Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Week 1

China has always seemed mysterious but familiar to me. One of the reasons why I think this is because I grew up reading Chinese classic literatures, and so I imagined China as this place that is romantic and poetic, but chaotic at the same time. With the majority of the population who based their moral and values on Confucius’ teachings, I have always thought of China as a country with law abiding citizens, especially after the establishment of the communist party.

Therefore, for someone who has never been to China but has only read about China, I was a little scared but excited to finally visit Beijing and truly witness what China or Beijing is all about. So, after a roughly 16 hour flight from Houston to Beijing, my first impression of Beijing was how beautiful and grand its airport was, but at the same time, how empty it was. Either it was because it is “swine flu season” and not many people were traveling, or it could be that Beijing over expanded its airport for the 2008 Olympics (i.e. the newly constructed Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Intl. Airport is currently the second largest airport terminal building in the world).

On the way to my apartment and also my first taxi ride in Beijing, I learned from the taxi driver that, Beijing has grown and modernized itself so fast that he can hardly keep up, such as the construction of buildings to expansion of freeways and subways. For example, he claimed to have never used the subway system, so he couldn’t begin to tell us how or where a subway stop is.

Upon my arrival at the apartment, I met my roommate for the first time and went on a mini tour with her to try and familiarize myself with the area that I will call home for the next 6 weeks.

On my first tour of Beijing (Chaoyang District, Beiyuan Road area), I found that walking down the streets of Beijing can be a little scary. First of all, I can see that the government’s land use planning is relatively efficient in the transportation sector, for it plans for car lanes, bike/motorcycle lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. However, the enforcement of traffic laws seems none existent. For some reason, pedestrians ignore traffic lights and cross streets without lights turning green and zigzag through oncoming cars and buses and motorbikes. Also, even though there are sidewalks for pedestrians, more than often, those spaces are occupied by parked cars (usually luxury cars). So, people have no choice but to walk on either bike lanes or even on the road. Further, I have not seen speed limit signs on streets except on freeways/toll ways.

As we passed by some residential and commercial areas, I see both luxury high rises, as well as older and undeveloped buildings. For residential areas, I like the fact that there is almost always a large red banner hung across the front gates, stating somewhere along the lines of either “fight crime with neighborhood watch” or “working towards a more scientific, modernized, and greener Beijing”. Same types of red banners appear at some commercial areas. For example, red banners stating that “ABC” construction company is using environmental friendly materials in constructing “DCE” building. Whether or not these statements are true or mere propaganda, I think only the “insiders” would know.

On my first night out in Beijing, my roommate and I decided have dinner at a local Sichuan restaurant. At this restaurant, the tables come with a hole in the middle to make room for a giant wok. The food is prepared in the kitchen, and instead of using plates, the food gets dumped into this wok. Because it was a Sichuan restaurant, the food was extremely spicy that the waitresses had to bring two bowls of hot water for us to “de-spice” to make it more edible.

I think our experience was pretty unique at this particular restaurant because the waitresses were fascinated with us and wanted to know everything about Taiwan and the U.S. When one of the waitresses found out that I was born in Taiwan, she immediately light up and expressed how much she enjoyed watching dramas from Taiwan. She said she looks forward to visiting the country one day, but knows that it will never happen due to financial reasons. Another waitress said she had heard from a friend that, night and day is flipped between China and the United States. She just wanted to confirm whether or not her friend’s statement was true.

Looking back at my first week in Beijing, I can say that it was eventful and exciting, but a huge culture shock as well.

It was an exciting week because every experience was new. From learning about the Chinese perspective of the U.S. and of the country’s own rapid development through the lens of taxi drivers and waitresses, who obtain information through films and television shows and whose financial situation will never allow them to travel aboard, to learning about ancient China through touring the Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and The Temple of Heaven.

It was an eventful week because my roommate accidentally locked me inside our apartment on my first day in Beijing. Long story short, I ended up throwing my keys out the window to my friend so that he could unlock the door from the outside. Further, my debit card got stuck in the ATM machine, so I didn’t have other ways to get cash out. Eventually I did get my card back, but continued to experience issues throughout the week. After going through the ordeal of not having cash (i.e. many places do not accept credit cards unless it is a credit card issued by one of the local banks), I took my roommate’s advice on taking out as much cash as I can whenever I have access to a functioning ATM machine.

On experiencing culture shock, I think it could just be a learning process in understanding a new culture and the way of life in Beijing. I think my language ability only allows me to converse with the locals easier and read propagandas on red banners. I am still learning how to better communicate with people in Beijing using their way of communication. For example, we could be speaking the same language (Chinese Mandarin), but cannot understand what the other person is asking due to accents or differences in using certain phrases (i.e. in Taiwan, we call plastic bags, “bags”, but in Beijing, they refer to plastic bags as “pockets”).
Overall, I am grateful that I was able to retain fluency in the language after migrating to the U.S., because at least it allows me to ask lots of questions with more ease.

- Jenny Lin

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