About Heather


BS Communication

**Class Year:** Senior
**Major:** BS Communication, International Relations Minor
**Hometown:** Port Orange, Florida
**Career Goals:** To be a diplomat or travel journalist

June 2008

Ever had one of those falling dreams where you suddenly jolt and realize you are just in bed. You look around and everything is silent. The experience leaves you quite a bit shaken. Well, this is how I would describe our third and final stop, Qinhuangdao. After traveling through bustling Beijing and antsy Xi An, Qinhuangdao was a sudden jolt of silence and solitude. Though not without its share of familiar noises like excessive car horn usage, yelling vendors and the delicate dips and tones of the Chinese language, it had the luxury of being more rural and located by the ocean. Located a four-hour train ride north of Beijing, this historical seaside port and resort is known for its pearls, seafood and summer residents, such as the late Premier Mao Zedong. The city’s location also supplied sounds of seagulls, beaching waves and giggling residents. Although it may not make sense to discuss the sense of sound in Qinhuangdao, sometimes the absence of sound in one city makes us realize the sounds we heard and might have missed in others.

Beijing Beeping

Upon arrival to Beijing, our group was inundated with noise. Whether it was from the upset passengers on our flight, the busy lost luggage counter clerk, the two money exchange ladies or the fast paced taxi drivers, our ringing ears were overwhelmed. Even our arrival was welcomed by a million car chorus of car horns extraordinaire. Well, actually, our driver just wanted to get to our hotel quickly and since he was the biggest, we honked the loudest. And so we were introduced to the game of car versus pedestrian, a seemingly daily Chinese tradition. To play, you must either be casually walking across the street or be madly gripping the steering wheel of a speeding car. Check. Now, if you are the pedestrian, be sure to ignore all crosswalk signs and don’t look both ways when you cross the road. After all, the pedestrian has the right of way. Right? If you are a taxi driver, be sure to swerve in and out of traffic belligerently, honking your horn at anything and everything within a city-wide radius. Pull up closely to cyclists and blare your horn as you cut them off. Aim directly for the elderly couple or the woman with the toddler. But, be sure to act nonchalant and ignore the pleas from your passengers to slow down. After all, once you drop them off they will become pedestrians and potential targets.

After a while, amongst this near insanity of drivers and braveness of pedestrians, you begin to relax. As a pedestrian, you learn to run. I mean haul your behind so fast you would think you were qualifying last minute for the Olympics. I became so good at jay-walking I even walked in front of the Chinese. Walking is not the time to be timid in China. As a passenger, there were a few times I thought either I or the pedestrian would be killed. Once, the driver didn’t even honk until he had bumped the pedestrian. Unscathed and unphased, the pedestrian looked sourly at the driver and continued walking into traffic. And even if traffic is at a standstill and there is no chance of moving for awhile, the taxi drivers will continue to blow those horns like they have a quota to fill. This chorus continues well into the night, even after taxi service had stopped. I guess patience is no longer a virtue. While sitting in the back, since I nearly refused to ride in the front, I thought, “Whatever happened to turning up the radio in traffic and settling in to figure out what the license plate of the driver in front really means?”

Beijing Building

In addition to the sporadic meeting of car horn quota, the incessant noise of jackhammers, reversing sirens and cranes filled the day and nighttime air. It is no secret, at least not a quiet secret that the country is in the midst of preparation for the Summer Olympics, and no city more so than Beijing. Local Chinese joke that the Chinese national bird has become the construction crane. All over the city, these national birds are constructing buildings including their own “Bird’s Nest,” a steal woven stadium where the Olympic opening and closing events will take place. The National Stadium, the building’s actual name, will also host the track and field events and the soccer finals in its 2.8 million-square-foot, 91,000-seat stadium. In addition to Olympic site construction, China is scrambling to create a cleaner ambiance and smoother infrastructure in downtown Beijing. During our first two weeks in Beijing, construction cluttered our pathways. We watched as new sidewalks were put in, parking lots were constructed and hutongs were torn down. Destruction of these traditionally single-story neighborhoods of homes from China’s dynastic period made way to the construction of high rises, leaving rubble of oven-baked bricks to resemble a war zone. Hutongs, though increasingly disappearing, now house small boutiques and night-life scenes.

