Seeing through the silk

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

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Flag of China  ,
Thursday, June 21, 2012

I woke up today with a drive to
succeed. This is such a rare thing for me I have to mention it,
usually I wake up tangled in my sheets gurgling like some type of
bony slug. But today, I stretched, flossed, brushed, combed my hair,
and hummed a Billy Joel song as I popped in my contact lenses. With
my vision restored, I looked into the mirror and was greeted with a
wild-haired little guy smiling back at me with completely blood-red
eyes that usually justify calling an exorcist. No pain, no
irritation, just the single scariest pair of eyes I have ever seen
staring back at my from the bathroom mirror. I half-expected my reflection to
reach out of the mirror and strangle me ALA the second 'Evil Dead'

Panic? Panic.

I spent the first hour of the day
searching on the web for things that could cause this, namely
conjunctivitis AKA pink eye. I had pink eye hit me on my last day of
high school, it's a miserable memory that haunts me several years
later. If it was indeed conjunctivitis, this could mean I would spend
half the trip quarantined in my room with my eyes covered. Locked up
and blindfolded in a Communist original. Finally, I
ventured out into the maze or our hotel in a pair of sunglasses to
try and track down our faculty members. Reactions ranged from 'HOLY
CRAP!' to a casual shake of a head from a veteran mother who insisted
it was bad, but it wasn't pink eye. Luckily our group had made a list
of English speaking hospitals in the city, and as an NIU student I
possessed an international ID card which included insurance whenever
I'm abroad. But as we were ready to leave for a major university
within a few minutes, I was given the option to decide my own fate as
an adult. Ride to a hospital crying and clutching a stuffed
panda...Hang around my room all day watching Chinese game shows and
staring at my eyes in the mirror...Dig out the old pair of
hipster-looking glasses I only use in emergencies and head out with
the group. Option C it is. Just in case, I was loaned a tiny bottle
of Visine which I now carry in a cargo pocket like a holstered

Riding out to our destination, we were
briefed on Peking University. To sum it up bluntly, it's the
Princeton or Yale of China. BNU is a competitive state school just
like Northern, but Peking is an elite institution that's known and
respected throughout the entire continent of Asia. To prepare for
this extremely formal occasion that few Americans are allowed to
have, I had to make a good impression. Therefore, I dressed to the
nines in a pair of khaki cargo shorts, my trademark shoes with
individual toes, a tight shirt advertising an Irish punk rock band I
saw in a coffee house back in DeKalb, and a flat-top cap from
Wal-Mart. “So, you're the top physicist in China...What type of ska
music are you into?”

While BNU hosted us in an initiative
handled by a college office, our visit to Peking was handled by a
student volunteer who had casually mastered English even through his
graduate school emphasis was on advanced Japanese language. Feeling
stupid? You should be. Peking University is an older campus with
ancient architecture, winding stone paths, and a simply incredible
background of trees and stone cliffs. Imagine a national park with
Chinese-styled temples scattered along the paths, and you have Peking
University. The most modern building was the expansive library, which
turned out to be one of the largest in mainland Asia. Unlike BNU
where we were VIPS, we had to hand over our passports (I'm serious)
to the front desk and pay a small fee for one-day-only library
passes. Not only is this library a for-profit attraction, they make
sure we can't leave the country without turning in a laminated card
that says 'Guest'. That being said, it was an amazing facility filled
with hundreds of students all buried in their studies. Not a single
chair or bench was empty, Chinese libraries are something you have to
show up early to if you want a seat.

Outside of a section reserved for
European literature, our guide stopped to reflect on what these
students were so focused on. This being the Chinese Yale, take the
extreme education system I've previously described...and multiply by
ten. These students had spent their lives shooting to qualify for
Peking, and now fought with all their might to survive its curriculum
while supporting themselves and making tuition payments. While Ivy
League schools are known for attracting the financially privileged,
similar Chinese institutions consist of students from every walk of
life from children of party leaders to self-made individuals who were
born in slums like the migrant camp. They're all united by an extreme
drive to succeed, a sterling academic record, and the constant fear
of failure they face every hour of every day.

The tour guide sighed, and said it was
at least better than high school.

