Friday, March 21, 2008

It's Raining, It's Pouring

It rained today. This is excessively exciting being that we have experienced no precipitation whatsoever since being here. Unless, of course, you count sand storms. Despite the fact that it very rarely rains, everyone in Beijing is more than prepared. The city, which is completely reliant on bicycles as the backbone of its infrastructure simultaneously dons rain ponchos. And these aren't just any old rain ponchos; they're brightly colored plastic ponchos which are longer in front than in back so that they can be draped over and fastened to a bicycle's handlebars. In theory, this keeps your upper body, backpack, legs and hands dry. In practice, I'm not sure what it actually achieves because I didn't wear one. I figured better to keep a shred of my dignity and just put on my Gore-Tex raincoat.

The city was quite beautiful in the rain, with all the sounds kind of muffled and everything moving at a slightly slower pace. That was until I ran into another student on a bicycle. The bike lanes in Beijing are for two types of vehicles: bicycles and city buses. Though this seems pretty counter intuitive it works alright. As I was riding the final block towards school I was between a bus and the curb. I couldn't see around the bus and out of nowhere another student on a bicycle rides head on into the bicycle lane. This is a generally stupid thing to do as it was clear that bikes couldn't see around the bus, but native Beijingers have a very different sense of safety. In the end she just gave a little yelp, apologized and rode away. I caught myself from falling on the side of the bus, whose driver was kind enough not to run my over. And though now thoroughly wet, I still didn't have to suffer the embarrassment of wearing one of those ponchos.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tibet Conflict

The conflict between Tibetans and Han Chinese has been widely reported on in the states, but here in China, much is being covered up. Although I can't understand the Chinese news, my host parents have told me what they know from watching CCTV here. The Chinese government it reporting that around 15 people have been killed while the New York Times reports that that number is probably closer to 100. Also, until today, the Chinese government had not admitted that protests had spread from Tibet to the bordering provinces of Sichuan and Gansu. The AP update can be found here.

In other news, my host mom came home the other day saying that she had heard a rumor from a colleague that morning that schools had been closed in Hong Kong after several students dies. This had gone completely unreported in the Chinese press. I decided to double check online and the New York Times had published an article four days earlier saying the Hong Kong schools closed early for Easter break after four student deaths related to influenza. I was shocked to discover that not only had this gone unreported, but that it took four days for Chinese people to find out anything about it.

Because of the fighting in Tibet, many US news sources are currently being blocked here including YouTube, CNN, and Google News.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Waiguoren in the Post Office

My status in Beijing is as a waiguoren or "outside country person." There are many waiguoren in Beijing yet everywhere I go I get stared at. People don't think anything of staring outright and even when you stare back, they continue to stare. Wearing my school uniform helps a little bit because at least then people can place me. Having a place is very important in China, and uniforms are a big part of this. Everyone seems to feel the need to be part of some greater whole and to show where they belong. That said, people are often flabbergasted to see an American wearing a high school uniform riding a bike.

Today I encountered this again when I went to the post office. I wanted to mail a letter home to my sister and needed to buy postage and an envelope. I walked in to the post office next door to my building and waited in line. It is not a very Beijing thing to do to wait in line, but there were only two people and when a man who came in after me tried to cut in line, I shoved him out of the way. This was not at all rude and would be completely expected out of a Beijinger. People often think they can cut the waiguoren but are never offended when I act like I'm Chinese. Anyway, I successfully mailed my letter, despite the fact that the man who had tried to cut me repeated everything I said in Chinese to the postal worker after I said it. I was shocked to see her using an abacus to calculate the prices of different packages. I knew that abacuses were a Chinese invention but I didn't think they were in use anymore.

Speaking of acting like I'm Chinese, I seem to be picking up many of the Chinese tendencies since moving here. I wear long underwear under my pants and then take off my outer pants and jacket when I come inside so that the house won't get dirty from the dust outside. I drink hot water, a distinctly Chinese tendency that results from many Chinese people believing that cold food and drinks interfere with digestion. I think that's just an old wives' tale, but hot water seems to do a better job of clearing the dust from the back of my throat. I shove people when I want to get on and off the subway or bus, which is the only way to counteract being shoved myself. My sense of style has even changed since I came to China, represented by a pair of overly colorful sneakers I bought for the equivalent of eleven US dollars yesterday.