Once the dust had settled and we returned two weeks later, we had to learn an entirely new Beijing. In anticipation of heavy public transportation use, the subway grid had changed and we now had to herd like cattle through numerous turnstiles and barricades. The Olympic weightlifting compound located across the street from our Beihang hotel now had newly-bricked sidewalks and white plastic tents covering all the entrances. But what fun would it be if we actually knew what we were doing in China?


It was in one of the hutongs that our group stumbled upon Propaganda, a three-story nightclub aimed at foreign tourists. Our group was really just looking for a way to unwind from two weeks worth of classes and immersion and we picked the right place. The top floors housed a restaurant/bar, but most of the patrons crammed into the bottom-level dance floor. The dance floor, which more resembled a basement, had exposed concrete walls covered in the club’s namesake Chinese propaganda and a DJ spinning American tunes from two years ago. Though it was a dance floor, it became more of a mosh pit, with the few Chinese patrons jumping up and down to their favorite songs. When a more recent song came on that actually had choreography, we taught the locals the “Soulja Boy.” But, the locals were few and far between amongst the patrons. Though the staff and DJ were Chinese, it took us just a moment to notice that we were mostly in the company of our fellow countrymen. It was a relief to hear English from people other than those in our group. After a few hours, we had almost forgotten we were in China until we stepped outside into the street filled with Chinese revelers catching 2 a.m. snacks from street vendors and sounds of honking taxis and demolition crews.

Loogie Launches

Not all the sounds of the city were welcomed or humorous. Before I had left, I had been told to wear close-toed shoes because the streets were disgusting. I assumed that meant there would be garbage strewn streets and other discarded rubbish. But early in the trip I cursed being a Floridian and staying true to my flip-flop roots. Before my U.S. departure, I bought a pair of new Rainbows for my trip because I knew they would be comfortable walking shoes and would go with every outfit I packed (Yeah, I know. I am a girl.) But, when the first random Beijing cabbie spit on my freshly manicured toes, I hoped my numerous antibiotics would protect me and that he had good dental insurance for his soon-to-be lost teeth. However, lack of manners can be overlooked in a country filled with people choking down dust and pollution-infused air. No wonder they are congested. Even after only a few days, we also found ourselves following the Chinese custom of spitting and clearing throats. The little mucus deposits multiplied on the busy streets and sidewalks like gum stuck under a high school desk. I can’t begin to tell you how nasty it is to listen to someone clear their throat and only hope he or she hits the targeted ground and not the foot covering the ground.

Street Vendor Surprise

I have had a very love/hate relationship with the Chinese street vendors throughout my trip. Sure their food was cheap and readily available, but despite being grateful for some lost weight, they didn’t quite pass my health inspection or animal rights code to be my main source of nourishment. But, nonetheless, the rest of the group would drag me along to their meals, leaving me to just listen in on the excitement. I have discussed the taste, but there is also a distinct sound of a street vendor. First, you have the preparation sounds. There is of course the chopping of the vegetables, popping of the cooking oil and the occasional talk of what type of meat is available tonight. But, there is also the swift, umm, dispatch of formerly fresh and swimming meat as was the case when I accidentally had a craving for fish. The vendor, seeing my curiosity and video camera, grabbed the fish out of a water-filled cart, smacked it over the head twice with a wooden 2 x 4 and started prepping the meat. Through shocked eyes and a slack jaw, I looked down past the fish only to notice how handy that Tide-to-Go my mother had packed would become when I could finally clean the new red spots off my white polo. Through my grimace, he began removing the fish scales with a tool that looked much like a foot scrapper used for a pedicure. Following the spitting incident I had considered getting a pedicure, but suddenly I didn’t feel it was necessary. As I gathered myself and my lost appetite, I also thought being a vegetarian wasn’t such a ghastly idea.

