Beijing State of Mind: 北京 (Pt. I)

Not yet one full week into my two year commitment in Taigu, and I was ready to leave. Maybe the rain was starting to get to me, or the air, or the overwhelming feeling of being an outsider in this country. Whatever it was, there was hardly an escape. The days that lingered on did so without repent, and I didn’t want to burden my Senior Fellows with the grief and trouble of entertaining me when there was nothing for me to do. I figured that learning to cope with bouts of boredom and loneliness were all part of the necessary culture shock experience, but already my patience was beginning to wear thin. I was anxious for James to arrive, and for classes to start, but, at the same time, I was intensely scared of those same inevitabilities.

Without many other options, I tried my hand at simply living in the present. Fortunately for me, Anne mentioned after a few days that she would be going to Beijing to visit some friends before classes were to start. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. The trip would figure nicely under the umbrella banner of past travel experiences with friends—as did the nature of my friendship with Anne in general. Over the greater part of the first week, we had been spending a lot of time together—not surprising, given that I am known to fall under the guise of strong female figures when experiencing a new place. Such was the case at Oberlin (Cheska), studying abroad in Japan (Katie), and even this past summer at Cornell (Jannine). There’s something about female friends that put me at ease and bring me a great deal of comfort in unfamiliar surroundings—perhaps a microcosm of my general approach when it comes to the majority of the friends that I keep. I also knew, however, that these kinds of friendships can sometimes become stifling and overwhelming—that two people can grow tired of each other in the time it takes for them to be propelled towards one another in the first place—an oversight that has endangered some of my friendships in the past. I recognized this, and tried to preempt it—devising my own itinerary for the time that Anne might be spending time with friends, and selling myself on introspectiveness for large parts of the trip.

Anne and I would be joined by her Chinese friend Lynn (who I mentioned briefly in my first China post) for four days in Beijing. The two of us would be staying at Anne’s great aunt and uncle’s house, thus saving ourselves the trouble of finding and paying for a hostel, while Lynn would be staying with her boyfriend who works in Beijing. I was excited and nervous at the same time. Though Taigu life was bearing down on me, I felt like I still hadn’t fully settled and that the few roots I had planted would be quickly wrenched from the ground. Unlike all of the other Fellows, I hadn’t spend significant time in Beijing (or any time for that matter, outside of my three-hour layover), and so I was also skeptical of my own ability to navigate in a big city without a commanding knowledge of spoken or written Chinese. More still was the issue of money, and (more specifically) not having very much of it, because institutions that accept credit cards, both in Taigu and beyond, are still something of an anomaly in China. But these hindrances aside, I was excited for the change of pace, and the chance to experience a city that many have compared to Tokyo and New York—at least one of which I am incredibly fond of.

One of the scenic posts in Taiyuan, which we perused before boarding the fast train to Beijing.

Our journey began at 7am sharp—with just enough time for me to pack, change, and get to the train station headed first toward Taiyuan, and then by fast train to Beijing. We arrived in Taiyuan in time for breakfast—a short meal of rice porridge or zhou, this time sweetened with fruit, as I had never experienced before—and had a decent amount of time to kill. After some window-shopping and clothes-trying—done largely to humor the whims of store employees eager to impress some Chinese fashion upon me—we went to a big park to sit and relax. Park culture, as I had learned from textbook readings over the summer at Cornell, is very big in China. Most parks are free, but other well-known ones run a few yuan. This particular one even featured a small amusement park—a miniature Coney Island, complete with a tiny rollercoaster, merry-go-round, and a few carnival games sprinkled amidst food vendors and other stands. When I relayed the advice I had gleamed from the text to Lynn—that visiting small Chinese parks is a great way to observe the daily life and customs of Chinese people—she laughed at me. No one goes to parks to observe natural life, she told me. Rather, people go there to live their own lives and heed their own habits, separate from those of others, and in that way, people can enjoy one another’s company more-or-less harmoniously. And for a few hours, under the shade of a few trees alongside the amusement park, we did just that.

The self-contained amusement park, which, inexplicably, had a very A Bug's Life-feel to it.

We eventually met up with the first of Anne’s friends—Acacia, a recent graduate of Shanxi Agricultural University who now works in Taiyuan. We went to lunch, and though I understood only fragments of conversation, it was good to experience an immersive Chinese language environment—something I would encounter time and again over the course of my four days in Beijing. After lunch, we bid farewell to Acacia and the three of us boarded the fast train to Beijing—three hours wrought with small conversation and shut-eye. When we arrived, we headed straight for Anne’s great aunt’s house. Located snuggly in the center of West Beijing, it was a boon to be able to stay so ideally-situated for free. Her great aunt and uncle were incredibly accommodating, and it wasn’t long after we arrived that we were whisked out to dinner at a fancy nearby restaurant. We ordered perhaps more food than I had seen in my week in Taigu up to that point (and we were no eating slouches in Taigu, either), including some of the famed, oft-exalted Beijing kaoya, or roast duck. Needless to say, the food was delicious, and for the five of us—great aunt and uncle included—it was a veritable feast. In typical Chinese fashion, we were urged to eat and drink mercilessly, this time, thankfully without the added ingestion of alcohol. Even still, by meal’s end, and despite a litter of exhausted plates and stomachs, we ended up taking a few whole dishes to go.

A view from the window of the moving fast train of some of China's lesser-known countryside. Much of the land is terraced to provide better irrigation for farming.

(More on childhood insecurities, Chinese apartments, déjà vu, the Great Wall, kitschy t-shirts, the agents of Westernization, and a shocking revelation in Pt. II of this post).