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Margaret: 手表 包 DVD – shǒubiǎo bāo DVD – watch bag DVD

September 13, 2011

It’s been a little more than three years since I first went to Tiananmen Square and the notorious silk street market, and I must say, not much has changed!  The weird bits are 1. I am no longer a tourist, and the fact that I actually live here gives going to both places a new feeling, and 2. I can actually speak some Chinese now, which made silk street a whole different ballgame.

Of course when I woke up this morning, it was pouring rain, so what better activity to do on a rainy day than going to Tiananmen, right?  There was something glorious and whimsical about being there, splashing about in the puddles in the midst of Communism Communism Communism.  I was actually really happy to be there in the bad weather and found myself singing “Singing in the Rain” on the very pavement that the gate to the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in 1420, thousands of students were murdered during the 1989 protests, and five Falun Gong members light themselves ablaze in 2001, though there is some speculation that this incident was a hoax instigated by the government to turn public opinion against the banned spiritual movement.  Sorry Minneapolis, your history just can’t compare.  

Silk street is a giant multi-level shopping center that is a popular tourist attraction due to its wide selection of counterfeit brand name items.  You will find everything from Chanel to Dolce and Gabana to Nike to Abercrombie to Prada to just about anything you could ask for.  However, you can usually find something about the products that makes it just a little bit off.  For example, we found one coat on which the tag read something like Budurbarry, a far cry from Burberry.  The quality of the clothing and shoes and actually just about everything else is especially poor.  It may look nice on the hanger, but once a sweater is examined more closely, one will notice that the fabric is extremely thin.  Skirts and dresses may be unlined and completely see-through.  

That’s why it’s incredibly important to not pay too much.  However, this is the hard part, especially if you have baise de pifu, or white skin.  The stalls are arranged in seven or eight foot cubes, each with one or two clerks, 95 percent of whom are women.  As a white woman, I will walk down an aisle and from every stall I hear some combination of “Hello pretty lady, want to buy?  How are you?  We have bag-es, you want to buy?  Good price just for you.  I give you good price.  Come see, come in.  Watchbagdvd.  For your mother, for your sister, you need earrings?”  Sometimes they will grab at my arms or hands.  If I see something I like, I will first inspect it for quality and then decide on my starting price.  Let’s just say I’m going to buy an I ❤ BJ tourist shirt.  For something like this, I would want to offer 10 RMB, less than $2 USD, as a starting price.  The clerks usually make you punch your numbers into a calculator even though most speak English.  Often times, they will give the price first, and more often than not, they will ask for 300+ RMB, upwards of $50 USD.  I figure they do this with the idea that foreigners don’t understand the exchange rate.  If I bring a Chinese friend, they are inclined to discount their starting price because they know I have someone who can tell me if I’m being ripped off.  When they suggest the first price, I usually laugh or shake my head or something and then offer up my price of 10 RMB.  The theatricals ensue.  Some of them pretend to cry or they scowl or they say “Oh my gawd” in their most American English.  The bargaining begins.  Their prices drop, and depending on the item, my prices go up because I usually start with a lower price than I actually intent to pay.  When they offer up their “minimum price,” I then walk away saying it’s too expensive.  They always call me back with a discounted price, and if it’s low enough, this is when I will buy.  I bought a tourist shirt today for 20 RMB, or just over $3 USD.  It’s a game that always leaves me feeling awful after (which I attribute to my Minnesotan upbringing), and I don’t intend to return to the silk street anytime soon.

This journey down the street was so very different from my experience in 2008 because this time I could do all of my bargaining in Chinese.  This would usually anger the clerks.  They insisted on speaking English to me.  In their head I am a foreign tourist with no idea of the exchange rate who they intend to rip off as bad as possible.  I insist on speaking Chinese with them.  It’s a bizarre flip flopped scenario, the Chinese person speaking English and the white person speaking Chinese.  Little do any of them know that I study Chinese at BeiDa, China’s premier university…

Although I had what I would call a “good day for Chinese,” this week was not without extreme frustration.  My kouyu class has made absolutely clear to me that I never learned how to speak Chinese.  Back home at Minnesota, any time we had to speak in Chinese class, we were given the prompts ahead of time.  I could go home, write my piece, make sure all the grammar is correct, make sure I have all of the tones down, return to class the next day and spit everything back mindlessly, word for word.  Does this help in having conversation in the real world?  Heck no.  I struggled struggled struggled so much in class this week, at times wanting to cry.  It’s one thing to sit in an organic chemistry lecture and have no idea what the prof is talking about.  It’s a completely different ballgame when you can’t understand the professor’s language!  It’s been embarrassing, and at the end of class everyday I worry that I didn’t even hear and understand that night’s homework assignment correctly.  However, I’ve talked to a few other students who have done this before, and they all say that they, like me, drowned for a little while until BAM!  They one day begin to have long intricate conversations in Chinese all the time.  Here’s to hoping that moment comes soon.

