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In my last week or two in Beijing, one question I heard over and over was, “What will you miss the most?”

Most my Chinese friends seemed to think it would be the food or the attention of being a foreigner. Most my foreign friends figured it would be the “culture”, whatever that means after spending most my adult life in Taiwan and then Beijing.

I had the feeling that I wouldn’t miss anything really, except for some people. That’s natural I suppose, since I had already decided to leave. I was really looking forward to a better job market (for tech, at least), cleaner air, a healthier environment in general, and most of all a big opportunity for personal growth.

Now that it’s been a month, I have a different perspective. I really don’t miss the things that made me want to leave. But I do miss some other things.

A safety net

In all fairness, there is no real safety net in Beijing. There’s no public health insurance like there is in Taiwan and worse still, there’s the possibility of actually getting ripped off for being a foreigner, even at a hospital! Similarly, if you have any major sorts of problems, you just get kicked out of the country. One of my best friends was in China for grad school back during the SARS crisis and just got booted out… and he wasn’t even sick.

There is a different sort of safety net in China for a foreigner, though. That’s the EFL industry. Even without my background teaching, managing and then owning an EFL school in Taiwan, teaching always would have been an option. Unlike Taiwan, in Beijing the demand is so great that even the normally undesirable teachers can generally all get placed. In the US, there is no Taiwanese health insurance system and there’s no auto-job. It’s sink or swim.

Nightmarkets and Hutongs

Shilin Nightmarket
Okay, maybe I do miss some of the food. It’s not really the food, though. I’m living in Chinatown and I can get pretty much any Chinese food I want. What I miss is how I could get the food! There’s something about a Taiwanese nightmarket or a Beijing hutong that’s supremely full-filling in the way that going to a single restaurant for a whole meal isn’t. Even Chinatown doesn’t have that kind of environment, probably due to pesky enforcement of food safety laws. I suppose I could find some strip mall here in California, go to the food court and buy a drink at one store and an order of chicken at another and then ice cream at a 3rd… but it wouldn’t be the same at all.

Pragmatic Law Enforcement

In some ways living in China is freer than living in the US. With the exception of a trip to inner Mongolia, I’ve never once felt like I was in physical danger. The police do a pretty good job with the available resources to keep society in line. But day to day life is very laissez faire in China, especially compared to the US! If you want to drive home drunk and get in an accident, you’ll go to prison. But if you want to have dinner with your coworkers and drink beer as you walk back to the office or the subway, nobody cares! The US has the most extreme open container laws I’ve seen anywhere in my life! Huge amounts of effort and money are spent trying to keep anybody 20 years-old or younger from drinking. Ditto for smoking. I’m not a big smoker, but the zealousness with which anti-smoking rules have been enacted since I left a decade ago just shocks me. One would think that soft drinks and junk food placed everywhere kids spend their time are the larger health risk… not that there’s any kind of sin tax for junk food in Beijing! Eat! Drink! Be merry! Play majiang loudly at 2 in the morning! Just don’t organized against the government or hurt people and they’ll mostly leave you alone.

Friends

Having moved so many times, this is a constant. Of what I leave behind, it’s always my friends I miss the most. I wasn’t even there for two years, but I will definitely miss hanging out with Wilson, his roommates, Simon, his Dashilar crowd, Martina, all the people she introduced to me from her tour guiding job, including Paul who encouraged me to move to the bay area, and so many others… I’m going to miss my co-workers, too. I would say that both the bosses were awesome to hang with and talk to in different ways, and some how I ended up getting along with all the Singaporean interns so well that I made a trip to Singapore to visit them after leaving! One fun guy there, Jim, is from the bay area, so I’ll probably see him here in the future after he returns to continue his work of bringing the singularity near. There’s also a really cute girl I met in the elevator of my apartment building the day I was leaving to move across town and take my job at SmarTots. I miss her too.

Work

Sounds strange, huh? SmarTots really was a cool place to be. It was the first time I was directly able to use technology to help lots of kids instead just a single class at a time. As mentioned above, it was a great crowd of people and after the first couple of months I was able to contribute and learn quite a bit. It was also likely the closest peek into Chinese corporate life I’ll have in a long time.

On the whole

When all is said and done, I don’t really miss Beijing that much. I miss it a bit, but I’m really enjoying San Francisco!

