Hou Hai and Hutongs

It is perhaps the most the most extraordinarily ordinary things that I find so fascinating here in Beijing. While many of the biggest differences are not new to me (having spent time here before in 2009), I still find often find myself intrigued by the absolutely ordinary. It is these differences that make living here so exciting and rewarding on an everyday basis – whether it’s hanging my clothes up to dry (I’ve always had a dryer back home), learning how to use the shower (which baffled me at first – they are styled quite differently over here), or eating what I believed to be chicken, only to be told that it was in fact pigeon (it was actually quite savory), each day I find myself with no shortage of surprises.

With several hours of daylight left after completing my placement test at BLCU, I hopped back on the subway and headed over to Hou Hai. One of three small lakes in central Beijing (the other two are Xi Hai and Bei Hai), Hou Hai is a rare and beautiful reprieve from the city. The outskirts of the lake are littered with hutongs, narrow little alleyways and streets that are old Chinese neighborhoods. I found it quite exciting to wind throughout them, taking in pieces of the old city that have been left behind and bashfully offer greetings to the curious residents watching me as I passed. After I had gotten lost more than a few times in a number of different hutongs, I continued on and finally managed to reach the lake. The lake is gorgeous, with weeping willows all along the waters edge, bicycle carriages winding slowly around, and old men standing in large groups watching others play mahjong.

I had to get home for dinner with my host family, otherwise I would have been eager to watch the lake come to life at night. If I remember right, there are a series of very popular small bars and places to eat along the waters edge; lanterns are hung at every establishment – bars, restaurants, and boats alike, making it an absolutely magnificent scene in the evening.

One of the hutongs I explored on the way to Hou Hai.

Calligraphy practice.

Hou Hai.

Beijing’s Amateur Football Scene

Being quite a keen footballer back at home, one of my first objectives once I’d found my feet out in Beijing was to find a team to join.

So, I fired up the computer and browsed for amateur Beijing teams, hoping that the fact that my football vocabulary in Mandarin barely stretched to 我很喜欢踢足球 (wo hen xihuan ti zuqiu) would not be a problem.

Lo and behold! I found out that Beijing has a wealth of football teams with players from every country you can think of. Any one amateur league will have teams that are made up mostly of Russian, English, French, Chinese or any other nationality of players. Most teams in fact have a great mix of players from different parts of the world. I decided to join the Beijing Barbarians, as I thought they looked like the most fun and had an interesting mix of players. Our first game was played against the interestingly named ‘Sexy FC’, another team that was very much international. It was played in the incredibly beautiful Si’de park (四得公园) in Chaoyang district. As it was a sunny Saturday afternoon, the park was full of both expat and Chinese families having picnics and taking walks.

The game itself was played in very competitive yet amicable spirits, and the shouts around the pitch were always a mixture of English and Mandarin. I actually felt that by the end of the 90 minutes (with us winning 1-0!) I had picked up a few new words and phrases in Chinese, which I am determined to put to use on the pitch next week.

Trip to the Great Wall…

On my first Saturday in Beijing, I decided to hit the ground running and hopped on a bus with the Beijing Hikers club as they hiked to the Nine Eyes Tower. An old lookout tower of the Great Wall, the Nine Eyes Tower hike is about a two-hour bus ride outside of the city.  Heavy rains meant that our course for the hike (which even under the best weather conditions apparently can be a little hairy) had to be improvised a little, which meant that we didn’t make it all the way to the intended tower. Instead, we stayed a bit lower to avoid the steeper sections of the mountain.

Even so, the hike was spectacular and far surpassed even my highest expectations. We scrambled up the country led by a local village guide and spent the afternoon on a foggy mountainside where the Great Wall of China sprawled out before us, chasing the horizon up and down each vaulting hillside. Built over 500 years ago, this section of the Great Wall had fallen into disrepair, but was no less magnificent. The cracked and beaten stones clearly could not be undone – not by attack, weather, or its greatest enemy now, the test of time – and it was absolutely incredible to walk along the fortress and imagine it as it had been when it stood as one of the mightiest military precipices the world had seen.

