Last weekend, for the first time in nearly four months, I saw a sky teeming with stars.
Shivering and wrapping myself tighter in my plaid scarf – the one that so closely resembles an afghan – rapidly losing feeling my fingers (and for that matter, my toes), I stood on the third-floor landing of an apartment building, retracing the cusp of the Big Dipper that is so seldom seen in Shanghai.
In the 25ºF frost of Qingdao, a coastal city about an hour and a half flight north of Shanghai, I was reminded that most of China is, in fact, very different from the China I live in and the cocoon of Shanghai is ever so isolated, its abundance of FamilyMarts and wide shopping plazas seldom found elsewhere. If I am to be honest with myself, Qingdao is not a part of China that I can see myself surviving in long-term, but coming here was a necessary (and beautiful) reminder that the country where I have chosen to spend the next few years of my life is indeed another world from home.
Qingdao (or Tsingtao if we’re going by the old romanization system) is distinctly famous for two things:
- Its eponymous Tsingtao beer (and what I think may actually be the largest brewery in China)
- Its seafood (most distinctly of the barbecued variety presented upon a skewer)
This past weekend, we may have had a little too much of both (but then again, the two go together so well, don’t they?). Qingdao – the city – has an interesting history, having been occupied by the Germans from 1897 until the 1940s, and that is, in fact, the reason for the brewery’s prime location within the city walls (because if you’re coming to make a settlement in China, you naturally can’t do so without beer). As a result, Qingdao has a great drinking culture, which is perhaps the reason why every local was so nice to us (there were barely any other Western tourists in the city), eager to give us directions and not ripping us off too much for the cabs that cost twice as less as those in Shanghai. One of the most distinct parts of Tsingtao and its culture is the ‘raw’ beer, sold from the tap (and costing around 10RMB or less than 2USD) in plastic bags and sipped through a straw. Though looking rather like a bag containing a urine sample, drinking it, is, nonetheless, a thrilling experience.
At the end of the weekend, what stands out the most? Was it the Flinstones-like fake cab into which we (barely) squeezed five people as I splayed across the backseat, feeling the ‘car’ stall twice on the highway? Was it taking shots of ‘medicinal liquor’ (we were told it was good for us. The shoe polish smell emanating from the bottle told us otherwise) to third-wave feminism? Was it eating Uni (!!!) a whole starfish, or the raw squid that wriggled (but not quite fought) its way into my mouth? In our search for local seafood, we saw a fish sputter and die before landing on our plates, we saw countless whole squids slathered in hot sauce and charred on barbecue pits, still steaming as they were handed to us; I even popped a squat on a dark corner of a back alley (but then again, we were in the ‘squat toilet’ part of China).
At the same time, despite the brutalist architecture and the lack of glittering malls, something about the streets of Qingdao seemed distinctively non-Chinese. It’s funny. We talked about ways the wide Avenues by the Qingdao waterfront reminded us of the Newport mansions in Rhode Island or Magazine Street in New Orleans or the ways the boardwalk leading up to the pagoda (the one which is featured so prominently on the Tsingtao beer bottle) is so like the Santa Monica boardwalk, but when we compare things like this, we don’t always make distinct memories of the place we are visiting.
I have many memories of the last weekend, but I think what stands out the most is that in a few years, stepping into a new place, I’ll be able to say: This city reminds me of Qingdao.
Last weekend was great but exhausting. I have another exhausting week at work ahead of me and another trip out of the city this weekend. It’s funny. A lot of times I choose between writing about my life or living it and this week, I’ll need to do both.