foreigners, just like us
Today is my tenth day in Beijing, and so far, it is the easiest. It’s a Saturday, so of course I slept in, though in the context of my life as a college student, “sleeping in” is hardly the word for what I did, which was wake up at 9:30. For Luke Wander, the history major with a tendency towards spasmodic fits of what some people call ‘acting,’ waking up at 9:30 means that either he has a malady of the gastrointestinal persuasion, or he just needs to go back so sleep. But I don’t know that guy with the bourgeois sleep schedule and the coffee grounds running through his veins. For me, 王宏志, the American student studying Mandarin at the CET Intensive Language Institute in Beijing, bedtime is before midnight and wake-up time is whenever the sun rises. I’ve been told that’s just the jetlag flexing its muscles, but I’m determined to use the semispherical shift in time zones as a tool to realign the way my body rests. That said, the fact that class here starts at 8:25 a.m. every morning, along with the harsh reality that being late to class in China is akin to saying “f*** you” to the teacher helps a little too. Of course, there have been some exceptions, like on night three, when I went with ten or so people up the subway tracks to Helen’s, a bar filled with 外国人 (waiguoren; foreigners) and danced to Ke$ha & Co. until past two. That night aside, the cultural shock has been substantial. Especially difficult for me is the transition from rural to urban, from Sugar Hollow View Drive, where cows cause two-car traffic jams and deer visit daily, and from Knolls Street, where grass grows and neighbors ask for ibuprofen, to Wenxing Street, where hundreds of cars beep and vendors sell and schoolchildren have shouting contests, and that’s just at six in the morning. It’s not that I despise the city for having so much going on, I just would like to have a break every once in a while. Luckily, the dormitories here are incredibly well-suited to that need. Whodathunk my dorm here in Beijing, with its high ceilings and wood floor, would feel more luxurious than my humble digs at 804A Hinton James?
The good thing about culture shock is that it’s what I’m here for, it’s what makes Beijing such a good place to study Mandarin. On Monday, our first day of class, we talked about different types of Chinese food for three hours. A couple of hours later, we were ordering food at a restaurant so authentic that its menus were sans-foto, and we at least had some vague idea of what we were doing. On Tuesday, we talked about the hectic state of Beijing traffic and how to avoid dangerous situations. During a ten-minute break I went across the street to buy a bottle of water and immediately put that knowledge to use. Because we didn’t have afternoon classes during our first week, on Monday I went with about a dozen CETers to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Someone with us asked me what the phrase written in giant characters next to the portrait of Mao meant, and I had no idea. Fast forward to Wednesday morning classes, where we talked about the use of phraseology in Chinese culture and of course we learned the meaning of the phrase from two days prior: 中华人民共和国万岁；世界人民大团结万岁！(Long live the People’s Republic of China; Workers of the world, unite!). Mmmmmmm， communism. But those are the just the big things, the obvious ways in which culture
will come at me in the coming months, but I tend to appreciate more the smaller things, like how it’s not rude to spit in the street as long as it is into a grate, how every dog wears a jacket, how my roommate casually wakes up one morning and declares, “宏志，你比我高，还有比我胖！” “Hongzhi, you are taller than I am, also you are fatter!” how even when only one person knows my phone number I still received four text message advertisements in a few hours, how air pollution can make an entire day smell like a fart, how the CET chef can call you out for taking too much of a specialty item, how a giant plate of steaming food costs little more than a dollar, and how people only stare at you if you’re rolling at least six foreigners deep. If it’s a dozen, they don’t just stare. They gawk. But it doesn’t matter much, because after everything, they’re foreigners just like us.