Alright, I gotta get around to writing this up! Sarah and I went to Beijing for a week, from the 21st to the 28th, so we could enjoy the beginning of the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) with Sarah’s friend from Beijing, Ye. Ye had gone to America a few years back and became good friends with Sarah, staying with her family for a time.
Having just finished our time in Liuzhou New Standard and with nothing to do but hang around Ken’s empty apartment waiting for news on our situation, we were both definitely up for seeing Ye at her family’s new house for the new year. And I do mean new house — the day we arrived was the whole family’s first day in that house. Here it’s a pretty big deal for everything to be new at the new year. When I say “house” I mean it in the Chinese sense where a house is just an apartment, but it is a really nice one, in the less-populated fifth ring of Beijing, so their equivalent of suburbs.
Ye and her whole family are very welcoming people, and just seemed tickled pink at having us with them — especially when one of us (Sarah) had housed Ye for a while and, as Ye’s father mentioned to everyone during the numerous extended-family dinners, had personally driven seven hours to bring Ye to her home. Ye’s really sharp and quite mischevious; when teaching us how to play mahjong she agreed not to use money since we were new, but within a couple games she was trying to find a way to add a “punishment” for the loser, eventually settling on making the loser drink a certain number of swallows of water so they would have to go pee. And of course when she lost she had a sly line of logic as to why it didn’t apply to her. A true battle of wits! I have to say it was pretty refreshing, since while I dearly love all the Chinese friends I had made at New Standard, I think sometimes they were treating us delicately or felt obligated not to show their real personality because we were the foreign co-workers they had to treat nicely. She was also adamant about us learning some Chinese while we were there, and not just in the half-hearted sense we had often seen here, where people were so pleasantly shocked that we knew any Chinese that they felt we didn’t need to practice anything. Ye made sure that every night we had little study sessions where she’d answer our questions and learn about some English terms, and make us actually speak Chinese at the dinner table to get some food. When in China it becomes easy to find a point in the language where it’s comfortable enough to survive by saying things like “Wo yao zhege, duoshao qian?” (“I want this, how much is it?”) but not progressing beyond it. Having motivation to move past that is very helpful.
Compared to Guangxi which almost never goes below freezing, Beijing is freakishly cold. I found myself having to wear three layers of shirts, two hoodies, my winter coat, and two pairs of pants just to feel comfortable sightseeing outside for an extended period of time. But because northern China actually gets really cold, they actually know how to deal with the cold. The jackets you see people wear in Beijing actually look like they could stand up to the weather, unlike the weird meat-colored puffy coats in Liuzhou that can’t hold in any heat. And Ye’s home is so warm, it actually felt like home back in America. Even the floor was heated! In our Liuzhou apartment, we got heat through an ineffective AC unit that only felt warm if you were directly in its line of fire, because none of the buildings had insulation.
If there’s one rule you must always remember when being served a meal in China (besides not sticking your chopsticks vertically in the bowl of rice, of course), it’s to not finish everything. If you go into a Chinese meal with the attitude of “well I don’t want to waste food they’re providing me or imply that I didn’t like all of it,” just remember that they’re going into it with the mindset of “if they finished it, I’d better dish out some more to be a good host, or if there’s no more, I’d better go make some more.” As much as Ye’s family urged us to make ourselves at home, that was one difference I always had to be aware of. But in the end we did make ourselves at home, and it was nice to see the contrast between formal big feasts like on New Year’s Day (with everything under the sun), and the more casual everyday meals (breakfast was often a bowl of soymilk with some fried mantou, or steamed buns). Home cooking isn’t a thing for me here; restaurants or street vendors are more than affordable, and the only other cases were big “second dinners” organized by our old boss in an attempt to make us better workers.
The New Year has some interesting traditions I didn’t know about, which might be of interest to those of you back home. When we were there, Ye’s family had a jar of garlic cloves soaked in vinegar. Apparently you can’t eat the garlic before New Year’s, but you can enjoy the garlic-flavored vinegar on your dumplings. There’s no house-cleaning done on the first day, because if you do something on the first day you’ll end up doing it every day of the year.
And the fireworks… oh the fireworks. I was not ready for them. Back home, fireworks are a show that you see at a park with a scheduled beginning and applause at the end. Or maybe they’re firecrackers and smaller fireworks on a street. In China, fireworks are all about getting the biggest ones you can find and setting them off between apartment buildings or shooting them off your balcony. There’s no particular beginning or end, continuing days and days into the new year. In terms of sheer volume nothing can compare to China’s fireworks.
While there in Beijing, we went to the Forbidden City; I’m pretty sure it’s forbidden to go to Beijing and not visit it at least once. It’s nice and big and beautiful, but I will admit that, not having studied much Chinese history, I was lost regarding a lot of the cultural context. Sarah and I ended up amusing ourselves greatly by watching all the other tourists, a sort of meta-tourism if you will. There’s a thing in particular about tourism in China. You know the sort of tourists who take pictures of themselves with important landmarks behind them just to check it off their proverbial list? From what we can tell, Chinese tourists are like that but turned up to 11. We saw it when we visited Guilin and Yangshuo with Wendy and Crystal, with us having to take pictures in front of every decorative rock in the city, in every permutation. And I saw it again when picking oranges in the countryside with some of the Chinese teachers; it was basically a non-stop photoshoot of ourselves in front of orange trees. There were so few pictures taken of the Forbidden City, more like pictures taken of people who happened to have a Forbidden City background… and when it can be managed, those pictures include foreigners. On three separate occasions, we saw people with cameras taking pictures of their friends or family, angling it in such a way that we waiguoren were also in the shot. At one point Sarah and I were leaning against a wall talking when a Chinese woman planted herself between us, had her boyfriend take a picture, then ran off with a thousand thank-yous on her lips. I will never fully understand the foreigner-fascination this country can have.
We also visited the Capital Museum. Quite fascinating, and of course had a lot of materials and resources, being in the capital. There was an exhibit of objects and costumes from historical Peking Opera, as well as a live performance of the art (though I admit the falsetto voices are not quite my thing). Another exhibit featured a history of the city of Beijing itself through the ages, from prehistoric times through all the dynasties up to… well, not quite the present. The exhibit concluded with the founding of the PRC, showing the actual microphone used by Mao to announce its founding. Were one to go by only the museum, nothing at all has happened in China since 1950. I suspect it’s difficult to focus on anything recent as you never know what will be politically safe or not.
The museum also had an exhibit featuring all the traditional arts of China (calligraphy, porcelin, etc etc), which had some truly impressive pieces. I wish I had had a better camera to capture them. There was something strange, though. Some of the labels were in English, but Sarah and I both noticed that, rather than focusing on historical context for the pieces or details on techniques used, the labels heavily and blatantly talked about how beautiful and amazing the pieces are, as if we could not see for ourselves. I’m not sure if this comes from an attempt at propaganda in the capital city, or if it’s a common feature in museums here, but it felt more like I was reading an auctioneer’s appraisal instead of a museum’s informational material. I’ll have to figure out more about that sort of thing.
Anyway, it was an awesome trip, and right now we’re back in Nanning waiting for information about our future. Time for some more Chinese study.