I am deeply grateful for this summer’s experience in Beijing. It was my first trip to mainland China, and I am so glad to have had two full months of Chinese learning at China’s best university. I learned to think creatively, especially in situations where the language barrier became a serious inconvenience. Once I entered a store where there was not a word of English anywhere, and despite my limited Chinese, I used what basic vocabulary I knew to find help in getting what I needed. Body language, careful observance, and preparation are so helpful when getting around local places. Being fully immersed in this very Chinese city also helped me understand the importance of practicing speaking a new language. Hearing and speaking Mandarin daily was one of the most significant parts of the Chinese-learning experience. Right now, I am making it a goal to regularly watch, or listen to Chinese television and music to help keep the sound of Mandarin in my head. The friends I made in Beijing also encouraged me to find other Mandarin-speaking people at my home to practice speaking Chinese with.
Journaling throughout this program has also helped me to record the process of my adjustment to life in Beijing. Learning to be flexible and alert was necessary to interacting with a different set of people, but I found that patience and kindness were equally valuable. When I didn’t have the Chinese words to express myself, body language and attitude were more useful than I expected. Losing my way in Wudaokou led to conversation with locals that consisted of a lot of laughing and nodding.
The SLA Grant experience has encouraged me to continue looking for ways to make unique experiences more meaningful. During our various outings, I took notes in my journal for our blog posts. A little while passed, and I began writing journals for the sake of preserving and re-living my favorite China experiences. This summer was the first time I felt that I had truly gotten to know Chinese language, and my hope is to build on my study abroad experience by reading more on China. At Peking University, I learned the Chinese way of learning, and these are methods that I will apply to the coming years at Notre Dame.
Beijing, for a long time, was known as a city of bicycles. Even now, armies of bicycles crowd the gray sidewalks of Beijing and roll down the streets alongside cars. In some places along the sidewalk, the space left for walking has been so narrowed by bikes that it feels the sidewalk is more a parking lot for rows of rental bikes than a convenience for pedestrians.
Unlike the recreational purpose most bike-riding has in the U.S., Chinese depend on their bikes as serious forms of transportation to get them to and from work, school, or wherever they need to go. Naturally, we had many long conversations about biking in Beijing, and often compared the biking culture of the States and China. In fact, bicycles are so important to Chinese life that a biking phrase has developed and become a common saying when you find yourself in an unfortunate situation. The phrase literally means “my bike chain has dropped.” It is typically used when you find yourself lacking the very thing you need most. For example, if you lost your bus ticket when in a real rush to get somewhere, this would be considered “dropping your bike chain”, because you lost the most necessary item at the worst possible moment. This phrase seems to be a very special Chinese saying, since biking has been a very important part of surviving and thriving in China.
I did hear a few younger folks use the phrase to describe an especially inconvenient situation but I did not catch the phrase on television or on the streets of Beijing. It is a bit more of an established saying, so a wider range of age groups are familiar with the phrase.
When I eventually decided to try my hand at city biking in Beijing, I had a literal experience with my bicycle chain dropping. Hoping to get to class quickly, I found an Ofo rental bike. As I tried to put my foot down on the pedal to move forward, I looked down and noticed that the bike’s chain had dropped and the bike was no use… it was exactly what I didn’t need at that moment, and truly a “dropped bike chain” situation!
I’m not a big spender, but I can easily pass the time with a few hours window shopping. This was harder to do in Beijing. In the oversized, shiny modern shopping malls, the shopping culture holds similarities with the U.S. but on the street or in places like the Pearl Market, the cultural difference is obvious. It’s atypical for people to just wander around the mall looking at things without buying them, and if you try, staff or vendors will pressure you to buy. This pressure to purchase is most pronounced at famous bargaining market locations such as the Pearl Market.
