Friday, June 21, 2013

Xi'an Adventures and Goodbyes

A few weeks ago, I went rafting with a few friends outside of the city. We met at a random intersection in Xi’an, where a random 面包车 bus picked us up and whisked us out of the city. The ride was beautiful, and about 2 hours. Then we arrived in a small town, where we were told to wait a few hours until the rafting bus came for us at 2pm (It was 10am at the time we arrived). We got a few beers, and went down to the river, where we found some nice rocks to lay on and a shallow part of the river to swim in. It was so nice being outside the city, and relaxing in the sun. For lunch, we had a great home cooked guest house meal. I’ve always found the best food in China is homemade, and food in the countryside is generally fresher. At 2pm, we hopped on another bus, which took us up the mountain to the beginning of the rafting. We had all decided that riding on single rafts would be more fun, but they forced us into pairs. Unfortunately, I was the odd one out so I had to raft all by myself down the river. L Everyone else fell out of their rafts though so I guess I got a good deal, although I always think falling out is more exciting...Then we returned to Xi’an at the end of the day.

One of my good friends was leaving Xi’an this week, and invited a few friends out for a goodbye dinner with some of his Chinese friends. We arrived at the restaurant where his friends had reserved a table to find a full on Chinese banquet awaiting us. There were about 10 middle-aged Chinese men and women crowded around a big round table with a lazy susan, already packed with cold dishes and beer. The Chinese banquet is a very unique cultural phenomenon. These banquets are generally full of forced drinking in the form of toasts, which would be rude to refuse, and a terrifyingly large amount of food that people pressure you to eat. (Side Note: This year, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, announced a new policy designed to reduce waste and corruption. This policy is called “4 dishes and a soup”, which is meant to represent the optimal amount of food at a banquet. This has led to many fancy restaurants and high-end liquor producers to go out of business so far this year. It’s really working!) So I sat next to Jeremy at this dinner, and became a translator for most of the meal. There were a few Chinese people that could speak English and only I could speak Chinese amongst the foreigners so we all translated back and forth for the rest of the party. It was quite fun! The Chinese women at the table loved my friend Jess and I for our white skin (yes, actually):

The ladies made us chug a lot of beer, and they could really throw it back! They also decided that my friend Jeremy looks like a young Bill Clinton, and since they thought I was with Jeremy (and they knew I’m doing women’s political participation work), they decided that I must be young Hillary. For the rest of the night, we became “Clinton” and “Hillary”, and they all wanted individual pictures with us because we were now celebrities. Here are some pictures to compare us to:

Other gems from the night: They told my Spanish friend that he must be good at sex because he has a beard. I was told by the host that I was the “superior model of the white race.” And another Chinese guest decided that he looked like Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s greatest leaders in the modern era, so we called him Deng all night. I love Chinese banquets (well most of the time...).

A few weeks ago I attended a Chinese wedding of one of my professor’s former graduate students. I had only met her once, and barely know her name, but that didn’t matter. Having a foreigner at your wedding showed that you were “international” and gives you a lot of “face.” So of course upon arrival at the wedding, I was attacked by paparazzi (aka Chinese guests):

The bride, groom, and my classmates

Parents of the bride

Parents of the groom
Next we headed to the gift table where we gave our 红包 hongbao (a small red envelope w/ money in it) of 100rmb to the bride and groom’s family, and signed our name on their equivalent of a “guestbook,” which was a long piece of red paper where people signed their name in “calligraphy” style. Then we were escorted to a row of tables, although the seating wasn’t assigned. I came with my two of my professor’s current graduate students, and my professor and her husband. The five of us sat together at a table with five guys who went to high school with the groom.

The banquet hall

Apparently this was one of the biggest and most fancy weddings my professor had ever been to, and she’s been to a lot of weddings. The wedding was in the auditorium of a large hotel. Pictures were taken in the lobby, and then guests were seated at tables in the auditorium, which had four or five tiers in front of a large stage. The room had enough tables for probably 400 guests. The wedding invitation said to arrive at 11am, and the ceremony began at noon. While waiting to start the ceremony, two large screens on the stage showed a slideshow of cheesy Chinese wedding photos of the couple posed in front of fake trees, rivers, etc. They also blasted corny 1980s and 1990s American love songs (think Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey...).

Finally at noon, the MC came on over the loud speaker and announced the start of the wedding. Several Chinese girls dressed in flowy white, short dresses came on stage and danced not very good ballet to a Chinese love song. Then the lits dimmed, and the groom walked down the long red aisle, and stopped under a small floral arch mid-way down the tiers of tables.

Then attention turned back to the stage as the bride descended with her parents on a pedestal from the ceiling, accompanied by more love songs, red petals, and smoke. She had an elaborate hairdo, and wore a white wedding dress, complete with sequins.