The only thing that kept me from
screaming 'WHAT?!' at the top of my lungs was a semester-long project
I had done about Chinese high schools, namely the 'Gao Kao' college
placement exam. This is the Chinese equivalent of the ACT or SAT,
except it is almost the sole factor in college placement. The Gao Kao
is a looming challenge that students start preparing for during
junior high, it's a critical event to the point the government guards
testing locations to avoid any noises or disturbances. Families wait
outside while students take the exam, and often promise vacations or
cars to students if they make a certain score. When exam results are
released, counselors are deployed to monitor students for signs of
spontaneous suicidal behavior. I'm not being sarcastic about this, I
am dead serious about everything I just said. The Chinese suicide rate skyrockets every year after
exam scores come out. Realize that it is possible to retake the
exam...But that comes with shame that's going to follow you for a
decade or two. 

If this seems extreme, consider that
this is actually the third of three major exams in a student's life.
The first exam determines what type of junior high you can attend,
the second decides high school placement, and the Gao Kao is used for
college entrance. If you do poorly on the first exam around
age...twelve or so, you are dropped to a remedial school for junior high and areinstantly removed from the pool for higher tier colleges. You can
disqualify yourself from a good college based on your performance in
grade school. How do I feel about this? At age fifteen I was told I
was probably not going to graduate high school and to plan my future
around this. If I were raised in the Chinese system, this would mean
that I would not be allowed to continue school after junior high and
would have to find work as an unskilled laborer. Back in America, I
am trying to gain admission to our graduate program for a Masters
degree. That's all I have to say about that.

If college is in your future, your
major is strongly dependent on your particular test scores throughout
your education. For instance, if I scored in a certain bracket and
showed talent in a particular area, I'd be able to choose from a few
majors that administrators had determined I was cut out for. I'm a
double major with two minors, and while I pride myself on being
well-rounded I truly have no distinct talent or specialization that
stands out. What major would they pick for me if I had been raised in this system? Is a jack-of-all-trades like myself even possible in a system
like this? Not really. Specialize, specialize, specialize. Everyone has their place. That sounds very assuring and fulfilling until the creepiness sets in.

After the improvised lecture on the
pressure of it all, our stop was the biggest tourist attraction at
the college, a completely man-made lake surrounded by lilies, willow
trees, and rocks where students sat with books in their laps
serenely. I cannot describe how intensely beautiful it was, we lost
nearly a half hour taking pictures of this nearly impossible scenery.
This college balances its endless demands with the most beautiful
campus I have ever seen, it seems to soothe the soul just by walking
through it.

This...changed a bit when we passed by
the dormitories. We noticed a public restroom facility, and when
asked our guide explained that the dormitories that the majority of
the students lived in lacked indoor plumbing. Hot water was gathered
from shacks around campus whenever students needed tea, and showers
took place in public facilities a block away. Students lived four to
a room. We were assured that foreign students lived in modern
facilities with plumbing and less crowded quarters, in case we were
looking into applying. have to walk two blocks in the dead
of winter to use the bathroom...while the international students
enjoy their high-rise condo? I asked how all the students felt about
this, the answer was just a sheepish smile and a shrug. Is there
pride in this form of minimalist living, or is blatant inequality
acceptable if not expected? Asking either question would probably end

Following our tour and lunch at an
eccentric restaurant located right off-campus, our group found yet
another arcade facility which kept us busy for an hour or so with the
usual fighting game challenges and dance-offs. Group members pulled
me aside to comment on my eyes, which had somehow gotten remarkably
clearer and healthier looking. So much for conjunctivitis...But what
caused it? We have no idea, but I'm glad it somehow healed itself
throughout the day. Could it be something in the room? Our room has
opaque windows that are located directly above the hotel's indoor koi
pond, that rules out dry air but brings up the question of allergies
or mold. I have no known allergies, which just makes the question

Bidding farewell to our guide, we
caught up with our bus and headed out to a shopping facility called
the 'Silk market' by locals. While we'd previously haggled and bought
a few things in alleys, this was supposedly the real deal. And...holy
crap, they weren't kididng. It's a massive flea-market like facility
lined with stalls, about five stories tall with a basement and
underground tunnels lined with even more stores. Every stand is lined
with goods, each attended by a red vested attendant who would do
virtually anything to get your money in their standard-issue fanny
packs. Always crowded, always overheated, everywhere you look there's
a high-end brand or local oddity begging to be examined. If you look
at something for even a second, its attendant will already be
offering prices. If you need a fabled five dollar Rolex, this is
where they all originate from. Everything from handpainted artwork to
bootleg products with comically misspelled packaging can be found
here, just name your price.

