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.

Panda bears, a Grand Buddha and hot, hot food

ben-with-panda-600.jpg
From February 29 to March 7, ACC hosted a field trip to Sichuan. It was a much-needed break after the conclusion of our midterms. We not only had a written test but also two oral presentations with Q&A. I was very grateful to get out of Beijing for a few days!

The Friday our midterms concluded, we headed to Beijing’s West Station and boarded a train for a 25-hour journey! I was so tired from the week I had just gone through, so I did not mind that the school had put us in what was called “hard sleepers.” We had beds, but they were stacked three to a column, and I had the fortune of being assigned to a top bunk; this bunk had the lowest clearance of all three bunks and made for an exciting train ride. I had to contort like a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat to get in and out of bed.

Despite that difficulty, the train ride was a great way to see how the common Chinese travel and get a taste for the countryside. The train itself looked fairly new, so that made the trip easier. I won’t say I want to have that experience again, but at least I have done it and know what it is like.

Crowded Chengdu
On Saturday evening we arrived in the capital of Sichuan: Chengdu. It is a major city with a population density greater than that of Beijing. Their population is smaller, but because of geographical limitations and city design, it feels much more crowded. Despite Beijing’s population of 12 to 13 million, it does not feel that crowded. Granted, people are always around and the subways are a sight to see during rush hour, but I still feel like I can breathe; in Chengdu, not so much.

The roads seemed lawless and crazier than anything I have ever seen in Beijing, Shanghai or Suzhou. Cabbies would speed down busy side streets, and it felt like we were in a video game dodging pedestrians. To be honest I was not that scared, though. I think I have been in enough cabs to realize that despite the chaos and inestimable near misses, it’s safe for OTHER drivers. I really think pedestrians are injured more than drivers by cars.

Another interesting fact about Chengdu is that it is the last major city before heading into Tibet. Unless you take the train out of Beijing, most people start their Tibetan journeys in Chengdu. The city itself is not mountainous, but drive two hours outside the city and the mountains start rising out of the Chengdu plain.

ben-panda.jpgHello, baby panda
On Sunday we had our first outing to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Base. It is really an amazing center with advanced research facilities, and the pandas are treated like emperors. What is also amazing about that place is that it is one of only two places in China that allows the public to hold pandas. (I think that also means that there are only two places in the world that allows the public to hold pandas – unless there are zoos out there that allow this.)

I had previously heard about this and had made up my mind that I was going to hold a panda. The price is kind of steep, but they have to be or else everyone would want to hold them. However, I thought the experience was totally worth it.

I entered near the nursery compound, and I was brought into a terrace and asked to put on scrubs. This was obviously for the panda’s protection and not mine – these animals are China’s national living treasures, and I do not blame them. They brought out a baby girl panda that was about 6 months old. She was not only adorable, but also really chill. There are no other words to describe her; she was extremely calm but really inquisitive.

They gave her a piece of bamboo covered in honey to satiate her appetite while she was in my arms, and at one point she actually noticed I was there and stuck her nose up to my face. It was amazing to have the opportunity to hold her.

Afterward, our tour guide said that they seldom see the Research Base staff bring out a panda that young to hold. I definitely consider myself very lucky to have had that opportunity. The experience also made me appreciate that the Chinese government is doing so much to preserve these amazing creatures. Biologically the panda has so much going against it in terms of breeding practices and fetal development. Additionally, China’s blistering development has destroyed significant portions of the panda’s natural habitat; this only adds to their difficulty because of their highly specialized diet of bamboo. Today, the government is creating panda reserves and doing what it can at the moment to protect them despite the country’s insurmountable pollution problem.

Chinese garden in bloom
After the Panda Base, a few friends and I went to the home of a historic poet from the Tang Dynasty. The poet Du Fu’s home was really modest and small, but the gardens and memorials around it were huge.

It was a beautiful place, and the horticultural and architectural style mirrored that of other southern Chinese cities, but there were different elements that were a nice change from Suzhou- or Beijing-style gardens I have seen before. For example, there were long bamboo-lined paths with tall red walls on each side of the road. It sounds simple, but nuances like that make a difference since so many of these gardens/parks have the same architectural elements.

