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.

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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Back in Beijing as a teacher

Greetings from Beijing (again)! Moving back to China’s capital was a very exciting process that had its fair share of trials and tribulations. Although, I can hardly say that I am moved in and acclimated, as I have only been here for six weeks! Despite the short amount of time that has elapsed, I feel as though I have been here for months, if not years. That is definitely a good thing.

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Teaching at the Cradle of Chinese Diplomats

Earlier this year I was accepted into a fellowship program titled Princeton-in-Asia (PiA). Founded over 110 years ago, PiA is a program at Princeton University that places recent graduates into teaching, service, or work posts all over Asia. As a PiA fellow, I felt very fortunate to receive a teaching post at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), right in the heart of Beijing. (In photo: Princeton-in-Asia fellows in Beijing)

China Foreign Affairs University is commonly called the “cradle of Chinese diplomats.” Out of all Chinese universities, CFAU boasts the largest number of ambassadors and Foreign Service officers amongst its alumni. Additionally, the university specializes in areas of international diplomacy, public policy, international law, and foreign languages. It is also one of China’s most competitive universities: its average on the National Higher Education Entrance Examination ranks among the top institutions in the country.

What this all amounts to is a really interesting place to work. My students are all incredibly insightful and well-versed in current events. CFAU also serves as a prominent training center for Chinese and foreign diplomats, so there are always foreign delegations and Chinese officials roaming the hallways. One example was when China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, came to give the keynote speech for the university’s opening convocation in September. (Foreign Minister Yang is the U.S. equivalent of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

Witnessing the PRC turn 60

Since my return in early September, life has been a whirlwind of activity. In the midst of moving in, I had the opportunity to witness the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. For most in the West, the notion of celebrating a 60th anniversary is not that important. We as Westerners place greater emphasis on quarter-century marks to really go “all out” and celebrate.

IMG_3482-1.jpgHowever, 60 is an important number in the Chinese tradition because it marks the end of a full lunar calendar cycle. While the lunar calendar is not used functionally today, it is still used to determine all of China’s festivals and holidays. (Such as the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.) Therefore, it was no surprise that the Chinese pulled out all the stops to host a large-scale celebration in honor of the government’s 60th anniversary. (In photo: Tian’anmen Square during the National Holiday)

Of all the events produced for the celebration, the National Day parade received the most attention by both the local and foreign press. Due to the security restrictions around the parade route, I, along with the rest of China, watched the parade on television. Even though I could not see the tanks firsthand, I could see the military fly-by from my window.

On a more exciting note, I was able to take part in the national celebrations in a different and memorable way. As a foreign professor at CFAU, I was invited to attend a government dinner for “foreign experts” at the Great Hall of the People to celebrate the 60th anniversary. The Great Hall of the People functions as the nation’s parliamentary building and consists of many chambers, including the Great Auditorium that houses the National People’s Congress.

We had dinner in the State Banquet Hall, which is where the Chinese hosted Richard Nixon when he first visited China in 1972. What really made the dinner memorable was walking through the building itself. It was chilling to think what leaders and other notable figures walked the halls of that monumental structure.

In fact, to call the building monumental insufficiently describes the scale of the place. From the outside, the Great Hall does not look that overwhelming, but once inside I felt dwarfed by the massive columns that lined its endless corridors. The banquet hall itself was jaw dropping in that it seated well over 2,000 people comfortably for dinner. From the Forbidden City to the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese sure do know how to construct buildings of epic proportion.

It’s not just all about work

Four weeks into classes, China took an eight-day hiatus to celebrate National Day as well as the Mid-Autumn festival. It was a relaxing holiday that included a trip with some friends out to the coastal city of Qingdao.

The city is known for its German concession that thrived there at the end of the 19th century. More importantly, the city is known for what the Germans left behind: a brewery. Qingdao beer, otherwise known in the West as Tsingtao, is China’s most famous beer and is consumed widely in China and distributed globally.

The Tsingtao brewery is truly a window into China’s recent history. The brewery’s museum tells the story of how the Germans invaded Qingdao at the turn of the century, and later how Japanese forces overtook the city and renamed Tsingtao beer for a brief period. When the Communists came into power in the late 1940s, the original name was restored and beer kept flowing under Chinese management.

It is also an interesting example of how a foreign tradition (beer brewing) permeated Chinese drinking culture. Today, no matter what restaurant you walk into in China, Tsingtao will almost always be on the menu.

Despite the excitement of autumn, winter is slowly announcing its arrival. The days are already getting colder and markedly shorter. As we start the march into another Beijing winter, I will check back in with updates from life here in China’s capital. Until next time.

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