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Hong Kong Part 1

I can’t believe I’m almost half way through my internship here in Beijing. While Beijing has a lot to offer me, I will admit that sometimes I’m tired of the commute, concrete, and claustrophobia of the city. For that reason, I feel that my trip to Hong Kong this weekend with my roommates was a much needed one.

I will begin by highlighting some key differences between Hong Kong and Beijing:

·         Almost everyone speaks English. Even the taxi drivers speak English! While people still try to speak either Mandarin or Cantonese to me, at least they can switch to English very easily! I’m no longer a strange Asian that can’t speak Chinese!

·         I’m literally swimming through the air here. I’m from Houston, where it’s just a hot, but it’s not nearly as humid, muggy, and tropical as it here. The air conditioning is no joke.

·         The city rolls with the mountainous landscape. I’ve sped down winding roads and trekked up monstrous hills. All the while, there are trees and flowers spilling from whatever crevices they can fit themselves into. This place feels like Jurassic Park with the rolling scenery and mixture of old and new buildings.

·         Hong Kong is incredibly clean and well-organized. A lot of people live here but it never seems that way. Crowd control is really efficient here, and there are laws against littering and even jay walking.

That being said, I really love it here so far!

Day one was spent at Times Square and Victoria Peak (where I found a picture of Texas etched into the moss on the mountainside!!). The views were spectacular and we were all completely surrounded by lush, green mountains, a pleasant change from the flat, concrete landscape of Beijing. The next day was spent eating dimsum on a floating restaurant! It was arguably the best (and most authentic) dimsum I had ever had. Afterwards we all rounded off our day at the Avenue of Stars, where I finally got my picture with the legendary Bruce Lee.

All in all, I’ve done almost everything I’ve wanted to do since I’ve arrived. Now all that’s left is to see the giant Buddha statue and eat a real Cantonese dinner and then I will be satisfied and ready to return to the Middle Kingdom. 

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White Rice, Please

This week, I unfortunately got sick with a cough. My boss, being the super-health-concerned Chinese person she was, took me to a medicine shop where I walked away with an innumerable number of bottles for my ailing throat. I’ve since been recovering, thanks to a strict routine of oranges, hot ginger tea, and 5 different pills and syrups taken throughout the day, but because of my sick throat, I haven’t been out much lately. Although I can’t write about anything new or particularly exciting, I will tell you all a short story about one of one of the first people I met in Beijing.

During one of my first nights here in Beijing, I ventured outside my apartment in search of dinner. I found a small food court inside the nearby grocery store and decided to try my chances. At the time, I hadn’t yet started my Chinese lessons, so I had to be careful to go to stalls that had dishes laid out separately or at least menus with pictures that I could point at. I didn’t even know how to ask how much something was; I could only hope my 20 kuai was enough to pay for it. Being in a city where no one seems to speak English can be incredibly daunting.

Anyway, the stall nearby the door I entered had all of their dishes laid out, warmed, and most importantly “pointable”. The guy who attended the stall seemed relatively disinterested in his job. “Ni hao,” I said as I pondered over which dishes seemed most familiar to me. “Ni hao” was the only word I had in my arsenal of Chinese vocabulary and I had already used it. Any verbal conversation would stop at that simple phrase. I stood there for a while and finally settled on an egg dish with chives. Then I pointed to the dish, tapping on the glass above it.

The guy, perplexed that I wasn’t speaking any Chinese, said something to me, but I couldn’t understand it at all. Anxiously I pantomimed holding a bag, signifying my desire for take-out. He squinted at me, amused that I still wasn’t speaking any identifiable language but proceeded to bag up the food. He asked me something, chuckling. It was probably along the lines of “You’re not from around here are you?” But how could I have known that? All I could do was smile and get this embarrassing exchange over with.

