Arrival: Beijing Post 1

There was a Chinese woman at the San Francisco airport during my layover who couldn’t speak any English. After about a minute of watching her futile attempt to order a drink from Starbucks using hand motions and grunts, I intervened. “What would to like to buy?” I asked her in Chinese. She looked at me with a puzzled stare and, after a moment, responded with a pronounced Beijing accent. I ordered her a large black coffee that, to the best of my understanding, she had requested. When she received her drink she looked frustrated and disappointed. Oh well… I tried.

I’ve taken four years of Chinese— three years in high school and two semesters at Davidson— and for three and a half of those years, my professors have been Taiwanese. I was warned that the Beijing accent would be different from what I was used to. Characterized by a lot of mumbling and the addition of a harsh rrrrr to the end of a lot of words, I knew to expect a lot of confusion.

I joked to my parents on a phone call home that each taxi ride I took on my first few days in Beijing was like a game of roulette. I would dictate my location to the drivers, but I had no clue until my arrival if where they were taking me was actually my desired location. I’ve come to appreciate the Beijing accent. It’s forced me to listen more intently, speak more clearly, and pay better attention to my tones. I am keenly aware that to them, I talk funny, too.

Almost everybody I’ve spoken to in Beijing has given me the same puzzled look as the woman in Starbucks. I guess they’re just taken aback to see a wairen (foreign person) speak Chinese. I live in 三里屯 (Sanlitun), which is a large expat area. Although restaurant workers and store clerks are accustomed to interacting with foreigners, many of them do not speak any English. The area is very commercial. There is a mall at every corner and restaurants that cater to the tastes of the neighborhood’s foreign residents. I’ve actually had to do a bit of research to find good, authentic Chinese restaurants that aren’t just tourist traps. A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is that if the sign is mostly in English, I probably won’t find many Beijingers eating there. For my first completely solo abroad experience, Sanlitun was a good area if I found myself tired of hot pot, zhajiang noodles, and jaozi. But I don’t expect that to happen!

I didn’t begin my internship until ten days after my arrival in Beijing because of the national holiday, Dragon Boat Festival. I took that time to do the bulk of my tourist activities in the city, but because I didn’t know when I’d be called into work I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived. I was able to hit many of the big destinations within my first three days: Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Olympic Park, and Wanfujing Snack Street. I loved riding the metro to each destination. Though a city of 22 million people, I immediately felt very immersed in the ebb and flow of transit in the city.

Goodbye to Shanghai

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It is hard to believe that the semester is already ending, but I have finished up my last homework assignments, bought all my last-minute gifts, and started packing. Although I came into this semester as a rather sheltered student from the suburbs, I feel like I’m leaving it as a jet-setting international traveler.

I have loved my time in Shanghai. Every time I ride in a taxi and look up at those big skyscrapers at night, I can feel that I’m at the center of a passionate global city. From eating street food at night near Tonghe to walking along the Bund, it has been an amazing semester.

My time in Shanghai is ending, but Shanghai will always have a very special place in my heart. I made such meaningful friendships and had such wonderful experiences in one of the interesting cities in the world.

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When I came to China I had the goals of improving my language ability, experiencing new things, and learning as much as possible about what real daily life is like for Chinese people. I have gotten that and so much more out of my four months here. The countless people I’ve met in Shanghai and other places around China have each provided their own unique window through which I have seen the reality of their lives. I have gotten the chance to see amazing sights, try amazing food, and simply appreciate living in a truly foreign environment.

I must say that participating in FDANSO, the street dance group at Fudan University, has been the highlight of my experience in Shanghai. Never before have I been in such an environment, one where I knew exceptionally little about what was happening, what was being said, or how things operated. But I quickly learned how to make friends, and through those friendships I was able to understand what being a young person in China is like.

The dancers in that organization are the reason I am thankful to have been in Shanghai, and I feel truly privileged to have been allowed to join them. I learned a great deal about how to work with people, how to communicate, and how to let certain things go. I learned I do not need to know everything that is going on at every moment. I learned that as people we all have similar pressures. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that sometimes the most meaningful communication happens independent of verbal language. When I was dancing with everyone, or when I taught them a phrase that I choreographed, there were no words that could substitute for the message that needed to be delivered. That’s why I have so much belief in the power of dance. In those moments our language barrier was lifted, and we could share the experience of performing as one group, as opposed to just being a bunch of Chinese people and me, the white guy.

Even given all the challenges, all the struggles, and all of the yearning for the familiar, I can say that leaving is especially bittersweet. I feel like it has been so long since I’ve lived in the world that I knew. But what I’ve come to understand is that being here did not exile me, it’s just made “my world” bigger. I go back to the United States now with a better understanding of the realities of modern China and a new appreciation for our increasingly global culture. Not to mention a few new dance moves.

NPR In China

what is the world beyond Tonghe, our international student dorm?

I have several necessary characteristics that change my dorm room into a home: lighting incense, wearing my wool socks, making tea, and putting on NPR. Like any addict, I go through phases where I listen to hours and hours of NPR. I have been known to listen to NPR during the entire drive from Virginia Beach, my hometown, to Davidson College–that is a solid six hours. Listening to the audio in China has been one of my strangest NPR experiences of all, though. I can listen to NPR and sometimes find out what is happening outside my own window in Shanghai.

