Friday, May 21, 2010

365 Days Later

I hit a major milestone today: 365 days ago I arrived in China (I'll call it my China-versary). It's been one year since I said "zai jian" (see you later) to America, boarded a plane, and headed overseas. And what a year it has been.

I've learned more and experienced more than some people do in their entire lives. Engulfed in a culture vastly different and foreign to my roots in Pennsylvania's Coal Region, I've established myself as an expat and not a tourist.

I came -- like so many explorers and travelers of old -- looking for adventure, something to break free from the mundane cycle I'd fallen into in the last four years at college (class, eat, drink, drink, sleep, repeat). I wanted to experience something great before finding a job and officially rising to that status of "adult". A two-month internship in China would provide two things: the chance to work at an international publication and give my resume a boost; and essentially a summer vacation in a country I'd always wanted to visit. Work and play at the same time, who could beat that?

And one year later, despite running into numerous challenges in terms of breaching the language barrier and feeling comfortable in Beijing, I still love this country. So, here's to year two!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

One if by Land, Two if by Shanghai

Having lived in Beijing for almost a year, and only visiting neighboring Tianjin and Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, I’ve grown accustomed to cities shorter in stature – those rich in history and culture but lacking the skyscrapers and other structural symbols of a modern age metropolis found in cities stateside.

A week before the World Expo 2010 I was sent to Shanghai on business – we’d be filming a video to promote the city for the world event -- and witnessed another side of China I’d yet to see.

For the video, we – a French and Japanese foreign expert, and three-person Chinese film crew, in addition to myself -- would be visiting various locations across the city. I would be acting as a host, introducing each structure, venue or tourist spot as the cameras rolled.

We spent the first morning of filming along the Bund area, later moving across the river to Pudong, Shanghai’s prosperous commercial and financial area. For this segment, we’d be filming in the Shanghai World Financial Center, the tallest building in China at almost 500 meters, or 1,640 feet. Our ears popped as we took the elevator to the observation platform on the 100th floor.

My face had started to hurt by late afternoon and I realized I’d been sunburned. The sun that day had been shrouded in a layer of smog – I’d felt the heat but didn’t realize my face was frying.

The second day of filming included a trip to Chenghuang Temple, a former place of worship now converted into a major tourist hub, and other smaller relics around the city. At each spot, large crowds of people encircled us with great interest. I told a Chinese couple that our French foreign expert was a famous French news reporter. They immediately pulled out their cameras and started taking pictures. The final shoot would be at Nanjing Road, a shopping area similar to Times Square with lots of large, illuminated signs and things to buy. Aside from all the Chinese people, I could have easily mistaken the area for New York City.

But the highlight of my trip wasn’t the bright lights of Shanghai’s entertainment scenes, looking out across the city from an observation platform on the tallest building in China, or even the short-lived fan base we enjoyed at each shooting location -- it was a photo I took while having lunch at Chenghuang Temple that so amazed me. Through a window, I could see winding bridges and ancient temple structures – remnants of Shanghai’s past -- while in the distance stood the Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center – two monoliths of the modern era.

Granted, the city has been spruced up for the Expo, but the combination of ancient Eastern culture with modern Western pizzazz was nonetheless impressive.

By the end of the trip, I was exhausted, but glad to have been given the opportunity to finally visit Shanghai. I’d originally planned to make the trip last September, but as luck would have it, I started working for Beijing Review instead. And had I gone last year, it would have been on my own yuan – this trip was paid for by my company.

THE EXPERTS: The foreign experts on the trip stand in front of the Bund area. The Bund sits along the Huangpu River and is home to various buildings of Western architecture

MR. POPULAR: A crowd gathers around our French foreign expert

SKY SPIRE: The iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong District

GUMBY?: The Shanghai World Expo mascot Haibao looks a lot like a certain green clay-mation character from the States

NIGHT SHOT: We record along one of the many entertain venues in Shanghai

OLD MEETS NEW: Tourists walk along the wooden paths at Chenghuang Temple. The Shanghai World Financial Center and other tall buildings of Pudong District can be seen in the background

REACH FOR THE SKY: The Shanghai World Financial Center rises to the heavens

RED FACE, BRIGHT LIGHTS: The Bund at night. Notice my abnormally red face, compliments of Shanghai's smog and sun

LUNCH BREAK: The film crew takes a break to enjoy a local snack, small steamed buns filled with meat and vegetables, at Chenghuang Temple

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meet the Parent, and Brother

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series about the Beijing Blogger’s mom and brother’s recent visit to China.

Six months, four weeks – roughly 210 days. That’s how long it had been since I’d given my mom a hug or high-fived my brother Michael. But after months of planning and waiting they arrived in Beijing for a ten-day tour of the Chinese capital in early April, with me as their tour guide.

While touring Tiananmen, traversing the Great Wall, and eating authentic Chinese cuisine had taken up the majority of their stay, I tried to weave in visits with my friends here in Beijing.

On the first weekend of their stay, I wanted to take my mom and brother to the perfect Peking duck restaurant. So I called my American friend Ken McManus, inviting him to join us.

