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My worst mistake when ordering food in China, by Francis Dorfling

“It will get easier.” That is a phrase I’ve heard so much since I got here, and it sure does even when it comes to ordering food. Not easy though, just easier. Don’t confuse the two.

The first big meal I had here was with all the new teachers, a few of the Chinese staff, and our executive Headmaster. The food was delicious and it just kept on coming. Never giving a thought about how it got to the table. Until all was done and we actually had to start wandering around looking for food and ordering it by ourselves.

Using your sense of smell might help a little. Walk out onto the street and sniff your way to the variety of different restaurants available to you. If they smell bad, try the next one. Keep going until you like the smell and are intrigued enough to try the food. (Well, in China looks and smell can be deceiving.)

Next, decide if you want to be able to understand the menu and know what you are eating, or if you want to gamble a bit and test your skills of pointing and guessing. Then you think “Hey I’m in China”, so why not try the new and unexpected.

First, point at the meal you have blindly chosen. Let them know you only want one order for yourself. Then smile big which says: “Yes, I have no idea what I just ordered but I am trusting you as my waitress/waiter to bring me something delicious.”

You will most likely end up with something like this: mystery meat, in a questionable broth with overly chewy noodles. It’s about the experience…so dig in and plan on making a beeline to the closest bakery in the case that it leaves a foul tasting flavor in your mouth- but “Hey, I’m in China.”

This will only be one of the many situations where you stare at the waiter repeating yourself in English thinking why don’t you understand me while they probably think the exact same thing, or grabbing your phone to ask “PLECO” for some help. (It does help hehehe.) Use the numbers 1 to 5 to decide how cooked you want your meat. Safest bet would be 5. Point at pictures or just using your wonderful teaching skills by playing charades with the waiter trying to order a simple dish like chicken.

But what can I say. “It gets easier.”

 

 

 

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My most fun cooking experience in Beijing, by Nicholas Flesch

Not long after arriving in Beijing and starting my new job teaching English—in fact it was during the first week of training before classes started—I decided to have a get together over lunch in order to get to know my coworkers better. I was far too reluctant to buy any meat from the super market, meat that had been sitting on a table for God knows how long, and so chose to do vegetarian burrito bowls. This was fine, because not only were some of my coworkers’ vegetarian but I could also easily find the ingredients I needed so long as those ingredients weren’t spices.

Hosting this party in my new apartment was something of an anxiety for me. My apartment, I’d say, was and continues to be a little grungy. It is also not unlike a cave and very dark throughout the day. I needed light, and so found all the lamps left over from the previous occupant that I could and set it up in my living room. Earlier that morning while buying all the ingredients I would need I also bought a lightbulb for this lamp. Now I was already in the process of cooking lunch and it was only twenty minutes before my guests were due to arrive when I had a lull in the preparations. It was in this lull that I decided to change out the lightbulb of that lamp.

Unbeknownst to me, that lamp was left in the corner because the last lightbulb in it had broken clean off, leaving only the metal piece at the base still screwed tightly in. Foolishly I had already plugged in the lamp and, while attempting to put in the new bulb, blew out my breaker with a fantastic show of electric sparks. I was now officially panicked. The lights were out, but the stove was gas and still running hot. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, but I knew I couldn’t very well host anything in the dark. In my panic I turned to the only people I figured who could help me: my neighbors.

I knocked on my neighbors’ door for some time before the middle aged woman who lived there timidly opened the door a crack. I’m sure she was not expecting a fat white man to call on her that day. In the worst Chinese I could muster I said: “I have no electricity!” To which she said: “What?” I pointed across the hall to my apartment, the door still wide open, it’s interior very dark. “I have no electricity,” I said again.

My Chinese was bad enough that she gave up talking to me and went into my apartment. It was a moment before I realized that she was hunting for the circuit breaker box. I joined her, and after several minutes we located it. It was well out of sight over the top shelf of my coat closet. I flipped it back on and light was restored as was normalcy to this poor woman’s day. She was grateful to retreat back into her home.

I managed to remove the remaining bit of bulb from my lamp and insert the new one, giving light to my living space. I finished up the burrito bowls and everyone enjoyed them, though they were weirdly spiced, and afterward I reflected on how strange it was that this was the most successful party I had ever thrown.

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How to avoid traffic in Beijing, by Kimberley Adda

Welcome to Beijing, one of the largest, most populated cities in the world. Though the Chinese have basically mastered public transportation, and are trying to limit the number of cars circulating around the city, traffic is still a huge problem at pretty much all times of the day.

