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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check back in a week or so for more adventures from Stanford in Beijing!
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… 🙂