I was not overly familiar with Pearl Market before arriving in Beijing, but later I learned that it was an interesting place to bargain for cheaper goods. All of Pearl Market’s products are off-brand or fakes of pricier brands, so I decided to look around without buying anything. I did not expect the vendors to be so forward, and was certainly taken aback when one very determined lady seized me by the arm and quite literally dragged me into her stall. She hardly paused for a breath while describing to me the superior quality and pricing of her handbags, and as I tried to tell her I had neither the interest nor enough cash for her products, she threw a fake Prada bag into my arms and asked for 120 RMB. Other vendors had a gentler approach but I still often found my arms full of things I had no real interest in buying. They are very quick with putting their bags, or shirts, or whatever it is they’re selling into your hands. If you try to give it back just as quickly, they’ll almost duck away. I only ever felt less inclined to buy in such situations.
The alertness of the vendors is also rather startling; even a glance at their merchandise will have them smiling at you and scrambling to get you to buy their products. In the States, I wander in and out of stores without feeling the need to purchase anything, but in China, or at least Beijing, doing so will often get you decidedly unfriendly looks from shop-keepers.
Stores also use very interesting ways to promote themselves; more than once I saw the staff dancing in or outside stores to get shoppers’ attention. It is not uncommon to see vendors using megaphones to promote their products, even if it’s just tofu. Sometimes, vendors across the street from each other would try to shout over each other, and I ended up not understanding a word of anything. To attract shoppers, staff frequently stand outside stores and hand out flyers or demonstrate how their products work. Some of these can be interesting when a remote-controlled drone is doing loop-de-loops above your head, but others are funny because they’re as trivial as a man “demonstrating” the spinning capabilities of a fidget spinner.
I missed being able to leisurely drift from store to store without a sales clerk breathing down my neck. However, I realized that for many of these people, their income depends on selling as many of their products as possible. In some street stands, vendors had their children watching TV, working on homework, or even napping in the back. I certainly spent less time in stores I had no intention of buying from, but having gained a new perspective, I stopped resenting the attitude of the staff.
My roommate for half of this summer was a PKU international student from Malaysia. But, she was of Chinese descent; even her name is Chinese. She told me her grandparents had moved to Malaysia from mainland China. I didn’t see much of her at first, but after a while I got to know her a little better. One week, I thought I’d take a break from Chinese food, and she knew a decent Korean restaurant nearby, so the next day we went out for my first (hopefully not last) Korean hot pot. Over glass noodles and BBQ beef, we talked about college and how we ended up at our respective institutions. I asked her why she decided on PKU, and she told me that she moved to China for middle school with the intention of going to a Chinese university.
“Was it hard to learn Mandarin in school?” I asked, ignorantly. She shook her head, and I nodded admiringly, until she finished her mouthful of japchae and said, “But no.. I grew up speaking Mandarin, at home all we speak is Mandarin. I didn’t have to learn it.”
“You can’t speak Malay at all?” I pressed. She shook her head again, and said that all she knew was English and Chinese. Her family was the same way. In some sense, my roommate was an outsider to all nations. She didn’t know much more Malay than I, and Chinese face discrimination in Malaysia, yet she was not quite a true mainland Chinese either. Privately, I thought this a sad place to be, essentially being a foreigner at home as well as abroad. Even at PKU, international students are put in living quarters separate from the rest of the student body. Of course in the U.S., international students regularly live and interact with the rest of the student body.
Through further conversation with my roommate and her friends, I learned that the Chinese-Malaysian community in Beijing is a tight-knit group. My roommate’s boyfriend is Chinese-Malaysian, as are most of her close friends. Again, looking for a break from Beijing fare, we went to a Malaysian restaurant, the owner of which she knows well. She told me that the owner not only gives Chinese-Malay student big discounts when they eat there, but at times even assists Chinese-Malay students financially.
