220 Volts of Culture Shock

Trip Start Jun 14, 2012
Trip End Jul 02, 2012

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

This has been one of the longest days of my life. I don't regret a second of it. 

Due to jet lag, I found myself wide awake no later than 5 AM this morning. Not being able to shower and get ready for the day until my roommate woke up, I eventually simply grabbed an old paperback book from my suitcase and wandered out to the front of the lobby to watch the early commuters pedal by and the shops open for the day. Seeing the neighborhood in direct daylight brought out odder details such as the small shrines and offerings tucked away in corners or on shelves, the small army of aging bicycles that seemed to rest against every fence, and the occasional wall of graffiti written in Chinese characters but with the distinct spray paint art style found all over American cities. Hours of people watching and reading later, my group began to appear in the hallways and we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. 

To answer the major questions about the food...Yes, it is better than anything I'd tasted that was labeled 'Chinese' back home no matter how high-end the restaurant was. Some quirks that Americans will notice is that the Chinese no not typically drink while they eat except with certain dishes, so tables do not feature the glasses of water we're grown accustomed to. Water itself is free...but served boiling hot, while chilled water with ice is a menu item with a small price attached. Surprisingly, Beijing tap water is not drinkable and the population relies on purchasing bottled water or simply drinking boiled water that would otherwise be used to make tea. This morning I found that even the milk was served hot because it was not pasteurized and had to be boiled. While pop (...I'm Midwestern) is widely available on almost every corner, it is typically kept room temperature. While the cuisine itself is a major adjustment, smaller details such as this can knock you off guard. 

Shortly after breakfast, the group took a public bus to an area known as 'Golden Street', something I can only describe as Beijing's answer to the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Every high-end brand name was present, surrounded by miles of small specialty shops with the shopkeepers waving in customers from the doorway. One souvenir shop gave way to a humbling lesson in protocol. In these types of stores, employees stand by each bin of items until you select what you would like. They then record the item on a receipt, hand you the receipt, and grab the item to place it back in the bin. You then pay at the cashier, hand the stamped receipt to a clerk, and are given the item back. I was...not aware of this, and several clerks were forced to corner what must have appeared to be a long-haired thief who walked off with a jade necklace. I managed to apologize and explain myself in child-like Mandarin, but the clerks seemed rather used to dealing with non-verbal customers who spoke none of the language. This direct approach kept appearing in every shop we visited, everywhere you looked there was a well-dressed attendant smiling and taking whatever you looked at off the shelf to ring it up. The ones that spoke English often had elaborate sales pitches memorized, the rest relied on cheerful dominance. Every price is naturally inflated, haggling is as natural as breathing in Beijing. 

While shopping is the opium of the masses, my main attraction was observing the crowds and interactions as locals came in contact with us. Apparel in Beijing is very Western, albeit often more colorful and accessorized. While Americans are very easy to spot as they follow flag-carrying tour guides or as they snap pictures of buildings with curved roofs, our travel group is highly visible as foreign. Seven of our ten group members are African-American, which in this area is incredibly rare. While this didn't create a scene, locals occasionally approached the group asking if they could take a picture with us, or in some cases used their phones to photograph us as they walked by. While dark skin is an uncommon novelty, my own appearance is an all-out social breach. Whenever there were reactions to our group's appearance, both myself and other group members noticed that I solicited more of a reaction than the rest. White travelers are a common sight in Beijing, but judging from the number of gasps and double-takes I've collected throughout this single day I'm going to guess that those males typically have hair shorter than the females. For those who don't know me in person, my hair is only shoulder-length but rather wavy and noticeable. Except for one gentleman we noticed working in a bar later on, male hair appears to be worn slightly shaggy at the longest. The onlookers seemed less disturbed when I tied my hair back in a low ponytail, but occasionally I'd still turn around to see a phone pointed at me. 

Dinner took place in another local cafe down the street from the hotel, this time it was an indoor 'hot pot' dinner in which we were given a table with a boiler mounted in the middle and were able to cook meat and vegetables in a two-sectioned pot with our choice of plain or spicy soups. Our goal is to eat as many types of food as possible not to brag about it later on, but to find out what we find edible enough to eat for the next two weeks. If all else fails, fried rice seems to be the stand-by. I myself have a hoard of granola bars that took up half my suitcase. If I run out of room for souvenirs, my calculations show that I'll need to eat 3.63 granola bars every day until we leave. That being said, I'm told the upcoming Midnight Market is known for fresh scorpion. I never pretended to be sane, stop judging and let me eat my poisonous arachnid. 

Following dinner, the group headed out to a river-walk area lined with bars, lounges, high-quality shops, and some of the most memorable scenery I have ever seen. Most of the bars featured live guitar music, apparently 'guitar bars' are a local hit. Gorgeous restaurants decked out like shrine with silk-robed employees seemed to come by every ten feet or so while local performers played for change on the sidewalks. Sidling through the crowd as the sun went down and the neon lights came on, I truly have begun to fall in love with this city. The crowds are immense and assertive but still always seem to be laughing and enjoying their day. As night fell we climbed up to a rooftop bar and admired the skyline, the traditional arched roofs and shrine towers broken up by neon, LEDs, and speeding headlights. Leaning off the roof to admire the garden of a nearby temple, I heard the young duo providing the music start a heavily localized version of 'Poker Face'. I was looking at one of the oldest Buddhist temples I'd ever seen, and listening to a cover of Lady Gaga. I come from Chicago and am proud of its heritage, but the blending of old and new that I'm seeing out here are unbelievable. At one small shop tucked away behind the river, I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of a Chinese girl about my age with her hair dyed a distinctive lavender color, something that in my walk of life is hardly unusual. Yet this punk-rock looking individual was extremely focused on the traditional construction of a necklace with a Daoist symbol on the pendant. I cannot forget that single moment of rebellious youth flowing with ancient discipline. 

I'm now sitting here feeling like this week has opened up a new world to me...Except this week was in reality a single day. Am I that inspired, or am I still jet-lagged and delusional? Probably the latter, but let's pretend it's the first one because it sounds better if I ever get quoted in marketing materials later on. Throughout a single day of wandering around a few neighborhoods looking for a power converter and trying to get ourselves together before the actual program begins, I've managed to make myself into the fool writing this right now. 

 If I can manage a full night's sleep, I'm being told tomorrow is going to be 'an amazing day'. If looking around for a power outlet converter can drive me to delusional monologues, I pity apologize to anyone who will read those blog entries. 
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