On Shopping in China

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.

The Other Chinese in China

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.

Apparently, food names are the extent of my roomie’s Malay. Though, perhaps those are the most important words to know.

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.

International Christian University

On my last post I gave my first impressions of Tokyo the city. This time I’m going to go into what ICU campus life is like. And I guess the best place to start off would be the campus itself.

One of the main paths in the interior of ICU

By American standards, ICU has a rather small campus. You can walk nearly the entire perimeter in around 25 to 30 minutes. But despite this, ICU is the largest campus in the greater Tokyo area. The campus is also a stark contrast to the sprawling city in that it’s so incredibly green.

On any given day it’s common to see a flock of crows like this one

It really is calming to stroll around campus when the weather is more manageable. As you pass the many trees on the campus, you’re very likely to be bitten by mosquitoes, cawed at by crows, and distracted by the buzzing of cicadas. Of the three, I’m really only fond of the crows. During my first few days in Tokyo I really didn’t like the overgrown, somewhat empty, and small campus, but it has definitely grown on me.

The entrance to Ginkgo House

The dorm I live in took a little getting used to. The security system, power management, and trash disposal of all things were similar but strange enough to keep me confused for a few days. Our key cards are used to get into and out of our rooms, the floor we live on, and the dorm itself. They act as a way to check in and out, but ICU’s system is a little strange. If you don’t sign in with the key card, you can’t get out and vice versa. It is actually possible to lock yourself into your room or floor even if you have your key card with you. At first, this was pretty cumbersome, but I adjusted to it well enough.

Then there’s the trash… This is more of a general gripe for living in Japan rather than a specific attribute of ICU. Where we Americans have a simple two part disposal system (recycling and non-recycling) in Japan sorting trash is a bit more complex. You have four main categories: combustibles, non-combustibles, paper wastes, and PET bottles. In the first week I often stopped to ask myself “can I set this on fire?” And if the answer was no, I still had to decide whether the non-combustible material should be considered plaster or glass/metal. Weeks later, it’s less of a hassle, but just barely.

Ginkgo House trash cans. Yes, there are six of them.

The last and arguably most important part of ICU is the academic experience. Essentially, what’s it like to go to school here? The summer courses in Japanese program basically offers one large course centered around learning the Japanese language. Each week we cover new grammar points, improve our listening and reading skills, and learn new words as well as new… kanji.

Just some casual kanji practice. Nothing to see here.

Why does kanji get italicized? Glad you asked. Kanji is easily my least favorite part of the Japanese language. It is one of the three “alphabets” used in Japanese alongside hiragana and katakana. However, where hiragana and katakana are phonetically based like our alphabet, kanji is based on Chinese characters. This means that every symbol is essentially its own word… And there are over 5,000 of them. And unlike Chinese characters where each symbol has its own sound, Japanese kanji can have multiple sounds as well as multiple meanings… And we learn about twenty new kanji every three days. So. Much. Fun. To learn.

Outside of the detestable kanji I genuinely enjoy class. Grammar is fun and interesting to me, and I’m pretty proud of how far my reading and listening comprehension has come since the start of class. Probably the best part of class, however, is being able to interact with native Japanese speakers in new ways. Our teachers are knowledgeable, helpful, and amiable, and they often make it easy to approach them with questions. On top of all of the language study, the course also offers cultural activities for us to participate in. More on those wonderful experiences later.

So that’s ICU in a nutshell. I’ve touched on what I consider all of the major parts of living and studying at ICU. In the next post, I’m going to rave about the cultural activities I managed to go to through the University and how they’ve help my understanding of authentic Japanese culture grow. Until then, here are some bonus pictures of the campus:

When you walk past ICU’s main entrance, you’re greeted with this beautiful chapel
This is the “honkan” or main building where all summer classes are held
A small hill to the right of the honkan
The building on the left houses the post office, book store, and a cafe
Another swath of green on campus

I’m Finally Here!

