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Margaret: 灯红酒绿 – Dēnghóngjiǔlǜ – the high life

August 30, 2011

The highlight of today: IKEA!!! The university provided a few buses to take the international students across town to IKEA. I got a few essentials and nonessentials, but I tried to limit myself because the prices weren’t cheap like the rest of China and were more similar to those back in the states. Inspired by my girl Alicia Gruenwald, my room now has a color scheme! This IKEA was very similar to thoseback in the United States, however in China it’s very common to see people literally under the covers of the beds in the bedroom section fully asleep. Strange perhaps, but my Taiwanese-American girlfriend Tiffany pointed out an interesting insight to me. While China does not have the same freedoms and rights distinctly spelled out on pieces of paper, the Chinese people are in essence more free than we are in America. Why? I have been here less than a week, and I’ve witnessed little babies peeing on the streets, groups of young people sitting together on the sidewalks just hanging out, and foreign students on the floor just outside the dormitory cafe mooching off the free internet. Would any of that happen in America? Probably not because in America we hold ourselves to a strict social code for free of what people are going to think of our actions. This is also some ways shaped by capitalism. We can’t just sit on the sidewalk. Instead we’ll go buy a cappuccino at the coffee shop down the way and sit at a table on the sidewalk. And we can’t just sit there and sip the coffee.  We have to be chatting with someone or reading a book or working on the computer.  We all do these types of things in some way or another.  But in China, anything goes and nobody cares. And it feels strangely wonderful to know that the next time I buy a mattress at IKEA, I can try out FINNVIK, FJORDGARD, and FLORVÅG to find the best one.

While at IKEA I met Till from Germany, who is doing a masters in Chinese law and is interested in intellectual property rights, and Vladimir from Sweden, who is doing a masters in psychology. Vladimir felt right back at home in IKEA and was eager to go to the cafe. He explained to me that the names on all the IKEA products actually do mean something that has to do with what the product is. I purchased a duvet cover with green rectangles all over it called GRÖNKULLA, which he says means “green hill.”  These cute block-shaped candles are called FYRKANTIG, meaning “square.”  We had a great time going through all names of all my purchases. Vladimir and Till were both excited to hear that I have Swedish and German heritage. However, when I told Till my last name, he was beside himself with laughter. Apparently we Americans don’t know how to pronounce our own German last names. Oh the things you learn while abroad…

Yesterday the university took the international students to the Great Wall, or chang cheng.  Most of the students elected to take a cable car to the top, but I was adamant about climbing up on foot.  There’s an old Chinese saying that goes, “You’re not a man untilyou have climbed the Great Wall of China,” and besides, the idea that there’s a cable car going to the top made me a bit sad and took away from the beauty of the area.  This was probably a mistake.  There were well over a thousand steps just to get to the Wall, and once on it there are many segments that are made up of stairs, sometimes especially steep ones. I’ve already climbed it once before in 2008, but this time we were on a different segment of it.  The air quality was pretty poor, so most of my photos look quite gloomy.  That’s not mist you’re seeing.  The best part of the day was the alpine slide.  

Rather than having to climb down the from the wall, we paid about $6 or $7 USD to take a sled down a metal track.  You weren’t supposed to take pictures and there were employees positioned every few hundred feet who would yell at you through megaphone if you tried to or if you were going too fast, but I managed to snap a few.  It was a blast!!!  The whole experience is awe inspiring, and the only thing I could think about the entire time was how entirely lucky I am to be here.  The amount of people in the world that get this chance…  It really is amazing and I feel so blessed.

Each and every night has been some combination of eating amazing food and dancing. I’ve had incredible meals at two of the best restaurants in Beijing, only paying between $20 and $30 for each. Bus fares are $0.17 and $0.06 if you use a prepaid fare card. A cab ride to the expat student hangout spot, WuDaoKou, is about $1.50. A meal at on-campus restaurants is somewhere around $2 and $3, and a sub at Subway might set you back $4. This truly is the high life here. Last night I found myself eating the most beautiful food I’ve ever seen at a swanky Thai restaurant in a high rise on SanLiTun, a popular bar and shopping street, looking out at Beijing’s architectural wonders. 

I thought to myself, “Is this seriously my life? How did I get here?”  I’m so incredibly lucky to be having this experience.  So many people in the States told me they could never do this, but right now I’m asking myself how anyone could pass this up.  Sure, there are minor irritations – the power in our bedroom shutting off automatically whenever it feels like it or the squat toilets or the necessity of buying bottled water or the idea that I can buy Skippy peanut butter and a loaf of wheat bread at the convenience store but I can’t buy a knife to spread it with because Chinese people generally don’t need knives. But I think the amazing things far outweigh those, and I think the ultimate challenge for foreigners in China is to patiently accept those things for what they are and just go with the flow.

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