Regarding pricing...If one person
happens to pay sticker price on a single item in this market, the
profit from that one sale would provide a paycheck for several
employees. I was told back home to always ask for half the posted
price...Whoever said that has not been to Beijing. You really should
be aiming for about a tenth of
the posted price, and that's if the quality is absolutely superb. So
there were were in an endless maze of clothes and screaming
attendants, surrounded by goods that could be painfully obtained for
a few American dollars each. Everything is 'hand-made' and unique,
even if you happen to see the same thing at every other stand. Every
employee is trained in multiple languages and will always, always
sell at the highest possible price if they want to keep their job.
Did I mention they always seem to greet us by saying they had a
special price just for us? That's right. I'm special! 

Dear god, am I

I had a list of
things I wanted out of this market, mostly gifts for people back
home. Back at Northern, I occasionally perform in plays to practice my Mandarin, typically wearing traditional Chinese
clothing that my professor loans us. Ever since I'd been handed a
shining silk shirt with a mandarin-style collar and knotted buttons,
I'd always wanted something similar out of sheer curiosity and passion for Chinese history. Looking around Silk Street, a few dozen stands exclusively
sold traditional Chinese outfits, all silk, every color and style
imaginable. Before I spotted any of the shirts, I passed by a
spectacular suit jacket, made out of patterned silk, that had a
collar and style exactly matched to the shirt I was looking for.
Wow...just...Wow. I needed this. Now. I grabbed it off the shelf and
looked at the tag to estimate the haggle price. The cost...over two
thousand yuan. Three hundred American dollars. I currently am unemployed and sharpen knives for my main income, if you were wondering about my spending ability. This suit jacket, while amazing, would cost me either a maxed out credit card, or a kidney if I could find a buyer. I set it back on the shelf, and slowly walked away staring at it over my shoulder. 

On the second
floor, I wandered into a stand and noticed a black silk shirt that
mirrored the one I'd first seen years ago. Pulling it off the shelf,
I noticed it had a bold red lining inside it. The animated attendant
instantly appeared, explaining that it was a rare double-sided jacket
which could be flipped between being red or black, each side with an
intricate pattern woven into the silk. She then giggled at how I was
such a 'skinny man' and fetched a smaller size for me. My group
members walked up as I was trying it on, and immediately started
gesturing that I need to buy it. Either they truly believe I look
good in that shirt, or they thought it was so freaking hilarious that
they had to keep a straight face until I wore it back home and cause
the entire county to erupt in laughter. Either way, I asked for the
price. She pulled out a calculator and said because I was so handsome
in that suit, she would only charge me...twenty two hundred yuan.
This was even more than the suit jacket, somewhere above the three hundred dollar mark and then some. Once again, unless this place has a cash-for-organs place in the back...Do they? 
I instantly
explained in Mandarin that this wouldn't do, she told me to name my
price. I'd been told by our native Chinese friend that a silk shirt would run me around eighty to a hundred depending on the quality. So, I typed in a bid of seventy figuring we'd meet in the middle. She laughed,
asking if this was my first day in China. This was hand-made by the
best tailors in the city...Her next offer, fourteen hundred. I said I
had only a hundred yuan to my name, and offered eighty. She suddenly stopped being friendly, coldly staring me down as she explained that I had to stop joking with her. I removed
the shirt and began apologizing, inching my way out of the stand. She
repeatedly asked me for a new offer, each time I said eighty. She
became instantly enraged, telling me to get out of the stand and stop
harassing a poor dress maker. She also explained that I was a greedy
white American who only wanted to rob poor Chinese people who we force to work in factories. I said nothing
except more apologies, still backing out of the store until my group
caught on and helped pull me out and booked it around the corner. As
I started to exhale, the woman ran out from behind the corner and
screamed down the hallway that I didn't understand China, and that
she would sell it to me for two hundred. I turned my head back, and
yelled the words 'one hundred'. I walked away while she went on
screaming both her final price, along with a few curses she probably
didn't know I could understand. My group found this absolutely
hilarious, and this type of incident is now called 'Pulling a Guide'.

Do not lowball in
China. Offer your exact final price and keep wearing them down, never
start low and meet them in the middle. They don't do that out here,
it's apparently insulting. Don't stick around if they get
belligerent, there are a few hundred salesmen in that market and
there are a few dozen who will sell you the same thing after a few
minutes of polite price suggestions. The ones who grab onto your arm
or go into tragic personal stories are the ones you need to run away
from quickly, that transaction will not end peacefully. Incidents such as this one are not typical, I just...really suck at life. 

