Learning Chinese in China feels a little like constantly unlocking previously inaccessible doors and entering new rooms that lead us deeper into a cultural labyrinth. Each day, we feel a little less stupid — we can understand more of what’s being said around us, we can piece together a food order or taxi directions, we can respond to questions our teachers ask us without going slack-jawed with panic. This gives us new access to life here; as we learn more, we see Beijing a little differently. That means this city feels like it changes a bit every day, often in fairly revealing ways. For instance, we realized even native speakers are lost when they look at menus here — they’re usually as puzzled by Chinese descriptions as we are by the Chinglish translations (what, exactly, is fried hairtail?). Your waiter hovers over you while you look at the menu because you’re supposed to have questions, and they’re supposed to answer them.
This stands in contrast with my experience with learning Spanish — that was more like an academic pursuit, and I treated my semester in Argentina as a means to solidify my skills. Learning Chinese like this has shown us how language is inextricably linked to culture and society — language really frames everyday life in a way that’s hard to think about when you’re operating in your native tongue. Beijing’s rhythm and feel comes, in large part, from the way people talk to each other.
As a bonus, learning THIS language is doubly rewarding: In addition to spoken Chinese, we’re learning a whole new alphabet, or, more accurately, system of writing, for written Chinese is actually a series of glyphs. Signs are slowly becoming less cryptic — we still can’t understand those things, but we can usually pick out a character or two, and we’re beginning to understand how written Chinese is organized.
Though reading seemed like a necessity, I didn’t have a lot of interest in learning to write Chinese before I came here. But today, one of my Chinese teachers did a calligraphy lesson with me, and I gained a new perspective on these little works of art. See, each character corresponds with one syllable, and often, one character represents a whole word. Some characters look like the words they represent. Mouth, for instance, looks like this: 囗 Not impossible to imagine that’s a mouth, right? Right. Others have little connection. This is the character for good or well: 好 The bits of that character break down into woman and child. A tenuous connection at best.
Anyway, when you see those characters printed in some blocky font, or even scribbled with a pen, they don’t seem all that special. Or at least, they didn’t seem all that special to me — more like a means to an end. Once I can decipher these characters, I’ll be able to figure out what the heck that sign says, I thought. But calligraphy really beautifies those suckers, and I suddenly had an intense appreciation for the characters themselves. This writing system was standardized more than 2,000 years ago, and its roots probably go back three millenia. Sure, it’s evolved a bit since then — in an effort to improve literacy and make the script easier to understand, for instance, mainland China simplified the glyphs in the 20th century, so characters are stripped down from their traditional forms (Taiwan still uses traditional characters).
I learned to write my Chinese name today, which is Shàng yi lán (尚伊兰). Shàng is a transliteration of my last name. My teacher says yi means “pretty girl,” but my dictionary translates it as a formal pronoun for “she.” Lán means lily magnolia, but really, this is a house plant we know as a spider plant. My teacher says it’s one of four symbolic plants in China; it represents a person who always does nice things. Nice AND pretty! It’s like I paid her!
I also learned to write mín yǐ shí wéi tiān 民以食为天, which is a saying that loosely translates to “food is the most important thing in the world.” Yes. Yes it is.
Here’s a photo of my handiwork, my teacher, and her handiwork. Her (much more beautiful) banner has the characters of those four aforementioned plants (plum blossom, magnolia lily, bamboo, and chrysanthemum). She gave it to me as a gift because she is the nicest.
As mentioned previously, Rob loves the bus. And so we take the bus to most of the places we go to in Beijing. But the apartment we’re currently subletting also comes with a bicycle and e-scooter (basically a low-speed electric motorcycle) — and so we thought maybe we’d scoot around town, too, especially when we’re running too late for the bus (which, you’re probably not surprised, is frequently).
The first time we scooted across a couple of avenues, it felt really daring — wind in our hair, we zipped past bicycles and weaved in and out of traffic until we jauntily dismounted at our destination.
But then we took the bike to school this morning and realized we might have been in awe of the novelty more than anything. We’re not small people, you see, and when we both sit on this wee e-scooter, we practically crush its shocks into the ground. And then we give it a bit of gas, and it whines its way up to full speed, which is approximately 22 kph (13.67 mph). I like to imagine it weeping under our full body weight. I also like to imagine that we look like a couple of circus bears sharing a unicycle, a sentiment that was confirmed by the dude on a shiny blue scooter giving us the unabashed amused yet judgmental stare when we paused at a light.
