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I’m happy to say that last week helped me accomplish one of my goals here in Beijing, to get published in a magazine! (Actually, I got 2 articles published in Agenda and one in The Beijinger. Can’t say I like the pic much in Agenda, but you can download my letter from the Editor if you so desire! pg. 3)

The following (for you loyal readers) is the full first installent from the Local Local Challenge, not just the editor’s cut!

It’s the last week before hosting the biggest event I’ve run in Beijing, I just moved to the expat-friendly area of Chaoyang Park West Gate, I’m training for a half marathon and I get a call from my friend.

“Hey, remember that local local challenge idea we were talking about? Let’s do it this month!”

Of course, being the impulsive and excitable person that I am, I don’t think twice and dive right in. The idea of the Local Local Challenge came about as myself and a few friends were discussing ways to more authentically participate in local culture in Beijing. The girls participating in the challenge and I have found our lives becoming increasingly western due to our jobs, lack of Chinese speaking skills and the comfort of participating in activities that are anything but local. We often hang out in Sanlitun, eat at burger and pizza joints, shop at Ikea, and buy groceries at Jenny Lou’s. To be honest, I probably would not have made it nearly two years in China without most of these creature comforts, but it’s a far cry from my initial six months in Tangshan, where I was one of the only foreigners in a “town” of 1.8 million people, was forced to carry around a dictionary because I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese, and avoided western restaurants because the only three were KFC, Pizza Hut and Alba Pizza. For a brief period of time I truly immersed myself in local Chinese culture, and still experience personal and professional benefits of that experience.

Since moving to Beijing my life has gotten a lot more comfortable, but I find myself less and less likely to explore the city and culture that initially brought me to China. Supported by my commitment to blog about my experiences for The Beijinger, I figured that this challenge would force me to re-discover Beijing, or at least push me to get outside of my increasingly expat comfort zone. The idea is simple; try to eat and play locally as much as possible. Chinese lessons and TCM are encouraged, as are riding bikes over taxis and supporting local farmers and food street vendors. My overall completion of the challenge, as judged by The Beijinger staff, will be based on a qualitative analysis of my effort to make cultural connections throughout the month of November. There’s no pretending I didn’t make a late-night McDonald’s run, or have a glass of imported Italian wine; opting for baozi and baijiu would be much more suitable.

The challenge began on November 1st, and I have been taking photos and notes about my experience for a week now. Day one started out quite strong. Breakfast consisted of a TCM-appropriate meal of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. I donned a sweater and shirt I recently bought at the Ladies’ Market in Liangmaqiao and headed off on my bike to register at the local police station. What could be more authentic than good ‘ol Chinese bureaucracy? Next I headed to Yoga Yard, which isn’t exactly the most local of activities, but the bi-lingual classes are a good place to practice my Chinese listening skills. Thinking about lunch was causing me anxiety as I headed to work in Guomao. My limited speaking and inability to read Chinese characters often dissuades me from conversing with local shop owners about what’s on their menu, because I have to point at food or simply ask if they have certain items on the menu. They often look at me like I’m a bit deranged, pointing to the poster-sized Chinese menu on their wall. Fortunately, I came across a di gua (sweet potato) street vendor and baozi shop when I purchased lunch with dou jiang (soy milk) for 9.5RMB. Simple, yet delicious and filling. Unfortunately my schedule was so hectic that I only managed to grab a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner, but overall a good first day.

On Wednesday morning I biked down the third ring road and really paid attention to just how many breakfast vendors are out in the morning. Before 10am it’s quite easy to find these kiosks anywhere from Jinsong to Beitucheng along this route. I made a mental note and headed onward. I had to make a pick-up around Chaowai SOHO, and bought lunch at the very local but traditionally Chinese establishment of 7-11. I always get a kick out of seeing how this American franchise has adapted to the Chinese market, with slurpees and Doritos being replaced with Chinese buffets and to-go noodles. Clearly the strategy is working, as the lines out the door for 7-11 lunch in China far surpass those in the States. One culinary delight that is a staple in both countries are the hot dogs, mmm. I bought pears, chestnuts, to-go noodles and sliced bread. Incidentally, there is a great Chinese canteen on the 6th floor of Chaowai SOHO building A, but I didn’t have time to stop in. On my way back from work I stopped for the first time at the fruit vendors under the Tuanjiehu bridge and purchased bananas and persimmons for 16RMB. I was so happy I took a break to stop and chat, as the vendor a jovial guy who threw some free zao (Chinese dates) into my bag! I was a little disheartened to see that despite my efforts to buy local, the bananas were from the Philippines!

