Shellshock Festival

Tonight is the Spring Festival (the Chinese new year) and it’s like a war zone. Starting at nine o’clock people began building up to an ear-deafening frenzy of fireworks and firecrackers which was simply unbelievable. The firecrackers were bigger, louder and more dangerous than any I’ve seen before:

Gunpowder smoke and metal oxides created a mist that lay thickly on the streets. The really big fireworks triggered a few car alarms, adding to the feeling that the world was coming to an end. I’ve been told that the Spring Festival is a traditional family holiday, but first and foremost I will remember it as a celebration of shellshock. These video clips don’t quite do justice to the scene, but they’re something to look at anyway:

在北京的时间一半过了

English translation below.

好久没有用中文来写。现在放假,同学们都走了,留下我一个人。我来北京五个月了,天天都上课我的汉语水平提高了不少。我因为期末考试考得不错,所以可以跳班了。如果我跳班我会觉得难一点,可是那样我的进步会更大。这是学习的事情,当然还发生了很多其它事,所以我想写下一些我的经历。

我对北京的生活早就习惯了。空气污染、危险的交通、难吃的面包,在北京遇到这些困难,不过好东西还很多。我特别喜欢的是中国菜,又便宜又好吃!瑞典饭店的菜差不多都有肉所以我很少去,可是在这儿大多数饭店有好吃的素菜。我最喜欢的一些菜是家常豆腐、香辣土豆丝、鱼香茄子、炒面、老醋花生米等等。

北京菜好吃,可是我不喜欢北京的面包。在瑞典面包外面硬、里面软。在中国呢?面包的外面和里面都软!包装上印着“有牛奶!”,可能这是主要原因之一。一般面包不应该有牛奶,我不知道为什么中国人喜欢这种面包。我很想念瑞典的。

中国的谦逊很有意思。这个“哪里”听起来很假的,但我被影响了。有人夸奖我的汉语时我一般说“还差得远呢”,可是我有时候感到不舒服,什么也说不了。有一次一个瑞典人夸奖我,我一下子回答“不是,我没有什么”。以后我就觉得很奇怪,在瑞典说谢谢就行了,说“我没有什么”太谦逊,其实有点不礼貌。

我最快乐的事是私事,不过现在我想让大家知道。我来北京以后很快就爱上了一个天使。她是我的同学,又聪明又漂亮。去香山、做面食、看黄金甲、过圣诞节都是跟她一起的。我们已经在一起四个月了,能当她的男朋友我非常自豪。现在她回越南去了,我当然很想她。我不应该写下来一封情书,我只想说:清娥,我爱你! Thiên sứ, anh yêu em!

My classmates have all gone home over the holiday, leaving me alone in Beijing. I’ve been here for five months now, attending class every day, so my Mandarin has improved quite a bit. I did well on the final exams so if I want to I can jump up a level. It will get harder if I do, but that way I would be able to improve even more. These are school matters, there have been a lot of other things happening too of course and I’d like to write down a few of my experiences.

It didn’t take long to get accustomed to life in Beijing. Air pollution, dangerous traffic and bad bread, these are a few of Beijing’s downsides, but the positives outweigh the negatives. I especially like Beijing food, it’s both inexpensive and tasty. I very seldom eat out in Sweden, since as good as all dishes have meat. Here however, most restaurants have good vegan food. My favorites include jiachang tofu, fried thin potato strips, sweet & spicy eggplant, fried noodles and peanuts in rice vinegar.

Beijing food may be good, but I do not like the bread. In Sweden bread is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Here, however, it’s soft inside and out! The packaging says “CONTAINS MILK!” and perhaps this is one of the main causes. Bread shouldn’t generally have milk, I don’t know why the Chinese like this kind of bread. I really miss Swedish bread.

Chinese modesty is very interesting. The standard reply to praise, “where do you get that?” (literally “where?”), sounds very put on, but I’ve also been influenced by it. If someone praises my Mandarin I usually reply “it’s still far from good”, although sometimes I’m too uncomfortable to say anything at all. A while ago a Swedish person complimented me and I instantly replied “oh no, I’m nothing”. Afterwards I thought that was very strange as in Sweden saying “thank you” suffices. Saying “I’m nothing” is too modest, even a bit impolite.