Falling Rose Petals

Then the bride walked to the front of the stage with her parents and waited for the groom to approach the stage. Then the parents stepped aside and the bride and groom held hands in the middle of the stage. They had pre-recorded their vows so they just stood there while those played. I think they were both crying, but it was hard to tell. Then they put rings on each other’s fingers, and kissed.

There was no one officiating the wedding, and no religious influence whatsoever. Then both set of parents were brought back up on stage. The bride and groom presented the parents with cups of tea, and there was a lot of bowing and thanking. The “honoring the parents” part took more time than any of the other parents of the wedding. One of the groom’s professors came on stage at one point and made a speech about how happy the couple would be together. After about 45 minutes of ceremony, the bride and groom walked back down the aisle together as rose petals fell from the sky and guests fired “party poppers” of paper red hearts at them.

Next began the eating, a ritual that holds great importance in China. At each place setting was a bag of goodies, called “wedding candy,” meant as a party favor. I found them not so good. There were bottles of expensive 白酒 baijiu (Chinese “white liquor”, basically grain alcohol) on the table that we could drink if we wanted, but luckily no one forced that on us. Instead we drank coke and sprite, very classy. Most of the food was typical Xi’an style banquet food, and fortunately there was not a huge excess, although my professor still insisted I bag all the leftovers and take them home. The bride and groom reemerged a few minutes after the eating began. The bride had changed into a red 旗袍 qipao (the traditional fitted Chinese—actually Manchurian, but imposed on the Chinese during the Qing Dynasty—dress), which is traditional for Chinese weddings. They went around to each table and toasted the guests with baijiu. During the luncheon, there were several performances on stage of Tang Dynasty style dancing and fighting. It was all Tang Dynasty themed because the hotel was called “New Tang Dynasty.” I found the dancing vey bizarre.

After about one hour of eating, people starting clearing out and the wedding was over! It was relatively short, I felt, compared to American weddings. There was no dancing or lingering about, no cutting of the cake, and no big bride and groom send off. We just bagged up the leftovers, and went home. The whole thing seemed a bit anti-climatic at the end, but certainly had plenty of pomp and ceremony throughout. The total lack of religious influence was very odd to me, despite having attended many weddings in the US by not particularly religious couples. There also was no separation of the wedding and the reception. Pictures were taken weeks before the wedding to send out with the invitations, and to make the slideshow so the groom had seen the bride in her dress before the actual wedding day. And even on the day of the wedding, they were posing for pictures with the guests before the wedding even started. So that was my first Chinese wedding! And hopefully not my last!

This past week in Xi'an, I came across an event designed to celebrate the NBA Finals currently happening in the US:

And in other news, I have officially moved back to Beijing! The major reason why I moved back is because all but one of my NGO case studies are based in Beijing so I can work much more efficiently and smoothly living here. In China, a lot of things are not planned in advance. For example, on Monday my professor in Xi'an told me that a US professor was coming to speak later that day at the university about the one child policy and its effect on gender bias. Since they only told me that morning, I already had commitments for the afternoon and couldn't go. Now that I'm back in Beijing, I'm hoping I will be able to attend a lot more events and meetings with my NGOs that I'm studying. Additionally, Beijing is the center of the China's budding civil society movement, and all women's rights movements and activities. I am hoping that I can get better connected to both the NGO and the women's rights scene in China by living in Beijing. This will afford me more opportunities and connections for my research. Another reason that motivated my move was the stresses of living in a "2nd tier" city with only a limited number of friends. While I made some great friends in Xi'an, I didn't have my usual crew to call upon when I wanted to do something fun or when I needed help with something. Between living alone and working alone without an office or colleagues, I could theoretically go days without any real social interaction. For anyone that knows me well, you know that I can't handle going even a few hours without some kind of social interaction. Basically it was getting really lonely in Xi'an, and it was interfering with my work. So now I'm back in Beijing, and looking for an apartment. I will be spending the remaining four plus months of my grant in Beijing.

In preparation for leaving, I tried to see all my friends so that we could say goodbye, although I'll be back several times throughout the rest of my Fulbright grant. My first "going away party" was held by the same Chinese man, Zhang, who I talked about above. After getting miserably lost and very sweaty, Giulia and I arrived an hour late to the banquet. Then Zhang preceded to make uncomfortable and racist comments throughout the night. He clearly didn't realize that the things he was saying are totally unacceptable amongst us foreigners. I tried not to be offended, but it can be hard to brush it off sometimes. I also didn't want to drink a lot so it was hard fending off the Chinese peer pressure to drink.

