Have You Eaten Yet?

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Each culture has its own unique way of asking how someone is. In the U.S. you’ll hear, “how are you doing?”

In The U.K., it’s “are you okay?”

But in China, it’s “nǐ chī fan le ma?” which means, “have you eaten yet?”

Sure, there’s a way to literally say “hello” and “how are you?” in Chinese, but this key phrase inquiring about consumption is the most common expression. This just goes to show you how important the act of dining is in China. On any given night while passing by one of the millions of restaurants in Beijing, you’ll witness older, balding Chinese men with their shirts pulled over their bellies (on really hot nights) clinking glasses of beer noisily with their buddies. Their wives are gathered around the table, gossiping amongst themselves and munching on chuanr while the children run around the tables. Family dining isn’t just a meal–it’s a big ordeal. Typical Chinese meals consist of family-sized dishes that are meant to be passed around and shared. It reminds me of the way extended family members gather around turkey and mashed potatoes for a Thanksgiving meal in the U.S.

I found it so strange that everyone kept asking me if I had eaten during my first few months in Beijing. As soon as I learned the phrase Chinese, I didn’t stop hearing it. I was recently told by a Chinese friend that this question indicates that the asker cares about the askee and wants to make sure you are fed properly.

There is definitely a unique sense of bonding around the dinner table here that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how many times I ask my friends and family if they’ve eaten yet out of habit when I return home.

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I <3 Beijing

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As my time in Beijing is approaching its end (I now have less than a month left) I’m realizing each day what little things I’ll miss when I return to the U.S. Of course there are things that have bothered me immensely. My close friends and family members are fully aware of these irritations and on bad days, they’ve have heard about them in detail and on repeat. Bless their hearts. Despite the craziness that often seems to occur simply to irk me in this smelly and smoggy city, there are things I absolutely love about it.

The high likelihood that I’ll hear a mixture of English, Hindi, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish during any given stroll down the sidewalk in Sanlitun. The ability to get street food for about ¥6 or less than $1. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, my ability to get amazing Japanese, Indian, or Thai cuisine for a lot more. The subway system that costs $0.32 per trip that will take me to almost any part of the city that my heart desires. My friends I have made here who are always willing to go out and enjoy a drink no matter what their status; single, in a relationship, it’s complicated, whatever. The cozy rooftop seating available in most coffee shops and restaurants. My potential to learn endless lessons from the abundant amount of cultures clustered together in this bustling place. Oh, and of course those T-shirts that declare your love for the crazy city.

It’s a weird mix of excitement and sadness to be thinking about my quickly approaching departure from a place I’ve called home for the past nine months. I fully intend to take delight in the little joys in each day during the rest of my time here.

Zhangye’s Warm Welcomes and Striped Mountains

The Silk Road Adventure, Part II

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My traveling companions and I shared sleeping quarters on our train to Zhangye with an adorable, young Chinese couple and an old woman. The elderly woman repeatedly informed us that she and her husband were 86 years old and insisted on revealing her identification to prove it. Ivy shared conversation about the area with these new roommates who were native to Zhangye. We gained useful insight on the town and once we were off the train, the young couple was offering us space in their little shop to store our heavy backpacks and phone numbers to use if ever we needed a cab. It was heartwarming to see such generosity from people who were strangers to us just hours before.

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Zhangye served as an important location in the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and is now known for a series of mountains laced with layers of reddish sandstone called the China Danxia. I scrolled through jaw-dropping photos online that served as a huge reason I chose to take the whole trip so my expectations were high.

Although the tour within the mountains was set up with transportation, there was plenty of walking involved. It was difficult to mask my astonishment at the two giggly Chinese women who decided it was a good idea to wear their highest heels and shortest skirts to tour wobble through the landscape while clutching their boyfriends for stability.

After unsuccessfully attempting to catch the sunset against the crimson mountains, we scarfed dumplings and street food at what seemed to be a nightly community gathering in the city center. As we wandered past squealing kids and I fell victim to obvious stares, Ivy declared that she would begin charging people for gawking at me. We ourselves did some people watching that resulted in a man approaching me with a loud, “HELLO!” and taking my hand to declare that he loved me. It was definitely the only English phrase he knew, but amused me to see how a city like this was so fascinated by foreigners.

