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Home Living in China Foreigners in China Foreigners in China Travel Diary: An American in Beijing(1)
Travel Diary: An American in Beijing(1)
Foreigners in China

Orr Shtuhl is a summer intern at and a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina. This is his first time to China, a trip he prepared by learning how to count to five in Putonghua.

You may see him on the streets of Beijing, pointing at things he's trying to buy, reading maps upside down, or trying his skills at spitting. The following are his diary entries during his two-month stay.


Saturday, 5/19/07 | Lost

At 10 pm, 25 hours since I'd left my home in the United States, the highway from the airport to my northerly Beijing neighborhood was unglitzy. Yellow fluorescence floated around dotted lines of streetlamps, punctuated by occasional red characters lining office buildings, the electric light diffused by heavy, humid air. Once we found our off-ramp, eateries and bars were buzzing, brightly lit and full of aggressively fashionable younger crowds and the ambivalent-looking elderly. Every restaurant looked like a textbook transplant from the West: adorned with token vases, lanterns, dragon sculptures, scenic wall hangings and faux-bamboo decor. Apparently American Chinese restaurants are less parodic than we think.

I was driven to my place, a few minutes from the office where I'd be working. It wasn't far, but as the van took three right turns - street'side street'alley'unlit alley - my confusion dial crept from Adventurous to Lost. My roommate would not arrive for two more weeks, meaning 14 days of living alone in this very dark, very foreign alley.

Turning the last corner, our headlights illuminated a hundred-yard stretch ending at the butt of another apartment building and lined with parked cars and outcroppings of construction material, abandoned mid-task. Stacks of bricks and sacks of tiles mingled with ladders and faded orange markers of varying shapes, the whole scene coated in the heavy, gray snowfall of broken concrete, as though the buildings and shrubs had sprouted up from under a demolition site. Through one of the building's metal doors, the stairwell hummed with echoes that betrayed its smallness. My hosts helped my luggage up six flights of unfinished concrete stairs slick with dust. Only darkness filled the broken windows, but in the first three flights, where the timed light switches worked, I noted that the apartment doors were a glossy chestnut, fake but elegant and oddly clean. I'd heard stories of interns living in chalky semisqualor, three bunks to a room with a kitchen the size of a bathroom and a bathroom the size of a toilet, but hope glimmered the in the doors' mahogany sheen.

The apartment deliverer. The faux-wood door opened first to a new-looking TV, nicer than anything I'd own at home. The TV anchored a sparse but halfway-to-lively living room with pale yellow or maybe green walls, a blue couch with too many pillows (one had a labeled visage of Pluto the dog), modestly funky lighting courtesy of a lantern-like orb, and a modestly funky mirror trisected by two wavy lines. Wooden floor switched to tile for the small but operable kitchen with a few plastic Ikea-esque chairs of different colors coupled with a definitely funky breakfast table that had a glittery shelf below the transparent tabletop, possibly meant for condiments but would likely be relegated to bills and envelopes if owned by more permanent residents. The kitchen, furnished with one pot, a cleaver, a rice cooker, a microwave, and several chopsticks, seemed to already know which instruments to highlight for its new Westerners -the microwave alone was blessed with English labels.

A quick bathroom stop revealed a booth as small as any college shower, checker-tiled with a sink, toilet, and a shower hose and drain in one corner. To the bedroom to unpack, with its green walls and bright blue (new=clean!) queen bed that was low and felt like the floor. Desk, check; dresser, check; jet lag weighed heavy on my brain as a flip through the TV reminded me that just one channel is in English. On a scrap of paper I scrawled a shopping list: toilet paper, water. Fatigued and awake, I lay down hoping I didn't get up before sunrise.(By Orr Shtuhl)


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