Then, all of a sudden, he said something and looked at me, clearly expecting an answer. I shook my head and smiled at him. “What?” I said in English, in bewilderment. He reiterated himself and again I shook my head, not able to understand what he was saying. Then he said, “Mi? Mi?” Really slowly, I might add. He was clearly trying to convey something to me. He was even motioning his hands in some sort of eating fashion, but I still had no idea what the poor guy was trying to tell me. I just shook my head, scared that I might add something to the order I didn’t know. It was better to play it safe and just stick to my eggs.

Eventually the guy bagged up my order with some chopsticks. I handed him my 20 kuai, got my change, and left, quite hastily. On the way home, I eagerly typed “mi” into my translation app. Of course, “mi” meant rice. The guy probably thought I was a strange foreigner who insisted on eating her eggs without rice. That night, I disappointedly ate my dinner plain.

Over the next few weeks, I had started learning more Chinese, and every time after Chinese class I would go to the same stall in the food court and the guy would recognize me. He didn’t seem so disinterested anymore. I guess interactions with clueless foreigners can be exciting. My Chinese was improving, so my exchanges became a little less elementary. I eventually learned how to say “I want this,” “how much is it,” and simply “bag, please.” Most importantly, I learned how to say “I want white rice,” and I said the last part with emphasis. The guy was impressed that I was learning, and because I came every week, he knew what I wanted. He would pack up the food without be asked and tie the bag in a knot with chopsticks and napkins included. Sometimes he would accommodate me with simple answers. One time, when I asked the price, he said “one-one” instead of “eleven”. And sometimes I would introduce some new vocabulary, asking if something was spicy or had potatoes. One time he even tried to say “How are you?” in garbled English. I laughed and said, “I’m good, thank you!” in English and then Chinese.

One day, I understood enough to know that one day he asked where I was from. All I could manage to respond with was that I was from America and that I was an intern. He asked more questions, but I could only smile, shake my head, and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” He nodded and smiled in agreement as I walked away with my usual eggs. Someday, when my Chinese is good enough, I hope to hold a full blown conversation with him and learn his name, at least. Perhaps it’ll be possible by the time I leave. I’ve certainly come a long way in two months, from not knowing how to say “rice” to asking which dish with potatoes was the best. But for now, I guess I’ll have to settle with our pleasant 5-7 sentence exchanges every Thursday. 

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Wangfujing Snack Street

It’s been about a month since I’ve been in China and I can confidently say that China has one of the most diverse food landscapes in the world.

From spicy Sichuan street food to extravagant Beijing duck, the phrase “Chinese food’ doesn’t even begin to cover the vastness of what you can find here. 

Backtrack to three weeks ago, when my roommates and I decided to embrace our inner tourists and go to Wangfujing. I remember once watching Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods on the Travel Chanel and watching him eat Thousand Year Old Eggs, stinky tofu, and scorpions on a stick. “What an incredibly brave man. I’ll probably never do that in my life!” Little did I know that I would one day find myself in Beijing doing just that. 

Of course, the first thing we see when we enter the incredibly narrow and aromatic snack street was squirming scorpions on a stick, right next to the starfish, silk worms, and deep fried lizards. The scorpions were literally squirming to show how fresh they were. “NO WAY. I’M NOT ANDREW ZIMMERN.” I thought. However, one stick had three scorpions and my two roommates had already taken a scorpion for themselves, leaving the last one for me. After seeing their somehow complacent faces upon finishing their grub, I gave in. “What the heck.” I thought. “I’m in Beijing and it’s now or never.” To my relief, the scorpion tasted like very salty potato chips. I had to close my eyes, though. Would I eat it again?  Probably. Would I willingly order it? Probably not. But at least I have a cool story to tell. 

Although I forgot to take a picture that monumental moment of culinary exploration, I did manage to take a picture of myself happily scarfing down some stinky tofu. Stinky tofu was another must-try food Andrew Zimmern had the pleasure of tasting. Like durian fruit (which is one of very few foods I detest), it smelled of death and old feet but instead tasted quite savory and enjoyable. Topped with cilantro, peppers, and peanuts, the tofu was rather tasty. Immediately afterwards I downed two water bottles and five breath mints. The “stinky” part of stinky tofu is no joke. 

