Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Life as a Student in Beijing

      So I've been here at CET for almost two weeks now so I think it's time to tell you a bit about my life here and what I've been up to.
      First, my living situation. Full disclosure, upon first glance my thoughts about my dorm and the surrounding area was that it was...crappy. The school is small it's in a crowded shopping area with lots of people just chillin' on the side of the road in front of their shops. Also the dorms are no where near as nice as my dorm at James Madison. So you can imagine my...let's say disappointment at the idea of having to live here for two months. However, I quickly put my thoughts into a different perspective.
    At the first day of orientation (June 12th) one of the first things our Resident Director touched on is how in China, these dorms are considered very nice. She said how its not uncommon in most other Chinese universities to have 6 girls in one room. Here it's two people per room and some people are even in singles so they don't have a roommate. So, even though the bathrooms are kind and the room seemed small, and the walls are bare and scuffed, it's totally safe, absolutely livable, and nice if you can adjust your expectations a bit.
   My friends and I walked around a bit yesterday and I managed to get some nice pictures while the sky was blue. It has been raining the past couple days and when that happens the next day is usually really nice ('cause it clears out some of the pollution).

This is the entrance to our school,
The Beijing Institute of Education.
At night the gate is closed and there
is always a guard nearby (you can see him
in the back there).

This is the entrance to my dorm 西楼.
I live on the second floor

(from right to left) my roommate 舒放 (shu fang)
and my friends Eric and Mario
    The pictures above show the street that our school is on. It's fairly small and lined with shops and tiny "restaurants" like the one depicted below. Most of these shops have really cheap clothing or food stuffs such as ramen (which is quickly becoming a staple of my diet along with rice and watermelon). There's also a little hole in the wall place across the street that sells really cheap water and alcohol, two of the most important components of the student food chain. (On the first night, while hanging out with a bunch of the people here at CET, many of them had already decided that China was one of the best countries on the planet because alcohol is so cheap and they don't bother carding you or anything.) Down the opposite direction of this street you can find many more shops such as pharmacies and less sketchy restaurant and food places. One of my favorite places to eat is a dumpling restaurant that is just a couple minutes walk from the dorm. There is a small, little local park near are dorm that a bunch of the residents go to. We went by there the other day and got to try our hand at some ping pong, suffice it to say our skills were severally lacking, but it was still a really cool look into the everyday lives of people here.

Most of the shops and "restaurants" down this
road look like this. The shop at the end is where they sell
a whole bunch of ramen.

    Once you reach the end of our street and turn you see this big shopping mall called Korea Town. For some reason chinese people love Korean things enough to make a whole shop around it.

The back of Korea Town

    You keep going down the road past Korea town and turn and you feel like you're in a big city again. There are rows and rows of shops and little fast food places. The district we're set in is a shopping district so everyone comes here during the day to shop and walk around but it gets pretty quiet at night.

    Below you can see a particularly interesting restaurant chain that we stumbled upon. It's a Bruce Lee restaurant! We ate their the yesterday (June 21st) at it was actually okay, not a five star restaurant but better than McDonalds. Several days earlier when we were eating at the dumpling restaurant, we were watching a kung fu movie that was playing in the room. During one of the scenes this very serious, very bad ass guy whips out his mad kung fu skills and takes out the fifteen bad guys who had surrounded him. After that scene my friend Max turned to me and said "he ate at the Bruce Lee restaurant".