When you walk to your gate and see this waiting for you, you can anticipate a good trip

Or, if we’re being a bit more precise, I’ve been here for two weeks now. Flying in to Tokyo was one of the most pleasantly overwhelming moments of my life. Navigating international travel, currency exchange, and Tokyo’s intricate train system for the first time was challenging, though who can complain about flying on a BB-8 plane? My experience has been a mix of that daunting challenge and sense of wonder, so it’s taken me a while to finally sit down and write about it all.

Quite a bit has happened since my arrival, so I will split my first two posts between the liveliest points of my stay thus far: city life and campus life. This first post of mine will center around the city life and attempt to give a worthy summary of my experience. My friends and I have crawled the various sections of this vast metropolitan monster numerous times now, and it’s left a lasting impression with me.

Train tracks that seem to stretch on forever

As of July 20th, I have been to Shinjuku, Asakusa, Shibuya, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Musashi-sakai, Mitaka, and, of course, the International Christian University. A lot, I know. I owe my travels to the wonderfully affordable Tokyo train system. I can’t imagine there’s anything quite like it. Once you become accustomed to the lay out of the city, the large swaths of people, and abandon the ticket system for a much more convenient Suica or Passmo card, the train system becomes your very best friend in Tokyo. This is a somewhat strange thing to rave about, but my hometown, Houston, has little in terms of public transportation. South Bend has a more extensive bus system. So, from my perspective, the train system is a work of modern ingenuity, even if it’s as common as morning coffee for the denizens of Tokyo.


Godzilla says hi

Another dazzling sight is the sheer size of the buildings in major shopping centers. Everything with the exception of large crosswalks and certain roads are much narrower than what I’m used to in the States. Due to the ground space being narrow, when you go to your large department stores, expect to look up. Way up. Some companies capitalize on this architecture in fantastic ways. The picture to the right is TOHO Cinemas and its overgrown guardian turtle. While not every establishment is wonderful enough to warrant this protection, it’s common to see giant screens playing advertisements or banners that are multiple stories high. You’ll see a lot more of that in my later posts.

So what other general impressions do I have after two weeks in Tokyo? Shopping and food. I could easily write an entire post about each of these, but I’ll try to limit myself to one paragraph each.

Directly in front of Shinjuku station right after sunset

Tokyo shopping is… Vast is perhaps the best word I can think of at the moment. You can find just about anything in the sprawling city. Sometimes, all in a single building. You might spend an hour browsing on one floor, head toward the escalator to look for a certain type of goods, and then discover nine other floors to search through. Sometimes more. Window shopping is fun in and of itself simply because there is so much to see. Often prices will be absolutely reasonable, and the more populated and popular areas are often tax free hubs where simply presenting your passport will exempt you from tax on anything over 5,000 yen (about fifty dollars). And, of course, plenty of areas are packed with people.

Delicious beef dish including miso soup, rice, and a salad

Now for the food. This could easily be my favorite part of living in Japan. I’m not a foodie or anything, but you really can’t beat the prices on food here. For 650 yen you can get a meal similar to that depicted on the right. And these meals aren’t McDonald’s quality “food.” They are delicious, (probably) nutritious meals that are very filling. No questionable quote unquote meat. No extra four to five dollars for leafy greens. No two dollar bottles of water. You can buy fairly large bottles of water at a supermarket for less than 100 yen and bottles of tea for a comparable price. It’s simply wonderful in my opinion. It helps that I love washoku or Japanese cuisine. I’ve also become accustomed to using chopsticks for anything and everything. Rice, the floating bits of miso soup, salads, and even chips. Yes. I’m very proud, thank you for asking.

So that’s Tokyo the city thus far. These are all the most general of impressions, but I hope to share more specifics later down the line, because I’ve already had some great times in the various sections of the city. However, that will have to wait. Next up is ICU campus life.

Jyaa ne! Until next time!