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September 3, 2008

Blogging From Beijing, Entry 7: Olympics Reflections

Megan Zaroda ’07 shares her experiences as a publications director, food critic, English consultant, and lover of adventure in China

Megan Zaroda ’07, an Easton native, never really expected to be back in China. But even though she had dreams of Manhattan post-graduation, she developed a healthy addiction to Asia after spending a semester studying in Hong Kong. At Lafayette, she created both of her majors – political communications and East Asian studies. She was editor-in-chief of The Lafayette, an executive committee member for Lafayette Leadership Council, an orientation leader, and president of College Republicans. She served as a research assistant for Special Collections and Archives, a Gateway ambassador for the Office of Career Services, a volunteer with the Landis Community Outreach Center, and a Senior Class Fund Drive agent. She took an interim session class in Ireland as a Marquis Scholar, and she admits she had a slight obsession with Gilbert’s chicken club foccacias and nachos.

In a relatively spontaneous decision, Zaroda’s post-Lafayette plans saw her off to Beijing, China, where she is employed by the nonprofit Our Chinese Daughters Foundation. There, she is publications director, overseeing a 50-plus student workbook series on Chinese culture. She deals firsthand with the research, writing, editing, and designing of the books, and consults on the organization’s other book and magazine projects. She also is a freelance food critic for That’s Beijing, a monthly expatriate magazine, and does freelance English consulting for local businesses. When she’s not working, she attends Chinese classes, expands her palate by tasting world cuisines, and explores Beijing with an international running group. She is particularly fond of people-watching in parks, eating dumplings, and getting hour-long foot and body massages for about $3.

Blog Entry 7: Olympics Reflections
September 03, 2008

To anyone back home, the Games were an excuse to stay up ’til obscenely late hours listening to Bob Costas and to cultish-ly subscribe to every Michael Phelps fan site Google cranked out. To any Olympic tourist, the Games were an excuse to dress in outlandish country-themed costumes and shout one of the only Chinese phrases he or she mastered – jiayou (Go for it!).

For us Beijingers, however, it was a seven-year-long breath that we could finally exhale when everyone was stunned by the Opening Ceremony’s fireworks. A breath we slowly let go through the Chinese athletes’ near-perfect gold performances. And one that all of China sighed when the world recognized that yes, China, you CAN perform on this world stage.

But the beauty of the Olympics is sewn up in its “moments” – the little hero from quake-rocked Sichuan walking with big hero Yao Ming; Phelps hugging his mom after his monumental achievement; and even one you might not have seen – Russian and Georgian sharpshooters embracing on the medals podium even as their countries were teetering on the brink of war.

And moments are how I will remember my Olympic experience as well – even if they didn’t consist of my flag slung around my shoulders while the “Star-Spangled Banner” blasted from the speakers.

In the time that it took perfect-pair Wang Fen and Qin Kai to slice effortlessly through the Water Cube’s core,

I had taken the subway escalator to the top of the Olympic Green. Though a venue I had seen many times over the year – before a “green” was even to be had – this time, I not only saw, but heard, the roar of the Olympic Torch. The first shot at Concord may have been the “shot heard ’round the world,” but the torch’s flames could be heard ’round the Green. That’s good enough for me.

In the time it took gymnast Nastia Liukin to complete her should-have-won-gold uneven bars routine, my American flag procured from last year’s embassy Independence Day party had been waved with all the fervor of a hurricane, even if it did drown in the sea of red enveloping it.

In the time it took it took athlete-turned-celebrity Phelps to lap all other Olympic competition, I had toasted twice as many athletes in my local haunts. Though the new Game-time price of a Cosmopolitan might have made even a New Yorker cough, not even the Bank of China could argue that my kuai wasn’t well-spent. Athletes bring a whole new level of “bling” to the VIP hip-hop venues.

In the time it took the U.S. Redeem Team to out-jump Spain and all other wannabe ballers, I had attended more Olympic matches than most countries had even medaled in. What had began as a miserably wet day of semi-finals rowing had turned into an exhilarating spree of fencing, volleyball, gymnastics, and athletics.

