A sliver of China
June 14, 2005
BEIJING, China – A typical day here is never without people speeding down the highways in brand new Audis or Mercedes, right past a pack of dusty migrant workers struggling and sweating to roll their rusty bikes holding refrigerators, washing machines and just about anything you can imagine across town.
Life here is an adventure.
Even walking up the block I can’t avoid taking a detour into a small local shop or village where the people insist on butchering English as I reciprocate in Mandarin. One such place is this Xiao Chi Dianî (which means little food shop) across the street from my apartment complex.
In the States, people wouldn’t dare eat in it, as the floors are filthy, the tables are sticky with vinegar spillage, and hard rice struggles to be chipped off the table from yesterday’s messy customers.
I tell myself that the food is cooked over fire, and the germs are all gone – not to mention it tastes great. I generally order dumplings and fried rice with some cold green tea, and I’m a happy camper. That is, of course, when my brain and Chinese are functioning in unison and I can actually get the order across to the woman sitting behind the counter with no knowledge of even the word “Hello.”
So many people ask me, “What’s China like?” “Are you homesick?” “Are the people nice?” And answers are difficult to articulate.
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Every day is truly a different adventure.
The cool part about being here is that at some point every day I usually find myself standing either on a street corner or perched on my bike in bewilderment amidst the honking horns, the bells of bike riders, petrochemical fumes, and the hubbub of China, wondering, “How the heck did I end up here?”
I never dreamed I would be standing on the other side of the world with 1.3 billion neighbors, but here I am – surreal.
Many people also ask me about the language, which, of course, is the biggest challenge. I think most people can relate to me when I say up until my arrival in China (even after two years of studying it), Chinese seemed like very fast gibberish with lots of ëings, ëongs, and yangs emitting a very confusing sound. After a month in Beijing, though, I’m starting to get it. The long string of nihaoguomaoshingchingbingring has finally become separate sentences with separate words and even meanings, most of which I understand. I have even begun to dream in Chinese, which some have told me is a sign that my language is improving. I’m a firm believer that full immersion works best.
The best aspect about being here is the invaluable experience of seeing my history books in action (and for all you students out there, history is really one of the most important subjects. Study it and it will bring you a long way in college and beyond).
Standing on the hollowed ground of Tiananmen Square with Chairman Mao gazing over the masses, being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Square that can hold 1 million people if fully packed, snapping pictures in the same walkways, gardens, and temples where Imperial China once flourished inside the Forbidden City, hiking up the Great Wall of China and gazing out over the formidable mountain range that terrified any invading force, studying people lifting their deepest prayers to the Divine at the center marble of the Temple of Heaven, strolling through a “hu tong” where the Chinese ideal of community really becomes palpable as I watch children playing with each other in the street and adult men circled around a checkers board, meandering through the markets as the locals shout and fervently bargain over 10 cents, saying Hail Mary’s in the back of the taxi cabs that swerve dangerously through heavy traffic, bikers, pedestrians, hoping I won’t die, cringing as I eat the yellow innards of cicadas, feel the gush of a chicken heart against my palate, taste rabbit, and feast on cow tongue, experiencing deformed children begging me for money on the street and trying extra hard because I am a foreigner, using the public toilet that makes any portable toilet in the States smell like blooming lilacs, internalizing the pensive stare of an elderly man or woman who is a living relic, having trudged through China’s roller coaster of a history.
The most exciting part is that my journey is just beginning. The more experiences I undergo, the more people I meet, and the more open my eyes become, the more I realize I have only brushed the surface of this canvas we call our world.
n Ryan Costella, a former Carson High School student, is in Beijing.