Getting Acquainted in Beijing

The first month in Beijing is over, life becomes more and more normal. Many things I did not question or think about in Stuttgart, I have discover here piece by piece. Seemingly common things suddenly have to be established from the ground. Where can I buy groceries? How do I get from A to B? How do I manage with all those Chinese characters?

Surviving in the Capital

During the week preceding the Chinese New Year I had started discovering the area around my new home to familiarize myself with the roads and the names. As always when you move to a new city, Lenka and I had to make sure that our most basic needs were taken care of. This meant finding food. Cooked food is readily available in all Chinese cities, but when it comes to fresh vegetables and fruits and the basic things, it gets a little more complicated. Restaurants and food stalls can be found in nearly every corner of the city and if there aren’t any of those, there certainly is a mobile stand nearby selling some food.
To find the ingredients for one’s own kitchen is a little bit more difficult, depending where one lives in Beijing. In the hutongs, the traditional streets of Beijing, there are very often small supermarkets or small shops selling fresh vegetables and fruits. Unfortunately near our compound this is not the case. But luckily there is the Internet. Since I still have a lot of time before starting a new job, I use some of it to discover the city virtually looking for open markets, supermarkets and other kinds of shops. I would love to discover all of it by walking through the streets, but the city is too big to completely loose oneself and sometimes the shops are quite well hidden and hard to find. Once one discovers a shop or a market, it is essential to find out what the actually sell at which price. There are two obstacles which have to be overcome: one is that the local products are most of the times very different from what I am familiar with. To find the ingredients for a recipe from home is no easy task, even for so-called Asian dishes. Secondly all labels of the products are written in Chinese and thus it is hard to figure out whether a product really meets your expectations. Help comes in form of well known logos on the packaging and every now and then some Latin letters. It will take some time until we will be fluent as far as Chinese products are concerned.
In the meantime we have found two open markets with fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as meat and fish. One of them, the Sanyuanli Market, can be reached by an extended walk, such that it is reasonable to shop there on a regular basis. The second one, the Tianyu Market, can be reached by bus, but has the disadvantage, that there is no supermarket right next to it as for the Sanyuanli Market. The supermarket next to the Sanyuanli Market belongs to the Jingkelong supermarket chain, which has stores all around Beijing. They also run a small outlet for beverages next to our compound. Another supermarket nearby belongs to the French Carrefour, a very large supermarket, which also has a few Western products, but is mainly Chinese. There are many smaller supermarkets serving the needs of the Westerners living in Beijing. When China was still closed for visitors, the only supermarket for foreigners were the Friendship Markets. Today they are very clean and high-priced markets where one can get many Western products, possibly due to the location in the middle of the diplomatic quarter surrounded by the embassies of the whole world. The Friendship Market though has a stiff competition as far as high prices are concerned from the supermarket in the Lufthansa Center. One of the foreigners favorites are the Jenny Lou’s shops, medium-sized stores offering a good range on foreign articles, such as cheese, including Emmental and Gruyère, and other dairy products. Finally I managed to visit the brand new shopping mall Galleria next to our compound, where a very nice supermarket is located in the basement. This BLT can compete with modern grocery stores in Germany and Switzerland as far as cleanliness and a good selection is concerned.
One thing that made me personally very happy was the fact that almost all supermarkets offer a good selection of wine. There is not only Chinese, but also French, Italian, South African, South American and Australian wine. I just haven’t found any Fendant yet for the next Raclette.

