Ben in China

Ben is a junior from Dallas majoring in history, with minors in Chinese and business, who is spending Spring 2008 in Beijing at the Capital University of Economics and Business.

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The NY Philharmonic visits Beijing

This week was again marked with the demands of ACC’s curriculum, but as always, it is incredibly worthwhile.

This week’s lessons were based on a Chinese film, so we spent the week learning vocabulary and grammar structures that appeared in the film. It was really difficult but great because it helped us build up our ability to comprehend Mandarin at normal conversational speeds, which are really fast!

This week for school I also interviewed a Beijing lawyer who specializes in business law; his insight into China’s market and its development was really helpful with my independent project because it was a Chinese perspective on a major part of the legal environment in this country.

One point that resonated with me was his insistence that Beijing is better than Shanghai for business because this city is the country’s policy center. For him, Shanghai may have a stronger finance and business scene, but all the policies dictating business are implemented in Beijing.

This is just his perspective, and I am sure there are myriad businessmen and others who could argue otherwise for hours. However I see the logic in his argument: government and politics mean everything here, and if one is going to invest significant amounts of money in this market, it is wise to be close to the hand that controls everything.

A little stress relief
I can also tell that the stress of school is building: I went to a spa this week and had a massage and was told that my neck and lower back were incredibly tense. The Chinese can tell a lot about how a person is feeling by pressure and tension points in the body, and this tradition has been a part of their culture for thousands of years (such as acupuncture, cupping).

Some of it seems like hogwash, but for the most part I think massages and focusing on tension points in the body contribute something to a person’s well being. Massages are also a way of life here and really common; there are spas and massage parlors everywhere. They are also pretty cheap – what would cost $170 in Dallas is $25 here, and some places look like any nice spa in the U.S.

After the usual bustle of the week, the weekend was a good opportunity to catch up on sleep and get out into the city. Thursday night I met up with my Chinese host family and had dinner with them. Thursday was the last day of the Spring Festival, (aka the Chinese New Year celebration – unlike the Western world, the Chinese spend about 2 and a half weeks celebrating the new year.)

Ben-0229-2.jpgCelebrating the Lantern Festival
I joined them for what is called the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival always falls on the last day of the Chinese New Year, and in major parks and temples people hang hundreds upon hundreds of lanterns. I did not have a chance to see any of the parks filled with lanterns, but I have heard the experience is amazing. This is also the last day of celebration for the Chinese – after the Lantern Festival, life returns to normal.

Families also have celebratory dinners that are on par with the ones held on Chinese New Year’s eve. I met up with my host family for dinner, and as usual the dinner was filled with tradition. One tradition is at the beginning of the meal, toasting the eldest at the dinner as an expression of respect.

I also had a chance to ask my host family about the significance of offering innumerable toasts at a dinner. This is really common here, and for a foreigner it can be kind of intimidating at first. Their reply was that offering toasts while eating is an expression of respect that also promotes community with those at the table with you.

I have learned that eating and drinking are definitely a communal experience here, and the propriety at any Chinese dinner table is stronger than any seen at a Western dinner table. Their traditions are different, but eating together holds a lot of meaning and bonding that for the most part you do not see in the U.S.

After dinner we made our way outside and set off – what else? – firecrackers. Firecrackers are so intense here. They are incredibly long and, from what I remember of U.S. firecrackers, much larger than the ones we have at home. Let’s just say that I kept thinking, “When are these firecrackers going to end?” But like everything else here. there is a story behind the firecrackers. The motive behind shooting off all the fireworks is to scare away the evil spirits for a prosperous new year.

Ben-0229-3.jpgThe Temple of Heaven
Saturday was also a great day because a few people from ACC trekked over to the Temple of Heaven in the morning. I had been before but was disappointed because the pollution stifled the grandeur and beauty of the place. However. this time was perfect: clear blue skies! It was also not very crowded given that it was freezing that morning.

The Temple of Heaven was once the place where emperors performed sacrificial rituals to ensure bountiful crops and a prosperous future for the people. It is also an amazing example of religious architecture with every design concept holding great significance. The core of this park is laid out on a north-south axis with two circular platforms at each end of what seems an endless road. The north end is one of the most famous icons of Beijing, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, and the south end is the Circular Mound Altar.

The Circular Mound Altar is cool because if a person stands in the very center and whispers a word, its echo is amazing. The experience is similar to the Texas State Capitol if you stand in the middle of the floor under the dome and talk up into it.

Ben-0229-4.jpgThe NY Philharmonic in Beijing
Saturday was also fun because a friend and I went over the Chinese National Theatre to see the New York Philharmonic Symphony. First of all, the theatre itself is like nothing else I have ever seen! I cannot say I have seen that many theatres in the U.S., but from what I have seen nothing compares to this.

The building itself is an egg-like structure surrounded by a moat; to enter the theatre you walk in through a subterranean entrance. The entrance’s ceiling is made of glass that looks into the moat itself, so essentially the roof of the entrance is glass and water – so cool. The theatre itself is one huge domed structure with three theatres contained in this one superstructure. The lobby is huge and surrounds all three of the theatres. The concept is really difficult to explain, but it is unlike anything I have ever seen!

Ben-02291.jpgDespite the architectural wonder of this place, what was also amazing was the experience we had in the theatre. You first walk in through a bank of metal detectors. At this point they strictly enforce no cameras. Also, they asked my friend to spit out her gum before we could enter the theatre lobby.

The theater also had no spirits to speak of; usually at major theatres they have wine bars or some form of spirits. This seemed odd because the drinking culture is so prevalent here. In the Concert Hall itself, I looked at my cell phone and realized it had no service whatsoever. The theatre is in Central Beijing where cell phone service, even on the subway, is flawless. I then realized they had reception jammers that cut off service in the hall itself.

All these rules and conditions left me wondering what kind of place this was. I mean, the theatre is obviously a monument to China’s future and its cultural advancements on an international scale – so why all the odd rules and strictures? Then in the concert hall it hit me: this place is a cultural example for the Chinese people.

Going to the symphony or the theatre is a relatively new phenomenon here, and through places like this the government is going to set an example of proper etiquette. The security guard made my friend spit out her gum for the sake of propriety and hygiene; they also did not want cameras in the theaters because the Chinese are notorious for their paparazzi-like snap shooting. Alcohol also is not as present to prevent the token cheers before a performance. They jammed cell phones in the concert hall to ensure no disruptions.

To some extent the rules they are trying to enforce are common practice in the West, and I think with time what may seem like unnecessary measures now will turn into standard practice.

The New York Philharmonic was incredible, and the Concert Hall’s acoustics were absolutely flawless. I only saw two small mics in the whole place, and you could hear a pin drop from anywhere in the hall. It also gave me chills to think that this very same symphony we were seeing will be heading off to North Korea early next week! From what I have seen in The New York Times, this Asian tour is catching a lot of attention in the States, and I will be curious to hear about their North Korean debut.

That’s about it for the past week. This upcoming week we have our midterms and then head off to the Sichuan province for a field trip with the school. I will give an update when I come back from the home of the Panda!

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