My friend David has recently shown me some of what he’s been working on with his site for learning Chinese, Popup Chinese. Popup Chinese has always had a great technical backbone, amazing talent in its instructors, and lots and lots of free MP3 lessons. That said, this last batch of upgrades is still pretty impressive.

learn chinese

The Writing Pad

This a cool writing application that has teaches how to write Chinese characters. The only thing I’ve ever seen like it is Skritter, also a neat tool. The writing pad enforces correct proportions in characters as you write them and also enforces stroke order. The strictness of the stroke order is a little bit frustrating for me, since stroke order isn’t entirely uniform amongst all writers and the stroke order conventions my teachers taught are slightly different than those in the Writing Pad. This issue would be irrelevant to any beginning students who aren’t already accustomed to writing a certain way, though. The app will teach you how to write correctly as well as any app I know of at this point.
The Writing Pad

HSK Stuff

You don’t hear much about the HSK here in Taiwan, but if you ever want proof of your Chinese skills so you can go to college in China or brag to a prospective employer, this is the test to take. There’s an impressive array of materials on Popup Chinese to help you get ready for it:

One-Click Access HSK Tests, HSK Flashcards and HSK Vocabulary Lists
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/flashcards
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/test
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/vocabulary

Spaced Repetition

I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my suggestions months ago made it into the site! For anyone signed up, the site remembers which flashcards they’ve answered right and which ones they’ve missed on and calculates the ideal time to show them again for review. Even for students who are unfamiliar with spaced repetition, this is a huge plus.

Practice Speaking Lessons

I’ve heard about these types of lessons before. I guess if you’re living someplace where Chinese tutors are hard to find or expensive, this option might be worthwhile. People can get one-on-one feedback on their spoken Chinese with a premium subscription.
Practice Speaking Lessons

Pricing

The prices have come down quite a bit. For the first time it’s in the price range of something I would have bought as a student. At just under fifty bucks, the “basic plus” subscription is far, far more useful than textbook in existence at roughly the same cost. I sure wish they had this stuff around back when I was in school!

My ex-girlfriend Kim is back from Beijing for the weekend. Back in the day, Kim worked in the cellphone games division of Sonet. Despite only living abroad a total of 1 year, she somehow she managed to get her English so good that my old co-workers Mike and Nathan originally mistook her for an ABC. She played a really mean game of Warcraft III, too.

Anyway, we met up for nightmarket food and she regaled me with stories of the great Sichuan food she’s been eating and her approaching marriage plans. She’s still the same witty and fun person she’s always been! It was really fun to catch up with Kim and good to hear how well her life’s going out there.

Normally, I wouldn’t write here about an ex, but she insisted, and who am I to say no to someone who has run a guild and likely has a level 70 death night at her disposal!

Vacation

It was good to see you, and I hope you continue enjoying life out in Beijing!

It’s about time Brendan got some love for his skills! When he showed me around Beijing the summer before last, I was amazed at his Chinese. To me, he sounded completely indistinguishable from a native Beijinger. Admittedly, coming from Taiwan, the Beijing accent is a bit hard for me to judge, but there were other signs. When got in a taxi on the way to a punk concert, the cab driver was in a pissy mood. Within a minute or two, though, Brendan’s chit-chat seemed to have to guy at ease. Even though we didn’t know how to get to our location, the guy was smiling and chatting cheerily with us. Then there’s his disturbingly large vocabulary of characters. Despite the fact that he lives in Beijing, he seemed to have an eidetic knowledge of traditional characters, and their etymology over the couple thousand years.

At the time, my thought was, “this guy’s an animal“. Now, the China Daily seems to think so, too:

Anyone who has been in Beijing for a while knows how the taxi drivers behave – they talk a lot about everything. Hence the other day, Brendan O’Kane, an Irish American who has been living in Beijing for the past four years, was not surprised that the cabbie started chatting even before he’d gotten comfortable in his seat.

For about 10 minutes, the driver tried to convince him that “foreigners can never really learn Chinese”.

O’Kane was amused. Apparently, the taxi driver had assumed he was a Chinese. Dark brown haired, O’Kane is of medium height and has a slim figure. He admits that from time to time, people in China mistaken him as a Uygur.

“I am American,” says the 24-year-old in articulated Mandarin, as clearly and fluently as one might expect from a native speaker.

The taxi driver was suspicious. For a while, he threw several glances back at his passenger.

China Daily: Linguist left speechless

I’ve been extremely lazy in working on the layout and presentation of this site, as regular readers can surely tell. The banner image that used to be at the top of this site was just the default image from the Wuhan theme, plus some text. It sucked.

In fact, it sucked so bad that one reader took it upon himself to design me a better one. He used the picture I took of the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City in Beijing last summer. Thanks, Wally!

Since my trip to the mainland, I’ve been mulling over my impressions of Shanghai and Beijing, and how they compare to the closest thing to a big city Taiwan has- Taibei. Before my vacation, I had a really distorted view of what the mainland was like. Living in Taiwan, I haven’t really had access to much mainland media, and everything in the papers here is pretty negative. Anyway, this is what saw in Beijing: continue reading…

After touring the Forbidden Palace, Chris and I decided to go for some pizza at this great place I knew of near Beida. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the place, so we ended up going to McDonald’s instead. They had an absolute monstrosity of a hamburger there, called the “World Cup” burger. It had four beef patties. Being the guy that he is, Chris ordered one.