Knowing how easily frustrated I can get, I told myself “be a wolf, not a sheep” (surely that’s in some awful action hero/sappy war movie?), I decided to buy a second-hand electric scooter. I don’t have a drivers’ license but I figured, how hard could it be? It’s just like a giant bicycle without pedals… There’s a certain appeal in being able to weave in and out of traffic, to not stop at red lights, and to drive on the sidewalks/wrong side of the road when in a hurry.

I would recommend buying an electric scooter if you possess the following qualities:

  • You are willing to risk your life on a daily basis
  • You are a master of Mario Kart
  • You have minimal road rage
  • You don’t feel pain and you don’t scar.

If you do indeed possess these qualities, then by all means! Go get your bike! It goes without saying to check brakes, lights, tires, accelerator, kickstand and battery (60 volt bike: 1300 – 1600CNY for a second hand bike) before handing over the cash.

There are more ways to stay entertained on the Beijing roads. A few of my favourite games include A) Racing random people, B) Never letting your feet touch the ground, C) Practising your Chinese cursing :)

To put it into perspective, if I were to take a bus to work (a 6 km distance from home to classroom) it would take me 40 minutes: Walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, stop at every stop for a million people to get on, get off the bus, walk to the school. On my scooter, it takes a whopping 12 minutes, door to door.

I say get out your leather jackets, your boots, your Raybans, and feel the wind in your hair (at a max speed of 50km/h)!

NB: You can also decide to buy a gas scooter. Much faster, much more expensive, and legally questionable for foreigners to own…

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What Are Our Expectations? by Marco Rodriguez

“What are our expectations… which of the things we desire are within reach? If not now, when?   And will there be some left for me?” –Anthony Bourdain

 

It has been three months since I’ve landed on Chinese soil; China with a capital ‘C’, it feels like just yesterday that I was greeted by the blank stare of an immigration officer, in a city far from home. They wanted to know what business I had in China, I replied, “I’m an English teacher with Aihua. I will live in Shijingshan”, they stamped my passport and I hurried along. No expectations, no idea what I had just signed up for, and no regrets.

Our apartment overlooks the vast and fragrant city; in the daytime the image of a glorious mountain range fills our view, at night the buildings come to life with Chinese characters lit up as far as the eye can see. China is too big, too diverse, and forever changing at a rate so fast that no matter how many times I try to understand China, I remain blissfully ignorant. I can gaze out at the city and find something new every single day; look out and say hello where did you come from?  A familiar concept here is to try and dissect China, try to understand why it functions in the way that it does, why don’t they just do this –or if they just did this like we do back home…! I myself am guilty. China isn’t meant to be understood in the eyes of an expat or even its own people, it functions in its own right and they do some things better than anything I have seen from a mega-city; it is China with a capital ‘C’.

The subway system is the most efficient in the world, it can take you anywhere in Beijing. The rides, depending on the day, could either be arduous or therapeutic. The sound of subway echoes like a mantra of Chinese efficiency…”Baboashan….Bajiao….Wukesong…..” Careful or you might miss a stop… it’s always the best for people watching; they wonder where you’re going or where you’ve come from and you wonder what their stories are, what does China with a capital ‘C’ mean to them?

The food is unpredictable, yet time and time again satisfying. Food here, like many other places, feels ritualistic; a bonding of necessity and pleasure, with laughs thrown in as a Chinese imperative. It’s an outpour of pork, beef, lamb, squid, fish, and oil – don’t be scared to dive right in, it’s the only way. Chop stick skills are not optional.

Teaching is the primary reason I came here. I received the news of my visa approval on the jungle floors of Minca, Colombia. I was sharing a tent with Alex, my older sister of 26. She’s of a small frame, tenacious, and has an unquenchable thirst for the unknown. I had met up with her on her travels of South America. I said good-bye to the howler monkeys, coffee, and my sister, and headed into honking horns, new smells, and tiny children looking at me for answers in Chinese- “English only”, I repeated. Teaching for me did not come naturally, however there isn’t much time to dwell on it. You must look your students straight in the eye and say, “Repeat after me…” You will be trained as much as you can be; the rest is up to you. Once you get into a rhythm there is no shaking you. Some days you feel as if the kids absorbed more knowledge than you have ever possessed yourself…other days they will test your will and make you question all of your choices leading up to that moment…don’t worry that too shall pass. The kids are great, they go absolutely mental when I speak Chinese, and at the end of it all remember that they’re just kids. Take away a few cultural conventions, two separate languages, and you realize you’re not so different at all.