Anyway, to add insult to injury in all of this, this morning we were passed by a fat man with a sweaty crotch. He was riding a bicycle.
Here’s a video of our friend Nick passing us on his bike:
So, we went to Inner Mongolia. Or as the Chinese people call it, Nei Mongol (many of them also call it Zhongguo Mongol, or China’s Mongolia).
This seems like a bold move, leaving Beijing this early in our adventure, especially considering we haven’t even been to, oh, the Great Wall yet. But we were invited by the Beijing Farmers’ Market to visit some herders, which sounded awesome, and so early one morning last week, we found ourselves crammed into a seven person van with nine people for a six-hour voyage to Xilinhot, where we’d spend the night and then continue on from to smaller towns up near the Mongolian border.
Yes, you could also fly or take the train to Xilinhot, but planes, apparently, are frequently delayed in China, and the train to this part of Inner Mongolia is, apparently, a slow train (at least that’s what we gathered — we thought we spied a bullet train station and tracks, though, so possibly we misunderstood). Driving was cool, though, because not only did we see the sweet freeway China built three years ago, we got to follow the Great Wall for a bit, which historically separated China from Mongolia (and was supposed to keep the Mongols out — it didn’t work).
As Hebei (the province to the north of Beijing) gave way to Inner Mongolia, we were struck by how much the geography looked like northern Nebraska or southern South Dakota — rolling hills covered with shrubbery, basically. Deeper into Inner Mongolia, the landscape looked a lot more like North Dakota — flat, grassy, vast. Inner Mongolia, or at least this part of Inner Mongolia, is located on a steppe, which is essentially a vast plateau. It’s high and dry, and the area we were in was also rich in salt flats (remember that detail — Imma talk about it again in a minute).
In Xilinhot, we stayed at a hotel that included a very nice feature: you could watch your roommate sitting on the toilet through the shower, if you wanted. Because we’re D-U-M dumb, it took us way longer than it should have to realize we could pull a curtain down and create more privacy.
Xilinhot is a growing city, and we spent some time wandering around a new mall, where we bought essentials: instant coffee and Great Wall wine (made in China!). Buying that wine is also how we learned that everywhere in China is BYO — and later in the trip, we learned that you can carry your beer out on to the street after dinner. High five.
We headed to the Beizi temple, which, one of our hosts told us, is one of the four largest in Inner Mongolia. Below the temple, the entire town seemed to be gathered for a night out at the park — kids were driving these light-up go-karts around, and some roller bladers were cruising backwards down a long line of steps at a horrifying speed (“I can do that,” says Rob). There were also a disconcerting number of swallows hovering in the air above us. Never quite figured that out. We were rolling deep in Americans — four of us to our five Chinese traveling companions — and we made for a bit of a spectacle, especially after our friend Council engaged in a conversation with a woman and her dog in fluent Chinese. This drew a crowd of incredulous onlookers. We also took a lot of photos with kids — not sure westerners are so common in Xilinhot.
Anyway, the highlight of the temple was to climb the stairs to the shrine covered in prayer shawls, which we did at sunset.
Xilinhot also gave us our first taste of Mongolian cuisine, which comprises a lot of meat (mostly mutton, goat, and beef…and innards) and dairy (yogurt, very hard cheese, milk tea, and camel cheese…more on that in a second). Our first taste of Inner Mongolian yogurt was an excellent one; it was tart, sweet, and thick. Could Inner Mongolian yogurt be the next Greek yogurt? Probably not, but more for infrastructure reasons than anything else — more on that, too, in a hot sec.