My roommate expressed intense frustration with the attitude of some mainland Chinese towards her, despite her 100% Chinese background. She mentioned that some people are condescending, and even downright rude when dealing with her. When she ordered us a Didi (essentially the Chinese Uber) to return home, there was a bit of trouble with getting the driver to come to the right location on a backroad because he kept asking, “How can I trust you?”, apparently because he picked up on her Chinese-Malaysian accent. Although my roommate’s first language is Mandarin, it is immediately obvious that her way of speaking is not a Beijing, or even mainland Chinese, accent.
I asked her whether she preferred her home in Malaysia to Beijing, she did not express a clear preference for one over the other. She’s a marketing major, and said that she would feel comfortable working in China or Malaysia. Foreigners aren’t a rare sight in Chicago, or even smaller cities like Indianapolis, but Beijing is a city unused to foreigners, and if it becomes evident that you don’t quite fit in with the rest, you’ll draw eyes and may be treated differently. In my roommate’s case, this has, at times, proven to be especially trying. Empathizing with my roommate reminded me to be grateful for the diversity that America allows and celebrates.
To my initial sorrow as a sweet-tooth, I found that in the East, dessert is a minor affair and sometimes is even completely passed over. Traditionally, sweet items are lesser players in the world of Chinese eats. Northern China in particular is known more for its preparation of meats and noodles rather than desserts but Beijing has more to its culinary name than roast duck. To my intense joy, halfway through the program, I discovered the Daoxiangcun (稻香村) company, which roughly translates to “village of rice fragrance”, one of Beijing’s oldest and most famous pastry companies. Daoxiangcun pastries are unique to Beijing; there is a different Suzhou Daoxiangcun company, but these pastries apparently cannot be found in Hong Kong, and even in Taiwan, people are not as familiar with them as in Beijing. Daoxiangcun is known for its mooncakes, which are a traditional dessert of the Mid-autumn festival, also called the moon festival. However, Daoxiangcun’s most popular products are its wide assortment of traditional pastries, and are eagerly bought up by Beijingers year-round. These pastries, which come in hundreds of varieties, are quite popular with the older folks, but people of all ages enjoy them. The company also sells a variety of cooked meats.
I visited several Daoxiangcun stores, and it seems that most are set up generally the same way. At the counter, you may choose from a wide range of pastry boxes, but you can also pick which pastries you want to put in your own, custom-made box. Some stores have several separate counters for meat, pastries, and other sweets. Set up in the center of the store is an assortment of individually wrapped candies, dried fruit and other uniquely Chinese sweets. If you’d like to try specific pastries without having to buy a whole box, you can also order them individually at the counter. It’s a heaven of goodies with something delicious for just about everyone.
I went to a Daoxiangcun bakery just a ten-minute walk down the road from our quarters at PKU to buy some pastries. I had visited the store before, and they had had prepared boxes of daoxiangcun pastries laid out on the counter. But this time, there were no such boxes, no one knew a word of English, and the only thing I could read were the price tags, so I had to figure out how to order pastries with my limited Chinese. I had no idea where to begin with ordering pastries (there are literally hundreds of options), I decided to befriend the staff and ask a few questions. Communication was a challenge; thankfully they seemed to understand me quite well but I had trouble making out exactly what their responses were. I went ahead, however, and started out with asking about the process of making daoxiangcun pastries. The staff informed me that the Daoxiangcun bakery company sends the pastries to its various branches around the city. And, it turns out that the company is a bit secretive about the process of making the pastries, so the staff did not know too much about the process, or even the length of time it took to make the pastries. So, I just talked with them a little about which pastries were especially delicious, and which are most popular.
