On the third day of orientation we had our language placement test. My language placement test was one of the things I was most worried about coming to China. I had barely even looked at Chinese for the last month and a half! What if I was placed into a lower class, then I would be a semester behind and then I wouldn’t place out of all of my Chinese here!!! Marketus told us not to study at all. I decided I was just going to “review” my characters, but instead of reviewing I ended up just hanging out with everyone in Hannah and Jill’s room. Whoops.
For the placement test, I was expecting to see some very easy questions, some medium questions I may or may not know, and some hard questions. Marketus told us that we had two hours, but we should just do what we know, and if we don’t know don’t guess. I got the test and was shocked by how hard it was! I left full sections blank! A few people left after about 5-10 minutes (absolute beginners didn’t have to take the test, but some people had only taken a semester or two and didn’t know much) but I stayed until pretty much the very end. I took the elevator up to the classroom on the 10th floor and had my oral interview with lu laoshi (who is supposed to be the scary strict one). It went pretty well; she told me she loved Tom Cruise (apparently that’s a thing here).
After the test I was pretty worried that I didn’t do well and I would be placed in a lower class, but I didn’t have that much time to be worried because we had a full day of Chinese adventure ahead of us! The fifteen of us gathered in the lobby to head to Tienanmen Square! It was supposed to be really cold so I put leggings on under my jeans. I felt like a wattling penguin but at least I was warm. We walked a few blocks to the subway (or ditie, in Chinese) stop near campus. The Beijing subway is NOTHING like the subway in DC. First of all, you have to put your bags through a metal detector before you’re allowed to go through, and then you can head on to your station. The Beijing subway has sooo many lines and the transfer stations are huge. At our transfer we literally had to walk for 15 minutes underground to get to our next train! The subways in Beijing are crazy. There are specific lines you need to stand in to get on the train and as other people push their way off you have to squeeeeze your way in on the sides. It’s actually good when people push you because it helps you get on or off. Getting to Tienanmen, when we tried to get off, about 5 of us, including me, couldn’t get off! The doors are only open for about 20 seconds so you really have to fight for it. We had to get off at the next stop and turn around. Thank God the trains come very often so it only took us a few minutes. With 15 of us it was a major struggle but we eventually figured it out.
Walking through the transfer station is also a major experience! I felt so insignificant wandering through this transfer station with hordes of people! I would compare it to a combination of feeling like a sheep or an ant in an ant farm. It’s definitely a humbling experience witnessing how many other people have places to go and things to do.
Finally we made it to Tienanmen square! We had the obligatory photo shoot with the portrait of Mao, and got a lot of stares. With two black people, two blondes, two people with ridiculously curly hair and two tall guys complete with a few Asians thrown in there, we have a very eclectic group. Katora was by far the most popular. I guess they’re just not used to seeing black people in China. We eventually entered into the building containing the portrait of Mao, which has great views of Tienanmen Square. Inside while Yuan Yuan was buying our tickets, a few people approached us for a photo opp. Katora was obviously the most popular, but a few of us were pulled aside individually. After taking a few photos I looked around and there was a crowd of about 50 Chinese people taking photos of us and with us. It was crazy! It felt like a combination of being a celebrity and being in a zoo. We then decided that we were going to take pictures of the people taking pictures of us, which was entertaining. Eventually Yuan Yuan and Marketus had to literally pull us away so we could continue with our tour.
We went up inside the building with the portrait of Mao, which has amazing views of Tienanmen Square. From there you can see Mao’s mausoleum and a few other important political buildings. A few little kids tried to practice their English on us which was very cute! We also saw a little girl do a salute! Inside the building there was a collection of photos of Mao and his life. Marketus gave us a brief history and promised to show us a documentary detailing China’s history after the Civil War under Mao. I don’t have any pictures of the inside because we weren’t supposed to take pictures (I didn’t want to get my camera confiscated!) but that didn’t stop the Chinese tourists who blatantly took pictures right in front of the “no photos” signs.