It seems that you can never go hungry here. There is food EVERYWHERE. If you’re hungry, the nearest restaurant is probably less than half a block away.

If you’re not in the mood for a sit-down meal, there are always smaller restaurants peddling their snack-sized wraps and kabobs. And for the truly adventurous you can try out the street food.

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A Day at Work

When people think of a fashion intern, they think of Andy Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada: making Starbucks/steak runs, procuring impossible objects, and starving to fit into the newest couture gowns. As eclectic and fast-paced as my fashion internship here is, it’s not nearly as ridiculous. 

Anyone in the industry will tell you that the fashion life is not a glamorous one. Even as a student, I’ve spent hours toiling away in the studios late into the night. My boss lives, eats, and breathes her business. She is always looking for inspiration and new ways to market her products. Her brand is relatively new, so at the moment it’s just she and I five days a week in the office. We take care of literally every aspect of the business: design, marketing, social media, and brand relations. 

Sometimes our work takes us out of the office. I’ve been to (and directed) photoshoots for our scarves, done interviews with bloggers, shopped for fabrics, and visited tailors in the garment district. We even took a haphazard trip to a café and sketched ideas for scarf-tying illustrations (one of which is below).  Our business is very fluid, really, and we do whatever we have to do to make our ideas tangible. No one is going to give us directions; it’s our responsibility to take our products from paper to fabric.

I’m actually glad it’s just me and my boss. Rather than isolating myself in one department, I’m able to be a part of the entire business. Not only that, but I am able to see myself in a few years when I will be starting out on my own: hustling and working hard to create a product for others enjoy and that I take pride in. As excited as I am to be in a new country, I am more excited and optimistic about what I will learn from this internship. 

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Strictly Speaking

As part of my internship program, I take Mandarin classes twice a week. My roommate and I meet with our teacher at a café in Sanlitun (a popular expat haunt) and learn for about an hour and a half. However, my practice is only limited to small exchanges with vendors and my time in class. I realized the only way I can make real progress in this city is to find make Chinese friends and practice with them. So earlier this week I put an ad on the Beijinger (an English-language web publication for expats in Beijing) looking for a language exchange partner. I took a chance with one of the first responses: a local Chinese girl from Inner Mongolia studying international politics named Lily. 

I didn’t know what to expect from language exchange. Both of us had never done it before! At first our conversations were short and simple, with questions such as “How old are you?” and “What do you study?” I spoke very slowly and used some basic vocabulary, and she with me. However, as we were waiting for the bus to go the National Art Museum of China, we realized we had a lot in common. We liked a lot of the same shows, we both loved Korean food, and we were both fascinated by the other’s culture. Eventually the conversations became more complicated. “What do you like about Beijing?” “Do you have a lot of foreign friends?” “Do like the Avengers?” 

Every now and then I would stop and ask how to say a certain word and she would teach me. And sometimes she would stop me and ask what something meant and I would explain it. Even though most of what I was saying was Chinglish (me inserting as many Chinese words as I knew into my sentences), I learned a lot of content that I hadn’t learned in Chinese class with my tutor. Phrases like “green tea ice cream”, “by myself”, “foreigner”, “roasted lamb skewer”, “take a picture”, and “I’m full”, for example. Lily was just excited to practice her oral English with me and learn some American slang, like “yolo” and “on fleek”. 

Travelling through Beijing with someone who has lived here for four years is also drastically different from travelling with your fellow expat friends. I took a bus today! I never take a bus because of the lack of English. We asked locals where the best noodles were, places where the tourists never go. I ate lamb skewers and soft-serve green tea ice cream for the first time today! And Lily had never been to any of these places either, so today was a never venture for her as well.

