天津 和 我。

The last few weeks have been comprised of a ton of studying on my part. I haven’t been able to do much that isn’t a CAPA activity or ransoming adventuring in an attempt to find something. I’ve found myself at the Electronics Market here, which is what it implies: a giant marketplace for all sorts of electronics where you bargain for every sale. I walked away from there with some decent quality headphones for a rather cheap price. My adventures have also taken me to a traditional Chinese flea market. Everything is extra cheap, as the the market is not designed to attract foreigners. I found many great souvenirs for loved ones there.

The major adventure of the last few weeks was a trip to TianJin. The city, which serves as the port through which Beijing makes imports, has been the center of much change in recent years. The city was essentially given to many Western nations as a concession after the Opium Wars that ravaged the nation. Due to the Western occupation, much of the architecture of the city reflects a European style, which is very beautifully done. The European influence juxtaposes the traditional Chinese architecture and culture of the city. When Mao took power in 1949, he banished all Western powers from TianJin, but chose to preserve the buildings to serve as cultural preservation. Today, many of the old European buildings have been converted to banks for different Chinese branches.

With all history aside, the city is absolutely stunning. The center of downtown is centralized around a shopping district where many Chinese and Western brands have complete shops, where bargaining is not allowed. This demonstrates how well-off most of the people that live there really are. Unlike Beijing, the apartment complexes and houses of TianJin are rather luxurious and expensive. The city possess a river that cuts through it. There are numerous bridges that cross it, each with a different theme and design. For example, one bridge is made only of wood and glass. Another is designed to replicate a Parisian walkway, and another is done as a butterfly design. All of the bridges are lit up at night, and the sight is simply breathtaking.

TianJin truly stole my heart during my visit there. If I were to ever live in Chia, TianJin would be my preferred living place. The city is not only beautiful, but also extremely close to Beijing, only a half hour apart by high speed train. Since the country is currently developing the land between the two cities, there is a chance that they will eventually merge into one super economic city. Another attribute to that possibility is that the people of TianJin are for the most part very well-off. The presence of beggars is practically nonexistent in the city. Perhaps that was just another reason that the city seemed so beautiful. The trip was something I’ll never forget, and if I have the opportunity to go back before leaving the country, I will go back.

Updates

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I haven’t written for about a month, which has been mainly due to a lot of laziness on my part as well as being completely swamped with work for the Mandarin classes. Truth be told, I haven’t had too many exciting adventures because of the amount of time I have to dedicate to the classes on a weekly basis. Most of my weekends have been spent practicing characters and trying to work just a little bit ahead. With that said, the few adventures I have had during the last few weeks have been very pleasant to say the least.

First, our little CAPA clan went to the Summer Palace. The entire compound was constructed in the mid 1700s by the emperor. It features a man-made lake at the center. It takes up a vast quantity of land. The massiveness of the entire area is really emphasized upon looking over the lake after climbing to the top of the mountain. The view is breathtaking and surreal. It felt as though I were standing in the middle of a movie.

The second excursion over the last few weeks was to Beihai park. The park, much like the Summer Palace is massive. People from all over the city come to the park on the weekend as a way to enjoy their leisure time. Many people gather together and dance together, using almost every style of dance from around the world. The park is built around a decently large lake that can be traversed on a tour boat or on a self-propelled one. At times, it felt like I was walking around a giant estate rather than a public park. The architecture is stunning and lasts the test of time.

With next week, a new series of examinations comes. I have an exam in all three of the sections of my Mandarin courses. The written class’s exam covers chapters 1-25, which is a very large number of characters to have memorized. The details regarding the other exams are very vague, as the teachers refuse to divulge too much information. After the exams, I’ll have a normal week of classes before having a few days off, thanks to APEC. The very important conference is in Beijing this year, and all forms of education are shutting down because of it. I will be utilizing the time to work ahead a little, do a little gift shopping, and take a trip to the city of Tianjin.

21st in Beijing and Tests for Days

So, I know it has been a few weeks since I’ve written for this blog. That’s due to a combination of being busy and also being a little lazy. The last two weeks in Beijing have been rather quiet. On September 16th, I celebrated my 21st birthday. The day itself was very low-key, because I had my Mandarin classes in the morning as well as a CAPA course in the afternoon. During that course, however, my professor surprised me with a bottle of Chinese alcohol. I assume that it is a traditional Chinese rice wine, but due to the 38% alcohol content, I’m not so sure. I haven’t opened it yet, because I’m saving it for a special occasion.