One of the ladies was said that her favorite Daoxiangcun product are their meat products, and said that the pork was especially good. When I asked her if she had any favorite pastries, she said “They’re all great to eat!” The other staff member I talked to was very friendly, and gave me more specifics, but my limited Chinese made it rather difficult to follow. I did manage to catch that she enjoyed more traditional selections like the round lotus pastries. After she finished rattling off an incomprehensible list of “top ten” pastries, I decided that it might be better to get up to the counter and get a visual on what she was talking about. I explained apologetically that I really had no idea what any of the pastry names were, but was looking to order a box of pastries most unique to Beijing. To my surprise, and delight, she offered to help me order. The twelve types of pastries I ordered included pastries in shape of shells, pig heads, and flowers. Some were a little salty, others were very sweet, some were light and flaky, and others were very dense. The fillings ranged from jujube, to pumpkin, to red bean, to chestnut. I also learned from a few Beijingers that these pastries also play a role in social interaction. Like mooncakes, many pastries symbolize long life, good health, prosperity, or happiness, all of which are very important in Chinese culture. These often have characters marked on them.
The Chinese seem to prefer more subtly sweet pastries such as the jujube flower cake and the ox tongue pastry, but my personal favorite is the almost overwhelmingly sweet golden pig cake. It contains a dense pumpkin filling, is shaped like a pig’s head, and tastes even better than it looks. I suppose I’d really have to agree with the first lady I asked about daoxiangcun; you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
It is always interesting to hear what people from other countries think about the United States. Sometimes people outside the US have the funniest things to say about Americans, and sometimes their opinions cause me to reconsider my own take on things. In China, a vast country of long tradition, most of the people you see are the Han Chinese. China is not as diverse as the States, or even the United Kingdom. As a result, foreigners, or “wai外 guo国 ren人” in China visiting famous sites often themselves become attractions to the locals. In a sea of silky black hair and dark eyes, blue eyes, blond hair or anything that is evidently not Chinese is an unusual and interesting figure. Foreigners are sure to stand out a great deal more in China than many other nations, and so it is common to find people taking your picture. In better situations, they sometimes ask first, but stares and shameless picture-taking of foreign strangers is commonplace.
The first person who gave me his opinion of America volunteered his opinion without me even having to ask. He was about a middle-aged gentleman at a small street clothing store, or a xiao小 tan摊, where I was shopping around for a pair of pants. He was really a lively individual and never stopped talking; he seemed to be either praising every pair of pants I picked up as the perfect fit, or making very random, general statements about America. If I so much as eyed a pair of pants, and he’d immediately pick it up and pat it authoritatively, press it into my hands, and pace around me. While doing this, he would repeat three or four times, “This design is very beautiful, it would look very beautiful on you,” then would say in broken English, “America! Everything! Big!” or “America! Guns!”, and would conclude with a good laugh. Despite this interesting accompaniment, I managed to select my pants, and eventually turned to the conversational gentleman and asked if he knew anything else about America. He laughed a great deal, but made a remark about the States that to me, an American, was disappointing. He said that America was dangerous because of the many guns, and I later learned this view was not one unique to him. The vendor also added that Americans eat too much. He was not the last person to express disapproval for American eating habits.
Several weeks later, I had the chance to speak with a schoolgirl around 13 or 14 years of age. “What’s your opinion of America?” I asked. Her first response was one word: “independence.” This was cheering for about five seconds until she followed up with another word “lazy.” Her take on America seemed somewhat more favorable than the previous interviewee; she’d named the pros and cons. But then again, I thought, perhaps she named these two qualities as a way of saying that Americans enjoy freedom without taking responsibility. Chinese culture holds a high regard for faithfulness, placing duty above individual rights. I pressed her for more information and asked her what she thought Americans did with their lives on a daily basis. Her answer was once again simple, but less complimentary. “Fat,” she said, with a giggle. I again urged her to elaborate. She finally said that we must be so fat due to living off of burgers and fries. I smiled, and thanked her for her time. So far, all my interviewees had knocked American health habits.
