Friday, February 29, 2008

The 2nd of Many

Friday Feb. 22

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 HunanBeijing from Tokyo are screwed up: Kyrie’s tour guide only (“only”!!! says the Gringo who barely speaks English) only speaks Japanese and Chinese and cannot explain over the phone in English where we are supposed to meet. After a dozen phone calls between Kyrie’s mom, Junko, and me checking a million guide books for all the possible venues for acrobatic shows in Beijing, I think we figure out where to meet. But neither of us, Junko or I, have a clue where anything is, so it is a crap shoot whether we will actually get together. I am nearly in tears with frustration. If I can’t figure out a simple meeting place, how am I going to get around to do anything?!?! province with NBC, for whom she is interning. Then, our plans to meet up with Katie’s old friend Kyrie, who is visiting I am sure it sounds silly but I so wanted Katie to have this special treat to make up for the crappy week she has had getting settled. We decide to leave at 2pm for a 7pm date, having quickly learned that distances are MUCH farther than they appear on a map (kind of like the rear view side mirror on a car, except in reverse) and if we end up at the wrong place, maybe we could find our way to the right place by 7pm. We get in a cab holding a picture of the Beijing acrobats, with some Chinese characters, which we hope is the address for acrobats theater. We drive for more than half hour in almost no traffic and get dropped at what might in fact, be the right place. We walk around the area for a few hours, all through the embassy area, to Ritan park, scene of many a cold war meeting. The park is lovely, people exercising, singing religious hymns or at least tunes that I recognize from church with oddly different Chinese lyrics!

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 9pm 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 Tokyo later this spring. Then we cab it back to Renmin -- I actually say the right pronunciation ZHREN-MEAN-DIE-SCHWAY-SHEE-MIN (Renmin University West Gate) and for the first time I do not have to show the cabbie a map to get home. Small victories! Only problem is, once we get to the campus, I don’t know how to say “take a right, left, stop”, so I just start waving money and he lets us out reasonably close to our apartment. I have got to remember more vocabulary!

If you want to see short video and a few stills of Stephen and I dancing the Tibetan two-step:

Photos can be viewed at:

A short (half-minute) video from the festivities at the Tibetan restaurant is at:

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 6 a.m. 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 Changsha, Hunan with NBC on an adoption story. I am dying to find out what it is all about when she returns. We spend the morning trying Skype and manage to call my mother, Rory and Jeremy for 2 cents a minute over the computer. Also, I attempt the blog, but am denied access. Jeremy agrees to post what I send him once a week.

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 2 a.m. 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 Beijing? Hard to believe. Yet, we managed to spend the afternoon in search of a decent place to eat. Stephen and I are too busy trying to please each other that we please no one. We end up back at the same mall we ate at yesterday. I get an outrageously spicy noodle dish. The muzak is deafening. We are suffering from sensory overload. There are clearly better places to eat in Beijing, we just can’t seem to find them, and even if we did, we’d have no idea how to order unless the menu has pictures. I am going to ask my students on the first day to tell me where the good eateries are, and write down in Chinese what to order.

At 4pm 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 US, this entire process might have taken 10 minutes. Here it took an hour. I have no idea what they were talking about in Chinese. I am regretting every day how little Chinese I managed to learn.

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 China, not EVERY item is cheap. While we are gone, Stephen cooks up a lovely dinner of spaghetti and pork meatballs (no hamburger to be found). It is nice to have non-Chinese food once in a while. But cooking more than one item with our single hot plate is a real challenge!

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 China, and within minutes the internet was down. I am fuming. What if we get our internet cut off completely? Are we being monitored? Stephen is convinced this is only a coincidence and not to worry. He goes off with Katie and I continue to try repeatedly to connect, with no luck.

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 China – ambiguity and complication surround what should be simple issues.

I spend the day working, preparing some power point slides for tomorrow’s class. At 2:30 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 China is auto-pedestrian accidents.

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 China about how many Chinese kids are being adopted internationally. When I told my students about Katie, some smiled with an “isn’t that nice”expression. Others looked embarrassed or sorry – uncomfortable about adoption in general, or China’s treatment of girls? I don’t know, but hope to find out in future weeks.