The next common vendor sound is the bubbling of the oil and sizzle of the meat on the grill. It is always a good sound of cooking meat because all too often I found myself curled up because of this forgotten step. Finally, the last sound is that of crying. I am talking hunched over, sobbing, with snot running out your nose, crying. When I told my friends I was going to China, they all said, “Careful of the meat. They will serve you dog.” Already through most of the trip I had learned that many of my preconceived notions of China, as well as some wild stereotypes of Americans, had been debunked. My favorite Chinese concept of the Americans was we were “all a little crazy and probably should be medicated.” During a conversation with one of my language partners, he blurted out he thought “Americans are dangerous” because “they own guns and shoot the guns every morning.” I sure don’t fit that characteristic, nor does anyone that I know, but then again I thought all Chinese were short (I must have overlooked Shanghai basketball star, Yao Ming). And I thought that eating dog, widely considered a delicacy in China, was also a misconception. That was until I saw a cooked one smiling at me and I cried. I am talking hunched over, sobbing, with snot running out your nose, crying. As the vendor laughed and tried to move Lassie closer to me, I buried my face into my hands and hoped for better. I suddenly craved fish, but we all now how well that craving turned out. Again, I cried. Now, where was that medication?

Flash. Bang.

The day after we climbed Mount Hua in Xi An, the group had settled in for a bit of relaxation. Some of us were doing homework. Some were napping. Some were even sneaking into the Chinese wedding reception five floors below us. I was of the middle group, recovering from yet another bout of food poisoning. Suddenly, the bed shook and there were loud popping noises coming from outside the window. In a daze and struggling to get out my ear plugs, take off my sleep mask and dive to the floor, I thought, “My mother was right. I am going to die in an aftershock.” My mother, though smart enough to pack me Tide-to-Go, couldn’t prepare me for the wedding’s celebratory firecrackers. And, in all respect to my language partner and his “dangerous impression” of Americans, if I shot guns off every morning, I would not be taking cover under my plywood-hard bed on the 7th floor every time someone sets off a Chinese firecracker. Instead, I would be laughing at my fellow classmates who had snuck into the wedding and found themselves ducking for cover behind the wedding party.

Backstreet in the Backstreet

Travels between our three different destinations were long, including fourteen and twenty hour train rides. Because time was long and boredom was strong, the group had a penchant for sporadic singing contests, especially to Disney songs like Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.” I used to sing in the choir back when I was in middle school and my mom was the choir director. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t in the choir for my musical talent or love for sequined vests. And I wasn’t the only one on the trip either who had sung in choir or just liked the sound of our voice in the shower. For that matter, one of our fellow student’s Chinese name even translated to “sings in shower.” So, when we arrived in Qinhuangdao to find the main form of entertainment, karaoke, located next to our hotel, we were excited to have an actual stage. In China, the karaoke rooms are rented out by the hour and can hold up to twenty people, just enough to terribly embarrass the mike-holder. Including the professor, her husband, and ten of the students, our professor also invited her sister-in-law and brother to join us. After a few of us had broken the ice with “A Whole New World” and “Hotel California,” the sister-in-law casually walked up to the mike. She looked slightly shy as she picked a popular Chinese song. Her shyness faded as she busted out in a perfect mezzo-soprano. The remaining group looked at each other and thought we had missed amateur night.

Not only did we like the punishment the first time, but we went back for more with our Chinese language partners. For the final meeting with our language partners, we invited them to karaoke. That night, we had Chinese and American students having a sing off in two languages, both off-key and to off-color songs, but nonetheless, interesting and funny. But, it was the quiet group members who readily grabbed the mike and shocked the rest of us. One such member expressed himself vocally to an Asian-accented Linkin Park’s “Bleed It Out” and another sang a pre-breakdown Britney Spears’ “Lucky.”

However, it was our last sing-off that cemented our pop star status and a real reason for all those paparazzi photos throughout the trip. While sharing our last lunch at a local dumpling place, the restaurant’s speakers suddenly blasted a surprising rendition of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. Although sung in Chinese by a Chinese pop star, we filled in the English and the dance moves from our middle school dance days. A small group of local children and restaurant patrons watched in a bit of embarrassment and interest, but clapped when the seven of us were done. After all, we were in our own “whole new world” simply filling in with a bit of home.

