Sunday, February 22, 2009

Retracing My Footsteps

Haidian Apartment
Home Office, Haidian District, Beijing, China - 
People on the other side of the world have been repeatedly asking me for pictures of my stay here in Beijing. After much delay (due to many challenges and unforeseen circumstances) and much procrastination (due to many adventures and unforeseen circumstances), I am finally able to give you - my faithful readers - a glimpse into my life in Beijing.

I am going to do my best to recreate my experience from the beginning - all the random hardships and struggles, all the great little rewards. For those of you that don't want a blow-by-blow, I'll put the really crazy or interesting stuff in BOLD text so it will stand out. 

We'll start with the flight itself. It was long. Veronica and I had economy tickets on Air China. I don't know when this subtly happened, but steerage became coach and then that became economy. No matter what it was called, my seatback didn't have an "on-demand" movie screen, my seat cushion COULD be used as a flotation device but I couldn't fall asleep. 

I did catch an excellent Eddie Murphy comedy in which he played a little Eddie Murphy living inside a big Eddie Murphy. Oh man! Little Eddie Murphy made big Eddie Murphy do all sorts of wacky things. Maybe this explains the last ten years of Eddie Murphy's career/life in general. Little Eddie likes his tranny hookers and Big Eddie is just subject to all his perverse whims. I think they were from outer space or something and then something exploded. Needless to say, the flight was super exciting.

Since that part of the trip was tedious and not too interesting (aside from our newly discovered rationale for the Sins of the Murphy), I'll skip right to landing and customs.

My visa was a tourist visa with two entries, valid for 120 days, while Veronica's was a 180 day student visa with only one entry. We filled out landing/entry slips with our apartment's address and our landlord's phone number and breezed through customs. Since my visa doesn't take into account my entire stay here and Veronica's only has one entry on it and we are hoping to travel around the region, we expect to take a trip to the Beijing Supreme Office of Visa and Foreign Entry Paperwork Happiness. I'm not sure I'm translating that correctly, but either way - it should be a blast.

We got our bags, got some money out of an ATM and caught a cab to our Haidian district apartment. This sounds a lot easier than it was. But it actually WAS a lot easier than I'm going to MAKE IT sound. Since we don't speak much (read: ANY) Mandarin yet, we prepared ourselves by printing out the name of our apartment complex, its district and street address in both Chinese characters AND in pinyan (transliteration with roman characters). We also included in the print out, directions from the airport TO the apartment, just in case a cab driver didn't recognize the name or the street. We quickly learned a few things:

1: Its a lot harder to pronounce and sing the words and their tones than it seems when you are practicing.
The cab driver was the first of MANY people we've encountered to look at us blankly, no matter how many times we try to say the name of our street with the right pronunciation and intonation. Hopefully this will get better (ed: it hasn't).

2: If you don't know where your apartment complex is, LOOK UP.
That's right. Every building has its own gigantic equivalent of a red HOLLYWOOD sign. This is a little tacky, but hey - it helps people remember building names and it helped our cab driver find our place.

3: Taxi fare and (transportation in general) is INSANELY inexpensive.
This was the most shocking for Veronica, since she just finished a 5 month stint in France, where the most basic bus ride costs 1.6 Euros or about 2 USD and regional rail one way trips can be over 15 Euros. A basic 3 KM cab ride in Beijing starts at 10 Yuan. 10 Yuan is roughly 1.46 USD. After the initial 3 KM, each additional KM is 2 Yuan (0.29 USD). With prices this low, you'd think we'd be taking cabs everywhere. You'd be wrong.... more on that later... Our cab ride from the airport to our apartment (45 minutes) cost 80 Yuan (about $11.69). And there is NO TIPPING on mainland China.

4: The Beijingers have just as many words for money as we Americans do.
Yuan (元 or ¥), Renminbi/RMB (人民币) and Kuai (块) will be most commonly used here, And since the exchange rate is roughly 7 RMB to the dollar, it looks like I'll be using a lot of them. People also call them jiao (角) and, because his picture is on almost all bills Mao (毛). More about Chinese Currency

5: If don't speak Chinese, GET AN ENGLISH SPEAKING LANDLORD.
Such luxury will run you $50-100 extra a month, but is COMPLETELY worth it. Our landlord got us set up with internet, explained the utilities situation to us patiently, took us around the neighborhood to show us key sites and important things like the bus stops, metro stations, grocery stores. She also gave us pointers about getting metro cards, sim cards for our phones, etc. Not many people speak English yet in China. So, for any complicated (or large dollar) transactions, deal with English speakers when possible.

6: International jetlag to Asia is a cold-hearted bitch.
After all the excitement, we crashed hard the first day and ended up on distorted sleep cycles. For example, during the first week here, Veronica went to bed at 7pm and woke up at 3am.

As you'll soon read, our days have been very full here.
If you are still reading after all of that, hi Mom.