Kulturkampf, Pt. 1

This week I’ll post a two part series because it’s too long to read in one sitting. It’s called Kulturkampf because it chronicles my struggles during the week that is Chinese New Years, my most eventful time in China so far.
Chinese New Year, celebrated on the lunar calendar is a multi-week event. People emigrate from the their cities of work back to their villages and families. So for a few weeks, I felt like a Jewish family on Christmas. At Beida, everything was closed, and I resorted to eating oatmeal in my room during the day to save money for Chinese New Year festivities. During my time abroad, I’ve decided that when in Rome, do as the Romans. During Chinese New Years that means getting bibulous and shooting off fireworks. Going into this, I knew I was bound to lose something — I just didn’t want to lose a thumb.
The weekend was kicked off with my 21st birthday celebration. The birthday had less significance than if it was in the US, since you can drink in China one you grow your first facial hair. For some Chinese, this means effective prohibition. Whatever the case, I was determined to be a cultural ambassador of good ol’ ‘Murrican drinking tendencies. The Chinese are not known for their drinking ability, so it was my duty as a public servant to pass on a great American tradition — 21 shots on the 21st birthday.
As a cultural gesture, I began the journey with Chinese 白酒, which is 60% ABV. After that, we ventured to a friends apartment, then some bars and clubs and finally McDonalds. The details, understandably, are hazy, but in the morning I began to piece things together. When I woke up on a towel outside of my dorm room door, the satisfaction of presumptuous success was over-shadowed by a sense of self-loathing. Where were my phone, my room card/ID, and money? At least, I had the foresight to not bring my whole wallet.
While people left the city to celebrate with their families, firework stands took their place. In Beijing, and most Chinese cities, people are permitted to shoot off fireworks in the city for the week of 春节(Spring Break). On the day of Chinese New Year’s, fireworks can be heard throughout the day, sounding something like a war zone. You wake up at 8 am to the boom of fireworks, and as midnight nears, fireworks can be seen in 360 degrees. People simply set off fireworks in the streets of Beijing. Traffic comes to a stop and everyone joins in the revelry. In Beijing there was no show put on by the city; instead, the public has access to fireworks on caliber of those used during the rest of the world’s New Years. Even better, they’re dirt cheap.
As midnight nears, if you aren’t hearing the boom of fireworks, you’re hearing car alarms all across the city crying in unison. At this point in time, Beijing’s smog had cleared up, but by midnight on New Years, the haze of fireworks replaced smoke. The city is still littered with the red tissue-paper wrapping of fireworks, as well the giant cardboard shells they launched from.
We followed up midnight by going to Beijing’s premier club, Spark. The club was relatively empty since most of the Chinese people had returned home, or they were setting off fireworks in the streets. The club wasn’t packed, but it made up for quantity with quality. Being Beijing’s premiere club, it was filled with European models working in Beijing’s fashion industry. The music was also a nice change. Instead of the typical Top 40 playlist, the DJ’s spun house and some throw-back hip-hop.
Upon entering, I spun a raffle wheel and won 12 shots for friends and I. I realized this saved me almost $100. Not even that, however, resulted in enough courage to approach the models. After a while a few friends and I realized that most of the girls there were paid promoters of the club. In other words, they were paid to come and make it clear that everyone with white skin, fake tits, and an eating disorder frequented Spark. It was the place to be.
Every conversation with these girls eventually led to, “Let’s buy a few drinks,” so I ended up talking with a few Swedes who worked in finance in Beijing. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the conversation focused around the corruption of finance in China, especially Beijing. Shanghai has a much bigger financial industry, but Beijing’s is closely tied to government and direct investment. Since these deal with investment primarily in China, it escapes the peering eyes of Western regulation. With its lack of transparency, Chinese guanxi, laughable regulation, and underdeveloped stock markets, corruption runs amock. Insider trading is a part of business, and the customer is a cash cow. This, along with environmental issues and more, will eventually be the speed bump that slows Chinese growth. Through classes and discussion with Chinese people, you come to realize that the Chinese citizens have a much less optimistic view of China’s future than the rest of the world does. Sure, they’ll be a world power, but it will take longer than many on the outside think. From an outsiders perspective, China is a land of blistering growth, but political, economic, and environmental issues have created a pressure cooker that is about to burst.

Our night at Spark resulted in me losing my iPhone in the cab we took home. Unfortunately, the cab we took was an illegal one. It had the same paint scheme as the licensed cabs, but the price was twice as high, and the driver refused to enter our campus, which would’ve required him to show his ID. This all meant that he was going to be impossible to track down. Managing to lose two phones in two days, my self-loathing had hit new levels. The blog title had never been more pertinent.
In the morning I set out to find my Chinese phone and cards. I went from place to place, and after conversating in my broken Chinese, I finally found my phone and cards, learning some new words in the process. Some friends and I were setting off on a cross-country tour of China the next day, so finding my phone was a huge relief.
In the coming days I’ll post about our travels to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, but I’ll leave you with the song that, regrettably, embodied 春节 so far.


Public Indecency, et al.

I hope you had a good Super Bowl Sunday. In China, it’s technically Super Bowl Monday. The game started at 7:30 am, so I had the breakfast of champions — barley, hops, yeast, and water. Unfortunately, today’s blog title has nothing to do with the halftime show. More information below

With that said, readers, this is our second date now. You know what that means? Ground rules. As far as I’m concerned, I’m your one and only blog. I don’t want to hear about the Brooklyn-based Indie music blog or the cooking blog you’re reading. Mario, tell ’em. As far as I’m concerned, we have something special. Truth be told, I just needed a reason to link to that song. It was cool in 3rd grade, and it’s still cool now. What I do wanna know, though, is what questions you have about China and the 北京生活 (Beijing life). It’s a win-win. You sate your curiosity, and I guarantee myself a reader that isn’t my mom.

