Friday, June 13, 2008

Beijing: Up Close

Today's blog is written by one of my grandsons, Jeff. Jeff is spending most of the next year in China studying the language and the culture. The pledge he refers to in his letter that follows is the commitment to speak only Chinese for the remainder of the session which starts next week. He has been assigned a Chinese roommate to facilitate that purpose. Other then English, Chinese will be Jeff's third language as he is now fluent in Spanish and French. To me, Jeff gives new meaning to the phrase "Carpe Diem" (Seize the Day). Here's his letter:

June 12, 2008.
Beijing, China.


I drew my last breaths of Grand Rapidian air as I entered the airport hoping that which I would soon be breathing (equivalent to 30 cigarettes a day) would spare my lungs already marred by a year spent in Europe. Maybe the surgeon general should place warning labels on countries? A three hour lay-over in Chicago let me meet 5 other people with CET, my study abroad program. We paced up and down the terminal hoping our last minute exercise and youth would repel any deep-vein thrombosis. The lady that checked me in took one look at my brobdingnagian proportions and gave me an exit row seat, thank goodness. We boarded around 12, and were supposed to disembark at 12:43. We realized that something might be wrong when at 1:30 we were still sitting at the gate, and the captain came onto the intercom to dispel any ghoulish delusions,

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are having a few technical difficulties with the fuel system. It seems that one of the pumps will not shut off. We are working as quickly as we can to try to get it up to compliance so we can take off as soon as we are able. Thank you."

No, take your time. After sitting on the tarmac for an extra 2 hours, we took off as scenes from Airplane rushed through my head, seriously, Shirley. The flight in was unbecomingly long, my only saviors Benadryl and the notion that I was flying to China, a dream of mine for years. We flew north and west, and somewhere between the Arctic tundra and glacial ice flows I managed to sleep for 6 hours.

After almost 15 hours on the plane we landed, cleared customs (Piece of cake) and took a bus to campus. We had to drive across downtown, and I desperately tried to fight sleep and watch the scenery, but a late night of packing and the last bit of antihistamine cursing through my blood overcame my curiosity, and I slept.

A city of 15.9 million people, 60,000 taxis, air pollution and superhuman construction projects, Beijing is just as much a juxtaposition of old and new as they say. Modern sky-rises tower over old relics, and electric bikes pulling rickshaws are bargained for on street corners. I have never had any real exposure to China. After deciding to study abroad, I read a few books and watched Drunken Master, starring Jackie Chan (an excellent movie of minimal cultural value), and tried to keep my mind away from stereotypes as much as I could as to not have unrealistic expectations. As impossible as it was, I am finding that I was pleasantly disillusioned. The image of a dirty, overpopulated cesspool of pollution and corruption that some people describe was immediately replaced by a modern-looking city teeming with life and interspersed with tree-lined boulevards, parks, and neon signs. Giant intersections with electric buses, electric bicycles, (as well as gas powered everything) seemed to surpass American ambitions, and even though pollution is a problem, it is not evident until respiration becomes important. Most of the streets that I have seen are free from any debris at all, thanks to the many street-sweepers (people with brooms) and frequent trash receptacles. For those of you who have been to Munich, most of the streets are that clean. The air on the other hand is a different story. As one of the students put it, "Does anyone else feel like they are constantly smoking through their nose?" Beijing lung is laughed about until the laughter dies in sputtering coughs. We are told that we will get used to it, but building up tolerance to heavy metals and wind-born particles seems ill-advised. Inside the buildings it is much better, and my room has air conditioning, which is worth its weight in jade.

We are in the western part of the city, in the Xicheng District at the Beijing Institute of Education. It is a small school that specializes in education. I have a double room on the third floor and my roommate Xu Jie, a Chinese national, moves in later today. Nearby there is a huge park, a zoo, many shopping centers, and other universities. This part of the city is known as the cheapest area to buy clothes in Beijing as well as the center for universities. The subway stop is a 15 min walk away, and is easy to use. We had a tour of the area yesterday, and took the subway which was astoundingly vacant at 12:30 pm. It's hot and humid, but sunny— the nights are pleasant.

There are 77 kids in the program, the majority of which are from the US. It has been fun hanging out and getting to know everyone, but I hear that once classes and the language pledge begin (that's right, Monday morning at 8:00 we can no longer speak English) students almost exclusively hang out with people in their class level, of which there are 7 or so. Most of the kids are from the East coast, and I have only met 3 people that have heard of Hope, and no more than 10 that actually knew that Grand Rapids was in Michigan. Ironically, the only other person that studied abroad to China from Hope was in the same program in the south of China last year as one of the girls I met. Traveling emphasizes how small the world is. It's hard to fathom that I am basically on the other side of the world, upside down to all of you, and all I had to do was take a few plane trips and a bus. It seems like I am just next door, with different surroundings.

One of the hardest things so far is how everything is written in Chinese. If I do not know the character, I have no way to sound it out. Most things are completely illegible. I have taken two semesters, but that was last summer, and I have forgotten a lot. There are of English signs too, but they don't always make sense, and more often than not the Chinese message is really long, and the English translation is something like, "Be careful the laces from being involved in the lift," and other nonsensical things. Shopping is difficult at times for that reason, but it will get easier as I get used to it.

The food is incredible. Two days ago for dinner, we went to a restaurant that specializes in jiaozi. 14 of us went, and got two private rooms. Between the vegetarians, vegans, nut allergies (I am not the only one, so I didn't feel as bad) After an hour, we managed to order 4 dishes and some tea. It was funny how bad we were, and how long it took to order. The food finally arrived, and after eating for 10 minutes or so, the power went out. Luckily someone had a cell phone with a light, and we ate by the light of her phone.

About this time I realized what I was doing and where I was. I was eating in the dark by the light of a cell-phone on the third floor of a sweltering Chinese restaurant with a waitress that spoke no English and neither the people I was with or myself spoke much Chinese. Some were struggling with chopsticks and how to say 'I want those dumplings steamed, not fried.' Jet-lagged, in need of a shower, struck with humility, and how ridiculous we must all look among a sea of Chinese people, I laughed.

Welcome to Beijing.

Jeff Vredenburg

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