Sunday, May 06, 2007

The 798 Art District is the nucleus of Beijing’s hyper-hyped art scene. In the 50’s, a number of factories were constructed in order to produce necessary electronics, but became obsolete after China opened up. In the late 90’s, artists started moving to this area for inexpensive studio space and currently the entire area abounds with galleries and hip coffee shops. As far as I can tell, no art is currently being made in Soho, as the rent has gotten too high for anything but a successful gallery or hip coffee shop. 798’s gentrification parallels New York’s Soho. The art was alright, but not excellent. The best part was the buildings that housed the art.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A weekend of studying before the last week yielded some free time to attend China’s largest music festival, Midi. Midi is China’s first modern music school, which years ago began hosting a festival showcasing the music of its students. What began as a one-day concert has evolved into a corporate-sponsored 4-day long extravaganza featuring five stages which each showcase a certain genre. After wandering around for two hours trying to find the park where this was taking place, we finally arrived to witness a very un-Chinese sight – there was a huge line of people who were all very well dressed. This was strange for two reasons. Firstly, the Chinese don’t line up and instead prefer to shove and push their way to their destination. The phenomenon of standing in a line, though rarely seen, is the result of the Beijing government preparing for the Olympics. On the 11th of every month, volunteers force masses of people into neat queue in order to board subways and busses. Though I imagine that this was originally difficult to manage, people are now doing it on their own, submitting to the government’s call to do their part to help out with the Olympics. The second strange incident was that everyone was very well dressed. However, they weren’t dressed in drab darks and gray dress shirts as if they were going to visit their in-laws, the uniform of most Chinese men I see on the street. They also weren’t they donning the gaudy jewelry and high-heels of Beijing sophisticates. Nor was anyone was trying to pull off something that doesn’t suit them, a common sight in Beijing’s bars. Rather, they were wearing very much the same thing I saw most people wearing at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago - hip, relaxed and well-put-together outfits that looked good on a scrawny person, such as an American hipster or an average Chinese guy.

As we drew closer, we quickly realized that a large number of the attendees were not Chinese, but rather were assorted foreigners. Perhaps a full eighth of the attendees were 老外. However, that did not make the mesmerizing effect of the crowd any less strange. Often when looking at the stage, you only see the back of people’s head – their hair. But, this crowd was different because everyone’s hair was black, which sort of hypnotized me. I felt empathy for the hypnotized lion who has cannot decipher one zebra from another when staring at a herd. This effect was magnified at the rock stage, as everyone was also wearing black t-shirts. Still, I wasn’t in enough of a trance to enjoy, Honey Gun, the nü-metal band (pictured left) that came out. They began their show by broadcasting, over the jumbo-tron, their music video, which depicted them racing cars through the streets of Shanghai and rocking out in both an abandoned apartment building and a cube floating over the city. When they finally came out, they were wearing the same clothes as in the music video. If that wasn’t disastrous enough, they began playing their instruments, which my companions and I took as a sign to see what else was going on at the festival.

There was a hip-hop stage where some American schmuck copped DJ Shadow and small rave tent, but the best part was the experimental music stage, in front of which about 200 gorgeous and incredibly dressed Chinese sat in the shade and listened to the ambient noise flowing from the speakers. As I had said earlier, the Chinese have a thing for photography and these people were no exception, as they continuously were snapping shots. However, these were the kind of people who preferred film over digital and would rather take a picture of their feet than a flower. Everyone was sitting with their self-designed clothes and a husband-wife group came out who played traditional Chinese instruments while doing noise. The wife must had been traditionally trained, as she clearly had control over her instrument. After we saw that, we decided to leave to go studying, as this last week is finals. In fact, I ought to get to studying right now.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I’ll add a picture of the Crocs ad when I get one.

In the last entry, I explained my voyage into the world of getting paid for letting people take my picture. This odyssey continued last Friday and Saturday, and became more and more strange, as everyone decided that I knew how to speak perfect Chinese. While this was a great opportunity to practice, at most times it resembled the photography scene from Lost in Translation, an inevitable comparison that was playing through my head all the while. I was photographed with a hip-hop dancer from Shanghai, a 19-year-old Crocs salesman, the beautiful trophy wife of an English businessman, and a Canadian dude-bro who couldn’t stop hitting on the hip-hop dancer.

The Canadian was interesting. He had spent four summers in China interning at various offices and is now studying Mandarin and looking for work, trying to break into the circle of foreigners that work in the Beijing offices of various foreign companies. His Chinese was alright, but not good enough to get anywhere with the hip-hop dancer. When he wasn’t ogling her, he was either nonchalantly telling me about his hilariously dull experiences in the Beijing club circuit or doing a strange dance that I have come to recognize as the foreigner networking jig. The jig has a few basic steps, which include ostentatious displays of ritzy cell phones, loud discussions of future job prospects, and taking down numbers. Beyond the basic steps, there are more advanced ones, such as taking pictures of your contacts in order to remember them or explaining how you first got a job in Beijing (perhaps the best story I have heard was, “I called them and told them I spoke some Chinese and had buying. . . I mean purchasing experience,” Which I think means that this person took some Chinese in college and had seen their future employer’s product on the shelf.) I had thought that this sort of social networking was a real-life version of the friend-collection that is currently taking place on and, but then I asked my boss to explain. Apparently, the foreigner labor market in China, though much more stable than ten years ago, is still very unpredictable, and a stray contact on your cell phone could land a job, as Western-trained minds are still a hot commodity despite the growing savvy of less expensive Chinese labor.