In the time it took Samuel Wanjiru to run his record-breaking marathon through the capital’s streets, those same streets had already began their transformation back to their pre-Olympic days. The morning after London’s bus drove David Beckham from the Bird’s Nest, workers began replacing bus stop billboards, information booths were sealed up, and the ever-so-smiley volunteers had disappeared from the city’s subways and streets. It left us all wondering, “What do we do now?”

Honestly, I don’t know what to do now, and I don’t think a single Beijing blogger has propagated a suitable cure for the post-Olympic adrenaline slump.

However, what I do know is that in the time that it took Usain Bolt to dash the 100, I was immeasurably, goose-bumps-bared proud of my adopted country. Zhong guo jia you!

Blog Entry 6: Quakes, Queues, and Questions
May 20, 2008

Before, if you had asked me to choose one letter that summed up China, I would have said “O.” Not only did it stand for the obvious Olympics, but like its shape, it encompassed everything the Big Red was at the time. The slogan “One World, One Dream” was shaken. Its dream – to present itself as the next superpower – wavered in light of the dashed hope to maintain its front of a unified nation, a la Tibetan protests. Whether it was the building boom in Beijing or the red Chinese heart flags that became every Chinese person’s MSN icon, life in China, specifically the capital, was all about the Big O.

Until now.

Well, maybe that’s not an entirely fair analysis. Really, Beijing maintains that overarching “O” except now it has added a slash. China is a “Q”.

About 20 minutes after “it” happened, my cell phone started vibrating with only a fraction of the energy that had rocked China’s southern regions. “R U OK?” and “Did you feel it? My office was tipping like it was drunk” popped onto my screen. Unknown yet to the sleeping Western world, China had registered a 7.9 quake – its largest, and later to prove most devastating, shaker in several decades. Fortunately for us in Beijing, we only felt slight swaying from our 3.8 quiver, and I escaped with all save two broken wine glasses that had rolled off the kitchen counter. But I can’t say the same for Sichuan. With an expected death toll of 50,000, damage to about 50 dams and reservoirs in the area, and a still-unreachable panda preserve, Premier Wen Jiabao has more on his agenda than celebrating the Olympic torch’s summit of Mount Everest.

But not everyone has lost their Olympic fervor. Two weeks ago, China opened its Internet portal to the third phase of event ticketing. Unlike the past two phases where buyers lined up for the lottery giveaway, this set of transactions was first-come, first-served. And, as expected when you open such a system to 1.3 billion people, the server crashed 37 seconds after it opened. By 9:12 a.m., 3/4 of the available tickets were already snatched up. However, by 6:30 p.m., I managed to secure a ticket to Olympic rowing. But unlike the way I bought my ticket, I hope there’s a queue to enter this Olympic venue.

Really, though, life in Beijing is dominated by questions. There are the typical tourist inquiries that came from any one of my 10 visitors’ mouths this past month – “Did you really just cross that 6-lane road without looking?” “What do fried scorpions taste like?” “Is the Great Wall all connected?” “Where is the bathroom? I mean, the non-squat kind.” Then, there are the questions I ask every day: “How much does that cost? It’s too expensive.” “Do you speak English?” “Can I have the bill now?”

But more importantly, there are the questions that we Beijingers still don’t have answers to. And likely won’t until the questions are no longer relevant. We just celebrated the 100-day countdown to the Olympics t with a star-studded concert blowout in the Forbidden City. I visited the stadiums for the fifth time, and marveled at how progressively farther I get from them (thanks to fences and guards) as they near completion. Subway lines connecting the stadiums and airport to the city center are beginning to pop up, and hotels are multiplying like tadpoles. The city tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to institute a “public spaces” smoking ban. There’s a huge elementary school campaign to teach the kiddies to sound like adorable recorders shouting “Hello. Welcome to Beijing.” Taxi drivers even try to impress me with their newly learned robotic vocabulary: “Hello. Where are you from?” But the question that looms in our minds — despite all of the obvious changes – is will Beijing REALLY be ready? Construction is far from done, English is relatively non-existent, and the impossible visa and ticketing situation leaves us all doubtful…if optimistic. So as the state-run newspapers count down the days to the festivities, we readers will count down the days until we can get our answers.

