Frustration! We had planned to go shopping for a comfortable chair and foam rubber for the rock hard beds, but my BU student who is here, Celine Li, who was going to help us translate “foam rubber” “back ache” and “sleep deprived” had to go off to
Walk to the old Friendship store, where you can get all sorts of western goods at inflated prices, and stumble on a TGIFriday’s. Stephen is mortified that we are going to eat there, but I am really in the mood for something familiar. I enjoy a fabulous hamburger and a big fat brownie sundae! At 6, Stephen leaves to go back to the apartment via subway for a conference call back to the States. Katie and I head off to acrobat theater. I have not told Katie that Kyrie would be there, because I am so sure this plan is not going to work out. But lo and behold, Kyrie and her mom and sisters appear at the theater! What a nice little reunion! Katie is really happy! The acrobats are stupendously splendorific…in other words, amazing, but over the top kitsch at the same time. How DOES one bend into a pretzel while standing on someone else’s head on a moving bicycle!?!? After the show, farewell to Kyrie with a promise to try to visit
If you want to see short video and a few stills of Stephen and I dancing the Tibetan two-step:
Saturday Feb 23
Wake up to the sound of what seems like troops marching and grunting militaristic chants along the lines of “left, left, left, right, left”. It is and there are maybe a hundred guys in uniform jogging around the campus for the better part of an hour. There are also more old folks practicing tai chi than I’d noticed before. I want to get out next week and try it. Later our neighbor informs us that she thinks all freshmen must participate in military training, kind of like ROTC.
Our trip to Ikea is cancelled again. Our escort-translator and BU student, Celine, is stuck in
We spend the afternoon walking north from the campus about a mile. It is mall after mall and crowd after crowd out doing their errands. Every once in a while you’ll find an old single story building, typical of what all of Beijing was ten years ago, but almost all of them have been razed to make room for yet another glitzy mall, with muzak at a decibel level that is tough to talk over. For someone who has spent most of the past many years avoiding malls at all costs, this is not my idea of a good time. Katie, of course, is in heaven.
For dinner, Stephen cooks up a meal of Ramen and veggies and he and Katie go out to the store after dinner. I sit and read a book, other than a guide book or Fulbright official business, for the first time since we’ve been here, and realize there is not a comfortable place to sit in the whole place. The beds are like rocks, the chairs in the living room are OK but not good for reading. I really want to get to Ikea and get a good chair! Sometime around I am awakened by a rowdy party, apparently in the apartment above us. Goes on for another hour at least. The walls are pretty thin.
Sunday Feb 24
Our neighbor invites us to join them at their church, saying it might be a good place for Katie to make friends who live in our area. The “church” is a rented room in the basement of an office complex here. You must show your passport to enter. The Chinese govt. will not allow Chinese citizens to enter any non-govt. sanctioned churches. The service is very high-tech Christian, a bit much for me. The lyrics to the hymns are displayed on three large screens and the minister’s sermon is done with power point. But the minister is a Red Sox fan and has a good sermon. Katie does meet some nice kids at the Sunday school, so we may return in the future, maybe.
Can’t find good food in
At Mercy, our Renmin host, and our driver Shun Shifu, and a curly-haired undergrad student who has given herself the English name Hannah arrive at our apartment to take care of business. It amazes me that no one takes a day off. Mercy and Hannah arrange for copying to be done, discuss at length how little or how much students should be expected to read in one week. Then Hannah, whose English is better than Mercy’s, negotiates a rate to pay the driver Mr. Shun to take Katie to and from school every day. He drives a hard bargain and we pay him more than we’d pay a cabbie for the same ride, but he’s a known commodity, who drove the daughter of a previous Fulbrighter to the same school that Katie is going to, Beijing International School of Singapore. In the
After they finally leave, Katie and I go on a mission to find an Olympic water bottle for school tomorrow. We walk several blocks to the store we saw them at yesterday but come to find out they are really thermoses and cost more than $20 a piece. We opt instead for the $5 Olympic key chain. In
Katie is getting all prepped for her first day of school, checking the school’s website for lunch offerings, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the ride home, getting her backpack with BU water bottle ready to go. It is beginning to feel more settled around here.
Monday Feb. 25
Katie is up and ready to go about an hour earlier than she needs to be. Stephen is going to go with her for the first few days until she’s (or is it we? are) comfortable with Shun Shifu.
I try to check my email and there is no internet connection Stephen informs me that he tried to get to some blogs last night, and searched some sites on religion in
Around 9, Stephen returns and voila, the internet is back in operation. He laughs it off saying his punishment was a 12 hour slap on the wrist. I wish I knew if this was a technical or political issue.