I'm done with school here in two weeks. My plans after that are still to be determined, but now it looks like I'm going to go to India for three weeks and then Malaysia for two weeks after that. I'll then return to China and tour around until the 1st of July. I want to be in the Twin Cities on the 4th.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

I recently was afforded another break, which I had to spend in Beijing in order to arrange my visa to India. The first two days of break were spent waiting in front of the Indian Embassy, watching professional tour guides skip the long line in order to process the visas of twenty Chinese citizens who plan to run amuck in New Delhi while toting $4000 SLR cameras and wearing identical fluorescent hats. A strange thing about the Chinese tourism business is that there is still the image of the “bushwhacker” anthropologist wearing all khaki and documenting his findings for the world. In most ads concerning tourism in China or abroad, this image persists, contrasting sharply with the reality I see at every mildly-touristy spot- 30 Chinese people all wearing the same thing, following around a flag-bearing tour guide while snapping close-up pictures of fake flowers.

However, my break was not without its benefits. Because I was here, I was available to model for Crocs, an American shoe company specializing in ugly foam shoes. One of my classmates works for this company and needed to find an Asian-looking boy to model these shoes. So, I was invited to go out to eat at a ritzy Chinese restaurant. (I think the greatest part of my study abroad has been mingling with all classes of people, a freedom I don’t exercise in the US.) They decided I “looked healthy enough” and told me to go to their office the next day so we could go to the Great Wall to take pictures.

The next day, my classmate and I went to their office, and we took an extremely expensive cab ride to “The Commune”, a hotel complex overlooking the Badalang portion of the Great Wall. When the hotel was first constructed, it won international praise for its modernist architecture. While I was there, it was clear that this praise was well-deserved, as each of the two-dozen structures on the compound were unique and complex. However, the buildings, made of bamboo, rusting metal, and huge panes of glass, weren’t suited for housing the event that was taking place that day – an Easter celebration catering to rich Chinese families. Children played among priceless works of art crafted by masters of the contemporary Beijing scene, finding painted eggs among the meticulously planted shrubbery. Among all of this commotion, the fathers of the children were recording their child’s every move with the aforementioned $4000 cameras. Most of the servants, who greatly outnumbered the patrons, wore the same thing – black pants and a matching black shirt with a single red star on the chest. Some servants, however, were forced to wear different clothes, forced to dress as clowns and enormous bunny rabbits in order to entertain the children. Perhaps the least strange sight was me - amidst all of this, I was wearing horrendously ugly shoes while getting photographed atop and inside the award-winning modernist architecture.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Poorly written, but I have homework:

In China, there are two kinds of tourist spots – those that westerners visit and those that westerners do not visit. Tai Shan is one that westerners do not visit. Because it is relatively remote and not especially Chinese, most Western tour companies rarely bother with it. As a result, ticket prices are cheaper and accommodations are a little bit shabbier. Also, Chinese from the neighboring small cities are more likely to take short train rides there for a jaunt rather than going all the way to Beijing. These middle-class workers and college students rarely have the opportunity to see westerners. While Beijingers see white faces every day, the average Chinese person perhaps sees one a year. And when they are sightseeing, a white face is just another part of the spectacle. While I can occasionally blend in, and often do when walking in Beijing with my Asian-descendent classmates, it’s impossible with my friend Anna, who was gawked at by most of our fellow hikers. Often people would awkwardly utter a “Hello” and occasionally people would ask for pictures. Inevitably, our Chinese was better than their English.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

At the Great Wall, I could only think of how tedious it must have been for the soldiers who spent their entire lives sitting up there, endlessly watching the brown hills. Some of the soldiers, those recruited from the nearby areas, likely worked on the wall their entire lives and didn't know which side they were defending and which side they were defending from. I could elaborate, but suffice to say the Great Wall isn't very spectacular.

I've been relatively active, but haven't been good about documenting my movement. This weekend, I plan to go climb a mountain. I'm doing better at school, the sun is coming out, I've finally made some Chinese friends, and the paradoxes of the modern Chinese concepts of freedom and individuality are gradually becoming less muddled, yet more complex. I'm surprising myself with my initial conclusions, but have to hash out my true opinion before putting it into words. It's difficult to revise your entire conception of freedom. Sorry for being so cryptic - though this blog has recently recieved critical praise, I shouldn't rest on my laurels.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My host university's long break, which is essentially the same America's summer break, has finally ended, which has made our campus a lot less desolate. The students' return has revealed a number of specifities of Chinese universities, most notably the daily blaring of music. Each day, after classes end, speakers placed all around campus loudly play Chinese pop music. When I asked one of my teachers to explain this custom, she told me that administration requests that music play all over campus and in the students' dorms (just the domestic students, thank God) in order to make everyone feel relaxed after class. However, she said, this is an ostensible explanation, as the administration true motive is to keep students from falling asleep after class. Indeed the synthesized wailings of a Chinese pop star makes it difficult to doze off.

My bike was stolen despite tremendous effort spent locking it properly using only a puny Chinese lock. The realization that it was stolen was not accompanied with the usual feelings of violation and anger, as I would feel in the US. I assumed that was a sign that I was still not entirely accustomed to China - to me, my environment is strange and dangerous, so I half-expected it to get stolen. However, when I told my teachers, they also were not at all surprised, as it is a common occurance in Beijing.