It’s been nearly three months since I arrived in Beijing, and I’ve finally had my first attack of homesickness.
It started two weeks ago with a trip to a local Western market to pick up the fixings for macaroni and cheese (the real thing, not the Kraft version). It was followed by my birthday dinner of Texas BBQ and chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Then I broke down completely yesterday and went to Jenny Loo’s supermarket with my friend Eunice. My haul — a rare taste of Americana — included fresh bagels (“Montreal style”), feta cheese, olives, canned diced tomatoes for pasta sauce, fresh tortillas, tortillas chips, salsa, peanut butter and a Woody Allen movie.
A pretty pricey splurge, all told, except for the Woody Allen movie (“Midnight in Paris”), which cost 13 yuan, or $2.16.
I’m whipping up my famous linguini tonight with some of my big food purchase. But before I do, here’s a quick list of ten things I really miss after 11 weeks in China — and some that I decidedly do not.
What I miss:
1. My wife and family
2. The National Press Club
3. Live NHL hockey
5. My good friends back home
6. Weekend trips to Philadelphia or New York
7. Trader Joe’s
8. Gossiping with my Texas political sources
9. Good wine at good prices
What I Don’t Miss:
2. American cable news in general
3. The newspaper world I left behind
4. Cable TV
7. Texas BBQ (I’ve been surprised by the fine barbecue here.)
8. The Washington football team with the racist name
9. Rush Limbaugh and the vast right wing conspiracy
10. U.S. media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination
On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong read a statement before a bank of microphones and hundreds of thousands of people assembled in Tiananmen Square declaring the formation of the People’s Republic of China.
Sixty-four years later, I was one of the perhaps dozens of “westerners” visiting Beijing’s most famous landmark on China’s National Day holiday. It is a festive celebration, with special decorations, tourist-friendly hats, face painting, parades and family pilgrimmages.
The scene, I thought, was very much like the Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall in Washington. Patriotism, pageantry, family, country.
My small group of three Americans (thanks, Caroline and Sara) tried to blend in with the hundreds of thousands — more probably, millions — of Chinese tourists. Well, we were never going to blend in. Caroline and Sara are striking young blondes, and perhaps a dozen Chinese families asked to have their photos taken with them. (Nobody asked me.)
We walked around Tiananmen, headed inside the main gate toward the Forbidden City, and then wandered through the historic core of old Beijing.
I hope this photo essay gives you a sense of the grandeur and the scope of the day.
Little by little, there are signs that I’m adjusting to life in China. I still speak terrible Chinese, but I’m making (slow) progress. Some other signs point to a shorter-than-expected period of adjustment in my new country. A few examples:
- At my apartment, I’m eating more meals with chopsticks than with forks, knives or spoons.
- I take the subway and wander the streets of Beijing without fear of getting lost.
- I venture off campus on my bicycle into the chaotic swirl of Chinese traffic.
- I add money to my subway fare card without the help of my Teaching Assistant.
- I price things in yuan and don’t convert to dollars anymore.
- I leave my passport at home when I go out.
- I don’t get upset when the Internet connection is really slooooooooooooooooooow. Like the Texas weather, just wait an hour and it’ll change.
- I don’t get upset when a car is driving down the wrong side of the road and appears to be heading straight for my bike.
- I’m posting on Weibo as often as on Twitter.
- I’m beginning to understand the difference between the four Chinese speech tones.
- I’m beginning to understand a few street signs. In Chinese.
- I’m starting to get the hang of sign language. Or maybe charades.
- I’m starting to think it’s normal to ride your bike after dark without any lights.
- I’m starting to say “ni hao” to people rather than “hello.” (With Caroline Ward, it’s still “ni howdy!”)
- I can introduce myself as “DOO-NUH REE-KUH” rather than “RICK DUNHAM.” (I’ll pass along my real Chinese name when my colleagues show me the spelling.)
- I don’t check the Internet every day to see what’s happened to the Phillies … or Nats … or Eagles … or Redskins.
- I come home every night and turn on CCTV in English to discover what good deeds President Xi has done today. And what’s new in Turkmenistan.
- I thank my lucky stars that I took this job.
I’m not one of those often-wrong, never-in-doubt Americans who visits a city for a week and decides he knows everything about its history, culture and politics.
That having been said, I do have a few first impressions through the eyes of a China newbie. Here are some random observations of life in Beijing by the numbers:
Number of Beijingers wearing anti-pollution face masks
Number of Beijingers wearing bike helmets
Number of Beijingers who have used hand signals while riding bikes
Number of Beijingers holding a cell phone while biking in traffic
Number of blonde people sighted in Beijing
Number of blonde people sighted in Beijing who are not friends or students of mine
Number of European-origin people seen on the subway
Number of people speaking English on the subway
Number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants seen around town
Number of people who have asked me about the Cowboys, Redskins, Eagles, Texans, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi or Capitol Hill gridlock
Number of students who have asked me about the American government’s lies leading up to the invasion of Iraq
Number of universities in this section of northwest Beijing
Number of Texas on the Potomac alumni now living and working in Beijing
Number of people I’ve met who have worked or studied in Pennsylvania
Number of Texas Aggies I’ve run across. (Gig ’em, Caroline!)