The third group of people I talked to were my Chinese teachers, a group of women from different parts of China, all very fashionable, all graduate school-aged, and all under 5 ft 3 in. Like the voluble vendor, they expressed concern over the amount of guns in America, but were also curious about the American fondness for cars, especially those on the larger side. “Why do you need such big cars?” was the question, which began a discussion of gas-guzzlers, Jeeps, and monster trucks. This “car talk” revealed that, for the most part, Americans don’t really need the big cars, it’s just that we like them, which then led to “Why do you like the big cars ?” And, despite almost never touching the topic of Chinese politics, the teachers are often ask our opinion on American presidents, both past and present. Like my first respondent, several teachers have an impression of America as dangerous nation because of the easy access to firearms. It was disappointing, because I would have hoped that America could project a more refined image to the world. At the same time, I could not be surprised; on the subject of guns, many from other nations express similar views, and mistake most Americans to be gun-toting citizens who like their cars like they like their food servings: big and full of oil.
Overall, I gathered that many Chinese have a rather poor regard for America. One of my teachers did note that American men seem well-mannered, in terms of opening doors. The only other thing that might be considered favorable was that most everyone seemed to have a high opinion of McDonald’s, which I do not share, to the great surprise of some of my teachers. “The burgers are so good!” she exclaimed, “How do you not like them?” I just wish I could’ve brought them a real, homestyle burger from a family-run cafe to show that there’s more to American burgers than just McD’s, and, perhaps, introduce a different side of the U.S.A.
Every weekday, we get the opportunity to practice our Chinese one-one-one for nearly an hour with one of our instructors. These sessions are very informal, and while they are meant to reinforce the grammar and vocabulary we have learned that day, they often turn into interesting conversations about friends, activities, politics, social media, and anything else that we feel like talking about – just like I would have a conversation in English with my American friends. Our second-year Chinese instructors are young, smart and interesting, and are always willing to discuss complicated topics with us. Here are five things I’ve learned from these conversations:
1. The American Dream and the Chinese Dream are extremely opposite. In America, personal opportunity is paramount, and we’re told that if you work hard enough, you, personally, can be extremely successful. However, in China, the success of the country is much more important than the needs of individuals. Even Chinese children are taught that they should not work hard for their own money and success, but rather to better China at large. This idea of sacrificing personal glory is much less common in the United States. However, while this cultural belief is definitely different, that doesn’t mean the people are very different – Chinese people want to provide for their families and feel proud of their successes, and Americans have a lot of patriotism and place a lot of importance and value on service.
2. In some ways related to my above point, discipline is extremely important in China. Every college student does at least a week or two of mandatory military training (i.e. physical training, learning how to properly make a bed and fold clothes, being yelled at by the equivalent of drill sergeants). Many Chinese primary and secondary schools have a rigorous class schedule in addition to daily physical training – many of my Chinese friends recount running around their school’s track in formation every morning while repeating some book knowledge. This discipline can be seen further in the strict parental guidance that is common in Chinese households – children must learn to be disciplined in how they manage their time, often placing extreme importance on grads and sacrificing all other activities to focus on school and homework every day. From a young age, Chinese people often must put their work and duties above their own desires and are taught to listen and heed the instructions of authority. There is MUCH less room to ask “why?” or question authority in China – from children to their parents to citizens to their government.
3. Perceptions of North Korea and Russia are completely different. In America, those countries are perceived as scary or bad, but that’s not necessarily the case in China. In fact, many Chinese people like to visit North Korea because they think it’s interesting or funny to see inside the secretive country! As an American, I would never even consider venturing into North Korea, but to Chinese people, the idea isn’t too uncommon.
4. Public safety is completely different in China. Before entering campus every day, I had to show my ID card to a guard at one of the four gate entrances. As an American, my initial, natural reaction was that this was to prevent bad people from getting on to campus, i.e. school shooters. However, it wasn’t until I took a minute to think about it that I realized threats like school shootings generally don’t happen in China. Private citizens are not allowed to have guns or weapons of any type, and punishments for crimes such as murder are generally harsher than in America. Additionally, China has not faced the terrorist threats in attacks that have been on the rise in America and Europe; while the police watch and monitor for those events very closely, from what I know the only terror threats they face are from small groups from the more rural eastern China. I felt very safe in Beijing, even when walking alone on the streets at night, which to be completely honest I can’t say about most of the American cities or towns I’ve been to.