Final Falling Dream

“What is your name?” the voice said in broken Chinglish. All I could think was “Am I alive? That was some fall.” At 200 feet, it was some fall and I had jumped it. The last day as a group, the professor took us to a local ecological center. Although the organic lunch, beautiful orchards and cute farm animals were captivating, it was the site’s amusement park that piqued the group’s excitement. And when I saw that bungee jumping platform, I grabbed four other group members and took the leap.

That first step off into the fast moving space between the slow-flowing river and my flailing body was intensely gratifying. I heard my classmate cheering me on and I hoped I would stop spinning in tiny circles. With the blood still rushing to my head and my eyes blacking out momentarily, I grabbed for the hook-like contraption and clutched on to a Chinese man no bigger than my 5’1 frame. He smiled and repeated his question, “What is your name?” “Ou Wen Hai,” I replied as I smiled towards the shore. My Chinese name may mean “sea of words,” but I was speechless on that river.

June 2008

In my last entry, I wrote about China through the sense of taste. However, to fully understand the country, the next obvious sense is that of sight. As the home of the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Mount Everest, the Terra Cotta Warriors, journaling every single abundant site makes my job complicated. However, most of the sights you can Google and envision them in their splendor and what it might feel like in person. So, I thought it would be better to show you the sights of Beijing and Xi An not included in our travel guides.

At 12,000 feet above sea level, Xi An’s altitude and increased industrial pollution restrict the lungs, dry the skin and chap the lips. The humidity and our inability to pack shorts, made hiking to the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Hot Springs and Mount Hua-Shan strenuous. As the toxic sun beamed onto our foreign skin, the women of Xi An carried parasols, reminiscent of the Antebellum South. Perhaps they had gotten the memo that fair skin is in and skin cancer is out. Mighty rivers that once fed the nation now streamed polluted sludge through Xi An, where the runoff is still used for drinking water, bathing and bathroom. Welcome to our second stop.

As you can tell, Xi An has not been my favorite stop. I had waited for many years of my childhood to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, and don’t get me wrong, they were splendid. The hike to the top of Mount Hua-Shan produced more than just amazing pictures and sore muscles; its clean air and challenges were revitalizing. But, the transition from a crowded, smoggy Beijing, to a fairly crowded and increasingly more smoggy and humid Xi An has provided its own challenges. But, enough about Xi An. Let’s get to the odd sites.

Lost in Translations

As I said in the last entry, it has been very difficult to order food because everything is in Chinese and I speak very little Chinese. Trying to order food at a KFC that uses only Chinese characters is like trying to decipher Hammurabi’s Code without the Rosetta Stone; it is just impossible. However, even when the menus or signs are in English, the translations are just as hard to decipher.

Food and Drinks

After a long day of trekking through Beijing, our group got lost in a back alleyway. Now, when the whole country seems to be a back alley, we were not worried. However, we were growing hungry, and started looking for food. We came across this sign outside of a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We guessed their Internet translation missed the whole translation all together.

But, sometimes it is better just not to have a translation. This bottle of liquid, possibly recycled water, is called “toilet water.” If that is just a flavor, I pity the poor worker in charge of quality control and testing.

The worker in charge of quality control at this restaurant should ask for hazard pay. The restaurant, known for its greasy calzones and American style pizza, promises to put you in a coma. In a country whose pollution threatens early lung cancer and taxi drivers threaten paralysis, a food-induced coma is probably not on high the list of “must-dos”.

Bathroom Etiquette

The traditionally natural process of “going potty” usually needs little instruction, but the bathrooms in China apparently come with a set of instructions. In our first hotel in Beijing, a couple of the rooms had the following sign over their toilets, “Beware of Landslides”. Before you wonder how the hotel knew we would get the Beijing Belly (thanks to my culinary misadventures), it refers to the water that leaks out from the showers. Not only do the showers not work occasionally, but the plumbing is sometimes sub-par. In one restaurant, the owners had posted a sign, in English, explicitly telling the user to not do Number 2 in the restroom.

