. Although it was my fourth time to see an event, it was also my fourth venue, but lots of frustration, several subway stops, and a taxi ride later, I made it home. I made myself a late lunch of leftover rice and sliced apple-pear, and took a nap. When I woke up, I realized that the way I had locked the door left my Chinese mom locked out for the last forty-five minutes. What stress I had relieved sleeping was back in an instant as I insufficiently apologized.

But when you talk to Norwegian Olympic athletes on the subway about innovations in swimming, and see scenes like the one pictured below, there isn't much room for dissatisfaction.

Friday, August 15, 2008

End of the Term, No Exploing

I came across a blog today which shows that good writers can have a successful blog. I thought being in China might compensate from any good writing skills I haven't acquired yet, but maybe I should start putting up cute pictures of kids. Or use CAPITALIZATION or cuss words.

I did teach my Koreans some bad words yesterday. You have to start at low-level words because their vocabulary isn't good enough to work on words that they might only have an opportunity to say once in their lives. They've already mastered "crap." I did find it interesting that when I said I was willing to trade bad words in English for any bad words they knew in Chinese, the two boys who are bored out of their minds by English scrambled for paper and a pencil. The most studious girl sat there with her head in her arms

Speaking of my Koreans' progress, I brought home the essay Sky (a boy) wrote in class today. We've been reading Harry Potter, and today we read the first scene in the third book where the students encounter boggarts. Boggarts, as you'll remember, are the monsters that take the shape of whatever you fear most and are only destroyed by laughter. The assignment was to pretend that they saw a boggart.

Sky writes: I'm scared of teddy bears. I'm a president, but I scaring of teddy bears. so students laugh at me. So my boggart is teddy bears. It is cute. so I sayd, "It is cute!!!" So It exploed.

And yet, with several weeks down and only one more lesson to go, I think I've helped them make progress. I've tried to convince them that the past, present, and future tense are not the same; that nouns need qualifiers; that sentences generally consist of more than three words and lots of pointing; that verbs are important; that "He is 155 cm height" is not a proper sentence; that "Me, too" should be "Me, neither" if you're concurring with a negative statement; and that "died" is not transitive.

I had my last day of class today. I attended reading class, because it was the last day and I still have that elementary school urge to think that my attendance will affect my final grade. It was a waste of time.

But I've made it to the end of the term, and haven't exploded. China can still work me over when it wants to, as my most recent trip to the Olympics shows, but I've survived. And here's an icing-on-the-cake story.

When I was younger, my mom would occasionally let stories about learning Chinese slip out. One time she was trying to tell me about how the Chinese have a proverb for almost any situation you can imagine. I asked for an example, and she told me the only one she remembered. "A poor man walks by a bakery every morning and lingers to smell the great aroma of the bread baking. The shopkeeper gets mad at the poor man for enjoying something he didn't pay for, and starts to demand payment. When wise Asanti gets there, the baker explains the situation and says he wants 10 kuai for all the smells the man has gotten as his expense. Asanti says that that sounds reasonable, but the poor man pleads that he doesn't have the money. "No problem," Asanti says. "I happen to have a whole purse full of money here." When the baker sees the pouch, he gets really excited. Asanti jingles the coins. "The sound of money buys the smell of bread," he says, putting the pouch back in his pocket and walking away with the poor man.

I'm bracing myself this morning for reading class, when what do I see? This same story. The story that represented Chinese to me when I was seven is the last thing I study before leaving the country. Isn't that cool?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Day at the Olympics

Today was a disaster. It began simply enough by me skipping class at the last minute to go see basketball. But Emma and I rode the subway there with three other people from our program who were not as group-conscious as we were. To make a long story short, they ended up in a taxi on their way to the stadium and we ended up on the subway with one of their extra tickets (People had backed out, so the three of them had eight tickets total and Emma had two extra). On our way in, lots of Chinese were haggling for tickets, so we sold them Emma's two tickets and the extra one that she was carrying. Then we got through security and received a call from the people we were with. Apparently, they had also sold their extra tickets, but were counting on getting their other one back from us and had actually sold a ticket they didn't have a replacement for. Well, we were past security already and, not expecting to hear from them, had sold the other ticket.

They got mad, we got mad, and we stormed into basketball--which, contrary to one's guy's firm assertions when the tickets were bought--was actually women's basketball. There were lots of empty seats and we did see these people. I spent most of the game trying to calm down from the hectic morning and get into the spirit of horrible Olympic basketball.