After our Tienanmen square adventure we took the subway to the “weird food street”. There was the obligatory waiting for those who couldn’t make it off at the first metro stop (practice makes perfect right?). We walked around downtown Beijing and I couldn’t help but compare Beijing to Seoul. Seoul was very bright, vibrant and shiny while Beijing seemed sort of brown, like everything was covered in a thin layer of brown dust. Things that should be grey- buildings, the street, the sidewalk, were lightly covered in this brown dust, making the huge bustling city seem somewhat old and dirty. The pollution is something you can definitely see, especially when it’s not windy. The area by my school isn’t very bad because we live in the outskirts of the city, but deep in the heart of Beijing, you can’t ignore it. If you look straight up the sky is crystal blue, without a cloud in the sky. You can also usually see the moon even in the daytime! But if you look straight ahead the buildings are covered in an opaque brown fog. It’s definitely an interesting experience, to be able to see the line where the pollution stops and starts in the sky! Marketus told us that on average, Chinese people lose 5 years of their life because of the pollution.
Eventually we made it to the food street where we shopped for dinner. We wandered all the way down the street, marveling at the insane variety of food. People were calling out to us in English and Chinese, trying to get us to buy their food. One man pointed at two buns filled with what looked like pulled pork, and said “hamburger! hamburger!”. NOT a hamburger. Another man yelled “HELLO. BANANA.” -we all almost DIED laughing, and still quote him to each other on a daily basis. A bunch of us decided to get jiaozi, or potstickers, which were pretty good. The last one I ate was a little funky and I’m convinced that it was the dumpling I ate that made me sick the next day. A few of us then decided we were going to eat one of the many strange and crazy foods. They had anything you could ever think of on a stick: octopus, silk worms, starfish, scorpions, snake, and my personal favorite, sheep penis. A few of the more adventurous students decided to eat some fried scorpions. Hannah and I decided to split one since there were two on a stick. They take whatever item you fancy and dunk it in a boiling frier pot and then it’s fine to eat! Hannah tried the scorpion first since she payed for the majority of it. “Not bad!” she informed me. Next it was my turn! I made sure I got a photo op biting into my little fried scorpion. It wasn’t bad at all! Very tasty! I would definitely eat it again.
We then decided to wash our scorpions down with fried ice cream, which sounds better than it actually was. Basically our fried ice cream was a piece of wonder bread with some ice cream on top and some sort of fluff that tasted like a peep. Not my favorite, but I ate most of it. The ice cream was purple, which was interesting.
After my dinner of jiaozi, scorpions and peep fluff on wonder bread we headed to see a Chinese acrobatics show! We arrived a little too early so we headed across the street to Mc Donalds to escape the cold and get some coffee! We were all suffering from immense caffeine withdrawals, so a cup of coffee with milk (that’s a big deal here) was the perfect touch. I brought a container of tasters choice with me, as well as some English breakfast tea, thinking all I would need to find is some milk and sugar. Easier said than done! Chinese people don’t have real milk. Once classes started I eventually switched to drinking my coffee and tea black. It’s great, especially with good quality coffee like tasters choice (I hope you can sense my sarcasm).
We eventually headed to the acrobatics show inside this medium-sized theater. The seats were so small we were all smashed together, which was quite cozy, especially since we all had our coats and most of us were wearing 15 layers. I sat next to Nate, who is 6’4″ and could not fit his legs into the space behind the seat in front of him. It was quite comical, even if it was at his expense. The acrobatics show started with a clown blowing up balloons for all of the little kids, trying to get us all pumped up for the show! The first act was a girl who unicycled on a tight rope upsidown! The next act was a bunch of men who jumped through hoops of different heights and sizes, which was very cool! The third act was one of my favorites: two girls on a rotating platform holding wine glasses on a tray doing impossibly flexible feats on top of each other! They had men climbing up poles and jumping off of them like ninjas, girls making pyramids on top of bikes, girls spinning umbrellas with their feet in pyramids, epic jugglers and much much more. I couldn’t take pictures but I found some online so you can get the idea.
Eventually we all took a shuttle bus home and were falling asleep from a mixture of jetlag and pure exhaustion. It had been a crazy day, but I felt much better about my study abroad experience seeing other parts of the city and knowing how to use the metro. My first couple days in Beijing made me feel very nervous. It felt like we were in a weird campus bubble I didn’t even understand, and I couldn’t figure out how I would ever see the rest of Beijing! Exploring a greater part of the city made me feel more at ease, knowing there was more to the city than just my college campus.