Thursday morning I was making program deliveries for Chi Fan for Charity to the Sanlitun restaurants, and really noticed just how little Chinese food exists in the Village. Since the evening food vendors weren’t out, I grabbed a quick lunch of fried bread with bean paste and lettuce (jidan guanbing) from the only vendor available, and staved off my extreme desire to get a mango and red bean ice drink from Herbal Café. I almost made the exception due to the red bean…but I’m committed! For dinner I was in a rush and stopped by for the first time to eat ma la tong on the Sanlitun food street. I soon realized that this dining style is not exactly the ideal selection for a quick meal, and ended up waiting for about twenty minutes for a bowl of veggies. I do miss healthy, quick options like sandwiches and salads…but I digress. A big bowl of ma la tong was satisfying and only 16RMB (1 kuai per stick.)

On Friday morning my roommate made me a “Chinese sandwich” with jian bing, spring onions, cured pork and hoisin sauce. A car hit me on the way to work (I’m ok, minimal bruising, and what could be more authentically Beijing?) and the Chi Fan for Charity silent auction team ordered a great Chinese dinner of dan chao fan (egg fried rice), tu dou si, di san xian and spicy green beans. (name?)

On Saturday morning my knee was a bit swollen, so I opted to take a cab to work. I teach at an international school on Saturdays and we always order a local Chinese feast for lunch. I stopped by Jinkelong instead of Jenny Lou’s to pick up some groceries and purchased a seasonal favorite, nan gua xiao mifan jo (pumpkin porridge.) Unfortunately for the challenge, after the porridge purchase my weekend morphed into an entirely indulgent 3-day expatty rampage. I helped run the 3rd Annual Chi Fan for Charity dining event and ate at Hercules and drank imported alcohol at Hatsune. However, we raised over 300,000RMB for local Beijing charities Bethel and New Hope, so that has to help me gain back a few local points!

By Sunday I was completely wiped out from work and thinking about going local. At the request of friends (and a party to which I had previously committed to help host) I bought German bread, imported cheese and wine, and generally failed to do anything local. On Monday the most local thing I managed to do was fix my internet with the phone company, and attempt to eat at Noodle Bar in Sanlitun with a friend. Unfortunately the noodle bar was completely packed and we opted for nachos and Vietnamese at Luga’s Pho Pho. Aya! I WILL make up for these non-local splurges!

Conclusion:
The intricacies of going local as an expat in Beijing are challenging in different ways than I expected. Yes, language and general lack of time pose significant barriers, but I found it most difficult to balance the inconvenience that it causes other expats in the bubble. After a long day of work, it was hard to suggest to a tired friend that we explore the city and perhaps have a frustrating experience in efforts to discover an awesome hole in the wall restaurant. Scheduling a business lunch at a local dive or food street isn’t exactly practical, and I run the risk of seeming unprofessional to make this suggestion with clients. I wanted to suggest going completely local for my friends’ party, but they were already excited to offer champagne and cheese, so I didn’t think it was worth a fight. Despite my best efforts to remain frugal, I still spent 642.50RMB (325.50 if you don’t count the party I helped host), which is far more than I should really need to spend. Overall I made much more of an effort to go local than during my previous time in Beijing, but I still didn’t get far outside the bubble.

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So we had nothing at all to do today, so we decided to try to see a little bit of the city we will be living in.  We went with Eddie and Sally (owners of the school) and the other teacher, David.  The first place we stopped at was one of the major outdoor markets, which was an interesting experience.  It started with 4 of us getting in the back of a 3 wheel, motorized cart.  These things are all over the place, and they are just really cheap taxis.  You can see a picture of 3 of us and the driver all crammed into the little cabin.  At the market, there was a huge meat and fish market which was a little depressing, and I don’t think it would have quite passed the US’s food and health inspection.  Everyone was pretty surprised to see a bunch of foreigners walking around, and would laugh at our attempts at speaking Chinese (except for Sally who is Chinese).  They sell lots of random things as well, like mops, gloves, batteries, light bulbs, video games…pretty much you name it, they have it.  It probably isn’t authentic or high quality, but they probably have it.  I got a pair of gloves and a mop for about $3.00, so it was a successful trip.

