Monthly Archives: April 2010

Beijing: More Than We Bargained For

Stanford in Beijing at T–– Square

On our first Friday (no classes!), we rolled out as a crew for a day trip to the must-see tourist sites in Beijing proper: T–– (I’m trying to avoid the censors…) Square and the Forbidden City. We first took a Beida bus to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition, where Shen Laoshi attempted to convey to us the spirit of the re-imagining––the rebirth––of the city of Beijing on a massive scale, in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The massive model of Beijing was spectacular, and as a map-lover, I was particularly thrilled. After an IMAX-style 3-D plunge into the history of Beijing, stomachs were growling left and right, and we headed straight for a feast of Peking duck and all sorts of Chinese dishes at a classy restaurant south of the Forbidden City. Fully satiated, we stumbled out the door and into a hutong, the traditional Chinese neighborhood arrangement, consisting of roads lined with fully-connected adjoining houses. We managed to ramble our way onto the store-lined central (north-south) axis of Beijing, just south of T––, and finally bypassed security to reach the famed Square.

The largest public square in the world, T–– Square is at once monumentally oppressive and grandly liberating; if you could decouple the physical location from its grim history, you would find yourself in a spectacular venue, perfectly fit for kite-flying or photo-taking. The gargantuan portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the gate to the Forbidden City, however, quickly quashes any possibility of that, a constant reminder of the atrocities once perpetrated on the spot where tourists now pose smiling for pictures to email home, and evidence that the Chinese Communist Party endures today. Our tour of the Forbidden City blurs in my mind as an exceedingly long and vaguely interesting history lesson, taught by an eager Shen Laoshi. One memorable observation was that just 100 years ago, the imperial palace that we were touring was still occupied by a Qing Dynasty emperor and empress, as well as up to the oddly-specific official limit of 72 concubines.

A close-up of everybody's favorite chairman.

The emperor, of course, needs his star-rated toilet. I wasn't impressed.

After sneaking out the back door of the Forbidden City in the tradition of the last emperor of China, we decided to climb Jingshan (“Coal Mountain”), the manmade hill made of the dirt removed to form the moat of the Forbidden City. It was truly a magnificent view, and we did our best tourist impression by taking as many photos as humanly possible.

On the summit of Coal Mountain. The Forbidden City is in the background.

On Saturday, April 3rd, I met up with my aunt’s friend’s son, Luo Zhuo Kai, AKA Roger. He’s a 4th year med student at Beida, which means he lives off campus near a hospital where he’s interning. Here in China, aspiring doctors start med school immediately after high school, so Roger is only one year older than I. He took me to Lush, an expat bar overlooking the Wudaokou subway station, for a tasty American lunch. Roger grew up in Taipei, then after his mandatory military service came to Beida. He’s something of a cultural anomaly, a young Taiwanese guy in Beijing who just broke up with his 30-year-old girlfriend because she was ready to get married and he wasn’t. After promising Roger that we would get together again during my stay in Beijing, I met up with the Stanford kids at the subway station for our first trip to Silk Street, the legendary tourist market where hordes of Westerners are the norm and bargaining is essential.

The subway station opens up directly into the basement of the Silk Street building, providing easy access to all in need of fake designer clothes and awkward exchanges with aggressive saleswomen. There’s certainly an art to bargaining, and the road to mastery is littered with overpriced regret––usually in the form of tacky t-shirts––good intentions lost in translation, and premature “walk-aways.” I experienced the first on a grand scale when I attempted to purchase a North Face (North Fake?) jacket from a couple young female vendors. Initial asking price: 600¥ RMB. I instinctively reacted with an open-mouthed facade of disbelief, and so commenced the haggling game. It was a verbal sparring match, both the vendor and I bobbing and weaving, looking for a weak spot to jab in our desired price. After a few landed punches, I managed to pull off the “walk-away” maneuver successfully: I turned my back and started to walk away, and like clockwork, my adversary chased me down, grabbed my elbow, and agreed to my final price with an air of magnanimity. I handed over the cash––a quarter of what I would have paid in the US––and in return was handed a comfy new North Face jacket. In hindsight, the entire deal was more dance than dispute, both parties sharing a tacit understanding that the initial asking price was far above the jacket’s value and my initial counteroffer far below. We played the game simply to determine where in that range the final price would rest––and to have a little fun in the process. No China experience is complete without a trip to Silk Street or one of the countless other markets strewn throughout China’s major cities. Who would have imagined arguing over a price tag could have such grand cultural implications?