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 1:30 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 Belmont, before the semester begins, haggle with laborer on the best rate, and then show up as a student in my class on Monday!!)) The whole “smart” podium is locked up. To unlock it you call a number and ask something in Chinese, and presto, it opens… a computer with, not surprisingly, Chinese icons!! Hannah and Mercy push a slew of buttons and down comes a screen and up pops my power point slides. As long as Hannah is never absent from class, I’ll be in business!

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 China and be glad she only has this teacher for one subject.

Wednesday Feb. 27

Good news, the waiban, Mrs. Liu says I can enroll in a basic Chinese class here for free. So at 8am 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 Kazakhstan, (not named Borat), Tajikistan, Germany, Australia, several from Korea, one other American and me. All males! The most amazing thing is the instruction is in English, the native tongue of only three students in the class. The poor Koreans that don’t know English letters or Chinese characters must be completely lost! I am pleased that I remember some of the very basic pronunciation rules. After class, an incredibly nice boy from Korea, offers to take me to buy the textbook. He has spent some time in the States so his English is flawless. There is no bookstore, per se, it is rather a classroom with two elderly gentlemen (one with no fingers) handing out books and kids are tossing loads of cash into a box. My Korean buddy orders me three books and pays for them, since I have forgotten my wallet. I realize I don’t need all three, just one, so we return the other two. All of this transaction takes place in Chinese, so this Korean student is clearly miles ahead of me in Chinese. Again, thank God for the kindness of strangers helping this old lady negotiate her way through China.

Mercy has told me she will tell me by noon how many graduate students are enrolled in my 2pm 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 1:30, 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 Hong Kong just before my visa expires, and try to get a tourist visa for 30 days. However, in the weeks leading up the Olympics, when my current visa expires, the Chinese are expected to be very reluctant to extend visas. In addition, my housing will be difficult to hold on to, since the university is hosting some Olympic guests.

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 Harvard Square, northwest of the central city, and the main ex-pat, tourist destinations are about the distance to Quincy, or maybe Braintree, via a permanently clogged southeast expressway. I am reluctant to head downtown, but also want to start making connections with Katie’s friends.

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 China. She cannot send us the address in Chinese characters, but in an email, she writes how to pronounce the name of where we are going. Lesson learned: get addresses in Chinese characters. We tell the cabbie where we want to go, he repeats a few words that sound like what we think we are going to, and off we go….and stop. Beijing traffic at 5pm is a lot like the beltway around Washington DC. Only the air is so noxious that I am gagging in the back of the cab. At one point the cabbie pulls off, and I think we must be close. He stops the car, pulls on the emergency break, leaves the car running, and heads into a public toilet! A few minutes later, he emerges and away we go….and stop. One hour and ten minutes later we have traveled about 5-6 miles and the cabbie leaves us off at a place that is NOT the restaurant we were supposed to be going to. OK, now what? Brilliant Katie spots a map at a bus stop and we realize we are only a block away from where we want to be. The gods are watching us now. We join the party for the largest and most delicious pizza I’ve ever had, and I even go wild and have a salad – the first fresh veggies I’ve had in two weeks. Lettuce never tasted so good. We’ll see how well it likes me later.

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! Eureka! Maybe we won’t be so damn lost all the time! It is embarrassing that it took us this long to figure out this simple survival tip.

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 Beijing. There are some high-end renovated hutong homes, but not around here. This is really quite poor and dirty. Stephen feels a little voyeuristic, but I feel more like I am in the old North End where the older gentlemen are out playing cards or shooting the breeze, and the older women are sweeping their stoop or coming back from the market. It has a very close community feel to it. And despite the decrepit quality of the structures, there is a real charm to the place. We meander around, see fresh meat being butchered on the sidewalk, guys on bikes hawking their wares, and one guy welding a bike cart back together without the benefit of any eye protection (this is universal in China – you see these guys late at night, several stories up on bamboo scaffolding welding stuff without any protection at all). There seems to be a public toilet on every corner, so we assume there is no indoor plumbing in this area. We are about a half mile from Tiananmen Square where some hotels are hundreds of dollars a night and apartments are in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of US dollars. The rich and poor of Beijing are in very close proximity. We stop outside a school where the 6 or 7 year old kids are standing at attention, back straight, chin up, shoulders back, and all EXTREMELY seeerious, even as this crazy American stands in front of them trying to take a picture. I’ve never seen such discipline on a playground in the US.