Listening to NPR is relatively pretentious, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

I listen to NPR for endless reasons: to be better educated, to hear about the world, to fill the silence, or to soothe my boredom. Although I know that bias and perception influence any news story, I have never been more aware of that fact than while listening to NPR stories on China. I have only noticed a few stories on China, and most are in the context of the U.S. What does China mean for the U.S. presidential election? What does China mean for the U.S. fiscal cliff? Although I am living abroad in Shanghai, these stories do not mean much more to me than they did before traveling. These stories are written for Americans with an American education and cultural bias, and I easily fit that model.

Other new stories, though, have become exponentially more meaningful to me since coming to China. Stories that I used to ignore now represent and mean so much. For example, there was a very brief recent story on Haagen-Dazs winning an infringement lawsuit in China. General Mills, the owner of Haagen-Dazs, sued a clothing company named Harga-Dazs for name infringement. If I lived in the United States, I would not think twice about such a short snippet. But since living in Shanghai for four months, I can see more and more how small snippets like that one relate to the greater themes of globalization, intellectual property, shanzai (a name for Chinese copycat products), and cultural heritage.

As I thought about returning home to the United States, I reflected on how my study abroad experience will translate to my home life. I realized that studying abroad has changed my life in countless ways, even with small moments like listening to NPR. Studying abroad has widened my perspective on an infinite number of topics, and even  the most mundane details, like eating Haagen-Dasz ice cream, will now have a more global meaning for me.

 

Pieces of History: The Terra-cotta Warriors

The Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum is the home of China’s largest and richest burial tomb. Day after day, thousands of tourists come to this site to see the world-renowned Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses. Remembered as China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang ruled from 246BCE to 221BCE. He is most famous for unifying China, linking the different sections of the Great Wall, and creating the Terra-cotta Army to protect him in his afterlife.

Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was one of the main stops on our program’s trip to Xi’an. Before visiting this site, I knew very little about the Terra-cotta Warriors and Emperor Qin. I had only seen brief sections about the Terra-cotta Warriors on television programs or the warriors photographed in textbooks. When I walked into Pit One, the largest excavation site, my jaw dropped at the scene. The warriors were truly breathtaking. In Pit One there are an estimated 6,000 warriors, and only 1,000 have been recovered so far. Hundreds were lined up within Pit One’s archeological site, and no two figures were the same. Each life-sized soldier had his own unique facial features, clothing style and body build. During our time at the museum, our tour guide, Allen, told us about the history of the Terra-cotta Army. He was able to answer all of our questions and point out details we should not overlook in the archeological sites. Below are some things I learned from at Qin’s mausoleum.

  • In 1974, local Xi’an farmers discovered the Terra-cotta warriors while digging a well near Qin’s mausoleum. They reported the artifacts to the local officials, but they never imagined a whole army underground. I thought the warriors were discovered long before the 1970s. It is hard to believe such a spectacle was hidden for thousands of years. Allen told us that there were no records of the Terra-cotta Army, so there was no reason to search the land around Qin’s burial site.
  • According to Allen, there are stories of other farmers finding parts of the soldiers in the soil before 1974. When these farmers discovered the Terra-cotta Warriors, they only found pieces of the soldiers in the soil. Due to the deep superstitions, the farmers were initially afraid of their findings. They believed that the pieces they encountered were actually demons, monsters or ghosts wanting to haunt them. It is said that one farmer even tied the terracotta soldier parts pieces he found to a tree and shattered them to avoid bad luck and fortune. These farmers wished to erase their findings and did not report the artifacts to local government.
  • When the Terra-cotta soldiers were placed underground, a wooden structure was built on top to hold the ground ceiling from caving in. This structure did not withstand time. According local history, the wooden ceiling was burned and destroyed by looters thousands of years ago. Thus, almost all of the soldiers and horses uncovered and displayed at the museum were broken and had to be restored by archeologists. Only a few of the 6,000 soldiers were actually found in tact. This surprised me. For some reason, I thought the Terra-cotta Warriors were discovered in relatively good conditions inside a large tomb, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. But, in hindsight I should have expected the clay warriors to be broken after all of these years. Some untouched sections of the pits were on display to show the original state of the findings. I saw that some of the terra-cotta pieces were larger, such as a whole leg or bust, but most of the pieces were smaller and embedded in the dirt. Allen told us that the restoration process takes about two years. Each piece must be carefully separated from the dirt mounds, cataloged and placed in the right position.
  • The Terra-cotta warriors were all painted when they were first buried. The mono-colored warriors on display were already a spectacle to me. I had a hard time imagining the warriors covered in rich reds, blues, yellows and greens. Over the years, the paint has faded due exposure to light, temperature, and humidity. Some of the soldiers were found with remnants of paint on them, but painted parts faded even more after the pieces were removed from the site. The scientists and archeologists are still researching for better preservation techniques. For instance, the covering on Pit Two did not allow as much light into the excavation site as Pit One. This decreased the artifacts’ exposure to sunlight and humidity. Until a restoration process that protects the paint is perfected, soldiers still buried will remain untouched and underground.

Seeing the Terra-cotta Warriors was an experience I will never forget. I now understand the historic greatness of this archeological find. I look forward to following the progress of future extractions and the development of restoration technology. This historic wonder should be shared with future generations, so keeping the Terra-cotta Army alive and close to their original state is important. I enjoyed my time at the museum so much that I even bought two decorative Terra-cotta Warriors from the museum gift shop. Now, I can enjoy this piece of history when I go home.

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