We signed up for electives on Friday, and my plans were foiled!  Although I registered for pronunciation correction as I had intended, I took one look at the book for intermediate Chinese characters and knew it wasn’t for me.  I had wanted to take that class because I thought it would be a crash course in vocabulary, like learning fifty every night.  Instead it focused on the evolution of the written text and stroke order.  What’s stroke order?  In order to write characters “properly,” one must write each stroke, or part of the character, in a certain sequence.  It originated as a way to enhance speed and accuracy of writing, but honestly when the character has been written, usually nobody can tell from looking at it if you used the right order or not.  Basically I’m not interested in this aspect of the language, so I signed up for Chinese writing, a class that will build up my vocabulary, put my grammar patterns into practice, and teach me how to write different types of compositions in Chinese.  When it’s over, I will have my very own Chinese resume!  Really really excited for it!

I actually wish I had that Chinese resume now because I am currently constructing a cover letter to be sent to the Peking-Yale Joint Center for Plant Molecular Genetics and Agrobiotechnology in hopes of volunteering in a lab.  I realized that if I’m going to be truly happy here, I need to be involved in a lab in some way, whether it’s at this research center or at Monsanto’s Beijing labs.  Coming here has been like having a long distance relationship.  I’ve been working in plant science in one form or another for the past two years, and I loved every waking minute of it.  I also haven’t been unemployed since I was fifteen, so I have no idea what people do after class.  Sleep?  What is this!?  Being here now, I’m still thinking about plant science all the time, looking for articles, searching for opportunities, having conversations about international agricultural or genetically modified crops at two in the morning outside of clubs.  (Yes, I am a MAJOR NERD!)  I’ve been going through some sort of withdrawal here.  There’s probably only one science major in the entire college of Chinese as a second language, that being me, and I’m so hungry to have a nerdy sciency conversation with someone.  When I was introducing myself this week in hanyu, the class let out a collective gasp at the words “agricultural science,” however I have a funny feeling the same thing would have still happened even if I had left out the agricultural part.  To be honest, I love Chinese and I’m completely dedicated to it, but I miss the wheat lab.  And the Iowa cornfields.  But only a little bit.  One of my major life dreams is to do research internationally, and here I am, at twenty, potentially with the opportunity to do it!  I’m so excited to send off these letters.  Although it’s been difficult to be away from it, I’m seeing that as an extremely good thing and an indication of just how right the direction I’ve chosen for my career path is.  Will be updating as soon as I hear back from anyone.

When I was at the silk market today, I purchased a frilly, lacy, Sunday dress and a t-shirt with a fuzzy applique zebra on it.  Sound like things I would wear in the states?  Absolutely not.  However while I’m here in China, I really want to be as Asian as possible!  I love this culture and the people here and I want to fit in with them and figure out what makes them tick.  My friends think it’s hilarious seeing as no one else really shares this aspiration, but quite honestly I can’t wait to head to class in my zebra top, converse, skinny jeans, and boxy rectangular glasses on Tuesday.  My girlfriend Tiffany has told her overseas Taiwanese parents in Los Angeles about me, her Commie-wannabe friend, extensively over Skype, including my desire to assimilate.  She told me her parents used a saying, I believe it was duo you yisi, to describe me.  It more or less means that they believe I am so passionate and caring about anything and everything.  When she said that, it brought back memories of the first time I threshed wheat and when my laoshi back in the Minnesota announced there would be a speech competition.  I get so worked up about anything and everything, in good ways and in bad.  But I guess the result is that I’m in China for a year and I’m funding it myself, and I may be getting a volunteer position in a lab in the coming weeks.  I love working as hard as I do and thinking about things as deeply as I do and striving to have as many experiences as I can.  It really meant a lot to me that her parents, who I of course have never met, had said that about me, and it made me feel even better about being here.  So look out Beijing, pretty soon you’re not even going to be able to recognize my ethnicity.  The next step is to dye my hair black.  And by the end of this academic year, I’ll be able to walk up and down silk street without anyone speaking any English to me, and they’ll offer my starting prices of 200 RMB instead of 300.  That’s something.

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