Helpful Instructions and Warnings

All in all, the Chinese know that there are many English speakers in their country and they are trying to be helpful by including warnings and instructions. But, sometimes those helpful hints are also lost in translation. While visiting the Ming Tombs, I came across a sign that read “Thunder Storm Weather. Do Not Use Mobile Phone”. I could only imagine how they realized that this was necessary to warn foreigners about potential cellular electrocution in the middle of the forest. Another sign said, “The non-staff member pleases not an operation! Thanks.” Pooling together, our study abroad group thinks it refers to someone who is not an employee changing the television or something, but the jury is still out. But, it was the next sign that needed a photo to fully understand its intricacies. Hung above a construction site, we think it asks for patience and cooperation in the construction process, but again, its translation is lost.

In recent years and especially in anticipation of the Olympics, China has attempted to qualm a few “bad habits” of its populace, including smoking. While visiting Lao Long Tou, or Large Dragon Head, every corner and possible blank wall held signs proclaiming, “You are actually polluting yourself when you are polluting,” “Be a spreader of civility; be a protector of morality” and “Abandon bad habits and embrace civilization.” I am not a smoker, nor do I condone smoking for its nasty effects on the body, but I would see these signs causing a stir in the United States. And what an ironic place to position these signs but at a site named after a fire-breathing creature. The final sign we found at the Jiaoshun section of the Great Wall in Qinhuangdao. The city is known for its greenery and roses, a nice transition from Xi An and Beijing. In protection of this status, there were signs placed in front of large grass areas and flowers saying, “Flowers are smiling and grass is sleeping, don’t disturb them.” The translation is understandable and just like the other signs, it simply made us smile.

The Great Wal(l)-Mart

All of us on the trip have been a bit homesick here and there during our travels. However, despite the language barriers and some cultural differences, Beijing looks like a bit like home. Every corner houses a KFC, Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut (called Big Pizza in China). I had Starbuck’s at the Great Wall, KFC after class one day (not the same as the United States) and McDonald’s twice when I really felt homesick and underfed. But my favorite has been Wal-Mart. At four stories high, the Beijing Wal-Mart located next to the subway station is truly a wonder across the world. With name-brand knock-offs, and floors devoted to beauty supplies, baby gear, electronics and unrecognizable food, the non-air conditioned Wal-Mart made a stark contrast to the outside vendors and peddlers. Although it was quite a walk for our group from Beihang University, it felt a little like home when we passed it on our way to the subway station.

Famous in this Country

I can’t say I have ever wondered what it is like to be David Hasselhoff in Germany, but I have thought of what it might be like if I was famous. Everyone wants to take your picture as you walk down the red carpet at a movie premier or rock out at a concert, followed by groupies. Well, change the red carpet to the Great Wall and substitute the concert for a Chinese karaoke bar. Welcome to our three-week fiasco everywhere we have traveled. Although Beijing is the capital and therefore attracts many foreign tourists, Xi An and especially Qinhuangdao do not normally have any foreigners, much less a group of sixteen very diverse college students.

Our group, comprised of three tall blondes, two Hispanics and a couple brunettes, have been chased after and endured multiple spontaneous photo sessions with ancient relics in the background and new friends in the foreground. It takes us hours to get through a room or to get down a mountain, stopping every few moments for photo sessions with people we don’t know, but who want to get to know us candidly. Old and young all want to ask personal questions, like “Where are you from?” and “How old are you?” I have gotten very good at saying “Wo shì mei guó rèn” and “Wo shì èr si yi”, but by the time I spit out those phrases, it is back to saying “Qíe zi” for the camera.

As a big group, we understand the hassles of taking photos. However, the crowds that gather do not understand this delicate dance. The groups – scratch that, swarms of followers all want to take individual photos with you even though their group contains thirty people. Then, like homesick college students to a McDonald’s, another group of thirty flocks just in time to take photos with the foreigner who has just become a smiling cardboard cutout. Then again, how could I document my trip better than through a 1,000 pictures worth a thousand-words. The first time the impromptu flashbulbs blinded us, I was at the Summer Palace in Beijing with our lone Icelander, Gutti, who stands 6’3 with bright blonde hair and blue eyes. The 4’11 Chinese women flocked to him, shoving in true Chinese form to better their position in line. With beaming smiles and peace signs, they hugged onto his legs and bumped their heads on his hips.