Today wasn’t really so much about what we saw but what we experienced together. We were born in different parts of the world, but here we were enjoying art together, discussing social norms, and expressing the same distaste for fermented tofu soup. I can’t wait to hang out again! Who knows what I’ll learn next time. 

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Beihai Park

This past week has blessed us with incredibly beautiful weather because spring is finally here in Beijing. Temperatures have hit the upper 80s, the air has been clear, and the tree pollen has started to fly. However, it won’t be spring time for long, because the harsh realities of summer will soon be upon us. So this weekend, my roommate and I decided not to waste this beautiful weather and take a trip to Beihai Park. 

Going to the park was such a pleasant change from the crowded confines of the city. Immediately upon entering the park, it was as if we had entered a small, secluded paradise. There were no cars, no hordes of rushed commuters, no stinky tofu, but just blue sky, green trees, and a beautiful lake full of paddle boats and ferries. My roommate and I were just happy to take big, deep breaths of fresh air without a face mask. Everything seemed to slow down. No one was hurrying to get anywhere, but were simply enjoying a walk on the cobblestone paths or sitting on the wooden benches with their children.  With that in mind, my roommate and I decided to not to follow a map but just amble aimlessly around the lake. 

While the scenery was refreshing, the buildings and pagodas sprinkled throughout the park were beautiful to explore. Sometimes I forget how old and historically rich China is Monday through Friday. The stone steps, giant arches, and ornate decorations were incredibly detailed and spared no colors. The temples were also a marvel to explore. People actually come and pay respects to boddhisatvas or leave prayers for the spirits here, and why wouldn’t you? It’s a beautiful place to pray and meditate. 

My roommate and I were so taken away by everything that when we finally stopped to sit down and rest a bit, we were immediately reminded of our aching feet. We ended our trip with a ferry ride across the lake back from whence we came.  The intern life can be very tiring, especially in such an overwhelmingly cosmopolitan city like Beijing, so a change in scenery every now and then will do definitely do me some good while I’m here. I will need to find another park while I’m here in Beijing. I never thought I would miss green so much.

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Culture Clash Course

After an exhausting work week, a Nicky Romero concert, and a Kenzo after-party, my roommates and I were incredibly exhausted by Sunday. We had originally planned to visit the Forbidden City, but since we weren’t all quite 100%, we decided to take advantage of our passports and gain free access to the National Museum of China.

When I last visited Tian’anmen East station, I couldn’t figure out how to gain access to the museum. Perhaps it was because I had visited too late in the day to enter last time, but this time around all we needed was a quick run through security. The building was incredibly large, with columns, a piazza, steps, and barricades all around. The building seemed much institutionalized, but perhaps that was because it was indeed a governmental institution, aimed at tourists to highlight the greatness of Chinese history and culture.

As a design student, one of the most common assignments given to us is to go to a museum, find something interesting and draw inspiration from it. I’ve been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at least ten times in my career at Drexel and always found inspiration from centuries of classical and modern art. Going to the Chinese Museum of History, however, was a completely different animal. The museum spanned literally thousands of years, from Paleolithic bones to contemporary architecture. Studying Chinese history in world history class in high school touched only a fraction of what the museum could offer me. My Taiwanese friend who tagged along with my roommates was also awestruck, even though she had grown up learning about Chinese history!

Inside the museum, we saw exquisite decorative jades, money from past dynasties (and even Western money from foreign trade in the 1700s!), and Buddhist art. But one of the most interesting exhibits was the Chinese calligraphy. Calligraphy really was an art form, because both writing and art was produced by the same brush. There were so many styles, from the almost type-faced calligraphy to the almost-lackadaisical brush strokes. Even though I didn’t understand anything, I still felt incredibly inspired by the fine penmanship of the scribes, some who, might I add, were everyday people and not even appointed scholars!

