A Beginner’s Guide to the Beijing Subways

There are over 12 million people living within the urban areas of Beijing, and if you extend that to include suburban Beijing as well, the numbers will jump to over 20 million. There are a number of different ways to calculate and rate cities in terms of their populations, but no matter how you calculate it, Beijing usually finds a way into the top ten. According to Wikipedia, in rating the most populous cities using the concept of city proper, Beijing ranks number 3 in the world, following Shanghai at number 1 and Istanbul at number 2.

Just to reiterate, there are a LOT of people in Beijing. Always. No matter where you are – no matter what you are doing – no matter the time of day, there are people around simply because they are everywhere.

One of the best ways to experience just how crowded it is in Beijing is to take a ride on the subways during rush hour. If you hop on the subways during non-rush hour, by most standards the subways will still be crowded. However, if you have the unfortunate chance to take the subways during rush hour (下上班:”when people are going to or getting off work”), you will…well…you will definitely have an experience in store.

I really can’t describe how crowded the subways can get. In the states, they would never allow a carriage to move filled with that many people. It just wouldn’t happen. But in Beijing, while the subway is expansive and expanding all the time, it still cannot meet the demands of the city’s people. Slowly it seems that the idea of “queuing up” seems to be catching on, but it is still a loosely held courtesy, and as soon as things get hairy, the lines fall into mobs of people pushing feverishly to board the subways. At every subway door, there is usually a trained subway worker there to help the process of guests getting off and guests getting on move more smoothly. Sometimes, however – when there are just too many people – they spend their time pushing people into the subway carriage and then trying to get the automatic doors to close so the subway can continue on its way.

It’s an exciting, and often terrifying, way to travel around the city.

For the subway newcomer, here are some key points of advice I have put together to make your first ride in a crowded subway car a little more bearable during rush hour:

1)     GET TO A HAND RAIL: Often times the subway carriage will be so crowded that, like sardines in a sardine jar, you might think that being tightly pinned between your fellow subway riders is enough to keep you standing. Good and well-intended logic, but an inherently flawed assessment. The subways are prone to sharp jerks and stops, phenomenona which tightly packed crowds of people seem more vulnerable to – indeed, without the ability to move your feet for balance, the crowds sway and sometimes during the worst cases, people will fall over to be knocked into the walls or bars of the carriage. BUT – problem easy solved! Make any and all efforts to GRAB A HANDRAIL!

2)     THE BOX-OUT TECHNIQUE: Once you have managed to board the subway, you might think that the difficulty is over – NOPE! At every stop there will be a jostle of people getting off and a jostle of even more people trying to squeeze their way on. This is a technique that has taken me months to master, but I call it the BOX-OUT TECHNIQUE. When you are being squished ever closer and tighter to your fellow subway riders, the trick is to claim your territory – stick out your elbows, bend your knees to make yourself a little wider, and broaden your shoulders. In essence, BOX OUT the territory just around you. That way, when the subway finally gets moving again and there are no more people trying desperately to squeeze aboard, you will not be left SUPER SUPER SUPER squished, only mildly discomforted by the 20-or-so people squeezed against you.

Note: During especially crowded rush hours, this technique is less effective. When it’s really bad, just put your hands in your pockets and casually stick out your elbows. This is just to monopolize the room you need for basic functions, i.e. breathing!

3)     PLAN YOUR GETAWAY: Some subway stops are more popular than others! If you are getting off at one of the less popular ones, plan on preparing to get off long before you actually arrive. If you don’t, you WILL miss your stop. Ask the people around you if they are getting off at the next stop ( 下车吗?xià chē ma?), and slowly begin the arduous process of making your way towards the door.

4)     WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO: Just follow the crowd. You will not be considered rude, out of line, or inconsiderate for acting as the rest of the thousands of subway-goers do. This includes waiting in line. As said before, queuing is a relatively new phenomenon, so if the queue dissolves, be prepared to fight with the mob to get on board and don’t worry about it!

Autumn Alumni Reunion Recap

As anyone who has studied abroad will tell you, the experiences, the places, and the adventures are among some of the most unforgettable aspects of any study abroad program. However, undoubtedly one of the most memorable parts of any experience abroad is the people you share these experiences with. Lotus Educational Foundation’s study abroad programs bring people together from all over the world. After our time in China, we all return to our respective homes with our memories and experiences together – and while modern technology has allowed us to keep in contact with relative ease via e-mail and Skype, somehow when we’re brought back together, it’s easy to fall in step again and feel like no time has passed at all.

While reunions are difficult given the international scope of Lotus’ reach – people from all over the world come together to study in Beijing through Lotus – it is an exciting thing to be apart of when they can happen. Recently, Lotus Educational Foundation hosted an alumni reunion in Washington D.C. Joined by Lotus alumni, their friends and family, and students interested in studying with Lotus in the near future, over 40 people attended to discuss their experiences and learn more about what Lotus Educational Foundation has been up to in the international community.

