故宫: The Forbidden City

春节快乐!Chinese New Year is officially over, which for my daily life basically means the end of the setting of an unholy amount of fireworks. From the time I arrived in Beijing until the end of the festival, each day’s end meant a chorus of popping fireworks wherever you go, and it sounds like a warzone. They’re incredibly cheap, and people set them off in the middle of apartment complexes, on the street, anywhere. During the New Year people have to keep their windows closed, or risk a firework through the window—I did see one hit the side of an apartment building.

The Terra Cotta Lantern Soldiers

On the last night of the New Year celebrations, or 元宵节 (the Lantern Festival), There was to be a traditional lantern show in 前门(Qianmen), but it was apparently cancelled for some reason. So, we ventured instead to 三里屯(Sanlitun), where there was to be a more modern lantern show themed “Terra Cotta Army in Air.”

(On a side note: Upon returning to DC, I will never feel quite right paying for a cab again—together, the twenty minute cab ride to, and the twenty-minute return trip from Sanlitun totaled just over eight dollars, split between three people.)

We wandered rather lost for around a half hour, because the taxi driver’s vague, unintelligible directions and waving failed us immensely, but eventually found the lanterns.

In this time abroad in Beijing, mine is primarily a linguistic adventure. The non-immersion students go out all the time, and have significantly less work, which I look on with some jealousy. Added to that, the language pledge necessitates a certain degree of separation between immersion and non-immersion students, at least with the non-immersion students who have never taken Chinese before. All that being said, I don’t think I would be quite satisfied with non-immersion. In my program I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated and determined as I am to improve their language skills, and work hard to do it. It is, however, a relief on the weekends to be able to hang out with non-immersion a little more. Everyone I knew from before coming here is non-immersion, and seeing them on the weekends is a nice change of pace; During the week, I spend several hours a day with the exact same people (my class has three other people in it), and even in English that would get a little old fast.

This weekend, all of us in the program (immersion and non-immersion) went to the Forbidden City. I cannot communicate the sheer size of this place. We unfortunately didn’t have near enough time to explore, but just walking around was incredible.

There were so many beautiful details and textures.

Before coming here, pretty much everyone had told me that people in China would stare at me for being a foreigner. But honestly, since Beijing is such a large city, with such a relatively large number of foreigners, I’m honestly surprised to find that it’s true. Pile on top of that the fact that we, with varying degrees of success, are speaking in Chinese, and you become a super-curiosity. When I walk down the street with Zoe, and people see and hear her speaking Chinese, and me attempting to respond, the double-takes are incredibly entertaining. A few times people, most often younger kids, have run up in front of us to take pictures. So I’ve decided that when carrying my camera, upon encountering an especially interesting stare, I’m going to blatantly capture the best “you’re-a-foreigner” expressions while returning with my own best, “I-know-I’m-a-foreigner!” face.

Zoe with a fan of her red hair.

In my recent travels, my appreciation for teachers in general has gone way up. Between watching Jake prepare lessons, and now living with Shi Wei as she grades and prepares lessons while I’m doing homework, I have a new understanding of just how much work goes into it. A night earlier this week, Shi Wei had invited over a friend to make dinner at our apartment. That friend turned out to be my main teacher, Chen Laoshi, who, as it turns out, comes over a lot. I had the incredibly odd experience of staying up until 12:30 in the morning finishing homework, and preparing for a lesson the next day, ten feet away from where my teacher was staying up equally late preparing to teach the same lesson. Repeat situation tonight.

One of the most difficult parts of being here continues to be the clash of the language pledge with everyday interactions at stores and restaurants. Chinese isn’t like Spanish, where you can sound out what something says. If a sign or a menu doesn’t have pinyin or English on it, you just cannot pronounce it. It’s a hugely helpless feeling. I continue to look up words as best I can when I can, but on top of learning all the class words and grammar, it’s a struggle.

After a week of speaking Chinese-only, when we were allowed to use English again, I had a strange moment; I forget the situation, but my roommate used a fairly specific, generally uncommonly used, beautiful English word to describe something. This word was perfectly nuanced for what she was trying to describe, and after a week of not being able to say with any kind of precision exactly what we wanted to convey (me especially), that perfection was absolutely startling to both of us.

I have adopted a slightly odd tactic when it comes to my discussion and oral classes: I pretend I’ve had a drink or two. Everyone I’ve ever talked to, teachers especially, have said that having a drink or two helps get rid of your fear of making mistakes, and you’re more likely to try to say things you don’t fully have command of to try to get your point across. After the teacher puzzles out what you’re trying to say, they help you correct your grammar, you repeat the correct structure after them, and you move on. I’ve been far too afraid to make spoken mistakes, and so have been far too timid in spoken classes, and that definitely has to stop. This tactic, however strange, seems to be working so far. Less thinking, more talking.


  • Slightly bothersome: At least 90% of the advertisements here feature white models.
  • Ever seen those commercials with an unusually happy woman jumping on a bed with a red wine glass that miraculously doesn’t spill? I could do that, except it’s like jumping on a table instead of a cloud. Oddly enough, I sleep quite well on it.
  • Partially thanks to my roommate, I am newly obsessed with bubble tea. It was around in Dallas during high school, and more vaguely so in DC, but it’s literally everywhere here, and completely delicious. Also baozi and jianbing.
  • My roommate from Korea brought a veritable feast’s worth of Korean food with her, so we’ve all been sharing, and it’s a damn shame I had to come all the way to China to discover Korean red sauce. (So. Good.)
  • My roommates and I spent half an hour, in Zoe’s words, “Trying and failing to make fire.” No dice until Shi Wei came back: It turns out the gas lever lives inside the top cabinet, which everyone but me needs a stool to reach.
  • Re: Above—Have I mentioned I’m the tallest one in my apartment? And Chen Laoshi consistently refers to me as “tall?” This has never, ever in my life been something anyone has ever called me.

Sorry for the choppy post- no time to parse it together! Wanted to get it out before I head back into the language pledge this week. Thanks for keeping up with me here. I hope you’re all doing well and have a lovely upcoming week!


6 thoughts on “故宫: The Forbidden City

  1. Hey,
    I admire the thoroughness of your writing. You’ve managed to get a lot of the stuff you and your thoughts down on paper…that’s hard stuff! I hope you’re enjoying Beijing so far. I’m also in Beijing (been here for about 5 months now). You can check my stuff out and feel free to hit me up with any questions! Though, you seem to be doing alright.

    1. Wow thank you! Very nice of you to say. I’ll definitely check out your stuff. I’m having so much fun here– hope you’re enjoying it, too! But sure, here’s a question– what are some of your favorite things to do here that you wish someone had told you sooner?

  2. Fantastic pictures! I find particular appreciation of the menu. I can only imagine trying to decipher it. It’s a good thing you are so comfortable with asian foods and willing to branch out and try new things.

    Seeing the photos of the Forbidden City bring home the fact that you are actually there! I’ve only seen the Forbidden City on TV in the news media. I love seeing all the details up close. You certainly don’t get an appreciation for the details in the news.

    Zoe looks like a fun roommate. I love the red hair! Hopefully, you can get your teacher to take a few pictures of you with both of your roommates sometime…

    Miss you tons! Keep up the good work and have fun while you’re at it! 🙂

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