This isn’t your average study abroad program.

My first introduction to China was in 2006 with the SMU-in-Suzhou program. It was an incredible program that mixed a classroom experience with a firsthand view of the content being taught to us. We read the history of the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Forbidden City, and then had the opportunity to walk through them. We read about China’s drastic economic and social changes while living around them 24 hours a day. It was truly a living classroom. There was also a lot of fun to be had and lots of exploring on our own and a lot of time to do it.

Ben3.jpg ACC, however, is not that kind of program. We were warned that when class is in session, our principal goal is to gain a better understanding of Mandarin, not to “see” China. I did not know how true that would be, but I am learning that our assignments keep us in a lot. It is certainly not a bad thing, but it is up to us to take what free time we have to get out and see Beijing. (Photo shows the main street outside campus.)

To be fair, we also have some great breaks built into the program, including a weeklong trip to Sichuan in March. We also have a five-day break for the Chinese New Year, as well as a Spring Break on top of that. In between those times, this place pretty much owns us. This fact took me a little while to get used to, considering the last time I was in Beijing, I had the opportunity to run around the city at will.

Research project: Lawyers in China
Ben1.jpg One assignment we are diving into is an individual research project about a topic of our choosing. I selected to research lawyers in Beijing and people’s general view of them. Considering the country’s legal history, lawyers are a relatively new breed of professionals. But with the blistering pace at which China is changing, economic and legal reformations made it possible for individuals and companies to seek legal representation for myriad reasons. However, lawyers are not commonplace just yet, and I want to see how they are forming a niche in Beijing society. In addition, I am also curious to see just what they are doing and how their profession is changing with the P.R.C. (Photo shows CCTV Tower + Mandarin Oriental Tower.)

I have to interview several people, do some side research and then produce a paper in Mandarin. It sounded daunting at first, but the teachers break it down into a series of deadlines that seem practical. The nature of the project also does not give us the opportunity to fly by the seat of our pants and whip up something the day before. This will be a great feat for a procrastinator such as myself.

This week was also a bit daunting because the workload seemed insurmountable. Thursday was the worst because we had to give an oral presentation of our weekly essay, turn in a long list of homework and also prep for our first meeting about our independent research project. On top of that we had to turn around from all of that and study for a test the next day over the week’s content. Somehow I managed to get through it all and do really well, but let’s just say I have not touched a single Chinese book all weekend.

International party at the Marriott
Despite the week’s chaos, I managed to have some fun this weekend. One of my friends here at ACC made some friends of her own last summer when she lived in Beijing, and on Friday we met up with them at a party at the JW Marriott. The “JW,” as it’s called, is one of Beijing’s newest hotels, and it showed because the cabbie had no idea how to get there. My friend and I hopped in a cab, got driven halfway across the Chaoyang District, and the cabbie had no idea where it was so we got ahold of the hotel’s number and gave them a call. Turns out, the hotel was a five-minute walk from campus! Luckily cab fares here are really cheap. I think our mistake cost us about $3.

I was really impressed with the place. The hotel is adjacent to Shin Kong Place, which is Beijing’s equivalent of Madison Avenue. And unlike other Marriotts, the JW chain is a step up and competes with other chains like the Park Hyatt and W. So that means it is really modern and tries to symbolize that international/jet-set appearance.

Once in the hotel, we made our way upstairs to this amazing restaurant and bar. It was incredibly international, and the people there were fascinating. And as Beijing tries to meet the international standard of cool, there was an ice terrace right off the bar’s entrance where they served your drinks in glasses of ice. Given the weather, they could do this outside with views of the city. The crowd was a mix of expats, people visiting on business and some of Beijing’s trendier citizens. From what I hear, this mix is pretty common at these kind of places.

At the restaurant we met up with the rest of my friend’s friends, and the group was really interesting. The table consisted of people from Greece, Norway, Hong Kong and England. It was a cool experience to talk to these people and hear why they chose to come to Beijing. Everyone had different answers: some came for work, others to get away, and some to learn the language. Bottom line they all had a fascination with China.

Ben2.jpgArt at 798
The next day was also great because we got up early and headed over to 798. 798 is the center of China’s art movement, and the artistic development here is on par with that of any in Europe’s history. It used to be an industrial district and now is being converted into an artists’ commune. There are old factories and rows of nondescript barrack-like buildings that are becoming the studios and galleries for these new artists. Their work is not to be taken lightly. Some of it is going for millions at auction houses worldwide.

Luckily, I had a friend with me who is well-versed in art – she works at two galleries in Manhattan while she is at home from school. She also knows 798 like the back of her hand, so she gave me a great tour and explained 798 and its context in the global art scene.

The art itself was really interesting and everywhere. Even the brick walls lining the district where covered with graffiti that was not so much vandalism but art. There were sculptures randomly lining the street, galleries, studios and little shops selling everything imaginable. But unlike other areas of Beijing, a lot of the stuff in these shops was handmade by the people selling it.

798 was an amazing experience for me because everyone who lives and works in this district takes art very seriously. From what I saw, a lot of these artists and vendors are fueling this movement, not only because they love to create, but because what they are creating is an expression of China’s economic and social growth. A lot of the art I saw has a message, and most if it was a commentary on some aspect of Chinese life.

At one gallery, an artist had a series titled “AK-47.” And all of the pieces were black canvas, and across the canvas in perfect rows was the word AK-47 in light gray. Then, he superimposed a black and white image of common Chinese people, such as a policeman, a student, etc. onto the canvas. In other words, it’s a piecemeal of different shades on the repeating word AK-47 that as a whole compose a greater image of something. It was cool. If you google Chuck Close, you’ll get the idea.

There is one place called “The Long March,” which is a social project that brings art to the countryside. It’s a consortium of people from all over China and the world, and they bring traditional and modern Chinese art to people who have probably never seen a freeway or building over three stories tall. They also conduct social investigations and bring their findings to this gallery in Beijing.

One installation was a video composed by an artist. He followed Chinese coalminers down into a coal mine to document their lives. In Western and Central China, coalminers live extremely dangerous lives. As if conditions were not dangerous enough in the U.S., imagine having that same job in China. It was shocking to see the conditions down there. Conditions for any coalminer are bad, but this piece really gives you a visual firsthand account of what it is like.

Happy New Year
We have class only on Monday and Tuesday next week. Wednesday through Sunday is our New Year’s Break. The Chinese New Year is their equivalency of Christmas, and the whole nation literally shuts down for a few days. Additionally, since China is a country of 1.3 billion+ people, imagine even 20 to 30 percent of those people trying to travel. That’s more people than in the United States moving at once on China’s transit systems. Needless to say, I am perfectly content staying in Beijing and seeing what it has to offer in the way of New Year’s celebrations. I do not even want to imagine what the train station is going to look like.

Also this week are pictures from 798 and my neighborhood in the Chaoyang district. The sky has been beautiful lately; clear-blue skies. I am not sure how long it will hold up, but I am definitely enjoying the amazing conditions.