Yet despite all these things, I am still most definitely a waiguoren. People often don't realize that I am speaking Chinese when I try to talk to them and tell me that they don't speak English. My accent is undoubtedly horrible and people don't expect me to be able to speak Chinese. Will and I play Frisbee during recess most days and a few brave students will come to talk with us or ask to learn how to play. Recently we also started playing the Chinese version of hackey-sack which is incredibly fun and doesn't require as much space of Frisbee. We were tossing a disk the other day and one of the elementary schoolers was just staring at us. Like many of the small kids he had a bean bag to play with. They like to play this game where they lob the bean bags at each other and then run away. He was just standing with his bean bag and staring so we asked him if he wanted to play with us. He said no and ran away. Later, he came back to watch again and Jasmine motioned him over to come talk with us. Again he ran away, but she followed and brought him back. He asked her what we were playing and she told him it was a Frisbee. (This was in Chinese of course. Most of the elementary schoolers can't speak any English.) She asked him if she could introduce him to Will and me, and he replied that he was afraid of foreigners. This would be unheard of in the US, but here everybody looks the same, and many children have never talked to a foreigner before. Eventually, he came over and shook Will and my hands' before running away. The entire interaction was exceedingly cute, especially seeing 6' 3" Will bending down to shake hands with a first grader. I can only imagine how scared the kid must have been of the blond haired, blue eyed, foreign giant.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pollution in Beijing

I noticed this series of articles this morning at I scanned the New York Times for the first time since being in China. China has been claiming for quite some time now that the pollution problem will be cleaned up in time for the Olympics but I have trouble believing it. The Olympics are only months away and the situation right now appears pretty grim. Many days I wake up in central Beijing to a pink haze that covers everything within site. Beijing's climate is very peculiar in that we haven't had rain in the month and a half that I've been here, but it is often very windy. The dry wind blows in dust from outside the city. The few trees that are are planted around the city are so covered with dust and particulate that their bark appears black in color. One day when I came out from school the hundreds of bikes parked in the schools courtyard had all been knocked over and were covered with dust and sand. Turns out there had been a sand storm while I was in class that morning. More alarming than the visual signs are the effects of this environmental crisis on the body. I consider myself to be a healthy teenager. I have minor asthma that pretty much never affects me when I'm in the states. Since coming to Beijing, we have had several days when I could clearly feel the poor air quality while running laps during gym class or riding my bike through downtown. If I am affected while doing these everyday activities that I usually think nothing of, I can't imagine what the air quality would do to a marathoner. China may be saying that they are cleaning up their act, but the environment here doesn't seem to be going anywhere but downhill.

Internet Woes!

Not all Internet is created equal. And by that I mean that the security in China leaves something to be desired. For the past week I've been fighting with my computer trying to figure out whether the Internet problems I'm having are spyware, censorship, or a virus. Anyway, I thought I would pass along some helpful knowledge from friends who I have consulted on my computer problems. There are two good, free programs to download in addition to a regular virus scan if your computer is having problems (or if you want to prevent it from having problems.) The first is called Ad-Aware and is something I've been using for several years. The free version is a pain because you can't set it up to automatically scan periodically but the program works great. I try to scan my systems both in the US and in China about once a week and pretty much always find something. The other program is new to me, and is called Spybot- Search & Destroy. If you're a computer person you've undoubtedly already heard, and probably used, both of these programs. For those of you more like me, who don't know what to do when the computer doesn't behave except pray, hopefully this will be helpful.

Anyway, things seem to be working better now, at least for the time being, so I should be back and posting more regularly. Not much new is happening here. We did a presentation to the seventh grade about American culture that turned out to be a big hit. We were afraid that they wouldn't pay much attention because the whole thing was in English, but we showed lots of pictures which helped. They were especially interested in food and music. For a break we taught them how to do the wave which they seemed to really like. We left a little bit of time for Q & A at the end, not expecting them to willingly raise their hands, but they had tons of questions. It was a nice change from the high schoolers we are in class with who won't do anything other than stare down at their desks.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

T.G.I. Fridays

This morning my host mom asked me if I had plans for the day. After explaining in my jolted Chinese that so far I didn't have plans but that I was waiting for a friend to call, she asked if I wanted to go out to dinner tonight. I said that would be fine and told her I would plan to hang out with my friends tomorrow. I was expecting to go eat at one of my family's favorite local places, but instead they decided they wanted to have American food. Although it is sometimes nice to eat food I am familiar with, the Chinese food is much better than the international food here so I have generally tried to stay away from Chinese American food. It's sort of like how I'm not a big fan of American Chinese food. Anyway, we ended up at Sizzler's, a California-based steak house. I've never been to a Sizzler's in the US but I had heard of it before and it turned out to not be too bad. The restaurant was located in the embassy district and next door was a Haagen-Daaz and a T.G.I. Fridays. It was novel to see other foreigners and my family had fun listening me to guess where everyone was from. The highlight of the night for me was the sign for T.G.I. Fridays. The Chinese translated the name of the restaurant literally as Friday, the day of the week.