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The Hutong Diaries

When President Brody and wife Wendy went to China to learn Mandarin, they got more than language lessons. This is their journal of the sights, sounds, and smells of Beijing.

Text and Photos by William R. Brody



It's 5 a.m. on a sultry summer morning when I am awakened from a sound sleep by a wailing voice. I sit up, peek through the curtains at the head of my bed. Though threads of sunlight are dappling the alleyway, no one is in sight. The wailing continues. Someone must be injured or otherwise in distress, I think. I have never heard this sound before while sleeping in Nichols House. Then I remember, I'm not on campus — I'm not even in Baltimore. I am in a strange bed in Beijing, China, jet-lagged from having arrived yesterday evening on a transcontinental flight. I also think I might be dreaming.

I arise, look out another set of windows — nothing. So, back to bed I go, reaching REM sleep within minutes. About an hour later, I am again awakened. This time the wailing voice is clearly a woman's, and the sound has a repetitive, rhythmic quality. I quickly put on some clothes and go out into the courtyard of our apartment complex. I see an elderly woman driving a large tricycle piled about four feet high with flattened boxes. As the woman agonizingly peddles down the alley, she wails.

I get it — she is collecting cardboard for recycling. Over the next two weeks of our stay, my wife, Wendy, and I will learn to distinguish the fruit and vegetable vendors, the plastic bottle and cardboard box recyclers, and the beggars — all from the sound of their wailing.



Early in 2006 my assistant, Mary Ann Driscoll, was putting together my calendar for the coming year. I inquired about the status of the 20th anniversary celebration for the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC). Because of the pressure of getting a new building completed on that campus, it was decided to move the celebration from the summer of 2006 to June 2007, technically, of course, now the 21st anniversary of the program's founding. Knowing that I had a one-year reprieve in which to prepare a short speech to be given at the ceremony, I thought to myself, Why not give my speech in Mandarin Chinese?

Why not indeed? Had I studied Chinese previously, this might not have been such a far-fetched idea. But having no more than a six-word vocabulary in Mandarin, I should have heeded the advice of one of our Johns Hopkins trustees, Wen Shi. When I mentioned this idea, he said simply, "Good luck!" and gave me a look that suggested the utter preposterousness of the attempt. So now, of course, I had to go through with it.

The next step was to engage the full force and intellect of Johns Hopkins in my quest. I contacted a number of people associated with the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and asked where I should study. The consensus view was that I should go to Beijing for as long as practicable and study at the Taipei Language Institute. (Sure, it sounds a bit strange that the No. 1 Beijing language school should be a Taiwan-based company, but welcome to China. Actually, TLI has a long and distinguished history teaching Mandarin to Westerners of all ages.)

Once Wendy was on board — a much easier argument than I had expected — we were off and running, carving out a two-week educational vacation in early July.



But where to stay? On the advice of Daniel Wright, the former director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center program for Johns Hopkins, and Alex Brenner, a 2002 HNC graduate then living and studying in Beijing, we decided to stay in an apartment in one of Beijing's old-style neighborhoods called hutongs. We remembered these intriguing environs from our very first visit to China, in 1994. Hutong means "lane" or "alley," and the hutong areas of Beijing are a maze of small alleys, dotted by walled courtyard residences that at one time, prior to 1949, were home to the feudal lord and his wives, concubines, children, and servants. After the Communist revolution, many families were moved into these residences.

Most of the hutong residences are one-story, with no indoor plumbing, and most have a lot of deferred maintenance from years of neglect. Some, though, have been upgraded, and I understand a few senior Communist Party officials and well-connected friends have modernized theirs into stately residences. These were hidden from view, though we would occasionally see a government Audi A6 with blacked-out windows zipping through the hutong, with the chauffeur taking an official to his or her home.


Park Life

Our first morning, we rose with the sun, dressed quickly — jeans, polo shirt, and tennis shoes would become our uniform of choice — and walked down the Ju'er Hutong (our street) to a well-known public park called Beihai. By night, Beihai is a center of discos and bars for the younger set, especially for expats, but in the early morning, it is still the province of the local citizens, who use the area for tai chi, fishing, jogging, hiking, ping-pong, stretching, singing Chinese or Western operatic songs, or playing the two-string Chinese violin (called an R-hu). Some activities surprised us: The Chinese have a passion for ballroom dancing, entirely a Western import, and in the park, groups of 15 or 20 people dance alone or together under the direction of a teacher.

Beihai has a large lake, where people fish using very long bamboo poles, despite the prominently displayed "No Fishing" signs. The lakes in China are generally very polluted, and while beautiful from a distance, up close they are filled with so much trash sometimes it looks like you could walk on them. I certainly would not be eager to eat the fish from these polluted ponds!