However, the most stunning backdrops and sporadic photo sessions occurred on our hike up Mount Hua-Shan, one of China’s most dangerous mountain ranges. Making due with my bad knees, empty stomach and sea-level lungs, I trudged up the mountain, sweat rolling down my brow as I attempted to make it past the first 100 feet. As I stopped to rest and video my first entry, I noticed a giggle gaggle of middle-aged women. Somehow their makeup was still pristine and through broken Chinese and translation help from a random gentleman, we started our daily photo session. Along the way, Nikki and I picked up a groupie following of seven Chinese businessmen, climbing the mountain on casual Friday in their Sunday best. During our four hour trek to the top, I continuously stopped to catch my breath that I had left at the bottom of the 7087 foot tall mountain. Viewing their opportunity for yet another photo, the businessmen propped up my drooping head and sat down for photos. They grabbed Nikki and another student, Brett, to add flavor to the Chinese-American dish. Reaching the third highest peak on our way to the top, Nikki and I rested, took in the view and munched on indecipherable Chinese snacks. Out of nowhere, the businessmen plopped down next to us and offered baked goods. Nikki joked that it was payment for all the photos we had taken. Ignoring our mother’s warning against taking food from strangers, we enjoyed the snack and thought about the interesting and entertaining trek up the mountain.

Next Stop: Qinhuangdao

While walking with my language partner, I tripped on the uneven cobblestone. He laughed at me while I tried to explain that the sidewalks in the United States are usually evenly paved. Again he laughed and told me that “Americans are spoiled.” Living in hotels sub par to even Motel 6, eating food that is sitting next to week old garbage, breathing air that Olympians don’t want to breathe and dodging traffic that uses stoplights as decoration has made us shiver a few times. But, if we bring nothing back from China (not possible with my spending habits or vaccinations), we have had taken in so many sights that would never been found in a travel guide. Well, except for this one.

Ni Hao! What Now?

College graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, no matter what level degree is being accomplished. It is what every senior pines for at the end of four (or five) years and in May, I had the graduation green light. My name was printed in the graduation program. The cap and gown had been purchased and my friends and family were in the crowd. But, I was also sitting in the crowd watching my fellow Class of 2008 classmates walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. However, sitting in the crowd didn’t make me bitter because I had delayed my graduation for another once in a lifetime experience.

When my best friend, Nikki, asked me what I was doing summer of 2008, I replied, “Enjoying the beach and relishing in my graduatory status.” However, she had a different idea. Instead, she suggested studying abroad. The program had so many countries to pick from so I told her just to pick a unique place. Both of us are regulars of Europe, so she suggested Japan or China as alternatives. Without hesitation, I picked the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing China.

China. This communist state is populated with 1,330,044,605 people who speak a dozen plus languages with a land mass of 9,596,960 sq. km. and so many stereotypes. Known for many years as “Red China,” the country is also known for their intricate architecture, the Great Wall, panda bears, cheap exports and, most recently the Olympics and the Sichuan earthquake.  The history and sites are intensely overwhelming, so a professor of mine advised me to “be prepared to be unprepared.” I realized what an understatement that was when I arrived with eight of my classmates at Beijing International Airport after 18 hours of travel. Through my seatmate’s 2 x 1 airplane window, I got snapshots of Beijing through heavy clouds of smog. It looked like every other sprawling Midwest city, complete with fields and industrial architecture. That was until we landed.

Beijing, a sprawling metropolis, resembles any U.S. Chinatown. The people speak Chinese. The signs are in Chinese. The taxi drivers only speak Chinese. But, this isn’t America and I only knew how to say “Hi” and “What is your name.” After a week, I have mastered a few more phrases, learned to use the public transportation, seen one of the Wonders of the World, and visited many other famous sites. However, the most challenging part thus far has been eating. I nearly have a panic attack when someone suggests getting dinner. In fact, I would rather listen to my stomach rumble than have to explain to the waitress that I do not want anything spicy or still moving. I have had many culinary disasters, misunderstandings and eaten some unconventional food. So for my first entry, I decided to introduce the reader to China through the sense of taste.