Blog Entry 5: Ringing in Chinese New Year
February 27, 2008

According to tradition, on the eve of Chinese New Year, families are supposed to gather to make lucky paper cuts and prepare heaps of dumplings. The red paper cuts of the “fu” character (which means happiness) are hung upside down on windows and doors so that the luck does not run out. The small pork jiaozi (dumplings) are said to look like silver ingots on a plate, so they represent a family’s wealth for the coming year.

My Chinese New Year was void of such tradition. There were no paper cuts on my windows, no red velveteen mice taped to my door to welcome the “Year of the Rat,” nor did I eat my weight in vinegar-dunked dumplings. But there certainly was not an absence of happiness or wealth.

My first Spring Festival was spent amongst the glitz and glamour of a Hong Kong holiday. Red lanterns and gilt gold decorated every mall entrance; orange tree starters dotted the sidewalks. There were whirlwind meet-and-greets with local classmates’ families, and parades marked my nightly routine. Chinese New Year put the New York City ball drop to shame.

And though this festival was celebrated on the mainland sans parade and glitz, it was no less of an experience. A former Lafayette exchange student, Cherry Qiu, with whom I had also studied in Hong Kong, welcomed me into her family in order to welcome in the rat. There were no paper cuts in the doorway, only 16 pairs of shoes. There were no flour wrappers and bowls of minced pork filling on the table, only 16 smiling faces waiting for dinner to begin. Sixteen introductions later, I sat in between Cherry and her cousin, who constantly made sure my dish was full and who squeezed my hand whenever I mentioned a Chinese pop star that she, too, fancied.

Our New Year’s Eve meal consisted of 41 dishes prepared by the youngest uncle, sparing no foul, meat, or sea creature. Plates and plates of beef, chicken, fish, calamari, eel, crabs, jellyfish, and vegetables arrived on the table, and in turn, an empty plate was returned for another fill-up. Four hours later, the now-full family retreated from the dinner table to the coffee table, where an array of snacks and tea was spread.

After stuffing a few extra pieces of chocolate into my coat pocket, Cherry’s father led the cousins and I to the street to light fireworks. I lit my very first firework and darted away to the safety of a family blockade as pink and yellow sparks shot into the sky. Our fireworks paled in comparison to those echoing off the city’s buildings, a cacophony so loud and piercing that it sounded like a war zone. Once we were out of firecrackers and our clothes saturated with the smell of sulfur, we returned to the safety of the indoors to, yet again, eat.

The Chinese New Year TV programs were in full swing, and famous TV and music personalities were parading in outlandish clothing and lip synching pop tunes. Soon, the grandparents’ eyes began to flutter closed, the adults were tiring of their card game, and the cousins were eager to return to their homes and computers. The five-hour family food fest broke up.

Driving home that evening I realized that what I had expected to be a traditional New Year’s Eve celebration turned out to be anything but. There were no formal dinner rules, no paper cuts, no dumplings. But I had everything that those traditions symbolize. I was happy. And I was lucky that 16 strangers welcomed me into their family to share the wealth of their hospitality.

Blog Entry 4: Freezing Amid Enormous Snow and Ice Sculptures
January 29, 2008

I know cold. Cold is –25 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a pretty unconceivable temperature until you’ve experienced it firsthand. Until you’ve bundled up in five layers of clothing, doubled your gloves and socks, and topped it off with an oversized cashmere scarf that renders your neck immobile. Until you’ve had ice crystals form on your eyelashes and froze to the sidewalk after stepping in a puddle. That’s when you know what cold is.

And I brr-ed it up for tickets to the “snow show.”

You see, Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, boasts one of the world’s biggest snow and ice sculpture festivals. So whether it be a snow dragon the size of a football field or an ice replica of the Acropolis, this Technicolor city of ice and snow beckons the domestic and foreign tourists alike. By day, the sun kisses the snow sculptures, each little Beijing Olympic Friendly mascot melting slowly as the sculpture artists swing pick axes at the chunks of snow that will soon be the Forbidden City. By night, pink electric lights flicker on inside ice Cinderella palaces and spotlights glint off the headlights of ice Porsche convertibles.

