Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Day One: Groping for China

Note: This post has few pictures, but I will add more to later posts. Gotta take them in the daytime.


I touched down in Beijing at 2:05PM, local time (that's 2:05AM, Boston time), and stepped out to admire the truly epic color, haziness, and smell of Beijing's famous smog. Through customs, Chinese government workers stood with high discipline and pride at their small contribution to making China greater. I realized I was in the first rising Great Power that has existed since World War II. And they know it.

My taxi ride was awkward--I could talk to the poor guy, but not understand a word he was saying... his accent was far too thick. We got lost, and ended up in a traffic jam in the new Airport Expressway, built exactly for the Olympics. The ironic and terrible thing was that, sitting on our expressway for 30 minutes, unmoving, we stared longingly at the six or seven expressways that were completely empty of cars, wondering why we could not use them. China may have some transportation issues come early August. Newly-planted trees were lined up in awkwardly straight and forced rows along the dirt on either side of the high-rise highway, and great construction vehicles still steamed along underneath.

As we approached Beijing proper, I noticed a few things about it.
1) It's big. Much, much bigger than the maps seem to imply. It makes Boston look like a speck (it is).
2) It's tall. Skyscrapers are everywhere. Apartments rising above 30 stories seems to be the norm. The Prudential can't hold a candle to literally hundreds of the towers in this city.
3) The traffic is horrid. I was terrified, and my driver was even being reasonable. The whole place makes Boston drivers look angelic.

After getting lost, we found my apartment, which is actually quite nice. I do have almost all the furnishings I thought I would, though as you have already read, I'm at a public computer. Nonetheless, I'll be quite physically comfortable in the apartment.

But as I upacked, I was gripped by some culture shock, and some fear of leaving. I was pretty sure I would be more comfortable staying inside, reading... luckily, the lack of internet made my usual time-wasting mechanic unavailable.

I decided to go ahead and gander around, at least get a sense of my territory. As night fell, I started to wander.

Turns out, I'm in a both very wealthy, and very authentically Chinese part of the city. One of Lonely Planet's top Beijing bars is at the bottom of the tower I live in (it's called Beer Mania). There is a hospital within a block's walking distance. To my north, jazz clubs, night clubs, and bars. To my south, restaurants, and lots of small convenience shops. To my east, more of the same, but with small side-streets with oodles people selling food out of tiny windows with no price tags and no conception of English--while I was too terrified to touch this food on day one, I found it my favorite place to visit so far. I got dinner at a place where again, nobody spoke English, and I awkwardly ordered by gesturing at pictures and placing the appropriate Chinese sentence structure around a lot of "Zheige!" ("This!")

I learned a few more things along my travel this evening.

1) I am terrible at Chinese. Really horrid. Especially listening. I know just enough to do almost nothing. I am not sure how this happened. Part of my problem is other people's accents... I just can't manage to successfully listen to what they have to say. This results in many one-sided conversations.

2) There are cranes everywhere. I mean it. This city is going to be a lot bigger than it even already is in a few years. I saw a single construction site with 12 cranes, all of which were bigger than the crane used for the MIT Media Lab extension.

3) Everyone smokes and spits. I actually got spat on tonight by someone.

4) Children are the same everywhere. Though the Chinse give them some more leeway in their ability to be-loud-and-obnoxious in public. I like it.

5) Americans are not the only people with bad beer taste. At the bars, the big, proud signs outside said "Budweiser," "Miller Lite," and "Carlsberg." Nothing exciting.

6) Alcohol and Cigarettes are eveywhere. Any street you go to, there will be little shops dedicated to just these two commodities. Most covenience stores seem to have them rather prominently displayed.

7) Beijing is a spectacular dichotomy. Most of what I walked through looked like some of the nicer neighborhoods of Boston, but even within Chaoyang, these little alleyways jutted out with very low-income commercial stuff. Lots of people still ride around on three-wheeled bicycles with small motors, carrying loads-too-wide strapped down with bungees.

8) As a white man, you are not immune to local traffic etiquette. And the local etiquette seems to be "might makes right-of-way." I've already almost gotten run over, but mostly by bicyclists.

This whole experience is already terrifying--I am looking forward to seeing people that will become a social network... Horizon employees, other MIT students.

I still have yet to find a darn grocery store. I need groceries.

But as much as feeling like a tourist is kindof fun, we can't forget, kids, that we're on a mission. Today is day one in my journey to heal the Sino-American relationship.
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