But on to handball. Emma and I didn't have time to have lunch. Our taxi dropped us off at the wrong place. We walked half an hour and showed up halfway through the game.

But, every Swede in Beijing must have been at this match, because the handball game (which is actually more like lacrosse than it is ultimate frisbee) was very lively. Emma and I eventually managed to say that we were having fun.

These mild paragraphs lightly pass over what was possibly the most stressful day of my life. I have the feeling I've said that before, but like Michael Phelps' swimming, records can be broken. Forget taxi drivers being able to speak English: it'd be nice if they knew where the buildings were and were willing to drive you there. It's not like we just said, "Hi, please take us to go see handball." Emma and I had an Olympic map with the location labeled in Chinese, a dot where it was in relation to all the other streets, and even a picture so the driver would recognize it by the shape! And I won't even mention the fiasco trying to get a taxi to the women's basketball game.

When all else fails, or you're not enjoying the Russian women's basketball team play Belarus, you can always practice for the next big thing, Olympic napkin throwing:


(Package of napkins not actually visible)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Juggling, Koreans, and Handball

Last night I went to the Beijing juggling club. What's a China experience without going to a juggling club? And now that the days are down to single digits until I fly back to the States, I have to do all the China-y things I can.


(A basic 10-club feed with a guy from Italy and America.)

That includes continue my part-time job teaching Koreans English in China. My curriculum consists of Harry Potter for one hour, then grammar help/story time for the next hour. Do you want to improve your English, too? That'll be $29.00 for the day.

My Koreans have taught me really cool things about their culture: in Korea, newborns count as being one year old, so I'd be 21 there. In Korea, their thumb is called the "father" finger, followed by the "mother," "son," "daughter," and "baby" fingers. And Koreans don't play. They just work.

And now to briefly discuss handball. Tomorrow will be my second adventure to the Olympics. This time I'll be seeing an event almost unknown in America: handball. I thought I knew what it was, since Dan and I play racquetball, but I was wrong. This sport, best I can tell, is like ultimate frisbee with a ball instead. If you're younger than 30, that description probably didn't help, and I recommend going to NBC's handball page and reading the rules or watching some video. Unfortunately, NBC figured out that I'm not in America and won't let me watch any of its coverage.

Finally, I wanted to say that you asked a good question, Jaclyn. I don't have the distribution of Olympic tickets quite figured out. The cheapest ones are really cheap ($4 US). On the other hand, a lot of the ticket sales happened during work hours, so if you're a wage earner dependent on those hours for food, it's unlikely you'll go stand in line, especially if you're risking a stampede. Large blocks of tickets were given (or bought, or somehow ended up in the hands of) large, rich companies, but that's to be expected. If worse comes to worse, you can always find a ticket to attend handball!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Going to the Olympics

This weekend has been crazy. Up till 3 Friday night for the opening ceremony and celebration, up till 1 last night hanging out with a rich friend Emma went to school with, and going to see Olympic weightlifting this morning.


I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I was really impressed at how Olympic the auditorium looked considering we were in some random school's gym. And everything was so official, from the Chinese guys who rushed out to change the weights, to the dramatic "There has been a change of weights" announcement when people decided to push themselves harder.

I'll give you the set-up. There are eight weight classifications for men. Emma and I watched the first round of the lightest group (less than 56 kg). That's less than I weigh, and I couldn't donate blood in high school because I didn't weigh enough. But all of them were a head shorter than I was, so I guess that gives them kilos to spare for muscle.

Olympic weightlifting is the composite of two events: Snatch, and Clean and Jerk. In the first, you lift the weight from the floor to over your head in one motion. In the second, you first bring the weight up to your chin, and then jerk it over your head. Obviously it's easier to lift something over your head when you get to stop halfway, so the Clean and Jerk sees higher weights. So even if you're winning after the Snatch, you still have to do well in the Clean and Jerk because it's easier to lift a few more kilos in that part.

The other rule that made everything really exciting was that even though everybody gets three attempts, turns go in the order of the next highest weight. So if you start attempting a 103 kg Snatch and only go up a few kilos from there, you might have used all three of your tries by the time a better weightlifter starts at 112 kg. The upset of our match, though, was that the highest-seeded guy, who started at 115 kg, couldn't do it! "Bombing-out" disqualified him, since how can you add the scores of Snatch and Clean and Jerk when you don't have a Snatch? He was disappointed, to say the least.

