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Beijing: tiresome flights and foreigners on different shores (Post #1).

I’m studying at Peking University 北京大學 in Beijing, China from June 19th-July 29th. Afterward, I head towards Taiwan for ten days to see the family and travel/explore. I’m going to document my experiences here. Everything will be written in English, but I’ll occasionally add Chinese definitions or phrases that won’t interrupt the reading.

My flight was at LAX at 1:15am on June 15th. I’ve been away for four days and already have too much to say. Although it will be a challenge, I’m going to condense these posts down as much as possible else risk a meter length of 10 point font rhetoric. Here goes!

I arrived at LAX at around 10:45pm. I brought two checked bags, a carry-on, and my laptop bag. The China Airlines 747 took off at 1:15am with a happy me sitting in an economy class aisle seat. Flight time was 13.5 hours, with a 9 hour layover at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (Taipei) 台灣桃園國際機場. Sleeping sucked – for the first few hours, a baby constantly cried for attention to my right, followed by serving lackluster airplane dinner at 2:30am LA time, followed by the captain uttering turbulence warnings. My knees ached like crazy and I had no leg room, so I constantly walked to the back of the plane to stretch. Breakfast was equally unfulfilling, and I finally arrived at Taoyuan at 5:30am in the morning.

US citizens are visa exempt from Taiwan and are allowed to stay in the country for less than 30 days. I didn’t have to acquire my luggage, as it would be automatically transferred to my 3:45pm Beijing flight. During my layover, my grandma and aunt took the Bullet Train 高鐵 from their cities Chiayi 嘉義 and Taichung 台中 to keep me company and to bring me some essential supplies. On the contrary, my carry-on bag were things that my mom packed for them. During this time, I skyped with Susan and called home using Berkeley VPN and Google Call. It was during this time where I realized that I had brought my laptop charger but forgotten the adapter. Battery life quickly dwindled down as I pondered over my own carelessness.

My two relatives arrived at around 8:30am and brought pastries and milk to satisfy my hunger. I hadn’t been back to the country in four years; my grandma looked much different (older) 比較老. 其實,看到她有一點讓我傷心。We talked for several hours before walking down to the underground food court. They ordered for me some steak and cod, with an egg, spaghetti and croissant corn soup (that’s a made up name). We went back into the airport arrival terminal to hang out, only to notice a lot of girls lining up at the arrival station. They all carried cameras or signs in Korean, and we found out that a Korean pop star 韓國明星 was arriving soon. I wanted to call my mom with my aunt and grandma on the line so I brought my laptop back out. I was having trouble connecting to the free WiFi and asked a white person sitting nearby, in English, how the internet was. He replied with a foreign accent that everything was OK.

 
I have missed you, Taiwan food. My relatives were very “meh” about the quality.
After some effort, the internet worked and I got to call my mom. After we hung up, I approached the foreigner and started talking to him. His name is Sascha, age 40, and he had just flown in from Beijing. He is an architect from Germany and has been all over the world for business. I saw his two year old passport and each page was filled with visas stacked on top of each other:  Is that even legal?! I saw Russia, United Arab Emirates, France, US, Australia, Canada, amongst others. We had a nice conversation going when the Korean pop star arrived; hundreds of fan girls screamed and took pictures and rushed him. The entire arrival terminal echoed with footsteps as they frantically ran around – three girls turned and almost body slammed me into the ground as they tried to chase him down. Sascha and I exchanged contact information afterwards and he said that the next time he was in the LA or Bay Area, “we will go to Outback for a steak.”
At 2:15pm, I said my goodbyes to my aunt and grandma and went through customs. I went to my terminal and immediately saw Elizabeth seated in the corner. She also attends Berkeley and we had been in contact through Facebook; we knew that we would be on the same connecting flight. We had a pleasant talk and she made a very good first impression. We boarded the plane at 3:10pm and endured the next three hours on yet another flight.
Dinner was served after we reached altitude and it was once again lackluster – mushroom spaghetti with cut fruit, a piece of bread, and a small piece of cake. Despite telling myself that I would hold out until the night to sleep, I knocked out within five minutes of finishing the meal and woke up right before we began to descend. We landed at around 6:30pm or so.
Beijing China International Airport 北京首都國際機場 is epic. The place is huge. The roof looked as if it was made out of bamboos forming a birds nest. The roof was incredibly high, perhaps a hundred feet above us and shaped into a dome. Elizabeth and I filled out arrival papers and nervously went through immigration hoping there wouldn’t be any issues. The foreign service officer made small talk with me and asked where my parents were. I hesitantly replied Taiwan wondering if I was going to be interrogated, or at the least, put to shame. He was friendly though and no problems occured. After going through immigration, we took a tram down to baggage claims. My only airport experiences have been LAX (Los Angeles), TPE (Taoyuan), and MMSD (Los Cabos) and none had a tram inside the airport – something new and eye opening.
We claimed our baggage and went through customs – or the remnants of it. The station was empty and unmanned, and I was really taken aback by the general apathy of the Chinese people. We arrived at the entrance of the airport which looked like a sports stadium. Elizabeth and I sat for a while until another guy in a UCEAP shirt approached us. His name is Andy Chua and he’s a Berkeley international student from Singapore. Our student assistant eventually found us at 8:30pm. Her name is Miao and she’s finishing her 3rd year at PKU. She grew up and lives in Beijing. At 9pm, the last two members of the evening flight showed up. Their names are Guadalupe and Zenia and they’re both from Santa Barbara.
 
