10 weeks ago I said I would write soon, so, sorry about that. Starting soon after my last post, I started feeling uninclined to sit down and write out what I have been doing. It wasn’t any sort of decision or rejection, it just became a prolonged comfort of putting things off and getting caught up in my surroundings. Recently I’ve been on the move again, and now I’m feeling the need to update folks back home as well as summarize some experiences in my own mind. I find that it is a good tool for reflection.
Here we go!
Last I wrote, I had just arrived in Beijing and was living with my Chinese family. I lived there for about six weeks. For the first five I worked at FineYoga, a studio pioneering the spread of authentic yoga practice and culture in Beijing, as well as throughout China. The business was started by two good friends of my family, Andy and Sherri, whom we used to visit every summer in China. It had been a number of years since the last time we met, so it was great to reconnect, and to build a friendship with them myself as a now mostly grown individual. In past summers it was only ever a day or two that we would see each other, so being able to work closely with Andy every day was very special. We would practice yoga together early every morning, have conversations over a café breakfast, and then embark on the days work. Sometimes it was scoping out local neighborhoods for workshop locations, sometimes it was me acting as a translator in meetings about new studio designs; regardless of the task we would always laugh and have fun doing it. Before I may have said he was a family friend or an uncle, but now he is truly a friend of mine as well.
This job was a great opportunity to experience an authentic Chinese work environment. I can’t say I made great friends with any of my Chinese co-workers, but they were friendly and curious all the same and we got along well. They would often ask about life in America, which led to conversations comparing different aspects of our two worlds. They tended to focus on what life was like for young people in each of our countries. We discussed college tuition, how students pay for school, what working through school is like(something that is mostly unheard of in China), and occasionally politics. After the US presidential election, most folks I met wanted to know who I had voted for and how I felt about the president-elect. It soon became a conversation that I avoided having because it felt so surface-level in China, and every Chinese person who asked me had the same opinion to share which I got tired of hearing. Through all of these interactions I learned a lot about Chinese culture and how every day people are, but my favorite part of the employee community there remains the communal lunches. Whereas in the US and other places every person may bring their own lunch to work, here we all had the same meal together, in true Chinese fashion. Around eleven or noon every day, someone would arrive at the office with several large tupperware containers all filled with different authentic dishes. In the backroom there would be a full steaming rice cooker, and a shelf of assorted bowls and chopsticks. The food was pretty consistently delicious, and all the people gave a warm communal feeling to the whole affair. It was a moment of the day where I could just sit back, enjoy the cuisine, and watch the Chinese world happen around me. It only took two weeks or so for people to stop staring as I entered the room.
I call my Chinese parents MaJie马姐 and BaiBai拜拜. In China, what you call someone depends on your relationship to them. BaiBai is a familial term for an elder male caretaker, sort of like calling someone your uncle, but there are different names for an actual related uncle. Jie means big sister, and Ma is my Chinese mothers family name. It is a unique case that I call MaJie that name. Because of our age difference and her elder family status, traditionally I would probably have called her Ayi阿姨 or maybe even NaiNai奶奶, both familial terms for female elders. Nevertheless I have been calling her MaJie since I was three years old, and that’s the way we have grown to be. MaJie and BaiBai ran a family daycare located on the university campus where we lived when my parents first brought us to China. Almost every day for the first year they would watch me and my little brother play and eat alongside a gaggle of local Chinese kids while the parents worked. One of my favorite pastimes back then was to play badminton with MaJie out on the street, seeing how many times we could hit the birdie back and forth between us before it landed on the concrete. The second year there I joined my older sister at YoErYuan幼儿园, the Chinese equivalent to kindergarten. After two years living in Beijing, the SARS epidemic hit China and our parents brought us back to the states. However, our relationship with our friends and family in China remained strong due to our annual return trips during the summer months, tagging along with my dads high school study abroad groups. When the group was in Beijing they would stay at hotels, and us kids and mom would stay with the family. In this way MaJie and BaiBai watched us grow, and we watched too as their twin sons grew up, married and had kids almost in unison. Now almost everyone in the family has moved out of ErWai二外, the university campus where we once lived. When I returned to Beijing this past October, after over two years of absence, I went straight to where MaJie and BaiBai now live in the eastern suburbs of the city.
It was lovely and grounding to be living in a real family home, and to be mostly taken care of again. MaJie and BaiBai were overjoyed to have me around, as was I to be there and to be able to connect with them. Every week day I would wake up just after 5am in order to make it to the morning yoga sessions where I first started practicing with Andy. BaiBai would always wake up with me and make sure I didn’t leave the house without one of his homemade ManTou馒头(steamed buns) or an apple for the day, and saw me out the door each morning with a smile and a laugh. I would usually come home sometime in the mid-afternoon, rest with MaJie a while until BaiBai came home from work on his bicycle, and then shortly thereafter sit down for dinner. If you were to ask me what my favorite kind of food in the world is, I would tell you BaiBai’s home cooked meals. To me the most amazing thing about Chinese cuisine is the stupendous variety it contains. Every city in China has it’s own special food, every province it’s own distinct flavor, and every family their own unique style. I would say that there are common methods of preparing food throughout all of China, but the end product varies immensely. BaiBai’s cooking was simple and delicious. I don’t feel like I can describe it succinctly in written words, so ask me about it some time. In the evenings after dinner we would relax, chat and watch TV. Since I suddenly had so much free time again, I got into my old habit of playing computer games. I hadn’t had a reliable computer with internet access for a while, so that was fun. I also finished some college apps in that time, and got relatively caught up on news back home.
