Episode 2: The First Week in Beijing

Since my arrival into China, I have seen, heard, and smelled all sorts of things.  It’s been a crazy few days, but they’ve made me come to enjoy this city so much.

It would be best to start with my arrival into the country on Tuesday, August 19th. After a nearly fourteen hour flight from Newark, NJ to Beijing, my body and mind were exhausted.  Upon landing, I was given a small yellow card that is required in order to pass through the immigration services at any Chinese airport.  The card asked for basic information to verify identity and confirm residency plans while in the country. After making my way through the immigration services, I traveled by shuttle to another terminal in order to pick up my luggage at the baggage claim.  My bag was one of the last to come off the plane, and this forced me to wait and observe my surroundings.  Once I had gotten my bag, I began to make my way for the exit when a man approached me.  He asked if I needed a taxi. In my disheveled thought process I said that I did, and I followed him.  It wasn’t until he had placed me into his car and asked for the ridiculous amount of 500 RMB upfront that I knew I was being swindled by a black taxi.  A black taxi in China refers to a person who illegally runs transportation services out of their personal vehicle and charges those who ride an excessive fee. Once I realized what was happening, I demanded to be let out of the vehicle and began to scream at the man who planned to drive me in order to bring attention to this black taxi.  After grabbing my belongings from him, I ran back into the airport and searched for someone to direct me towards the real taxis. Luckily, I found a man who spoke English, and he showed me to the right area to board a taxi.  After working my way to the location, I found a driver who was willing to drive to the university at which I am studying.  He had me toss my luggage into his trunk and we were off. I listened to music as he drove through Beijing from the airport to my university.  The ride was almost fourth-five minutes long, and when he pulled up to the destination, I was overjoyed to hop out and grab my things.  Had I paid more attention, I would have seen that the driver did not drop me off at the proper campus of the university.  Two younger ladies, presumably college students, were walking past me. I asked them for help in Chinese, showed them the map my program had sent me, and they laughed and said they would walk me over to where I needed to be.  They showed me to my proper campus.  I walked into the main reception area, where I was greeted by a program worker, Colin. He gave me a briefing of what I could expect for the first night at the campus, helped get me registered, and took me to my room.  The rooms at this university are very similar to those of hotels.  There is a very high quality to the aesthetic in the dorm room, and the international building in general.  I was relieved to find out that the dorm offered western-style toilets.  Colin told me that my roommate would be arriving in roughly one week. While I was unpacking and settling into my room, the door opened. A younger man entered and introduced himself as Alex. Alex is British and here to study Mandarin for a year.  He opted to stay in the dorm for a month while he tries to secure a home stay for the duration of his time here. He is part of a larger group of students from England who will be studying at the university.  He informed me that his bag had been misplaced during his connection flight in Dubai, so he planned on shopping for his basic needs shortly. He left, rather promptly, and I decided to shower and relax. I very shortly fell asleep thereafter.

The next morning, Wednesday, August 20th, all students involved in my particular program were to meet Colin at 10am in the lobby of the dorm.  There we met, and I was introduced to the rest of the students. I met Marisol, a long-haired, shorter Mexican girl. She is from Mexico City and Utah and decided to study the language in order to pursue linguistic studies.  I also met Jashea, a short-haired, taller Caribbean girl who is a business major in Oswego, New York.  She said that studying Chinese would push her along in her career track.  We all were informed that Xiaomara, an African-American girl from Boston, would not be joining us in the morning, because she was at her home stay family’s house for an event.  With the three of us students and Colin gathered in the lobby, we departed for our first event together: a walking tour of our area in Beijing.  Colin provided us with valuable information, like the name of our bus stop, and the location of the nearest subway station.  He presented us each with a transit are that was preloaded by my program in order to make sure that exploration and finding our desires was possible.  We then took a bus up some way to the old CCTV tower in order to see major traffic junctions and the park that was very near by.  We then took the bus in the opposite direction from the university to see some local shops and such.  Colin took us into a small cafe and bought us each a tea and answered some basic questions about the city.  Afterwards, we returned to the university and had lunch in one of the on-campus restaurants.  The Japanese-western restaurant offered very delicious food.  Colin then informed us he had a meeting and that he would see us at 3pm in the lobby in order to go to orientation.  Around 3pm, we reunited in the lobby and went into a classroom at the university.  Xiaomara joined us there. Colin went through a powerpoint presentation and answered questions that we had about the program’s academic standpoint.  After his presentation, Colin took us to a local restaurant for a welcoming dinner that would expose us to the local foods of Beijing.  We had a large variety at our table like dumplings, spicy beef and peppers, corn soup, broccoli, cabbage, and kung-pow chicken.  The dinner was very delicious and filling. We all then returned to the dorm to conclude a very intense day.