World Cup BurgerWorld Cup BurgerHosted on Zooomr

After dinner, I realized my cellphone was missing. I went back to look for it, but with no success. I have no idea whether I lost it at the club, at the Forbidden City, in the taxi, or in the restaurant. Bummer. Chris caught his train to Xi’an, and I went back to the hostel. By then, it was too late for me to get a ticket back that day. Once again, bummer. I booked one for the next day, i.e. yesterday, and went out with my new buddies at the hostel.

Pizza

Yesterday afternoon, I found out what the address of that pizza place was and decided to round everybody up, and treat them to a “Mark’s leaving Beijing” pizza meal. Unfortunately, all of the Brits and Aussies I’d been hanging out with were busy. Winnie and Queenie did offer to meet with me later and go to the train station as a group, though.

In the end, it was just Zhanqiang, one of my Korean buddies who goes to BLCU, and two of his friends who went. The place was just north of the west gate of Beida, and it was great! I swear it was the best pizza I’ve had in years! The name of the restaurant is Kro’s Nest (雞巢). Since my train ticket was for 7:14, I decided to take off by 5:15 to make sure I made it in time.

Desperation

I hopped in a cab and headed for the subway. In a nightmarish scenario I’d never imagined possible, traffic stopped. Completely. It took over half an hour to move a single kilometer. By the time we got to the subway, it was already 6:35.

I didn’t make it to 前門 station until after 6:50. Knowing I had little chance of making it to the hostel, picking up my things, getting back to 前門, and getting to the train station within under 25 minutes, I ran. Make it or not, I would not waste my train ticket willingly, I said. Lugging my new knock-off Northface backpack, dodging hundreds of people walking through the market on 大柵欄, and ruthlessly plowing through my arch-nemeses, the rickshaw drivers, I ran and ran until I made it to the hostel.

Between heaving breaths, I shouted to the people at the desk that I needed to get my stuff out of storage. Since they seemed busy, I ran back to the room myself, found the door unlocked, grabbed my stuff and ran back out on to the street. Hefting my suitcase up into my arms, and cursing the 50 pounds I’ve gained since I was a competitive distance runner, I ran back to the entrance to the 前門 station. My blisters from the previous week of walking around the city were killing me, but I only had fourteen minutes left. A guy tried to push me out of the way and cut in front of me in the ticket line and for the first time since I’ve been in China I pushed back. Having at least 50 pounds, plus a heavy suitcase on him, he went sprawling. I grabbed my ticket ran down stairs and jumped through the doors just in time to make on the subway.

I got off the subway at the train station and took a quick glance at my watch. It was 7:08. I had a chance! I pulled out the extension on my suitcase so I could roll it on its wheels and started running towards the line. Once again, more bozos tried to cut in front of me. Didn’t they realize I was in a serious hurry and that once, just this once, I wasn’t going to tolerate their lack of civility? One man kept pushing against my right arm, and finally getting frustrated that I didn’t let him cut in line, he grabbed it, gave me an Indian burn and tried to twist my arm at the joint. I dropped my shoulder and slammed him hard, sending him back and into the railing to the right. Then, as he lunged forward at me, I sidestepped to the left, keeping my suitcase between us. He went reeling into a couple of people in front of me and they started to get into a shouting match with each other. I ran.

I finally made it to the train platform at 7:15, one minute after it should have departed. Thankfully for me, it hadn’t. I ran along, next to the train, finding the appropriate carriage and stumbled in, drenched in sweat. My ticket wasn’t wasted.

After a rough night of clubbing and drinking, I dragged myself out of bed early to go to the Forbidden city with my roommate, Chris. Chris is a tall, thin Canadian guy, who works in real estate. He’s a really cool guy with crucial exception- he’s a morning person. At 10AM, after I’d had less than four hours of sleep, while I was still hung-over, he came tromping cheerily into the room.

In his most energetic morning voice, he belted out, “Hey, man! Nice day, huh! We can go at 11:00 if you want. This is gonna be sweet! The weather’s great today! Blah blah blah! blah blah!”

“Umgh globblebrogear,” I responded as my head started spinning. “Let’s just go, now,” I continued. “I’m not gonna get much more sleep.” We headed out.

It was absolutely roasting outside. I was borderline delirious by the time we made it to the Forbidden Palace. Fortunately for us, a guy was selling “ice water” right outside the gates. In this case, “ice water” meant bottled water that was frozen solid. It was brilliant! They melted slowly over a couple hours, giving me a steady stream of icy water.

