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.

1 comment:

skillmanmom said...

Would be interested in chatting/emailing you to further discuss your experiences in China, and your thoughts regarding adoption from China. Thank you for your thoughtful comments that you recently expressed (saw the interview with you on Weekend Today, August 2nd. Not certain how to reach you. My email address is: