Sunday, March 23, 2008

Week Four -- beware of whining

View from our apartment at Renmin University. Smog City.

China Week Four

When exactly are the ides of March? Must be about now, because it’s been a tough week here in Beijing. Beware – whining ahead.

All the stuff that was new, different and “challenging” a few weeks ago is becoming, old, tiresome and infuriating. Smog, traffic, miscommunication, isolation. We are pretty far out from the center of the city and most of the activities we’d like to go to, and more importantly, all the kids Katie would like to play with, are too far away for after school play dates. We have seen no kids her age anywhere around, except for the first day we arrived. I am told that Chinese kids who are her age are in school 6 days and study all day and all night. No fun. She’s been pretty down since Stephen left last Thursday and there hasn’t been much (besides wonderfully helpful Celine, my BU student), to keep Katie amused. Katie is a social animal and there aren’t many fun opportunities to socialize here at Renmin.

And it’s not just Katie who is hitting a wall.

Thursday the 6th, I booked airline tickets on-line to go to Hainan Island (China’s beach resort) for Easter weekend. I went to bed, but was awakened an hour or so later by a call center saying that I could not use my Bank of America credit card to buy tickets on line. I had three options: 1. send them my passport and credit card (not a good idea, methinks), 2. go to the airport and buy the tickets in person with cash (pain-in-the-A) or 3. pay a courier to deliver the tickets and pay him cash. I opted for the courier.

So Friday morning I go out to the local ATM before my 8am class to take out the wad of money needed for the courier, and the ATM cuts me off after I’ve extracted about a third of what I need…, where to get the money?? I call Mercy who tells me she will go with me to the bank and resolve this. Friday afternoon we head to the bank and I am told I cannot take more money out, I cannot open an account there, if I give them a US check it would take 40-50 days to clear(!), but I could go down the street to another bank and try their ATM. Off we go to bank #2 and withdraw another wad of cash, but still not enough before that bank cuts me off. I go home, call Celine to see if I can borrow money from my former student – how embarrassing is that?! She, of course, says no problem, “mei wenti”, my new favorite Chinese phrase.

The courier is arriving Saturday morning with the tickets, so after I call home to wish Jeremy a happy 19th bday, I go out once more on Saturday morning to try to withdraw from bank #3 and I get nothing, NADA, nil, no way, account shut down. So now, I’m going to fork over every penny (yuan) I have to an unknown courier, borrow from my poor student… and still be broke. I call Stephen who is just back from Beijing and he calls Bank of America. They won’t talk to him, since it is my card, so I need to call Bank of America directly. I get on Skype, place the call and get put on hold with musak for five minutes…get connected…give call center lady #1 my life history (date of last automatic deposit?, where I opened the account? etc)…she puts me on hold…and Skype craps out. DISCONNECTED. I call back. On hold with musak: 10 minutes. Talk to call center lady #2, give her a new and improved version of my life (dog’s name, mother’s maiden name, etc), she puts me on hold. Skype craps out AGAIN. Call back. Third time’s the charm, right? On hold five minutes more musak, talk to call center lady #3, give her every detail of my banking life imaginable. She puts me on hold. Skype craps out a third time!!! I GIVE UP. Call Stephen, who is totally jetlagged and was ready for bed about four phone calls ago….and he says he’ll deal with it the next day. But, I try ONE MORE TIME. I will not be defeated!!! I decide there is something about the silence of the second “on hold” that is causing Skype to crap out. So I decide I will sing, hum and chatter during the hold. I get on with call center lady #4, who….miraculously….(bring in angels singing here…..) went to Burbank Elementary School in Belmont, Massachusetts, Chenery Middle school and graduated from Belmont High School in 1986. I know I have hit the jackpot. I beg her, sweet Belmontian, “even if we get cut off, can you release the hold on my account and increase the amount I can withdraw”? Sorry. Even a fellow Marauder cannot do that without putting me on hold! So I get on hold with great trepidation that Skype will fail me again; I sing my heart out, praying good ol’ Skype will respond to the mellifluous tones of Annie more than silence, and keep me connected… and THANK GOD it does. At last, nearly two hours since my first call, I get connected to the QUEEN of Bank of America who agrees to lift hold on my account! Halleluiah!