Chengdu also is much warmer than Beijing, and we were lucky to see the cherry blossoms in bloom in various places at the garden. Along with the cherry trees, there were myriad other plants and exotic trees that were beginning to bloom. The spring season and the blooms that emerge are widely appreciated by the Chinese, and are typically anticipated after the end of the Chinese New Year. (And rightfully so; it’s an amazing sight to see.)

ben-grand.jpgThe Grand Buddha
On Monday and Tuesday we trekked out of Chengdu into the Sichuan countryside. Sichuan is known for its natural wonders that are on par if not more pronounced than those seen in USA’s Yellowstone National Park. On Monday we left Chendgu and made our way over to LeShan’s Grand Buddha. It is one of the largest Buddhas in the world, if not the largest. It is cut into a side of a cliff that overlooks a major river in Sichuan. It’s amazing to see because the thing really is massive; I could probably sleep comfortably on the Buddha’s toenail. Along with the Buddha, there are several temples, courtyards and pagodas that are hidden in the hills surrounding the Buddha. It was a great afternoon of exploring this park of sorts and enjoying the beautiful weather.

ben-bridge.jpgEmei Mountain
After that we went to the base of Emei Mountain to check into our hotel. It was a beautiful place that overlooked a series of low-lying mountains that were covered in deep, deep green trees and cloaked in a blanket of mist. I will admit that there was pollution probably in the mix, but for the most part, Emei Mountain’s air is extremely moist, and mist/low lying clouds are common. The highlight of the night was finding this little restaurant with an outdoor deck on the second floor that overlooked the mountains. A few friends and I just sat out there for hours eating some of Sichuan’s famed dishes and admiring the amazing views.

On Tuesday we went over to Emei Mountain, which is one of China’s four sacred mountains. On the mountain itself are several Buddhist temples and several sites that commemorate emperors’ visits to the mountain. We first started by hiking, literally hiking, to the biggest Buddhist temple on the mountain. It’s about a good 30-minute hike straight up stairs. On the way we passed people who live and work on the mountain and depend on selling trinkets to tourists for their income. We also saw people using mules to pull supplies up and down paths alongside the stairs we used to climb the mountain. This was truly the countryside.

ben-palace.jpgOnce at the Temple, we looked around for a bit; it was a bit different than other ones I had seen, and I think it mirrors the style of Tibetan temples. This was also the point where the group split up: we had the option of climbing to the mountain’s peak and staying overnight on the mountain or seeing most of the historic sites (located near the base), and then returning to Chengdu. I chose the latter because the mountain’s peak is at 9,000 feet, which is only a little bit higher than, say, the base of Vail Valley in Colorado. Also, I did not like the idea of sleeping on a mountain in China and also facing the monkeys that reside on Emei.

Emei is beautiful and gave me a real glimpse of the Sichuan countryside. It is beautiful for its mountains, the mist, the clear creeks/waterfalls, and the foliage. It has a dense forest of trees that are not found in the US: the forest is primarily composed of bamboo and Norfolk pine trees. There are also sycamore-style and broad-leafed trees, but for the most part it looked like a foreign forest on a different planet. Dotting the hiking paths are monuments and lesser temples commemorating historical points in the mountain’s history. It seemed like every other corner we stumbled upon another incredible monument or waterfall.

Monkey meeting
One surprise that I was not too keen on was the monkey reserve. It is set back in a park on the mountain, and is pretty much base for monkeys that roam free on the mountain. They are brilliant creatures that came up to me, pulled at my pants and hands and looked in my pockets for food. For the most part they were harmless, but I was definitely scared of them because I did not want to be bitten. I know they are probably not that dangerous, but all I could keep thinking was, “Ok, if I get bit there’s no telling how many shots I’ll have to get.” Needless to say, I quickly made my way through this part of the mountain and ventured off to other sites.

After that we returned to Chengdu and had a few days to explore the city at will. Chengdu is rich in history and culture – not to mention Sichuan’s famous food. Some of the highlights included the Sichuan Opera, which is known for its masked, flame-spitting actors as well as these people that wear masks, and in front of your eyes and without any apparent cause, their masks change colors. It is an illusion that I have yet to figure out – these actors quickly change masks right in front of the audience’s face, but the audience cannot see how he/she made the switch. It was awesome.

Red-hot hot pots
The other big highlight was the FOOD. Sichuan food is one of the four most famous styles of food in China, and rightfully so. (The best-known in America is Kung Pao Chicken.) Some dishes are sweet and tender, others sweet and spicy, and then there are those that are painfully spicy.

