Monday, October 30, 2006

Paintball, Beijing style

This past weekend, a couple friends rallied a crew to check out the one and only paintball venue in Beijing. We had been chatting over dinner a few nights earlier about "warfare games," and before we knew it, we were all grabbing for our fresh new copies of the November issue of That's Beijing magazine to see what could possibly satiate our appetites for a battle-filled Sunday afternoon. An email went out the following day, and a squad was born.
We met up on Sunday afternoon and suited up as we downed a round of beers from the shop around the corner (the people running the place had no qualms about us mixing alcohol and guns on their grounds). Being a paintball virgin, I wasn't sure what to expect, but my competetive spirit is always up for a little battle-simulation. The place looked a bit like an overgrown, deserted playground. There were a few towers and "forts," lots of foliage and tree cover, a few odd-looking and larger-than-life-sized fiberglass animals and, as I later discovered, a very fat cat roaming the grounds. Hmmm.
the path leading into the battle-zone

We split into two teams, decided on a "capture the flag"-style game, and headed into the bush. After much running around, yelling and shooting, the yellow team (who, I must say, had an unfair advantage by wearing pinneys that blended into the foliage) got the flag. We headed back to the area outside the playing field, had another beer or two, and reloaded the guns for round two.

paintball "carnage" on my face mask

Mal puts on her game face before heading out for round 2

After refueling, we headed out for another round, this time opting to use the entire grounds of the facility, rather than just an isolated area. The yellow team won yet again, and I promptly proposed the idea of "anarchy warfare" as a means of using all remaining paintballs. Little did I know that I was soon destined to sustain two paintball-inflicted bruises thanks to the brilliant warfare idea...

the crew, post-paintball extravaganza

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Beijing Marathon

This weekend I had the pleasure of watching what some might claim to be "the most polluted marathon in the world." A week and a half prior to the race I made a bet with a friend (who hadn't trained) that he couldn't finish the half-marathon in under 2:15. The stakes: a full size bottle of liquor, winner's choice.

I awoke bright and early on Sunday morning, and hauled across town to a spot just west of the Tiananmen Square starting line. As I emerged from the subway, I was faced with normal Sunday morning Beijing traffic. What??? I hadn't actually looked at the course map, but had gone on the word of my friend who was racing. After surveying the scene, however, I noticed the presence of a number of uniformed officers loitering around the sidewalks. I approached one and asked if the marathon would pass through this intersection--he confirmed that it would, but only gave me a shrug when I inquired about the buses, cars, and bikes whzzing by.

I trusted his assurance, found a nice spot on the corner, and waited until the officials eventually ventured out in the middle of the intersection to cut off the traffic. Before long, a pace car, medical car, and press van rolled by, followed closely by a graceful pack of men's elite runners. After they had all passed the officers stolled back to the sidewalk and--I couldn't believe what I was seeing at the time--reopened the road to traffic in all directions! I'm still not sure if this was brilliant planning or a total misunderstanding of how to conduct a marathon in a metropolis of 13 million. Another 15 minutes later, however, the officers re-entered the streets, cut off traffic for the second time, and waited for the hoi polloi to descend.

And descend they did! Having participated in an 8k "run" (as my friend and fellow race buddy said "it was 70% people on bikes, 30% people on rollerblades, then me and Jenn) a few weeks prior, I was excited to see what the Marathon would bring. The race did not disappoint as a motley mix of athletes, small children, people with highly questionable fitness levels, and "runners" with bags of KFC takeout in tow trotted past me. I tried to snap a few photos to capture the spirit of the Beijing Marathon, and the diversity of the participants:

possibly the most hard-core competitor in the whole race

though this triumverate looks pretty bad-ass as well

some of the aforementioned "people with highly questionable fitness levels," once the roads had re-opened to traffic

wonder how far this dude made it

After about 25 minutes of spectating, the roads yet again reopened for traffic, engulfing the thousands of participants still on the course. They filtered into the sidewalks and bike lanes, and I can only assume that they soon resigned to the fact that they weren't going to finish. As for the bet, I lost, as my friend blazed through in 1:44.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Chinese "Internet" Bars

Being that I don't actually have a computer of my own, I am occasionally subjected to the phenomenon that is a Chinese internet bar if I want to check my email or peruse the information super highway. The funny thing about Chinese internet bars, however, is that nobody there actually uses the internet. There are the occasional Skype-ers and sometimes I see people watching their copy of the newest pirated DVD. Once in a while I'll even see another foreigner and notice their open web browser as I give them "the nod" (coincidentally, Internet Explorer is the only desktop icon in English, rather than Chinese characters). The real draw for Chinese people to go to the internet bar, however, is to play Counter Strike, or some other interactive game that I can't even begin to fathom the obsession with. Not to play into some broad cultural stereotypes, but Chinese people are serious gamers.

