My First Week in China

So where was I? Ah yes, I managed to make it to my hostel, dragging my suitcases through the smoke scented hallways into the tiny little double room.

In the morning I ate breakfast at the cafe, a bright red mug steaming with very welcome caffeine and a chocolate danish, which the man had taken the time to warm up until the chocolate was gooey and perfect. It was a peaceful start to the morning, excepting the Eastern European woman a table over, who, at 8 in the morning, was smoking a cigarette and drinking beer, while also drinking coffee and eating breakfast.

Co-intern picked me up in a cab and we started our sojourn to Qinghua University. She had some interviews to conduct and I was hoping to find a cafe with internet where I could sit and fill out some applications. After what seemed like hours in the cab, we arrived, and soon found directions to a student center. It being lunch time, we decided to try the dining hall. In hindsight, probably we should have asked for directions first, but it seemed pretty foolproof to me; put food on a tray, get in line, give the man money, eat. This turned out to not be the case. In the midst of a mad lunch rush, we edged to the front of the line and tried to give the cashier money, he scolded us, saying he could only accept the special university cards, we would have to return and refund our food, and go somewhere else. A little too embarrassed to fight through the crowds, Co-intern and I slyly waited by the baked goods until no one was looking, and with a “Quick, no one is looking, go, go go!” we casually walked away from our trays. I was having visions of being caught by campus security and being put through a self correction for wasting food. We eventually found a cute little cafe, and I managed to settle in with my computer with no more misadventures.

Once back to the apartment later that evening, I dug out my Mastering the Art of French Cooking and somehow made crepes, although in lieu of a whisk I used three chopsticks and brute force. They could have been a little thinner, but for a first attempt and with some not-quite-orthodox utensils, it was a solid effort.

Being sick in this cold weather and while living in a hostel is depressing. I spent all of Thursday curled up in my dreary little basement room, forcing myself to swallow Dayquil (does anyone know why the gel tabs have to be so large!) and fighting with the heater remote control. This thing must have been possessed. The room is either stuffy as an oven or ice cold, and none of the buttons I repeatedly mashed changed what happened. It was an effort to stay awake and I couldn’t even think about putting on clothes and going outside. After eating nothing all day but an apple and some chocolates I found in my purse, Co-intern’s call that evening to go for Shanxi noodles was irresistible. I braved the rush hour Beijing subway, becoming far too intimate with some of my fellow passengers, and fought my way out to the street. Let me just say, at the transfer between Line 1 and Line 5, there are railings that neatly corral you and make me feel like cattle being herded to the slaughterhouse. Apart from the nearly constant crowds however, I can’t complain about Beijing public transit. The stations are mostly clean and shiny, and the trains are consistent and frequent, which is more than can be said of some of the older systems in the states.

The Shanxi restaurant was very authentic and very good. “Double crunch vegetables” thing slices of cucumber and radish; slippery sauce covered wedges of eggplant; a thick, sweetish yellow broth with spinach, egg, and potatoes; chewy and thick hand cut noodles in beef broth with small chunks of tender, melting-fatty beef. We watched the cooks slice the noodles with a wide blade from a large block of dough stretched on a thick plank of wood.

We spent Friday at Beida, me sitting in a cafe trying to coax the internet to work while Co-intern did research. After that we found a cab to take us to Nanluoguxiang, although the driver was puzzled as to why two foreigners might want to go there. It’s a cute little alley with restaurants and small boutiques, and a ton of bars. There seem to be four or five types of stores; mugs and pottery, leather journals, scarves, t-shirts and communist memorabilia, and Co-intern was searching for “白人看不懂” t shirts, which we did not find. We ate at a Korean bistro, which was our second choice since the restaurant we wanted to go to was packed. The food wasn’t bad, but not the best Korean I’ve had.