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 4:20 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.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I can post to my blog, but cannot access it to see it. So if you are responding to the blog, please send me an email, not a message within the blog. Thanks. Anne

Friday, February 22, 2008

The First Of Many

For those of you who do not already know, Anne, Stephen, and Katie have been having difficulties with the blog, so I, Jeremy, have been entrusted to keep it up to date as well as I can. I will try to post once a week, but there may be a few times where I forget or am not able to do so, but look at the bright side, you'll have two posts the next week! Instead of cursing my laziness, instead praise me for heightening your obviously great anticipation for an extra week. So, without further ado:


For the first time in my life, the to-do list is DONE! Let’s just get on the plane and get on with it. I am so afraid of a repeat of four years ago, when my father was diagnosed with cancer just weeks before our departure to China, and the trip was off. Again, our boxes are shipped, deposits in on private school, all systems are go…let’s go before some calamity strikes.

Thirty years ago this winter I had my first overseas adventure, Greece-to-Italy-to-Switzerland-France and finally England where I “studied” for a semester. Twenty years ago this winter I was beginning my Master’s in foreign policy at the Fletcher School. Ten years ago this winter I was in China adopting Katie. And now this China adventure begins.

Airborne February 14, Valentine’s Day

Depart Boston 9:30 am. for uneventful (except for the shaky landing) trip to Newark. From Newark we headed east, surprisingly, back over Massachusetts, passing over central Maine, Portland, Augusta, Bangor, familiar territory. The clapping of Dave Brubeck’s “Un-square dance” in my i-podded ears kept time with the shimmy of the plane during brief bouts of turbulence. We plodded north by northeast, over Halifax, Nova Scotia and passing Stephen’s ancestral homeland Monckton, on to Goose Bay and uncharted territory: Davis Strait, Godthab, and the vast whiteness of Greenland, while incongruously, Brazilian samba music filled my ears. The plane’s navigation system plotted our journey and challenged my geographical prowess. At one point we were 634 miles north of Angmagssalik…wherever that is. As we hovered over the North Pole, “Danny Boy” shuffled on the ipod; I couldn’t help but think that my father was somehow guiding us on our way. Air temperature outside the plane, 86 below zero at 37,000 feet. The navigation screen shows both English and Chinese characters. The character Bei means north, as in Bei-jing, northern capital, so one of the few characters I know, Bei, is plunked over the North Pole. About this time in the fourteen hour ride, I finished reading “Water for Elephants” and found the ending to be a perfect inspiration for this trip: you are never too old to try a new adventure! I must have fallen asleep or maybe there is nothing but ice between true north and Ulan Ude, but that was the next marker I remember seeing on the navigational screen. Then, Novosibirsk, Ulan Bator, Beijing.

Arrival, February 15.

Zombie-like we disembark, no hassle with immigration-customs. Luggage arrives safe and sound, and we bust through the doors to a nice young man holding a sign that says “Donohue”. About ten feet beyond him is a woman holding another sign that says “Donohue”. The two of them yap back and forth in Chinese, make some calls on their cell phones, and decide that we should go with the woman. She, who has given herself the English name “Mercy” is from Renmin University, the young man was apparently sent by the embassy…some sort of communication breakdown, but nice to have TWO greeters. (What a contrast to my arrival here ten years ago, with no one waiting, no Chinese money, nowhere to exchange it, no taxis and only a chicken scratching of a hotel name that Rob Gifford had scribbled for me in Chinese characters).