The next day, I had dinner with my Jiaotong University professor and her two graduate students that have helped me out throughout the semester. They are all very sweet, and I will definitely keep up my relationship with them!

Sasa and I- she clearly wasn't into this photo shoot

Yang Ting (my favorite) and I 

Yang Ting- the cutest Chinese girl EVER

Yang Ting and I, again

Yang Ting, My professor (so cute and fashionable), Sasa, and I 
Then on Wednesday night, I had a final goodbye with the Fulbright Xi'an girls- I'm going to miss them!

Stay tuned for updates on my new crib in Beijing- that is, once I find it...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jillian comes to China!

My best friend from childhood, Jillian, came to visit me in China last week. She arrived in Beijing on Saturday, and I met her at the airport. We came back to Zan and Rebecca’s apartment (they were nice enough to host us, even though they were gone that week due to the Chinese Dragon BoatFestival), and got freshened up. 

The Glorious Reunion!
Then we headed to Din Tai Feng for a delicious dumpling dinner. We had a group of 7 so they gave us a particularly fancy room, complete with high ceilings, two couches, and an elaborate chandelier. After dinner, we went to KTV with more friends.

Sunday, Jillian, Mark, and I went to a western brunch. From there, Jillian and I went to Tiananmen Square and did a tour of the Forbidden City with Newman Tours. It was down pouring at the beginning and lightened up towards the end, but overall not the most pleasant environment to be walking around outside in for several hours. 

Tiananmen Square (even the camera fogged up in the rain)

The Emperor and First Wife

Afterwards, we went home and changed into some warmer and dryer clothes. Then we met up with Mark again for dinner at a Yunnan restaurant in Fangjia Hutong. After that, we did another tour with the same guide, Chris, from Newman Tours- a ghost tour of the hutongs! It wasn’t particularly scary, but there were good stories about Chinese monsters, leaping vampires, and faceless Chinese female ghosts. It was pretty creppy walking around dark, empty hutong alleys. 

Monday morning, we woke up early to go to the Great Wall. For my fourth trip, we went to 黄花 Huanghua (I’ve been to a different part of the Great Wall for each trip). Technically this part of the wall is closed to tourists because the government hasn’t restored a lot of it, although it’s not exactly wild wall either. We took bus 916 from 东直门 dongzhimen to 怀柔县汽车站 Huairou bus station, and then got a cab for 50rmb/person/trip (so 200rmb total for the two of us, round trip) to the wall. He let us off, and we crossed over the top of a damn to the base of the wall:

This part of the wall is next to a large reservoir. 

Then we paid a villager for a “ticket,” which cost 3rmb (about 50 US cents), and hiked up to the sketchy ladder up to the wall:

Sketch Ladder
The Reservoir

We hiked around the wall for about an hour. I think this is my favorite part of the wall yet. So far, I’ve been to Badaling, Mutianyu, and Jinshanling. But Huanghua has a lake at the base, and is surrounded by a lot of mountains, making it particularly beautiful. It was also quite steep so we had fun playing around there.

Zen on the Wall

More Zen

Super Asian!
Then on the way back to Beijing, our driver randomly stopped on the side of the street to buy some fruit, which he then gave to us! So sweet! I still don't know exactly what it was, but it was delicious!

Then we returned to Beijing to find that Zan and Rebecca’s apartment had run out of electricity. In China, you don’t get bills for a lot of your utilities and expenses. Instead things just stop working when you run out. Theoretically, you’re supposed to check up on these things to make sure you don’t run out, but it’s hard to remember and know when approximately you need to be more wary. Unfortunately since Zan and Rebecca were out of town, I had to figure out what to do. They hadn’t recharged their electricity before since moving in two weeks ago so it was really up to me to figure it out. The management office was closed, and other people told me that they’d be closed until Thursday because of the Dragon Boat Festival. After contemplating moving to a hostel or a friend’s couch, we decided to tough it out without electricity until we went back to Xi’an on Wednesday. That afternoon, we took showers (luckily there was still hot water in the tank) by candle light, and I went to Shu (a Chinese friend who lives above Zan’s last apartment in the same complex)’s house to charge my phone and computer. 

Candlelit Shower

Monday night we went to Duck de chine for Peking Duck, one of Beijing’s specialties, with Jeremy and Chantal. Of course it was delicious, but I still think Made In China is my favorite duck restaurant in Beijing. 

Afterwards, the four of us went to Janes &Hooch, a no nonsense speakeasy style cocktail bar that just opened in Beijing. The menu was hilarious, complete with a set of rules, which included things such as “No hitting on other guests” and “Don’t order stupid drinks, like B52s, Cosmos, or anything Neon.” I had a West Side, and it was great. All the drinks were served in nice classy crystal resembling Waterford Crystal. 

