The mention of the names Beida and Tsinghua to any of the students who attended the Discovering China trip will almost certainly illicit a scrunched face, a sound of disgust and possibly some cursing. Standing as the most famous and most prestigious universities in China, Beijing University and Tsinghua are the Chinese equivalents of Yale and Harvard, and it is the dream of any parent to have their child attend either one. The Chinese are very proud of these establishments both for their age (Beida being just above 100 years in age, and Tsinghua standing just at 99) and for the great honor bestowed on the extremely small number of individuals who are fortunate enough to attend one of them.
It came as no surprise that they wanted to take us on a tour of both campuses while we were still in Beijing and show off the pride of the Chinese academic world. This is all well and good, except that the weather was hovering somewhere around 20 degrees, and spending the entire morning outside was not something that any of us had much interest in doing. Although the campuses were both quite beautiful, we did not manage to see the insides of any of the buildings, nor converse with any of the students, and the purpose of the trip was ultimately lost on the group.
By the time we got back to the bus, most people had less than savory words for the experience as a whole. Strike two for the planning committee. •
The main building at Tsinghua and an Office at Beida
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For the afternoon, our hosts had arranged for us to visit the legendary 798 art gallery. Although the activities of the morning had generally been considered a failure, and though most of us were complaining about the temperature and overall irritation with the amount of time spent on the bus, the gallery proved to be one of the most intriguing and memorable visits that we made over the course of our stay in Beijing. I had previously watched a short documentary on the young and developing art scene within China, and seem to recall a mention of the 798 gallery. To say that it was a gallery is not exactly correct, as it was more of a community, a large section of land in Beijing surrounded by an old brick wall. From what I could tell, it appeared to be the remains of old industry, some sort of factory grounds, that had been turned into spaces for dozens of small art galleries rented out by individuals. It was comparable to many of the areas in Williamsburg and Redhook, but a bit more organized and intentional in its separation from the surrounding community. The all encompassing wall that encircles the property had an interesting way of affirming that this was indeed its own little community within a much larger one. Were these galleries trying to keep the rest of China out, or were they the ones being kept in?
I do not believe that I can begin to scratch the surface of the meaning contained within much of the art that I saw in many of the galleries I walked through. I found almost nothing comparable to the art featured in the myriad of Brooklyn and SOHO galleries, and generally everything that I saw quickly conjured up a profound emotion of one sort or another. All of the art was young, seemingly free of the overexposure that sometimes leads artists to unintentionally replicate the styles of those who came before and inspire them. This art was distinctly individual, and thoroughly Chinese. I was able to take some pictures, but where I felt it necessary I tried to obey the ever present request to not do so.
I will not bother trying to describe any of the work (save a great painting of many pop-culture figures, including a space-marine Obama with naked wife in tow) as this is a futile effort. Most of the works that I looked at contained strong bits of culture from the last 60 years, the period of the Communist Party. Many of them were hard to look at, absolute representations of the pain and anger that is finally being released after the very difficult decades under Mao. Other works were euphoric, almost ethereal, some simply appearing to scream “I am Chinese”, a sign of strange pride and acceptance of identity among these young artists. The search for one’s identity within China, especially as I have observed among young people, is a confusing path. To be growing up in a time when your country and its culture are constantly in transition, and yet still so bound to memories of the past; this is what was apparent in the art. I have spoken previously about the constant duality between past and present that seems to exist within China, and this is one of the best examples that I witnessed. As I wrote down in my journal, “Sometimes the new is just the old in a different skin”.
Our day closed with a trip to the legendary Beijing Pearl Market, four floors of every conceivable knock-off you can imagine (now that I say that, I realize I saw no DVDs), along with a large wholesale market exclusively for the pearl trade. We were ever grateful for Ronald, as we had been told that we wouldn’t have time to make such an excursion, but he managed to get us out of the art gallery a bit ahead of schedule and guide us to the market, providing one of the most outrageous spending and bargaining adventures that I have ever had. Even if you have no knowledge of Mandarin, chances are fair that by the time you leave the market you will know how to say “how much” and “too expensive”, both of which being vital if you want to get a good price.
The moment you set foot onto any one of the floors, you are immediately swarmed by a group of (typically) female stand attendants, all telling you not only that you are either very pretty or handsome, but that they have a special price just for you, and that it is better than any of those around them, all of whom happen to be selling the same thing. The price that any of these masters of sale initially give you is always exorbitant, and anyone who accepts the first offer is instantly labeled as a sucker. By some magic method of communication the rest of the selling community quickly hears of such a folly, and the poor fool who didn’t haggle is permanently labeled as easy prey. text that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisibletext that will soon be invisible
I was surrounded by mounds upon mounds of cheap, fantastically copied goods. Nike’s for $10. iPhones for $30. Every camera you have ever heard of, all for less than $100. I studied the phones for quite a while, along with a few “ipods”, and came to the conclusion that those that weren’t copied were probably stolen. The vast majority of them were quickly identifiable as cheap imitations. Most of them didn’t look the same, or the language used was not recognizable (mixing Chinese, English and symbols), or they simply didn’t work. I found myself baffled for the better portion of time that we spent inside. I was surrounded by really cool stuff, and for the first time in quite a long time had no urge to buy anything. Finding myself far happier to practice speaking with a ready and willing audience, the few things that I ultimately purchased came almost exclusively from an interest in starting a good conversation.
Without exception, every one of the sellers started their pitch in broken English, simple statements that pertained only to buying and selling. Most people were quite happy to use Chinese with me, and in some cases even dropped the price quite a bit more. The process of bargaining is a long standing tradition within the Chinese market scene, and essential to obtaining a good deal. In some cases, it can even be seen as disrespectful not to haggle with a seller, a sign that you do not take them seriously. The agreement on a price is quite final, and you will not be able to go lower once you have done so. Beyond this, it is considered unfair and extremely low to back out of paying once you have agreed on a price. If you spend more than about 30 seconds examining a product, consider yourself as having signed a contract to purchase. Once the exchanges were done, I found that most people were more than glad to talk to me about why I was in China, what it was like living and studying in the United States, and any number of similar topics. After I bought a pair of t-shirts, one young girl was very excited to hear about New York, and it was apparent that she was pained by the fact that she simply could not afford the ticket to make the trip. For a moment, I felt very dirty in understanding the privileges that allowed me to act as the consumer in this environment. But as quickly as this feeling came over me, it was erased by the salesgirl’s final question. “Would you like to look at this jacket sir? Excellent price, just for you”.