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Beijing Diaries

Beijing Diaries, No. 1

By Nate Conrad, on Jun. 30, 2015

Greetings from China!

My name is Nate Conrad, and I’m Roger Conrad’s eldest son. For the next eight weeks I’ll be learning Mandarin in China’s capital city, through the Princeton in Beijing program.

To keep my dad in the loop on my experience, I agreed to write a series of weekly posts describing my adventures; these stories will be available on the Capitalist Times website.

I hope these writings will give you a glimpse into one of the world’s most fascinating and fastest changing environments.

I sat economy class on a nonstop, 14-hour United Airlines flight to Beijing. About 90 percent of the passengers were from China and only spoke Chinese.

In the middle aisle to my left an extended family—a grandfather, his two daughters, their husbands and four children—struggled to find overhead space for their baggage.

All four American flight attendants came back to offer assistance, but the family didn’t speak English, and the American flight attendants didn’t speak a word of Chinese.

After a few minutes of confused gesturing and the stewardesses speaking English slowly and clearly, the Chinese pilot came to the rear of the cabin to resolve the situation. Maybe my improved Mandarin skills will help me get a gig with United Airlines when I finish the program.

I arrived in Beijing Capital International Airport mid-Friday afternoon. Chinese customs was surprisingly lenient. I walked right through security without ever stopping—and so did about 30 other passengers. I entered China with two full bags of delicious Trader Joe’s Trail Mix, and airport security didn’t bat an eye.

Tour buses took us downtown. Whereas many of my classmates ate lunch close to our dorms at Beijing Normal University, I opted to go for a nice long walk around city

I immediately noticed how few non-Chinese there are in Beijing. At this point, I’ve been all over the city and have seen no more than a handful of Wai-guo-ren (“foreigners,” in Chinese).

I am a fair-skinned Anglo-Saxon, and my cheeks blush when I exert myself; I get looks from locals wherever I go. I’ve been here only a week, but I’ve probably already been checked out by hundreds of people. If you feel lost in the crowd, a couple weeks in Beijing might be the perfect remedy. You’ll feel special in no time!

Within 12 hours of arriving at Beijing Normal University, I agreed not to use my mother tongue for the duration of my time in China.

Under the Princeton in Beijing language pledge, if I’m caught speaking any language that isn’t Chinese three times, I’ll be expelled from the program and consequently deported back to the US.

Thankfully, I am allowed to read and write in English—and they can’t control my thoughts. I am also permitted to speak English when I call my family, as long as I am alone and out of earshot of my peers. I am guilty of accidentally beginning two or three sentences in English before catching myself.

Princeton’s language pledge may seem extreme, but many other immersion programs, such as those at Middlebury College, require a similar level of commitment.

For each of the next eight weekends, we’ll go on group excursions to various sites in and around Beijing. Our first outing was to the Great Wall of China. The wall section at Jinshanling was a two-hour bus ride away. I can’t help but think that when the defenses at the Great Wall failed to hold back the Mongols and other invaders from the steppes, Beijing must have had little time to ready itself to face the threat.


While hiking along the wall, I wondered how the invaders could have scaled the mountain to reach the wall itself. As you can see in the photos I took, the wall runs along the top of the mountain ridge.

Even on the tourist paths, it’s no easy feat to reach the wall’s base. The wall’s battlements are incredibly steep at some points, with two-foot steps and sudden drops.

Elderly Chinese men and women had a difficult time walking along the wall. Thankfully, unprepared tourists can purchase refreshments, and souvenirs were available at virtually every tower along the wall. This trade isn’t entirely legal. As I left, I observed a short but wiry Chinese lady dart past security with a bag of souvenirs and refreshments.

I hope I never see the day that the Appalachian Trail or Yosemite becomes saturated with tourist traps.

Having some knowledge of Chinese has made my life here much easier than it would have been otherwise. The whole experience has given me a better appreciation of the difficulties that Chinese tourists who visit America encounter.

I’ve already made a fool of myself too many times to count, but I’ll save those embarrassing stories for next week!

Till then,


Google Translate or a dictionary would probably tell you that means “oil,”  “to accelerate,” or “to fill up one’s car (with gasoline),” but trust me, it’s Chinese slang for “cheer up” and “good luck!”

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