With my “ice water” in hand, I immediately started picking up, and soon there was a bounce in my step again. With a gi-friggin-normous picture of Chairman Mao looking down on us solemnly from above, we entered the gates. After circumventing some free-lance tour guides, we bought our tickets at 60RMB each, and went into the central part of the Forbidden City.

The architecture was stunning. It was absolutely the biggest and most ambitious traditional Chinese building I’ve ever seen in my life. It really would have been worth the trip to Beijing just to see the Forbidden Palace. Our timing wasn’t perfect, though, since much of it was being renovated. Still, it was a very, very interesting walk.

Forbidden City under constructionForbidden City under constructionHosted on Zooomr

After walking for over an hour, Chris and I decided to sit down for a break. Within moments, a woman came up to us with her 6 year-old daughter, and asked if she could take a picture with us. She said her daughter had never seen any foreigners before. How could we say no to that? Immediately after she finished taking the picture, a couple of high school girls came up to us and wanted to do the same. We obliged and they ran off, after giving me their QQ numbers, whatever the heck those are. As the girls left, a middle aged couple was suddenly sitting next to us and their friends took a picture for them. Suddenly, a crowd of somewhere between 50 and a 100 people materialized, cameras pointed at us, happily capturing us on film.

While I’d like to attribute it to my dashing looks, all we were was a couple of random foreigners. Just by virtue of that, we were photo worthy. Unbelievable! Even now, I wonder how many houses in China will have a picture with me in it set out somewhere. It’s an odd feeling. With all of those people taking pictures of us, and more coming to see what was going on, Chris decided it was time to go. Just as we decided to go, I realized it was the perfect time to take a picture of my own, and get one of the crowd. As luck would have it, the crowd dissipated with lightning speed as soon as I picked up my camera. Oh, well. At least one of the people from the second group was nice enough to take a picture of us.

Chris and Mark's moment of fameChris and Mark’s moment of fameHosted on Zooomr

There was one other highlight to our trip. The Starbucks! They put a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. If I could chose just one picture to sum up modern China, this would be it:

Forbidden StarbucksForbidden StarbucksHosted on Zooomr

The drinks were good, and cheaper than they are at home, too.

I can’t believe I’m writing what I am right now, but since these are the feelings that pull at my heart, these are the feelings I must put to paper. I don’t want go home. I don’t know how to leave Beijing. In Taiwan, I have friends, an apartment, a job, and numerous kids counting on me to teach them, but I don’t want to go back. Everything I feel tells me to stay. I love this city.

Walking around in the bustle of the hutongs, I feel more at ease than I have in years. I’m making friends, both local and western at a prodigious rate. I’m surrounded by both the ancient and the modern. I’m in a city of 16 million, and yet, it’s the most bicycle-friendly place I’ve seen in my life. I can feel the energy of all the young who come here chasing their dreams. Why shouldn’t I stay here and do the same?

From what I’ve seen and experienced so far, this could well be the best place on the planet to be a Chinese student. I’ve saved enough money that I could live here as a full time student for two or three years without working. By the time it ran out, I’m sure I’d have skills far beyond what I would if I stayed on my current course. It would be a bit scary to bet the entirety of my hard-earned savings like that, and I don’t like the prospect of having to start over from scratch at 30. Who said dreams were free, though? If I were just concerned with saving for my old age, I’d be working and living in the US.

I could be really happy here.

Last night, I went back to the same restaurant again with Martin, Shawn, Peter, Zhanqiang, and the two Aussie girls. I finally remember their names, too- Winnie and Queenie. We had more great food, more beer, more laughs with the boss, and more good times. After that, we decided to go to a dance club. Shawn knew this place called Babyface, so we piled into a couple of cabs, Zhanqiang negotiated the price, and we were off!

We showed up at about 2:05 in the morning, but the place still looked really lively. Outside the main entrance, there were some intimidating security guards dressed in hard-hats who didn’t want to let us in. They said the place closed at two. I called bullshit, and started asking about all the music playing, all the people inside and whether if they just had something against foreigners. The guy responded that he was worried that we’d cause problems because other tourists had in the past. I found Zhanqiang, went back and we talked them some more I agreed to take responsibility for relaying any of their requests back to the others, none of whom could speak Chinese. Eventually, they let us in, and there was no cover!

The club was inside a huge building, and it was several floors up. There were also some convenience stores and KTV rooms on the same floor. Once we got inside the club itself, it was awesome! The place was packed, people were having a good time, there was a raised dancing area as well as a pit, and the music wasn’t bad at all! It was about 200RBM for 12 beers. Soon, all of my companions were tanked, and we all had a great time until the club really did close, just after 4:00.