Thursday, July 24, 2008

An Adventure in Beijing

So, I traveled to Beijing this past weekend to see friends and experience first-hand the feverish Olympic atmosphere.


I was lucky because the Yale Club of Beijing was having a BBQ for alumni and students that very weekend. Eating free food, seeing old friends and meeting new people - three of my favorite things in life.

The Yale Club booked a rooftop bar called Kokomo in the Sanlitun neighborhood. The sun was out (a very rare event in Beijing), the food was good, the drinks were flowing, the company was fun.

I also met up with a few good friends and teachers from my last summer in Beijing. That was probably the most fun part of the weekend. Chatting and eating with them really brought back some good memories of some really great times we've had together.

One of my favorite places in Beijing is the 798 Art District. It's a place where young and hip artists can put up galleries with some really great works.

The gallery that really caught my attention this time was one where they displayed traditional Chinese landscape paintings.

Well... from afar anyways. When I first glanced at it, it didn't seem so unique. I've come across many such works, with it's really oriental mountains and trees with a typical temple somewhere. However, when I took a second glance, it was actually quite different.

What had appeared as beautiful green mountains were actually piles of dirt and rock covered with a green wrap. What had appeared as morning fog and clouds were actually smoke and dust blowing from the factories. The lakes looked beautiful far away but was actually extremely polluted up-close. What was this artist trying to say about the current state of China? Hmmm...

Here's another set:

Beijing's Facelift

It is as if the entire city went to a plastic surgeon and got a face lift. The city has changed so much from my trip last summer!

The most obvious difference is the landscape of the city. For example, last year, the piece of land in front of the university where I stayed at was all shacks and small restaurants. The sidewalk was filled with locals and college students streaming in and out. There were fruit and vegetable carts, soup carts, and carts selling items I can't even describe. Furthermore, you would only have to walk a block further to eat at the jiaozi stand, where you can order 10 dumplings for 3 kuai (>50 cents).

Fast forward to this summer: the area in front of the university has been cleared out. There is a very nice and modern high-rise in place of the shacks. The sidewalks have been completely rebuilt. The carts? All gone. The jiaozi stand? Shut down.

Now, multiply that by a gazillion and you have Beijing.

The change is more than just visual though. You can feel it. The atmosphere is suffocating. The feeling comes from the city looking too... sterile and clean. It's just not like Beijing. I'm not talking about the trash on the sidewalks, but more of the previously mentioned small family businesses that use to crowd the streets. Also, the addition of a million security officers throughout the city doesn't help. You see them everywhere (so carry around your passport)!

Furthermore, the addition of countless new and absurd regulations might have contributed to this starchy mood. For example, you have to be a student at a college to be allowed on campus. For me, that means I could not step foot on any of the colleges in Beijing because I didn't possess a student ID. This made things really difficult because I had planned on staying with a friend who is studying at Beijing Language University (I had to lie every night to the guard to get in. Bad.).

The stadiums built for the 08 Olympics are pretty sweet. I haven't seen anything like the Bird's Nest or the Swimming Cube. Amazing works of architecture.

The atmosphere isn't that great though. The reason? It is (surprise!) the extreme security measures. Ordinary public was not allowed to get close to the stadiums, which is ironic because many of the Olympic architects had the theme of "openness" in mind.

The government really screwed up on this one.

They decided that cars with even-numbered license plates would drive one day and those with odd numbered license plates would drive the next. I thought this was a great idea. It would get rid of the infamous traffic jams in Beijing and, even better, help out our environment.

However, then, Beijing decided to also close down almost 1/3 of its major roadways and designate a lane on the remainder just for Olympic-affiliated cars. Talking to the taxi drivers I met, these regulations have made the traffic situation worse than ever. Taxis are forced to take detours on small roads that were never suited for high traffic volume. On two lane roads, one lane would be jammed as far as the eye could see while the other is completely empty (because the Olympics were still 20 days away!). Every once in a while, while I would still be crawling or not moving at all, I would see a car just fly past me on the Olympic lane, nothing in his way to stop him. Hate.

In the name of security, Beijing has closed down some of its best clubs. Vix, Mix, Propaganda... the list goes on.

What are foreigners going to do at night?

Getting back to Shanghai
My friends and I missed the train. Seriously. It was a terrible experience.

An hour before the train was to depart, we tried to get a taxi. However, no one would take us! Why? Dunno...