The most joyous matter is a private one, but at this point I’d like the world to know. After arriving in Beijing I very soon fell in love with an angel. She is my classmate and is as intelligent as she is pretty. Going to Fragrant Hills, making pasta, watching Curse of the Golden Flower, celebrating Christmas, we did all of that together. We’ve been together for four months now and I am very proud to be her boyfriend. She’s gone home to Vietnam now, so obviously I miss her a lot. I don’t mean to write a whole love letter, I just want to say: Nga, I love you! Em đẹp lắm, anh yêu em!

I’m still alive

Things have started to become familiar now. School is good, the food is good, my apartment is good. Yesterday I successfully took a taxi to pick up a package at the post office. I chatted a long while with the taxi driver, which feels like real progress since previously I’ve had serious difficulties understanding what the taxi drivers are saying. After being here for a while, a few things seem to come up more often than not:

  • Do you speak English in Sweden? It’s hardly strange that Beijingers don’t know, but I still find it a little amusing that so many think that English is Sweden’s official language. I recently learned that Sweden actually doesn’t have an official language.
  • 瓦尔德内尔 (Wǎěrdénèiěr) J O Waldner, the Swedish ping pong player. Alot of people seem to know of him. I’ve heard that he has a bar in the embassy area here in Beijing.
  • 啊,这么高啊! “Woa, so tall!” Especially children say this. I pretend not to notice.

One thing that is less than cool is the massive amount of security guards, surveillance and the like. Gated communities are the norm for the middle class (I live in one). Trying to walk in the general direction to where you’re going will often fail because there is a brick wall stopping you. There are cameras everywhere and every building has someone sitting in a room watching it all.

Of course this is all for our “protection”, but it feels quite uneasy since the thing it protects us from is all the people who have nothing. Not only is the gap between rich and poor very big, the poor are also very poor. There are often beggars on my way to school which isn’t exactly what I’m used to. I hate it when they thank me, I shouldn’t be allowed to decide if they live or die, shouldn’t be thanked. It’s very easy to become cynical about it all, and I don’t know if it’s really any use giving them money. Nothing I can do makes me feel “good” anyway, and my pity is utterly useless.

So long.

我的一天

Today’s homework is to write about a typical day in my Beijing life. Enjoy.

我每天早上六点半起床。早饭我常吃米酒汤或者馒头。因为大学有点儿远所以我差一刻八点应该去教室。虽然走路比较长久但是我喜欢。八点半上课。我们每天都有四节课、十二点半下课。下课以后我跟同学们一起去吃午饭。我们有时候在食堂吃、有时候在校园外面的饭店吃。然后我回去家。下午如果我累我休息一下。我常常用电脑编程、听音乐、上上网跟朋友们一起聊天儿、给爸爸妈妈发电邮。晚上我做饭、做作业、洗澡。我大概十一点钟睡觉、以后做梦奇妙。

A few pictures

I apologize for the appalling lack of pictures so far. I don’t want to carry around my camera everywhere, but here’s a few pictures for you anyway:


I really am in China. This is the flag in front of Tiananmen.


I was a bit lost the first day and visited another university.
BLCU doen’t have a Mao statue, by the way.


A street in Haidian, not far from where I live.


Yes, it’s the tobacco (), tea () and liquor () shop.

Shit happens, repeatedly

The initial success with getting vegan food seems to have been beginners luck, I haven’t done so great lately. Every time that I’ve seen the actual food or a picture of it, I’ve succeeded, but every time I’ve only had a menu and a waiter to consult, I’ve failed. Twice I got stuff with egg in it because I only asked for a vegetable dish (素菜). Today, I really confirmed that what I ordered (常家豆腐) didn’t have meat or eggs. After eating a while, I thought that the taste of the white meaty-looking stuff was familiar. I think it was chicken. Either it was a miscommunication or chicken isn’t counted as meat (). I thought a bit about asking what it was and why they had said that the dish had no meat, but I chickened out (no pun intended). I can’t keep failing like this, so I should learn how to ask what the ingredients are and to give a complete list of things I don’t want (meat, bird, fish, egg, milk).

Cooking at home is much safer, but not as fun. The grocery stores actually have lots of cool stuff that we don’t have in Sweden, the most useful being tofu in different shapes, forms and tastes. At the store today I was looking at the bread (not the western kind, more like buns that you steam cook) and the people behind the counter were repeating the same thing a few times until I realized they were addressing me. I just gave them a surprised/confused look and kept on looking. A while later I came back and one guy came up to me and asked me the same question again. I figured he was asking if I was looking for something so I said that I was just taking a look. He went back behind the counter and the others asked him if I had understood. He said I had not. They all seemed somewhat amused and I pretended not to notice.