One question that I’ll preemptively address is traffic, but I don’t think I really need to use words. Pictures after all, are worth a thousand words.


This picture of R. Kelly reincarnated as a Chinese man is a great metaphor for all Beijing traffic. In order for someone to whip out their member in public, you know there’s gotta be a pretty laissez-faire mindset regarding, well, anything. Ranking as the worst in the world, Beijing traffic is a sight to see. Combine this with the fact that road rules are more guidelines than anything else, and you have a spectacle more interesting than my begrudgingly best source of entertainment, the CBA.

With the change of a light, intersections delve into anarchy. Pedestrians, bikers, cars, buses, and unidentified vehicles made of scrap metal and tuna cans, charge head-long into each other. This blog, despite being 5 years old, made me laugh out loud because of its accuracy.

Below ground, the subway is cheap, quick, and incredibly reliable. The one downside is that during rush hour, you are literally jammed into the cars. Personal space is just one of those things that goes out the window when you land in China.

Our Chinese friend also reminds of another cultural normative that would be taboo in the US: bodily functions. Whether its babies pooping on the sidewalk, excessive spitting, or burping, the Chinese seem to accept that these are natural things you can’t prevent. A chacun son gout.

On to things I can talk about without making assumptions, Chinese classes and my internship have been interesting. My spoken Chinese class only has three members, and it’s one of the most frustrating and humbling things I’ve ever experienced. Even more so than those not-so-memorable nights on Mission Beach. Our teacher claims she speaks very poor English, but I suspect it’s more of an excuse to make us use Chinese. She’s so machiavellian that I wouldn’t put it past her. Class consists of us nodding or heads and feigning understanding, God forbid you don’t and she makes you demonstrate whatever phrase or structure we’re learning. Multiple times we’ve come to class, and we’ve had quizzes that we didn’t know of because she mentioned them in lighting-fast Chinese the previous class. Despite this, we’ve already learned a lot. It also makes you realize how ineffective Chinese Classes in the US are. Tones, which give words their meanings, are largely ignored in the US. As a result, you may say some words correctly, but if the tones are off, your point may be lost on a Chinese person.

My internship has been equally rewarding. I work at a Spanish management consulting firm. The lingua franca of the office is a bastardization of English, Spanish, and Chinese. If I were to intern at a similar management consulting firm in the US, I would be babied and coddled through everything. China has a sweet tooth for cheap labor, and they seem to think internships are the paragon of cheap labor: free labor. I’m no where near qualified for the things they have me working on, and it’s equal parts terrifying and exciting.

Outside of the office and the classroom, I’ve been able to explore more of this 20-something million person city. The Forbidden City was a great experience mainly because it’s impossible to visit any 603 year old structure in the US. What US historical sites, like the Alamo, lack in age, they make up for with old-fashioned American badass-manship. To some Chinese tourists, the large group of American students was more of a spectacle than ancient buildings surrounding us. When we tried to take a group picture, about 30 Chinese people took a picture of us taking a picture. This is a picture, albeit bad quality, of them taking a picture of us taking a picture. Inception. Call me Christopher Nolan.


Stepping outside the Forbidden City into Tiananmen Square is the soberest reminder that we live in a police state. Tiananmen is the largest city square in the world. While it’s relatively bare of anything besides paving stones and a few monuments, the square bristles with cameras, some hidden and some in plain view. Clearly the PRC knows that Tiananmen Square’s most striking feature is its history; Tiananmen is a dormant political volcano. When one group of students from William & Mary tried to take a picture while holding their school crest, police officers quickly ran over and stopped them. For all they knew, the banner said “Free Tibet,” or some other anti-Chinese political statement. Tension was palpable.

While the Forbidden City was nice, my favorite cultural experience so far has been visiting a 早市, a Chinese morning market. The smells, sights, and sounds were something you would never find in the US, and most of the fruits and vegetables were equally as foreign. Tucked in the back, there was a fish and meat market, but the smell made me think I was coming upon a dead body. They had Eel, crabs, lobsters, and countless fish, which I hope weren’t caught in Beijing’s waterways. If you’re looking to get tetanus and the Hepatitis suite, this is your one-stop shop. The meat section was equally impressive. They had enormous racks of beef ribs, pigs heads, and every other slab of meat you can think of just hanging from the ceiling. I half expected to turn a corner and find Rocky Balboa going to town on some slabs of meat.


The real lesson, however, was when I looked up at the sky scrapers that surround the market. Beijing has distinct sense of anachronism. While there are some examples are utter poverty and technological simplicity, there is amazing technology that has yet to even find its way to the US. In that sense, China is like a kid going through a growth spurt. He is outgrowing some of his clothes, while some articles are still much too big for him.

Speaking of clothes, the Chinese clothing markets are a spectacle. These huge buildings, most around 8 floors, are crammed with tiny stalls, each floor selling the same type of item. Due to this competition is fierce. A la Macklemore, you may only have $20 in your pocket, but that’s more than enough to pop some tags.
Upon entering, vendors use their limited English phrases,”Hey you, looky looky,” all the while trying to yell over each other. The most audacious ones will grab you, assuming this makes you want to buy from them. Out of annoyance, you offer an almost-insulting price, hoping they’ll let you go. You just made your biggest mistake. Chinese bargaining might as well be Kabuki. Vendor makes an offer, you counter offer. Rinse and repeat until they refuse to go any lower, then you walk out. Once again, they grab read:border-line assault you and agree to your price. You typically aim for about one-third to one-tenth of the original offer.

That’s it for now folks. What other blog provides you with Asian male genitalia, a gratis? Don’t answer that.