Despite it’s annoyances, I’m finding myself loving Beijing like no other place I’ve been. Not even that great weekend I had rollerblading around Vancouver when I was 20 compares to this. It’s as if I were born to come here. For years, I’ve been fascinated with all things Chinese, and now I’m here. Beijing is not only the seat of the government and a cultural capitol, it’s the epicenter of all things Chinese, both ancient and modern.
The food is amazing and it’s a bicycler’s paradise, but the thing I probably like most, is the people. I can’t believe how many locals have have happily chatted away with me about just about everything, once they realized I could speak Chinese. Today, the tour guide I met last night called me up and offered to show me the Forbidden City. We met up and ate lunch at a pretty decent Japanese place, after which she mortified me by snagging the check and paying for everything! I tried to insist, but she’d carefully planned it out in advance. It’s a really weird feeling being treated by someone five years younger who couldn’t be earning as much as I am, but I can’t complain.
As soon as we headed outside, it started to rain. Considering that touring the Forbidden City would have entailed at least a couple of kilometers of walking, we decided to go to the mall at 王府井. I had a huge book store. I browsed around a bit and found a couple of interesting sections. First, were the kids books. Since nobody on the mainland uses zhuyin, they all had pinyin with tone marks under every word! Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The other thing that struck me about the bookstore is how much they had in terms of books for foreigners learning Chinese. In the town I live in, in Taiwan, there aren’t any books for teaching Chinese to foreigners. Even in Taibei, the large bookstores grudgingly devote one or two rows on a single shelf to books for CSL. This book store must have had about 50 shelves devoted to learning Chinese for foreigners. There were text books for English speakers, text books for German Speakers, text books for Korean speakers, text books for speakers of half a dozen other languages, books full of idioms and slang, hundreds of HSK prep books, books on various Chinese dialects, video collections… the resources seemed endless. I can only fantasize about living somewhere with such a cornucopia of Chinese learning materials.
After leaving the mall, we hit the night market right next to it. It was big, the varieties of food were endless, and interestingly, it was packed full of tourists from other parts of China. After that, it was time for me to head back to the hostel.
I went out to eat with the English guys, Shawn, Martin, and Peter; Zhanqiang the guitarist; and the Aussie girls whose names seem to resist memorization. I called one of them Jeanie, but it wasn’t right… they both end in -ie, though. Anyway, we all went to this Chinese restaurant across the the street. We got 宮保雞丁, 芥蘭牛肉, some other stuff I couldn’t put a name to, and a truly absurd amount of beer. The food was tasty beyond belief, and the meal came out to about $20USD for the seven of us. It was a bargain beyond belief. Also, I had a pretty central role in the conversation since they relied on my language skills to talk to the laoban about his photography and soccer interests. It was a rowdy group; at one point Shawn was even standing on his chair belting out something that sounded like Italian opera, only to be joined by the laoban, who pulled up a chair next to him. It was fun.
After that, I headed out to pick up my clothes from the girl at one of the convenience stores. Her mom or somebody ran the only laundromat that didn’t try to rip me off. Basically, I had to drop off and pick up my clothes inside a convenience store, which was weird, but it cost less than half what anybody else on the street wanted to charge me. She sent someone out to get my stuff, chatted with me a bit about her plans to go to college in Xi’an this fall, gave me my clothes, and I was off! On my way back, a couple of the girls running a convenience store called, “小馬!” Intrigued that any strangers would know my name, I went up to their shop and said hi.
They said they’d heard about me from the old 羊肉串兒 lady and asked if I wanted to a conversation exchange. After explaining that I’d only be in Beijing for a week, they suggested that I buy a North Face jacket. Not being too interested in that, I just chatted with them a bit about my own language learning experiences and stuff like that. One thing they told me that surprised me was that the whole street I’d been living on and enjoying (except for the damned rickshaw drivers) was slated for destruction! They said that the food stands in the area were considered to be “dirty” and that the government wanted to get rid of them before the 2008 Olympics! Oh no! I love nightmarkets…