The experience of entering one of these spaces in their peak hours (it is usually SLAMmed around 11pm on a Saturday night--prime time for some video games if you ask me...), is total sensory overload. It's like walking into some bizarre and unknown cyber zone. They are absolutely massive--usually at least 200 computers--and are full to capacity of the most die-hard gamers, engulfed in the smoky haze of their endlessly burning cigarettes. As I sit at a computer and wonder if I am really going to be able to sit through the furious slurping of noodles taking place next to me, the sound is promptly drowned out by the screams of some fanatic outburst across the room. Apparently these guys in the internet bar are playing eachother, and feel the need to stand up at the computer and reenact god-only-knows-what explosion just took place on the computer screen not 2 seconds prior. Sometimes the really talented gamers will even have a small peanut gallery of onlookers surrounding them, who provide commentary and assist in the requisite shouting across the warehouse-sized room and fanatically waving their arms every time a big play is made.

While I don't really see myself choosing the "internet" bar over the alcohol-serving variety on a Friday night, maybe I will one day discover the Chinese fascination with these games. I'm sure they are wondering the same thing about writing rambling musings to an unknown cyber audience...

Monday, October 09, 2006


As I was walking home from work yesterday evening, reminding myself not to try too hard to seek out ideas for blog posts, because they will inevitably just happen, I had one of the most quintessentially Chinese experiences.

I think I can safely say that Americans are generally prone to "rubbernecking," a phenomenon wherein a traffic accident causes people to slow down and try to catch a glimpse of what is going on. Chinese people, however, take it to a whole new level; at the first sign of the slightest bit of commotion, a crowd of people will gather around to see what is taking place. It doesn't matter if someone is getting arrested, or if a shopper is arguing with a produce vendor over the accuracy of his or her scale, people here love to stop and stare.

Often, my mere presence as a foreigner in China attracts attention. So when I stopped yesterday evening to buy a caramel-peanut candy concoction sold by Uighurs (a minority group from NW China) off the back of their bikes, a few older Chinese men stopped to watch, ask where I was from, and amuse themselves by providing a running commentary on their opinions of my Chinese speaking ability. The Uighurs actually have their own language, and this vendor spoke very little Mandarin--my attempts to tell him that I only wanted a small corner piece of his enourmous, bike cart-sized mound of candy were very much in vain.

Berfore I knew it, he had cut of a massive 2 kilo hunk of candy and was telling me that I owed him 60 RMB ($7.50). As I tried to explain that I wanted less than the portion he had cut for me, a fellow vendor arrived to assist his friend. This second man spoke Mandarin, and even a few words of English. I told him that I just wanted half of what his friend had given me, but he replied that that wasn't an option because once my chunk had been cut, they couldn't resell it and I had to buy the whole thing. At this point, there were about 30 onlookers, gawking at my peanut candy folly. Yes, 30 people, determined to find out what could possibly be going on, had stopped on the sidewalk to form a crowd surrounding me, the vendor, and his bike. I wish someone could have taken a picture, but you'll have to rely on your imaginations...

I really didn't want 4.5 lbs of this confection, but it certainly wasn't worth risking an argument over a couple pounds of candy--especially because I think my peanut gallery was curious as to how I was going to react. We negotiated and eventually agreed on a price, and the old Chinese men who had been my first onlookers grinned and waved good-bye as I continued on my way home.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Oodles of Noodles

My favorite lunchtime restaurant happens to be a small noodle joint right next door to my office. While the Microsoft office building around the corner means that Starbucks, 7-11, and a range of upscale restaurants with English menus are within easy reach, my appetite (and, I must admit, my budget) always keep me coming back to "Chengdu Xiao Chi" ("Chengdu snacks"). For 4-5 RMB (USD approx $0.50-0.65) I can get a steamy and satisfying bowl of noodles; if I'm really hungry, I can get a side dish to go with the noodles for a total of around $1. And, to wash it all down, a large 24 oz bottle of beer costs less than a gumball does in the US.

It's not just the food that lures me to my beloved Chengdu xiao chi about 3 times per week, despite my Chinese co-workers teasing me for frequenting such a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. There is something distinctively Chinese about the atmosphere that keeps me coming back--the Chinese concept of "renao" (roughly translated as "hot and noisy") is fully embodied here. I am usually the only Westerner in the place, despite it being packed to capacity at lunch. Sometimes I'm seated at a table with a few migrant workers, taking a break from their construction on the numerous office buildings shooting up in the surrounding area. The floor is scattered with disposable chopstick wrappers and cigarette butts, the servers are always shouting back and forth across the restaurant, and I'm probably getting lung cancer from the second-hand smoke in the air, but I just can't bring myself to go elsewhere for lunch.

