Why Beijing feels so foreign

I can’t believe I’ve been in Beijing for a whole week.  Maybe that surprises me because I’ve done relatively little in that time.  More likely it’s because this city feels just as foreign to me today as it did a week ago.  Usually a week into a new country I can use a fair amount of the language, recognize foods I like on the menu, and walk down a street with the ease of a local.  Not so in Beijing.

And it’s weird that Beijing seems as foreign as it does, because on the surface it’s really very westernized and familiar.  There are supermarkets and coffee shops, taxis and metros, skyscrapers and sidewalks.  But on second glance there’s always something just a little off about these things.  The supermarket sells chicken eggs alongside duck and quail eggs.  People in the metro stop at the tops of escalators and in doorways, blocking the way for everyone else.  The skyscrapers disappear into smog.

Chicken, duck and quail eggs at the supermarket in Beijing

Chicken, duck and quail eggs at the supermarket in Beijing

Maybe it’s not that Beijing feels particularly foreign, but that its foreign-ness is subtle.  It sneaks into everyday life just enough to throw you off balance.

One difference that’s decidedly not subtle is the language.  The sounds, or tones as they’re called, are difficult to hear, let alone speak.  I’ve said the Chinese word for breakfast every morning since I got here, and still the hostess repeats it back to me every time, correcting some part of the word that I simply cannot discern.  One- and two-syllable words that should be easy to master come out of my mouth sounding like gobbledygook.  I’m at a loss, and it’s terribly frustrating.

But some things are getting easier.  Ryan and I have mastered the massive fifteen-line metro system.  We no longer hesitate when crossing intersections, no matter how many bicycles are bearing down on us.  We know to check our air quality apps and wear masks accordingly.

A willow-lined canal runs through Tsinghua University's campus

A willow-lined canal runs through Tsinghua University’s campus

Difficulty and ease aside, Beijing has been a fascinating adventure so far.  We spent the first two days in the city pretty close to the Tsinghua University campus where Ryan will be working for the next three months.  His research group is a wonderful bunch of students.  They took us to dinner one rainy night as a sort of welcome.  The meal was communal with upwards of a dozen dishes on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table.  While I had the opportunity to try pig stomach and pigs feet, I passed on both and stuck to the duck, vegies and tofu, and washed it down with a thick drink that tasted exactly like creamed corn.

Our first dinner in Beijing was quite a feast!

Our first dinner in Beijing was quite a feast!

The first two days of rain were followed by two beautiful days of sun and clear air.  We took one of those days to explore the Summer Palace, a vast lakeside expanse of gardens and temples just west of campus.  We walked nearly ten miles that day, and climbed an ungodly number of rock stairs.  The architecture was unlike anything I’d seen before.  The roofs were especially cool, constructed of terracotta tubes glazed in a rainbow of colors.

Roof tile details at the Summer Palace, Beijing

Roof tile details at the Summer Palace, Beijing

The crowds at the Summer Palace were unbelievable.  There was no pushing or shoving, but they were always there.  It was like leaving a concert in a rush of bodies, except it was all the time.  But that’s just part of the Chinese experience.  There are a lot of people here, and getting away from them all simply isn’t an option.

A rainbow of colors at the Summer Palace, Beijing

A rainbow of colors at the Summer Palace, Beijing

I’m glad we saw the Summer Palace when we did, because yesterday Ryan and I had our first taste of bad air quality in Beijing.  The pale blue sky morphed into something brownish and hazy, and the air smelled and tasted vaguely of nail polish remover.  We spent the day largely inside, kind of afraid to go out.  But today we woke up and conditions are the same, so we can’t hide from it forever.

Today we also moved from our truly weird little hotel room into our own separate accommodations.  Ryan will be spending his time in a dorm on campus, and I’ll be living at various hostels and AirBnB’s between my travels.  Speaking of which, I booked my plane ticket to Japan for September 29th.  That means I should be climbing Mount Fuji the first weekend of October, barring bad weather.  I can’t wait to get away from this smoggy city and into fresh mountain air again!

Alright, wish me luck:  I’m going try to buy a cheap cell phone using nothing but improvised sign language.

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  1. (Judy is fed-exing “Colorado Fresh Air” to Sarah)

  2. Sarah! So glad to know you made it! Wishing you luck with the phone and breathing an extra gulp of fresh air, just for you.

  3. Good to know another fellow avid-traveller is having the same kind of experience in China as I did. I even studied Mandarin for five years at school and it was of little to no help.

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