Before I came to China, I heard a lot about the spring festival. It is the most important holiday in China and equivalent to a lot of western countries’ emphasis on Christmas. During this time Chinese go home to spend time with their families. It also acts as the break for students between the fall and spring semesters. Though all of my friends had left campus, I originally planned to spend this time working and doing some site-seeing.
Something I didn’t know about this holiday is that most companies close down for an extended period of time. This is why I was a bit surprised when my boss came into my office the first week of the break and told me not to come in for the next three weeks. With the sudden realization I had almost four weeks with no work and no school, I did the first thing that came to mind. I called my girlfriend and told her I was coming home.
Reverse Culture Shock
I can’t really describe what I felt as I stepped off of the plane. It was the first time I had been in America in five months. I remember walking up the ramp and into the terminal and there was a blonde woman there in an airport uniform speaking to everyone. She was telling us to line up and to begin preparing to enter customs but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention to that. I was too preoccupied with the warm hum of native English speakers passing by. It was like suddenly a million conversations were going on around me that I could hear and understand perfectly. My brain’s selective hearing had gone so long without practice that it was a bit overwhelming.
I walked through the airport with the biggest grin on my face and picked up my luggage. When I finally got outside to wait for the bus, I witnessed a Chinese man pound on the back of a taxi’s trunk in order to tell the driver to open it up. People often do this in China. Sometimes taxi drivers would rather finish their cigarette than take a new customer and unless you are aggressive about things, they’re not going to help you. In this case, the taxi driver got out of the car and started yelling at the guy. It made me feel bad because all I could think about was all the times I had made mistakes in China. People have gotten upset with me and made me feel stupid over really small things I didn’t understand. I think this happens to every foreigner every now and then, but nonetheless I felt a personal sense of embarrassment for the way the American had treated him and got on the bus hoping it didn’t affect his impression of my country.
Being home was great. I finally met the foreign exchange student my family is currently hosting from Spain. I went sledding with my brother and his friends and finally got back to Minneapolis. Some roads had changed and a couple restaurants had been replaced. I felt a tinge of remorse about that. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you return to your Lego set and someone has made changes to whatever it was you last built. It’s all still there but something about it just kind of irks you. I ate so much Chipotle. I ate so much Taco Bell. I got pizza from my favorite pizza place and drank IPAs all week. I went to a Reel Big Fish concert in Milwaukee and finally spent the night watching Netflix in bed with my girlfriend. Everything was even better than how I remembered it. I definitely have a new appreciation for everything I have at home and leaving it all a second time was really hard.
WordPress is blocked in China and I don’t see any point in dancing around this. Yes, Tiananmen Square is where a peaceful student protest became a military-instigated massacre. No, you will not be able to research the topic in China unless you have a VPN, and yes Taylor Swift encountered numerous problems with her world tour in China because of its name: TS 1989. If for some reason the event comes up in conversation here (which I would advise foreigners to avoid along with topics regarding Taiwan) you will be promptly corrected on your usage of the word massacre. This was an incident. It was really peculiar for me to be corrected on this even by my Chinese politics professor. I mean, I think it is rather silly to try to tell a native English speaker they are using the wrong word to describe something. Some of these people who have corrected me have trouble forming basic English sentences, yet somehow have developed a strong opposition to this word.
Regardless, if you want to read up more on what actually transpired there, you can perform a quick wiki search. Today China has developed a different way of dealing with protests. First of all, it is illegal to attempt to produce large public gatherings without approval of the government, so most things get shut down before they ever have a chance to start (including religious proliferation). From what I gathered through class, the CCP’s other method is using free apartments and properties as negotiation. Sometimes small protests will start up and in order to shut them down the people involved will be given a handful of government-built apartments. Property is extremely expensive in China, especially surrounding the cities so if you are given a couple of these by the government, you can effectively become rich overnight. Regarding Tiananmen as a whole, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the area. There didn’t seem like there was much to do and there weren’t any good restaurants nearby to eat at afterward. However, if you are a history enthusiast like me it may be worth your time.
Western Restaurant Recommendations
I visited a couple new western restaurants. I’ve written about western food before but I want to provide an actual list here of my favorites. I will update this as I find more.
- Laker’s: This one is in the Beida/Wudaokou area and has become our go-to restaurant on Friday nights. They have beer and burgers at a very reasonable price and lots of great deals. I wouldn’t go here if you are looking for the best burger in Beijing or anything, but it’s an okay chain restaurant I approve of for your weekly western fix. They deliver and have lots of different sandwiches including BBQ chicken (my favorite).
- Grandma’s Kitchen: Another chain restaurant that you will find around many cities in China. I like this one because they have lots of dishes other than burgers and fries. They have home-cooked style meals like meatloaf, lasagna, and smothered mushroom chicken. There was a Grandma’s Kitchen in Wudaokou during my first semester but it mysteriously disappeared leaving me sad and hungry.