If it weren’t for fear of getting dismantled by Chinese officials, I would have taken pictures of the bamboo-like roof at the immigration station. Here’s the facade of the airport.
We took a PKU shuttle from the airport to school which was about a 45 minute bus ride. I fell asleep during this time, but not before I observed a fair amount of the outskirts of Beijing. It looked very similar to Taiwan with a lot of trees and large shrubs and similar civil engineering. We finally arrived at our destination at 10:20pm: Global Village 中觀新園, the newest university housing for international students. The place looked like an embassy or memorial site, and Miao stared in envy and explained that she lived in poor housing in comparison. We got our room key after paying the deposit of 500 RMB. Note that around 6.3 RMB 人名幣 is 1 USD. The full amount due for the six week program is 4085 RMB. Seeing that I had only brought 1500 RMB on me, I had to withdraw money from any nearby bank to pay the full amount tomorrow. With 39 students across the UC system, all but two would be living in Building 3.
 
Buildings 2 and 3 out of 9 modern beauties. Trust me, YOU MAD!
I’m living in a suite with a room all to myself which is really roomy. I’m on the 7th floor in a 13 floor complex. I have two other roommates and we share a common area and bathroom. One of my roommates was already present and his name is Kee Young. He’s an international student from Korea, is finishing his 3rd year at PKU, and only speaks mandarin and Korean. The other room was unoccupied.
The weather in Beijing was hot, even at 11pm in the evening. As Elizabeth and I hadn’t brought sufficient currency to pay the full housing amount, we both walked around looking for a suitable bank to withdraw additional money. Debit accounts in the US allow only a withdraw limit of 3,000 RMB a day so we wanted to get some cash out before midnight struck. As we were walking, my ethnocentrism was heavily challenged as I saw so many non-Chinese people walking around school territory. Each one that we overheard or talked to spoke excellent mandarin.
There were a ton of banks located just a couple streets or blocks away from each other. I didn’t want my Bank of America visa to get charged interest or a large transaction fee, so we looked for a China Construction Bank which has an agreement with BoA. We walked around trying to get directions from any friendly face. Seeing that I didn’t know how to say China Construction Bank 中国建设银行, no one was able to help direct me towards the right corner. A Russian student named Constantine decided to help us and lead the way. Along the way, we stopped by a small bar and met a couple students from San Jose, as well as Holland and Ukraine.
Constantine lead us to what he thought to be a China Construction Bank. Along the way, we found out that he had finished studied at PKU for a whole year and was flying back to Russia the next day. He didn’t like his experience in Beijing due to his inability to enjoy the food here – he lost 22 pounds in the two semesters.  His mandarin was good, his English even better, and he spoke fluent Russian. He lead us to a Bank of China thinking that was what we were looking for. Elizabeth suggested that I first withdrew 1,100 RMB, then retrieve the remainder the next day to pay the full amount for housing. After I took my money out, I printed and read the receipt to figure out how much I was charged and what my remaining balance was. When I turned back towards the ATM machine, it said “session timed out” and confiscated my card. I didn’t know that after a minute of inactivity, the machine would eat my card to prevent others from stealing it – a safeguard for those who forget to remove their card. Uneasiness ensued for next hour.
I first tried pressing any button to try to retrieve the card. I then tried to insert my blood donor card to see if the machine had actually jammed. I finally pressed the emergency button in the ATM booth and got no response from the other end of the intercom. Constantine tried calling the  emergency number and handed me the phone – I didn’t understand the options in mandarin, but the English option was so horrible to understand; they applied a Beijing tongue rolling accent to the words. It would have been easier to decipher the words in mandarin. In the end, we gave up. We said goodbye to Constantine and headed back towards Global Village.
Elizabeth and I parted ways and I went to the receptionist to ask for assistance. She called the number and was able to get past the automated machine into a live operator. The operator told her that I could retrieve my card within three business days at the Bank of China headquarters. She asked them to, if possible, expedite the deliver on my behalf as I am an international student. She then patiently drew out a route for me of how to reach the headquarters on Monday.
I finally got back to my room at 12:45am. I had been exhausted, as I had insufficient rest on the plane and car rides. I mustered the rest of my strength to unpack and settle in, took a shower, and went to sleep at 1:50am.
 
This concludes my long travel time and first night at Beijing! The next post is about my second day in Beijing touring Peking University and scouring through several city blocks.
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