Fall has officially come & gone in Beijing (seriously, it’s already winter in the lunar calendar — although central heating won’t turn on for another few days). For the last month or so, school has been simultaneously picking up pace and normalizing. It’s that mid-semester lull where I can’t tell if a lot is happening or if nothing is happening in my life. All the days blur together in what has become a normal routine. I’m feeling very at home in my apartment & neighborhood (I officially have my fav security guard homie), and I am a PRO at online/App food/grocery/coffee/snack delivery now (thank you, 饿了么). Aside from the usual group dinners in Wudaokou on the weekends, impromptu runs to the ‘dumpling restaurant’ and ‘Shaanxi restaurant’ by the Global Village, long hours in class, strategic pouncing for seats in the cafeteria, and of course a Halloween celebration, a few other notable things have occurred recently.
Capital City Politics
Since Beijing is a capital city and headquarters of China’s government, it’s been interesting to observe the happenings of the last month. First, the Chinese Communist Party held its 19th Party Congress from the 18th -24th of October. The Party Congress is essentially the CCP’s biggest gathering, held every 5 years to select the members of the Standing Committee. Of course, unsurprisingly, Xi Jinping started his second term, but more interestingly, ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era’ became enshrined in the Constitution, alongside Mao Zedong Thought & Deng Xiaoping Thought. Analyses from every major news outlet were poured out on the Internet, but I got first-hand analysis and commentary from my professors in classes at PKU, with lots of opportunities to ask questions. At the same time, in both my Chinese Politics & Public Policy class and my ‘Survey of China’ class, we happened to be going over the structure of the CCP and Chinese political norms, so I’ve learned a lot about Chinese politics over the last month. My on-the -ground personal observation of the Party Congress was pretty limited to noticing changes in daily life while the Congress was ongoing, including: extra security everywhere, the clubs & bar streets were shut down, “apparently” all VPNs were supposed to be shut down, “random” security checks in foreigners’ apartments, no package delivery from outside Beijing, closure of some major roads, festive big Chinese flags hung up, the random extra guards who set up tent at the entrance of my neighborhood for the week, and the super blue sky since nearby factories had to stop production. All in all super interesting to experience, especially to someone interested in international politics!
On the American side, I attended a reception at the Ambassador’s residence in Chaoyang, held in coordination with the Embassy, the US-China Strong Foundation, and the Golden Bridges Foundation / Project Pengyou to celebrate US-China educational exchange. It was a really fun night chatting with the Ambassador again, seeing some old friends and making some new ones, and eating a huge dinner of beautiful, imported American food. Seriously, the food was a big highlight of the night and made me feel homesick for at least a week after. It was cool to be invited to the event and to mingle with other Americans in the US-China circle. In other news, President Trump visited China recently as well, and the expat media was full of photos and commentary on the visit.
The first week of November was the official “Midterm Week” for the School of Chinese as a Second Language, meaning I had exams for all my Chinese language classes, including Comprehensive Chinese, Spoken Chinese, Business Chinese, and ‘Survey of China’. Exams were pretty tough, and way more challenging than language exams I’m used to, so I spent long hours at nearby coffee shops & 24-hour cafes trying to cram as many vocab words into my head as possible. I honestly think my Chinese is getting better, but it’s hard to feel so optimistic under all the stress of studying it so intensively in school. To conclude the midterm week, PKU organized class trips for each class on the last Friday, and my class went to visit the Beijing Botanical Garden, admiring the autumn scenery and the Wofo, or “offer”, Temple (“Wofo” apparently sounds like the English word “offer”, so a lot of students go there to pray when they want to get admissions offers from schools). After visiting the park & Liang Qichao’s grave, we had a nice afternoon around Zhongguancun, eating Thai food & matcha ice cream! Thankful to have classmates who make 30 hours of Chinese class a week bearable!
Yellow Leaves & Pollution Blues
The weather is changing, and so are the leaves. The fall foliage is seriously gorgeous in Beijing, and has lasted quite a long time. All over the city are Beijing’s characteristic yellow Gingko leaves, from the school campus to the Temple of Heaven, and of course all over my WeChat Moments. The weather has gotten significantly colder, but still has yet to enter the 寒冷 chill of winter yet. However, the air quality has taken a turn for the worse. The worst day so far was right after the Party Congress concluded and the nearby factories were allowed to start producing again. Pollution in Beijing is not a consistent thing. It actually fluctuates a lot day by day depending on government regulations and what else is happening around town, so every morning when I wake up I can guess how the air quality will be just by looking out of my window.
Usually if the pollution is really bad, I immediately take migraine medicine. Everyone here has different reactions to it, but the pollution usually makes me have intense and lingering headaches and back pain. Recently it’s made me feel very physically sluggish and mentally fuzzy, so I’m really not looking forward to the bad pollution days that are to come in the winter. Along with the physical discomfort, I’m feeling the first bouts of homesickness since coming to China in June. I know it’s normal to feel down every now and then, but I’ve been feeling quite disillusioned about being here, and it’s hard to cheer up when skies are literally gray. So I’ve been learning the importance of self-care, finding little things that cheer you up, and taking some time to yourself to recuperate.
The Beijing Bucket List Continues!
I’m still working my through my “Beijing Bucket List”, and always enjoy getting out of my usual neighborhood and exploring the many unique places in such a large city.
Since our usual watering holes were closed for a bit, we were forced to branch out and explore new, more “local” areas around Beijing such as the hutongs, Houhai, & Dongzhimen. The hutongs, which are Beijing’s old-style “siheyuan” residences / alleys, have turned into a hip place for chill bars and restaurants. On the other hand, the Houhai bar street is a well-known favorite among Chinese locals, with lots of karaoke and late-night street-side food vendors. I was very pleasantly surprised to find so many cool restaurants around Beixinqiao in Dongzhimen. Tons of good food and lots of people milling about.
I also explored the Chaoyang/Guomao/embassy area a little after the event at the Ambassador’s residence, passing by lots of high rises and modern looking shopping plazas, and of course, stopping to take some photos of the CCTV (China Central Televison) Headquarters, housed in the famous “pants” building.
DEFINITELY on my “Beijing Bucket List” was a trip to the Temple of Heaven, which was just as amazing as I’d hoped it would be. I had a very leisurely 2.5 hour stroll around the temple and surrounding park, taking lots of photos and admiring the intricate architecture. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperor used to go back in the day to pray and make sacrifices for the nation. Anyway, it makes the list of favorite places in Beijing.
And lastly, I escaped the Beijing metropolis one Saturday to go to Mount Baishi in neighboring Hebei Province with my friend Mia. -Side Note- we happened to go on 11-11, or “Bare Sticks Day” – the Chinese anti-Valentine’s day celebration for single people. Not much happens except really great sales and some festive party themes. The mountain was around 3.5 hours away by bus, so we woke up early and arrived there by 11am, where we were promptly hurried on to a tour bus to take us up the mountain. The bus was an experience all in itself, quite scary actually, going probably much too fast on winding, steep roads on the side of the mountain. We survived, and began walking along the Twin Stones path, passing by incredible scenery along the elevated paths and steps, perched on the side of the mountain itself. Eventually, we made it to the glass bridge, which was a terrifying experience for someone semi-afraid-of-heights. After a nice picnic in the sun, we continued our walk around the loop, passing by red birch forest and lots more stunning lookout points! All in all, it was a nice day with beautiful, bright, chilly weather, amazing views, and great company! My legs are still sore though from all the stairs.