So we thought about the subway. However, the stop at the railroad station was shut down for security (see a trend here?) precautions. So, we ended up taking the subway to the nearest stop and run (with all our luggage) to the railroad station. Hot, tired, sweaty, and sore... all for not.

We ran around for another while trying to figure out who to contact and what to do to get out of Beijing. Somehow, we ended up on the last train out. On hard seats. The train was extremely uncomfortable, but it was taking us back to Shanghai!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bunny Funerals and Bike Rides

So two weeks ago, a couple of my friends fell in love with a little bunny that was being sold on the side of the street. They bought it and named it Pepper. A couple of days later, they bought him a companion and named it Caramel. 

They were very tiny and cute, and they provided a lot of warmth and fun... for two weeks. 

A couple of days ago, I went over to my friend's apartment to pick up some pirated DVDs she had bought for me. Instead of DVDs, I found her lying next to a convulsing Caramel. His head was in a really awkward position, and he would jerk his legs every once in a while. I think he airways were blocked, so we actually tried bunny CPR. Nothing worked; the jerks slowed and then eventually, they stopped. Traumatic experience, to see it die and feeling helpless.

We buried Caramel under a tree in the Serenity Club Garden, right behind our apartments.   

A couple of days later (Yesterday), Pepper passed away as well. He died while everyone was work, so nobody experienced his passing away. Did he succumb to heartbreak, or did he die of similar causes (horrible diet before the sale, bad genes, any more ideas?) 

Pepper was buried with his favorite bowl under the same tree as Caramel.

The graves were shallow, so I hope it doesn't rain for a few days...

Lesson of the Day: Don't buy bunnies off the street in China. 

Biking Through the Countryside

This past Saturday, I went biking with other Yalies through the countryside. It was hot, humid (90+ weather), and FUN! 

Then, we spent the rest of the day at a watertown next to Shanghai. It was like a small scale, Chinese version of Venice. Very lovely.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Shanghai Adventures

I have been in Shanghai for a month. 

Here are some of my humble thoughts and experiences:

Shanghai is like New York City with dumplings
Okay, so maybe not to that extreme, and not always or everywhere. But seriously, walking around the city, I sometimes forget that I
 am on the other side of the Pacific. 

Yes, the people around me are constant reminders, but even they are much more hip and up-to-date with their fashion and dress (compared to, say, the dwellers of Beijing). 

Also, the architecture of many city districts has a very Western flavor, further contributing to my periodic disorientation. 

I have met several expats in Shanghai who, despite having lived in the city for several years, do not know any Chinese. Usually, their excuse is that they really don't need it, which I can totally see to be true.

A Brief Break from Skyscrapers
I visited an art district in Shanghai with a bunch of fellow Yalies a couple of weeks ago. It reminded me much of 798 district in Beijing. This time, I was able to get my hands dirty with some on-spot painting.

There were shoes and shirts and tires and walls to be painted! All items were auctioned off and proceeds were to go to the recovery of Sichuan after the earthquake.

Chaos in the Subway
I thought that my experience last summer with the public transportation system in Beijing will have me more than prepared for anything Shanghai can throw
 at me. However, my experience yesterday proved my assumption wrong...

Because I found the normal route too crowded and too tedious (I have to go through 3 different subway lines), a friend suggested a different path. He said that although the trip might take a little longer, it would be much more comfortable and I would have a seat. So, convinced, I decided to try that out yesterday. Mistake. 

The moment I stepped onto the train, I was pushed to the back of the cabin and squished. Squished for an hour. I couldn't move or breath. Sweat and stench everywhere, not a pretty place to be. People were overly aggressive- grown men pushing younger children, each person for himself. To top things off, the girl next to me passed out. 
That part was scary because she wasn't moving at all. 

Great way for the day to start off, yeah?

His Own World
Every morning on my way to the subway station, I pass by major highways and basically huge, brutal, imposing slabs of concrete. In the midst of all this, there is one small patch of grass. Every morning, despite the incredible amount of noise and distractions around, there is always this man practicing taichi on this patch of grass. It is almost as if he is on his own island, in his own world. He is able to block out everything around him. The juxtaposition of two not only different, but conflicting, worlds. Incredible.

What? Your son still lives with you?
On the same Saturday I took a trip to the Art District, I also went to observe parents advertising their (grown) children at the park. That turned out to be a cool experience. Expecting only a handful of parents to be there, I was surprised by a packed park. The parents would write their child's name and stats (age, height, weight, occupation, car, apartment, education, basically anything that would sell). It's quite a scene.