Out of the Well: A Frogs-Eye-View of China and the World

Random Jottings on China, History, Culture, and Life as seen by an American student in Beijing.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Well I just spent an hour on a beautiful, hillarious, and witty post about how last friday I lost my bank card, had the lock to my appartment break preventing us from getting in, and mistakenly thought I had lost my phone. It was great. And now it is gone. You will never read it.

Frustrating eh?

Plus I seem to have lost my watch.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Things you must do if you come to Beijing: #1 English Corner

Well, I began this blog to search out what I wanted to do with my life. It turns out that while I think about that a lot I don't have much to say about it at the present time. At IUP there are lots of different people with different ideas about what they want to do. I have met a couple of pleasant Qing history students (we may even start a Manchu study group) and a lot of future business men. I still don't know. Damn.

So today I will start a series of things that you must do if you are a foreigner in this city.

Today I will tell you about English corner. Every Friday at Renmin Daxue (people's university) on Zhongguancun Road in Haidian Beijing (about a 30-40 minute walk from Qinghua University) people gather to practice their English.

If you are a foreigner you can show up anytime from 7-12 and find out what it feels like to be a movie star, or as my roommate puts it, a god. The ratio of Chinese to foreigners at English corner is about 20 to one. That means within ten minutes of arriving you will have at least fifteen people trying to speak with you. As the foreigner you basically talk consistently for as long as you like, you control the conversation by what questions you choose to answer. In a minute you may be asked everything from "What country are you from." to "What do you think about the system of Chinese land ownership, versus the American." to "What do you think of Chinese Girls."

This last question was the one my roommate came to answer. His mission for the evening was to scout out possible Chinese girlfriends. Many Chinese women there seemed to have the same idea. When I mentioned my girlfriend back home, the females in the group around me immediately walked over to him. After about twenty minutes the groups settled into topic based discussion groups. Around my roommate stood about twenty girls all flirting with him, while my group consisted of extremely intelligent men, and some women discussion history, politics, economics, etc.

While my opinion was always wanted it was not always respected. I was twice quizzed on the order of the Chinese dynasties (I messed up and forgot the Sui) and the order of the Qing emperors (I have to bone up on these before next Friday). When I said I was a student of history and I thought history was import, a software engineer explained to me that going to school for history was like learning to kill a dragon. The man who learns to kill dragons is verry wise, but as there are no dragons to kill all he can do is teach other people how to kill dragons.

The most incredible thing is the level of open discussion permitted at this forum. People could say anything they want, without fear of reprisals from the same government who does not let me read my own blog on the internet. In my group I had an ardent communist who wanted me to write letters to President Bush, and various newspapers to explain how early Qing history give leverage to Chinese claims over Taiwan. I explained to him that I would love to explain Chinese history to everyone in America, but that not that many people were interested. In my group there was also an ardent democrat who argued passionately against the communist that until they had the right to own land they would have no other real rights. Personally, when asked what I thought the Chinese government should do, I answered truthfully. It is really not my place to say. I am a 22 year old American, and I have no right to say how China should be run. Many of them seemed to think this was a reasonable point of view, but one of them kept interrupting me with non-sequitors about the Anglo-Saxons and whether or not they came from Germany. It was quite strange.

So that is thing number one that you must do if you come to Beijing.

English Corner
7pm-when everyone has gone home
Renmin Daxue
Zhongguancun Lu
Haidian, Beijing

Take it easy everyone

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Beginning in earnist

Well things have actually begun to look like they will loog for the next year.

My father left on monday, which meant, apart from missing him terribly, I was no longer welcome at our hotel, The Qinghua Yuan Bingguan. Now I live on the fifth floor of an old chinese appartment building on campus. It is a quiet neighborhood that in america would probobly be called a housing project. Rows of identical five story appartment buildings each with their own little number to identify themself. I live in the Nan(south) 12-1 building.

The appartment itself is rather nice, but I think I already described it in a previous post.

Yesterday I took my entrance exams. They did not go particularly well, but if they did I would not need to be here studying this infuriatingly strange language. Ah well. I am trying to keep a positive attitude about everything.

After my test there was the opening ceremony, during which we were told that we were the best of the best, and as such should not skip classes or drink on the bar street. Both good pieces of advice I must admit.

Today's business includes both a campus tour and possibly the purchase of a bicycle.

When my internet access is stabilized at the appartment I will try to send pictues.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Chapter two: we are tourists

(Note: I do not know if these are being posted, for some reason I can't visit any site with a blogspot.com address. Perhaps I am being blocked by the Great firewall, email me if you can read this.)

On friday we began to do the tourist thing in earnest. After a leisurely morning in Wu Dao Kou, which involved purchasing a nifty little cell phone, we took a taxi down to the Forbidden City. If you have never been to the Forbidden City, it is quite a daunting experience. The massive palace complex consists of five or six main courtyards, off of which flow innumerable courtyards, show rooms and gardens. As my father said, it should only be done in two hours or several days. As he is only here until Monday we went for the two hour run through.

