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Chinese Culture

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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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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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Chinese food: the real style

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Chinese food: the real style

There are many different expectations people have when arriving to China, especially when considering traditional food. Common dishes are far from the myths that are commonly heard about eating insects and other small uncommon reptiles. These can be mostly offered for tourists at night markets, such as the busy “Wangfujing Night Market”.

Chinese cuisine mainly relies on rice, noodles, or in the case of Beijing, rounded white bread buns or savoury pancakes to act as side dishes for what is mostly eaten. Meat is cut in small pieces so that it’s easily eaten using chop sticks, it is well-known that cutting is left as a task for the cooks, making the whole process much easier and faster.

 A traditional Chinese lunch or supper at a restaurant will have cold dishes as starters based on raw vegetables all chopped up, followed by cooked vegetables, with meat in some cases, and bowls of plain rice as side dishes.

China is such a big country, that one of the main differences is the way people cook, having different styles among traditional Chinese dishes. Food in Shanghai is lighter than in Beijing, being much more spicy and oily in the capital, while

Sichuan and Yunnan are commonly known for having very spicy food. All very different from each other, some being sour-spices, numb-spices or hot-spices.
One of the tasks of living here is getting used to different flavours, how to eat and usual eating times, however cities such as Beijing or Shanghai still offer a variety of different foreign-style food restaurants.

Cold dish, Lobster with dragonfruit

Cold dish, Lobster with dragonfruit

Wood and porcelain, fine cutlery dinner

Wood and porcelain, fine cutlery dinner

Hunnan style bun, with rose petals filling

Hunnan style bun, with rose petals filling

Tea, the all-day drink, drunk at the beginning of Chinese meals

Tea, the all-day drink, drunk at the beginning of Chinese meals

Stir-fried dish: Bamboo shoots, pork and peppers

Stir-fried dish: Bamboo shoots, pork and peppers

Chinese inspired cake at Spoonful of Sugar: Purple Potato & Pear Cake

Chinese inspired cake at Spoonful of Sugar: Purple Potato & Pear Cake

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Chinese Face -- Mian Zi

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Chinese Face -- Mian Zi

When you encountered Mian Zi(面子) during your internship in China……

While interning in China, you may encounter "Face". Better be prepared!

While interning in China, you may encounter "Face". Better be prepared!

“Mian Zi” means the recognition from a group of people or from the society in China. It is a kind of Chinese traditional culture. Mian Zi in English is “Face”. Literately, you don’t want to smash in anyone’s face. In this way, “saving face - Mian Zi” means to maintain a high level reputation between a group of people. 

From the perspective of Mian Zi, people are more likely to be affected by others; they want to make others like and respect them. Then, why is Mian Zi so popular in China? The history of Chinese culture should explain it. As we all know, the historical political structure in China was an absolute monarchy, which means people’s life depended on their ranking in society. If a person did not have Mian Zi, he/she would not be highly regarded so high in society. In this way, prosperity or wealthy would not come to him/her. Although Chinese dynasties have been gone for about 100 years, Mian Zi still stays strong in modern day China. People use Mian Zi as one of the measurements of success. 

This man bought many presents to show face!

This man bought many presents to show face!


Now, what does Mian Zi look like? It is not a thing; it is a behavior. When a person wants to invite you to have a nice dinner, he/she shows “face”; when a person sends expensive presents, he/she shows “face”; when a person is belittled and trying to prove himself/herself, he/she is saving “face”.

When you encounter “face” in China, you need to “give others face”: you should accept others kindly invitations, accept others’ presents, and forgive others’ fault instead of judging them. If you give people “face”, they will feel that you respect him/her and they'll give you “face” when you need it. When you are in China, you will often find out that people like to live in groups. Chinese like to hang out together as often as possible, eat together, drink together, and doing business together, so giving people face just makes things easier and makes everyone happy. 

Nicely dinner to show face!

Nicely dinner to show face!

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Kaiser Kou Event

Towards the end of September I went to a speaker event with Project Pengyou, where the international relations director of Baidu.com talked to us about foreign relations in China. He talked about his experience growing up as part Chinese part American and the effect that had on his transition into China. His occupation when he was young was apparently a rocker in a rock metal band in China.  I have yet to listen anything metal from China...maybe I'll look it up after this.

Anyways, his quote of the night (in my mind) comes from his experience being raised in the US but also having Chinese parents and then coming to live in China: "Don't be a whiny little bi***". If you're from the US and haven't been to China this sounds really weird but for those of you who have been to China, you definitely understand.  As an American in Beijing it is really really easy to look around and always look at things that some Chinese people do and literally think "What the hell just happened?" or "Why the hell do you think that is even remotely socially or humanly acceptable?" (or maybe that's just me =p) , but his point was that to really understand the culture here you have to stop complaining and understand that those things are either cultural or socially acceptable.  He also stated that in order to understand Chinese culture you HAVE to study Chinese history.

This is a really bad picture of the event =p but you can see his long rock legend hair way in the back of the picture.

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Zoo Market for Shopping

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Zoo Market for Shopping

Jonathan's Favorite Stickers  

Jonathan's Favorite Stickers  

One of the Busy Aisles

One of the Busy Aisles

If Gucci, Chanel, LV is beyond your reach; Zara, H&M, Mango has bored you out, where else can you go if you wanna do some shopping and have some fun on the weekend? Wholesale market! There are many wholesale markets in Beijing featuring costumes and shoes, commodities, or electronic & digital products. Wholesale market is one of the most popular shopping places in Beijing among locals. The market is huge in size and it offers you commodities with decent quality and very cheap price. 

