Saturday, March 19, 2011

Love Beijing, Love Beijing Not

Three weeks of vacationing in Tamaqua after an 18-month work stint in Beijing allowed me to get back into an American swing of things. It also had me missing certain aspects of life in Beijing and made me realize there were just some things I could live without, no matter what continent I’m on.

Public Transportation
My commute to work in the morning is made easy by Beijing’s public transportation network. After leaving my apartment, I walk about a half football field’s distance before arriving at my nearest subway entrance, take the train for 15 minutes, then jump on a bus which drops me off right in front of my office. In all, it takes about 40 minutes, most of which is spent waiting for the train or bus. A one-way subway ticket costs about $0.30; bus fares are $0.15.

Nothing beats naming your own price. When shopping in Beijing’s many street markets, where knock-off products are aplenty, you can basically do just that, but not without a fight. The basic assumption among local vendors is that all foreigners are “rich.” As such, they’ll do anything and everything they can to squeeze as much money out of you as possible. Prices are usually inflated 500-700% of what they are worth, so verbally arguing about the cost and quality or showing a sudden disinterest can usually get the price bargained down to something more reasonable.

Tailor-made Clothes
I’ve never been a big fan of clothes shopping. The crowds, lack of desired sizes and time commitment has always been a deterrent to venturing to any mall. The same is true in China, except here those three factors are compounded by the fact that my Mandarin is far below par.

My solution: have most of my clothes tailor made. Tailors are numerous in Beijing, so I can have dress shirts made for the perfect fit at the perfect price, about $14. Tailor-made suits cost around $90, depending on the fabric.


Many a time I’ve been walking along the streets of Beijing admiring the buildings, people watching and enjoying the weather only to have the moment shattered by a loud ackkkk-tooof as someone gurgles up something from their throat and hawks it to the ground. Yes, I’ve almost been spit on.

Apparently, it’s very therapeutic and good for your health, but it’s also downright disgusting.

Cranky Cab Drivers
I won’t go as far as calling Beijing cab drivers racist, but from time to time they definitely discriminate against foreigners. Too often, open cabs have driven right past me or friends only to stop a few yards away to pick up Chinese passengers. I’ve actually run up to taxis in the process of dropping passengers off and had the driver wave his hand, give me the stink face and then drive down the street to pick up other non-foreign passengers.

From time to time, cab drivers will tell me to get out of their cab after I tell them my desired destination because traffic in that area will be too heavy or they simply don’t want to go to that part of town.

Rush Hour Traffic
Growing up in the calm hills of northeast Pennsylvania, I was never able to experience the chaotic-yet-comfortable big city life. Now I get to feel it every day. The only downside is that come rush hour all 13 million Beijing residents seem to be going exactly where I want to go, which delays me anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour.

I’ve spent the better part of two years standing while taking the subway in the morning to work, although I’ve started coming in later to avoid the morning rush. And buses feel more like sardine cans on wheels with people smooshed up against the large glass windows.

The air quality in Beijing at times can be a major pain, especially for someone with allergies as annoying as mine. In the two years of living in Beijing, there have been a noticeable number of days where I’ve just stayed indoors because the sky was an apocalyptic-looking red, brown or gray or I couldn’t see the buildings across the street from my apartment.

While back in the States, the cough I’d developed in Beijing, which I had just assumed was due to poor health and the frigid winters, vanished. I’m back in Beijing, and, after a few days of murky skies when I got back in mid-February, so is the cough. But since the alternative to solving this problem is to go back home or live in a bubble, I’ll just grin, bear it and keep on wheezing.

Blocked Internet

I’m up in the air about not having unlimited access to the Internet. Most American social networking sites – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like – are blocked for a variety of political reasons I won’t get into.

But as inconvenient as it’s been, I feel like I have much more control over my life. Not being able to check Facebook, without the use of certain Great-Firewall-of-China- bypassing software, means I don’t spend hours on end checking up on friends’ profiles. And the friends that really matter have made it a point to keep in touch with me through this old thing called e-mail.

I will say that I miss YouTube, because watching Charlie bite fingers or anesthesia-induced David after the dentist never gets old.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Last Snow of the Season

While I've already put my heavy winter jacket away for the year, I'm putting up some pics from the last snow of the season. Just when temperatures appeared to be on the rise when I got back to Beijing a cold front moved in and the government shot its iodine rockets to seed the clouds to make it rain/snow/precipitate to alleviate the drought conditions in Beijing. I took my new Canon 500D out for a spin to test it out in the wintery conditions and snap a few shots -- proof that it actually snowed in Beijing this year.

I spent the afternoon walking around Hou Hai, the lake area just north of the Forbidden City, taking pictures and enjoying the snow. It may not have been the snowstorms that I witnessed while visiting home, but it was still nice to walk around in it and not have to worry about shoveling later.

SNOW WRITER: Just like in America, they write in the snow. Possible translation: Clean me!

LONG LINE: Taking a ride in a rickshaw through the hutong near Hou Hai is always fun. In the cold weather... maybe not so much

STONE COLD: A few stone statues at one of the bars

SNOW FUN: Finally, someone used the snow wisely and made a snowman. The few times that it's snowed, I haven't seen enough of these guys around the city

SHENGDAN LAOREN: Santa with Chinese characteristics

WHITE LAKE: Snow covered Hou Hai and the the drum and bell tower in the background

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Smog On, Smog Off

I knew I was back in Beijing, after a few weeks of much needed vacationing at home, not by the number of Chinese people around me or the Chinese characters on every sign but by the thick cloud of smog hovering in the air.

“Welcome back Brandon,” I thought to myself. The depressing haze made me want to jump on the first plane bound State-side for another few weeks of vacation and blue skies.

Pollution is a serious problem in Beijing, but when you have millions of cars jamming the streets, what can you expect?

The day after I returned to China, the pollution level in the capital city went “beyond measurable pollution levels,” according the U.S. embassy which tracks these levels daily. Chinese officials warned people, especially the elderly, to stay indoors. I wanted to do the same, but, alas, three weeks of vacation meant I would be missed at work.

Luckily, most of my commute to work was underground – a subway took me across the city where I caught a bus to the Beijing Review compound. The time spent aboveground was depressing with visibility limited to a few hundred yards, the sky a disgusting brownish orange. People covered their mouths and nostrils with medical masks, scarves, newspapers or whatever they could get their hands on. You would have thought SARS or swine flu had broken out again.

As far as health risks go, the smog hasn’t been directly related to any deaths (that I know of or was able to find in online research), although I’m sure long-term exposure can result in a variety of ailments. When I was home from January to February the cough I’d developed while living in Beijing -- which I just assumed was because of my weak immune system, allergies or inability to adapt to city life -- vanished. Two days after returning to Beijing, that cough was back along with acute pains in my chest. It must be my foreign lungs, since most of my Chinese colleagues and friends seem immune to the pollution, or are much better at faking health.

These smoggy skies are the most depressing and annoying part about living in Beijing. At times it feels like living through the apocalypse, sans mushroom clouds and radioactive wastelands. I’m 24 and when the sky is brown I get short-winded walking up six flights of stairs to my apartment. That’s not because I’m overweight or out of shape -- I actually live a relatively healthy lifestyle due to a lack of fried foods, donuts and other delicacies of the Coal Region -- it’s because of the air. So maybe I’ll need another vacation, this time to an island in the south Pacific, sooner than I expected.