Day two, we cruised up north to a small village called Ejin Noor, where we spent most of the rest of our time. A rancher gave us a tour of his land, which included:
1. Seeing the famous stud sheep, famous for fathering tasty babies.
2. Checking out the salt flats and tasting the grass — the lambs eat this grass, and it imparts an excellent flavor to the meat; the grass makes the meat really tender and savory. Also, because of the cold winters, the lamb gets pretty fatty, but maintains that nice, rich grassfed flavor (corn-fed fat, I find, makes the meat blander). This was truly some of the best lamb I’ve ever tasted, and many of the people in Inner Mongolia are just boiling the meat in water with a little salt. If this lamb were raised in, say, Europe, I believe wholeheartedly that it’d be an internationally coveted product. But the infrastructure isn’t in place in Inner Mongolia to support the kind of branding that would differentiate in the market. I’m not even sure there’s infrastructure in place to ship the lamb long distances. So alas, we can’t really even buy it here in China, or at least we can’t be sure that we’re getting Inner Mongolian lamb. The Farmers’ Market is trying to bring it there, though, so fingers crossed, we’ll be able to stock up. These infrastructure issues explain why the yogurt won’t be the next big thing, either.
3. Meeting our tour guide’s brothers, who rode in on ponies. These guys were wearing some killer boots. They rounded up a herd of camels for us so we could take turns sitting on them. Here’s Rob sitting on a camel:
4. Hanging out at the farmer’s house (and in his parents’ yurt!!), where we feasted on lamb, cheese, and watermelon; played with a small child; kicked a soccer ball around; tried on some traditional Mongolian gear; and shot a bow and arrow. Rob has a couple of large archery bruises. Between this and his cliff diving injury, which he obtained in Indonesia, he’s really going for some obscure sporting wounds.
We also drank a lot of milk tea, which tastes sort of like watered down hot chocolate, except salty. The pro move is to float some biscuity puffs in it, or maybe a cheese brick or two. This also has the nice effect of softening the cheese, which can be as hard as hard candy.
Fortuitously, we were in Inner Mongolia for the Naadam festival, which is the big party of the year. The event brings all the herders together in one spot and features three sports: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. We caught the horse race, but like the derby, that was over quickly — dudes on horses galloping at top speed, leaving a trail of dust behind them as they streaked by. We missed archery entirely, but we saw quite a bit of wrestling. All the young bucks suited up in leather vests festooned with colorful streamers, and then tried to push each other down in one-on-one match-ups. First guy to fall on the ground lost. Pretty straightforward, though it seemed there was no rhyme or reason to the match-ups — specifically, there were no weight classes. So the early rounds featured a lot of matches that saw a big Bruno handily tossing his whisper-thin opponent into the dirt.
Beyond those events, Naadam in this part of Inner Mongolia seemed a lot like small-town America 4th of July: people standing around a big field eating roasted meats, drinking beer, and chatting it up under a relentless sun while activities go on around them, and kids weave between everyone’s legs. We spent several hours posted up in tents eating lamb on a stick and sipping Yanjing beer, and fielding the frequent requests for photos. We just needed a deck of cards.
Oh — so that camel cheese: We had our first taste of camel cheese at breakfast one morning, except we didn’t know it was camel cheese when we put it in our mouths. We were passed a dish of adorable morsels that looked like homemade candy. There was a white one, which we imagined was a sweet vanilla treat. The brown one looked a bit like British tablet, which is sweet, caramely, and delicious. Rob wisely took the white one, which was equal parts sweet and sour — not unlike cream cheese. No problem there. I took the brown one, and because I was so certain it was going to be like tablet, popped the whole thing in my mouth. It was not tablet. It was eye-wateringly sour and as pungent as a foot. And it lingered. I think I can still taste it, in fact. I’m a strong buy on the meat and yogurt. More of a sell on the camel cheese. Don’t think that one is coming to Whole Foods any time soon. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Rob says he ate the brown one — all of it — and liked it. DIFFERENT STROKES.]
Feels like it’s conclusion time, so I guess the moral of this story is that Inner Mongolia was wild — in many ways, literally so, for there’s still a nomadic spirit, even if the people aren’t actually nomadic anymore. It provided an intense contrast with the international sensibility of Beijing, and we got a great first taste of life in other provinces. And should you ever spy Inner Mongolian lamb or yogurt, buy that stuff immediately. It’s good.
Hello, friends, family, and framily! We’re alive and well and living in Beijing! And frankly, we should have started this blog a month ago, because now it would take about 55,000 words to describe what we’ve been doing since we packed up all of our junk into a Long Island City storage locker and moved across the Pacific. One of us is an editor, though, so we will write only the important words, and hopefully not 55,000 of them. And to do that, we’ll save some of our observations (like ones on food, which could practically be the subject of another blog entirely) for later posts and start here with the high hard points.