At the beginning of the exhibit was a bone etched with Chinese characters. My friend pointed out that it was one of the first examples of Chinese writing thousands of years ago, and that she could see how the characters on the bones were still connected to the characters of modern Chinese writing. We were all blown away by the fact that we were standing in front of something so old yet so relevant: the beginning of written Chinese thought and culture.

We were too tired to continue the trek through the rest of the museum, but we all left with a deep appreciation for Chinese history. While I am definitely proud of my heritage as an Vietnamese-American, I can’t imagine how incredibly proud Chinese people must feel of their thousands-year-old history. 


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Exploring Tian'anmen!

In a spur of the moment business trip to Shanghai, my boss left me with a three-day vacation. I wasn’t sure what to do, being that I still hadn’t learned any Mandarin besides, “Sorry, I am an American; I speak English.” So with that in mind, I decided to spend it doing one of the most touristy things a Beijinger can do: visit Tian'anmen Square. 

I knew from the moment I stepped off the Tian'an Men East subway station that I would be in for a crowd. Hordes of tourists, mostly from other parts of China were squished into three small security checkpoints. It seemed like almost an hour until I was finally free from the jostling and shoving at the exit. After successfully emerging from the bottleneck, most of the visitors walked to the right to visit the Forbidden City, complete with a welcoming painting of Mao Zedong at the entrance. Wanting to save that venture for another day, I proceeded to the left, took an underground tunnel, and found myself a vast concrete square, Tian'anmen Square. 

The square really wasn't much aside from a few key monuments and buildings. The first was a very large gate that marked the original entrance to the city of Beijing. The second was a mausoleum to Mao Zedong, where visitors could pay their respects and look upon his mummified remains. The next was a Monument to the People, and lastly was a Chinese flag that visitors would watch rise and fall at dusk and dawn. And all throughout my perusals, soldiers in green uniforms would patrol the square. While Tian’anmen was hardly a relacing or tranquil tourist destination, it was definitely worth a visit to understand the dual nature of Chinese society: honoring the ancient past across the street at the Forbidden City and envisioning a rebirth of a nation at Tian’anmen Square at the same time. Although my day trip was short, I definitely came back a little more enlightened. 

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First Impressions

Let me first start off by saying I’ve never been to China, let alone Asia. Before I left the states, I had read travel books and learned what I could from my Chinese friends, but words and stories don’t really prepare you for what’s to come. For example, when I was in the taxi on the way from the airport to my apartment, I saw a cluster of buildings and asked if that was the downtown of Beijing. To my bewilderment, my guide pointed out that the buildings don’t stop there: The overwhelmingly large stretch of cityscape that seemed to span the whole horizon was Beijing. I couldn’t even fathom how ginormous this ancient city was, compared to Philadelphia or Houston back home. From that moment on, I threw away all of my expectations. I am here in Beijing with a clean slate, open to all of the experiences and lessons Beijing has to offer me.  

My day typically begins with a 30 minute subway ride to work in WanShoulu. Compared to Philadelphia’s local SEPTA, the subway system here is so fast and clean. Glass doors cover the subways, everything is in two languages, and directions and stops are clear. 70 percent of the time, especially on popular lines, it’s so crowded that guards have to literally push passengers into an already overflowing train, but the other 30 percent of the time on less populated trains call for sitting and reading. One transfer and a 15 minute walk later, I arrive at work. I work as a creative assistant and social media correspondent for a scarf and ready-to-wear brand, Sefhyir. I’m in charge of managing the website, reaching out to buyers, and helping with her creative design process. Every now and then my boss takes me on her errands and events, like charity Ted talks and photoshoots. Next week I believe we are visiting a tailor to talk about the new ready-to-wear line for next season!