The weekends were either family time or made into short excursions out of the city. Oftentimes my little nephew or niece, or maybe both, would come over to spend nights with their grandparents. The children of MaJie and BaiBai’s twin sons, they are almost the same age at around 5 years old, but KaiXin开心 the little girl is slightly older. DouDou豆豆, my nephew, I saw more often. In China grandparents play a significant role in raising their grandchildren, watching over them most days while the parents work, so living with MaJie and BaiBai I got to play a special part in that. DouDou is a funny kid. He has definitely figured out how to exploit his grandparents love for him and can get pretty self-confident sometimes, but is mostly fun loving and innocent. We would construct buildings with cardboard bricks together, and I taught him how to play Minecraft on the computer, which made him very happy. His favorite English word is dinosaur.
I had some fun adventures on my own too, like going over to a friend of a friends house for a full-blown traditional thanksgiving dinner, turkey and stuffing and all. Now that was something I thought I would never get in China. An old camp friend took me out to see Chinese opera a couple times, a very intriguing theater experience. There was one long weekend I took to visit a family who’s son is currently living in my home back in Minnesota. That was a unique adventure; I went on a business trip with the father and ended up going to ShaoLin Temple, watching a rifling tournament, and then having dinner with a bunch of Chinese Olympic athlete trainers. Another weekend I was invited out to a ski resort by a woman I met at a yoga workshop, and ended up being her and her friends snowboarding instructor all day. Later that night they took me to a metal show by a Chinese band, which was quite the case of cultural diffusion. The food was good, the friends were friendly. All in all Beijing treated me quite well.
The only really constant negative aspect about my stay there was the air pollution. In six weeks of living in Beijing, I remember only a handful of days with blue sky. Of course this is a factor of the season as well, as there is much less clear sky in the north during the winter, but it was the smog more than anything. On a decent day, the most you could tell of it would be a white haze to everything in your vision more than a couple blocks away, but there was one day where it felt simply apocalyptic. I remember it well because that day BaiBai and MaJie woke up early to go out with me. They were visiting some friends outside the city and decided they would drop me off at work along the way so I didn’t have to get up as early to catch the bus. There was no indication of what the weather was like until we had gone down the twelve floors to ground level, and then stepped out the door. It was early enough that it was still dark, which added greatly to the effect. As soon as I was out the door a thick brownish yellow smog appeared around me, blocking out everything more than three meters in front of my face. The only things I could actually make out were the part of the building immediately behind me, MaJie next to me, and the concrete under me. The stuff was thick and swirling, and with the dark it seemed that all sorts of horrors could jump out of it at any moment. Luckily, BaiBai knew just where the car was parked and was able to lead us to it without much trouble. Suffice to say, it was shocking. I had never thought it could get that bad. Even though I trusted BaiBai completely, riding in the backseat that morning with next to zero visibility beyond the car body had me pretty freaked out. By the time we got to where I worked the smog had lessened considerably, and by mid-day it was once again at a pretty average level; just enough to make it seem like life was a video game where a mist gently enshrouded all the places you did not go.
At first I had thought that the heavy smog was quite contained to Beijing, given the industry presence in the area and the geography of the mountains around the city that trap the air and smog between them. That idea was quickly proven wrong after I rode a train for four hours to a province southwest of Beijing one weekend(the same adventure with the Olympic trainers) and did not see a change in the air the entire way. It was the same the entire way farther south the next day, and the entire way to ShaoLin temple the day after that. I would encounter similar smog in ChengDu成都, after a twenty two hour train ride south weeks later. Weeks after that, I would see the second heaviest smog I have ever encountered on a train headed out of Kunming昆明, the capitol city of China’s most southwest province Yunnan云南. It was not until I arrived in the small ancient town of ShaXi沙溪 in the mountains of northwest Yunnan, where I am writing this, that I would escape the smog completely.
By the end of the six weeks in Beijing, I was stoked to get a move on. At the beginning of December my close friend Maya Pierick flew out from Kenya, where she had spent the last six months or so studying, to Beijing to meet me. We spent a little over three weeks travelling and working together, and had some great times. Maya writes her own life/travel blog here, and once we’re both back stateside we plan to co-write a post about our experiences together, so stay tuned! I won’t wait until then to post updates on my most recent solo adventures, so there will be a fair content gap between this post and my next but don’t worry, it will all come out eventually.