The rest of the week continued as normal with classes consuming most of my time. As a group, the girls, Colin, and I visited the Summer Palace. It had such breathtaking sights. It was a very serene experience there. The whole next week was very uneventful.

This week (September 28-October 4) is proving to be hectic. On Tuesday, I have a massive exam in my class that covers sixteen chapters of characters! Overall, my knowledge of about 220 characters will be tested on this exam. Most of the exam is comprised of writing, fill-ins, and reorganizing the order of words in sentences. I spent this whole past weekend studying with a girl from my class, Mollie, and I feel decently prepared. We will be studying later today and into the night. I realized that I know most of the characters, with only about forty that I find difficult to write from memory. I have spent a few hours practicing them and feel rather confident now. I hope that all this preparation pays off in the final grade for the exam.

Starting on October 1st, the National Holiday begins inChina. It commemorates the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and as such, it closes all forms of school for seven days. Although I don’t have any trips planned like many other students, I will be using the time to work ahead in my classes and to do some mystery adventuring around Beijing in order to become more familiar with the city, especially the non-tourist areas.

Chinese Gardens and 白酒

This Tuesday, we spent our afternoon and evening in a very different way than usual. We were informed to meet our professor for our “Globalization of China” course at the gate of the university, because we were to see a traditional Chinese garden for class. Upon arriving at an apartment complex, the professor told us that we were about to meet one of the most famous garden designers in the country. We went up the elevator onto the floor that the designer owns. He owns the entire floor of the building. When we walked in, we saw a low-standing table, long enough to seat at least 10 people. We were told by our professor that we were going to be making our own Chinese garden under the tutelage of the master designer. Then, we entered what seemed to be a study or personal library to meet the designer. He was of average height, and sported a small beard. He did not speak English, and the professor interpreted for him. We were informed that we were going to take part in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at that very minute. The designer lit incense and prepared the tea. The tea was perfect. It has a very mild taste and as the professor said, was only used on very special occasions. We then were shown an ancient Chinese instrument, which appeared to be a flat-lying guitar. The designer played several songs with it and then invited each of us to play it a little. We did, and then he showed us his ancient sword collection. The designer is also an accomplished master of kung fu. He proceeded to explain that he was also trained in calligraphy. He then wrote our names in ancient calligraphy and wrote me a special birthday wish in the same manner. We then went to construct our Chinese gardens at the long table in the first room of the apartment. We started by adding soil to the pot we were given. Then, we were instructed to add a large rock, which symbolizes a mountain. We took small plants next and molded their soil against the rocks. The designer then gave us instructions to add moss to the side of the mountain where we had placed the plant life in order to fill in the unused space. After doing so, we added light brown pebbles and crystals to the soil to replicate a river. We were then handed a small water bottle and told to spritz the garden with two full bottles upon creation. Once we had finished our gardens, the designer told us to get into a car, because we were all going out to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in his hometown’s food. The dinner was enormous and included a variety of vegetables, fish, soups, seahorse, and beef. The designer also surprised us with two bottles of red wine and a bottle of bai jiu, or white rice wine. The bai jiu was very strong and reminded me of rum. After the meal, he thanked us for being great pupils for the last few hours and told us we were welcome back anytime we wished.

Episode 4

Monday, September1 – Sunday, September 7

As a warning, now that Mandarin classes have started, there is no longer that much free time in my schedule. Each week, I will have about fifteen hours of instruction in the language. The language is taught in three different sections: grammar/writing, speaking, and listening. Each day, two of the sections are taught in 1.5 hour increments. Each section is taught by a different professor, so there is always variety in the day. The grammar/writing section is the most intense and frequent, as it is held daily for the hour and a half. My week will break down as follows: 7.5 hours per week of grammar/writing, 4.5 hours of speaking, and 3 hours of listening. All of my classes fall between 8:30 and noon each except Wednesdays, when my classes run 10:20-11:50 and 1:30-3.

I’m really enjoying the classes so far. I’m being challenged already in terms of quantity of material; we complete one chapter per day in the grammar/writing and have a dictation quiz the next day to ensure we know the material. My nights have been spent practicing my characters and memorizing tonal pronunciation of the words. The language is considered the most difficult in the world to learn, and the challenge has me very excited. Despite the hours of Mandarin, I also must still attend the English-taught courses that CAPA has scheduled. The CAPA events/excursions are now limited mainly to the weekends, as the organization realizes that there is no way to easily schedule them into the week.

