...the beginning, of course!
24.08.2012 - 28.08.2012
What a blur these past seventy-two hours have been. We landed in Beijing after a fourteen-hour flight at 2:30 China time (yeah, the whole country is in the same time zone). All nine of us that were on that flight packed our luggage and ourselves into a cab, which was a VW Shagvan from the '70s, and went to the Hilton in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district, which is a very upscale, touristy place.
We're staying in a hotel for now until our program starts tomorrow. The reason we got here early was so that we could go to a brief at the U.S. Embassy (which never actually happened...but more on that later). I am guessing that we were put up in such a swanky place (this hotel is by far the nicest I've ever stayed at) so that IPO would not be worried about our safety. Whatever the reason, I'm very glad for it, because the Hilton has treated us very nicely. Most of us got room upgrades for free and we have all been living in luxury these past few days.
We've done all sorts of cool stuff so far. The first night we toasted our arrival in Beijing with a hotel room "brobe-out" to which we all wore the nice robes from our rooms. It was a good bonding experience, and a great way to kick things off.
The next morning (Sunday) we walked around the Wangfujing area to survey our surroundings. We found a cheap place for lunch and I had my first Chinese restaurant experience. We couldn't read anything on the menu, so we used the pictures to pick out some tasty-looking dishes. Three of the four dishes were great, but the fourth was almost too spicy to eat, and plus, there were still bones in the chicken, so it was too hard to eat on top of the spiciness - overall, it just wasn't worth the effort.
Back on the street, we had the pleasure of experiencing the unique Chinese custom of men beating the heat by folding their shirts up to expose their bellies. I meant to discreetly snap a picture of this so that I could share, but I forgot. I'm sure, though, that there will be plenty of opportunities to do that in the future, as I can assure you, it is a very popular activity. All the guys in our group jokingly tried it out numerous times, but never lasted for more than thirty seconds out of embarrassment and modesty. On the same subject of modesty, we saw while we were buying our el-cheapo Nokia-type cell phones a little boy with a long slit cut into his shorts, I'm guessing to facilitate urinating. Another baby we saw being carried in the street totally without shorts or pants of any kind. Perhaps I'll find later on that there are cultural reasons for this difference between American and Chinese standards of modesty.
Later that day, a large group of us took the metro to the Silk Market, and that was QUITE the experience. Haggling is a must here. They start out the transaction by giving a ridiculously high price and you have to work them down to like, a fifth of that price. I knew that I had to bargain, but I didn't know exactly how much I had to, so I got totally ripped off when I bought my first purchase, a pair of shoes...we won't even talk about exactly how much I paid for those knock-off Toms. It was so hard to hear them give a really high price and come back with a comparatively really low price, like, a tenth of what they originally say. It was hilarious to hear their reactions when people did that. They would have certain English phrases (they all spoke somewhat decent English) that they would say, like "Are you DREAMING?!" And they were also really physical; that is, the ladies would hit us when we drove a hard bargain. It was all so funny. But anyways, once I found out how badly I'd been ripped off the first time, I was so mad that I had to go try to get another pair of shoes for really cheap, so I did, and I felt much better. I guess retail therapy is a real thing!
That night, we took the metro to one of the most popular club and bar streets, Sanlitun, which was fun, but I think I should talk a bit about the metro. You really have to forswear any previous notions regarding personal space if you're to utilize the Beijing metro system. When we used it, we were packed in like sardines, and those of our group who had already been to Beijing told me it wasn't even as bad as they've seen it.
That reminds me of something else. I happen to be one of only two people in our fourteen-person group who has never been to China before now, and the only one who is participating in the intensive language program with the language pledge. I feel like I'm already playing catch-up, because everyone else has been here and knows of all these places to go and just how to get there. They also can draw on the language skills they learned over their previous LSAP summer training. I honestly feel really dumb around everyone else, because they are already familiar with ordering food, asking for directions, and paying for things in Chinese.
The next day (yesterday), we had our embassy visit, so we got all dressed up...and ended up having nowhere to go! Apparently, our point of contact, the naval attaché, left in June and during the turnover process, the details of our visit got messed up, and besides,the new attaché was on vacation. So when we got to the embassy the Chinese guards had no idea why we were there, and they didn't let us in. Eventually, some Marine lieutenant colonel came out and explained this all to us and told us we could go. Most of us then went back to the hotel, changed, and then walked about thirty minutes to what the people who did LSAP last summer refer to simply as "Hutong," which means "alley." There are tons of hutongs in Beijing, where you can find restaurants, shopping, and drink stands, but this was apparently the oldest and one of the most popular, and the LSAP group had particularly fond memories of it.
After grabbing some lunch and wandering around the hutong, a group of us went to get massages at a place near the hutong, which was also great. We took a cab back to the hotel, and I went with two other people to a Korean restaurant, but I was so tired that I was practically falling asleep at the table. After dinner, the plan was to take a power nap and then go out and maybe do some karaoke, but I ended up sleeping through the night, and apparently everyone else ended up doing the same.
It is now 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon (1300 for you military types), and after posting this entry, I will go grab a quick lunch and work out for a bit in the hotel gym. Then, I plan on studying all the Chinese I've forgotten since my FC202 final in April or May or June or whenever that was until dinner time. I think we may be going out to Hohai, another popular club/bar area, tonight.
Tomorrow, we go to our school and begin our program! I'm so nervous and scared about the placement test and starting the language pledge. Just thinking about not being allowed to use English to communicate gets me so nervous, because I can't imagine going through the last three days having to do all my communicating in Chinese. I also want to do as well as possible on the placement exam, because I want to be challenged as much as possible this semester, especially since my grades won't really matter. The goal is fluency by the end of the semester, and I'm not going to achieve that in beginner's level. But I'm still more excited for the opportunity and challenge than I am scared or nervous. Tomorrow, the real journey begins, and I am so pumped for it. It's all happening.