Even the blue, blue grass of home isn’t idyllic

The Chinese characters for America are 美国 (meiguo), which literally mean “beautiful country.”

Whoever came up with this translation knew what they were talking about. After spending more than 14 months in Beijing, every day in my hometown of Morehead, Kentucky, feels like one of those dreamy scenes from a Claude Monet painting. Dark green grass. Rolling hills. Sunsets you can get lost in.

I took all these things for granted when I lived here. People would ask me about my hometown and I’d usually say something like, “It’s small, has only one McDonald’s and nowhere to shop.” I talked a lot about the things Morehead didn’t have, which – I now realize – is what makes it great. Continue reading

Translations gone wild

When I visit the United States on Friday, there will be a lot of things I won’t miss about Beijing: the air pollution, traffic jams and kids taking a dump on the sidewalk, just to name a few.

But one thing I will certainly miss are the Chinglish signs. There have been days when – after failing to accomplish the simplest of tasks because of my limited Chinese – I’ve felt like swearing off chopsticks, grabbing my passport and catching the first plane out of town.

But when I look up and see a sign for dried fruit that says “fuck fruit,” suddenly the clouds part, birds chirp and all is well. (“Dry” and a colloquialism for “sex” share the same Chinese character.) Continue reading

What, there are traffic laws here?

When I went home to the United States last summer, I couldn’t wait to drive. I don’t own a car in Beijing, and it had been more than a year since I’d been behind the wheel.

I missed that free feeling of an open highway, stereo up and windows down, the smells of summer whipping your face on a moonlit drive through the country. I missed the ability to go anywhere I wanted, at any time of the day, without having to hail a taxi or cram into a subway full of sweaty young men with no sense of personal space. Continue reading

The land of the emperor of beers

Growing up in a part of the world largely isolated from Asian culture, two of the things I associated most with China were fortune cookies and Tsingtao beer.

I quickly found out after eating a couple meals in Beijing that fortune cookies are not a Chinese tradition. But Tsingtao beer is to China what Budweiser is to America: the emperor of beers.

Tsingtao is brewed in Qingdao, a city on China’s east coast, which hosts an international beer festival every year. Since I rarely meet a cold drink I don’t like, I decided to go there last August to mingle with the country’s top beer connoisseurs.

I took a high-speed train from Beijing to Qingdao, a service that was only opened last summer. If you haven’t taken a trip yet on a high-speed train, you should. The ride is comfortable; it’s less bumpy than a jet and more spacious. I’m about 6 feet tall, and I have trouble getting comfortable on long flights between China and the US. But on the four-hour train ride, I could stretch out without digging my knees into the back of the person sitting in front of me.

One of the first places I visited in Qingdao was a boardwalk along the shore of the Yellow Sea, on the east coast of China. The sky was overcast, and the beach was dotted with couples posing for pre-wedding pictures — a popular practice among middle- and upper-class Chinese. A light breeze ruffled the brides’ white wedding gowns as the photographers and their assistants scrambled to finish before sunset. The air in Qingdao was clean and fresh and provided a much needed break from the stagnant, gray air I’ve become accustomed to breathing in Beijing.

Boardwalk along the shore of the Yellow Sea. Buildings in downtown Qingdao can be seen in the distance.

Couples and photographers maneuver for the perfect position on one of Qingdao's beaches.

That evening I went to the trip’s main event — the international beer festival. It was held in a huge lot that reminded me of some of the fairgrounds in the United States. A steady rain was falling, and the ground was muddy. Large tents had been set up for the “designated drinkers,” and people crowded inside to stay dry. Many of the tents had stages that featured singers and dancers, turning the beer festival into a sort of variety show. Every so often, a half-loaded man would spring from the audience and join in, drawing cheers from the crowd. Continue reading