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.

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