You know that book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”? Perhaps you don’t. Mitch Albom’s award-winning novella follows a maintenance man named Eddie as he suddenly embarks on a journey through the afterlife, meeting along the way five people who impacted his life significantly. From encounters with each of these five people, Eddie comes to understand the interconnectedness of his life and experiences on Earth.
…but what does a spiritual journey through limbo have to do with studying abroad? As a disclaimer, I am not dead. But Beijing can often feel like a strange limbo for a foreigner. There are so many things I would like to do and places I would like to go, but I am often restricted by my limited cultural fluency and an intimidating language barrier. It’s very easy to get stuck here—students can be tempted to draw into themselves instead of adventuring out into their host city. IES Abroad does a great job of facilitating interactions outside of class time, but we still sometimes prefer to stay inside our comfy foreign bubble.
With that being said, the Chinese are also some of the warmest and most welcoming people you will meet. There was a phrase floating around the Chinese web for a while that went something like: “If life is a video game, China is the hardest level.” Most Chinese know that life is difficult for foreigners in their country. Many are sympathetic to it. As a result, building even the simplest of relationships with locals can be the most rewarding experience. Described below are five (of the many) people that have made this city of 22 million feel like home.
1. Fruit Stand Man
Upon writing this I realized that I never even learned Fruit Stand Man’s name, but he’s had a significant role in how much I have enjoyed my time here at IES Abroad Beijing. Whether it’s 6:30 on Wednesday night and I’ve just stepped off the long bus ride back from my internship, or it’s midday on a Saturday and I’m ready to enjoy a piece of watermelon in the springtime sunshine, Fruit Stand Man is there. And for those days when I’m not feeling as inclined to health-conscious eating, Fruit Stand Man also sells these bangin’ all-natural sweet potato chips. (Seriously, they are out of this world.)
2. Fang Laoshi
Simply put, Fang Laoshi is the coolest dude you will meet at IES Abroad. Although I’m not taking his calligraphy class, Fang Laoshi was eager to invest time and effort in helping me with my thesis research and talking to me about the development of Chinese art. He’s an amazingly knowledgeable person and is always thrilled to engage students in conversation about any and all things China. Future students, take note. As someone who has not totally failed the 500-level Chinese class (yet), I can tell you with certainty: you can afford to sacrifice an hour or two of tingxie preparation to share tea and conversation with Fang Laoshi. It will be well worth your time.
3. Shouzhuabing Lady
If you’ve never had a shouzhuabing, you are missing out. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are terribly unhealthy for you, but that in no way discourages my love of them. Shouzhuabing are something like a breakfast taco or sandwich wrap…but better. This picture shows one of the sweet, sweet ladies who works at the tiny shouzhuabing stand near the IES Abroad dorm. Working in that cramped stall must be taxing, but they never fail to greet me with smiles and a “Ni hao, mei nv!” (Hello, pretty girl!)
4. The barista at Golden Phoenix
I tried to kick my coffee habit when I came to China…but alas, it was not to be. Fortunately, the barista at Golden Phoenix greets me every morning with a smile and a perfect cup of joe. These simple daily exchanges are what have made my time in Beijing so wonderful; forming unspoken bonds with locals I see every day has helped me really weave myself into the fabric of this city, and briefly forget about my glaring “foreignness.”
Grace is my supervisor at the Today Art Museum in east Beijing. We’ve shared bowls of noodles, laughs, and hilarious miscommunications over my 14-week internship with the museum. I will always be grateful for her friendship, kindness, and the time she showed me where to get authentic Italian fettuccini after I found a spider in my noodles at the restaurant across the street.
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<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Hi! My name is Alexa Penton and I'm an undergrad at the University of Mississippi pursuing degrees in Chinese Language and Culture and Art History. I started photography as a hobby in high school, and have since expanded my collection to 10 film cameras and one digital. Most of my photos and videos document my travels at home and abroad. I am particularly inspired by the qualities of light, memories, natural history, nontraditional developing practices, and nontraditional portraiture. I call Orlando, Florida home, but can't wait to spend a whole semester living and learning in Beijing!</span></p>