With new programs on the agenda for next year, alumni from a variety of different past programs, and students interested in studying in China in the future, the reunion was a wild success. Alumni had fun sharing and swapping stories – students interested in studying abroad learned more about Lotus – and some of Lotus’ directors had a chance to talk about some of the exciting things ahead for the non-profit study abroad organization. Indeed, it was such a good time that we have hopes to host another reunion soon!

Check out some of the pictures!

 

HSKing

Beijing Language and Culture University has been around since the early 1960s, when it emerged as the first university to specialize in teaching Chinese to foreigners. Since then, the university has grown and undergone many significant changes – it now offers a multitude of languages to Chinese students and foreigners alike and offers a variety of postgraduate degrees as well. As to be expected, BLCU is involved in a variety of research in regards to the acquisition of language, specifically with regards to Chinese as a second language, and it is this effort that has allowed many of my classmates and I the chance to take the HSK for free.

The 汉语水平考试 (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is the internationally recognized standardized test with regards to Chinese. With the release of a “New HSK” there are two commonly recognized formats of the test (predictably the “new” and the “old” HSK). In exchange for answering a simple questionnaire for basic statistical research, we get to take the HSK for free!

With the end of the semester approaching, I already have several Chinese tests on the horizon. So, why not throw in one more? My brain is overloaded with characters already (courtesy of our impending oral and written finals for class), so shoving a couple more in there definitely won’t hurt. The test is on a Sunday morning – I’m steeling myself for several long days of study before Sunday hits!

Capital Museum

There was a big group of us going for an afternoon at the Capital Museum. While I’ve been to many of the famous sites throughout Beijing, I had yet to go to the Capital Museum – which I found a curious oversight on my part, seeing as how Chinese history is over 5000 years old and there is a wealth of both interesting and beautiful artifacts to explore.

A professor and two graduate students of philosophy joined us for our excursion. All three were fun to talk to, and we had a good time looking around the various exhibits and using a combination of Chinese and English to explore our thoughts about them.

Particularly beautiful were the featured works of calligraphy and Chinese painting. I had a really interesting discussion with one of the graduate students about the nature of Chinese painting and calligraphy. He described that it was often much deeper than Western art. Where realism is often a tool of Western artists to convey a meaning or idea, he described that Chinese paintings are mostly intended as an expression of “feeling” and “interpretation” much more than realism. Regardless, the art was beautiful, and it was enlightening to hear other opinions and thoughts on the work we encountered.

Excursion to the Llama Temple

Our visit to the Llama Temple fell on a brisk, bright day. Beijing has a habit of short-lived rainstorms, and while the rain brings about complaints along with a wild rush of street vendors trying to sell an umbrella to the unfortunate commuter, I love it when I wake up to a rainy day. Not only does it make me feel more at home (Seattle’s often harsh characterization as a city built beneath constant cloud cover and drizzle (drizzle in Chinese: 毛毛雨,  pronounced máo máo yǔ) is a well-deserved one), but rainstorms send the smog running in Beijing. The days following rain showers are always bright, clear, and beautiful. So, bright and beautiful, albeit bitter, bitter cold – we embarked on the subway to the Llama Temple.

It was a very small group of us touring the Lllama Temple, which I found fantastic because it allowed each of us more time to work on our Chinese and ask as many questions as we could. Zoe brought along a list of common phrases in Buddhism and their English translations – not only profound and wise suggestions for a peaceful, enlightened life, most of them were lyrically beautiful as well.

The cold hadn’t scared away any visitors. The temple was awash with the potent smell of incense – it was calming to stroll throughout the many courtyards with incense burning all around as people prayed. We were also quite lucky with our timing; a group of new monks was practicing chanting in one of the halls, and so we crowded in with other guests to listen to the harmony of their voices rising and falling as one.

The spiritual and historical nature of the Llama Temple was one that I found enchanting. It was an absolutely beautiful site to visit, and I plan to return before I leave Beijing.

Here are some of the phrases we learned:

知足常乐

zhīzú cháng lè

Happy is he who is content.

 

助人为乐

zhùrén weílè

take pleasure in helping people

 

有缘千里来相会 无缘对面不相识

yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì wúyuán duìmiàn bù xiāng shi

Fate brings us together even we are thousand miles apart; but if we are not destined to meet, though we are face to face, we may not be acquainted with each other.

 

 

 

Countryside Exploring

This past weekend I ventured out on another fabulous hike with the Beijing Hikers Club. We hiked a loop through the Spring Valley, starting and ending at a small village called Sancha, where our gracious guide treated the lot of us to a delicious meal after our 12 kilometers trough the rolling valley.

The scenery was a sharp contrast to the beauty of my last hike – there was none of the lush, green trees along the hills and mountainside. Rather, the landscape was painted in varying shades of matted brown and muted green at best. Even so, however, the beauty of the hike was not one to be forgotten. The day was crisp and clear – cold by all standards, but it was a fantastic reprieve from the city air in Beijing. The valley was filled with rows upon rows of what was a vaguely lavender-smelling flower, and while late autumn had dried them all up, they still tossed around their smell in the afternoon air, making the valley even more fragrant.

