Sunday, March 04, 2012

Wangfujing, Beijing

A couple weeks ago (at least, I think it was a couple weeks ago ... days are beginning to blur together for me), two co-workers and I went on a business trip to Beijing. Rather than Wangjing, which is the area in Beijing that I traveled to last year, we went to Wangfujing, which is in a much nicer part of Beijing.

There were loads of high-end shops, huge malls, and luxury car dealerships all over the place in Wangfujing. We didn't have all that much time to wander the (clean) streets, since we were there for a series of meetings with a prospective client, but I managed to take a few shots (on my phone, so forgive the crappy photos).

The first day, we went out and walked down the promenade, passing by three enormous malls. The weather was overcast, making for really uninteresting lighting, but I took a photo of this mall (which we didn't go inside) because it's marked "Lotte," which is a huge Korean and Japanese conglomerate. Touches of home, even in China.

We managed to find a Starbucks for our caffeine fix (one of the guys is a complete coffee junkie) and wandered through the mall, the boys doing some price comparison with Korea (we went into a Nike store, a Gap, an Adidas store, and walked past countless others). I asked the guys to buy me a watch at Cartier, but had no luck (one of them told me to wait a hundred years and he'd buy it for me).
That mall on the right side is the one that we actually wandered through. We chose to go into that mall because it had a big Starbucks sign on the exterior, and everyone needed some coffee (our flight was at 8:40 in the morning, which meant we met at the office at 6:30 in order to get to the airport).
Exterior of the hotel, which was also conveniently where all our meetings took place. It was a funny little place-- not super nice, by any means, but livable. I can deal with livable. My Korean co-workers worry about me a lot because I don't seem very outdoorsy, which means that they think that I'll die if I'm in less than four-star accommodations. I'm not that bad, geez.

Our first night, a couple people took us to dinner. They decided that we should experience hotpot, Chinese style, which is quite different from shabu shabu, which Koreans took and modified from the Japanese. There are shabu shabu places a-plenty in Korea, but no hotpot places. Who were we to argue with new experiences? So off we went.
As it turns out, I don't mind hotpot. I'm not the biggest fan of lamb (though I really, really liked the lamb skewers that I had had in Beijing last year), especially over-cooked lamb. I prefer my lamb to be a large portion, like a leg, and cooked medium, so it's still pink in the middle. Neither hotpot nor shabu shabu are really conducive to cooking thin slices of meat to anything except boiled to death, so the lamb wasn't all that great. The beef wasn't that great, either, so maybe I'm just a picky meat eater (actually, I really am).

Hotpot wasn't the best thing I've ever eaten (not even the best thing I had during this trip), but it was okay. The boys, on the other hand, couldn't handle it at all. They didn't like the sauce (some sort of sesame-ish sauce that had the look of peanut butter but the viscosity of Thousand Island salad dressing), they didn't like the tofu (it was a little strong and pungent compared to Korean tofu), they didn't like the herbs (no idea, but similar to cilantro), and they couldn't really deal with the lamb (Koreans don't eat much lamb). It was hilarious (I am a mean person).

After dinner (during which the boys ate about eight bites), our companions excused themselves, as they had to go back to work, and I was left in charge. What a crap idea. I speak about five words of Mandarin, the most useful being "cold water," because in Beijing (or maybe all throughout China?) restaurants bring glasses of tepid water. I learned how to say "cold water" on my first trip to Beijing last year, when I couldn't handle drinking the body-temperature water.

Since I speak English and the boys speak even less Chinese than I do, I was designated speaker for the entire trip. We decided to "explore" Wangfujing, which means that we walked about three blocks. Directly in front of our hotel was a very long row of government-managed street food carts. The boys decided they wanted to try something, since their dinner was less than satisfactory.
These carts just stretched on and on and on. It was amazing how well-ordered and clean they were. The boys later found out that Wangfujing is kept very clean and neat because a lot of tourists visit and spend a lot of money. Most of the non-Asian people seemed to be Russian, which makes sense, geographically, but is frustrating, when one doesn't speak any Russian or Chinese.
I tried to get one of the boys to eat something slimy or creepy-crawly, but had no luck. I kind of wanted to try scorpion, just because it's something to try. Plus, I feel like they would be crispy and hollow, and not really taste like I'm eating a bug. I absolutely cannot bring myself to try 번대기 (bundaegi) in Korea (silkworm larvae) because they are plump and squishy-looking. Shudder.

We actually had Korean food from the street carts, tteokbokki (떡볶이) and mandu (만두), then went to a convenience store to buy bottled water (do not drink tap water in Beijing!) and snacks. It was an early night, leading into a post-lunch meeting the next day, so I got plenty of sleep- a first for me in China!

After meetings all afternoon the next day, our last night in China, we went out to a big dinner with a whole bunch of people. It was actually an amazing dinner. We ate at Nobu, then went next door to the Ritz-Carlton and had champagne and cigars at the Davidoff Lounge (I had champagne and tried one puff of one of the boys' cigars).
That would be the cigar that I tried, and the guy that I swiped it from. I don't smoke cigarettes, so I don't really get the smoking thing in general. I have a weird, sexist opinion that I can't seem to change about women who smoke- I'm pretty sure it's the Korean blood in me, because while about 99.99% of Korean men seem to smoke, it seems like less than 10% of Korean women smoke. Ah, general inequality in Korea, it comes up in the most random ways.

On the other hand, another gender inequality moment for me was the fact that during the entire Beijing trip, I never once carried my own bag. I had a laptop bag and a carry-on, and in the hours that I was in airports or airplanes, I never once saw my carry-on. The boys even took it through security. It was a little bit bizarre, but typical of Korea- men in Korea carry their girlfriend or spouse's purse for them. Not like in the U.S., when the girl's in the bathroom or trying on clothes- dudes in Korea carry their woman's purse constantly. Like, walking down the street. Entering a restaurant. In movie theaters. I used to think it was so weird, but I've gotten used to it.

When I commented that American chivalry is totally different, the guys asked me to explain. So I told them how guys in the U.S. don't carry purses, but they do open doors and seat ladies first and all that jazz. The concept of "ladies first" is foreign in Korea, as evidenced by men always sitting down first, entering through doors first, ordering first in restaurants, and so on and so forth. Once I said all that, one of the guys unfailingly opened all doors for me (the guy whose cigar I tried), but not in a sarcastic way- in a rather sweet way.
I didn't know the two guys very well before we went on this little trip together, but we became much closer, and I was very pleasantly surprised. There's something about going to a foreign country together, where nobody speaks the native language, that brings out the true colors in people. I'm glad I was stuck with two genuinely nice boys (I keep saying boys, but they're both older than me) that made the experience more fun than I expected it to be.

Hopefully we're awarded this film, so that I can work with these two for the next few months! Crossing my fingers and holding my breath. Should hear back this week.

Was slightly sick over the weekend, and am trying hard to get over it. Overdosing on echinacea was helpful, I feel much better today than yesterday. Need to get better before the weekend, since a friend is visiting Korea from San Diego and staying at my place this weekend!