Clocking three days since I arrived in Beijing, it has been quite the adventure from the moment I stepped off the plane. Everything is new. Everything is different. At each step, I come across completely unique sights, foreign customs, and unfamiliar interactions. But beyond my experiences, I myself am also different. The way I approach situations, my use of language, my choice of gestures, the feelings I associate with being in such a remote setting, the details I focus on, the nuances I notice, my dependence on others, my independence. Everything is new. Everything is different. And I love it.
Beijing, this gigantic capital of nonstop energy, has welcomed me with open arms. The acclimation process has been much easier than I expected, but has required an open mind and sense of humor. As a result, throwing myself into this culture with a stress-free, engaging attitude and a smile on my face has given me the opportunity to enjoy each and every moment, from getting off of the bus in a completely wrong neighborhood to successfully ordering rice with my meal (which involved walking to a nearby table with the waiter and pointing at a bowl of rice). I’ve gotten the hang of some things, still getting used to others, and so far enjoying the ride. Here’s a breakdown of the past 72 hours, starting with the most important aspect.
Getting off of the airport shuttle in the heart of Beijing, the first thing to catch my eye was the crowd forming around this stand.
I wasn’t quite sure what was cooking, or what any of the optional toppings were, and it didn’t look like the cleanest setup around. All perfect reasons to try it out. Once I found a gap in the queue, I jumped in and pointed at one of the sizzling pancakes.
Without skipping a beat, the guy swept one up, brushed it generously with a creamy, red paste, and paused to say something to me in Chinese. When I shrugged my shoulders, he motioned at the vegetables, sausages and skewers of meat in front of him. I started pointing at everything and nodding, and watched my pancake start to inflate. This put a smile on the workers’ faces, and before I knew it I had a delicious concoction of greasy happiness waiting to be eaten.
My first interaction was a success. It seemed that ordering food would be the least troublesome of activities. Trusting the strength of my stomach, and ready to try everything, I wouldn’t be running into any problems like trying to communicate “Hold the sauce” or “None of the slimy green things.” My role would consist of pointing, nodding, tossing the payment into the large bucket of cash and indulging in whatever comes out. And this is exactly how the next few days evolved, as I stopped by every new street cart I saw whenever I was hungry, anxious to try whatever was expelling those mouthwatering aromas. Below are some of those meals:
A street cart I stumbled upon in Badachu Park, makig jian bing, a fried egg crepe
A baozi, or steamed bun, seller…from the luck of the draw, I chose the char siu bao, or pork-filled buns
And of course, a dessert cart
But you can’t always eat on the streets
For the first couple of days, I couchsurfed with a fellow named Marquis, which was a great opportunity for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had the chance to live with a local, which was a valuable, direct introduction to certain aspects of Chinese living standards, customs, and lifestyle. Secondly, due to Marquis’ home’s distance from the city center, I found myself immersed in a Beijing community remotely separated from the general tourist path, a neighborhood that a foreigner would have no reason to visit, or couldn’t accidently end up in. I thereby got a feel of the daily activities and happenings of a smaller, more traditional and authentic part of the city.
To put the location into perspective – the layout of Beijing is very symmetric, with six concentric, rectangular roadways, referred to as rings, enveloping increasingly large sections of the city, with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square at its center. The 1st ring circles a small, 7km stretch, whereas the furthest 6th ring is about 15-20 km from the center and draws a 130 km long circumference along the most remote segments of the city. Most of the main attractions are found snugly fit within the first two rings, and for a normal visit, most foreigners won’t find themselves wandering outside of this area. There are, however, a few destinations worth visiting that are further from the city center, such as the 798 art district and the Great Wall, located between the 5th and 6th rings and outside of the 6th ring, respectively. Given this layout, the neighborhood I stayed in resides in the Western part of Beijing right on border of the 4th ring, roughly a 40 minute bus ride from the center.
Which brings me to my third point – as a result of the neighborhood’s remoteness, I became very well acquainted with the public transportation system, specifically the city buses. Hundreds of routes sweep across the city throughout and beyond all six rings, making access to practically every corner incredibly easy. In exploring some of the outer-ring areas, my daily bus commutes averaged to about two hours, allowing plenty of time to become familiar with the process. However, one must come prepared with the bus stops written down in Chinese, as the Latin alphabet becomes increasingly sparse further from the city center. Further, the fare is distance-based, so in order to pay, you have to communicate your destination to the ticket clerk on the bus, which considering the complexity of spoken Chinese, is easier written than vocalized.