The Bruce Lee restaurant in all it's glory

Another shot of the area around my school.
You can tell it's much more metropolitan and big

   Then you go three minutes in the right direction and you end up in an area that looks like the picture above, very open and grand with the city sky scrapers in the background. After being here for two weeks I have definitely grown to like it. Yes there are pros and cons but it's good not to dwell on either and just kind of go with the flow.
   Speaking of pros and cons, besides the quality of the dorm there are several other things that have taken some getting used to. For example, which kind of water to drink and which kind of water to avoid. The water from the showers and the sinks you really shouldn't drink. It isn't treated in any way to make it drinkable, it's purely for washing. You can use the faucet water to brush your teeth, I have seen most of the students here (chinese and american) doing that but I personally opt to just use bottled water or water from the heater (each bathroom has a water heater that keeps the water at 100 degrees Celsius so it's drinkable). Like I said before there are many little shops around that sell huge jugs of water for cheap so it's very easy to stock up. Another part of life here that took some adjusting is the fact that we have to bring our own toilet paper. There isn't any toilet paper provided for us just chilling out in the bathrooms, it's up to us to purchase and bring our toilet paper to and from the bathroom. Also, you can't flush toilet paper down the toilet, the plumbing system can't take it or something. So instead every stall has a little bin in it where you can throw away the toilet paper. Another huge adjustment is figuring out which places are safe to eat at and which places you avoid. It's pretty much a no-brainer to avoid street carts. However, if for whatever reason you're in a dire situation where your only option is a street cart, pick one that has a lot of people at it. If there are a lot of people at one cart and nobody at the cart next to it, there's probably a reason why nobody is going to that other cart. Also at certain restaurants, you can tell when they are a little bit nicer or safer when they give you boiling water to drink. This shows you that they are careful about the type of water they use. When Dad was still here we went to a hot pot restaurant and they gave us each a cup of hot water. At the time we assumed we were supposed to use it for our soup but now I know it was actually to drink. However, even at regular restaurants where no one else has a problem you can have a bad reaction to something. I was the lucky one in this case and got to experience a slightly more than mild case of Chinese food poisoning.
      It was Monday June 16th, we had we signed the language pledge and had our first day of classes. That evening my friends and I went to this Sichuan restaurant that our Resident Director had talked about for dinner. She said it was fine and she'd never heard of any student complaints before so we decided to go. We ordered some kind of orange chicken, beef and potatoes, and this spicy green bean dish with rice. The rest of the day I was perfectly fine, no problems what so ever, well...except for a pounding headache and several frantic dashes to the bathroom (not to be graphic). That night I woke up and my whole body was shaking. At first I thought I was just really cold, up till that point I had a bad habit of turning my air conditioner up really high before going to bed. But even when I put on long pants, socks, and a sweatshirt it wouldn't stop. So I went to my friend Max (who is an amazing human being that didn't complain about being woken up at 2:30 in the morning) in tears telling him I had no idea what was wrong with me or what I should do. Anyways, to make a long story short, after calling our Resident Director (who gave us permission to speak English), taking my temperature and discovering I had a fever, we set off into the stormy night to go to the hospital. I wasn't by any means in serious danger, I did have a fever but it was relatively low. Just the fact that I had woken up in the middle of the night and was in a strange country kind of made things scarier, so I went with the "better safe than sorry route".
       The hospital we went to was an ex-pat hospital so they all spoke english (yay to no language barrier). The doctor who treated me even had a very western-cowboy sort of saunter to him. When he walked in the room I half expected him to say "Ni howdy" as opposed to the chinese hello "Ni Hao". He also had a very "rub some dirt in it and you'll be fine" sort of attitude to my condition, but in his defense it was 4 o'clock in the morning at that point and I was no were near in serious condition. So basically they found out I had "travelers diarrhea" which I was very common, gave me an IV with some stuff to stop the quesiness that had developed and to make me feel better, then sent me home with some Imodium. And that was my experience with a Chinese hospital, exciting I know.
      Besides the toilet, water, and food situation, the hardest thing of all to get used to is the language pledge. One of the core principles of the program I'm doing is that you sign a pledge saying you won't speak or listen to any english while you're here. Which means no english movies, tv shows, music...anything. Even the classroom is completely and totally in chinese. The most challenging part about this is it makes it very hard to express your self. For people who are in higher levels (I'm in 150 and the program goes up to 400) it's not as challenging and they have more freedom to talk. However, for those of us on my level or in the beginner level, having truly meaningful conversations is basically impossible unless you wanna do it all in writing or through text. Classes are really challenging too because if you don't understand something you can't ask them to tell you what they mean in english. However, I did have an amazingly beautiful moment the other day. While in my speaking class I forgot that I was speaking a foreign language! That's right, while sitting in a class that was ALL Chinese I understood everything that was going on and forgot that we weren't speaking english but we were actually talking in a language I've only been studying for two years. Of course this is all due to my amazing and incredibly patient teachers, Wang 老师 (laoshi = teacher/a respectful title) and Luan 老师. So, I know this program is working and despite all the frustration, my chinese has already improved immensely.
         Even with the very apparent language barrier I have still managed to make friends and have a lot of fun. Before the language pledge started a bunch of us made a little trek over to Tiananmen Square and the five story tall Beijing Books Building. My first mission upon entering the book store was to find Harry Potter in Chinese and it was....successful! I bought the first Harry Potter book which in Chinese is 哈利 波特 (Hali Bote). I also bought three Chinese children's books which you can read phonetically, meaning that above each character is the pinyin and the tone (however they are still a little too advanced for me).
          On Friday (June 20th) me, my roommate, and two other friends just stumbled upon the Beijing International Tea Expo of 2014. Which is totally ridiculous, especially since I am such a major tea enthusiast.
It must have been fate.