Our round had obscure countries (Moldova, Belgium, Turkey) so we weren't sure who to root for. One of the Americans sitting next to us, though, lived in Thailand and swept us up in cheering him on.



After the Snatch (these aren't supposed to be capitalized, by the way, but I think it adds to the excitement), our Thai guy was in first. The Clean and Jerk began, the weight kept going up, and I thought Mr. Maneetong had it for sure. He finished his three attempts early on, but had such a high score from the Snatch that he looked unbeatable. Then, the only one left was the weightlifter from Turkey. On his second attempt, he locked in third place. (We thought this was the finals, too, so were doubly enthralled.)

For his last attempt, he first had the weights set to put him in second. Then he went balls to the wall and loaded them up so that, if successful, he would usurp our Thai favorite to win. He came out focused, and then 10 seconds away from his time expiring, lifted the weight to his chin, then with great effort pushed it up all the way, trembling with the exertion while the judges made sure his feet weren't moving.

"成功!" the commentator said in Chinese. You don't need language classes to understand that.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Opening Ceremony

First, an online high-five to Lauren for knowing that I wrote the word guanxi (loosely translated "connections") in my last post.

My attempt to see the opening ceremony instead of watch it on tv can be summarized by one picture:


Can you see any fireworks? Neither could we. And it's not just because of the smog (recently relabeled "fog" by the Chinese Olympic Committee).

I stood on a bridge--that was the view for non-ticket holders who aren't NBC--with several hundred Chinese people as the auspicious time of 8:08 August 8, 2008 drew near. Then it passed. We on the bridge still didn't see anything coming from the Bird's Nest, located in the picture in between the skyscrapers on the right and the building with video of fireworks in the center. From what I'd heard, the huge firework display would happen near the beginning of the opening ceremony.

Then we saw one firework go off. Then a burst of fireworks. And then nothing. "Wouldn't it be funny if that was it?" I joked to the American couple standing on the bridge next to me. Apparently, I wasn't joking. About half an hour later, when nothing came next, all the Chinese on the bridge decided to go home.

I had come to the spot itself because I knew that right next to the Bird's Nest was the building with a video screen several stories tall. "Excellent," I thought. "I'll watch the fireworks over my head and the show on the screen." Only the screen, several stories tall, didn't broadcasting anything but previously recorded fireworks. So we were left standing on a bridge, alone, a quarter mile away from the action watching for fireworks that didn't seem to be coming.

Not only that, but I was separated from my friends. I had tutoring in the afternoon, so they went ahead of me. It turns out they arrived early enough that the protective barrier was put up with them inside. I didn't know this, though, and spent an hour or so trying to ride the right bus to get closer to them. I ended up on the bridge far away with two very nice Americans, but they weren't my friends. And there was no fireworks/ceremony-watching, regardless.

How do you say "disappointment" in Chinese?

The low came when we jumped ship and tried to go to the Olympic party we had tickets to. All my friends were going and I was to meet up with them, since Emma had my ticket. But taxis were scarce and I didn't really know where I was going. Then I passed a group of Chinese on the bridge crowded around a girl's phone watching the show.

"This'll make a great blog entry," I thought to myself bitterly.

Just then, Emma calls to say I should hurry to the club because they have the opening ceremony in high-def on huge screens.

I've let myself describe the full extent of my frustration because the second half of my night made up for it. This video gives you a good idea:


video

If your body wasn't pounding with the background music, the speakers on your computer aren't giving you the full effect. I didn't imagine I would watch every country in the world stream into the Olympic stadium to a throbbing techno beat, but loud, slightly drunken cheers for each person's country removed any doubt of patriotism.

And with weightlifting tickets for tomorrow, I fully agree in saying let the games begin!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Guess Who Got Olympic Tickets

I didn't think I'd be able to come back to America and tell people that I had happened to be studying at the city hosting the Olympics and not attended. Now I don't have to worry. I've been working my connections the last few weeks and am proud to say that I will have Olympic tickets.

I feel like I'm allowed to be excited now. And with the opening ceremony tomorrow night, I'll have a lot of chance for it. (Our teacher said that despite most of Beijing (and China?) having tomorrow as a holiday, we would still have class. "What if there are no students?" I asked. "Then we teachers will have a holiday, too," she replied. Sounds like a deal to me.)