The best example is the Sichuan hot pot (like fondue). I went three times, and the first time was literally an out-of-body experience. We went to Sichuan’s hot pot row, where there are several restaurants all specializing in hot pots. We casually just picked one and walked in.

The first thing they asked us was what kind of oil we wanted. Our teachers had previously explained the Sichuan hot pot experience to us, and said they offer either white oil for the whimps or red to the locals and those that can troop through it. We, of course, ordered the red oil. In the center of our table was a gas stove, and the service staff brought over a huge metal pot full of blood-red oil with pepper kernels and red peppers floating on the top. It looked like something out of hell itself!

Once the oil stared to boil and we had let our first round of meats and veggies cook, the fun began. At first it was not so bad – yes it was spicy but not unbearable. As the meal progressed, the heat got to me, and I not only started sweating but also got kind of dizzy. I am not sure of the chemical effects of eating really spicy food, but by the end of the meal I felt really loopy, but not in a bad way. It was certainly an experience.

However, the next two times I did not have that same kind of dizzy feeling, but I sweated just as bad. So, my advice is: if you ever go to a Sichuan hot pot restaurant, order the red oil, and prepare for an experience. It really is like nothing else I have ever eaten.

Coming back to Beijing was much easier: the teachers booked us a flight home. But instead of flying into the Capital Airport, our tickets said we were flying into Beijing’s south airport, which I did not even know existed. The flight was great and security was so much easier than in America. (However, I don’t know how flights will be after that thwarted terrorist attempt a few days ago on a Chinese airliner.)

In any case, when we landed, I was surprised to see that the airport was no more than an airfield on the outskirts of central Beijing with one terminal to enter and only one baggage claim. It was a lot more convenient and closer to school, so on the whole it was much easier. (Don’t expect international flights out of there anytime soon.)

The week after Sichuan was an easy one with lots and lots of new content to learn. We also turned in the first draft of our Independent Project, which went well. This upcoming week should be the same as far as class work. I am also going to go see Tim Clissold speak about his book, Mr. China. It is one of the most widely read books by Western businessmen on doing business in China; Clissold was one of the first here and his stories are incredible. I suggest reading it if you have the chance.

Zai Jian! (Until next time!)

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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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Week 4: Dinner, fireworks and a little sleep

Ben-lights.jpg This week was the Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year, so we had a nice break from the demands of class. This is their equivalent to Christmas and our calendar New Year all wrapped into one big holiday.

The city literally does die as millions flee the city to head to their hometowns in the country. This just goes to show that China is still a developing nation because many in its labor force come from rural areas of the country to industrial centers such as Beijing. Think of the migrations made to London, Chicago and New York during the Industrial Revolution, only this time on a greater scale.

On top of the many who return home, this is also a time when people with disposable incomes take vacations to warmer locales such as Hainan in the South China Seas. I chose to stay in Beijing over the break at the warning of our program’s Field Director. Traveling right now on China’s transportation infrastructure would be a nightmare, considering it is at the moment handling a large percentage of the nation’s 1.3 billion people. However, it was a nice break and I have had the opportunity to experience a real Chinese New Year.

Celebrating with family
The first highlight of the New Year was the dinner I had with my Chinese host family. We met at a restaurant that was really different from anything I had seen in the U.S. You walk in, and there is not one large dining room, as in most restaurants, but four floors of private rooms. My guess is that these exist and are popular because the Chinese, for the most part, do not really have large homes. When it comes to hosting family and friends for a holiday such as this one, they need more space.

My host family treated 40 of their closest friends and family to a huge New Year’s Eve dinner. The food was amazing, and the company was even better. Toasts occurred every few minutes, and everyone, and I mean everyone, was obliged to get up in front of the party and sing a little song.

My stage debut
With my luck, I was the first one asked up, and I had no idea what to sing. I had some coaxing by my Chinese family and ended up singing “Happy New Year to you” to the tune of the Happy Birthday song. Then the other two ACC students with me got up and sang. After that, it was the dads who got up, then the moms, and finally the grandparents and their friends.

