Friday, July 21, 2006

I'm getting packed and ready to leave for our "historical trip," so I thought I'd put in a quick update before taking off. The plan is to leave campus at 8:30 (about an hour following this post) and take an overnight train to Jinan, a city of six million in Shandong province (south east of Beijing). The main attraction for the weekend is a visit to Taishan (Mt. Tai), a site made famous by Confucius. We'll be hiking up the mountain, and it's supposed to be a real hike, 3-4 hours, which should be nice outside of Beijing's smog. Taishan is a UNESCO world heritage site, which means it should be swarming with tourists...hopefully they all take the cable car to the top and won't clog up the trail too much. We're also visiting several other Confucius-related sites (birthplace, cemetary, temples, etc). We're staying in a hotel on Saturday night and returning by overnight train on Sunday night. Luckily, we have Monday morning off from classes, which resume again in the afternoon.

As I last posted, I did in fact make it to see Superman. I enjoyed it, sure the plot was a bit bland, but let's face it, we don't see summer blockbusters for their depth. The theater we visited is, or at least recently was, the top-grossing cinema in mainland China, so the quality was great. We even got sold out of a matinee show. It turns out you have to pick your seats when buying tickets, and the theater was packed...no room for the 7 of us. It was an experience, a little slice of Western luxury in the middle of Beijing.

That's it for now, my roommate is dragging me out of the room...he's very big on punctuality. Check my Webshots for some new pictures from the Forbidden City etc, they're under the "Beijing" album.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Everyone seems to talk about how getting sick in China is an inevitability, and they're right. Just as I was starting to think living with 4 other guys for a whole academic year had rendered me immune, Two nights ago, I was finishing up my homework and a fever hit me...hard. I got into bed shivering, and woke up in no shape to go to class. I now figure that out of the 24 hours that followed, I slept for 18. This weekend is our "travel weekend," so I had originally planned to go to Qin Huang Dao, a coastal town where the Great Wall meets the sea, with my roommate and 20 of his classmates. I figured that being in an exclusively Chinese-speaking environment would give my language an extra boost, if not frustrate me to death. Considering how rough this trip could be without sufficient enthusiasm, I pulled the plug this morning. Instead, I plan on seeking out a western movie theater to catch Superman and reviewing some shengci (vocabulary). Considering all the traveling I'll be doing over the next few weekends (all CET organized), and my three-week jaunt south, I'm not too bummed.

This week marks the half-way point of the program. It's going really fast, and it doesn't seem at all like I've been in China for a month already. Classes are going well, and we're moving at a very quick pace. Whereas at Carleton we learned around 60 words a week, here we routinely cover double that amount, sometimes more. In terms of grammar, we're covering an even greater amount, and without the help of English to explain or clarify, it gets a bit tough sometimes. The teachers are, for the most part, great at explaining grammar structures that often have no English equivalent. Our class schedule was a bit hard to get used to, since they didn't really explain it fully before we started. We basically have two primary classes each day, an hour-long grammar class followed by two hours of "drill class," in which four or five students practice the new grammar and vocab. The strange part is that there are two "lead teachers" who teach the grammar classes, who rotate each week between the two sections of our level. In terms of drill classes, there are five different teachers who rotate every day. On top of it all, we then have alternating "language practicum" and "supplementary" weeks, and a new one-one-one tutor each week. If nothing else, it breeds a lot of critical conversation between students about which teachers we prefer. There's a pretty strong consensus at this point about which teachers you want to have and which you don't. Almost all of the teachers are women in their 30s, and they are some of the most energetic, enthusiastic teachers I have ever seen. In the States, only a Kindergarten teacher could rival their upbeat approach. While this kind of smiley front can be clawing, I don't think any of us have minded so far, It's a great cure for our seemingly constant exhaustion.