I set out for China wanting to try the bizarre foods and brag that I could keep them down unlike contestants on Fear Factor. But, things are always easier from the Laz-Y-Boy.

Fork Fiasco   

After a disastrous introduction to Chinese food our first night, which left me on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m., Nikki and I decided to venture off to another Chinese restaurant that looked more sanitary. The first restaurant only had the menu in Chinese characters so we looked for a sit down restaurant with a picture menu. Ironically, we found a restaurant located next to the previous culinary disaster spot. We were seated by the hostess who proceeded to hover over our table, eyeing our food decisions. Nikki chose a dish which resembled chicken and vegetables. Somehow, through sign language and pointing to words in our handy travel guide, the waitress told us we had a side dish option. I picked rice. She pointed to four listings under the rice, all with different prices and different Chinese characters. I picked the cheapest, but she kept muttering something in Chinese. Finally, frustrated and hungry, I pointed to the dumplings which had nothing written underneath them. That was sufficient   and they brought out the meal. Neither Nikki nor I had really used chopsticks in America sans a few times at a sushi bar. Eating the very spicy mystery meat and toxically spicy vegetables proved difficult. While Nikki and I laughed it off, our very patient waitress brought over two forks. We all giggled and exchanged laughter, only to be joined by the remainder of the 10 + occupied restaurant. Ever get that feeling that everyone is talking about you. Yeah, welcome to China!

These Feet are Only Meant for Walking

Our next culinary escapade occurred after a class field trip to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Our group stopped at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant after the tour and my culinary ambitions kicked in.  I hadn’t really fulfilled my desire to eat a “weird” food, so I asked the professor to help me pick out a selection. The menu, luckily in English, had a wide array of chicken’s feet, cow tripe, tongue and various other traditional offal, or animal byproducts. I settled on the chicken feet based on my professor’s suggestion. The feet arrived intact with nails, claws and bones still attached. Unsure where to begin, the waitress told me to chew on the feet. “Chew on the feet,” I said, starting to regret my decision. One bite and I knew this poor bird had died in vain. The foot, cooked in a hot pepper sauce, was clammy and off-white. It was slick and difficult to pry off the bone. You had to use your molars to pry off the little bit of meat, so it continuously threatened to claw its way back from my throat to my mouth. After seeing my reaction, my classmates also tried, but they had similar strange facial contortions. I hoped karma would forgive me for my transgressions against the bird, for it was not going to be eaten.

Corner Cuisine

Before I left, a friend gave me advice about eating at a street vendor. “Eat at the one with the most people in line,” she said. But, what do you do if you and your classmates make the entire line? Every night since our arrival, the guys have been frequenting a local vendor located right outside of the Beihang University gates. After a long day touring the Summer Palace, Nikki and I followed the guys to the corner. Every night, the vendor, with a large smile and dimpled grin, displays his eats on a makeshift bicycle/trailer/display case. He wasn’t quite set up yet when we arrived at 8 p.m., so we grabbed a few drinks at the local newspaper stand and settled in next to his hibachi grill. Soon after we sat, five or six people began taking the meats from the display case and placing them on the grill. Most of the meats were unrecognizable and the smell of stale fish filled the smoggy Chinese air. The boys had their favorites ranging from the recognizable lamb and chicken patties to the seemingly inedible chicken heart and squid tentacles. Under peer pressure, I ate chicken heart, squid tentacles, egg patties and sweet buns. The chicken heart was slightly squishy, but well cooked. The squid tasted like fresher calamari from the States. The egg patties were a mix of egg, minced onions and chives and a bread crumb outer shell. They were very spicy, but closely related to hash browns and scrambled eggs. As I tried each concoction, I made sure to keep a straight face even if I didn’t like selected pieces. After all, this vendor spent time and plenty of effort to catch and prepare the meats and he was proud of his final product. I didn’t want to cause him concern or upset by rejecting his meal. However, after paying 1-3 yuan (roughly 50 cents) for each of my six kebabs, I wondered what profit he actually made. In China you can’t tip, but the group all wished we could show how appreciative we  were of his work.