Renmin is about a thirty minute drive from the airport in unexpectedly very little traffic. Our luggage goes in one van, while Mercy drives Stephen, Katie and I in her car. Blinkers, speed limits and staying within lane markers are clearly optional. Enter the WEST gate of the Renmin Campus and park in front of bike rack with hundreds of dusty well-used bicycles. Take the seedy looking elevator up to the 17th floor and go through a dimly lit hallway to our apartment. It is surprisingly bright and clean, but smaller than I had envisioned (three bedrooms, not four). Stephen starts disemboweling some of the six jumbo suitcases and the boxes of household necessities left by a previous Fulbrighter, while Mercy takes me to the “waiban” for some paperwork. The “waiban” is the official who takes care of foreign visitors. Some waibans are reputedly nasty, however, mine, Mrs. Liu, seems exceedingly pleasant. The campus is a ghost town. Students are still away for New Year’s. It is a contained campus, very few cars, and an interesting mix of shiny new buildings and dilapidated pre-economic boom tenement-looking apartments; our building falls somewhere in between. I return to find that Katie has marked her turf in the master bedroom and Stephen and I are relegated to the lesser room at the other end of the apartment. After unloading enough of the suitcases to find a toothbrush and pajamas, we are asleep by 8pm. Fireworks for New Year’s sporadically interrupt my sleep. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was Baghdad with all the fireworks sounding like gunfire and bomb blasts.

Saturday Feb. 16

4 a.m. Katie is up and ready to start the day. I am too. We continue to unpack, have a snack and attempt to go back to sleep, without much success. Spend the morning figuring out how things work, where things go. No hot water in the kitchen sink. Boil water in a giant hot pot and then chill in the tiny frig. There is hot water in the bathroom, but a limited supply. Not drinkable, and occasionally brown. The apartment is very warm and we can’t seem to regulate the heat, so we open the windows. Katie has mastered how to use the cell phones and is teaching herself a few phrases in Mandarin, among them, “Wo you juan”, which she says is “I want to go home”. After we get all the suitcases unpacked, I can’t shake my headache and decide to take a “little” nap. Bad idea. About four hours later, after several previous attempts, Stephen manages to wake me from the deepest sleep I’ve had in ages. In a fog, we head to the grocery store. I am struck by how dirty and dusty everything is. Even the trees are laden with dust. The mornings seemed to be cloudy with pollution, but by late afternoon, the sky is blue. Katie is hitting a wall, and at the grocery store is overwhelmed by the sights and SMELLS of the produce, fish and meat department. The store is fully stocked, three floors with a lot of imported foods. With a little help from a guide book, seeking “sugar” we get what we need and head home. Stephen uses our single hot plate burner to cook up a lovely meal of noodles and veggies. Unfortunately, Katie is too exhausted to enjoy it and is down for the night, fully clothed, at 5pm. I manage to stay awake until 9, cutting up some old calendars I brought to decorate the walls with scenes from New England.

Sunday Feb. 17

Katie is up at 7am but says she’s been awake since 3. I have been too. Stephen seems to be already on Beijing time. Katie and I watch the sun rise through the smoggy sky. Our apartment faces east, except for Katie’s room which faces south. We have quite a nice view of booming Beijing. Katie and I decorate her room with animal pictures and Stephen does a load of wash in our little machine. No English instructions on any of the appliances, so we just guessed on what to push, but it worked. No dryer, so Stephen’s boxers are blocking the view from our balcony for the remainder of the day. The good news is Beijing is so dry, things dried fast. The bad news is Beijing is so dry we are covered in dust and parched all the time. Not sure how much of the dust is pollution or Beijing’s normal climate with the Gobi dessert not far to our west.

For lunch we go to the university cafeteria and select our food from a wide variety of unknown delicacies. Looked like chicken and veggies over rice, but not sure it was. We go to pay and the place does not take cash. We need a special university card….looking distressed, a nice student buys our lunch on his card, and we give him cash-- about the equivalent of $2.00 for three full trays of food, drinks, and ‘dessert’. And its all delicious.

From there we take a walk around the campus and out of the campus through the East Gate, into a beautiful sunny afternoon with nearly blue sky for the third day in a row!. Kids feeding pidgeons, and enjoying the sunshine. A few western establishments nearby, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, KFC.