It was an amazing night because I had the opportunity to see a part of China that I would not normally see. I saw a family during their most important holiday, and it was a great honor to be welcomed into their celebration. The smiles, laughter and connections I saw happening that night translate into any language and really changed my views on China. Despite the big government, the sea of people and every other problem a foreigner might encounter here, the people here are amazing. For the most part.

From my take on it, when you get to know the Chinese, and really make friends with them, it is only then that you can appreciate their culture, history and traditions. This place can be absolutely overwhelming at times, and there is so much to take in. Making Chinese friends and living their lives side-by-side makes the experience so much more rewarding, and it also gives one the opportunity to really appreciate being in this country.

Extreme fireworks
After dinner that night, I met up with some friends back on campus. We all walked down the street to the local fireworks stand and bought a boatload of fireworks. During the Chinese New Year, you are allowed to shoot off fireworks for a given number of days. It’s a relatively new phenomenon because the government previously prohibited fireworks in the cities. Now that it’s relaxed this policy, everyone is given carte blanche to shoot off fireworks whenever and wherever one chooses, literally. The city sounds like a war zone 24/7 for seven days. It was common to see fireworks going off in the streets with cars driving by; sometimes it was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

But on New Year’s Eve it is something else, especially at midnight. We went over to a friend’s apartment that has a great view of the city. When the clock struck 12, the city literally erupted into fireworks. It was not in just one location, but on the streets and at every corner. Beijing was a fireworks show for a good hour. I have never seen anything like it! In fact, there were so many fireworks that around 1 am, the city was cloaked in a blanket of haze. It was genuine fireworks smoke; the skies here have been incredible the past few weeks. I have no idea what to attribute it to, but the skies are as blue as any I have ever seen in Texas. Either something has changed or it is the winter winds blowing the pollution out of the city. Whatever it is, I hope it lasts!

Rest – finally!
The New Year was great because I got some much-needed rest. The week after the Spring Festival was a nightmare! I have never worked so hard in my life with any of my studies. As it is we commit about 10 hours a day to class time and prep for the next day’s lesson. On top of that we usually have to write an essay or two and work weekly on our independent project. This week we had our first portion of the independent project due, so that added to the workload. It was definitely a trying week, but now I fully know what to expect on the busiest weeks and how to handle it.

The independent project, along with the language pledge, is one of ACC’s hallmarks. It is more of a field study on a topic of our choosing, and we go out into Beijing to interview people and then also do ancillary research to complement what the people say. Then we turn around and write out a report using all the new grammar and vocabulary we learn in class. It is a great way to cement what we learn in the classroom.

My topic is Chinese lawyers and how they are finding their niche in this country amid market forces and a Communist government. This topic is of special interest to me because I want to go to law school, and ultimately end up in a job that will allow me to use my degree and work with the Chinese at the same time. So, studying the emergence of lawyers here since the 1980s seemed like a relevant topic to my future and genuinely interesting. Along with the emergence of lawyers in China, I am also looking at the public’s perception of lawyers and what kind of reputations they are already building for themselves. The interviews have been a lot of fun, and I am learning a lot about the issue.

Other than the Chinese New Year and the grueling week of class, I cannot say I have much else to say for myself. I went to Wangfujing, which is a major shopping avenue that has the city’s largest bookstore and the flagship Olympic store. That alone is an experience – they have the token pins you wear and the T-shirts, but they also have trinkets that are out of this world.

Olympics fever
The Beijing Olympic mascots: Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Yin Yin and Ni Ni (Their names are derived from “Beijing Huan Yin Ni,” which means “Beijing welcomes you”) are these panda-looking creatures that are plastered on every corner of this city. The Beijing Olympic Planning Committee commissioned an artist to create jade stamps of the mascots. They wanted $42,000 US for them! I love buying Olympic memorabilia, but that’s insane!

When we left Wangfujing we encountered a cabbie trying to cheat us – it was rush hour so he tried to charge us 80 kuai for a 10-minute cab ride, the regular rate no matter what time of day starts at 10/11 kuai. This guy was in a standard issue cab so we could have definitely reported him. Cheating foreigners right now is the last thing the Chinese government wants, so I am sure if we had gotten his plate numbers we could have gotten him in lots of trouble.

We found another cab in a minute and did not have any problems. Wangfujing is a major tourist area so I’m sure they have lots of luck there ripping off foreigners. The best thing to do is walk away; most of the time there is an honest guy around the corner that will give you a fair deal for the same thing.