At 10, I go to meet the waiban, Mrs. Liu. She is lovely and sweet, but can’t seem to give me a direct answer to any of my questions, i.e. can I take a Chinese class? get a food card to use in the cafeteria? extend my stay through the Olympics (we just learned that my nephew, Kevin, is now ranked #2 in the country in breaststroke after a hugely successful swim meet over the weekend – his time beat Michael Phelps, and Kevin is second only to the world record holder, so the Olympics don’t seem like a complete long shot after all).
I am beginning to get a feel for
I spend the day working, preparing some power point slides for tomorrow’s class. At Shun Shifu comes to pick me up so that I can go retrieve Katie at school. I attempt to have a “conversation” with Mr. Shun, using my trusty Mandarin phrase book. I learn he has one son who works for Siemens. But after 20 minutes of trying, that is just about all I can understand of what he is saying.
Katie emerges from school very happy. She forgot her water bottle and we return together to her classroom to get it. I meet her teacher, Anya Dalais? Several of Katie’s classmates are there and all hovering around to say goodbye to Katie. A very welcoming feeling. Katie gave it an 8 on a scale of 1-10. She is eager to get her homework done, so we abandon the idea of visiting a Walmart on the way home (I had actually written down how to ask Mr. Shun to drive us there. The Chinese word for Walmart is pronounced Wa-le-ma-ra.)
After Katie has a snack and does her homework, we decide to walk to Walmart, even though we have learned the hard way that ‘distances on maps are farther than they appear’. It is after 5 when we leave and Stephen is determined to walk. We speed walk, and it takes over an hour to get there. The sidewalks and bike lanes are chock full of people. But for the first time since we’ve been here, a driver actually pauses to give the pedestrians a chance to cross. Usually it is the driver who rules the road. Apparently there is a new law coming into effect which will lay partial or complete blame on the PEDSTRIAN if he or she is hit by a car. The leading cause of death among foreigners in
We finally arrive at Wa-le-ma-ra starved and there is no visible food court. We wander hungrily and aimlessly through the store, hoping to find foam rubber to cushion the beds, or a cheap, but comfortable chair for reading. We strike out on both. We do manage to find a dustpan and brush, bleach, air freshener, and house plants – items heretofore we had been unable to find. At the checkout we spot what we assume is a Walmart fast food gross restaurant, but out of desperation we try it and the food is surprisingly good….or else our standards are rapidly slipping.
At one point, the man sitting at a nearby table pulls his chair around so that he can turn and STARE at us for several minutes. I mean really STARES. I have noticed this a lot. I assume they are struck by the Asian kid with the American parents. Sometimes, an older woman usually, smiles knowingly. Often, younger people look puzzled or even pissed off when they see us together. Once, a nice old man on a bike stopped and asked in English, “Chinese? Adopted? Hen hao!” (very good). I don’t know how widely known it is in
Tuesday Feb 26
Katie is off to school, as am I. I head to my very spacious office and discover there is still no heat. Mercy, my Renmin host, has told me there is a remote control that controls the air conditioning. But apparently in Chinese, air conditioning can mean heat and cold (makes sense, actually). So I find the AC remote and get blasted with hot, dry air smack above my head.
Next, I tackle the computer. I figure out how to turn it on, but all the desktop icons are in Chinese. I call Mercy to see if she can help me. She arrives and decides to download a Chinese-English dictionary and I am supposed to look up each icon to know what is what. Well, if you’ve ever had the opportunity to thumb through a Chinese dictionary, it is not exactly an easy proposition finding a word. This is not going to work. I decide I’ll need to bring my laptop back and forth each day. I then attempt to plug the laptop in, but it doesn’t work with the printer I have in my office. Thank God Stephen is still here and is so tech savvy. I call him and he comes over and figures out how to make it all work just perfectly. What am I going to do when he’s gone??
At Mercy, Hannah, my curly haired undergrad assistant and I head over the the classroom to sort out the powerpoint. (I hadn’t realized when Hannah was negotiating the rate for our driver on Sunday, that she would be one of my students. Imagine having an undergrad come to my house in
The class is 15 undergrad girls, one guy who is the MONITOR (more on this later), and one male PhD candidate who wants to audit the class to help him with his English. The girls are great, very funny, seem to understand English very well, respond enthusiastically to questions. As far as I am from BU, this all feels very familiar: about a third of the girls want to be entertainment or fashion reporters. One wants to do sports, and only one aspires to be a foreign correspondent. Despite this, I am feeling right at home. At the end of the class, they break out into applause!! I am really touched.