5. There is an incredible blend of tradition and modernism throughout China, especially in big cities. China is a huge country with a storied history, which can clearly be showcased in the architecture and preserved parks in the cities, but also much more modern than I expected, which can be seen in things like modern buildings and public transportation, but even smaller things such as how people use WeChat or AliPay (phone apps) to purchase virtually everything in the city. This divide between old and new is also evidenced in the people’s attitudes and values – many people hold more traditional or “old-school” views about things such as marriage, homosexuality, and filial duty; however, at the same time, many people, especially young people, are becoming increasingly open-minded and aren’t much different from young people you might meet in America. I definitely didn’t not expect the level of modernism that I saw in Beijing, and I think this dichotomy of tradition and modernism will only continue to grow and change in the future.
As I boarded my Seattle plane headed for Beijing nearly two months ago, I was, to be honest, a little terrified. I nervously clutched my purse as I handed over my ticket to the airline worker, too anxious to say even a simple “你好” (“hello”) to the flight attendants as I found my seat. This was my first time I was to leave the safety and comfort of America, and was headed to a country that not only a 15 hour difference in time from home but also, I suspected, extreme differences in language, culture, and customs.
Little did I know that, even so far from my small town in the deserts of Southern California, I would find a new home and a new community in the bustling city of Beijing. After landing in Beijing, Notre Dame program directors and teachers immediately helped me find my way to campus, carry my luggage to my room, and asked several times if they could help me find dinner or any toiletries I needed. Despite being surrounded by an unfamiliar cityscape, I immediately felt welcomed and taken care of by the Notre Dame staff/professors here for the summer Notre Dame in Beijing program.
I continued to feel the comfort of the Notre Dame community as I started classes and got more accustomed to the city. My classmates have diverse backgrounds, majors, and interests, but there is immediate camaraderie in being able to joke about our Notre Dame dorm experiences, commiserating about the workload and pressure of being a Notre Dame student (even during this summer program!), and of course, getting excited about the nearing football season and return to campus. Even in an unfamiliar city, having the Notre Dame “family” made me feel comfortable, and they are they best people with whom to explore Beijing!
Beyond just my twelve classmates plus instructors, this Notre Dame community here is broadened by the Beijing Global Gateway. The Gateway is, according to Notre Dame’s website, “provide academic and intellectual hubs where scholars, students, and leaders from universities, government, business, and community gather to discuss, discover, and debate issues of topical and enduring relevance”. Basically, it connects Notre Dame students to people and opportunities in China and greater Asia, as well as connects people, businesses, and leaders to the Notre Dame campus. While we were here, the Global Gateway hosted a large event (which included a welcome event and a fabulous lunch) to which every person in Beijing connected to the university was invited – current student studying abroad or interning in Beijing, ND graduates who live in Beijing, current students who are from Beijing, incoming students from Beijing and their parents, professors in Beijing, and other friends of the university. It was impressive to see how large the ND network is half a world away from the physical ND campus. The event made me feel lucky and proud to be part of a university that is internationally respected and connected, and really made me excited about all of the opportunities that the Notre Dame “family” – including the international community – presents.
Notre Dame has some of the most intelligent, interesting, kind, and accomplished people in its community – including students, professors, and alumni. Being a part of this program has reminded me of this. Ye Laoshi, a Chinese professor at Notre Dame and our resident program director here, sacrificed seeing his son’s birth (which happened just a week ago!) to serve us in this program. Another instructor, Huang Laoshi, accompanied and stayed with one of my classmates at the hospital when she caught the flu, then continuously checked up on her until she was feeling better. My instructors and classmates always take time to really ask how I am doing, and I feel comfortable asking for help with any matter, no matter how small. The people here go above and beyond to challenge us in the classroom, as well as provide a support network out of class as we explore this new country.