Mao’s Munchies

The following day, the same group went to visit Tiananmen Square, site of the infamous 1989 massacre. Among the sites visited were Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Forbidden City and Premier Mao Zedong’s body. Mao, the creator of the People’s Republic of China, has been lying in state since 1976. Vendors crowded the 100 acre square hocking Mao paraphernalia. Cheap watches, Chinese flags and Mao’s famous Little Red Book lined the plaza that had seen two massacres, numerous famous speeches and now a major tourist attraction. After enticing my appetite with talk of massacres, propaganda, and the Great Helmsman, we headed into downtown Beijing for street vendor food.

After walking past McDonald’s and a Westernized shopping mall, we stumbled upon an alleyway crammed with street vendors. Most were selling caramelized fruits, lamb and pork skewers and Coca-Cola. But, one vendor caught my eye. Originally, I had walked past, eyeing a vendor selling donut-like pastries. But, upon doing a double take, I noticed this aforementioned vendor’s food was still moving. There in the storefront were live scorpions, grasshoppers, cicadas and starfish pushed onto wooden sticks. The line was long so I decided to jump in for my turn. I chose the scorpions that were not moving based on the broken English advice of a local bystander. I watched the moving scorpions as they were dipped into the frying pan and handed quickly to me. Still steaming, I took a breath and crunched down. Much to my surprise, the scorpions tasted good. Ironically, it tasted like over-fried chicken.

However, my next two dishes were not so fortunate. I am an avid viewer of No Reservations: Anthony Bourdain and I used clips from the China show to plan my culinary adventures. Anthony had tried cow’s stomach while in China and raved about the texture and taste, even praising the chef for his attention to cooking by keeping it basic and lightly seasoned. So, while in Beijing, I did as Anthony did and ordered a heaping plate of white and black-grey cow’s tummy. My stomach and the unlucky cow’s stomach were both quickly in my mouth, attempting another jail break. I held it in, but not without the disgust of my fellow classmates sitting directly in the line of fire. I guess I just can’t stomach stomach.

I thought my misadventures were over until another classmate decided to purchase the starfish. Being from Florida, I have never had the desire to eat such a cute specimen. After much peer pressure again, I bit down on the tough skin. Much to my dismay, it tasted like I was eating a piece of fried sand. I figured my digestive tract needed a break, so I settled for a caramelized crab apple and went shopping.

Memorial Meal

After a half a bottle of Tums and a few nights of digestive distress, my other sorority sister, Emily, along with Nikki and I, decided to find the local Beihang Café that served American-style food. We all craved different things like pancakes, lettuce, mayonnaise and pizza and the café served them all, though not together obviously. While eating, a Chinese man approached us. He was out of breath and we just thought maybe he worked at the café. He said, “I have important information for you…At a 14:28 we are going have a memorial for earthquake victims.” He rushed us from our meal, as everyone in the three story café crowded around the big screen television. Although we couldn’t understand the announcer, the images of people being pulled out of buildings, of workers hauling material and of people crying spoke our language. The screen went black and displayed white Chinese characters. Everyone got quiet as the air sirens began to wail. After a minute, car horns joined in and a minute following that, boat horns completed the ceremony. The only sounds sans those from the television were sniffles and the occasional sigh. The three minute ceremony concluded and those crying quickly hid their faces and bolted for the door. The gentleman thanked us for our cooperation and disappeared with the rest of the patrons. We paid our bill and left in near silence.

On the walk home, we realized what had just occurred and we were thankful that we were a part of this country’s mourning. Though the gentleman thanked us, we are human beings and feel their pain. Although our recent country disasters differed, one intentional and one natural, we still can understand the pain of losing fellow countrymen.

With 50,000 dead and expected to climb, we leave Beijing next week for Xi An, a city located close to the Chinese Ground Zero.  The distance between the two is like the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A Chinese student studying English was paired up with me to practice conversational Chinese and English. He is from Sichuan, the province affected most, and said he has yet to hear if anyone he knows has perished. As we walked by the television, he just shook his head and said, “You are lucky you don’t have that in America”. Although that is not completely accurate, we are lucky. China is great, but it is hard to visit a country and know what you leave behind. So, enjoy those hamburgers and fries I am missing so much and I will fill you in when we get to Xi An.