Crawfish in Beijing!

Beijing! After fourteen hours of flight time, two movies, one disposal toothbrush, and four (?) hours of sleep, I have arrived in the bustling Beijing and couldn't be more awake! As this is my first trip abroad, everything I have experienced thus far seems incredibly novel. My blog will probably convey a childlike wonder (such as when I read the sign for crawfish in Beijing!). 

Before describing my first week in Beijing, I believe the travel process deserves a moment of recognition. In a rare show of kismet, Delta seated me next to a friendly high school student from Beijing; she wasted no time sharing her excitement about her home town, and furnished me with an impressive list of places to visit, people to meet, and a wealth of food to taste. Because it is a large international hub, the Peking Airport is fairly user friendly for foreign arrivals: after clearing customs, I was deposited into a lobby directly across from a currency exchange service and subway station. But a majority of the user-friendliness should be accredited to my wonderful roommate (and classmate), Dorronda, who kindly offered to meet me at the airport to help navigate the trip back to our residential district. She played witness to my inexperienced subway wobble and suitcase juggle combo. 

Since my arrival, there has been no opportunity to feel exhausted, since Beijing makes New York seem lethargic. Even with my head on a swivel, I can't possibly keep tabs on everything happening around me -- which I will use as my excuse for missing the bus to my hotel. But overwhelming seems to be the status quo. The streets and sidewalks are packed with bulging masses of pedestrians heading in every direction at once. Although there are traffic signals and rights of way, the collective public seems to understand a certain freedom of movement and disregard for rules, without which, the congestion would be impassable. Still, I haven't played Frogger in years, so cross walks are intense. The cars move as the people do, drifting across lanes without regard for other vehicles (or pedestrians) nearly brushing up against them. It's simultaneously amazing and terrifying; there's no real organization, yet everyone seems to understand how to maneuver amongst thousands without incident. 

The weekend of my arrival synced up with the national Dragon Boat Festival holiday, so I enjoyed my first couple days exploring the city and tasting some of the traditional foods, like zongzi (sticky-rice dumplings). This is already sounding like a food blog, but so many food items, including zongzi, are important cultural and historical symbols, so I thought it would be neat to include them. Also, they just taste really, really good. 

Dorronda and I also visited traditional hutong, gulping in the sensory experiences of a crowded historical site. My employer, Peony, and her friend took us to Jingshan Park to see the sunset. We climbed to the top of the imperial park, and Beijing confronted us with its full panorama. We even sneaked a peek down into the Forbidden City before the sunset drew a blanket back over the mysterious city. 

My employer, One Plus One Disabled Persons' Cultural Development Center (OPO), put me in contact with Peony, an amazing OPO employee who has dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of women with disabilities. Women with disabilities often find themselves stuck at an intersectional crossroad between feminism and disability rights. While they are women, much of feminist-theory and activism (perhaps not intentionally) favors able-bodied women; and while they are people with disabilities, they are still subjected to the same oppressions and marginalization as other women in certain areas of life. There is a horrific pattern of physical and emotional abuse (including domestic violence and sexual assault) unique to women with disabilities – one that needs urgent attention. Peony's goal is to publicize the stories of women with disabilities, to hear their individual experiences and convey their words to a public platform – in the form of a documentary – in which they may resonate across social barriers and achieve national recognition. 

I have been tasked with assisting Peony in her interviews and networking endeavors with women all across China and even abroad. So far, I have researched and transcribed several interviews with women with disabilities – Peony hopes to publish an aggregate of the womens' voices in both Chinese and English to attract a wider audience. Already, my work is fulfilling, and the people I've met and befriended are so inspiring. They've also accepted me with open arms, and it means so much to feel welcomed. The kind āyí prepares lunch for everyone in the office, and she patiently heard my slow pronunciation of vegetarian before heaping a delicious pile of tofu into my bowl. On my first day of work, some of my co-workers invited me to play badminton (yumáoqiú) after lunch. They play daily, and have asked me to join them every week – so add badminton to my list of things to practice, right underneath Frogger. I have a blast sweating it out with new friends (the average temperature in the summer is about 95 degrees), and can't wait to continue doing so throughout the summer. Everyone in the office has also agreed to help me learn Mandarin, and we love to exchange vocabulary and talk about cultural differences between Beijing and the States. 

But the work is also emotionally challenging: some of the women are soft-spoken, they give their stories in a voice that is slow and calm, but the impact of their words is loud and jarring. Their stories emphasize the importance of OPO's work, and I am so grateful to be a part of their mission. 

One exciting tid-bit: yesterday, we tested out the new Beijing accessibility taxi. Public transportation is the optimal mode of transportation in Beijing, but many services are not wheelchair accessible. In response, Beijing kick-started a new taxi service to accommodate people with physical disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs. One of Peony's friends, Zai Jing, agreed to help us document the first ride in the service. Instead of a lift, as I've seen in wheelchair accessible vehicles in America, the driver uses a remote to prompt the passenger-side chair to extend outside the vehicle and downwards to allow a passenger like Zai Jing to shift from a wheelchair to the taxi's chair, and then the wheelchair is stored in the back of the taxi. I've attached a picture (I hope) of the taxi and Zai Jing seating himself in the passenger chair. Zai Jing offered a positive review of the service, and we can only hope the availability of the service expands in the future to allow for more frequent use – we had to reserve the taxi several hours in advance to make sure a car would be available in our locality. 

Next week, apart from the guaranteed foodie diversion, I plan to write about some of the interviews I attend with Peony. Until next time! Zàijiàn!