We also went to an acrobatic show as a group outing with school. It was fun and a staple on anyone’s first trip to China. This probably makes my third now, but they are still fun to watch. It is part Cirque Du Soleil, part kitsch and part traditional Chinese culture all wrapped into a two-hour show. It is amazing how small the people are! You first think they are kids, then you see their faces and realize they are probably in their 20s or maybe 30s.

Well, that’s all for now. This week promises to be a bit slower-paced, and next weekend I am going to the Beijing National Theatre (aka The Egg) to see the New York Philharmonic play – so that should be awesome!

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Serious studying, some fun in Beijing

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.

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Week 2: Crash course in Chinese

I have my first week of class under my belt, and it feels pretty good. It moves incredibly quick, but we are going to come out of here having learned so much.

This first week was especially intense because I went through a remedial course for third-years. That only means that for the first week we went through a crash course of survival Mandarin that we would use in everyday life. In one week, I’ve probably completed a half a semester’s worth of work in a second-year Chinese class at most American universities. Let’s see how much of it I remember!

Next week we move on to content that is on par for a third-year Mandarin student. From the looks of it, the content won’t be as lengthy but certainly much more dense.

Real-world practice
Also, we already have gone through our first Friday, which is a feat in itself. On Fridays we have our weekly test over all of the content we have learned, and then we have to complete a language practicum. This means the teachers give us a set of questions, and we have to go out onto the streets of Beijing and start talking to people.

This week we had to go to a restaurant and ask a waitress or service attendant about their living conditions, family life and what was so special about their restaurant. I wasn’t that nervous, but more shocked at how friendly everyone was and how eager and curious they were to talk with us. My friend who took us across Beijing on the bus system (see first entry), who is also basically fluent in Chinese, said that it’s incredibly easy to make friends here. After that I definitely believe him.

After the language practicum, four to five students meet up with one teacher from ACC and go to lunch. It’s a great way to get to know the teachers as well as learn more about everyday Chinese life. Today we went to a Korean restaurant and had what’s called “Ban fan.” It’s basically a scorching hot bowl filled with rice, meat, vegetables and raw egg. You mix it all together and it cooks itself. It’s one of the most popular among ACC students, and kids tend to go there a lot.

Out and about
Friday was also fun because a bunch of us went over to the Silk Alley Market, which is Beijing’s biggest knockoff market and a good place to buy almost anything you can think of. There are six floors that have everything from black Tahitian Pearls that go for 150,000 yuan down to antique badges from the Soviet Union for 5 yuan. It’s a great place to practice Chinese since the vendors are not only well-versed in their native Mandarin but also English, Spanish and sometimes Russian or French.

We used the subway to get there and back for about 55 cents. Like everything else in Central Beijing, the subway cars were new, and they were in the process of installing automated ticket machines like those in any major U.S. city’s subway system. Right now, they have a team of people that take tickets. Imagine being that person during Beijing’s rush hour …

My host family
What was also a great part of this week was meeting our host families. Two students are paired with one Chinese family, and mine is pretty cool. They are a part of China’s burgeoning middle class, and they both hold interesting jobs. The wife is an instructor at an industrial university, and the husband is a financial adviser for a clearinghouse that manages Visa and Mastercard transactions in Mainland China.

They also have an 18-year-old son who is attending a local Beijing university. Living conditions for Chinese students in university dorms are extremely cramped, so it is no surprise that he chose to live at home versus on campus. They both have really nice cars, a newer Volkswagen and a brand-new Buick, and their apartment is really modern: it looks newly renovated and adorned with all the new high-end electronics.

We went to their house on a Sunday afternoon and made dumplings, a traditional Chinese dish. It was a huge and very good meal. And, as in the grand Chinese tradition, they were eager to keep filling our plates when we did not have any food on them, and drinks were always flowing.

I was surprised how easy conversation flowed. My listening skills have already improved immensely, and moments of awkward silence were kept to a minimum. I would say that I could comprehend about 75 percent of our talks. I hope that by August that will be 100 percent. We will be going back to their house on Chinese New Year for another big dinner. I also hope that Beijing will have a huge fireworks display. They did for the calendar new year, so we shall see.

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Greetings from Beijing

Ben-02.jpg 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.

Air China
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?

Goodbye, English
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.

Ben-01.jpgAnother 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 …

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