Social Bonding

Those pesky medicine 1 goddesses

Those pesky medicine 1 goddesses

Happy International Women's Day

Happy International Women’s Day

The last two days have been Freshers’ Fair or the Tsinghua equivalent. Yesterday I was hung over and hadn’t done my homework (fully embracing the second coming of my studenthood) so had no time to check it out but today I got sucked into the melee of stalls and recruiters assembled around our local canteen.

I have found it harder than I expected to get involved even in the international cultural exchange groups: I signed up to the Tsinghua Buddy system before I arrived, emailed the rep yet again as she introduced the benefits of the system to us on our induction day and for good measure emailed another society which is all about language and cultural exchange. Not a single response. So hey, I’ll find friends another way.

Saying that, I finally got picked up in the canteen today for the first time since I arrived. A female student sat down opposite me at lunchtime and asked me where I was from. I answered in Chinese and so we continued though I suspect her English was pretty good. She comes from Guangdong and is a research student in the law faculty – there seems to be quite a lot of that about: it’s pretty competitive to get in from what I gather but it’s just as hard to get a decent job on the outside so a lot of students stay on in academia if they can pass the exams.

Her Mandarin was great – I joke but quite often I find Cantonese speakers’ accents impenetrable – and it turns out her family are Hakka (shout out to Angeleen). During the course of our conversation one of the girls across the aisle from us said to my companion “are you Cantonese?” and struck up a lengthy exchange involving some musical chairs so that we weren’t talking in diagonals.

Actually I think it might have been a cunning ruse to break me and my new buddy up as the girl now repositioned beside me has been told by her language teacher that she has to get in 5 minutes of practice a day with a foreigner. I used to hate these language exchange type things but I’m lucky enough to be here surrounded by Mandarin so 5 minutes out of my day speaking English with her isn’t really a big deal. Lisa happens to be off to Nottingham this summer to study business management or somesuch (communication though earnest was not always clear to both sides – something that could also be said of my Mandarin). Her English was already pretty good though with extremely precise articulation. She wanted to know what I thought of Nottingham – not qualified to have a view – and what clothes she should take with her because is it true it rains a lot? They must be using the same textbooks worldwide.

Having exchanged numbers I launched into the Society Fair. About a hundred stalls were set up with societies for everything from breakdancing through to Philharmonia appreciation, orienteering, magic appreciation, stargazing, the ghost society, the wine club and various marshall arts. The most lonely looking chaps were the mu society for the appreciation of maths. No prizes for guessing which of those I might have signed up to but who could resist the chap in a dapper black velvet suit blasting out O Mio Babbino Caro on a boogie box?

Today is also Female Students’ Day so by tradition the boys in all classes make a banner for their female classmates lauding them in one way or another. Throughout the trees they hung red banners with various slogans such as “the flowerbuds which sprout in Yuanmingyuan [the old Summer Palace] flourish brightly in Tsinghua”. That’s not the most poetic of translations but I assume the flowers are the female classmates and that there is a compliment in there somewhere.

Further samples I could just about understand (poetry is beautiful but can be quite mystifying in Chinese) included “It is not innocence that will smash you but the goddesses of class 1 Medicine”, “in one hundred years of Tsinghua, you are that which we have aspired to. Debating goddesses, no one can compare with you”. It sounds a lot better in Chinese. The only one I can really do justice to (although I can’t make it rhyme) is “We will love you for one hundred years, each year as though it were first love”. Aaaaaah.

As an addendum this is all a day late due to technical difficulties with WordPress (another story). I stayed in the coffee shop off campus until nearly midnight last night writing my Chinese essay on “Beijing’s bicycles” (what is student life without an essay crisis?) As I approached my building the football field was covered in groups of students huddled around their own floor level yellow lamp. Much hilarity was underway so I guess they must have being carrying out initiations for their lucky new club members.

Foreign Devils

I have been slightly surprised by how few Westerners I have come across so far, notwithstanding the fact that everyone on my course and in my dorm is a foreigner of some description. The part of Beijing I live in is predominantly universities: the universities of Forestry, International Relations, Science and Technology, Beijing University and Tsinghua are all based here, to name just a sample. While there is a decent number of overseas students in the area, many of them are Asian and the few caucasians I come across outside the school, most likely also students, view each other warily: when China is so hot a subject I guess everyone is potential competition.

I mentioned how few obviously “laowai” people there seem to be in Beijing to a Chinese friend at the weekend. She pointed out that this was like her friend who lived in an industrial district of Beijing. Every weekend, when the factories were deserted, she opened her window and thought “gosh, no one lives in this city!” Evidently perception is greatly skewed by environment.

My friends took me for Sunday afternoon tea in the eastern part of the city and outside the cafes in the shiny glass CBD foreigners outnumbered Chinese at least 5:1. I dont know the official stats but they told me that in the last 5-6 years more foreigners have arrived and their Chinese on the whole is much better than it used to be. Bummer, not so rare any more; mutual evil eyes may be justified after all.

The foreign students learning Chinese at Tsinghua, as in Harbin 20 years ago, are mostly Korean and Japanese, with an added representation of overseas Chinese including my Aussie coffee mate and a Chinese American in my class. But aside from the 400 or so of us here exclusively taking languages courses there are another 400+ on exchange programmes from US or African universities taking anything from an undergraduate semester in Finance and Accounting to an entire Masters in Journalism.