Ken is a Beijing restaurant connoisseur. Be it Western or Chinese, he knows the best spots. But his expertise isn’t just limited to eating establishments – Ken has been a great mentor and friend, offering various tips along the way to make life in China more doable. Having lived in China for almost eight years himself, there’s very little he doesn’t know about the Asian country or Beijing in particular.

We all had a great time over dinner – Ken got to meet some of my family who I’d often talked about and my mom got to put a name to a face of someone I often mentioned when calling home. She later told me she was glad to know I had someone “to take care of me” should anything serious happen. But I like to think I’d be able to take care of myself, having lived here for almost a year.

I also wanted my mom to meet my former Chinese housemate, Vivian. Vivian was always ready to lend a hand in helping me practice my Chinese around the apartment, laughing at my funny pronunciations but encouraging me to keep trying. She also liked to cook, and would prepare tea and other Chinese remedies when I was sick during the winter. Although she was too busy to get dinner the week my mom visited, she went out of her way to stop by the hotel to say hello, bringing small gifts for my family.

As if visiting the Great Wall and numerous temples of old weren’t enough, my mom had to see one other landmark during her visit – the Beijing Review complex where I work. My colleagues had eagerly awaited my mom and brother’s visit.

Family is important in China, and meeting one of the foreigners’ family is a real treat for the Chinese. My bosses and colleagues asked about their trip so far, insisted that my brother and I must be twins (a remark I grew tired of by the end of their stay), and commented on what a nice co-worker I was. One of my bosses made green tea for my mom and brother, and even invited them out for lunch the next day, which we had to decline due to more sightseeing.

But of all the people my mom met, I think she was most impressed by the dinner at an authentic German restaurant [in Beijing] with my girlfriend Layla.

I knew the dinner would go over well – Layla is German born Chinese (her parents are both Chinese but she was born and raised in Germany) who speaks German, English, Mandarin and Cantonese fluently; my mom is a German teacher. And of course, they both noted how terrible my German speaking abilities are, despite having lived with a German teacher my whole life. But it was fun, and we got to have a great German meal, which Layla approved as authentic.

And having met all my friends, seen all the temples and ancient structures there were to see, and eaten as much rice and food boiled in oil that they could tolerate, my mom and brother’s trip came to an end.

It seemed like only yesterday I was saying goodbye to them at Newark Airport to take my journey back to China in September, and now here I was, bidding farewell. There were tears all around as we said goodbye.

As I made my way to the Beijing-bound train terminal I thought back to the day I picked them up at the airport. I had been eager to show them my home away from home, Beijing, and everything that made we want to stay here. In those 10 days, I’m sure I did just that because soon after arriving home my mom sent me an email telling me what an amazing time she and Mike had -- and she also mentioned things she wanted to see on China Trip 2011.

It had been one thing to tell them all about Beijing and China through emails and phone calls home, but to show my mom and brother firsthand was truly rewarding.

And having successfully hosted two family members, I can now work out any “technical difficulties” for my dad’s visit in July.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Eating in the East

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series about the Beijing Blogger’s mom and brother’s recent visit to China.

One thing I love about Beijing, aside from the history and culture, are the endless eating variety of restaurants and eateries. Along the main road near my apartment – a famous food street -- there are over 100 places to get a bite to eat. So when my mom and brother visited earlier in April, I had quite a few places picked out and limited time to show them Beijing’s dining scene.

Before my brother even got off the plane at Beijing International Airport he was sick. Plane food usually doesn’t sit well for anyone, but for Mike it was all but dancing around in his stomach causing him considerable distress. I had to rethink my dinner strategy since I was certain the line-up I’d arranged in the coming week would kill him, or at least make it an unpleasant experience for my mom and me.

Luckily, there was a small café that specialized in Western food a block from the hotel. So instead of going crazy on spicy Sichuan or sweet-tasting Yunnan delicacies, we kept it simple for a while with burgers, burgers and more burgers.
But once Mike’s stomach sickness passed, he was able to fully enjoy the foods of Beijing.

Throughout the week, we ate of various Chinese restaurants. It was nice to show my mom and brother what real Chinese food was like. Gone were General Tso’s chicken and pork-fried rice, replaced instead with gongpao jiding (kung pao chicken), mian tiao (noodles) and an assortment of dishes with funny names, funny smells but delicious tastes.

Chopsticks were new to my mom. I could tell she hadn’t practiced – bits of food fell out from between the two sticks on their way from the plate to my mom’s mouth. But not once did she ask for a fork or spoon.

No foreigner can say they’ve experienced Beijing’s food culture without dining at one of the hundreds of Peking roast duck restaurants. I chose one of the nicer ones, a restaurant that was true to the ancient technique of preparing the waterfowl.

As we entered the courtyard restaurant, we saw the ducks hanging inside a large stone oven, simmering slowly. After 45 minutes, our duck was done and we watched the cooks carve it up. Meat from the neck and back were placed on two plates, followed by the duck’s crispy skin. The head – brains, eyes and beak – was neatly cut in half and placed gently in front of us. My brother, still sick at the time, took one look and placed his head down on the table in gastronomic despair. We’d return to the restaurant later in the week when he was feeling better.