The amount of exploration here is also endless, you’ll find that on your days off you will explore as much as you can of the city and be helpless at the end of it all, knowing that you could never possibly finish exploring Beijing let alone the vast country that is China. Be sure to go to Yuanmingyuan Park, The Summer Palace, The Great Wall, and if you really want to get a feel of what the Chinese are all about, go to Shanghai, a city renowned for its rapid growth and urbanization. Don’t be scared to wander off down a hutong, for there you will find the best gems of all. Dumplings, duck, and whatever your eyes can see will be found down a hutong. They are traditional to Beijing and embody a kind of dichotomy native to China; the balance of old and new. Here you will find no one speaks English because there is no need to, just grab a seat, politely say “Nihao” and go along your business just as the locals do…after all these 21 million Chinese are your neighbors. It’s our China with a capital ‘C’.

P.S- If you own a motorbike like many of us, drive safe, invest in good breaks/horn, and wear a helmet. If you survive a year of driving in Beijing traffic…go hike Everest, you don’t fear danger and you are a crafty, resourceful person, you’ll make it in no time.

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Taxis in Beijing, by Weston Dean

With an extensive and affordable public transportation system, Beijing is an incredibly easy city to get around in. But the subway does close fairly early, making it difficult to stay out in the city for any time past 11:00. And sometimes, you want to get around a bit more quickly.  And other times, understandably, you might just want to avoid being packed so closely to other people. For these times, taxis serve as an inexpensive alternative.

I’ve taken many taxis in my time in Beijing, and I’ve found using them to be a pretty simple experience. With some basic Chinese, or even a finger to a map, it’s easy to tell a taxi driver where you’re trying to go. And it’s much less expensive than taxis that I’ve used in other cities. An average 20-minute ride only costs around 50 yuan (about 8 dollars). It’s a convenient service. However, it is not without its faults. And those faults mainly depend on your driver.

Taxi drivers can be very nice people. Usually they’re very excited to have foreigners in their cab. I’ve had one driver even sing me a song as he drove me through the city. Other rides can be more difficult. One well-known reason, is that taxi drivers seem to have the thickest accents of any profession in Beijing. With some, it’s near impossible to understand what’s being said, even with some knowledge of Chinese, which can lead to some confusion. Some taxi drivers are more reluctant to take foreigners to destinations because they don’t seem to believe that a foreigner could give them directions. Other issues have come from the fact that my apartment is in Shijingshan, a district of Beijing that’s a bit of a trip outside of the city center. Plenty of drivers have told me that the drive is too far, and others have admitted to being unfamiliar with the area. I’ve been in a cab before, where my driver drove around aimlessly for quite a while before finally stopping his car, pulling out a map and having me point out the route myself.

In Beijing, each ride in a taxi is a new experience. Often, they are good, but sometimes they can go wrong. Sometimes they’re straightforward, and other times they can be very memorable (for many reasons). Still, it’s something that you will quickly get used to, and it makes an already easy to travel Beijing, even easier.

             

             

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Fun in Chinese class! by Grace Liu

Our Chinese classes are getting better every week! Last week, when we were learning about food, one student asked me the question: “Why do Chinese people usually ask me ‘吃了吗’ (chi le ma?) or ‘吃饭了吗’?(chi fan le ma?)” I smiled and asked: “Has anyone else gotten the same question?” All the students raised their hands. I asked : “So if your answer was ‘没吃’ (mei chi),did he or she invite you to dinner?” They all laughed: “No. But why do they care about whether I have eaten?” “Because we have a saying ‘民以食为天’(mín yǐ shí wéi tiān) which means “People regard food as their prime want”.  There used to be a lot of famines in Chinese history, and many people  died during these famines, so food is a thing of great importance in daily life. When people ask “吃了吗”, it’s just like saying  “Hello” or “how are you?” in English.

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Movie Magic, by Evan Noonan

I have been wanting to write something about movies, and the cinema- one of my favourite past-times, along with the majority of the population I’m sure. Before I moved to China, I of course knew that the entertainment and movie business was censored. To what extent, I didn’t know, but I soon found out. Cinema goers will rejoice, as Beijing has no shortage of cinemas, most of which boast huge 3D (and quite a few 4D) screens, and plenty of sweet, sweet popcorn.