These experiences have reminded me why I chose this program over other summer programs – not just for the outstanding Chinese instruction and improvement in my language skills, but also for the people. I constantly feel grateful to be a part of the Notre Dame community, and even this far away from our beautiful campus, I still feel connected to that community – to me, that is a very special and unique thing!
As part of the program tuition we pay to attend the Notre Dame in Beijing program, we are funded to have lunch with our classmates and instructors at “Chinese Language Table” every Friday, as well as take weekend trips to places like the Great Wall of China, Beijing museums, and classic Beijing acrobatics shows. Our longest weekend trip happened halfway through our program when we had the opportunity to visit Xi’an – an extremely historic city west of Beijing – for three full days.
Xi’an is best known for having the Terracotta warriors, but this city really has a wealth of activities, history, and interesting people. Xi’an is widely considered one of the most historical cities in China as it served as the cultural, political, and economic center of China for thousands of years, with history dating back 5000 or 6000 years. Qin Shihuang, the emperor who unified China into one nation in 210 B.C., lived and built his empire in Xi’an, and many following dynasties also ruled from Xi’an. Additionally, Xi’an was the eastern-most point on the ancient Silk Road which connected regions across ancient Eurasia that was crucial for trade and the spread of culture and ideas. Here are just a few of the amazing things I got to experience on this trip:
The first night we arrived, we were treated to a lively demonstration of Xi’an’s thriving and lively nightlife. While walking through a downtown plaza near Big Goose Pagoda, a famous historic temple area, we were surrounded by huge crowds of people walking and enjoying the night, as well as several groups dancing. They each their own speakers and seemed to have several people who knew what they were doing; we excitedly joined in and tried to keep up with the various steps. Some of the groups were keeping fast Zumba-like paces, others seemed to be doing slower, more traditional moves, and one group was completely comprised of elderly dancers waving umbrellas and fans and moving in a coordinated maze-like dance. There were many locals and tourists alike wandering through the plaza, enjoying the dances, and soaking in the city’s atmosphere. Even late into the night, the city was bustling with traffic and energy!
Of course, probably the most famous Xi’an attraction is the Terracotta warriors. These thousands of clay figures, each, incredibly, different in facial expression and clothing, were built to guard Qin Shihuang’s (China’s first emperor) tomb and accompany him to the afterlife. There are also horses, chariots, swords, arrow tips, and other weapons that have been excavated; while almost all of these figures and objects are dull gray today, patches of paint hint at once brightly colored clothes. Archaeologists estimate there to be 8,000 figures, but the total may never be known, and archaeologists are still in the process of unearthing the artifacts in four different “pit” areas. The sheer scale of the project – the number of warriors, the detail put into each clay figure, as well as the size of the sites in which they are buried – is extremely impressive, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole thing to me was how long they went undiscovered. Emperor Qin died in 208 BC, but the figures were not discovered until the 1970s! Another fascinating aspect of this site is Emperor Qin’s actual mausoleum. It took archaeologists years to locate his burial site (it seems the terracotta warriors did an outstanding job of guarding their emperor), and it still has not been opened as archaeologists believe we do not have the proper tools and techniques to get in without damaging the tomb. Qin’s tomb is expected to contain ever greater riches and more impressive figures and carvings. This site is a testament to the power and grandeur of ancient Chinese emperors, as well as the intelligence and creativity of humans to have created and hid such a stunning project for so many years.
We also had the opportunity to bike along the Xi’an city wall. In ancient China, most cities had walls enclosing the main city to serve as protection from invaders and other outsiders, but today many have been destroyed or knocked down. Xi’an’s is one of the oldest, largest, and best-preserved city walls. It took a couple of hours to bike the entire length of the wall, along which you could see many ramparts, ancient watchtowers, and one “archery tower” which provided protection to one of the gates of the wall. In ancient times, the wall had a moat, drawbridges, watch towers, corner towers, parapet walls and gate towers; today, some of these features have been removed or decayed. Regardless, the ride was a really incredible time to imagine the history of the city while observing the new modern buildings and construction inside the walls – as well as get my body moving and enjoying a truly beautiful day in the city!