That is, if everything goes mostly according to plan. One of my friends from America had tickets but wouldn't be in Beijing until halfway after the Olympics were over, so he readily agreed a few months ago to give me some. I only got the contact info of the person who actually had the tickets two days ago, and she said she had already allotted them to people. Out of the goodness of her heart, though, she said she'd give up a few of the ones she was planning to use personally so I and a friend could go see weightlifting on Sunday.

Independently of this, Emma found a website that the newly accessible BBC said was legit and bought a few tickets for a track-and-field event later next week.

Then Emma's boyfriend's friend is Chinese and said he didn't have any tickets, but he knew people. A day later he said he found a pair of tickets for handball. Not exactly the 100m dash, but who says we foreigners can't use 关系?

All told, I should be able to attend three Olympic events, and one of those should be in the Bird's Nest.

Our teacher said that Chinese people are all going to watch the opening ceremony on tv at home. That's practically the same as watching it from America, though, (except for the 29 locations where ridiculous fireworks will be set off simultaneously, so the whole city can be part of the action) so my friends and I are going to try to go to the Bird's Nest and watch things from nearby. 100,000 people will attend the opening ceremony, though, so maybe we'll think it's too crowded.

I'm excited!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

When I'm Not the Tourist

My audience asks, and I deliver. I think I assumed that since I was reading everything anyone wrote about the Olympics, that everyone else would be, too, and wouldn't want to hear me saying kinda the same things. But I do have a perspective of already having been here for six weeks.

I was walking to lunch yesterday with two friends when a random Asian accosted us in rapid-fire Chinese. "You guys speak Chinese, right?" Lizzie, a British friend I went to Tianjin with, didn't understand anything, and I was too thrown-off to be helpful. The Polish girl from my class answered that we did. "Good," the guy says. "Can I have a picture with you?"

I pause here while we asked him several times what he wanted. Chinese tourists don't consider it a trip unless they've gotten a picture with a real foreigner. Seriously.

Eventually we agree to take a picture with him. I think that this encounter was so strange, and our school so full of Koreans (i.e. everyone in my class but me and this Polish girl) that this guy might not even be Chinese. When I ask what country he's from, though, he was offended enough that I knew he was Chinese.

It's his first time in Beijing, he explained. He lives in the Northeast and is here because his sister, who lives here, found him tickets for the Olympics. "Welcome to Beijing," I called to him as we left.

I was riding the bus a few days ago when I heard several people ask the conductor, "Does this bus go to the subway?" Of course it goes to the subway, I thought to myself. Don't you know which stops are subway entrances? But of course they didn't, because none of them live in Beijing. I was proud of myself that I was able to tell independently of their questions, since anyone who rides the bus frequently (that is, not them) would use their transportation card instead of paying in cash and getting a receipt.

I live in between school and the Bird's Nest (the Olympic stadium), so even though practically no cars are on the road, I still get hit with a huge burst of traffic as we pass it.

The pollution is still horrible. Earlier, I was annoyed that everyone would come to Beijing, see the fantastic weather, and think it was always like that. But now all the Western media talks about is how there still aren't blue skies. I'm rooting for China to get it cleaned up.

Maybe I'm not as excited as this guy, who we saw in Tianjin:

Monday, August 4, 2008

My Ferris Wheel Experience

Now in video.

Apparently we weren't alone in being terrified riding Tianjin's ferris wheel. I found this video of other foreign students:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htz78_34918

I posted mine as a video reply:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuEwGaUEe7A


Now that I watch it from the peace and quiet of my apartment, it doesn't sound like a leaf blower. Any better suggestions?

I found out that the train we rode from Tianjin back to Beijing opened only three days ago, and is now the fastest train in the world. So that's cool.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Chinese Amusement Park

Emma, Lizzie and I decided to go on a day trip to Tianjin, the neighboring municipality. We tried to plan a trip to Nanjing, but were thwarted when train tickets were sold out when we went to buy them. I'm much better at planning for just myself--that is, not planning at all.

We managed to buy tickets for the slow train to Tianjin, though, and arrived without incident. In my opinion, the funnest part of traveling is that your Chinese naturally gets better. Emma is in A+, and Lizzie is in B, so they have a lot of travel to do. Emma has been feeling discouraged that she's been in China six weeks and she feels like she's only gotten worse. At first she boldly tried to talk to people, but now that she knows she knows nothing she feels too overwhelmed. When you can't even pronounce the name of your apartment complex so that taxi drivers can understand you, it's no wonder.

