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.