Venturing Out in Beijing

Peter and I set out to get lunch next, and walked into this huge cafeteria with a few hundred Chinese and not an American in sight. It was intimidating to say the least, and after observing what people were doing, we stepped up to one of the counters to order. I said “wo yao yi ge bai fan” –“I want one white rice”- which actually was understood and from then on I just pointed at the rest of the mystery dishes I wanted. After he gave me my plate, he was asking for me to pay, and I tried handing him money. He shook his head and started saying something too fast for me to grasp in Chinese, and all of a sudden all hell broke loose behind the counter. To begin with, everyone was giving us weird looks, and after ordering, the three chefs behind the counter started coming over to me and gesturing in Chinese for me to pay. I asked how much and tried giving him money but he held out his hand and shook his head. I looked at Peter who was equally mortified as a crowd started to form. I did not understand why he wouldn’t take my money and while I was trying to talk to him, he apparently gave up on me and started talking to a young kid to my left. The kid then walked over and put a card through a machine and evidently paid for us. After realizing that we must have needed a meal-plan card, I paid the kid and we got the hell out of there. Of course, we hadn’t been given meal cards yet and didn’t know that some of the restaurants only take them.

Although I didn’t know what I was eating, I have to admit it was pretty good. It was some vegetables and some type of meat and rice, and I was just happy we got lunch without getting arrested or yelled at too badly.

Our next step was a little more adventurous, perhaps too much. After meeting up with our roommate Jacob, who speaks Chinese pretty well, we headed off to the Construction Bank of China, the only Chinese affiliate of Bank of America, to deposit money and exchange U.S. currency.

For this, we had to leave the campus through one of the many guarded gates, at which the guards check I.D.s upon re-entering. By the way our issued I.D.s look like smaller red passports with multiple pages including our picture and other information. Making sure we had them, we stepped off the campus and into Beijing.

Beijing was bustling, with bikes, cars, mopeds, and people going every which way under the constant squeal of car horns and bells. We got a lot of looks but mostly people were busy following their own agenda and didn’t pay us too much attention. We encountered a few vans in the midst of picking up a business’s earnings for the day—something along the lines of the Brinks armored car business although it was simply a van with armored guards. There were usually four armed men, in arctic camouflage holding fully-automatic weapons or shotguns posted on either side of the van when the money was transported. Needless to say, we kept our distance and heads down.

We finally arrived at the Construction Bank of China (we passed some other banks such as the Agricultural Bank of China) and upon entering, everyone in the whole place turned and looked at us. The security guard, a small guy, holding a baton and wearing a thin (just-for-looks) jungle camouflage armored vest took a particular interest in us. He and the other staff immediately started talking, laughing, and smiling, when we made our initial attempts at communicating what we needed to do. We had our Daxue issued “Survival Guide” in hand with a few pages on important words to use in terms of banks and money. We then tried to communicate that we wanted to deposit money and exchange it. After 20 minutes of deliberation (no one in the whole place spoke English, which we found out as every level of manager in the bank was consecutively called to our attention) we found out that we could not deposit money without opening an account up with them and so I merely exchanged my money while one of my roommates had to open one. After giving everyone in the bank sufficient entertainment for 30 or so minutes, we left.

On the way back we poked in a technology store with everything from cameras, to robot dogs, to razors. Many stores in China, instead of doors, have those hanging plastic dividers kind of like Madison’s beads only two inch wide plastic flaps, like you would see in a meat packing plant or something. Anyway, after walking through those, you could see the enormity of this single store (hundreds like it all along the road) with 5 stories of intersecting escalators, tightly fit in the building, with the next story’s escalator only 6 ft. above your head when riding one of them. As soon as we entered the store people started following us around, showing us every little thing on sale and demonstrating its use. On the way out I merely pointed out to Peter all the Samsung computers they had and immediately someone came running out behind a booth shouting, “yes Samsung! We have many Samsung! Do you want?”

We went back into Daxue after a guard cleared us through, and we went to a cookout in a courtyard within the History Department’s few buildings for the international program. It wasn’t really a cookout as promised, as nothing was being cooked, there were just interesting-tasting chips laid out in bowls. I stayed for awhile talking to people and met a lot of interesting people. We all exchanged numbers with our new phones although mine was completely in Chinese and I couldn’t figure it out until an instructor changed it for me.

After awhile I went back to room and packed for our 3 day, 2 night excursion to Chengde to which we were leaving tomorrow morning. I went out with about 6 other people and went to a small street side restaurant and ate at a table upstairs. For plates all we got were little soy sauce bowls, so you could only eat so little at a time. The food was pretty good but at that point I realized that I would just have to accept that for the majority of my time here, I wouldn’t know what I am eating. After dinner we went to an outdoor bar with a bunch of tables everywhere. It was a very warm night and we sat under a canopy of flashing lights. The bathrooms were just a row of porta-potties but they were asian style (a hole in the ground) rather than western style (with a seat). This is common here, except at our dorm room, for which I am infinitely thankful for. In most bathrooms you see, there are just porcelain bowls in the ground—very strange—and it makes for a very unsanitary feel.

Anyway, we were having a few beers and I had to use one of those porta-potties. I finally worked up the courage to walk into one of them because the smell and state of them were so awful, and when I saw awful, I mean really… really bad. So I managed to go into one and try to just get the experience over with. I’ve been in there for three seconds and all of a sudden the door flies open, and without hesitating, a Chinese guy pushes me aside and just starts getting ready to pee. I am mortified and just jump out of the stall. I obviously look startled and just so confused, and these two other Chinese guys come over and say “so sorry…so sorry, our friend drink and is very happy.” They start patting me on the back and when their friend finishes, the motion for me to go in. I smile to tell them it’s ok and then I go back in. I’m laughing to myself and then when I get out, two of them are basically trying to help their friend walk, and saying a lot of things in Chinese- probably “I can’t believe you did that” and laughing. So I smile to them as I walk by and the guy who pushed me out of the stall comes over and hugs me, saying something about Jackie chan and that I’m his friends. His friends try to come to my rescue but just keep repeating that they’re sorry and then start saying that I’m their friend too. The guy who is hugging me gives me two huge kisses on the cheek and I’m just standing their, in shock, as this guy is hugging and kissing me, and his two friends are slapping me on the back saying how much they like me and that I’m their friends. Soon enough the guy lets me goes and as his friends apologize, they all walk away. I just stand there for a second to try to grasp what just happened and slowly walk back towards the tables where the other Daxue students are. I sit down, laughing to myself in a kind of shock, with a look that I just have a crazy story to tell.

Anyway, we stayed for awhile and got back around 12 and had to get up at 7 to go buy breakfast and a lunch to-go for our trip to Chengde. In the morning we went to Wu Mei and ate this egg fried thing at a street vendor. She made like an omelet, and put the egg and some fried noodle patty thing and wrapped them both up in this batter. It was actually pretty good and kind of tasted like a scallion pancake.

Egg Breakfast

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