An outdoor enthusiast back home, I love the chance to get out of the city. Beijing is full of culture and excitement so that there is never a boring moment, but I miss the chance to get outside. The countryside of China is beautiful, and so it’s an excuse to get out and do some exploring!

 

Holiday Excursions

The first week in October offers a brief reprieve from the every day hustle and bustle to life in the city. The 国庆节 (guóqíng jiè), which follows National Day on October 1st, is a weeklong holiday celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Everyone here gets a week off work and school in honor the anniversary, and so I was looking forward to a week full of exciting outings now that I had the chance to travel.

My holiday began with an excursion with my host family. Without any idea what was in store for the day, (while I continue to make great strides in learning Chinese, some things are still just lost in translation – so I generally just peruse through the every day here with a sense of humor that gets me by), I accompanied my host family off early in the morning. We ended up going to a National Park of sorts, where my host sister met up with two of her classmates. Together with the three of them and their mothers, the lot of us started roving through the wilderness, hiking up the mountainside through the trees and scrambling over rocks.

The people were out in droves in honor of National Week, so everywhere you went it was very crowded. Even so, we had an absolutely marvelous time. My host sister (her chosen English name is Cindy) and her friends and I chatted all throughout the day. At first, Cindy’s friends were very shy to practice their English (despite constant encouragement from their mothers). However, after some prodding and poking with the right questions, and eagerly showing them that butchering a language is nothing to be embarrassed about through my own use of Chinese, they were excited to have a go with their English and wouldn’t stop talking!

I find that these are some of my favorite moments in living with a host family. My constant exposure to Chinese has improved my 口语 (kǒuyǔ – my speaking ability) and yet, at the same time, it has given me a glimpse into every day life for people in China. It’s an absolutely extraordinary experience, and while it has its challenges, I find it ultimately extremely rewarding.

(“Climbing the mountain” with my host sister and her friends)

Back in Beijing!

After nervous goodbyes with friends and family, packing up a year’s worth of photographs, clothes, and other knickknacks from home, and one fourteen-hour plane ride across the Pacific Ocean, I am finally here! Now that I am firmly settled with a wonderful host family just north of Wudaokou (五道口) , I am slowly starting to make myself at home again. The city of Beijing is a sharp contrast to that of Seattle, and the most curious (and sometimes the most simple) differences catch my eye, make me look twice. In the first two weeks I have been here, I’ve found that there is no such thing as an ordinary day – every day has continued to bring its own challenges, adventures, and rewards.

I first came to Beijing with the Lotus Educational Foundation in the summer of 2009. After studying Chinese for a year at the University of Washington, I was looking to spend the summer in Beijing to improve my Chinese. I stumbled across Lotus while searching for summer study abroad programs. They made the application process so painless that as soon as my sophomore year of university ended, I was on a plane headed to Beijing with no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I had a fabulous time. I can confidently attest that living with a host family, apart from being a marvelous experience in itself, is by far the best way to learn Chinese. I spent three months studying at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), living with a Chinese family, traveling around as much as my Chinese would allow, and quickly learning to get by in a world of an entirely different language, culture, and way of life. 

So, when I was looking to return to Beijing after my graduation from the UW, I knew that I didn’t have far to look. My welcome back to Lotus was just as warm as it was two years ago, and since being back, I have been learning the ropes of working as an intern here at the non-profit Lotus Educational Foundation. I am also studying at Beijing Language and Culture University in the morning, and since classes started last week, I have been struck with a mixture of both fear and elation at how fast my classes seem to be moving. Fear, because I have more and more characters to learn every night for class. Elation, because my Chinese already seems to be improving quickly!

Between classes, my homestay, working with Lotus, and trying all the while to navigate Beijing with my rusty Chinese (I feel like I might fit in well at a pre-school right now, as far as speaking and writing goes), I am filled with nothing but excitement for the future of my time in Beijing.

Day 28: Shopping

Today students went shopping. I, unfortunately, could not join them because I had to return home to go shopping with my host family. However, I know that the Maret students went to the Silk Market which I’ve been to, so I can give you an idea of what it’s like.

When you go in the building, you see lots of cubicles all filled with different kinds of merchandise (from t-shirts, to suits, to knick-knacks) depending on which floor you are on. If you are a foreigner, sellers call to you from all over the store. They call you their friend and then proceed to offer you a very outrageous price. As all of the Maret students are pros at bargaining now, this poses no problem. Many of the students have already been to this market, so some may decide to go to Wangfujing (another market very close by with much better quality goods). I’m sure they will get some great souvenirs.

Tomorrow, after the students take their luggage to Lotus, they will take their exams and then, as a last hurrah, make dumplings or ‘bao jiaozi!’ After a delicious lunch we will head to the airport and back to home.

This is my last post. I hope that you have enjoyed what I have written, and I’m sure you’re as ready to see your kids as they are ready to see you. I’m sure they will have lots of stories to tell you about the amazing places they have to been, and about the many experiences they’ve had.