China is Obsessed with Walls

Holidays and Exams

Last week I finished exams and wow I am glad that is over. For most schools in China, the semester ends the first week of January. This means throughout Christmas and New Year’s I was very busy preparing. I actually had class on Christmas day but I opted to skip (sorry not sorry). Later we had a secret Santa exchange in class and I got the comic book on the right as part of my gift (thanks Bea!). Christmas is becoming a bigger deal in China. Shops and restaurants are decorated appropriately, but it is still not celebrated to the level of Christmas in the West. As for New Year’s, that is actually a pretty big holiday. I was given that weekend off of work and I didn’t have to go to school on Friday. Everything was closed which was a bit problematic when I needed to buy things, but nice nonetheless.

 

In this video I show a lot of things. If you are interested in seeing what an elective class in Chinese looks like, you can find that in the video. In order to enroll in this particular class you need to be an advanced intermediate (Peking’s level 7) or higher. I actually took a picture of my exam before handing it in. I chose to write on the topic of things that are taboo in China.

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The Silk Market Isn’t Very Silky

Near the end of the video I show you a small portion of the silk market. You’re not allowed to film there. I didn’t know this which is why the video is so short and you hear a woman lecturing me at the end. The silk market consists of fake products wearing the name of famous brands like Calvin Klein and Prada which is pretty illegal. Some of the products look questionably real, and its not a secret that every now then a few real (albeit stolen) ones will show up in shops. If you decide to go there (which I do recommend as something fun to do on the weekend) be sure not to use the ATM or exchange cash there. Chances are you will be given fake currency. Never pay full price. Don’t pay anything above 10% of what they ask. Check out this fake Rolex I bought for my brother.

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Footage of my Speech

Footage was released of the speech competition I participated in the month before. I have provided subtitles (to the best of my ability) for anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese.

 

An Essay on Walls

As I mentioned in China: Walls, below you can find my essay for my Chinese Politics class on walls in China. If you’d like to see exactly what I am talking about, watch the video!

To start off, I’d like to say who I am and why I am in China. My name is Alex and I am from Wisconsin of the United States. I recently finished up my Bachelor’s in Political Science at the University of Minnesota and I’ve been learning Mandarin for almost four years now. Prior to this year, I had never been to China. I learned a lot about Chinese government at Minnesota but I felt the only way I could really learn Chinese culture and strengthen my Mandarin was to come here in person. I’ve seen a lot of things I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t expect, but what I really want to talk about here is a recurring theme I’ve found in China, or at least in Beijing. I want to talk about walls.

In the four months I have been here, I have become increasingly aware of what I can only describe as an insatiable affection for things that blockade. The first week I arrived, I ran into some foreigners and we all decided to find somewhere to grab dinner. We followed a path to the left of the dorm’s entrance and came upon a wall with a large metal door in it. We went through this door to get to a street filled with restaurants. After about an hour of eating and talking, we decided to head back. Naturally we decided to leave the way we came, through the big metal door. We were shocked to find the door was now locked shut. As a result we had to go around it, which was about 20 minutes out of our way, just to get home. Apparently the door closes at 8:00 p.m. every night.

This type of door is exceptionally common. Gates like this are everywhere and they are attached to some of the longest walls I have ever seen. In order to leave the general vicinity of my dorm you can choose one of four ways: North, South, East and West. After 8:00 p.m. you cannot choose to go North, South, or East. This means every time I want to go to 五道口 (a popular bar street East of Peking University) I have to walk in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes. At first it was kind of funny. A lot of the gates are so thin, fat people literally cannot go through them. I recall chuckling at this concept and jokingly saying it was another reason to stay fit during my time here. But the more I encountered them, the more frustrated I became. What if I was in a wheelchair? What if I was old and a 15 minute walk was a really big deal? Let alone all the reasons why a person may need to quickly get somewhere. I’ve asked my Chinese friends why these walls exist and it seems like the general idea is to keep out people who don’t live in the area. However, in my opinion these walls do nothing to achieve that. I can still just as easily waltz into the same areas; I just have to take a longer path. Maybe one could argue that the walls cut down on the amount of people walking through the areas at night. However considering nighttime is when the least amount of people are outside walking around; I don’t see any need for it.