Let’s start here: China is basically nothing like what we expected. It’s really hard to explain what we mean by this, because we had little idea what China was going to be like, and we tried to come into this experience without any preconceived notions. But we sort of thought maybe it would be a little like New York City’s Chinatown/Flushing — sidewalks so thick with people you want to windmill people out of your way, a little run down, a little dirty, full of delicious food. Beijing is full of delicious food, that’s true, and some parts of the city (read: the tourist parts) are teeming with people. BUT. Beijing is SPOTLESS. Like, seriously, maybe the cleanest large city (outside of Germany) I, Laura, have ever been to. Our program director also said it’s deceptively not foreign, and based on our admittedly limited experience, I think that’s an excellent descriptor. Architecturally (well, maybe besides the hutongs — more on that in a hot sec), it feels like it could be in America. It feels oddly familiar in several other ways, too. It even runs at a similar rhythm — more similar to the U.S. than much of Europe is similar to the U.S. (I find much of Europe runs at a very…whimsical…pace.) Except that China has better public transportation — trains and buses are easy to use, clean, and always on time.
Here are the answers to a few pertinent questions coupled with some first impressions:
1. We’re dealing with the smog just fine, thank you. Probably the question we got most when we said we were moving to Beijing was, “How are you going to deal with the pollution?” We felt ignorant, because we did not know if the pollution would be sort of like grim New York winter or sunny but hazy Los Angeles day. It seems fitting, then, that our very first impression of China was actually pollution-related: As the plane touched down, we asked each other, “Clouds or smog?” Smog, dear reader, smog. On par with grim New York winter or San Francisco fog, only, you know, not exceptionally healthy for the lungs. We even started calling the sun the day star because it was so hard to see (hat tip to Nick, the other Luce scholar in China, for that one). HOWEVER. On day three, when we dipped into a brewery (there are a lot of those here — come get down on some craft beer) on another smoggy day, the bartender said, “Don’t you find that all the worry about pollution is seriously overblown?” We could not fathom that at that very second, since we were busting out the masks the Asia Foundation gave us to wear on bad pollution days. BUT. 24 hours later, a huge rainstorm and a good deal of wind blew the smog out, and on day five, we got a glorious crystal clear day (see that photo of us above for proof). AND. It stayed that way for many days, then got a little smoggy, then clear again. So the jury is out, but it does seem that the nice days are frequent, possibly even more frequent than the bad ones. And Beijing is BEAUTIFUL beneath the azure sky. Poetry-inspiring, even.
In daily life, we have an air quality app on our phones that tells us when to go for a run because the air is good (we mostly ignore that) and when to mask up because the air is bad (we mostly obey that, or stay inside).
2. We definitely need to learn Chinese. It’s been awhile since we’ve been in a place where most people really don’t speak English. Here, the cab drivers will refuse to take you places sometimes because it’s too exasperating to try to decipher your pidgin Chinese/listen to your very loud English. The good news is we’re in Chinese class right now, where we piece together hideous sentences that I’m sure are PAINFUL to listen to. I like to imagine that we’re sort of on par with a drunk-sounding toddler who can’t say all the consonants yet and so makes sentences like, “I tink dat titty sarted!” (I think that kitty farted…a sentence that lives on in infamy in my family’s spoken history). Perhaps that gives us way too much credit, though. More likely, we sound like, “I…am…job.” Not that we don’t make blatant mistakes; I told one teacher that I, Laura, am a man. Got a good laugh, that one. Also, because we don’t really understand tones yet, especially when we’re commanded to string words together into sentences, we’re pretty much always putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. The fun part about that is there’s a small chance we’re just constantly offending the people we’re talking to. One of our new friends told us that when she was learning Chinese, she tried to tell her roommate that she bought strawberries and accidentally said, “I f***-ed your little sister.” So yeah! Never talking about strawberries in a public place!
Oh and as for the written language, we’re slowly decoding it, but rightthisverysecond, we know somewhere between 24 (Laura) and 50 (Rob) symbols. That’s enough to pick out about two, maybe three characters on a sign or menu, if we’re lucky, some of which are part of a two-symbol word that we miss entirely. So, you know, not entirely helpful. Laura’s practical grasp of this part of the language extends to looking at characters and thinking, “not noodles, not noodles, not noodles, NOODLES!!” We did learn the symbol for organ meat, however, and that was very helpful in informing our choices at restaurants.