We return to the apartment and meet with the American neighbor next door with a lot of questions like where to dump our garbage, where to get bottled water delivered. They are very helpful. Have been in China on and off for 20 years so are fluent. They order our water for us, thankfully. No more boiling everything we need! Up until now, we have carried hot water from the bathroom into the kitchen to clean dishes, and boiled all the water we’ve used to drink. Clean water, one of the many things we take for granted.

Stephen buys a rice cooker and cooks up another Chinese gourmet meal, with chicken and veggies. Play UNO until we are all exhausted at 8:30 PM!

Monday Feb. 18.

We’ve arranged for driver Shen Shifu to take us to Katie’s school. Our appointment is for 9:30, but Mercy suggests we’ll need to be picked up at 8 to be sure to be there. I am really nervous that an hour plus drive will make Katie crazy. In fact, it only took 12 minutes door to door!! The school yard is full of kids running around, mostly Asian, all speaking English. Katie looks pretty excited. The lobby is welcoming and covered with great kid projects (very unlike Chenery). The principal of the school, a nice Aussie, says we lucked out with the traffic, and he can see us even thought we are an HOUR early. Great guy, really made Katie feel right at home. She wanted to start immediately but we need her to go with us to Fulbright orientation, so she’ll start later in the week or next week. Return to apartment and get ready to move out to hotel for a few days. Water delivery guy arrives and thankfully our neighbor negotiates the rate and delivery arrangements. Thanks again to the kindness of strangers!

At 4pm the Renmin driver who is supposed to take us the the Swissotel for Fulbright orientation doesn’t show up, so we grab a cab and hope our driver understands where we are headed! We have a lovely hotel (although still with those rock solid Chinese mattresses) and enjoy a banquet with the other Fulbrighters, most of whom we had met at the Washington orientation back in June. Katie latches on to Charlotte, an 8 year old who is already fluent in Chinese (goes to a Chinese immersion school in Portland Oregon….). We learn a few customs of Chinese banquet etiquette, and eat an assortment of unknown foods and the best Peking Duck I’ve ever had. Fading early and in bed by 9.

Tuesday Feb. 19

Fulbright meetings all morning with embassy political, economic, legal types. Very interesting. Katie is at a children’s program, learning calligraphy this morning and going skating this afternoon. At lunch we suit up in fancy clothes for a reception later in the day at the ambassador’s residence. Then we are shuttle off to a series of administrative meetings about visas, teaching in China, medical freak-out (all the shots your doctor back at home said not to take, they say we should have taken! Japanese encephalitis here we come!) By the end of the meetings my little headache is now a full blown migraine. I take the bus to the ambassadors’s nice digs, but soon the chatter of the party is making me nauseous, so I take a cab back to the hotel, escorted by a nice embassy Chinese staff person who practically carries me to my room. She keeps asking if I need to go to the hospital and I try to explain it is only a headache/jet lag. My guess is she stood sentry outside my door until I fell asleep. After a good nap, I am fine, and Stephen and Katie return from their various outings. Katie has made a bunch of new friends, other Fulbright kids and is loving China, at least for today.

Weds Feb 20

Meet with full year Fulbrighters about survival tips, teaching tips, etc. Then board bus to luncheon with Chinese academics who have been to the US as Fulbrighters in the past. We eat at this fabulously over-the-top Qing dynasty replica, with waitresses in full head gear and long silk gowns. Again, no idea what I was eating but enjoyed it all. Met several Chinese journalists who I hope will remain contacts. From there we went to the Confucian temple, very nice, and Katie and the other Fulbright kids are having a ball playing tag and running through what I imagine is supposed to be a tranquil, reflective place – not with this crowd! We return to the hotel for a break before heading out to a Tibetan restaurant for dinner….what a scene. Waiters an waitresses in full ethnic garb, serving up yak milk tea, yak “jerky”, lots of delicious lamb, and assorted other delicacies, completely different than anything I’ve seen in Chinese restaurants anywhere. The wait staff put on a show of high pitched singing, dueling yaks (guys dressed up as yaks locking horns), and playing an assortment of musical instruments unknown to me. Mid-meal I leave momentarily to go to the bathroom and return to see my husband, Stephen Conlin, dancing a line dance with all the “yak-ette” waiters and waitresses. Katie is mortified as are all the pre-teen kids, watching their parents one by one get pulled onto the dance floor. I, of course, join in! Just another night in Beijing!