During our second week here in Beijing, things started to settle down. We realized that to venture into the heart of Beijing every single evening of the week would require a monumental and ultimately unsustainable effort––indeed, we were all so exhausted from our first such week that the subsequent 4-day Chinese Memorial Day weekend was fully devoted to recovery. I’ve developed a weekday day-to-day routine of such simplicity that I could not even imagine living this life back at Stanford, or anywhere else in the real world: Wake up between 9 and 10AM, Skype with friends and family and do some EE research, eat lunch with my fellow Stanford or Beida students, attend Chinese class from 1:30-2:30PM, go to the gym to run or lift, grab dinner with the Stanford crew, and spend the evening watching a movie and hanging out in the student lounge.

A pleasant deviation from the schedule came up that Wednesday, when we began our weekly Stanford-organized cooking classes hosted by local families. Kelsey, Beatrice, and I were assigned to the nicest old man in the world and his equally-nice wife, and upon arriving at their tiny apartment, we were showered with oranges and tea and chocolate. We rolled up our sleeves and learned how to make dumplings and a variety of other Chinese dishes: tomatoes and egg, a pork and squash dish, and Chinese-style potatoes. Turns out Chinese cooking is very simple: Just stir-fry everything. Once our meticulously stir-fried dishes were ready, we stuffed ourselves until we 走不动了 (couldn’t walk anymore), recovered with some after-dinner tea, and waddled back to Shaoyuan.

The next evening, we had a pizza and movie night (Raise the Red Lantern) with some Yale students, and after the movie, we all decided to go clubbing in Sanlitun, THE expat nightlife district. If you’ve ever seen a ridiculously glitzy club scene in a movie and wondered where in the world such an actual club exists, I now have the answer: It’s in Beijing. And it’s called Vics. Or Latte. Or Mix. Whatever. The evening was a blur of neon lights, rows of DJs spinning simultaneously, and rocking out on stage with the Stanford crew, eardrums bursting from the deep bass that seemed to emanate from the floors, the ceilings, the walls, everywhere.

The next day, no one had the energy to party hard again, so we went out exploring on foot, wandering through Tsinghua University’s massive campus. Known as the “MIT of China”––which means it’s without a doubt the second-best engineering school in the country 🙂 ––Tsinghua has an overwhelmingly male student population and a campus overflowing with Western architecture. Many Tsinghua landmarks would fit right in on the campus of any university in the US. We ended the evening in Wudaokou with a tasty Japanese dinner and a brief detour to a roadside peanut stand and the Golden Phoenix Bakery. Side note: If I could live anywhere, I’d choose to spend the rest of my days in a Chinese bakery.

Tsinghua University: The "MIT of China." Check out my new North Face jacket.

Our 8AM departure for the Great Wall on Saturday, April 10, was a rude awakening. The bus ride from Beida to the Mutianyu section of the Wall took nearly 2 hours, and everyone passed out for the duration of the trip. We awoke to the sight of mountain peaks and the winding, awe-inspiring stone wall that stands as the protector of China past and the pride of China present. The first thing I noticed was that I could breathe again, for the first time in weeks: We had left the flatlands and the pollution of Beijing behind, and all that remained was clean, fresh mountain air. A quick chair lift ride later, we were clambering up the steps of the wall itself, with legs and lungs burning and cameras at the ready.

Marty, Lianna, Me, and Adriana. We told Marty, "No gangster signs," but he was too gangster to listen.

Can you read the Chinese characters far off in the distance? "Loyalty to Chairman Mao"

Conquering the Great Wall.

From seeing pictures of the Great Wall and watching Mulan, I imagined the trail at the top would be a smooth, continuous surface––not so. The stone steps ranged from door jam-sized ledges to countertop-height plateaus, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a common soldier, burdened with sword and shield, could possibly make it to his post in time to keep the invading Mongol horsemen at bay. After taking hundreds and hundreds of group and individual photos, we finally made our way back to the top of the chair lift, where we found ourselves with just one option for transportation down the mountainside: toboggans. Plastic toboggans on a sheet metal track, to be specific. As I careened down the sheer rock face, a park official yelled out, “发疯了!”––which translates to “You’ve gone crazy!”

Look, Ma, I found the horizon!

We were happy because we could breathe at last.

Stanford students: Too weary to walk, but still smiling.

My new ride: The preferred form of downhill transportation in China.