The following day, Thursday, August 20th,  all us students met Colin in the lobby in order to depart for our adventure that day.  We were headed to the Urban Planning Hall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.  We needed to take several subways there. That day was the first I had ever ridden on the Beijing subway system.  The Urban Planning Hall was the first on the list of places to visit, and we arrived on time.  The building is dedicated to documenting the development of Beijing by providing histories of the city and plans for the future.  Inside, there is a scale model of the city, which proves to be massive.  In the room, the physical model only went so far. Where it ended, the floor took over.  The floor was comprised of tiles that were satellite images of the city.  After viewing this and receiving some general information about the city from Colin, we went to another room and experienced a 4-D movie that discussed the plans for the future of Beijing’s transportation system.  Once the movie had ended, we saw a few more exhibits and then left the building in order to break for lunch and shopping.  Colin went to a cafe and us students searched for the nearest equivalent to  Wal-Mart, because we all desperately yearned for some Western products that we had not packed.  Sadly, we did not find the products we desired, but rather those that were big sellers in Beijing.  We left the Wal-Mart empty handed and reunited with Colin.  We proceeded to Tiananmen Square. There, Colin gave us a very brief history of the space and why it is such a controversial topic in China.  He also explained that Chinese youth and teenagers are never told about the events that occurred there in order to promote the good decisions of the government. We took many pictures in the square and then headed towards the legendary Forbidden City.  Colin again gave us the history of the location while we walked through.  The architecture of the Forbidden City was absolutely fantastic and breath-taking.  Once we had walked through the entire structure, we were all exhausted and returned to the university.  Shortly after, we all fell asleep.

On the next morning, Friday, August 21st, we met in the obey at 9am in order to visit the Marco Polo Bridge in the the neighborhood of WanPing.  The neighborhood was about an hour away from the university by bus.  It is a much poorer part of Beijing than the places we had seen until that point.  We worked our way through the streets and arrived at the gate of the fort that houses the bridge.  Colin gave us some history about the importance of the bridge and that particular gate.  We went through the stone gate and walked the street of shops and restaurants.  The location has a very old vibe to it and looks as if it hasn’t left the late 1800s.  Once past this, we arrived at the bridge and traversed it.  The detail of the lions that sit atop each port of the bridge is remarkable and no two are exactly the same.  The view from the bridge is rather pleasant and demonstrates why Marco Polo called this bridge in particular the most fantastic he had ever seen.  We left the bridge and headed back to the university in order to relax for a few hours before meeting again at 7pm.  When we reconvened, we left our university and travelled to another in Beijing to what is called “English Corner”, a location where native-speakers of English can go to have conversations with people from Beijing who also speak English.  We spent several hours there holding conversations with many of the people.  It was a very enjoyable experience.  We then returned tot the dorm in oder to get a good night’s sleep. 

The next morning, Saturday, August 22nd, we all met another worker from the program, Helen, in order to hold a survival/refresher course in Mandarin.  We spent about two hours going over basic phrases involving the most common activities like ordering food, getting directions, and shopping.  Once the lesson had concluded, we were instructed to go to a famous shopping area in Beijing by the zoo.  Helen gave us the specific subway stops to take and make transfers, so we would not become lost.  After making our way there, we perused the shopping area, which included many knock-off imitations of famous brands, which were meant to lure in foreigners.  While there, we saw a variety of shops, from clothing, to beauty supplies, to technology, and even food.  After taking it all in, we left and returned to the university in order to grab some dinner and relax for the evening. I practiced some Chinese and cleaned up my dorm room. I also did my laundry.  One of the most perplexing habits of the Chinese is the distrust of dryers.  The Chinese feel that leaving clothes out to dry in the air is the most efficient and cleanest way to dry clothing.  Needless to say, after being charged a high price to obtain the washer token, I have decided to wash my clothes daily in my sink and hang them to dry in my room each night. 

Sunday, August 23rd: Today started out perfectly quaint.  I went to get breakfast at a nearby store.  Then, all us students met with Helen and another worker of the program, Fei Fei, to visit the National Art Museum of China.  We spent a few hours browsing through all of the art that the building contained and received histories of the works from Helen.  After the museum, Helen had to leave, and Fei Fei took us to a store so we could purchase our Chinese cell phones. The cost was relatively low, only 300 RMB, for a basic smartphone that could receive email and use applications like WeChat.  The service is set to last for about 3 months, so there shouldn’t be many problems with communication. After buying our phones, we returned to the university.  Fei Fei invited us to go swimming with her at her personal university a few blocks away.  We went and swam for most of the afternoon. When we returned, we decided that we were all going to take naps and get dinner.  We napped and reunited in order to decide what to eat.  We went and bought dumplings and baozi and enjoyed them thoroughly. 

I will try to update the blog weekly, but each entry will hold the highlights of the day/series of days, because as the semester draws near, the my focus will shift to my schoolwork.  If you would like to see photos of Bejing, feel free to add me on Facebook (Mike Magistro) or by emaling me at michael.magistro@icloud.com   

Operation: 北京 Episode 1: Pre-departure

Over the last few months, I have spent many hours preparing for the biggest adventure of my life to date: studying abroad in Beijing, China for the fall semester of 2014.  Now, just a day and a few hours before I set out on this adventure, I have time to reflect on everything that has flown through my mind these last few months.  

The steps taken to prepare accordingly for this trip have been numerous.  Besides the obvious, such as a passport and visa, going to Beijing brought a few surprise challenges. Firstly, maneuvering around China’s internet censorship became a priority.  I had to purchase a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, that allows me to  access websites that are typically blocked in China.  The relatively small $100 fee will be well worth the ability to check my email accounts as well as keep in touch with friends and family back home.  

Another obstacle in the planning aspect was the amount of medicine I needed to bring to be safe.  Because China does not use western medicine practices as extensively as other countries, I had to do some research to determine which medications I should bring.  Most are simple over-the-counter medications, like NyQuil and ibuprofen.   While inexpensive, bringing a decent supply of these medications filled a significant amount of my luggage.  It’s much better to be safe than sorry in the long run while abroad.  

As I prep for this once n a lifetime adventure, I keep my mind open to what Beijing has to offer me, and I am ready to dive into the culture.