I get home and learn that Katie has also had a great day, 9 out of 10. The big problem seems to be the Chinese teacher. Katie is in over her head since the other kids have been learning Chinese for a while and the teacher speaks mostly Chinese. To make matters worse, the Chinese teacher yells, makes kids stand in the corner, and even made a boy cry. Stephen and I are slightly appalled but mildly amused -- this sounds a lot like many a nun we had in our past. And we tell Katie that there are different ways of teaching in
Wednesday Feb. 27
Good news, the waiban, Mrs. Liu says I can enroll in a basic Chinese class here for free. So at I am off to baby-Chinese. I walk by the old folks doing tai-chi in the park, while lovely Chinese music is piped in on the campus outdoor sound system. It is so soothing to watch them. I vow, next week to get out here earlier and try to follow along. Later, the same loud speakers pump out what must be notices for the day. I imagine this sound system was an effective propaganda tool during the heavier days of communist indoctrination.
My language class, level: zero, is a mini-world: students from
Mercy has told me she will tell me by how many graduate students are enrolled in my class so that I will have time to make the right number of copies of materials. It is cutting it a little close for compulsively organized Annie, but I am patient. Mercy says the grads are very weak in English so they are afraid to take the class. Most students take English as Freshmen and Sophomores so the undergrads are up to speed, but they lose it in the intervening years before grad school…..I sure know how that goes. Four years ago, I had mastered the freshman Chinese book, oral, written and reading Chinese at a basic level. I forget almost everything.
At , still no Mercy and so I start trying to figure out the copy machine, again, all instructions for operation in Chinese. I am now loading the paper into the back of the machine one sheet at a time. Clearly there is a paper drawer on this machine to do mass copies, but I’ll be darned if I can find it. I get all the copies done just as Mercy arrives in my office….and she yanks on the machine and voila, shows me the paper drawer!
Off to class with my lovely new grad assistant Jessie. About ten students arrive so I am heartened that it won’t be too small. But several are clearly not understanding a word I say. One is sleeping. In all my years at BU I’ve never seen that. I ask questions and some of the men respond but it doesn’t feel like they are engaged. At the end of class I ask them what they want to get out of this, what their goals are, and I get very few helpful answers. This class will require a lot more work. No applause from this group!
More bad news. The embassy has checked out what the likelihood of me extending my visa through the Olympics and it looks bleak. The university would need to tell the authorities that I am teaching through August in order to extend my scholar visa, and they are not going to lie for me. One idea is to go to
I hurry home because Katie and I have been invited to a dinner engagement downtown, during rush hour. For Bostonians reading this, we are located at the Chinese version of
Katie is having her first Chinese version of the “I hate math” tantrum as I arrive back at the apartment. Clearly we have both not had good days. She finishes her math, under duress, and we head out. Stephen opts to stay home to work – good choice. A mother of a girl from Katie’s school, who also teaches at the school, has kindly invited us to a pizza party celebrating her daughter’s adoption day from
Thursday Feb 28.
Putter around the apartment getting organized, and decide mid-day to venture into the center of the city in search of foam rubber. We see in a guide book that there is a place that sells these cheap. It dawns on me, (duh!) that we have a copy machine in our apartment where we can Xerox the address of where we want to go in Chinese characters and hand it to a cabbie!
The cabbie drops us of at “furniture is cheap” store. Couches that fold into beds for about a hundred bucks. I am interested, but haven’t a clue how to negotiate delivery options. There are no foam pads, just straw mats that don’t provide much cushion.
We leave the store and see a sign for a hutong around the corner and decide to explore. Hutongs are the old alleys and small single story stone walled-in “huts” that not so long ago were the main architecture of
From there we decide to hoof it to Katie’s school and catch a ride with her driver back to the apartment. Did I mention that “distances are greater than they appear on maps”? It is about a one and a half hour walk to her school through a very dull neighborhood of high rise apartments and neon store fronts. But we arrive to find there is a Starbucks and MacDonald’s outside the wall of her school that we hadn’t seen before, so we camp out there for a few minutes until she’s done with her day. She has signed up for an after school class in ceramics, so gets out at on Thursdays. She’s had a good day, and even dreaded math is looking up. They gave her a math assessment test and she scored into the highest math level!! Given her difficulties back home, I am very surprised, but happy that she won’t be overwhelmed, which is what I feared. And even Chinese class was OK today. She learned how to order Sprite, Hamburgers (ham-bow-bow) and BEER in Chinese! Now we can really start having fun!
As we enter the apartment building the lady at the front desk chases after us and brings us to a mailbox in the lobby, where someone has apparently ordered a daily delivery of the English language “China Daily” newspaper. There are about two weeks worth of papers stuffing the mailbox! We grab them and begin devouring a lot of news we had been missing. The paper is a mouthpiece of the government, but I am struck by how many critical comments are allowed to get by the editors.
For dinner, we are all tired, so we crack into the first batch of “comfort food” I brought from home and have a lovely dinner of Annie’s macaroni and cheese.
It’s hard to believe I’ve only been here two weeks. And the second week was decidedly better than the first. I really feel settled and I am happily soaking up all that is new and different, rather than being bothered by it, as I was much of last week. Maybe tomorrow we’ll go to IKEA and finally get me someplace comfortable to rest my bones.