Chaos in Beijing: Dodging cars, Learning Mandarin and Eating Pupae
I saw only blue skies during my first four days in Beijing. However, I was soon informed that this sort of weather was a freakish anomaly. At this point, I haven’t seen the sun for over a week. I’d like to invest in some Vitamin D, but I don’t quite have the vocabulary skills to communicate this desire to the shopkeeper. I guess for now I’ll hold off on it, at least until I feel myself sinking into depression. I should mention here that I’m studying abroad this semester in Beijing in an intensive language program. I already speak Cantonese, but unfortunately most of Beijing does not understand the dialect. So far, I only know enough Mandarin to get around.
Luckily there are a number of other diversions. As a food lover, I’ve spent much of my time visiting a wide range of restaurants near my host school that offer cuisines from regions throughout China. Because of my limited language skills, I’ve gravitated towards restaurants that have pictures in their menu. This way, I can just point and say, “wo yao zhe ge,” or “I want this one”—a vital phrase for any visiting foreigner. But even with pictures, placing an order can be a tedious affair. At one restaurant, my friends and I spent ten minutes trying to order water. I still don’t know exactly what the problem was. Of course, the language barrier works both ways: Chinese-English translations are notoriously inaccurate. Two of my favorite dishes are alluringly named Urine Stench Noodles and Black Fungus Rape.
After 9:30 p.m. kebab vendors set up shop on the street. There are dozens of items to choose from, all of which come skewered. The basics like beef, chicken, and enokitake (long, white mushrooms) will cost you one yuan—i.e. 14 cents in American dollars. I know China’s undervalued currency gives the country an unfair export advantage and steals American jobs, but who can argue when a giant bowl of noodles and a pint of beer costs a measly 11 yuan (that’s $1.63 to you).
Although my search for scorpion kebabs has thus far been fruitless, I’ve found other exciting specialty items including squid and silkworm pupae. I tried the pupae and after fighting an initial wave of nausea, found it to be quite good. The flavor was somewhere between shrimp and crab. The only other thing unappetizing about it—besides the name—was the bits of shell that stuck to the inside of my mouth after swallowing.
I got my first taste of Beijing nightlife going out with some classmates to Houhai, a district in central Beijing that’s popular among foreigners. Live music from every bar and restaurant flooded the street, ranging from mellow Chinese love songs to Ke$ha to create a patchwork concert hall of sorts. Scouters swarmed the pathways promising us cheap drinks and beautiful women if we stepped into their respective establishments. They were even more insistent with my group because several of us were white, which automatically made us cool (more on race discrimination in China in the next installment).
Instead of taking up any of the offers, we decided to stop at a reggae bar that was decked out in Bob Marley memorabilia and blatant references to marijuana despite the fact that drug offenders are routinely executed in China.
Some of you will be proud to know that our school has garnered recognition even all the way over here in Beijing. At a convenience store one night, I struck up a conversation with a couple of local college students. After I told them that I hailed from Wesleyan one guy replied, “Oh, like Ted Mosby!” Of course a How I Met Your Mother reference. Thank you CBS for putting Wesleyan on the map.
I’ll leave you with some final tips on visiting Beijing: Be worried about tainted milk, make sure you’re not being overcharged for that Obama the communist T-shirt, and watch out for mysterious women inviting you to have tea at undisclosed locations. In spite of all the aforementioned obstacles, by far the most terrifying thing here is crossing the street. In Beijing, road markings and signs are only a suggestion and pedestrians yield to cars—not the other way around. I was crossing the street at a crosswalk and a driver sped towards me honking his horn and flashing his lights, clearly having no intention to stop. This incident was especially upsetting because the car left a black streak on my favorite pants from where it brushed against me.
So far I’m having a great time in Beijing sampling the food, meeting locals, and dodging cars. I haven’t taken in many sights yet, but I plan to in the coming weeks. By then hopefully the sun will come out again.