And the fun didn’t stop there. We broke for lunch at an open-air restaurant in the mountains, and were met at the door by a young Chinese man holding several huge nets and bamboo fishing poles. It seemed he wanted us to catch our own lunch. Our gracious host then ushered us over to a nearby pond and left us to our own devices. I’ve always found that food tastes better if you’ve worked for it, but it soon became apparent that unless we changed tack soon, we weren’t going to have any food to taste. After half an hour of unsuccessful man (Stanford student?) vs. fish action––I maintain that “survival of the fittest” worked against us, for the remaining fish were those that had already evaded capture by bumbling humans countless times––the Beida program director, whom we have affectionately dubbed “The Godfather,” swooped in and netted three of the slippery beasts in quick succession, and we had our lunch. The return trip to Beida passed by in that tranquil, post-exertion state of euphoria, and so ended the second week of our Beijing adventure.

Working for our food.


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A Week To Remember

Prerequisites for full appreciation of this post: Knowledge of US dollar to Chinese yuan exchange rate ($1 = 6.83¥ RMB, as of April 3), Love of food, An open mind and iron stomach, Fluency in Mandarin (just kidding… kind of)

After a week in Beijing, I’ve come to be a firm believer in the subjectivity of time. Every day has been so packed with new sights and sounds and people and places that I feel like I’ve been a 北京人, or Beijing resident, for a lifetime.

This story––my Beijing story––begins just one week ago, on the morning of Saturday, March 27. I rolled out of my unforgiving Peking University (北京大学, or Beida, or PKU) standard-issue bed at 6AM, just in time for our Logistics Orientation at… 10AM. Stupid jet lag. The orientation was unremarkable, but our first lunch in China was anything but. We got our first taste of Chinese cuisine and American wealth when we stopped by one of PKU’s many canteens for 包子 (baozi), steamed buns filled with meat and vegetables and occasionally soup (How do they get soup in there? Must be ancient Chinese wisdom). So delicious. And so cheap.

A delicious meal of baozi for $1

A lion’s share of 包子 costs about as much as a kiddie cone at your neighborhood McDonald’s––i.e., nothing at all, by American standards. If you managed to sneak into PKU past the 24-7 security at the gate and perhaps into the no-males-allowed female student dorms (they remind me of the spiral staircases in Harry Potter that turn into slides when a boy wizard tries to climb up into the girls’ living quarters), you could subsist indefinitely, even comfortably, on a couple US dollars a day. Our meal allowance? $10/day. Here in Beijing, we live like kings among men (and just a few women) on a daily stipend that would barely cover an Axe & Palm cheeseburger back at Stanford. And Stanford would do well to copy the meal plan system at Beida: Students get a simple debit-type meal card that has real monetary value and no minimum or maximum limit, is rechargeable with cash at any time, and is accepted everywhere on campus, from the noodle restaurant to the 包子 place to the blue-roofed 小白房 snack house to the fruit stand down the street. Compare that with Stanford Dining’s meal plan Cardinal Dollars, which have no monetary value, must be purchased but come only in fixed, arbitrary increments, expire every few months, can’t be used without a card with your nerdy picture from high school on it, and are called CARDINAL DOLLARS.

1 Cardinal Dollar ≈ $0

The next day, we survived another orientation and were rewarded with lunch (hmmm… Pavlovian tactics?) at Ho’s Restaurant, a classy Cantonese eatery right outside PKU’s Little Southwest Gate (小西南门). The assortment of traditional Chinese dishes brought me back to family vacations of yore, when Mom and Dad would somehow manage to find the one authentic Chinese restaurant in that backwards town in the middle of nowhere, and the food would invariably turn out to be delicious. We then met our language partners, PKU students whom we’re matched up with for the quarter for mutually beneficial Chinese/English language practice and singly beneficial cultural guidance. My 语伴 is a sophomore English major from Xi’an (the former capital of China) named Sherry. Her English makes my Chinese seem terribly inadequate, but I don’t feel too bad because 1) she’s an English major and 2) she speaks better English than many Americans. Together with our language partners––14 Stanford students and 14 PKU students in all––we took a trip to the Summer Palace, where the emperors and empresses procrastinated on the actual act of ruling the country. Given Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality standards (stand outside for too long and you might as well be smoking a pack a day), it was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies and the sun shining splendidly over the lake on the palatial grounds.