Behind the Forbidden City is a park called Jingshan Gongyuan, literally scenic mountain public park. From the mountain we were able to see into the Forbidden City, as well as much of Beijing. That is we would have, were it not for the omnipresent haze. Nonetheless the view was impressive, and after the crowds at the Forbidden City, it was pleasantly sparse.

We then engaged in one of the most frustrating, and potentially rewarding, tourist traditions in Beijing, the bicycle rickshaw ride through the old Hutongs of Beijing. The Hutongs are the low courtyard houses that make up the inner city of Beijing. The idea of the rickshaw ride is that you pay in the beginning, you pay in the middle, and then you pay at the end. At the beginning you negotiate a price with the English-speaking boss. In the middle the non-English speaking driver takes you to various destinations where you are expected to pay an entrance fee, buy something to eat, etc. It can be assumed that your driver gets a cut. I had been on this before so we were not too badly fleeced. We saw two nice courtyard houses for reasonable entrance fees, one of which included free tea. At one point he brought us to the drum tower and tried to convince us to pay 65RMB each for a guide and a ticket to enter. We declined and walked to the real ticket booth where we each paid 15RMB. In the end he dropped us off at the least convenient end of the Houhai bar district and explained that he worked hard and that his boss would not give him much money. We gave him a little out of pity and walked away reasonably pleased with our afternoon.

After a couple of hours of wandering we discovered a nice Peiking Duck restaurant (complete with waiters in Qing Dynasty costume!) where we ate a good meal before turning in early.

Today (Saturday) we ventured outside of Beijing to the Great Wall at Badaling and the Ming Tombs at Shi San Ling. We had arranged to go by car with Mr. Song, our taxi driver who had taken us to our hotel the first day. I had wanted to find a taxi driver who would be willing to take us (and thus avoid the tour busses), and Mr. Song had two good things going for him. His taxi had plenty of legroom, and I was able to understand his Chinese reasonably well. It turns out that he is also just a really nice guy. The only bump in the road was when he took us to Badaling (a popular tourist spot on the wall) because I had failed to properly communicate to him which section of the wall I wanted to go to. This was not much of a problem because we beat the tourists by about an hour, and had a great time anyway.

After the great wall Mr. Song took us to a restaurant in Shi San Ling (literally 13 tombs) the town where 13 of the 16 Ming emperors are buried. We treated him to a fantastic lunch, which included Hot and Sour Soup, Ma Po Tofu, an extravagantly large local fish of some sort (their expensive specialty) and some tasty dry cooked chicken. Best meal in China thus far. We got to talking, as best as we could with my poor Chinese, and he told us about himself. His wife works in a hotel, and he has a 5 year old son. When I asked him if he always lived in Beijing he replied that he had, and proceeded to invite me and my whole family to come for a meal when they all come to visit in June. I am looking forward to this, hopefully by then I will be a more effective translator.

After dinner we visited the tomb of Ming emperor Shenzong, which was completed in 1590. This tomb was excavated in the 1950s, and today you can desend about 7 stories by foot into the old kings underground burial chamber where he and his two wives rested for about 350 years. Educational and entertaining!

On the way back Mr. Song stopped at one of the many orchard side fruit stands and hopped out of the car. He returned with a present: A bag of tiny zang fruits and four enormous peaches. The zang fruits are small and oval, with a small seed in the center. They taste like a really sweet apple. Mr. Song explained that if we had purchased them they would have been much more expensive. Because he was Chinese the zang fruit was only 5RMB(60US Cents) for about a pound of them. This was how much we had just paid for a bottle of water.

All and all not a bad couple of days. Tomorrow I get the key to my apartment, and then I get to go the police station to attempt the acquisition of a temporary visitors permit. Yipee!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

First dispatch

On Wednesday I arrived safely in Beijing, along with my father who will be traveling with me for the week before classes begin. It has been a year since I was in China and I was met with a series of surprises both pleasant and unpleasant. The pleasant surprise was that Tsing-Hua University is very close to Wu Dao Kou, a neighborhood I frequented quite often last summer. That is to say the part of Tsing-hua I will be living in is close to Wu Dao Kou, the campus is incredibly large. They say that it is the MIT of the east, but two or three MIT’s could fit inside it comfortably without feeling cramped.

The second surprise was how much things had changed in a year. Whole streets of shops had turned over. Sadly my favorite little Muslim restaurant, whose LaMien I had been craving since I left china, is now a gaudy western style coffee shop. Secondly, some of the nicer western coffee shops offer wireless Internet for free! No more Smokey porno infested Internet Cafes for this old foreigner.

Yesterday morning my father and I went to see my new apartment which exceeds all expectations. Three large bedrooms, two small sunrooms for drying clothing, a livingroom, kitchen, and a bathroom. The best part is that it is on the fifth floor of an all Chinese apartment building. The apartments are owned by tsing-hua, but students, families, and other people from the neighborhood live there. It is really quite nice that I will be living among Chinese people, and not in the foreign student dorms. I move in on the 11th, after which my bureaucratic hell will begin. More on that when it happens.