Standing on the Great Wall, amidst the clouds and mountains of the rural Chinese countryside, I felt all over again how very extraordinary my opportunity is here in Beijing. It really is amazing to live in a whole different country, on the other side of the world – amidst a people with an entirely different culture and way of life – and still feel apart of a family. My host family and the staff at Lotus have done exactly that for me. Both continue to encourage my Chinese and my exploration of Beijing, making me feel right at home, even half a world a way.

My host brother on the Great Wall…

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.

Lotus Does Karaoke

As Monday was Mid-Autumn Festival, I was told on Friday that we were going to celebrate it that night with Karaoke. I had been well aware that as I was in China, it was only a matter of time before I’d find myself standing in front of a TV with a microphone in my hand. This however made the prospect no less daunting. I have always possessed a horrible singing voice, and so although I was looking forward to having fun with all the others at Lotus, I was a little apprehensive too.

No one knows for sure why karaoke is such a huge part of popular culture in the Far East compared with the rest of the world, but one thing is for sure – it is huge. You only have to walk down a street in Beijing to notice how popular the pastime is, as everywhere you look you will see ‘KTV’ written in large neon letters.

The venue we chose to go to was enormous. It had a large bar area, with a buffet restaurant and a huge corridor running from the restaurant. On either side of the corridor you could see people belting out classics in private rooms. It was interesting to see that in some rooms the audience were rolling around in laughter while the singer(s) crooned, yet in others they sat still and sober, diligently listening to the man or woman with the microphone. It seemed to me that the atmosphere of KTV can vary hugely, and it can be both a laid-back and serious affair.

I am pleased to say that after we were shown to our karaoke room, and a few drinks had been had, I took my turn to sing a song and had a great time. It didn’t seem to matter that I followed some of the excellent singing of my Lotus colleagues with tone-deaf screeching.

I would thoroughly recommend anyone who spends time in China to go to a KTV bar and try it out, as not only is it an important part of Chinese popular culture, but it’s also a lot of fun. I would also however recommend that they choose their songs carefully, as I experienced firsthand the terrible moment of realisation that the song you have chosen to sing has a chorus with a brutally long and sustained high-note…

Yaxiu Market

Following the BLCU placement test, which for me was mostly an hour or so of mind blanks and desperate attempts to remember characters I had learned the night before, my friend and I decided to take a trip to the Yaxiu market. Having read about it on various blogging sites, I expected the worst, and so was prepared to be hassled, grabbed and screamed at.

In actual fact, when I got there, I was surprised at how pleasant the shopkeepers all were, and found that rather than shout and grab, they all asked politely if I was interested in whatever it was they had to sell.

I eventually approached one of the shoe sellers and prepared to bargain hard. Fifteen minutes later I left with a pair of trainers and a pair of football boots feeling pretty pleased with myself. It was not until I got home and tried them on in my room that I realised that neither actually fitted, as I had managed to buy one pair too small and another too large. It seemed that when I had tried them on in the market I was too concerned with working out how best to haggle, rather than whether or not the shoes were the right size. This meant that after a furious sparring match of quoting prices at each other, and my triumphant feeling as I left the stall, I had to crawl back and sheepishly explain that I needed to exchange both pairs. A rather embarrassing experience to stay the least…

A Distinctly Chinese Birthday Celebration

Having only been at Lotus a couple of days, I was delighted to be invited to Lily’s birthday do on the first Friday of my arrival in Beijing. However, I will admit that at first I felt perhaps a little apprehensive at my sub-par communication skills, and predicted that I would spend the entire evening repeating “Duìbùqĭ, Wŏ bù Dŏng”. I did on the other hand feel that having tackled the Chinese textbook’s chapter on birthday parties at university I knew relatively well what to expect…more or less.

We left the Lotus office early Friday evening and piled straight into the car waiting for us, cheerfully making no issue of the considerable discrepancy between our number and the car’s capacity. We pulled up to an enormous restaurant that was decorated in gung-ho style with elaborate patterns in gold and red everywhere, and yet was still very classy.