The street food here is something to experience in itself.  It isn’t your typical American street food, with hot dogs, nachos, sausages etc.  They do eat hot dogs, but they are usually either fried or served on a stick.  One of the primary street food items, at least up here, is the baozi (pronounced bow-tze), which is a small dumpling filled with meat.  It kinda looks like a big hershey’s kiss, only it is filled with meat.  They are everywhere, and are pretty good.  Most of the food has a distinct and very different flavor to it too, similar to cumin and also with lots of bean paste.  Most of it isn’t bad, but I don’t particularly like it, although I do really like the prices.  None of it costs more than 50 cents, and most of it costs between 20-35 cents.  It is pretty incredible.  We sampled a bunch of different street foods at the market, such as cookies, fried sweet potato balls (very good), vegetable baozi, and a chicken pancake wrap.  All for less than 3 bucks (before I am asked, I did not eat the meat)!

After stopping by our apartment to drop off the mop that we got, David, Erin and I decided to take a bike trip downtown (isn’t it great that the other teacher is also named David).  I wanted to see the earthquake memorial, which is in the center of the city, so we hopped on our bikes and started riding.  Getting around in China is different from in the USA.  It is best to think of transportation as a food chain; buses and trucks are at the top of the food chain, followed by cars, motorbikes, bikes, and lastly pedestrians.  The rule of the road is “Don’t be in the way of something higher than you on the food chain.”  If you are lower on the food chain, you are expected to move out of the way of the bigger vehicles, and it is a little scary at first.  People also honk their horns CONSTANTLY, for all sorts of reasons.  Usually it is a warning of some kind, such as “I am going through this red light!!!!!!!” but sometimes it is hard to find any reason for the blaring.  You will see people hold their horns for 10 seconds, and then drive straight through a red light or make some crazy left turn through pedestrians.  It works though, so who am I to argue that the pedestrian has the right of way.  That is not the case here, and even if it is, you would be killed in a day if you lived by that.  Luckily our bike trip was successful, and we made it downtown safely.  I have attached some pics of the earthquake memorial, it is a park with one big obelisk.  Nothing too special, but it also had a huge fountain so it will be cooler in the summertime. (quick aside: in 1976, Tanghsan had the deadliest earthquake in human history, killing about 250,000 people.  That is the government reported number though, and most think it was actually 700,000+.  Kinda scary, especially considering I have felt a tremor already.)

After the memorial, we wandered over to the dinosaur market (photos attached), a collection of stores that were nothing particularly special.  Again, everyone was very amused by us, especially when Erin and I bought some street food.  Within 10 seconds a crowd of about 25 people had gathered just to see what we were saying, which was “I don’t understand, what are you saying?  How much does this cost.”  It was exciting for them though!  We wandered the market for a while, then headed back to our bikes, stopping at Pizza Hut on the way.  We didn’t actually eat at the Pizza Hut, because it is THE MOST EXPENSIVE RESTAURANT WE HAVE SEEN SO FAR!!  The menu offered meals with multiple courses, had classical music playing, and was connected to a 4 or 5 star hotel.  Somehow American fast food has convinced the Chinese that they are very high class establishments in the West, but to us it was just bizarre and over-priced.  Have they never heard of the $5,5,5 deal?!  I don’t want soup, salad and pizza from Pizza Hut.  I have also read that KFC has somehow convinced the Japanese through advertising that the typical American meal on Christmas is a bucket of fried chicken!  There are weeks long reservations to get a BUCKET of KFC in Tokyo on December 24th and 25th!  Ahh, the power of advertising.

That was the extent of our journey pretty much.  I added some amusing pictures from today, of the Glory Palace, with random Statue of Liberty on top, and two signs from bathrooms that I thought were funny.  Men smoke pipes, women wear high heels, got it?  Erin and I bought some fried bread that we used to make little pizzas, which turned out very well, and now I am starting round 2 of mopping our floor.  Exciting!  Order some Pizza Hut for me!

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