Ben in Beijing

Ben, a 2009 graduate in history with a minor in Mandarin from Dedman College and business from the Cox School, is living in Beijing as a Princeton-in-Asia teaching fellow. He will be teaching at the China Foreign Affairs University for the 2009-2010 academic year. At SMU, Ben studied abroad with the SMU-in-Beijing program at Associated Colleges in China. You can read his older blog here.

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One semester down…

IMG_3737.jpgGreetings from Dallas! Yes, Dallas. I am fresh off the plane from Beijing to enjoy my winter break. Like the Western world, China also gives its students a holiday after finals, but it coincides with the Spring Festival (known to many as the Chinese New Year). This is the single most important holiday of the year; the country literally shuts down to celebrate.

Looking back, I cannot believe the autumn I experienced. Some of it I have already recounted here, but that only covers half of the semester. Since my last post, I began an internship, traveled to Harbin, celebrated the holidays and gave my first round of finals.

My first time behind a wok

In mid-October I started an internship at one of the most amazing places in Beijing: Black Sesame Kitchen. It is more of an apprenticeship of sorts. In any case, allow me to begin by explaining the kitchen.

Black Sesame is a private kitchen that hosts dinners and cooking classes for predominantly Western clientele. It is a window into the dynamic world of Chinese gastronomy. The owner and event manager are American-born Chinese, but their two chefs, and the stars of the place, are what make it special. They are both master chefs who formerly ran some of the best restaurants in Beijing. A little older in age, they traded the bustling commercial-grade kitchens for the warm glow of a private courtyard dining room.

I fell in love with the place after having dinner there one evening. I became good friends with the kitchen manager and consequently took on an apprenticeship. I host dinners in exchange for learning about the magic of Chinese cuisine. Note: I do “Chinese cuisine” a disservice by calling it that … using that one term really glosses over the delectable multitude of styles here. (There are over eight unique Chinese cuisines, which include Sichuan, Shanxi, Cantonese, and North Eastern.)

So far I can make dumplings, handmade noodles and Kung Pao chicken. More to come in the spring.

Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas from China!

This was my first time spending the holidays away from my family. Some may offer me condolences, or ask how I endured the experience; however, it was a great time that brought me closer to my friends here in Beijing.

Thanksgiving was a bit lackluster in terms of fare, but we managed to feast on turkey and the usual accoutrements. Christmas was the real treat. While SMU was playing in the 2009 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, I enjoyed a Christmas morning breakfast with some close friends. (It was made even better after receiving a mid-meal call from the parents telling me SMU had won!)

Another highlight of Christmas was having dinner at the Chinese State Guest House, Diaoyutai, with the president of China Foreign Affairs University. Diaoyutai is an amazing compound that hosts every major leader who visits Beijing. Obama was there for talks when he was in town weeks before.

Sitting on the other side of the desk: My first round of finals

Giving finals was actually a rewarding experience. Since I teach Oral English, I conducted a round of one-on-one interviews with all of my students. A lot of them were nervous, but that is to be expected. I can think back to my interviews for Chinese class … not fun. However, it was also a chance for me to really talk to my students. I worked with them week in and week out, but I did not have a chance to talk with them all individually. This was a great time to hear about them and their experiences throughout the semester. College life and its pressures are not unique to any one country.

Reflecting on this semester, I am grateful for the experience I have had with my students. Living in Beijing affords its denizens enough stories, but working with my students has been the most memorable part of my time here. I leave class every day feeling as if they have taught me more than I have taught them.

IMG_3796-1.jpg Harbin: Lots of ice and tigers

To celebrate the semester’s end, a few friends and I trekked to the outer reaches of Manchuria (Northeastern China) to enjoy the Harbin snow and ice festival. It is one of, if not the world’s largest collection of snow and ice sculptures. We prepared for the subzero temperatures, but we were not prepared for the scale of the festival. These sculptures were HUGE. Not to mention detailed. I could attempt to describe them, but pictures (including at top) will serve as a better medium.

IMG_3821-1-1.jpg In addition to the epic festival, we also visited Harbin’s Siberian Tiger Park. It is a collection of 75-plus tigers that roam a massive enclosed range. It was amazing to drive through their home and see them up close. (We also had a chance to feed a few … quite exciting.) Siberian Tigers are indigenous to this region, but their numbers are down to about 500 throughout Russia, China and Mongolia.

Now … all I have to do for a few weeks is rest! It is great to be home for a little bit. I have already made the obligatory visits to Mi Cocina and Chuy’s … Sonny Bryan’s and Peggy Sue’s are next on my list!

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