Everywhere in Beijing, there are street vendors selling everything imaginable. Close to Beihai was a small pedestrians-only street where food vendors set up shop in the morning and evening. That first morning, I decided to do what the locals do, so I stopped by a street vendor to purchase China's equivalent of the Egg McMuffin — an egg over glutinous rice — for which I paid 5 Mao (1/2 a yuan, or about 6 cents). I probably overpaid relative to what the locals were paying, but with no knowledge of Mandarin, I was not in a strong bargaining position.

During the days we were at school, we would buy fruit from the migrant family next door to take along for our lunch. They were lovely people who had moved to Beijing in search of work, and they operated a small fruit market that usually had very fresh produce. I thought at first the couple had two children, both girls. People from rural areas, I understand, are allowed to have two children, whereas everyone else is limited to one child. The fruit seller's younger daughter was named Duo-duo, which loosely translated means "too much." Her name perplexed me, until I discovered one day that the couple actually had a son as well, but because of the child restriction policy, their three children were never seen in the store together. Duo- duo was perhaps the result of an unplanned pregnancy.



The number of bicycles in China is mind-boggling, though every year in Beijing the increasing affluence means more and more cars. I am told that the only thing growing faster than the number of cars is the number of cell phones; there are now estimated to be more than 400 million cell phones in China, and in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the networks seem to work flawlessly.

Bicycle theft is a big problem, so having an older rental bike proves to be an asset — except when it comes to efficient pedaling and braking. Our bikes look to be at least 40 years old. Wendy's is in poorer condition than mine, and she often has to use her feet to slow down. Fortunately after a week of this, our shi fu or "bicycle master," Mr. Yang, is able to come up with a "newer" replacement, still decades old, but with brakes that actually stop the bike.

We have problems with our bikes almost every day. The daily 80-minute commute through Beijing roads and traffic wears on the bikes, and the nearly nightly rain usually causes some part, like the brakes, to freeze up from rust. Mr. Yang is incredible. He can quickly diagnose any mechanical problem and just as quickly find a solution. He is very concerned with our welfare, so he gives us priority service, even adding a bell to ward off offending pedestrian or bicycle traffic.


Small World

On most days, Wendy and I spend about five hours in class. We each get individual instruction, with different teachers for one-hour segments. Most of the teachers are young women — very few of them seem to be older than 32 or so — who are diligent and take pride in their profession. We have a 10-minute break each hour, during which we mingle with the other students. They range from college students studying Mandarin for the summer, to professionals transferred to Beijing by companies, embassies, or NGOs. One day Wendy and I talk with a lovely young Korean woman who is studying at TLI. After exchanging pleasantries, I find out she is a student at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, learning Chinese here between her first and second year as part of the China Studies Program. She looks questioningly at me in my jeans and polo shirt, not believing at first that I might actually be the president of Johns Hopkins! Another morning, while biking to school, I pass a bicyclist going in the opposite direction wearing a Hopkins-Nanjing Center T-shirt. The crowd of bicycles precludes my turning around to follow him. Perhaps he bought the shirt second-hand, I think to myself as a way of assuaging my guilt for not chasing him down.



Our guidebook says there are 40,000 restaurants in Beijing, and I suspect that number is low. Most of the time we go to one nearby, either on our street or a block or two away. One of our favorites is a Muslim restaurant, where we get dinner for two for $2 or $3, including a chicken kabob, curried eggplant, rice, and beer. The food is quite tasty, though perhaps not as hygienic as at home — I really liked the barbequed chicken or lamb on a bamboo skewer until Wendy observed that they probably reuse the skewers. TsingTao beer is, of course, popular here, but I much preferred the local beers, which have a more distinctive taste and are especially refreshing after a day's bicycle commute. Chinese wine is appearing on the scene, along with imported wine from Australia and Europe. MaoTai, the traditional 120-proof whiskey that is readily ignited, seems to be in diminishing use, with wine substituting at many banquets where Westerners are guests.

Aside from the hutong vendors, there are many restaurants serving a wide variety of Chinese regional cuisines, with hotpot being a Beijing standard. When you sit down in a restaurant, the waiter or waitress will come to your table and expect you immediately to order your food. With many of the menus nearly as large as the Baltimore phone book, it would take us a long time to peruse the listings, something that did not make us popular with the wait staff. I never figured out how customers were able to order right away, but most of them did. Food was generally cheap and well-prepared, with some bearing a modest resemblance to the Chinese food we eat in the United States.