The incredibly lavish front of the convention center.

Nothing makes me happier than tea...well except maybe
       At this expo they had stall after stall of all sorts of different tea brands. We of course picked up a couple free samples and wandered around for a solid hour or so just admiring all the different kinds of teas.

      Some stall had really cool displays like the one below where they created a design out of tea leaves. There were also many stalls with beautiful tea glasses and amazingly carved tea kettles, all of course very expensive and completely impractical for me to purchase.

      They even had people in old fashioned costumes. I'm not entirely sure why but my guess is to show the history of tea and the important role it has played throughout chinese history...or something.

Some off duty actors. I don't think
the guy is too happy about me taking
his picture.
       That night CET took us to an organized program to go see a Chinese Acrobat show. This one was much better attended and much better funded then the one my dad and I had scene earlier.
       Saturday, a friend of my from JMU who is actually from Beijing, Shirley, came by and took me and two of my friends to a very famous and very popular Hutong called Heizhima Hutong. This Hutong was really pretty and really crowded. There were shops lining the whole area and plenty of great and unique things to buy and eat. I got some very funny and random post cards with interesting chinglish on them as well as a gorgeous tea cup. My two friends Eric and Max both got seals of their Chinese names that looked really cool and I'm sure will have many uses in the future (slight sarcasm there). We ended the day with eating at a cafe which actually sold western food. For the first time in two weeks we used forks and ate a meal that didn't include rice.

The beautiful Shirley here to take us
on our Hutong adventure.

Our first look at the beautiful but crowded

At this cafe, not only can you get food, drinks, and wifi, but also friendship!

The very tall and slightly grumpy Max.

The always good for a laugh Eric.
          One thing they told us about in the multiple orientation seminars we had to go to is Cultural Shock and it's three basic stages. The first stage is called the honeymoon stage. During this time you think everything about China is amazing. It's a magical fairyland that is a thousand times better than any where in the states. Then, the next stage is something akin to resentment. Everything about the host country is awful simply because it's not home. During this stage you are determined to dislike anything and would go home at the first opportunity. Then, finally comes the last stage. Where you are content and happy to be where you are. You see China as neither a mystical fairyland or a rotten pit. Instead, it's just another country where you have decided to stay for a while. It's a country where you can see people going about their daily lives just trying to be happy and live well. I had a rough go of it at the beginning of this program but I think I'm finally starting to move my way into the final stage. I'm happy here, and I know this experience has already helped me grow and learn in ways I have never expected. Who knows what is yet to come.

     So until next time, be safe, be happy, and remember...

No comments:

Post a Comment