Store of Belts

Store of Belts

  If you ask me what is the most popular wholesale market for costumes and shoes, I will tell you for sure that it's the Zoo Market. To be honest, I had never been to the Zoo Market until this past weekend! I was always freaked out by the idea or the misunderstanding of shopping in wholesale market. I used to think shopping there is just like fighting the store owners over a few bucks and getting yelled at if you bargain too much, but not anymore.

 

Cute Contact Lenses Cases

Cute Contact Lenses Cases

It's called Zoo Market because the market is near the Beijing Zoo. The market is massive with many tall buildings lined up on streets and underground stores for you to explore. We went to the underground market where there are clothes with better qualities and more reasonable prices.

Shoes Shoes Shoes

Shoes Shoes Shoes

Jonathan, the only boy in the group, was definitely the biggest winner of the day! Although there are way more girlie stuff than things for guys he still picked a good number of items from his favorite brand Supreme such as stickers, Iphone case, and some baseball cups.

It was a bummer that we got there when they were almost closing so we didn't get to spend as much time as we wanted. But since now I know shopping there is far from bargaining on top of my voice and getting yelled at by greedy store owners I will definitely go back again.

 

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Backpacking in the South of China

I arrived in Beijing last night after an eight day long backpacking trip across Yunnan and into Sichuan. Traveling alone in China was interesting and enjoyable for a variety of reasons, one being that even though I set out alone, I often found company along the way.

I flew into Kunming and got in quite late, but rose early the next morning to catch a bus to the Stone Forest, about  2 hours away.

{The pictures without captions can be clicked on to reveal more pictures} 

 

Sunny days and rainy days don't actually look that different in China.

That very afternoon I took a 4 hour bus to Dali, on which I met a fellow university student who was heading back from his first year in Beijing. We conversed in broken versions of each other's languages though his English skills far outmatched my Chinese ones. I treated myself that night and stayed in the only non-hostel of my entire trip. 

I awoke to a beautiful morning overlooking Ancient Dali.

I rented a bike and headed out to explore the lakeside region where I was greeted with beautiful pastoral scenery and lakeside life.  

After spending my beautiful sunny day in Dali I slept in an Australian-run hostel where I met and conversed with a variety of characters. Two brothers from the U.S. who had quit their jobs to travel for a year, one Brazilian visiting his working girlfriend, a Swedish military man named Ludvig who spoke Farsi and a young Chinese American who is coming to Wharton for his MBA and I all gathered to share anecdotes from our travels. 

The next day I caught another bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge where I planned to hike for two days. I arrived at three in the afternoon and began my trek. 

 

Impeccable signage on the trail.

The first half I hiked in complete solitude which really allowed for my out of shape struggles to be hidden from the public eye. I reached the Tea Horse Guest House at about seven o'clock where I took a shower and settled down with two equally exhausted french families who had been travelling together. Then my new roommates arrived, an American/British couple and a young Polish student. 

The next day we woke early to eat breakfast and get on the trail. 

We made it down the mountain by midday and then American/British couple and I took a bus to Lijiang while our Polish friend continued on to Shangri-la. At Lijiang we stopped for some soup and baozi and, trying to get away from the pouring rain, hopped on a bus to get to a hostel. 

The hostel, which almost didn't have a room for me, helped me book two trains, one backwards, and one forwards, in order to get to Chengdu. We took showers, rejoined to play some games of pool, which I graciously let them win, and decided on a time to split a taxi to the train station.

My first train took me to a small town named Guangtong where I wandered for a few hours before my pack started weighing too heavily on my shoulders. 

 

Guangtong exemplified a small town where tourists have no reason to go.

They did have an excessive amount of mushrooms though.

At 9 at night I got a hard sleeper to Chengdu which proved to be quite a nice experience. I woke up at about 8 AM from an undisturbed night of sleep to the television near my cot and sunlight coming in through the window. After washing up and eating some breakfast I had packed I watched a Chinese romantic comedy followed by a period piece about female warriors who decide to fight after one of their men doesn't return from war. 

Hard sleeper compartments.

In Chengdu I checked into my hostel to lighten my backpack and ran into a student at Oxford who invited me to join him for a late lunch and walk around the city. We visited a Buddhist Temple, and a lively square where among various karaoke singers and badminton games a catwalk/dance performance had developed.

These women rocked it better than any runway models I've ever seen and I used to watch America's next top model.

After a dinner of hotpot Nicko (The English student) and I met two students from the local Sichuan University who showed us a very cute and historical shopping street before we ended the night with some ice cream layered with fruit. 

The next day I headed out alone to trek to a Panda reservation about two hours away from the city. The area was more rainforest-y than a cool mountain climb but the scenery was beautiful. 

The gorge was carved out by a lazily running river.

After the two hour hike I reached the spread out home of some sloth-like Panda bears whom I found doing what they do best, sleeping and eating. 

After my panda viewing I returned to Chengdu for the night. The next morning I waited out the rain and took a walk along the Chengdu river before I caught the Airport Express Bus and returned to home sweet home Beijing. 

- Percia Verlin

A relaxing walk to finish off my trip.

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