Restaurants also smell different from what we are accustomed to in the United States. One distinctive odor is that of a food loosely called "stinky tofu" — an acquired taste, I am told, and one I never had the courage to try.



On a visit to the Antique Market (Pan Jia Yuan), we encounter the largest flea market I have ever seen, with several acres of stalls selling everything from jewelry and clothes to large pieces of heavy Chinese furniture. Wendy immediately goes exploring, while I spend my time observing the people and taking photographs to document the experience. The next thing I know, Wendy is beckoning — she has her eye on a large, ornate vase like those you might see in a museum or the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. She asks the seller, "Dou shou qian?" ("How much does it cost?"), one of the first phrases she learned at TLI. The seller says 3,500 Chinese yuan, about $400. Wendy offers 300 yuan, maybe $35. I am appalled, but indicate no emotion. After some gesticulating and little movement on the price, Wendy walks out of that stall and eyes another seller's vases with apparent interest. After a few minutes, the first vendor walks over and offers a lower price, to which Wendy gestures "no." The negotiations last about 20 minutes, until buyer and seller agree on a price: about $40.

By the end of the second week, we think we are making enough progress with our Mandarin that we spend more time shopping in the stores frequented only by the Chinese. There is a clothing store just a block or two from our hutong, where Wendy inquires about a made-to-order Chinese-style pantsuit. The silk material is beautiful and inexpensive, especially compared to off-the-shelf clothing. After much discussion with the proprietor, Wendy settles on a design. (Down the street from our hutong is a very small tailor shop, where a woman sews from about 7 in the morning until 11 at night, and I assume that she is one of several tailors whom the shop might employ to make Wendy's suit.) When Wendy returns to the shop three days later, the jacket is perfect, but the pants are made out of a silk too heavy to wear in Baltimore most of the year. So we engage in another complex dialogue to order a second pair, of lighter silk. A day later, they are completed — and perfect! Even with the second pair, the outfit is very inexpensive by Western standards.


East and West

One of the first words you learn at Chinese language school is dong-xi, which means "thing." Is there something you want to eat, or buy? Dong-xi is a convenient word to use, especially when you don't know many others. What I discovered after beginning to study Chinese characters is that the characters for dong-xi, as in "thing," are exactly the same characters as for dong or east and xi or west. How this came about I do not know. But it struck me as a Westerner in Beijing that this is exactly where the clash of dong and xi is occurring, right before our eyes.

When we first visited Beijing in 1994, there were no private cars, only government limousines; no recognizable stores other than the government-operated "Friendship Stores," where Western visitors were forced to shop, attended by surly and unresponsive sales people. Today, large modern shopping centers carry the latest goods from Europe, the United States, and Japan. The stores are packed with local residents buying everything off the shelves. Beijing's largest bookstore, Xidan, is located on Xichang'an Jie. It looks like a Barnes & Noble on steroids. Every aisle is jammed with people, standing, sitting, or squatting down reading books from off the shelves.

Automobiles and high-rise condominiums are pushing people out of their comfortable homes. McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, WalMart, Ikea, rock music, and — oh, yes — Starbucks are transforming the country's daily life and economic fortunes. Large networks of family and friends are being torn apart as children move to remote locations in search of good-paying jobs, much as occurred in the U.S. and Europe. The Chinese adore many things Western. Yet, at the same time, the thirst for xi is rapidly destroying many of the roots of Chinese culture.

After nearly two weeks, we have become fairly acclimated to life in Beijing. The horrendous heat and humidity are tolerable to Baltimoreans, but the world-class pollution beats us. Some days we literally cannot see the buildings across the street. But we are compensated by the sights, smells, sounds, great variety of food, and daily excursions filled with excitement and exposure to a completely different culture. Our vacation may not be one that many readers would choose, but it gave us a wonderful appreciation of the issues facing the Chinese people as they grapple with the collision between east and west, old and new.

While our Chinese communication skills are still very limited, we enjoy being around the local Beijing people (Beijing-ren), who are incredibly helpful, especially considering that Beijing is such a huge metropolis. The Chinese we encounter have a wonderful sense of humor and — as in Italy, where Wendy and I lived for a time early in our married life — they have a love of family, food, and friends. A network (guan-xi) of friends and colleagues is particularly important in this country, where it is easy to otherwise become another face in a sea of faces.

We sadly say goodbye to Beijing, wishing our stay were much, much longer. We are eagerly awaiting our return to China and to Nanjing. As for the speech in Chinese at the Nanjing celebration, wish me luck — I'll need it!

Return to June 2007 Table of Contents

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