The Summer Palace

With my language partner Sherry

Since she goes to the gym every night, Sherry invited me to come along with her that evening. The PKU gym (one of several) is small but perfectly adequate, comparable to the gym in Tresidder, but with separate rooms for ping-pong, taekwondo, and pool. And after hearing about life as a non-international Beida student, I realized that we have it pretty good at Stanford (surprise). It’s bad enough that the regular student dorms don’t have power after 11PM––take a moment to let that sink in––but even worse, some of the dorms at PKU lack running water, which means residents have to walk outside to the public bathroom to take a shower. Sherry told me the tragic story of a Beida girl, one of her friends, who once went to take a shower during the winter and returned with a head full of frozen hair. Sherry’s all-girls dorm is a little better, but she lives in a standard one-room quad on the 6th floor (no elevator), and guys aren’t allowed in, except to make deliveries or carry things for girls. Apparently that’s all guys are good for. Seriously. The social scene at Beida is totally different from what we’re used to in the US. Since students here are super-focused on their studies, they rarely party or drink or go off-campus. The PKU-sponsored social events are “kind of lame,” according to Sherry, and the guys “aren’t very cool.” Perhaps for that reason, there’s only a bit of traditional dating at PKU, and it’s nothing at all like Stanford’s ternary dating culture (Choose one: single, hooking up, joined at the hip).

The academic quarter kicked off on Monday with a single hour of Chinese class. With a total of 3 classes on my study list, I have the easiest quarter of my life ahead of me: 1 hour of Chinese a day, Monday through Thursday; a 3-hour sociology class on Tuesday morning; and a 2-hour speaker series on Tuesday afternoon. That’s it. 🙂 Between classes and exploring Beijing though, I think I’ll have plenty on my plate (literally and figuratively) in the weeks to come.

Kind of like the trailers where we used to have classes back in elementary school, except not a trailer, but a shipping container.

After another mildly entertaining Chinese class and guest speaker on Tuesday afternoon, 7 of us Stanford kids––me, Kelsey, Adriana, Marty, Chris, Mai, and Lili––took the subway right outside PKU’s East Gate 2 stops down, to the famed Zhongguancun Shopping Center. This was my first time really leaving the campus, and it was spectacular, despite the rain and the crazy drivers. We wandered into a shopping mall and ended up at Shabu-Shabu, a hotpot restaurant that Kelsey recommended. We sat at the counter and had the hardest time ordering the food, since the menus were all in Chinese; I think the waitress thought we were all mildly deaf and entirely dumb. But after I told her that we were from America, she was quite understanding. I finally managed to order an array of raw food (beef, pork, shrimp, eggs, veggies) for everyone to share, and we each had our own personal cooking pot of boiling garlic broth. The meal was delicious and we walked out stuffed to the gills. Our by-then friendly waitress ushered us out with a fitting farewell: “慢慢走! (Walk slowly!)” As if we had any other choice.

We couldn’t have asked for a better final destination that night than Carrefour, a French supermarket chain with the biggest selection of goods I’d seen in Beijing so far. The range of prices blew my mind (e.g., electric razors cost 4 times as much as new bikes, shoes cost about 20¥), and we had a great time just wandering around, marveling at the cheap consumer goods and the ridiculous foods that Chinese people eat (duck feet in a bag or MSG, anyone?). I bought some snacks, including a few throwbacks to my childhood, like Chinese bread, cuttlefish shreds, and a huge bag of sweet rice crackers. We all got lost or separated in the crowd several times, but we managed at last to make our way out of the store, onto the subway, and all the way back to Shaoyuan 7.

How about some MSG?

Kelsey: Sorry Jonah, you've been replaced by a fossilized duck.

The next day, five of us––me, Kelsey, Chris, Beatrice, and Marty––went to the city, supposedly to see “some soccer game.” I thought we’d be seeing a local league game at some community park. Boy, was I wrong. The moment we stepped off the subway, crowds of vendors surrounded us, offering Beijing Guo’an (the game was an Asian Football Confederation Champions League game between the local Guo’an team and Seongnam Ilhwa, a Korean team) t-shirts, jerseys, scarves, and earsplitting horns. It was a 10-minute walk to the colossal Workers’ Stadium (工人体育场), where much of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was held, and since we didn’t have tickets, we had no choice but to find a scalper. I spotted a girl in a pink puffy jacket holding a half-concealed stack of tickets, so we approached her and managed to haggle the price down to 40¥ per ticket. With that settled, since we had an hour and half until the 7:30 start time, we decided to stop by the nearby Hooters Beijing to conduct some cultural fieldwork. The restaurant itself was no different from any American Hooters––except the waitresses were Chinese––and even the clientele was identical: predominantly middle-aged American businessmen.