Today I rolled in and ordered, only to discover that I had left my wallet in the office. Rather than getting annoyed, the server told me that I could just eat lunch and pay some other time! I insisted that it would just take me a minute and dashed off; when I returned she had saved a spot for me at a better table, and told me that it would just be a minute, as she had already put in the order. While some may scoff at the lack of sanitation, I love the unpretentious service and the fact that the girls who work there know exactly what I like. I'd take it over a Frappuccino any day.

where the genius takes place...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Laowais" and "The Nod"

Imagine you're in college, strolling down the sidewalk to class, when you notice an acquaintance up ahead. This isn't someone you know particularly well, but you've chatted a couple times at parties, have a mutual friend, etc. You quickly run a list of questions through your brain: do you smile? say hi? as your passing? before you pass? do you make eye contact? do you just pretend not to notice the other person at all? I always found that this situation ended in both parties avoiding eye contact, pretending to be spaced out or fiddling with their cell phones, until they are just the perfect distance apart, then "noticing" and acknowledging eachother.

I constantly find myself in a similar scenario as I am walking around my neighborhood. Far from the tourist sites of Beijing, yet within close proximity to many foreigner-friendly ammenities, almost all the non-Chinese residents in my area of town are fellow expats. So when I pass another foreigner on the street, I am always wondering how I should react. Chances are the person also lives here; I don't actually know this person, but it's like we have some sort of "hey, I'm not Chinese, but I live and work in Beijing, too!" bond. I find it a bit strange to go out of my way to acknowledge the stranger simply because he/she is also not Chinese....yet I also feel unfriendly ignoring the person altogether. So, much like in college, I usually awkwardly avoid eye contact until just the right timing, "notice" the person, and subtly give them "the nod."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Style in Beijing?

A few friends and I decided to go out on Monday night, and celebrate our week off work. After enjoying several rounds of 5 RMB shooters (USD $0.65) at one bar, I met up with some other friends at one of the bigger clubs in Beijing.

Apparently nighttime is when all Beijing's young hipsters come out. Beijing is constantly out-sassed by Shanghai when it comes to style...and it is certainly not a recognized fashion center outside of China! As one of my friends asked "How come I never see these people on the street?? Where do they eat? Where do they live?!?" Even some of the American high school students I taught in Beijing this summer immediately commented on Shanghai's style superiority when we took a trip outside the capital.

Long limited to grey or navy trousers and a corresondingly colored "Mao Jacket," the concept of fashion is finally emerging in China. While I am constantly overwhelmed (and frightened, I must admit) by the array of what I refer to as "bedazzled" clothing, there are some serious gems in the endless clothing markets in Beijing. The crowds I saw on Monday night were strutting their funky, accessorized ensembles for all to see. God bless their 90 lb, size 0 frames which actually fit into the clothes here.

lingering outside, texting friends, and scoping

the scenesters watch as a fleet of racecars parked outside the club rev their this Beijing or the set of the Fast and The Furious??

Monday, October 02, 2006

Chinese National Day

How appropriate to start blogging during the Chinese National Day holiday. I, along with all 1.2 billion other people in the country, have off work for the entire week. Rather than attempt to endure travel hell on the overtaxed transportation system, I decided to just kick it in Beijing, and use the time to get to know my new home a little more intimately.

For those whose Chinese history knowledge could use a boost, a very brief intorduction to what National Day in China means: In 1911 the last dynasty, the Qing, collapsed. For many years thereafter, what was called The Republic of China was at the hands of several different powers. In 1928, the Guomindang (Kuomintang) tried to unify the country, but they met conflict from the Communist Party of China, lingering warlords, and the Japanese. After both a war with Japan and a period of civil war, the country was finally unified in 1949 when the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan and the Communists established the present-day People's Republic of China (PRC).

On Sunday evening, one of my roommates and a friend decided to head over to Tiananmen Square to check out the festivities for the 57th aniversary of the founding of the PRC. Much like a weekday 8:30 am ride on the Beijing subway, this was one of those times when I was acutely reminded of the degree of China's population (ahem, population problem). I couldn't possibly do justice to the magnitude of the masses in words, but have attached a few photos of the flag-lowering ceremony to give a vague idea of what "crowded" means in China. Being 5'7" is so convenient in photo-snapping times like these....

the crowds stretch across the square from where I'm standing to the illuminated Gate of Heavenly Peace

a boy gets a boost from his dad to check out the flag-lowering and corresponding illumination of Tiananmen Square

a large portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen is hoisted in the middle of the square

a final parting crowd shot before I hop on the subway to head home