The impressively efficient and extensive metro system is much easier to navigate, as there are English directions at every turn.
Finally, staying with Marquis was a memorable experience because he was a delightful host. Giving me the flexibility of coming and going as I wished, I felt right at home, taking advantage of the day by exploring some of the more remote parts of the city, and coming back at night to hang out with Marquis and another couchsurfer from Shanghai, Lee Feng. Our evenings were spent in what I found to be very insightful and entertaining discussions. Marquis’ wide-ranging and deep knowledge of topics specifically including Chinese history, world history, culture, religion and linguistics, and his genuine, insatiable curiosity, fueled our conversations and provided me with an in-depth, albeit introductory, understanding of and insight into China. Consequently, when I ventured out to some of Beijing’s sights, I arrived with a unique perspective and foundation of knowledge that I could build on during my visit. For example, Beihai Park, an imperial garden surrounding one of Beijing’s beautiful lakes, derived its name meaning “Northern Sea” from the time of Mongol ruling in China, as it was the closest natural feature to a sea that the Mongol Empire had within its geography. These minor yet very intriguing details, bits of information that I might have otherwise forgotten following a cursory reading of a Wikipedia page, or not even come across at all, enriched my experiences. So, by opening up his home, sharing his knowledge, and preparing delicious Chinese porridge in the mornings, Marquis gave me many things to be thankful for, most importantly a memorable welcome to China.
Deciphering a Cryptic Language
Looking at signs, billboards, menus, and practically everything else one can think of has been as clear and coherent as following the Matrix code. This has been my first exposure to Chinese characters where I have actually had to pay attention to what’s written, and getting used to it has been a slow process. Nevertheless, I have started to pick up on certain, although arbitrary, patterns. Recognizing specific characters, while also making the phonetic connection, and further tying both components to the meaning of the word, has been a curiously rewarding and exciting process, one I credit to my mathematical mind and interest in solving puzzles. And to keep it fun, I have avoided getting a dictionary or downloading any translation applications. Here are a few of the several characters, a trivial amount when compared to the approximately 4,000 most commonly used, that have become the first in my Chinese vocabulary (as you might notice, most of them are related to directions or transportation):
- 街 Jie – Street; although a seemingly complicated charater, it resembles a street in appearance and has been easy to spot
- 出口 – Exit
- 入口 – Entrance
- 北 Bei – North
- 西 Xi – West
- 东 Dong – East
- 厂 Chang – The easiest character in the name of my bus stop ( 靛厂新村 – Dian Chang Xin Cun – Indigo Plant Village)
- 门 Men – Gate
To tie it all together, my activities in Beijing, from getting around and eating, to grocery shopping and socializing, have relied heavily on interacting with the inhabitants. And among the dozens that I have spoken with so far, only one has known more than two words of English. I’m sure once I start spending more time near the center, I will come across more English speakers. However, despite the communication barrier, almost everyone I have come across has been incredibly kind and helpful – Attempting to ask for directions, I have been fortunate enough to come across astonishingly patient residents who would make sure that I understood the way before taking off; Upon successfully explaining that I was looking for a specific bus route, a good samaritan walked me all the way to the stop; One energetic, middle-aged man even wrote down a Chinese sentence for me to show the bus driver on one particular route.
But the most interesting interactions of all have been the distant ones. About one out of every three people I pass in the street stares me down, with a perplexed expression on their face, as if wondering “What on earth is this person doing here?” And I say “stares me down” because most times, I match their gaze and start a sort of staring competition, which I lose almost every time, choosing to avoid that awkward 90 degree turn of the head in passing. Certainly I’m not the most common sight, especially in some of the more obscure areas of the city, but I wasn’t expecting this much attention. A couple of people have even come up to me for a photo, whereas I thought it would be the other way around.
At a first glance, China has proven to be a wonderful place. Unlike my wanderings in most cities, where I start in the center and work my way out over time, it has been quite the opposite process for Beijing, and fortunately so. Adjusting and adapting to the city and local culture in areas less catering to foreigners has better prepared be for traveling to, navigating and living in both big and small cities in China over the coming weeks. My days have been packed with many firsts, suprises, successes and failures. My senses have been inundated with a constant flow of new information. My mind keeps appending to a growing list of food to try, places to visit, things to do and so on. Everything is new. Everything is different. And I love it.