Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day Two: New Challenges, New Friends

Today I woke up at 7:20, refreshed, before my alarm went off. Though now, I'm tired. With work tomorrow, I may call it an early night.

I hit a few bumps in the road today. I had to move 3 floors straight up after a few hours of trying to figure out why my darn electricity wasn't working--turns out, nobody's quite sure. That was irritating.

I am currently pirating internet from a company next-door, and the signal is terrible. My contract as written never specified internet, and so I'm getting what I paid for. I also realized that the Chinese government has specifically blacklisted my blog (as you can tell, I can still access the blogger dashboard to post, but I cannot read my own posts); my views are apparently too dangerous for the Chinese people. Frankly, I'm a bit flattered they care.

I also think my bank account is frozen due to suspicious withdrawals in Beijing (all of which are my own, of course). I tried calling, but I need to call between 9 and 5, EST. That is irritating. I still have no money, but I think it will get dealt with. Luckily, my housing agent is pretty patient with me.

After that fiasco, my housing agent (Jack--his English is pretty good) and I had lunch, and I invited him to go drinking, and he invited me to karaoke with his girlfriend. I made a new friend, and he and I are teaching each other a lot about our home countries. He's still helping me deal with the apartment thing.

Jack and I went to the Police Station so I could register myself there. I found out I have to have my paperwork (passport, visa, temporary residency permit) on me at all times, and it could be inspected at any point, for any reason. I suppose this is not that surprising. I just hope I don't lose it. At the police station, I stood for about 40 minutes at the "foreign registry" line behind 5 clearly Chinese-ethnicity people that all spoke Chinese. It was a bit confusing. Jack didn't know what to make of it, either.

I made another friend today, a guy named Ali, a student at Cambridge University, from Taipei, with a thick British accent. He was inspecting the room I moved into (I'm only here temporarily; I will be booted back down to the 6th floor in a few days) with his dad; clearly loaded, and has a cell phone for each Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, and London. Nice guy; also invited me to go drinking.

I have continued to find that my Chinese listening skills are just deplorable. I have to keep asking people to repeat, and more slowly--but I am finding my replies surprisingly quick and sharp.

After all this mess, I trekked north, to find my job. I went along the Third Ring Road, one of Beijing's five massive loop highways. The walk was hot, and my nose started bleeding suddenly--a very nice guy named David (it seems everyone with money in Beijing has an English name) jumped to my aide with a tissue, helped me find my way through the sprawl, and critiqued my Chinese (his assessment was that my pronunciation and grammar were great, my vocabulary okay, and my listening skills despicable.). He suggested I go to a park and find some old ladies and play Mahjong with them to practice. I think it's a good idea.

My journey to work was a broiling hour long. The very convenient subway line that could get me there in 15 minutes won't open until late June, and the traffic jam in the mornings is so bad that busses are useless (also, they're pickpocket havens). I may just have to suck it up and walk. But along the way, I made a few more observations:

1) Beijing is in a frenzy. I am guessing preparation for the Olympics has the entire city trying to put its best foot forward, but it's everywhere. I keep walking in the roads because all the sidewalks are being torn up and replaced. Sign-posts are being repainted everywhere. The police are in full deployment, probably to keep the streets clean. I don't see a single open counterfeit DVD dealer no matter where I go (compare this to any Chinatown you've been to).

2) Beijing has the most industrial smell I have smelt in a city. The whole place stinks so wonderfully, so subtlely, of gasoline fumes, of oil lubricants, of tar; the air is dusty and thick, the sky is glaringly bright and grey. There is no blue to be seen. Buildings are a gentle blur behind the smog-soup in the iron rice bowl of Beijing.

3) Soviet influence remains, however small. While Soviet factories have been torn down, hotels built for Soviet experts and diplomats from the glory days of the Sino-Soviet alliance still standing. I have not found the grandest of Soviet hotels yet, but I did find one: the Kempinksi. It is typically collectivist bland and uniform, yet oppressive. The Soviets were truly masters of crushing every facet of the individual human spirit, even in architecture.

4) The Chinese love the news. It's everywhere on TV, and most of it is covering the Sichuan earthquake, all the time.

5) Communism is out, capital-Fascism is in. In the news, in advertisements, in everything, the State is using every opportunity to promote itself, and to garner popular support. The Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics are focal points for how hard the government is working for China, how awesome the PLA is, etc. All the banks (all of them) are owned by the government, and a few people have told me that this is why they're so terrible. Same with healthcare, all transporation, all television and most news, resource companies (mining, oil, energy, etc). The companies act almost-freely (it's not a planned economy), but in the interest of the State. Government and business leaders are the same people. China's youth, while not the revolutionaries of the Cultural Revolution, are happy to shrug and let the state do its will--all for China. That said, it's a pretty cool form of capital-Fascism--people mostly don't notice it, and mostly go about their lives, worrying about dating, fashion, sports. It's a passive Fascism, one that lets people indulge in the privileges that the government bestows upon them.

6) Ed Steinfeld might be the most famous American in Beijing. A Political Science professor at MIT, Prof. Steinfeld knows most of the Horizon folks, and 2 people on the street that excitedly proclaimed "Ni renshi Edward Steinfeld ma?" when I told them I was an MIT student. It was rather terrifying.

Anyway, I trekked forth and finally found my place of employ. I had some surprisingly competent conversations with very helpful servicefolk that ended up pointing me up to the 7th floor, where Horizon stood. I said "hi" at the counter, told them I'd be there tomorrow, and realized that the 8 people I talked to on Horizon's floor all spoke Chinese. I am now rather terrified that my summer employment may be with people that know no English. Here's to hoping.

On my way home, I decided to take a different route. I went through the Embassy district, and bought some groceries (though I am specifically still lacking in meat, a wok, a wooden spoon for stir-frying, and cooking oil. I don't know why the heck the grocery store I went to lacked these things). The Sanlitun Embassy district was pretty modest, and seems to be composed mostly of pre-fabbed two-story buildings for the "little guys--" Somalia, Portugal, Honduras were all there. The US, Australian, UK, Japanese, Korean embassies have their own homes.

I have made a short list of must-go places for me while in Beijing, that I suppose I will start getting to come this Saturday: Beijing Dagong Kaoya Dian (Lonely Planet says it's some of the best Peking Duck in the city), Tiananmen Square (and the Great Hall of the People--I plan to be there on June 4th to let myself be disappointed into realizing that the Chinese youth will be there flying kites instead of demonstrating), Chaoyang Park, Jingshan Park (where I will play Mahjong and do Taichi with some old folks), the Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, some Peking Opera, the Great Wall, and hutongs (literally "alleyways," but they're enclaves of old-school Chinese street-side markets). That's it so far.

We'll see if these plans actually come to fruition. My Chinese is bad enough that those that know English are insisting on speaking it to me, and I am going to struggle to really immerse myself unless I have an epiphany of sorts. I am still a bit scared, but hopefully, going to work and meeting people I'll actually know will help me stay busy, and learning.

I can't afford to stop, not for a minute. Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their vision. I'm armed with a bit of the local language, but besides that, I'm living the dream, right there.
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