I think when I came to China I'd already crossed that phase, so it wasn't bad for me. I'm still prone to disappointment, obviously, but it's on a different level.

There were no must-sees in Tianjin. I mostly wanted to go because I've been itching for travel and I knew my language partners back home came from there and thought it would be cool to say I'd traveled to their home town (if you can call a city of 10 million a town).

First we wandered down a street of tourist-y shops. I finally found a stone master to buy a stamp with my name in Chinese from. He explained how he went to the quarry himself to get stones. He carves them, and polishes them, and knows way more than I do about why one costs 30 kuai and another one that looks almost the same costs 300. I settled on a really cool big one for 50 kuai, and seeing my excitement Emma and Lizzie decided to buy one too. Their "How much is this?" was getting better the more we walked around. What use are we going to have for a stamp in Chinese? Probably none, but for about $8 (after the engraving fee, by the stone guy's "famous brother") it's a really cool symbol of China. Just wait till you see my name in red ink: 潘伟.

After lunch, we went to a park. When we entered, we realized that it doubled as a low-grade amusement park. The bumper cars were 8 kuai, which made them a must. I felt quite at home using all the driving techniques I've learned from taking taxis on small Chinese kids.

Then we saw the ferris wheel. It was huge, and was moving really slowly. We bought snacks before we boarded in case it broke halfway.

We couldn't hear it creaking until we got on, but it sounded like something was horribly wrong. The noise increased the higher up we went, until I was honestly a little nervous. I couldn't tell what the noise was either: it sounded like a leaf-blower that would turn on and off. I've found Chinese has relatively few obscenities, so I couldn't practice my Chinese by translating Emma's comments.

We had a fantastic, expensive dinner at T.G.I. Friday's before we boarded the super-fast train back to Beijing. It topped out at over 340 kilometers/hour, which is 200 mph. I felt like I was in an industrialized country. All three of us agreed that we like Tianjin more than Beijing, but maybe it was just the freedom that a day out of town can do to you.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Olympification

Beijing's countdown board, which one couple I met said they saw with thousands of days left, is down to single digits now. Olympification is in high gear.

"Pictures cannot reflect reality," Du Shaozhong, a high-up, said in response to the bad press it's getting about Beijing's air quality. "They are not accurate." (As if I have enough skill to know how to upload a picture to Photoshop, let alone alter it.) But pictures are still speaking a thousand words for me, making this a very long entry.

Most intrusive to the average Chinese, of course, is Beijing's traffic rule that license plates ending with even numbers can only be driven on even calendar days, and odd-numbered license plates on odd calendar days. My solution, of course, would be to drive without a license plate, but I understand why many haven't adopted that. (They would ban cars altogether, then, of course.)

Or, if you're like my Chinese dad, you just don't go to work on the days you can't drive.


That looks like a substantial number of cars, you say, but you're wrong. These cars don't even have their brake lights on, and everyone knows that it's not an Olympics-worthy city unless there's normally a traffic jam anywhere cars are allowed (and some places where they aren't).

What you can't see in this picture is the Olympic lane that most of the roads have. Highways only have three lanes each way here, and when you cut out a whole one for an unknown Olympics-related reason, you're back to a reasonable amount of traffic.


Exhibit two is Beijing's prettifying.

A week or two ago, Average Zhou and his buddy painstakingly positioned a flowery pedestal every hundred feet or less. Apparently, these were a one-time investment for the government, because since then the potted flowers have been withering and the nice enamel has been cracking. Today as I walked by they looked like something Beijing should clean up instead of evidence that it has.



I'm not sure if this sign was added in preparation for the Olympics, but it fits in. In case you wanted to time your terrorist attack properly, car bombings are only allowed from 6am to midnight. I don't know how else to interpret that sign. They've started to check my backpack every time I get on a bus now.

And then there's overall Olympification. This structure was in a garden Emma and I visited recently. Our school has been working on it's own project, a papier-mâché globe twenty feet in diameter. At least that's what it looks like. They make me show my ID to get into school now (since I don't look foreign enough already), so I concentrate more on accepting China's restrictions than on appreciating their artistic prowess.

If effort won gold, though, then China's in for a big victory party. But from what I hear, over eight people and the gathering is illegal. Gotta watch out for separatists.