At a family-friendly establishment in the heart of Beijing

We then crossed the street to the huge stadium, navigated through the metal detectors and legions of armed guards with riot shields, and finally made our way into the stadium. The scene was surreal, with thousands of heads of black hair in the crowd and policemen and Communist Party officials swarming all over the place. A row of official-looking men sat on the track stoically looking up at the crowd the entire game, presumably watching out for dissent or bad behavior. I don’t know if it was the lack of scoring (0-0 for most of the game) or my lack of emotional investment in either team, but I soon got bored, and with the frigid wind nipping at our faces and necks and hands, we skirted the post-game crowds and headed home in the middle of the second half, with Guo’an down by 1 on an anticlimactic free kick by Ilhwa.

A surreal scene at the Workers' (Olympic) Stadium

Me, Chris, Marty, Beatrice, and Kelsey at the soccer game. The Beijing Guo'an fan club in the background was the most synchronized group of fans I've ever seen at a professional sports event.

The surging crescendo of our first week in China came to a thundering climax on Thursday, when the entire Stanford group descended upon 王府井 (Wangfujing), the famous touristy shopping district in Beijing with a side street full of 小吃, or “little eats.” With Adriana’s language partner Felix as our trusty guide, we headed into downtown Beijing on the subway. Less than an hour later, we emerged from the subterranean train station on Wangfujing Road, blinking into the blinding sun and the bright neon lights. Being the perpetually hungry foreigners we are, we immediately made a beeline for the 小吃 street, hidden from direct view on our left as we made our way down the Main Street of Wangfujing.

The famed Wangfujing tourist district

Wangfujing's Street of Snacks: The gateway to gustatory pleasures of all shapes, sizes, and lethalities. Not for the faint of heart.

And so the madness began. The first stand on the right delivered, right on cue, an array of still-thrashing scorpions and sea horses on skewers. Kelsey and I had pledged to eat a scorpion today, so we asked the price (20¥ for 4) and watched as the vendor took a skewer of still-squirming scorpions and dunked them in boiling oil. I’d heard the deep-frying process neutralizes the poison, but I was skeptical. With onlookers watching in fascinated disgust, we took our turns posing, hesitating, then crunching down on our respective crispy scorpions. It tasted a bit like soft-shell crab, but if I’d thought any harder about what I was actually eating, the street cleaners would have had a little more work that day.

Still-squirming scorpions and sea horses on skewers (Say that three times fast)

What a cute little fellow. My first instinct definitely was not "Look, more food!"

I wonder who first decided to pick up and eat an insect with pincers and a massive poison stinger…

A little farther down the street, I found myself standing in front of a similar but significantly more hardcore food stand, offering deep-fried giant scorpion, centipede, lizard, and starfish. I couldn’t pass up the starfish. It felt like ashes and tasted like deep-fried nothing, like a piece of bread burned so badly it’s lost all its flavor. Yum. We washed the taste out of our mouths with bingtang hulu (sugar-coated haw and strawberry skewers) and watched in fascination as Troy haggled for tens of minutes with a young Chinese girl over the price of a Chinese scroll painting. After that, we got bored of the food and returned to the main Wangfujing Dajie. The whole area was super touristy, with high-end Western stores flourishing and Nike, Rolex, and other brand names maintaining American-priced storefronts on the main road. We found a giant cylindrical shopping mall and splurged on dinner at a restaurant suggestively named Spicy Grandma (辣婆婆). Quick observation: It’s amazing how quickly we’ve become accustomed to Chinese pecuniary standards; prices that we wouldn’t blink an eye at in the Bay Area (80¥ or about $12 for a fancy meat dish) now seem outrageously inflated.

It was too cute to pass up. And… yuck. I really have to stop judging things based on looks.

The whole Wangfujing/scorpion/starfish experience kicked off our Beijing adventure all too perfectly––if you can eat a scorpion, you can handle just about anything, right?––and I can’t wait to explore more of the city in the next couple months.

Send your suggestions for exciting places to go and things to do in China to: jjean@stanford.edu.

Check back in a week or so for more adventures from Stanford in Beijing!

-Joel

 

P.S. This blog post is symbolic of the way we foreigners (老外) eat food here in Beijing: Too much at once, too fast to digest, and even more substantial when you actually stop to think about it. And don’t worry, there’s always another dish to look forward to… 🙂

Stanford Greetings from Beijing!

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