In true Chinese fashion, every meal was a big and communal. My classmates and I joke that we didn’t have time to feel hungry for even a moment on the trip, since we were always given so much good food! We got to try many traditional Xi’an and Chinese dishes, including mutton soup and biang biang noodles. Before eating the mutton soup, you are given two pieces of flatbread which you must then tear into hundreds of small pieces, to which the server adds a special meat and broth. The bread absorbs the broth, and you are left with a special and extremely tasty stew! Biang biang noodles are also a famous, special treat – they are thick, belt-like noodles that are specially made in Xi’an. The “biang” character is the considered the most complex in the Chinese language, and most Chinese people do not know how to write it! My favorite fact about these tasty noodles is why they were named – according to our server at the noodle restaurant we tried, they are called “biang biang” because that is the sound that can be heard as the noodles are being flapped and stretched as they are created, as well as when they are being slurped up and enjoyed by hungry people like our group!
I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to get out of Beijing and explore a different side of China with my classmates. I am constantly fascinated and impressed by the vast history of this country, as well as modern developments; my weekend in Xi’an was a fantastic opportunities to explore both new and old Chinese culture.
I was reassured that Beijing’s air pollution would be more manageable
in the summertime. The first morning, however, I was surprised by grimy gray skies and a horizon hazy with pollution of ambiguous origin and nature. Even nearby buildings were partially obscured from sight. Here, blue skies are a rare occurrence.
Initial excitement for life in a truly different city began to wear off as I started to fall into the routine of the summer program. Nearly non-stop studying was becoming increasingly wearisome, and the constant gray sky was just starting to get to me when one day, I took a wrong turn and found myself on the edge of the gardens around PKU’s Weiming lake. Most of what I had seen of the campus was gray buildings, gray sidewalks, and funny gray trees, so turning the corner to suddenly walk right into gardens overflowing with green was a most pleasant surprise. It seemed almost like a green jewel right there in the heart of PKU (locally known as Bei Da). The gardens are well kept but not overly structured, and diffe
rent parts of the park have grown and developed in their own way, just as they were not originally designed or created uniformly. The buildings I first saw are wrapped in ivy that climbs freely up the brick walls and over the edge of the traditionally curved, ridged roof. Windows with frames painted in the classic Chinese red peep through the ivy and slender trees sway above the roof. Bushes growing all around the buildings stretch up the walls and conceal most of where wall meets earth, so the buildings seem to have become part of their natural surroundings. Small pathways wind in and out of monuments, wander down between cool wooded areas and moon gates, eventually taking you around to the lake. Everything seemed so very alive and growing.
This oasis of green in an expanse of gray concrete was a remarkably refreshing break from crowding atmosphere of urban life. As I made my my way further in, others were also taking their time strolling along the pathways and enjoying the natural charm of the gardens, giving their attention to their surroundings rather than their phones. Many families seemed to be just wandering around the lake, reminding me of my own family’s fondness for walks around the canal in my hometown. I took my time following garden paths wherever they turned, appreciating the lull in the typical racket of Beijing. And then, just as I walked out of the bamboo garden back into the open space, the cloud of pollution thinned and the blue sky was again visible. Sunlight reached through the hole in the clouds and brightened the already rich colors of the gardens.
My walk around the lakes showed me a little more of the ways in which modernity and tradition thrive together in China. Formerly the site of Qing dynasty imperial grounds, PKU’s imposing modern architecture seems to be its most visible characteristic from outside campus. There is, however, a regard for tradition and history alongside this emphasis on modernization, partially expressed in the care for the traditional architecture and the surrounding grounds inside the campus.