On the weekends, aside from Mandarin classes and occasional assignments from work, I partake in some tourism with my roommates. This past weekend, I visited a night market in Nanguoluxiang. To my disbelief, the crowds were actually even more than the subway! However, the crowd swimming wasn’t so bad, as my roommates and I were always by fascinated the street foods and crafts lined up along the streets. I saw candied strawberries, adorable ceramic figurines, blown sugar zodiac animals, jade seals, and even deep fried durian fruit. Overall the trip was very rewarding, and I hope to return again someday. 

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Hello World!

My name is My Nguyen and I am currently a junior at Drexel University. I am majoring in fashion design and minoring in entrepreneurship. I have always wanted to go abroad, and when I saw the opportunity to travel and work in China, one of the largest apparel and accessories manufacturing countries in the world, I seized it! Even though I have no background in Chinese language and I have never been to Asia (or the eastern hemisphere, as a matter of fact), I am incredibly excited. My passions (aside from fashion, obviously) are cooking, sketching, biking, and reading travel magazines, especially ones about the city I'm in so I have a chance to explore. Again, I am ecstatic to be travelling to Beijing, and I can't wait to actually be there! 

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A Great Experience

As my final blog post, I wanted to reflect on my overall time in China over the past six months. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience living in China. I have learned so much not only about Chinese culture, but also a lot about myself. I think that doing an internship in China was a great way to set up a path for my future. By networking and being given many opportunities through my internship at LifeStyle Magazine, I have a solid foundation of connections for my future when I graduate from college. I feel like China forces you to step outside of your comfort zone and really make you also think outside the box and problem solve on a daily basis. I really enjoyed my time in China, all of the amazing people I have met and my internship! I will miss it so much!

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Shanghai

After traveling to Hong Kong, I spent a few days in Shanghai. I had wanted to visit Shanghai since the moment I arrived in Beijing, and although it took a long time to actually make it there, it was worth it! Shanghai is a fun place to visit and the city itself is much more compact and easier to get around than Beijing in my opinion. While in Shanghai, I stayed at the amazing JW Marriott and had a killer view. I did lots of shopping, saw the skyline from the bund, went to the Yu Gardens (so beautiful, a must see) and walked around the French Concession area. Overall, the scenery and nightlife in Shanghai was spectacular and I hope I can go back again one day! 

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Traveling to Hong Kong

All my life I have always wanted to see the amazing city of Hong Kong. It did not disappoint in the least bit. When I arrived I was happy to find how clean the city was. It was also very lit up and vibrant, even more so than any place I had ever seen in China. Since I  was there during Chinese New Year I was able to see some amazing performances by dancing dragons and watched some spectacular lettuce eating ceremonies. I truly enjoyed the noodles and fish balls that were typical of Cantonese food. The amazing part about Hong Kong besides the Peak (view of the city from above) and the huge Buddha was the fact that it is only a short one hour ferry to Macau. One of the days we traveled to Macau and it was amazing! The city used to be Portuguese owned so you could see the European influences in the architecture and the many street signs written in Cantonese, English and Portuguese. Overall, Hong Kong was vibrant and beautiful! Hope I get to go back someday!

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Yangshuo, Li River, China

After traveling to the amazing Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng, we drove about 4 hours to Yangshuo, China, also in Guangxi Provence. I spent three amazing days under the sun enjoying bike rides, bamboo rafting, climbing through caves, hot springs, mud baths, boat rides and relaxation with amazing views. Yangshuo is my new favorite place in China. I didn’t want to leave! 

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Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces

This week I traveled to Guilin and spent a few days in Longsheng, which is in South West China or Guangxi Provence. I stayed at a beautiful hotel in the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces. It was truly one of the most amazing places I’ve been in China so far. We spent our days traveling on the trails around the hotel and eating local food. Since it was almost Chinese New Year we heard constant fireworks. Not to mention, we heard the sound of chickens crowing every five minutes every hour of the day. The scariest part of the trip was when we saw a pig get cut in half, apparently a tradition for Chinese New Year. Lets just say, pork was last on our list to eat for a long time after that. 

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