The course work has really helped with my adjustment here. Any homesickness I had over the last two weeks has quickly disappeared due to not having much free time. This semester will probably be one of the more challenging of my college career, but I am very much ready to accept that challenge and rise to the occasion.

Episode 3

Episode 3

Monday (8/25)

Today, we all arose rather late in the morning. This was mainly due to the lack of having any predetermined plans for most of the day. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, we met with Colin in order to take a diagnostic exam, which is used to determine general knowledge of the country of China. Overall, the test dealt with more economic issues, the field in which Colin is an expert. Two of the girls and I took the evening being open to travel over to the Pearl market, a famous marketplace that usually sells knockoffs of American items. Although I did not purchase anything, I know I will likely do so before I leave the country.

Tuesday (8/26)

When we awoke today, we all knew exactly what our mission was: to get registered at the university for our Mandarin classes. Around 10am, we met Colin in the lobby and headed over to the other end of the complex to find the registration area. One down there, we had to show our admission notices and passports, have pictures taken, and continue with a confirmation process. Then, we received our information for the giant test-in, which determines the level of Mandarin you know. We all then dispersed until 2pm. At that time, we had our first English-taught course. Colin introduced us to the professor and then left. The professor told us that his degree is in Medieval European history, but we should rest assured that he is qualified to discuss the history of his nation. He told us to ignore the syllabus that we were provided by CAPA (my program) and that his idea for the course would be the way we progressed. He stated that the final exam will be a brief paper on a topic of our choosing, and that, along with attendance, would comprise our grade for the course. He went on to begin our first lesson about the ancient dynasties of China until he decided that the class should be ended. We left from the room rather happy with the professor and his ideology.

Wednesday (8/27)

Today was spent mainly relaxing and just exploring more of the local area. We did not have any scheduled events until the evening, and we took the opportunity to go about our own business and familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood. I walked around and discovered a supermarket with very fresh produce and a wider selection of general merchandise. I also discovered the deliciousness that is street dumplings. These dumplings are usually cooked by someone who sells them on the sidewalk to those who pass by. They will probably become a staple to my diet out here. We had class that evening for 6:30 at BCLU (Beijing Language and Culture University), which is a distance away from our campus. We left around 5pm in order to get on the bus to take us there. We got off at WuDaoKou, a famous shopping district that is very close to BCLU. We met Colin in front of one of the shops, and he escorted us to the university so we would know how to get there and where to go to meet the professor. We went to a cafe inside the campus where the professor had planned to see us. We all sat down and had a delicious vanilla tea and began to review the syllabus for the class. The professor and Colin will be dual-teaching the class, but it won’t meet every week, because some of the CAPA events will cut into Wednesday evenings. After reviewing the syllabus for about 2 hours, we concluded class and began to head back to our campus. We then went out to grab a light dinner from the local street vendors, who were enthused to see foreigners buying from them.

Thursday (8/28)

This morning began with a sense of tension in the air. Today was the big examination for all the students to determine the appropriate level of Mandarin into which they will be placed. The whole morning, most students were found face deep in books, reviewing for the exam. I went over most of what I had learned before I had come to the country, so I was less concerned. I probably should have been more concerned. The exam was created to truly striate the levels of students. The test jumped from basic grammar structures to the most complex very quickly, and I was left in the dust. In regards to reading comprehension and writing characters, I am generally weaker, because the Chinese classes I have taken focus more on speaking the language in contrast to reading/writing. During the oral portion, however, I was able to hold a semi-proficient conversation with the instructor in Mandarin. Then, she had me identify and pronounce characters on a paper. I was able to complete about half of them with no problem. I explained to her that I have received more oral training than writing, and she assured me that it was okay, because the test will place students into classes based off there categories: speaking, writing, and reading. Overall, I feel that I should be placed in an intermediate level for the speaking and writing, and probably a lower level for the reading.

Friday (8/29) through Sunday (8/31)

This weekend was rather uneventful, as there weren’t any planned events for us. We spent the weekend doing some minimal exploring and taking in the nightlife of the city. On Sunday, however, we went to see the Temple of Heaven. It’s such a fascinating sight. The complex was finished in 1420, and it contains an altar for tribute, and two separate buildings used for religious ceremonies of days long gone. The complex is now surrounded by a massive park where the public can enter and spend the day, free of charge. The park was filled with people enjoying a lovely Sunday morning. Our Mandarin classes start Monday, and that makes us all pretty excited.

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.