Following the
screaming incident over the silk shirt, some of us rested outside the
escalators for a while. One of us noticed some African-American men
walking by, and nodding at them caused them to walk over and warmly
greet us. They asked how long we'd been in Beijing, saying they were
glad to see other dark-skinned people after spending nearly a month
in China. They were extremely open and friendly, I'd never seen this
kind of appreciation between travelers before. They were all smiling,
all glad to see us, as laid-back and genuine as can be. We asked why
they were in China for so long.

“We're a
basketball team on world tour. We play for the Harlem Globe


I'm not making this
up. The Harlem Globe Trotters simply walked up to us at a random
market in China just so they could say hi and ask us how we were
doing. They gave advice on finding deals, bidding us a good trip
before they moved on to another floor. We then stood around staring
at each other and asking if that really just happened.

our...rather surreal encounter, I spotted a black and red shirt in a
nearby stand. Walking in and examining it, it was exactly the same
shirt that nearly got my eyes clawed out a few aisles away. When
approached by the shopkeeper, I was casually asked if I'd bought or sold
before. Why was I asked this and what did it mean? I have no idea. I
simply nodded. She seemed to acknowledge this seriously, and
instantly asked my price on the shirt. I said that I'd bought this
shirt before for a hundred. She offered one hundred ten...I shook my
head, she nodded and went off to get my size. The heck? I suck at this, why was it that easy? I later on
found out that this market is frequented by professional shoppers who
are hired to obtain particular items for clients, sometimes selling
the items back if their client isn't satisfied. Either my appearance
or behavior led to the saleswoman marking me off as one of these
people, leading to a very smooth purchase of a sharply designed silk
shirt for sixteen dollars. 

Walking around the
glass counters of the jewelry and electronics section on another floor, I bumped into
something that still rings in my ears as I think about it. Walking
through the counters of phone cases and headphones were the Harlem
Globe Trotters, including one of their players who we hadn't
previously met. He was nearly eight feet tall, which had driven
everyone in the immediate vicinity into an absolute frenzy. Every
native Chinese was abandoning their shopping or even their counters
to take pictures and simply stare up at him while chattering in
various dialects, and tourists kept walking up asking for pictures in
languages I couldn't recognize. He tried to focus on his shopping in
the midst of the jabbering riot, I truly have to admire his ability
to tolerate it. One of our faculty members yelled over the crowd to
commend how well he dealt with it all, he turned over to us and gave
a little smile as he said he was used to it in a soft voice.

Several times a
day, our group is approached by people who want to examine our skin
colors, hair, or to ask for posed photos with us either in a group or
individually. The Chinese are typically very blunt towards the fact
our group is mostly African-American and that I myself have a rather
whimsical appearance. Countless stares, phone pictures, crowds
pointing...But nothing can compare to what that man dealt with by
simply walking into the market looking for a pair of earphones.
Americans are of course a tad shallow and we tend to make note of
particular features, but it's always a passive action that is
purposely hidden from the person out of pure courtesy or fear of them
noticing. This is a social norm throughout the social classes. In
China, the typical people on the streets stare, point, blatantly take
pictures, or even walk up to poke our hair or skin. The middle
classes and up, meanwhile, never look twice at us. Are they actually
used to foreigners, or are they trying to appear that they are used
to foreigners to separate themselves? As usual, I have no idea.

We had dinner at
our usual street stand outside the hotel, bragging about our deals of
the day and how amazing the university was. I found myself wondering
how the salespeople functioned...Who were they? Where did they come
from? Was this their career or a means to an end? How much was each
good actually worth, and how much do they charge different types of
people? In America, I could track down almost any type of worker on
their off-time and have a long conversation about their life. Out
here, being a white man, I am a very visible source of money that
will receive scripted responses no matter what I ask and who I talk
to. I'm not supposed to know how people work and how the gears turn,
I'm supposed to keep buying and paying as much as possible. To crack
this code, I need to rely on the Chinese students we come in contact
with. I'm not against asking for their help to find these things out.
I just hate that my skin color and features mark me as an outsider
who must never be spoken to like a human being. I'm color coded to be
treated like a clueless customer or a bumbling tourist by whoever I

I seek truth and
learn from the world around me. This place enforces truths instead of
finding them, and the world around me is a colorful tent full of
actors reading off their lines. This feeling of not belonging here is
so strong that it's very, very clear that I am meant to see all of
this and learn something I can't yet grasp.

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