Thursday, April 26, 2007

Beijingin' Around

Beijing is to Shanghai as Chicago is to New York: both are fabulous, but one is less international than the other. What is lost in local scope is made up for in local charm. In Beijing's case, this is an increase in the number of street vendors, rickshaws and, well, pollution.

As much as I love Shanghai, Beijing is distinctly more "Chinese." I only was able to stay for four days last weekend, but in that nibble of time, I saw a robust local music and art scene, saluted more red flags (hey, don't judge), heard the thick regional accent (try adding an "r" sound at the end of every other vowel) and was bombarded by a blitzkrieg of Beijing 2008 Olympics merch and countdowns.

The rumors are true - there are ads everywhere instructing locals to be polite. The pollution is heinous (think skin breakouts, yellow water and crowds EVERYWHERE). Beijing people seem much taller than their Southern counterparts and there are loads of people trying to scam the waiguoren (foreigners). There was blatant racism at times (against a Chinese friend of mine...don't really know what the motive is behind that) and Mao's portrait still watches over the city.

In spite of all this, I fell in love. We wandered through alleyways and found a bizarre Muslim-Chinese fusion restaurant, complete with belly dancers and old men jamming the night away. The tiled roofs and symmetrical communist buildings side-by-side charm and amaze. Our hostel had a shrine on the first floor and enough local color to be blinding.

If you make it to Beijing, the Forbidden City is worth seeing, but the Summer Palace is what really entranced me. Tienanmen Square is a must. Don't miss out on Peking duck or Beijing Opera, they're both famous for a reason.

This weekend and next week = Golden Week (a.k.a Spring Break!) I'm off to Sichuan and Hainin...details to follow.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

There's this wall...maybe you've heard of it...

This handful of snapshots don't capture've really got climb around it to understand the scope of it. Days later and I'm still speechless.

It's the world longest manmade structure, so I only got to see a part of it outside of Beijing. Almost as notable as the wall itself is the Engrish on the signs around it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lines (or lack thereof)

Among other revelations during this last weekend at Huangshan, the fact that lines don't exist in China really solidified.

When you wait anywhere, the checkout at Carrefour, to enter the subway (you don't wait for others to exit first), to use the ATM, or, in line for a gondola ride at Huangshan Mountain, the idea of patiently lining up single-file is ludicrous. Some would find this rude, but in a country of 1.3 billion, I understand why some efforts to organize become absurd. Also with that many people, the instinct to try and survive on your own runs rampant. The problem is so bad that the government, at least in Beijing, is starting to intervene.

The photos (COMING SOON, or check snapshots here!) above are from what ultimately turned out to be a 5.5 hour wait for a gondola ride to the midway point at Huangshan Mountain. Yes, a gondola ride, not a national-border or for UN rations. This man nearly pummeled a 10-year-old to cut in line (he was scolded promptly thereafter in Mandarin by a member of our party). I have a bruise on my rib cage from an old man elbowing me. People made fun of us yelled "Go, home!" As the ones not doing the shoving were quite confused...

The wait was caused by a corrupt tour guide and a bunch of us ended up hopping the fence at 12:30 to hike up the peak on our own. The apathetic cops didn't seem to care about us, or anything for that matter.

Although Huangshan (of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame) is beautiful, the line and related violence were inexcusable. I've been to punk shows with more polite crowds. Ultimately, everything worked out, but until I go back to the states, I'm finding myself more aggressive with my shoulders.

This weekend's adventure: Beijing!

Monday, April 09, 2007


One of my favorite aspects of Chinese culture is how spitting is completely acceptable. I saw this sign in the metro station near People's Square, but it comically doesn't deter anyone. Spitting here is:
1) loud
2) hearty
3) takes place in
b)the street
c)in homes
e)at schools
f)anywhere else there's ground or a remotely flat surface
4)a daily occurrence

In general, the louder the better, and I haven't stepped in any yet, nor reached the point of analyzing the tangible outcomes of the spittage...

And FYI, the slurping rumors are true. There's an amazing noodle place around the corner and it's literally hard to hear things over all the yummy noises.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Another chapter of China unfolds...

Today a group of NYU students and I hopped into our bus to work at an orphanage. Our work at the migrant worker school has been successful thus far, and highly satisfying. We anticipated a similar setup: kids, us, playing, teaching, helping out wherever we could.

About 10 minutes into our ride, we pick up these Chinese people who were not familiar faces. It soon became clear that they were our "guides" for the afternoon. They handed us very professional folders with PR releases that rivaled some of the top firms in NYC in terms of quality and detailed the region we were working in. A detailed schedule for the afternoon and background info on the schools was enclosed. Glossy literature showed the future of the neighborhood and the neighborhood itself was pretty typical of Shanghai: developing.

Our first stop was at a community center for adults with mental disabilities. Before we entered the building, our entourage of 3 or 4 Chinese guides was met by a small paparazzi of volunteers at the center, who snapped photos incessantly. Another small van full of outsiders pulled up, these ones being representatives from the Shanghai International Airport. It is still unclear to me why they were along for the seemed corporate in nature And yes, by this point, we realized that we were on a tour rather than volunteering.