- Slowboat: This is my favorite burger in Beijing (and they have won the award for best Beijing burger several times). We found this place near Beihai Park. They have a good selection of IPAs and imported brews which you can’t find at places like Laker’s. It’s a bit expensive so I would only come here for a special occasion. Don’t go here with tons of friends because the space is quite cramped and tucked away in an unlikely alleyway. Apparently they are opening a second one in Beijing and hopefully it is bigger!
- The Great Leap: This restaurant is everything that is Slowboat, but bigger and further along in growth. I don’t think I would ever be able to try all of the beers they have available no matter how long I spent in China. If you want to attempt that, get the sampler platter. You can come here with a big group because of the space but keep in mind it is a really popular spot and very crowded. Unlike Slowboat, this restaurant is actually on a bar street so once you leave you don’t have to stumble far. This one has several locations; I’ve visited one a bit north of Beihai and another out in Sanlitun.
- Little Wudaokou Pizza: This one is right past the subway stop in Wudaokou. It’s actually Korean but they have great pizza. I suggest calling them and getting delivery. There’s no delivery fee and it comes with a soda which is nice.
- Sugar Shack Pizza: I don’t think pizza here is all that great, but they deliver (for free) and have an English website where you can order online. Instead, order the sub sandwiches. They may be a bit overpriced but it’s really hard to find sandwiches anywhere else. They are located on the bar street in Wudaokou.
The U.S. Embassy Likes Beer Too
Every now and then the U.S. Embassy holds cultural events at the embassy center (a totally different location) to spread American culture. I went with Oleg and Chelsea and we watched a documentary about how beer significantly impacted a lot of different cultural phenomenon. I do think the History channel blew things a bit out of proportion by crediting written language to beer (why has the History channel turned into the new MTV!) but it was still fun to watch. Afterwards a couple of Americans with surprisingly good Mandarin taught our group how to brew our own beer. It was really fun and I suggest checking out the U.S. embassy’s events if you are feeling a little homesick. Oh, and people ate the hops.
The Beijing Observatory and More Summer Palace
Oleg and I have been rather busy with school this semester. This has kind of put a damper on my ability to make new videos and travel. He suggested we schedule a time to go somewhere new and that is how we ended up visiting the Beijing Observatory. We didn’t really do a lot of research on the place before we went, so we erroneously assumed it was going to be a modern facility. I actually think this was even cooler.
Afterwards we went to a really great Chinese restaurant we picked at random. Then we ended up splitting off from the rest of the group to visit the Summer Palace. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’ve already been there, but this time was different. I went in the winter so I never had the chance to climb the rocks or see the trees in bloom.
The Jones’ Visit
A family friend happened to be on a trip in China and we decided to meet up over here. Together we visited the Art District which has got to be one of my new favorite places in China! Afterwards we went to the Tiandi Theatre. There was a lot of crazy acrobatic stunts but my favorite part had to be the motorcycles. I really enjoyed spending time with them and it reminded me a lot of my own family back home.
At the Park
There is a really nice park a few steps away from PKU. Since things were warming up we decided to walk around. I explained to the group that I have a list of my favorite benches at the University of Minnesota and that a great deal of these put my previous favorites to shame.
Feeling Twenty Two
Last week was also my birthday. I’m now 22 years old (: It was also my friend Eugen’s birthday so we invited a ton of people out to Tube Station Pizza and ended up at Red House which is a cool bar in Wudaokou. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older and the fact that I’ll hopefully be in a full-time permanent career somewhere in just a few months (if anyone has any leads, let me know!). I’ve been reading a lot of advice regarding finding jobs and it’s gotten me thinking about what I personally learned over my college career.
If I could tell future students one thing it would be this: don’t spend all your days living for tomorrow. It is disturbingly common for me to hear students talk about how unhappy they are. When I ask them why they don’t do anything to change that, I always get the same excuse:
“I’ll be unhappy for four years and then after that I can be happy”.
Don’t do that. Don’t separate the life you are living now and the life you hope to live after college. If you think that way you are going to be really disappointed when you enter the work world and realize there is always going to be another test; they’re just different. This is your life, right now. Four years is a huge chunk of your life to just sign off, and it’s a really bad habit to get into. I vote to take a B on that test if it means you get to spend the evening with your significant other on their birthday. It’s okay to skip that one class you have on Tuesday to go to the fair while it’s still in town. Have a beer on the patio and spend a few hours talking to your roommate before you start your homework. I’m not saying school and work doesn’t matter, or that it’s okay to fail exams. My point is in my experience, I have always regretted failing to set aside the time to do the things I love, and only seldom have I regretted not spending enough time doing things I hate. Maybe I’m a bad influence to people who strive to be straight-A students, but that’s my advice and it’s worked out pretty well for me.