But back to the cold. As you can imagine, your nose goes first. Your runny nose freezes before the mucus has a chance to drip. You lose your sense of smell – even the overpriced, watered-down hot chocolate from the ice restaurant can’t thaw the olfactory zone. And unlike the ice walls, the cocoa is anything but cold, burning your tongue. Taste, then, is the next sense lost. Then goes hearing. The fuzzy hat you’ve donned does nothing to protect against the blast of Russian folk tunes at the ice rink. All the while you’re losing your sense of touch. Your toes go numb first. The cold slowly works its way up your body, deadening you to the core.

But when you lose all of these other senses, it fine-tunes the one that matters most for this festival – your sight. The ice luge off the Great Wall isn’t just a shivery chute; it’s a sliding board to a reclaimed childhood. The pile of snow waiting to be carved isn’t just a heap of white Styrofoam; it’s a mountain of creativity waiting to be explored.

To me, that’s what Beijing is – a city ripe for the taking. Lose your sense of smell to lose the stench of rush hour car exhaust. Lose your sense of taste to lose the aftertaste of cow liver kebabs. Lose your sense of hearing to lose the sound of Chinese men “clearing their throats.” Lose your sense of touch to lose the feel of being squashed against the subway windows. It may not be a palace made of ice, but Beijing’s charm lies in what you discover when all you’re left with is sight.

Blog Entry 3: Comfortable as an American in China
November 28, 2007

I was “home” for the Lafayette-Lehigh game this year and traveled the 7,000 miles back and forth to drink a Natty with my fellow alums and current students – or that’s what a number asked me when they saw this “China girl” at the tailgate. In reality, I was back stateside for a funeral, but the four-day return to grilled hamburgers, college football, and family made me realize something that I had pushed out of mind – either intentionally or not. Regardless of whether I pay my taxes in China, carry an alien residence card and work permit, or conduct my daily activities primarily in a different language, I am an American. Or as the Chinese affectionately call me and my fellow expatriates – “bi zi” (big nose).

Other than being a native speaker of English and my physical features, I consider myself a Beijinger. I have the government-issued documents; I speak Chinese to grocery shop, change money at the bank, order at restaurants, etc.; and I live in a distinctly Chinese apartment in a distinctly Chinese neighborhood. I take the bus to work in the morning, shudder at paying more than 16RMB for a plate of kung pao chicken, and think the Olympic craze has already spiraled out of control. I’ve even adopted the Beijing accent (think “arrrr” like a pirate after every word). My taxi driver the other day even told me I’ve lived in Beijing longer than he had�after I had to give him directions to my destination.

But as much as I try to – and nearly have to – be “Chinese” to survive in this bustling city, I can’t shake my “laowai” (foreigner) status. And it took an unplanned four-day trek around eastern Pennsylvania to accept that that’s perfectly OK.

My “Westerness” shines through at the gym. I jack the treadmill speed up to 11km/hour, throw my hair into a ponytail, and set into a sweat-induced pace. Just before I’m absorbed into the Cantopop music videos on the LCD in front of me, I peer at the girl “jogging” next to me�at half the speed, sweater on, hair down. She promptly gets off the machine at 11:41 minutes. As I move to the mats to do floor exercises, my trainer comes over and asks, “Ni lei ma?” (Are you tired?) “No,” I say as I start in on my second set of push-ups as he launches into a query on why Western girls sweat but Chinese women don’t.

It’s also apparent in what I buy. It’s at the point now in my tenure here where I’ve become accustomed to Chinese prices. Like I said, I balk at the thought of paying for overpriced Chinese dishes, and while I know I’m shelling out at least two or three times that for non-Chinese food (be it truly Western, Thai, Indian, Malaysian, etc.), it just seems absurd to spend 60 RMB on a curry dish when I buy lunch noodles in a chili sesame sauce for 6 RMB. Yet even more unnerving is meat shopping. Unlike the de-boned sliced meat sold in labeled packages at Wegman’s, what I see at the blood-stained meat counter is semi-butchered animals. I have to admit, though I’ve been in Beijing for five months now, I’ve yet to cook a proper meal. I’m over the non-refrigerated meat, but I can’t conceive how to express what “part” of an animal I want – much less explain my order in Chinese. Bring on the Tyson chicken breasts.

