I arrived here on Tuesday night and had the great fortune of resting up from the 12-hour flight from San Francisco in the city’s best hotel. I may be biased, but it was amazing! The hotel is called the Peninsula and is part of a worldwide chain based out of Hong Kong. If you are ever in a city where there is one, I urge you to at least go check out the lobby, if not stay there. I can only speak for the Beijing property, but the Hong Kong and Bangkok properties are also noted for being reminiscent of the 1920s and for the opulence associated with British imperialism in the Orient.
The flight itself was also interesting because I flew on Air China. I was trying to be economical in traveling to Beijing, and the rates for getting here recently doubled with U.S.-based carriers because of the Olympics. If you want to come to China in the next 8 months, go through Shanghai – you will save yourself a lot of money. In any case, Air China had the best rates out of San Francisco, so I worked around flying out of there to Beijing.
The plane was clean, the seats were equivalent to other carriers, and I probably received more attention on that flight then either of the ones coming back from Asia on my last trip here. What was also fun was at the end of the flight, all the flight attendants did a synchronized bow thanking us for choosing Air China. Now, where is that on U.S. carriers?
Beyond my plugs for the Peninsula and Air China, I have had a fun time the first few days. After staying at the Peninsula for a night, I went on to the dorm where I will be living for the next seven months. I am participating in a program called Associated Colleges in China (ACC), which is administered by Hamilton College in upstate New York and hosted by the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing (CUEB). It is a language-immersion program designed for college students who already have a foundation in Mandarin Chinese.
ACC is a pretty rigorous program, and we have already begun our language pledge. This means no spoken English anywhere. It was a shock to switch, and after the pledge started, our conversations became awkward as we made the switch to Chinese. But, we are adapting, and I will be curious to see how our Chinese is by the end of the semester.
The teachers are also amazing, and I cannot wait to get to know them. I recently saw one of the returning students from last semester come back from traveling, and the teachers greeted him with a big hug. I had heard from friends who have also attended this program that the teachers are phenomenal people. My friends both said that out of everything they missed about ACC, they missed the teachers the most. I’m hoping I have a lot to look forward to in the upcoming months.
All students who are matriculating for their first term live on the CUEB campus in a foreign students dormitory. I would liken it to my stay in McElvaney Hall my first year at SMU, except we have our own bathroom. So, it is pretty nice, and we have a cleaning staff that comes in to change our towels and sheets once a week and make our beds every other day. I cannot complain.
The campus is located in one of the most dynamic parts of the city. We are in what is called the Chaoyang District, which is about 5 to 10 minutes from the center of Beijing. (The very heart of the city, literally, is the Forbidden City; everything, and I mean everything, radiates out from that point. Even the freeways are called ring-roads that create circles around the city.)
Booming – and polluted
The Chaoyang District is booming and is the home of Beijing’s business district. I can look out of most windows here in the dorm and see the new CCTV tower and the other skyscrapers shooting up only blocks from the dorm. Every modern convenience is right here and somewhat on the high-end side of things. I will take pictures of the new skyscrapers later when I can adequately photograph them. Right now, the pollution is so bad that it has them in a haze that makes them hard to see.
Speaking of the pollution, it is bad. The reports are true, and I am worried about how they are going to reduce this much pollution to the levels ideally needed by August for the Olympics. But, in China’s defense, it is winter, and a lot of buildings and homes here are coal-powered. So, once the temperatures climb back out of the 20s, I hope that coal emissions will be reduced.
However, the Beijing metro area adds about 1,000 new cars to its roads daily, and with over 12 million people in the city, that adds a lot of smoke to the sky. On the city’s worst days, the sun literally looks like a dull orange skittle. There are also other factors that go into the pollution here, but are much too complex to explain now (i.e., factories, construction … )
Old and new
I have explored the city a little bit. I went to a restaurant that specializes in old-Beijing-style food. It’s hard to explain, but think Confucius and old-Chinese-style clothes and pretty much any stereotypical image an American might have about what China looked like 500 years ago. There were birds in cages hanging from the ceiling, and the waiters used a heavy Beijing accent to announce when plates came from the kitchen. It was kind of comical, but this type of place reflects a style of Beijing that is being replaced by trendy bars, skyscrapers and Western restaurants.
I also went with a few classmates to the other side of the city on Beijing public transportation. This was an experience, since I am used to Dallas and the idea of driving yourself everywhere. One of my classmates, an American, went to a high school in Beijing and is familiar with the city and its transit system. So instead of taking taxis, which are also cheap, he led us on a journey across the city, over an hour, on Beijing buses. Most of the buses are new for the Olympics and very nice.
It was an experience, and once we got to our destination, we went to a Tibetan restaurant and I had my first taste of Tibetan food. We had yak and skewers of who-knows-what kind of meat, but it was great! I don’t know if I will ever find my way back there, but it was well worth the trek.
Another place we visited was a park that overlooks the Forbidden City. It’s called Jingshan Park, and it is famous now because it was the place where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty committed suicide at the forefront of an invading peasant army at the Forbidden City. The park has amazing views (the photo shows the view at the highest point of the park looking down at the back end of the Forbidden City. If the pollution were not as bad – yes, that is pollution with a mix of real clouds – you could see Tian’anmen Square at the other end of the Forbidden City.
Jingshan Park is also a fun place to watch “lao Beijing ren” (Elderly Beijing-ers) do tai chi and ribbon dances. One group was singing, dancing and playing small instruments. When we, the big group of foreigners walked up, they said “wai-guo ren” (foreigners) and started playing “Jingle Bells” and pulled some of us into their circle of dancing.
Well, that’s pretty much Week 1. I start classes next week, and they will be a load. The pace here is extremely quick, but we will learn a lot and improve immensely. They say that a week’s worth of work in our Chinese classes at our home universities is equivalent to ONE DAY at ACC. This should be interesting …