Erstwhile lobsterman makes his way in China

Posted April 25, 2010, at 7:34 p.m.

I wake up completely disoriented. It is 5 a.m. and the sky is dim and smoggy outside of my window. Beijing is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Time, so I am groggy but somehow wide awake. I begin folding my clothes and unpacking my books, ready for my first day in China.

When I bought my one-way ticket to Beijing, I tried to keep my mind free of expectations about what I would find here. I graduated college in the spring, and immediately began working aboard a commercial lobster boat in my hometown — a rural island in Maine. I lifted heavy, wire traps, coiled wet rope, counted lobsters and began forming a plan, thinking about a distant land — China. After working a six-month lobstering season, I had saved up enough money for a flight.

Around 6 a.m., after I unpack my suitcase, I meet my new roommate: a big, stocky Californian. He has a shaved head and gives me a proper, bone-crushing American handshake.

“You want to go out for breakfast, man?” he asks.

I zip my jacket and pull my hat over my ears as we step into the record-breaking, bitter cold, Beijing winter air. Dim sunlight shines through the clouds, casting a diffused glow over the city. Bicycles crowd the street, the morning commute has begun.

I look forward to eating a real, authentic, Beijing breakfast. I’d read that there was a lot of great street food in China — dumplings, porridge, sweet yams and fried dough. My mouth waters at the thought.

Because my plane landed late last night, I hadn’t really gotten a look at my new neighborhood. But this morning I was able to see the apartment complex where I would be living for the next three months. It is undeniably modern — not the low-built, old-fashioned, closely packed, traditional hutongs of old Beijing. Everything here likely was built in the last five years. The buildings are 20 stories tall, the streets are wide, and everything is concrete.

As we walk, my new Californian roommate and I get to know each other. He asks me what my intentions are in coming to China. “To learn something about Chinese culture and language; and to work while I do it,” I say. It’s the stock answer I’d given many times to family and friends in the months leading up to my trip. I ask my roommate why he’s here.

“China is the fastest growing economy on the planet right now,” he answers confidently. “And I want to be a part of that, I want to do business. That’s why I’m here — to seek my fortune.”

I’d been hearing this kind of thing about China for a while. In part this is why I moved here. I wasn’t a business student, and I don’t really have the mind for economics, but I am curious about what has been drawing more and more Americans and other foreigners to China. Analysts call China’s economy a dragon, a monster, a juggernaut — I wanted to see what’s being heralded as the next global power, to see if it really was the new land of opportunity.

“Hey, let’s get something here,” the Californian says, motioning with his shoulder, too cold to take his hands out of his pockets. We walk into the restaurant. Here they call it Maidanglao, but in the U.S. we call it another name: McDonald’s. The interior design is exactly the same, the same colors, the same seating — only nicer, fancier. For many Chinese, going to McDonald’s is a special occasion, a chance to eat odd, Western food and drink bitter coffee.

I’m disappointed that I won’t get a “real Chinese breakfast” but decide to make the best of it. I squint at the menu, looking for something to order. I understand almost none of the written Chinese characters, but the accompanying pictures look familiar — bacon, egg and cheese, fries, burgers, milkshakes, coffee.

I settle on an egg sandwich and a coffee. My housemate orders for the two of us in forceful, toneless, heavily accented — but to his credit, competent — Chinese.

We sit down, I take a bite out of my breakfast sandwich. Maidanglao is now bustling, packed with families, businessmen and young students. Pop music plays overhead, the words are in Mandarin, but the tune is familiar. It takes me a minute, but then I realize why; I am listening to a Chinese version of “Jingle Bells.” Welcome to Beijing.

Sam Kestenbaum grew up in Deer Isle. He now lives in Beijing, where he works as the senior editor at The World of Chinese.

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