Getting Around in the Capital

Once the groceries were sorted out, the next task was to figure out how to move about in this big city of Beijing. When looking for an apartment, we had decided to look for a place near a subway station, such that we could use this efficient means of transport easily. The result is, that there is a subway station right in front of our building, where not only the subway line 10 stops, but also the airport express. The latter though is only an option when there is a need to go to the airport, but this should be enough for the people coming to see us. Riding the subway is very easy and convenient, since all the stops are indicated in both Chinese and English. Even the announcements are bi-lingual and thus it is difficult to get lost. But one has to know, which stop to take…
Riding the bus however is a slightly bigger challenge. First topic always is to find a bus stop. Sometimes they are very well hidden. However the signs at the stops clearly indicate which bus is stopping there and where it is going. Numbers are no problem to read, but the destination is only indicated in Chinese characters. There are no tickets on the bus, but one just puts the money for the ride in the big box either next to the driver or the conductor. If paying cash, the prices are usually 1 or 2RMB. Our challenge at this time is to figure out where all the buses actually go. There are about 20 bus lines passing by our compound and each and every one of them has to be discovered. By and by we discover more and more of the bus lines, but each ride still requires some preparation. There are two very helpful sites on the Internet to do that: Google Maps provides routing not only for cars and pedestrians, but also for public transport in Beijing. The second site is the site of the public transportation company in Beijing. This site provides routing by public transport and also allows to find out more about a bus line, by showing the whole line on a map. Since there are so many bus lines in Beijing, printing them all on a map is unthinkable. The service thus is very helpful especially for newcomers.
Since buying tickets for every ride on the subway or on the bus is to inconvenient, there is the possibility to buy a prepaid card for public transport. Besides not having to deal with cash when boarding a bus or subway another advantage is that bus rides only cost 40% of the price compared to cash prices. Subway rides still cost the same price at 2RMB including changes. The prices of the bus rides vary wildly, since there are buses with fixed prices at 1 or 2RMB, while on others one is charged by the distance of the ride. All in all however riding the bus is very cheap. In order not to miss the stops when we have to change buses or subways, we often use a small note on which we write down the name of the stop and the possible bus lines. Fortunately our knowledge of the Chinese characters and the city help to move more and more freely.

Understanding in the Capital

One very important issue in a foreign country is how to communicate with the local people. On buses and trains, when one needs help or on the market to inquire for the prices or to negotiate them or even just regular shopping. There are surprisingly many local people who speak at least a little bit of English, but it is a major risk to rely on somebody speaking English. Besides the Chinese also have a culture that most of the things are written down somewhere and one has to be able to read. This all means it is unavoidable to learn at least some Chinese. But what actually is the Chinese language? There are many languages spoken and there are two major scripts (ignoring the Arab used in the Xinjiang province and the Tibetan at this time). As far as Beijing and the standard Chinese is concerned, the language spoken is Mandarin and the script is simplified Chinese. If one is moving to Shanghai or Hong Kong, that would be Cantonese and the traditional Chinese script. However the writing of Mandarin and Cantonese is almost to the full extent the same, just in different scripts. The pronunciation however is completely different, since for example Mandarin has five possible tones per syllable, while Cantonese has six.
To learn a new language means for a large part of the world that there maybe is a new script to learn, a vocabulary and lots of grammar. Mandarin is quite different. One of the most important aspects of the language is, that a major point of the language is the pronunciation and that there are a few thousand characters to be learned. During the fifties of the past century, the Chinese government tried to simplify the Chinese languages by introducing Pinyin, a Latin script with intonations to eventually replace the Chinese characters. Pinyin however failed in China, but is a big help today for anyone learning the language. An English-Chinese vocabulary thus does not only contain an English word and a Mandarin word, but also the Pinyin for the Mandarin word.
Our strategy to learn Mandarin and the simplified Chinese characters is, that we first learn some essential words. But we do not just stop at learning the word, but we also want to understand the meaning of each individual character contained in that word. This helps us put the pieces in this big puzzle together a little more easily. For example, Lenka learned in her Mandarin course, that the word for restaurant is fan guan. On the other hand, one of the most important words for me while traveling was hotel, or bin guan. Each of them contains the same character guan, which means house. The first character then distinguishes the kind of house: fan for food, and bin for a guest. We also look at every possible sign to discover frequently used characters, which helped us learn words like tall building or noodle house. Of course focus for studying currently lies on food, either to be bought in a shop or on a market or in a restaurant.