Co-intern and I spent the Saturday morning at the Today Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum. It was spread out in several different buildings. There were a few artists that impressed me, but like I said, I’m more of a run-through-it-all quickly kind of girl and if I can make it, I don’t think it qualifies as art.
Co-intern had read about this place called the Green T. House, so we went to check it out as a bit of a luxury. First of all, when we got there it was incredibly confusing. There was no door handle, just a big white wall and a buzzer, like a secret club. We rang the bell and a girl ushered us in and took our coats and we were escorted to a cushioned window seat with a glass tray table, and I was instructed (a little bit unnecessarily) in English to please I must take off my shoes. The menu was more of a novel with poetry about tea, so we relied on the waitress’s recommendation of rose, apple and jasmine tea for me and rose, pear and jasmine for Co-intern. A fixed price menu would include some snacks as well, for about 150 kuai. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, as the snacks weren’t that tasty, and maybe some of the real food dishes are better. They admonished us that no pictures were allowed to be taken when they saw my camera, but it was such an absurd experience that we managed to sneak a few.

We were expecting maybe a tea pot or a single cup of tea; we were both presented with giant bowls filled with leaves and roses and chunks of fruit, with a stick of cinnamon to stir it all with and garnished with a sprig of bamboo. My first reaction was, what, am I panda? Is this my snack? There was no dainty way to drink, and I felt very awkward drinking out of a huge soup bowl. My tea wasn’t particularly good, I would have preferred plain jasmine, the roses and apple made it taste a little grassy. The snacks came out on a pretty slate plate, garnished with a giant branch. I was thirsty, so I must have drank four large bowls of quickly cooling grassy water, hoping that I wouldn’t fall over or spill anything on the cushions.

After this we met up with Local Friend, hoping she wouldn’t laugh too hard at our pictures, and we headed to the Pacific Mall, behind which is located the Hidden Village. The whole complex is associated with an artist-you enter through a small gallery, and the courtyard houses three or four small and attractive restaurants. We were headed to Noodle Bar, which features hand pulled noodles, and only seats 12, so going at odd hours is your best bet. We shared some small dishes, wheat gluten, plum marinated pumpkin, egg and tofu, duck skewers that were tasty but covered in spices that burned my lips, and we each had a big bowl of thick noodles with beef parts (I chose brisket). The broth was excellent, but I prefer Taiwanese 牛肉面.

Sunday I went to dim sum for the first time in Asia. I love dim sum back at home, I frequent Chinatown quite a lot, and one of my earliest memories is me rather precociously telling a cart lady that I had been born knowing how to use chopsticks (the question arose from the fact that my mom is Taiwanese, and my sisters look very Asian, but I look almost completely white). Somehow I had managed never to go to a dim sum restaurant in all my time in Taipei or northeastern China. Well, easily remedied. We went to a Cantonese restaurant near Fulicheng, a big shopping mall, and while I was a little disappointed that the ordering was done via a menu and not carts, the food was good. The lobogao was excellent, although not served with hoisin sauce as I am used to, the changfen was fresh and light, the lobogao cubed and fried in xo sauce was a new dish that I really liked. I wasn’t a huge fan of the xiaomai, and I prefer the paigu at home with black beans and thicker sauce, but all in all I ate a large amount and was well satisfied.

Sunday afternoon I spent moving into the current apartment of my roommate, let’s call him Bambi, a fellow student from my university. He’s been here for several months, and his current roommate is heading stateside in a few weeks. The apartment was a short walk from my hostel, and Bambi had emailed me directions that went something like this: “Walk into the hutong, after some restaurants you’ll see houses and then more restaurants and an old lady and another alley, go down that alley until it’s a dead end, at which point you turn into a parking lot that smells like trash and you see that gray building, that’s us.” Luckily, his roommate was around and gave me much more concise directions, as I have the worst sense of direction.

I ended Sunday by playing badminton with Co-intern and Local Friend. No offense to anyone who takes it seriously, but in my opinion, badminton is one of those lazy afternoon backyard activities, like croquet. It’s not a sport and it shouldn’t require enough effort to make you sweat. I enjoy it, but I sure as hell wasn’t pouring my heart into the game. Because we were three girls on one net, some random local guy came over to join us. He was very intense, not a good player, and I was constantly afraid he was going to bash me in the face with his racket. As it was, a few time, he slammed the birdie into Co-intern as hard as a rubber ball with feathers can possibly be batted.

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