Yet my foreignness was most recently realized – and appreciated – during my celebration of Thanksgiving. I “left” China for the expatriate district on the outskirts of Beijing – a conglomeration of neighborhoods overrun with foreign families, Christmas lights, Starbucks, and a complete lack of Chinese restaurants. Seated in overstuffed chairs around a fire, we sipped Australian wine and dined on China’s version of a Thanksgiving dinner – a turkey served on a foil-covered platter of cooked carrots, cucumber, and broccoli, meatballs and bacon-wrapped sausages. The turkey was doused in a beef and cranberry gravy and served with Indian naan rather than mashed potatoes (which, thankfully, were made a la the host family). The next morning, my host dad asked if it was my first Thanksgiving away from home. And though it was, I paused to think before answering yes. Because even though the meal wasn’t stellar and the company wasn’t my family – that’s exactly what it felt like – Beijing style.

Blog Entry 2: Relationships Make a City Home
October 26, 2007

When I think back to my time in Hong Kong, I cannot conjure up a single memory from those six months that doesn’t include the people I met — whether it was the kung fu master teaching me tai chi on his rooftop balcony, my roommate serving as my life-size Cantonese dictionary and best friend, or the exchange student who was my weekend jaunt partner and sounding block for American sarcasm. So during my first few months in this monstrously large city known as Beijing, I slipped more than once into the woeful state of “I don’t have any friends.” Now, that wasn’t true in any sense of the word. I had members of my running group, my colleagues, and my classmates from Chinese school. Yet, I just didn’t feel like I had “connected” with Beijing the same way as I had to Hong Kong. And it was easiest to blame it on the “lack” of people�if that’s possible in a city of 15 million.

I was nearly convinced that people make or break a city. But now I’m positive. And it has nothing to do with quantity. In an American social climate where it seems nothing but size matters, leave it to Beijing’s finest to debunk the catchphrase.

I received an email one Monday morning, subject “to my hao de pengyou” (best friend). “Sometimes I think, what if I had never done that? Like, what if I had never said yes to the nanny job in Beijing? Or what if I had never given your housemate my business card to give to you? Then I wouldn’t have had such a fun weekend. I still haven’t stopped laughing. We need to do this again. Your hao de pengyou.” To her, it might have seemed like a small appreciation of side-splitting laughter over dishes of Thai curries and bottles of cheap beer, but to me, it signaled that Beijing was not just going to be somewhere I lived anymore; it was going to be my home.

The same feeling arose while sitting in a rough wooden rowboat in the middle of a palace lake. It was the national holiday and I had gone off on a spontaneous quest for relaxation in a small city northwest of Beijing. It was nearing the end of day three with the near-stranger I had traveled with and yet we still had not tired of each other’s company. This would never have happened in the States, I thought to myself, right before a boatful of Chinese rammed into our portside. I would never have traveled with someone I knew for two weeks and felt as though I was with a childhood friend. As we took the train home the following day, the characters for Beijing began whooshing by the window. That’s when I knew it. I was going home.

Yet these expatriate friendships are not the only relationships that have transformed my view of Beijing’s people. Most weekday lunches I visit a greasy little shop where they make niu rou bing (flaky biscuits filled with beef and onions). I am one of the few foreign faces these vendors see in a day, much less ever, and they have come to chat with me while I wait for freshly-roasted lunch. Now, I’m motioned to the front of the queue and asked if I have a Chinese boyfriend yet. I’ve acquired a personal trainer at my gym, and though I can’t understand a word of what he’s saying, his forgiving and patient smile gets me through the strenuous bench presses. And then there’s the old hunchback who plays cards every night outside my window. He doesn’t speak any more English than “OK,” but he never fails to wave good night as I pass by him on my way home from Chinese class.

I’m set to visit the States over Christmas vacation, and probably to the chagrin of my family and friends, that’s what I’ve taken to calling it – “a visit to the States.” Beijing has indeed become my home. In Chinese, you never say “I’m going home,” like you would in English. You “go” to the store, you “go” to a restaurant. Here, you always say “I’m returning home.” And so, to Beijing I will return. Again and again.