Jillian, Chantal, and I with our classy cocktails

After our classy cocktails, Jeremy, Jillian, and I went to Great LeapBrewery’s new taproom, which is huge. Sadly they were out of my favorite beer again. Every time I go they’re out of Honey Ma Gold, a light beer with a hint of 麻辣 mala (Sichuan peppercorns that numb your mouth). At least there was still a nice patio, and of course great company!

Jeremy, Jillian, and I squeezed into one small rickshaw, which then got lost and took us over a half hour...

Jeremy and I at Great Leap
Tuesday, Jillian and I went to a cooking class at HiasGourmet to learn “Beijing Specialities.” We made 红烧肉 hongshao you (braised pork belly), 醋溜白菜 culiu baicai (Vinegar Cabbage), 葱爆牛肉 congbao niurou (literally, green onion explosion beef), and 拔丝香蕉 basi xiangjiao (caramelized fried bananas). There were four other Americans and one girl from New Zealand in the class. The teacher was a cute Chinese woman who spoke English well. I feel like I learned a lot from the class, and we got to keep the recipes. I don’t really like that bananas dish in general so I wasn’t so into that, but it was cool to learn how to deep fry and caramelize stuff. 

Courtyard of Hias Gourmet
Cooking Prepartion

Delicious food!
After the cooking class, Jillian and I went to the Silk Market where Jillian got some sunglasses, a watch, and a few gifts. Then as we were about to leave, it started pouring rain, and we were not prepared for the rain so instead we got foot massages and scrubs for an hour. By the time we were done, the rain had stopped and it was time to go to dinner. We met up with Jesse, Shu, and Shu’s brother at Haidilao. Jillian really enjoyed talking with Shu since he’s actually Chinese and speaks great English. She also got her shoes shined, and we both got “manicure” (it’s really more like a polish change, but still fun):

My (free) manicure- love it!
(Free) Shoe Shine
Jillian and I at Haidilao

On Wednesday we just chilled, and met up with Meghan and Gordon for some brunch and coffee at Peking Café. I think I’ll be spending a lot of time at Peking Café in the future as its full of flowers, which I’m obviously so in to. 

Hard at work!
Then we headed to the train station to take the high speed train back to Xi’an. That night, I took Jillian to a local 兰州拉面 Lanzhou Pulled Noodle restaurant. Jillian was obsessed with the simple 凉面cold noodles we got. And a bonus- our waiter, a member of the Salar ethnic minority and native of Qinghai Province, told us all about how he hates the Chinese government, how poor his people are, and how wasteful the “Chinese” people are (I say “Chinese” because he made the point to say he is not Chinese, he is Salar).

Our Salar friend pulling noodles
Thursday we went to see the Terracotta Warriors. After waiting in the burning sun for an hour to board the bus, we finally arrived at the Terracotta site. Little did we know, there’s an insanely long walkway up to the entrance to the pits, and we both got sunburned. I had seen the warriors two years ago when I visited Xi’an for a few days so I wasn’t thrilled about another visit, but Jillian enjoyed it so much that it made it worth it. We got an audio guide, which provided us with an insane number of details about the size of the pits, and the construction of each weapon buried with the warriors. It was a bit much, but interesting. And of course, the people watching at the site was awesome.

Jillian with the warriors in Pit 1
After taking in as much as we could, Jillian and I headed back to the city to the Muslim quarter. We toured the Bell Tower, the Muslim Quarter, and the Great Mosque.

Jillian at the Great Mosque

The Muslim Quarter

Jillian and I at the Bell Tower

A bell at the bell tower
Then we met Giulia for dinner, and had typical Xi’an 麻酱凉皮 cold sesame “Noodles.” Thursday night we went to a birthday party for my friend Charlie and Jillian got to meet a bunch of my Xi'an friends!

Tiago, Giulia, and I
Friday, we went to the Wild Goose Pagoda, and walked around the park there with Allie. It was very scenic, and all the Chinese people were freaking out over 3 white girls walking around together so there was a lot of picture posing.

Saturday, Jillian and I biked the city wall, which was really fun but super hot. The bikes have been upgraded since the last time I went (2 years ago) so it was much more comfortable, but still bumpy.

Afterwards, Jillian and I went home and relaxed, and had wonderful best friend bonding time. Jillian left Sunday morning. :( It was so wonderful touring Jillian around China, and getting to rediscover all the great little things about life here that I take for granted. Jillian really made me appreciate the amazing experiences that I'm having here, despite the challenges of life in China. She was very interested in every aspect of Chinese society, history, culture, language, etc. so it was fun to get to share all that I've learned with her! And of course, we had a long discussion about the US Constitution and the Supreme Court- nerds for life! Miss you jilliwood!