As much as I enjoy true Chinese food, my favorite variety comes not from the Mandarin dominated east, but the western regions of China –Xinjiang. So to spice things up, I took them to my favorite restaurant in the city, Xinjiang Muslim Restaurant, for fiery kebabs, special bread and other salty dishes. But what really draws me back to are the performers – Uyghur (the indigenous people of Xinjiang) drummers and guitarists playing ethnic tunes and even covers of Frank Sinatra, and beautiful belly-dancing women clad in skimpy outfits with the occasional snake around their neck.

During our visit, the belly dancer with the snake picked us, the only white people in the crowd, for audience participation. I had turned my back to the stage for only a second when I felt pressure on my shoulders and knew instantly what was around my neck. I remained calm but my mind repeated the thought “There’s a snake on my neck” over and over while my mom and brother, both wide-eyed, raced for their cameras.

When planning out of dinner evenings, I’d feared we’d inevitably end up in McDonald’s or KFC. But I was proud of my mom and brother’s tolerance of Chinese food and we were able to avoid the golden arches and colonel’s enclave all together. And while my mom’s chopstick abilities were below par, I’m sure she’ll practice and reach pro status by the next time she visits.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tour guide to the Taylors

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series about the Beijing Blogger’s mom and brother’s recent visit to China.

I stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square as I had so many times before last summer. It had been months since I’d visited the public square. Having settled into my zhongguo shenghuo (life in China) I’ve cut back on the sightseeing.

But this time I wasn’t alone– my mom and brother were with me, taking pictures of every building, person and structure. It reminded me of myself last summer – always photography everything, less I forget.

My mom, Mary Ruth, and brother, Michael, arrived in Beijing April 1 and spent the next 10 days – their Spring Break vacation-- seeing the sights of Beijing, and, more importantly, visiting me. My dad would be visiting over the summer, currently preoccupied with an annual fundraising event back home.

It had been roughly seven months since I’d seen them in person and I was anxious to show them Beijing and all the excitement associated with the Chinese capital.

The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace and, of course, the Great Wall were atop our agenda of sights to see. The weather was less than cooperative during our touring – cool when we wore light jackets and warm when we bundled up – but at least there were no sandstorms common this time of year in Beijing.

While my mom was impressed with most of the sights, constantly stopping to take pictures of my brother and me in front of just about every building and monument, I couldn’t quite gauge my brother’s reaction to Beijing. Perhaps he didn’t realize the historical significance of Tiananmen Square or admire the grandeur of the Forbidden City as I had during my first visits. Mike’s not into history the way I am. But, without a doubt, I could tell he was awestruck by the Great Wall.

Having seen photos of my Great Wall adventure last summer – and taking special note of the treacherous terrain and damaged, ill-maintained wall – my mom requested we visit a different, tamer section. Mutianyu, a more “foreign friendly” and safe part of the wall, was more suitable.

As we approached the wall in the car we’d hired for the day, their cameras shot out. The Great Wall was barely visible on the mountaintops covered in a thick smoggy mist, yet they took photo after photo as I had when I first caught glance of the ancient wall during my July 2009 trip.

Mutianyu was split into two sections – a westward winding uphill path that led to a peak tower great for photos, and a calmer, gently rolling eastward path to a chairlift to the mountain’s base. Mike and I scaled the heights to the peak tower before meeting our mom and making the 1.4-mile walk to the section’s exit.

After we’d seen all the major sights, I decided it was time to introduce mom and Mike to Beijing’s bootleg shopping scene – the Silk Market. Earlier in the week, I took my brother to a local tailor to have a suit made, since I’d promised but failed to get him a fake Armani suit last summer. Having had a suit made for myself last fall, I decided a suit tailored for a Taylor was more appropriate. The price wasn’t bad either – 700 kuai (about $100).

Even so, Mike wanted to pick up a few other things – shoes, slacks and shirts to name a few.

He especially liked bargaining and the comments from the market vendors (“Hey sexy man, you want shirt? Jeans?”). After giving him a few bargaining pointers I set him free. While a bit slow, he eventually caught on and successfully bargained the price for two pairs of shoes down from 4500 kuai ($642) to about 350 ($50). He had the biggest grin on his face when the vendor agreed to his final price. He had played the bargaining game and won a really cool prize.

Mom wasn’t too keen on the bargaining process. “It’s too stressful. I’d rather just pay a set price,” she complained.

“You can pay set prices back home. This is why China is fun,” I said.

A few times I had to slap the calculator used during price negotiations out of my mom’s hands because her offer was close in price to what the vendors were asking. She, too, learned quickly.

Showing my mom and brother around brought back the excitement I’d felt during my first few months in China. I still enjoy living in Beijing, but I’ve grown so used to certain aspects of China that they all seem to mundane now. The visit from my mom and Mike renewed that joy, and brought the warm feelings I’ve always felt from being around my family.