The journalism student I met was from Eritrea and I was impressed that he was studying in Mandarin, but it transpires that after a year here he still doesn’t speak a word: his course is held in English. He made a wry comment about China not being the obvious place to study journalism but I got the impression choices were limited and China and Africa are very good friends. I have met, variously, a Sudanese girl and an Ethiopian guy studying Public Policy and the aforementioned Eritrean taking a Masters in Journalism (along with the Canadian girl upstairs or the overseas Chinese girl next door, I forget which) and all of them are studying in English.

Given the number of undergraduates here on exchange who will never have taken Chinese before it’s a necessity to offer courses taught in English, but that means that the Chinese students are also taking anything from Finance and Accounting to Economics in English at a university in their own country. The mind boggles. I guess this international bent has put both Beida and Tsinghua on the global academic circuit; Beida for instance has close collaboration with LSE through summer schools and double masters programmes split between Beijing and London.

My favourite braintwisters though I met on my first morning here when I found myself hungry in the canteen with no dining card. A couple of gallant Koreans bought me breakfast and then came to join me at my table. I am embarrassed to admit that in mannerless fashion I had already fallen upon my food like the starving but I really didn’t think they should feel obliged to buy my breakfast AND keep me company while I ate it.

It was an interesting exchange. One of them is researching a doctorate in environmental studies – this time in Mandarin. That makes sense enough since the level of knowledge here is on a par with the other leaders in the field and the Koreans (and Japanese) do have the advantage of sharing a lot of characters with Chinese. His friend is doing English Literature. Unsurprisingly he said they don’t manage to get into much depth when wading through Shakespeare and Dickens in Mandarin.

Now with Added Images!

I finally got around to updating the software today so I can treat you all to some photos. Please scroll through previous posts. Not a comprehensive offering yet as it takes forever to manage the photos between my various devices. Will add more over the next couple of days. By popular demand, first up is the knicker photo. Enjoy.

Drinking Problem

It can be a bad idea to go in search of a cocktail in any town without a bit of prior research or, preferably, a personal recommendation. Last night a friend and I made a spur of the moment post prandial decision to do just that. A poor start already that we changed our plan less than a minute after getting in the cab, but we decided rather than be geographically lazy and go looking around the Uni we would be adventurously lazy and go further afield to a place I remembered as having decent bars.

With a little more thought I could have twigged that somewhere I had visited about ten years ago after a well-fuelled conference dinner probably wouldn’t be that great. But after a painful crawl around the ring roads, during which we nearly turned back once, the fairy lights in the trees at the end of “Bar Street” looked welcoming enough.

As were the red armband-wearing bar staff who harried for business the minute we approached the first ramshackle joint. There’s nothing like being cajoled to enter a bar to put you off, especially when the people touting from the pavement outnumber the existing clientele. Inside some of the garishly lit bars girls stood awkwardly on the stage, most not even bothering to try and sing. We trawled the full 500 metres with decreasing enthusiasm and finally gave in to the cold, seeking refuge in the least offensive looking place.

The drinks menu had a suspiciously long list of cocktails given the relatively modestly stocked bar and wine came only by the bottle. Happily the shack happened to have had a recent miscommunication with another customer who also wanted just one glass of the most expensive wine on the list. The remaining three quarters was now going by the glass at a discount. Justifiably so we discovered since it tasted like either it had been open some time or the previous guy had left it for a reason.  My dry martini meanwhile came straight from the sweet vermouth bottle.

I used the phone a friend lifeline and called Kerry for top tips on where we might try next. She sat in her London office telling me where she had been most recently and trying to guide me round my Beijing map. Thus informed we trotted off on the next leg of the treasure hunt to the Twin Towers LG Building in search of the Philippe Starck creation. Unfortunately however we didn’t have the name and between us were not quite bright enough to figure it out. After 20 minutes or so wandering around the food court floor thinking he was unlikely to be keeping such company, we capitulated and like a couple of homing pigeons headed for the only place we both knew was a sure thing: the Grand Hyatt.

I know that this unscenic tour was mostly down to poor planning on our part and that, as with the hunt for food, more familiarity with the place will ultimately get me more under its skin. It’s also true that it might seem a bit ridiculous to look for a US or European style neighbourhood bar in a Beijing neighbourhood (and not just in the expat ghetto). But Tokyo, for instance, has a great local bar and cafe culture with attractive hangouts throughout the city that are entirely Japanese and run the gamut from smoky snug to chic minimalism.

HK also used to offer foreigners a fairly one-dimensional nightlife with bars in Lan Kwai Fong and Wanchai doing seedy at differing price points. For me that began its slow improvement after 1997, coincidentally when the divide between Chinese and expat started to blur. It seemed the Cantonese Hongkonger looked for more than just a dive in which to get trashed and for their part the expats became more adventurous. Hong Kong now has an integrated and vibrant culinary and bar scene with neighbourhood gathering places equally as appealing as and mostly more interesting than the top hotels.

No doubt old hands know a lot of great little places around Beijing which cater to the discerning or, to be damning, spoilt expat (for any who may be reading: please enlighten me). For my money, while I enjoy many aspects of this city and its very particular character, it has a long way to go before it ranks on the global city trail. Inasmuch as that means it’s not just another homogenised world capital then long may it last. The downside is that if I weren’t a student and mostly not interested in living the highlife it would feel a lot like a hardship posting.

Aficionados of Shanghai say that city is already much more international and it has the headstart provided by the jazzy days of the 1920s. I prefer the capital for being more resolutely Chinese; as with China’s brand of socialism, I look forward to Beijing developing a sophistication with special Chinese characteristics.