Thursday Feb 21

Take a morning dip in the hotel pool. Need to find a pool in Beijing. The city is so dirty that you feel dust covered all the time. The pool is the only place that really feels clean, and who knows what is lurking in the water!

A van arrives atour hotel with all the five boxes we previously shipped back in December. From there we return “home” to Renmin University. Michael is our guide, a nice graduate school student with excellent English who is a Boston Celtics fan! We schlep the 5 boxes and suitcases up to the the 17th floor and start unpacking. Mercy arrives to show me my office. We walk about one minute to my office building, a huge new building; my office is bigger than our apartment, huge sunny window, but no heat. You can’t have everything! Meet a few journalism dept officials. Only two students have signed up for my grad class. This could be a mixed blessing…certainly easier, but I want to get to know a lot of students. They assure me more will show up. About 15 have signed up for undergrad course. Classrooms are far superior to my BU classroom in terms of size, facilities, etc.

Today is the first really noticeably polluted day. The air just hangs. We can barely see the other end of the campus, less than a half mile away. Even in our apartment with the windows closed I can feel the noxious air catching in the back of my throat. Earlier in the week, at one of our medical briefings, the doctor looked out the window and said even though that day was a good day, the air quality he gauged at 140. He said in Los Angeles, they put out “smog, stay inside” warnings when the air quality is at 40. In other words, our best air quality days in Beijing are three and half times worse than L.A.’s worst!

Later in the day Mercy picks us up for dinner with a colleague, Judy, who speaks English very well. She is a Beijing University grad (China’s Harvard) and went to Skidmore for a semester. We go to a fancy restaurant that specializes in food from Judy’s home region Ningbo, just south of Shanghai. Very interesting fatty pork in a baking bowl, wild greens formed in pyramids, salted fish, and delicious duck soup with just about the whole dead duck swimming in the bowl. Katie is busy writing down every phrase of Chinese she comes across and is correcting my pronunciation of the few phrases I seem to be able to remember. She seems to be on a roller coaster, bored, missing friends, and then perks up as soon as there is anyone around. I love that she is eagerly learning Chinese, with no prompting from me.

After the meal we are off to buy firecrackers for the last night of Chinese New Year. Enroute, at every street corner and right in the middle of the street, people are shooting off fireworks. The car has to dodge blasts dotting the road. We pull over and light our supply of fireworks smack in the middle of the street. The noise is deafening and I regret I did not have my tape recorder. These are major fireworks, not sparklers and the stuff kids have at Seabrook on the fourth of July, yet even the littlest kids are out lighting them off. We take in this scene for the better part of an hour and then go to Mercy’s apartment, 18th floor and watch from there. She has a very nice modern apartment, three bedrooms, full kitchen. I learn that about 600 Renmin Univ. professors live in this complex. The university owned the complex and sells apartments to professors at a reduced rate. I am a bit jealous that we are not in this housing. But for five months, proximity to my classes on campus is probably more important than negotiating traffic to get to work.

Around 10pm we return from Mercy’s apartment to campus, dodging fireworks the whole way, and the entire campus is lit up with more fireworks. Normally, university students are home for this end of new year lantern festival, but because of the Olympics, universities were forced to start the semester earlier, in order to be done by the end of June. The fireworks have been going on for about five hours and continued long into the night.

One week in China is over and I am on a real roller coaster. Sometimes I want to go home on the next flight, other times I envision staying here forever. I think routine of Katie and my school should help regulate the mood swings. Stephen, who hates to travel, is having the best time of all of us. If I had to sum up our first impressions: fascinating, frustrating, filthy and fun.