The layout of the restaurant was certainly strange, as it consisted of a vast complex of separate dining rooms, each with one enormous round table, and a hole cut into one of the walls for food to be passed through. The first order of business after we were escorted into our room was filling everyone’s glasses with beer, and I was a little confused as my glass was half-filled with warm beer, and the remaining half was filled with ice-cold beer. Lily, being the birthday girl, stood up, raised her glass, said what I guess must be the Chinese equivalent of ‘cheers’ and drank as everyone else followed suit. I myself took a large sip and made to sit back down, only to look around and find everyone else still drinking. I finally clocked on to what I was supposed to do so I stood up and drained my glass, by now rather pleased it was not ice cold. It was at this point that I received a very sweet little applause from Alice and an equally sweet warning of “don’t get drunk” from Zoe. I cockily replied that coming from a country where beer is served in measurements rather larger than they were here, I certainly felt that I’d cope.

Another characteristic of this dining style that I found slightly puzzling at first was the lazy Susan, as by the time we had all sat down to enjoy the food I was pretty hungry, and reached eagerly for the fish dish only to find it mockingly slide away from me. Once again, it took a few seconds for me to realise what was going on, as I noticed that it was not just this particular dish that appeared to be moving. A rookie to start with, I felt that by the end of the meal I was a Lazy Susan-spinning pro, as with an elegant flick of the wrist I saw the duck’s tongue dish slide toward me. Having said this, it may have been the substantial amount of beer consumed by this point that made the action appear smooth and successful.

It seemed that to sip at your lager was not considered normal form, and I very much enjoyed the process of picking a drinking partner from around the table (or maybe ‘opponent’ would be more appropriate) when you felt thirsty and downing your beer in unison. This hilarious method of drinking, coupled with excellent food, made for a wonderful meal and I’m pleased to say that the fact that I understood little of what was said, or rather shouted (hence the separate rooms I guess), over the course of the meal failed to dent the experience. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the evening and cannot wait for this coming Friday when it will be repeated in celebration of the mid-Autumn festival.

Interning at Lotus – the experience so far

Having done extensive internet research back in England on learning Chinese in Beijing, I started turning my attention to homestays, as it seemed by far the most effective way to become fully immersed in Chinese language and culture. After a quick cursory glance over Lotus’s website, I firmly placed it on my shortlist of options for my time in Beijing, especially as they offered an internship along with the homestay.

Lotus was by no means the only organisation offering both an internship opportunity and a homestay, and I was as yet undecided on which organisation seemed the best. At last…The clincher undoubtedly came when I found out that Lotus are a not-profit organisation, rather than a business devoted to extracting as much money from you as they can whilst spending as little as possible on your comfort and convenience whilst you are there. Lotus seemed to be genuinely interested in promoting and fostering Chinese-Western relations by encouraging the exchange of language and culture. They were not just in the language teaching industry to make money like many others.

Anyway a few email exchanges later and I was set up with a homestay in an area about half an hour by subway from BLCU, where I would be studying Chinese every morning Monday to Friday. I was also set up with an internship every afternoon, also Monday to Friday, in a dynamic and exciting non-profit organisation, where I knew I would be able to make valuable contributions and gain excellent experience…without the ridiculous price tag that comes with many other means of organising internships in China.

Soon after, I was being greeted at Beijing airport by a driver and an incredibly lovely young girl from Lotus called Zoe, who took me straight to my host family. My host mother greeted me with a huge smile and immediately started chatting away to me in Mandarin. It was at this point that I realised that after a couple of years of studying Mandarin from a textbook, I essentially knew nothing. That evening, over a spectacular Beijing meal, myself and the family communicated via frantic hand gestures, laughing to break any awkward silences and ecstatic celebration by both sides whenever anything was successfully conveyed.

So far it has been a week since I set foot in Beijing for the first time, and although I still possess a toddler’s speech capacity at best, every day I can feel myself understanding more and more phrases that are spoken to and around me, and I already feel settled both with my lovely Beijing family and in the Lotus office.