Sadly I had to part from the local man who had fallen for my charm as we headed to the train station to continue along the Silk Road to Dunhuang.

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Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an

The Silk Road Adventure Part I

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April 25, 2013

A friend I met in Beijing introduced me to his friend, Bow, who is working in Shanghai and was planning an ambitious trip to travel various places along The Silk Road of China. I had never met Bow, but her plan included impressively scenic locations that I would probably never get a chance to see if I weren’t already in China. Last week, I ventured nervously onto this very trip, unsure of the overnight trains and arduous hiking that lay ahead of me with people who would turn out to become three awesome friends. One of them, Ivy, is a friend who I already knew from living in Beijing, while the two others are expats in Shanghai.

Throughout the entire trip the Chinese people local to each area often asked Ivy where we were all from (Ivy was the only member of our group who was fluent in Chinese). This is how almost every conversation went:

Ivy: “Erdem is from Turkey”
Reaction: “Turkey? Turkey, huh? Turkey (repeated several times in Chinese).”

Ivy: “Bow is from Thailand.”
Reaction: “No, no she’s Chinese! She looks Chinese!”
Bow: *Responds in broken Chinese*
Reaction: “Oh, I guess you’re really from Thailand…”

Ivy: “Melanie is from the U.S.”
Reaction: “You’re not from Russia? You look Russian!”

Ivy: “I’m from Guanzhou, China”
Reaction: “Are you their tour guide?”

Xi’an was our first stop after a 12-hour, overnight train from Beijing. The six bunk beds crammed into one tiny sleeping quarter offered minimal privacy from the aisle of the train and left me without much rest the next day. The bathrooms were severely less glamourous than what I had already experienced in China. We arrived early that morning to a city similar in appearance to Beijing and brimming with other backpackers wandering about. Ivy and I met Bow at her hostel and filled our breakfast cravings with fresh mango smoothies on our way to meet Erdem. We all wandered onto the first of what would be many bus rides to venture toward the Terra Cotta Warriors. The steep entrance price simply to see the soldiers was a little surprising, but ultimately worth the opportunity to see the statues.

The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered just in 1974, by a local farmer and workers were still unearthing statues as we visited. It was interesting to learn each soldier is unique in its appearance and life-sized, but other than that, they were rather lifeless.

After wandering a local street market and bargaining a bit, we broke our attempt to only eat local food and had Dico’s (Chinese fast food) for dinner on our way to board the next overnight train for Zhangye.

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Ivy, Erdem, and Bow

 

That Time I Got Excited About Toilet Paper…

Parkview Green Mall--one of the coolest and most luxurious malls I've ever seen

Parkview Green Mall–one of the coolest and most luxurious malls I’ve ever seen

Last week my office building installed something that will change the future of my time spent in the office. Something that made me jump up and down and clap my hands. Literally. And then I thought, why the hell am I so thrilled about this? You’re probably thinking, hmm this girl is in China. This thing must be some cutting-edge technological device. Oddly enough, this thing is something that would be absolutely required in every single stall of a bathroom in the U.S., but here I am finding myself overtly excited about it.

The addition I was so enthusiastic about was a toilet paper dispenser that my office building’s maintenance workers had slapped right onto the middle of the bathroom wall. It wasn’t even in the individual stalls or anything (just think how elated I would be about that).

Basically, in public restrooms here, there is a ceramic hole in the ground that flushes. If you’re really lucky there’s an “above ground” toilet. If you have really hit the bathroom jackpot, there’s a toilet paper dispenser in the stall. Because of the lack of toilet paper, women are always carrying packs of kleenex with them…and it’s slightly awkward when men take toilet rolls with them.

This place that has some of the most up-to-date technology, but still hasn’t quite gotten down the whole toilet thing goes in hand with the vast contrast of Chinese culture. The smart phone loving, forward thinking side of China is represented with glittering skyscrapers and shopping malls filled with luxury goods while the traditional side is still glaringly evident. The hunched over, arthritis ridden man grilling your chicken kebab just outside of his hutong home still must walk outside each morning to use a public bathroom. A bathroom that doesn’t even provide toilet paper.

This is what remains so fascinating and, at times, frustrating. Beijing is a city of polarity and it’s compelling to see the culturally advanced part mix in with the traditional. Even if it does mean that I have to carry my own toilet paper.