I forgot to mention, I've been using Skype here (diban525) to make phone calls, so if anyone has a Skype account and wants to chat, look me up. New pictures of the Forbidden City and our campus are coming soon!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Ping Pong is China's official national sport, but bargaining surely comes in a close second. Last Friday a group of 4 or 5 CET students made the bold decision to test our amateur skills to the pro arena: the Silk Street Market. As one of the most tourist-infested markets in Beijing, the shopkeepers have had ample practice sweet-talking, or in some cases, intimidating, foreigners into emptying their wallets on counterfeit goods. The travel guides say to be mindful of pickpockets, but the real danger is getting robbed right in front of eyes by a hyper-aggressive Chinese lady. In any case, we had been forewarned as we entered the packed market, but we couldn't have prepared for the shopping experience that followed. I tested the waters first, asking the shopkeeper at one of the outermost stalls how much her fake polo shirts were. 130 RMB? Outrageous...tai gui le ("too expensive" - the requisite response to any price they initially tell you). I was soon sucked into another stall by a shopkeeper who told me she could make a sale in 8 different languages. Sure enough, a Spanish man walked up, and she held her own. I was intrigued. I checked her merchandise over, made some displeased faces, feigned disinterest, and then made her an offer. She played it perfectly, and before I knew it, I had bought two shirts for what I would later learn was an outrageously high price. Who knows, maybe she was genuinely impressed by my Chinese, but she sure wasn't impressed by my bargaining skills. China is the land of cheap clothes, but it is also the land of buyers remorse. In any case, I set a good benchmark of what not to pay, and and we moved on to avenge my poor performance. Ultimately, we all did pretty well, and I later posted the low price of the day on a couple of lacoste shirts. After getting home, however, I realized that one of the shirts was not an adult medium, but a childs medium. Was this intentional? Hard to say. As they say, if you play with fire, you're bound to get burnt...we went up against the best, and came up short...literally, the shirt is tiny (want a new shirt, Emily?). We'll probably head back there at the end of the program with some of our Chinese roommates for round two...locals are essential if you don't want to get destroyed by these women. Some of them will even get you with the "death grip" as we've come to know it...you can try as hard as you want, but they will not let go of your arm. They also like work as a pack to prevent you from leaving their stalls...it's pretty funny to see a 20 year old American guy struggling against two 50-something, 5 foot-tall Chinese women as they all yell about a fake northface jacket.

Continuing the tourist theme, we went on the requisite Great Wall tour on Saturday, which was definitely worth while. The section we saw is at Mutianyu, about a 2 hour drive from Beijing, and consists of 1300 meters of restored wall. This area was built relatively late (16th century?) and still has a lot of its original brick-work intact. The views of the surrounding hilly areas from atop the wall were great, and it was nice to get out of Beijing's smog for a few hours. I've posted a bunch of pictures, so hit the link at the bottom of the post. Given Mutianyu's proximity to the city and its pristine quality, the visit was not without its touristy drawbacks. The walk from the bus-filled parking lot to the start of the hike to the wall was lined with vendors selling souvenirs and the like, and there are several gondola companies that can whisk you straight to the wall. I find that I'm having a hard time with all the tourism. Most New Yorkers (and city-dwellers in general) have at least a little disdain for the Europeans and Asians that crowd times square, stopping every 5 feet to take a picture. At places like the Great Wall, however, I'm basically one of them. It's funny how you get drawn into the tourist mold once you're among other foreigners. In my neighborhood, I try to behave as a local as much as possible, but at the Wall, I found myself riding the alpine slide to the bottom (a sort of toboggan-ride)...which was fun, I admit, but I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty. The funny thing about this ride, though, was that because of the low cost of labor, it was actually safer than other alpine slides I've been on in the States...it just wouldn't be worth the money in the States to have 7 employees sit on a hill all day and tell riders to slow down.

Last night, to celebrate the Fourth of July, however, we threw any attempts at blending in out the window in search of the American experience. About 20 of us went to place called Steak and Eggs, right by the US Embassy, and had burgers and steaks. I had actually been dying for some decent American diner food, and this place fit the bill...the sticky tabletops and gruff service were especially nice touches. I have to say, I think it was the first time since I've arrived in China that I actually went to sleep still full from dinner. Around the same area is Beijing's most famous bar street, Sanlitun, which is also primarily waiguoren (foreigners). It's definitely a trip to see all these American college kids in the middle of Beijing. Case in point, I actually ran into a highshool classmate going up the steps to a popular student bar...and my class was only 120 kids.

Lastly, a 5.1 earthquake hit about 100 km away yesterday afternoon, and we felt some aftershocks. Nothing big, but enough to stop and say, was that an earthquake? I've slept through my fair share of minor NY 'quakes, so it was kind of cool to feel one.

Sorry for the long post, they won't all be this long. I'm going to try and keep posting around once a week, hopefully on Sundays, at least while I'm in Beijing. Hope everyone reading is well and had a great 4th weekend.

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