I even need to go through a gate to get on campus. I guess I can understand this a little more than the other gates. In the United States, there is nothing stopping people from walking through our campus. It is just another part of the city which means you will find a couple homeless people sitting on benches and really pushy Christians handing out bibles in front of the science labs. However it also means musicians will play music in the grass together, families are commonly found strolling through with their kids, and I can seamlessly walk out of class and go get a burger at a bar across the street. The University is integrated into the community and it is very easy for me to get from point A to point B. At Peking, the University in contrast is hidden away behind its walls and every day I see more going up. There are currently multiple walls being built on campus and in my personal opinion I don’t think they add at all to the environment. The walls are made of concrete blocks, cheap bricks and sheet metal that is already starting to rust. A lot of the walls seem to have uprooted perfectly fine grass and foliage for no real reason. I could go on and on about physical walls and barriers I see that don’t make any sense. There’s just too many to list. The doors on the bottom floor of building four (the building this Chinese Politics class is in) have huge metal locks on them, narrowing your options to exit. The door to my dorm is locked from the inside. I understand not letting people in without a key, but not letting people out? What do I do if there’s a fire? Countless apartments I see have bars over their windows, even on the upper floors. I don’t think China’s crime rate is bad at all, and it seems like the risk of fires in Beijing strongly outweigh the chances of someone breaking into your home. Even the door to my own balcony is locked. I’ve heard it is to stop people from committing suicide but just like the other walls I’ve talked about, this doesn’t actually prevent anything. If I really wanted to kill myself I could just jump off the bridge that is less than five minutes away from my dorm. In fact, I think not being able to get some fresh air every now and then while you are studying probably makes people want to kill themselves even more.

The concept of walls is applied even in intangible spaces. For starters let’s talk about the Great Fire Wall. In China I am blocked from accessing the world’s best sources of information. Even completely harmless content, like my favorite cooking blogs, YouTube videos of people falling off skateboards, and Wikipedia articles on dogs are blocked. I brought an Xbox One gaming console with me from the states and I was really looking forward to watching Netflix with my girlfriend whenever we Skyped. Unfortunately, that too is blocked. What’s really strange to me is the fact that I can just get a VPN and walk around this wall the same way I walk around the physical ones. The wall does nothing to stop me; it simply inconveniences me. What is the point of this wall? I really understand wanting to keep children from accessing content that is meant for adults. I also totally agree a lot of content should be banned altogether such as videos of people abusing children or websites offering black market drugs. However, it simply doesn’t make sense to me that China chooses to block off information because some of that information could be negative. I think if you really want to improve your country, you look at the things your country does badly, not the things you are good at. As a Political Science major I can honestly say the things I am most interested in are things America is terribly, horribly awful at. A mechanic has no purpose if there are no cars that need to be fixed. I have no purpose if my country doesn’t have any problems. I think it is important to educate your students, your public servants, and the common people on things that need to be fixed so you can collectively work towards fixing them. I don’t understand this wall.

The last type of wall I want to talk about I don’t really know how to categorize so I’ll just call them process walls. Let’s say you are a foreign student and you want to work legally in China. Well, that is really hard to do. Prior to coming to Beijing, I did a lot of research on this topic because I wanted to find something small to help pay my tuition. Turns out, up until a year or two ago it was 100 percent illegal to employ any sort of foreign student in China. Apparently there is now a law that states foreign students may work only part-time and if the student is granted permission from both their school and their government. But these “permissions” have not been put in place. There is no way to request for these permissions so what is the point of having the law? Because of this it is very common for foreign students to just work for cash. I would estimate about a fourth of foreign students at Peking have some sort of job they are technically not allowed to have. This is another wall people just go around. Native English speakers are constantly being asked by companies to read their manuals, by students to read their essays, and by parents to help tutor their kid. These are jobs Chinese people cannot do so making them legal would have no negative impact on them. Moreover, if you could legally hire foreign students as tutors and language advisors, the government could tax their wages. It just seems like a lost opportunity for the government to earn extra funds and to allow foreigners to help their citizens.

Culturally I pick up on a sort of acceptance of walls in people’s daily lives here. Whenever I’m trying to do something painfully simple, like switch a class, use a facility or even just order a meal I encounter them. I once went to McDonald’s and tried to order one of the meals which came with a drink. When I asked if I could have Fanta soda as opposed to Coke I was told I could not change the flavor of my soda. Why? I honestly have no idea. I had to go to five meetings with the same two people over the course of a week to change my Chinese class and in the end I was only allowed to go up one level and that class is still too easy for me. If I had to pick the biggest difference between my country and here, I would say this is it. I grew up in a country that perhaps often over-emphasizes the value of choice and that is reflected in every level of its being. As a result, I’m really not accustomed to this.

I believe that the reasons for China’s walls are greatly influenced by cultural phenomena. The best argument for this hypothesis is finding consistency not only in China’s architecture, but in its government, business-practices and everyday social exchanges, each of which I’ve done here. I feel that the structure of the Chinese government especially reflects one that focuses on blockading the proliferation of power in the form of complete horizontal and vertical Communist Party reach.  It is easy to find examples of implemented blockading forces no matter which aspect of China you are looking at. In this class we learned about the metaphor of “touching stones to cross the river” which is applied by the government to create policy. Perhaps the walls I see are actually just stones. Maybe the reason why these walls are in place is an attempt to prevent chaos. They reflect the careful nature of the Chinese people in the face of a river. I feel like China has an immense desire for rules and order and this is what I have seen as a foreigner. Though I think China’s history and use of walls in the past would be interesting to analyze, (obviously there is something to be said about The Great Wall) I’ve chosen to ignore history here. I think as a foreigner I am only qualified to talk about things I have experienced. History is not one of them. However, in the future I would like to see someone do a more in depth analysis of these things and apply the past to them as well.

 

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