First of all, I am a comic book geek, so anything produced by Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc. I’m all over it. And with the production (some might say overproduction) of superhero movies and TV shows gracing our screens right now, it is an exciting time! When I first arrived in Beijing in August 2014, Iron Man 3 was being talked about. Having had a little later release date in China, like a lot of movies, the Chinese version caused some controversy. This was down to one of the final scenes in the movie being remade for Chinese audiences, to make it seem like the Chinese authorities had provided aid to our hero Iron Man, and thus helped saved the day! There is also an added scene where the character of Dr. Wu is pouring a glass Yili Chinese milk, clear product placement, but that is for another time…

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There are always going to be little tweaks and changes to movies of this sort. Scenes are going to be cut, due to language, violence, or nudity. Otherwise, these movies would not make money, or reach the same level of fame as they do internationally. Recently, Deadpool was banned all over China. Naturally I was devastated. Months of watching teaser trailers, all gone to waste. I searched for why China would do such a thing. Apart from all the violence and swearing, which I’m sure played a factor, there was another reason entirely. Deadpool (and I’m picking this film as an example) is heavily ironic and sarcastic. This was a huge reason it has done so well in most places around the world, but with the Chinese language, it faced a problem. Irony and sarcasm are two things that don’t translate particularly well into Mandarin Chinese, and so many of the big moments and jokes would have been lost to the general audience.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been about China, promoting his latest film, The Revenant. The film has done well in China since its release, but was feared to do badly, despite its Hollywood success, and the Oscars it won. In the past movies such as these (The Kings Speech, Gone Girl, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, and The Artist for example) have not done as well as they have internationally. The specific themes and subjects of these more independent movies are not relatable to Chinese culture, and so Chinese people have a difficult time grasping the nature of them. The Revenant did better than expected due to the fact that it was promoted quite well, and the Chinese audiences have a soft spot for Xiao Li or “Little Lee” as he is affectionately known by locals.

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With that said, most of the highest grossing movies in China right now are fantasy, high octane action, and superhero movies- so I have no major complaints!

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My most fun bargaining experience in Beijing, by Diarmuid Crowley

When I started working in Beijing, one thing that surprised me was the fact that a lot of the teachers own e-bikes. Surely they’re all crazy I thought (and maybe they are, they’re living in China after all!). But as time passed, it started to make a lot of sense to me. In a city of Beijing’s size, having a bike makes your life much easier. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it. Luckily for me, there’s a strip of bike shops right by my apartment. So after playing charades with the shop owners and using the calculator on my phone to haggle prices I found out that … bikes are not as cheap in Beijing as I though they would be. I returned home dejected and all the more wearisome on my overused feet. But as is usually the case in China, there are always other options. I contacted an old teacher in my school and he brought me to another strip of shops. Initially it looked like the prices would be pretty much the same. I would just have to cough up and spend a considerable amount of money if I wanted to pursue my dream of living a sedentary Chinese life. But experience prevailed and the Aihua old-stock wasn’t budging. After a considerable amount of haggling, the shop owner gestured for us to follow him. He brought us to a dodgy looking garage hidden down a side street. Once we stepped inside it appeared to me we had stepped inside mo-ped nirvana! Bikes sprawled the space. This was more like it! The great thing about situations like this in China is that because you don’t share the language you can’t query the questionable origins of what you’re looking at. My conscience was clear(ish) and I was ready to ride and let my overgrown hair (Chinese haircuts, there’s a whole other story for you) feel the wind. The outcome … I got a pretty decent bike for less than €100 and I haven’t looked back since (mainly because I’m afraid to see the build-up of traffic behind me trying to honk me off the road.)

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My best breakfast in Beijing, by Robert

I was in Beijing for a few months before I discovered the jianbing. It’s basically a pancake filled with sausage, onion, egg, and lettuce — a perfect breakfast, really. Well, you can get them in several varieties, but they all have this key ingredient in common: grease. Something about street food to note, that. You won’t find many nutritious things being rolled down an alley in a cart. More often than not, they are soaked in grease. The crunchy texture of the jianbing and the greasy coating is what really makes it great, though. Personally, I’m not in it for the health. If I see the grease glistening on the pancake in the hot sun, my arteries stiffen with excitement. Unfortunately, though, you can’t count on the same seller to be in the same place all the time. They pick up and move. So, if you have a craving, you have to just follow the meaty, semi-rancid smell down a few side streets and hope for the best.

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A sneak peek into our Chinese class, by Grace Liu

This week, the new foreign teachers in our beginners Chinese class learned about two kinds of characters, Associative Compounds and Pict phonetic Characters. First, the teacher wrote 休 on the board, as the students had already learned 人 and 木. They quickly grasped the meaning of休, which is a person leaning against a tree, which extends in meaning to “having a rest”. Then they guessed the meaning of 坐(two people sitting on the ground)泪(water that flows from the eyes)卡(stuck). The students were so excited guessing characters; it was like solving riddles! So the teacher gave them another riddle: If 人 means a person, 从 means one person follows another, what does 众 mean? Does it mean one person standing above the other two, or acrobatics? They all laughed and began to think about this question. Then the teacher gave them another example: 木(tree) 林(woods) 森(forest).  At last, they came to a conclusion: characters with this kind of structure, means plenty of something. In Chinese culture, 三 always indicates a big number.