After my earlier post about some of the less savory aspects of life in the world’s most populous country, I think I owe it to my Chinese friends to balance the scales by writing a (literally) uncensored post about China’s better half. Now if only they had access to the Internet… Anyway, here goes.
Note: In including Taiwan’s finest in this list, I have no intention of making any sort of political statement about Taiwan’s sovereignty or the current state of Cross-Strait relations.
1. Chinese bakeries and bread – I don’t mean to hate on American bakeries, but 4 dollars for a tiny pastry? You gotta be kidding me. Chinese bakeries are like the land of the Lotus Eaters, only slightly less narcotic: The moment you walk into a Chinese bakery, a blanket of divine scent envelops you, and you never, ever want to leave. And that’s before you’ve even tasted the bread. During my 3-month stay in China, I never managed to escape a bakery with less than 2 pounds of bread, and it never failed to disappear within 24 hours.
Feeding the hungry beasts (AKA Big Brother and Robin)
2. Efficient public transportation – With a population of 1,324,655,000 (as of 2008), China has had a pretty good reason to develop an efficient, high-capacity public transportation network. In my opinion, it’s a little too good: Beijing’s 2¥ (equivalent to 29 cents US) subway, which took us from the 4th Ring to the heart of Beijing faster than any car, probably holds several world records for human close-packing, a game that I don’t particularly enjoy. On the older Lines 1 and 2, anytime from 8AM to 10PM, you can consider yourself lucky if you’re touching fewer than 4 people at once. For a quarter a ride though, I can’t complain.
Shanghai's 270mph Transrapid maglev train is pretty cool too...
3. Boba (pearl milk tea, or 珍珠奶茶) that actually tastes good – And not just good, amazing. I’ve never been a big fan of boba, but then again, I’d also never tried Taiwanese boba before. Food typically tastes better in its country of origin, and boba is no exception. The milk is delicious—I’m lactose-intolerant, and I still couldn’t resist drinking it—and the palm sugar tapioca pearls are bigger, chewier, and simply better than the best California has to offer…
The best boba in the world: Taiwan's 青蛙撞奶 ("Frog hits the milk")
4. Cheap stuff – As a tribute to Inception, here’s a list-within-a-list of things I bought in China that were so-cheap-they-should-be-illegal-…-oh-wait-they-probably-are-illegal…
1.) Tailored suit (made from scratch in 18 hours!): $88
2.) 4 tailored dress shirts: $59
3.) A billion DVDs: See number 6
4.) Dinner at a fancy restaurant: $5
5.) 2 pounds of sweet rolls: $1
6.) Train ticket from Beijing to Shanghai: $100
7.) Subway rides across Beijing: $0.29
8.) North Face jacket: $33
9.) Chinese prostitute: Priceless
5. Street food – If you’re willing to risk your stomach lining, there’s cheap, delicious food to be had on every street in China’s major cities. And in reality, it’s not actually all that risky: as far as I know, no one in the Stanford group ever got sick from eating street food. Some of our favorites included roasted yams, sweet buns, pineapple skewers, haw skewers (bingtanghulu), and peanuts.
Bingtanghulu: Haw fruit on a stick, coated in sugar
6. Movies that come out on DVD the day after they open in theaters –
Fact 1: Today is August 2, 2010.
Fact 2: Ironman 2 comes out on DVD on September 28, 2010.
Fact 3: I own Ironman 2 on DVD.
7. Night markets – Taiwan’s night markets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. A massive conglomeration of food stands, street vendors, arcades, and random shops, you could spend days browsing around and still not see (or taste!) everything. Most famous among them is the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. The best strategy of attack is to starve yourself for 2 days before hitting up Shilin.
Shilin Night Market's "XXL Crispy Chicken": A big slab of fried chicken
Mianmianbing: Super-fine shaved ice covered in sweet red beans and condensed milk. It's heaven on Earth.
8. Baozi (steamed buns) – During every quarter of the Stanford Program in Beijing, students gravitate to the Songlin baozi restaurant on campus. It’s such a simple concept—meat, veggies, or sweet custard in a steamed bun—but baozi have the addictive potency of crack cocaine. I couldn’t help visiting Songlin at least 4 times a week during my stay at PKU.
Fried shengjian baozi in Shanghai.
9. Hot springs (and other beautiful scenery) – A picture’s worth… well, at least a few words.
The Stone Forest in Yunnan Province
Taiwan's legendary Sun Moon Lake. Chinese kids grow up reading stories about this place, so when they visit Taiwan, they all want to go to Sun Moon Lake.
Me, Robin, and Neal on the Great Wall
10. New friends – It amazes me how close our group of 14 Stanford students grew in just a few weeks and how quickly and easily we became friends with our Chinese classmates at Peking University. In sharing stories and comparing life experiences, we each learned about the other’s culture and discovered that we weren’t so different after all, that the college student’s experience is (somewhat) universal: A mutual understanding seems to arise when you talk to any undergrad about all-nighters and finals, papers and GERs. Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t often meet people who were truly international, and I now realize that my 3 months of living and learning in China actually gave me more insight into my own life and my own (American) culture than into the Chinese culture that I was immersed in.
Stanford Shaolin in Pingyao. After summer internships and independent travel in China, my classmates are slowly drifting back to the US. Welcome back, guys!
Note: In case you didn’t notice, the previous paragraph was an attempt to stuff as many clichés as possible into a single paragraph. I think I succeeded.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. Number 11 on the list would have been “New takes on old things,” for example…
The definition of "fruit"
Viagra (This is actually some sort of candy...)
Tall buildings (Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world; the tallest is in Dubai, of course)
English (This is a sign for a bathroom)
Self-service restaurants (This one made us catch our own fish for lunch)
Definition of "edible"
Palm Drive (This is at National Taiwan University; compare this with Stanford's Palm Drive)