Going to school

It seems I was wrong about the group I’m in, it’s actually beginners level 1, just starting at lesson 16. This is perhaps less than I had hoped for, but we got the books today and the level seems about right. If it’s too easy (which I’m afraid it won’t be) I can move up one class. Actual classes are Monday-Friday 8:30-12:30, starting tomorrow.

There is one other Swede in my class and people from other places like Australia, The UK, Japan, The Philippines and Germany. We all use Chinese names, and mine is 菲利普 (feilipu).

BeijingMUD

Beijing is actually a MUD (online text adventure game)! Almost all the streets run in east-west or south-north direction and the signs in the intersections are marked with east/south/west/north. The city planners obviously thought in terms of a MUD, thousands of years before those silly computer science students. My route to school is south, east, south, east, south, south, south.

Walking takes about half an hour. The taxi drivers don’t know where anything is and air pollution is a big problem (today is the first day that the sky is blue since I arrived) so I think I might try the bus.

I got the results of the placement exam today and had a small oral/written test and it seems I’m going to be in the beginners level 2 group, which is about what I had hoped for.

I also failed miserably at ordering food today. I went to a restaurant and asked for tofu, having come to believe it’s a magic word. I selected one of the two tofu dishes by guessing. Did I want a bowl of noodles too? Well… OK. WRONG! The noodle soup also had plenty of meat, which didn’t look very nice even as meat goes. I wasn’t sure asking for another bowl of noodles without meat would be of any use (in hindsight, this may not be true), so I just ate the noodles and left the meat. Neither the noodles nor the tofu was very good, so I bought some kind of panfried bread on the way home which tasted better (even if the nutritional value is questionable).

Lesson 2: getting scammed

I did the placement test at BLCU this morning and had the whole afternoon free, so I played the tourist game by going to Tiananmen square fully equipped with backpack and camera. While trying to get a descent picture of Mao I was approached by what I thought was a middle aged couple. They said (in English) that I was tall. It’s not the first time (nor has it happened often) so I thought nothing of it and started speaking Mandarin with them, with varying degrees of success. I asked where I should go because I would get to see Tiananmen later anyway, and they suggested I go to the older parts of the city, south of Tiananmen square. I got the impression that they were tourists from Hubei (why would a Beijing resident subject him-/herself to the tourists willingly?) and they were also going to old Beijing. After some window shopping I was hungry and they suggested we drink some tea before we eat. What the heck. I had actually read all about the teahouse scam before coming here, but felt smart and unscammable, having deflected an attempt at the art exhibition scam only minutes before I met this couple.

Soon after we got to the teahouse warning bells were ringing. Tea was served without a menu being shown, so I asked to see the prices and then drank no more. No doubt a real teahouse with the ceremony and all can be expensive, but why would someone go to one of those with someone they just met? Trying to cut my losses without putting up a fight (I don’t know what would happen and didn’t want to try) I ended up paying a third of the bill, 145 yuan (after refusing to pay first the full 440 yuan and then half of the bill). A ridiculous price indeed, but still not worth a fight. When asked to sign some receipt (obviously so that the couple could come back later to collect their share) I signed “Musse Pigg” (Mickey Mouse in Swedish) in a desparate attempt to regain some honor. On the way out I noticed we had passed through a opticians shop to get to the “teahouse”. Obviously this makes no sense, but I hadn’t even noticed it when going in. Oddly enough they didn’t immediately disappear even though I gave them the oppurtunity to do so, so we actually parted in a friendly fashion. It makes me wonder if they didn’t understand that I understood I was being scammed and were looking to scam me some more…

For an hours work, I got humiliated a bit, got to practice my Mandarin a bit and they get to split 145 yuan between three people. They didn’t exactly fit the description of the typical scammer (young pretty girl), nor were they scared away by my talking Mandarin. So, to anyone else coming to China looking to not get scammed:

  1. You’re not smarter than everyone else (be humble).
  2. Don’t trust people, even if they’re friendly (be cynical).
  3. If you find yourself being scammed, stop.

I’ll make sure to go to an actual teahouse with actual friends when I have the opportunity, it does seem quite promising after all.

Update

Here’s a photo I appear to accidentally have taken of the scammers when they first approached me. It’s not great as portraits go, but still…