At the center, a dozen or so "children" ranging in age from 20-50 or so(perhaps this was lost in translation) sat in orderly rows working on bead work. The staff there quickly ushered us NYUers and the Airport posse to the front, where more photos were taken and we were presented with a song by the group. It was clear that it had been rehearsed a lot and this wasn't their first time singing it. We were presented with small beaded gifts and again, more photos were taken. Five more minutes were spent showing us drawings stapled on the walls and more beaded work completed by the adults there. We were promptly escorted out and onto the shuttle for our next stop, the elementary school for the disabled.

During the ride over, everyone had their suspicions about how prepared everything seemed. I personally have heard horror stories about how the mentally handicapped are completely shunned by the Chinese government and ostracized from public life. Why was everything suddenly sunshine and flowers? Was I being too cynical?

At the school, a digital reader board read out in Chinese characters a greeting to "American friends." We entered to the school yard and rather than observing their normal recess, it paralleled the adult community center in that we were the stars of the show rather than the children. Music played overhead and the kids, none of whom seemed severely disabled, quickly dispersed into organized games. This happens at the migrant school, but some of the teachers at the school seemed taken aback when some of the NYU kids and I tried to participate in games with the kids. While helping a little boy who was struggling with jumping rope, a teacher swooped by and took the boy away and placed a jump rope diva in his place. The boy wasn't frustrated or anything, just working on his motor skills...I was rather perplexed.

The organized games continued and then the children performed a very orchestrated show, reminiscent of something you'd see in an Olympic opening ceremony. They had Shaolin uniforms, hula hoops, pom poms, the works. It was extremely clear that they knew the routine inside and out and were used to performing for outsiders. Again, the photo parade continued.

As soon as the show ended, the same kids were whisked into a classroom where they worked on crafts. Pre-colored drawings and beadwork sat on desks like cars in a showroom and they were prompted to say things to us as we walked by. We were on a parade route that didn't include most of the school and the halls were eerily quiet, especially considering that a third of the student body (which raises the question of where the rest of the kids were) just returned from recess on a beautiful spring day. The show went on.

Through a sunny corridor, we and the our tumorous posse (we kept accumulating administrators, teachers, translators, photographers, etc.) lead us to a large conference room, complete with an executive board table, fresh fruit, bottled water, brochures and high-backed chairs. I've worked in a lot of schools before, but I've never seen an entire large room set aside for guests quite like this. The headmaster picked up a microphone and a typed script and began to lead us through an elaborate Power Point presentation about how great the staff was rather than the progress that the students were making. Native Chinese speakers commented on how "cheesy" her Chinese was, full of flowery language.

The Power Point featured a video reenactment of a disabled boy who mistakenly ate dirt. His teachers, in a saintly fashion shoved their hands up his throat to get it out. The translation roughly mentioned how "the teachers hands were bloody, but it was well worth the sacrifice." (Sacrifice on behalf of the teachers was a repeated theme.) The reenactment shook up all of the Americans and we didn't know whether to attribute our discomfort to cultural miscommunication or shock at how the facility functions.

The presentation continued to highlight who the children performed for and famous locals who visited the school (not the children). The pictures of notable visitors on the playground were almost identical to the ones taken of us only a few minutes earlier. We were presented with gifts and no children were to be seen. We brought cookies to give to them, but were never given the opportunity to interact with them, creating some awkwardness at the end. After more photos, we left for class and noticed that all of students were gone. The outside, which I would imagine to be full of afternoon excitement at the schoolday's end, was void of children or parents.

I don't know what to make of it all and those brief couple of hours this afternoon keep running through my head. It's very easy to step in as a product of Western public education and say that the way they do things here is wrong and backwards, but I don't know if it's that simple. Why do tours like these exist? The school was run by the local communist party, who is notorious for not letting foreigners (or even Chinese citizens) into orphanages, so why the sudden campaign to Westerners about how great they treat the disabled? Is all of my mental frazzle just due to huge cultural clash? What is it about this experience that seems so strange? Similar stories exist with Chinese factories...has this perception of China become a PR pit stop? What is the truth behind this school?

I'm soooo confused.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


This weekend, I made my first excursion out of China to the "small town" (over 6 million people) of Hangzhou. My all-too-brief visit consisted of a loooong bus ride, boating on West Lake where bats flew overhead like seagulls would at the Pacific Ocean, eating yummy duck, a ridiculous club and an early morning hike around Lingyin Temple. Overall, breathtaking. I'll let the pictures do the talking...xianshang! (That's Chinese for "enjoy"...yeah! I'm learning!)

P.S.-- On the way there, I saw this awesome nuclear power plant. And although it's unclear in the photo, there's a stream directly on the left and a housing complex 100 meters or so on the right.

Calling all Buddhists

Six weeks into my China trip and over 100 miles from Shanghai, I snap this cliche National Geographic shot while hastily dangling my camera out of a moving cab window. Behold! A monk on a cell phone! The East vs. West! Old vs. New! Tradition vs. techonology!