3. We live, temporarily, in a neighborhood called Sanlitun (or, if you ask the cabbies, SanliTUR — Beijing makes a lot of things end in r), which is a very nice part of the city just outside of the second ring road (Beijing has six ring roads; once you get to the fourth, you’re sort of in the ‘burbs). Per the orientation schedule, we had about three days to find an apartment because it would have been not that fun to live in the hostel while learning Chinese. So we decided to sublet in this extremely nice area of town which is conveniently situated near grocery stores, embassies, and trendy restaurants. It’s an easy bus ride to our language school, and, frankly, would be an easy commute to the Beijing Farmers’ Market headquarters, where Laura will be spending much of her time. Possibly we will live in this ‘hood for the year, except that we think all foreigners maybe think this, and then they share bowls of kale and freshly pressed juice at the nearby healthy American food restaurants, and we’re just not sure we’re ready to commit to that. More kale, we mean. We’re on an all-carb diet.
Before we got here, we had our hearts set on living in the hutong houses, which are the traditional courtyard homes set among winding alleys littered with bars and restaurants. It feels like many cool things happening in Beijing are happening in the courtyards — Sanlitun is, like, Chelsea or Soho or Tribeca (i.e. established and kind of expensive), while the hutongs are, say, Williamsburg (maybe Williamsburg five years ago) or Crown Heights or Bushwick around the Morgan stop (do you resent my New York references yet?). POPPIN’, in other words. Problem is, hutongs can actually be quite expensive, especially if you want one that’s, oh, insulated (essential in the Beijing winters; I sorta think people’s perception of how cold the winter is here correlates directly with whether they have to live in a drafty hut during the cold snaps). So the hunt — and debate — continues. We’ll keep you posted!
4. But what will we do for fun, you ask? Same thing we always do, as it turns out. For example: our first friend here (besides the other Lucer, Nick, and some former Lucers who are possibly contractually bound to be our friends) is the food editor at one of the weekly papers. And so on day seven of our intrepid voyage into lands unknown, we ate a very large meal and drank Zweigelt (nice Austrian red wine) at a very trendy and new Austrian restaurant so that our new friend could write about it for her job, which is basically the same as my old job at the Village Voice. So yeah, even on our own, with no professional requirements, mostly we eat. Often, we drink, at aforementioned craft breweries and divier places, and we hear there’s a burgeoning cocktail scene here, too, though we have yet to check out the flagships of that movement. Sometimes we even eat Mexican food, like on the 4th of July. It exists here! As another Lucer said, good thing we didn’t blow our shipping stipend on that! Also, we go to cafes, including a place called Rager Pie, which has nitro cold brew and American-style pie. And sometimes we go see art — 798 is an artist district sort of like the Chelsea galleries (Pace, which also has a Chelsea location, is even there) that’s also full of bars and coffee shops. Ai Wei Wei’s new studio is out in another burgeoning gallery district called Caochangdi; that neighb is comparable to way-out-there Bushwick — grittier and not so developed yet. We’ve been to each of those places. I suspect we’ll go back to each. Probably frequently. We’re also knocking off the tourist attractions — more on those in another post, because I promised not 55,000 words — and we hang out with the farmers’ market crew a fair bit (we went to Inner Mongolia with them…again, another post). We went bowling with them, which was fun, because most of them had never been bowling. Also, the bowling alley had shoes in Rob’s size (huge), which we considered a miracle (our Chinese friends agreed).
Here are some things we like here so far: The line-dancing grandmas that take over public spaces at twilight and dawn, the bus (Rob loves the bus…loves it; we’re barely allowed to use the subway), the courtyard houses, realizing we know more Chinese than we did yesterday, the feeling that new things are happening all the time — and people are genuinely excited about them, the babies wearing pants with a slit in the butt (no diapers!), the craft beer, the cheap beer, street snacks, all the Sichuan restaurants, okay almost all the food actually, the lettered exits of the subway so you know exactly where to meet someone, the bike culture, the wind because it gets rid of the pollution.
Okay, okay. I think that’s enough for now. Here! Some photos of our first days! Come visit us.