Blog Entry 1
September 11, 2007

While in the sardine can known as the 8:40 a.m. route 24 bus, I spied a foreigner trying to hail a cab. He was a tall, gangly fellow with a black bookbag, though clearly a businessman and not a backpacker. His bony hand extended into the air, catching the attention of a Beijing Red Star cabbie, who, after dodging a slew of bikers and one other cab, halted in front of my European comrade. I saw the man extract a piece of paper, presumably with an address written in Chinese. Though I could not see through the shadow covering the cabbie’s face, I knew his reaction. He first stared at the card thrust in his face, cocked his brow, flipped the card over hoping to see a rough sketch of the intersecting streets. When that was not to be found, he stared at the address a longer time, flipped it over twice more, then muttered something in heavily-accented Mandarin. The then-flustered European shook his head in similar exasperation, and repeated in poor Mandarin the address his coworkers had thought they had drilled into him. The cabbie, then, still unaware of the man’s location, simply handed the card back, shook his hand roughly about four times, and sped off in the direction of a new charge, who, as in many cases, happens to be a Chinese man with rolled pant cuffs or woman in an Easter bonnet trailing nearby knowing full well the foreigner rarely will successfully hail the cab.

I know the situation so well, because that used to be my morning ritual. Getting to work was my daily challenge. But as I learned the bus route and learned enough Chinese to direct cabbies to and from my apartment, new challenges replaced the problem of transportation. Ordering a dish in a Chinese restaurant other than the “laowai (foreign devil) special” — kung pao chicken — opening a bank account, shopping in a supermarket, navigating the alleys without tripping over a trash heap of empty beer bottles and rancid watermelon rinds. At first being unsuccessful in even the most mundane daily tasks frustrated me so much that my evening preoccupation was looking up airline prices for the Christmas holidays. And just when I thought I couldn’t take one more sweaty 8:40 a.m. bus ride, something snapped. And life got better. In fact, life got good.

It could have been the break in the 100-degree temperature. It could have been that I began picking up words and phrases in the locals’ speech. It could have been that I found a roommate who seems to be me in an “Indonesian-Chinese” form. It could have been the fantastic Shaanxi noodle restaurant. But it was a watershed moment. Suddenly, I saw those morning bus rides as portals into others’ lives. The grandmother who knits 3D bananas and apples. The teenage boy who sends text messages faster than I can even type on a computer. The Buddhist layman who tried to convert me. The pigtailed toddler with split pants.

If the bus is my portal, then my walks and runs through Beijing are my vehicle into my new life. And curiosity is the fuel. I’ve hiked the Great Wall, paddled around Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace, bargained with the vendors in the tourist markets. But even more interesting are the out-of-the-way, rarely-explored-by-foreigners areas of Beijing. Those dusty hutongs where there are still outhouses and the tenants have wrinkled faces as ancient as the architecture. The migrant worker camps on the borders of the city where the orphaned children look at you with hopeful eyes. Even my own neighborhood, lined on both sides with red-lanterned Sichuan hot pot restaurants. Each day brings a new site, a new face, and of course, a new challenge.

Yet I’ve come to thrive on these challenges. The fact that one day I could completely fall flat on my face because my Chinese is not developed enough to ask a local for something, or that I’ll get miserably lost because I cannot read the signs, or that I’ll be taken advantage of because I’m perceived to be a wealthy foreigner. But the days you don’t fall, and even the days when you do and pick yourself back up, make it worth it. To have the opportunities that I do fresh out of college — a publishing director, a food critic, an English business consultant. To have the luxuries that I have on a daily basis — eating out in restaurants for every meal, getting weekly massages, traveling on a whim.

But most of all, to have the learning experiences that I gain on a daily basis. Beijing is at the apex of its new life, propelled into global modernity by the upcoming 2008 Olympics. So too, me. We’re in a parallel universe, Beijing and I, quickly realizing what we’re capable of, and reaching with eager hands toward what is right beyond our fingertips.

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