I run out to ATM, get the rest of the cash, just as the courier is due to arrive. Meanwhile, while on Skype hold, I have used my cell phone to call another Fulbrighter who was the person who recommended this online travel service that I am about to fork over many dollars to, and asked her if she had always paid in cash. NOOOO, she says, she used a US credit card, no problemo, got e-tickets. No cash, no courier. Ugh! The acid churning in my stomach from the repeated aborted bank calls has now burned into a wad of worry. What kind of fool am I to fall for this? Whoever heard of paying cash for plane tickets?? So, what do I do? At the appointed hour, teenage-ish courier, who speaks no English, hands me an envelope with something that does not look like any plane ticket I have ever seen, and I insanely hand him a stack of bills about six inches high (the largest Chinese bill is 100 yuan, worth about $13…and I am paying $2000…that’s right, the equivalent of two thousand American green backs… for airline tickets). I had to take a picture of the guy holding my money, ( to show the police what the con artist looks like, when undoubtedly, I find out next week that I cannot board the plane to Hainan). To be continued……

3/7. Friday I had lunch with my Chinese language teacher, Ms Chen Chen. She seems like a lady in need of a friend. I was surprised when she told me she had a 9 year old daughter. I pegged her as a serious woman who lived for her work. When I asked if she might want her daughter (whose favorite subject is English) to play with Katie, she seemed put off by the idea. Her daughter was too busy studying. Chen Chen wants to get a Ph.D. She kept saying she “has plans” which I read to be unfulfilled ambitions. Chen Chen says she was born in 1971, but she strikes me as someone older, or at least influenced by an older generation of thinking. Her mother was a medical doctor/researcher. Her father was a professor, but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-69) he was forced out (all university professors were brutalized or “sent down” to work as laborers or farmers). Chen Chen seems to have carried some of those scars or bitterness from that era with her, even though she was not yet born.

Friday night I had dinner with Mercy and four other members of the journalism faculty, all of whom spoke varying degrees of English. There are about 1000 journalism undergraduates at Renmin. Yet the building we are in seems deserted. All of these faculty members had experience in the field of journalism before teaching. I got straight answers to almost all my questions, knowing nods when I asked about the Firewall, but they either didn’t understand, or deliberately “didn’t understand” when I asked about whether students had already learned about the principles embodied in the 1st Amendment. I have mentioned free press, democracy, transparency, and the need for an informed citizenry, in both of my classes on several occasions and all the students seem to agree that these are the principles they aspire to hold as journalists. I get the sense that the students view the government as a necessary overlord, but not something that affects their daily lives. They have not yet worked at one of the government run media enterprises where editors are routinely instructed to not cover certain topics.

The dinner was at one of the restaurants on campus and the food was good. Katie was with me, and was angelically quiet, only spoke when spoken to, and always with some very cute observation. About half way through the meal, I complimented her on how good she was being and she winked and put out her hand under the table, “five quai” (slang for five bucks)!

3/8. After Saturday’s disaster with the bank/air tickets, Katie and I decided to do some shopping – now that I was assured my cash flow would continue. Despite the awful looking air, we went to the Silk Street Market downtown. This had been an open air street market when I was here ten years ago. But now it is in a huge four story building, not far from the US embassy. Katie spotted an Abercrombie t-shirt she wanted and the sales clerk started at $30. I laughed and walked away. Katie was mad. “Why can’t we get it?” As I’m walking away, the sales clerk is running after me, dropping the price a few dollars with each step we took away from her. By the time she caught up with us, it was down to $5. I got tired of her chasing me, so we bought it. I am sure we could have gotten it for less. Katie started getting the hang of shopping—or at least shopping with a kazillion tourists and ruthless hawkers. We got a few more small items but it gets tiresome having these hawkers yelling at you, clinging onto you. But I’m sure we’ll be back again before we head home. Pearls anyone?

From there we took a taxi to meet Celine for dinner. She took us to a fabulous place, called Da Dong, small, quiet rooms with five or six tables, white linen table cloths, and upscale, tasteful decor. No red lanterns to be found. What a difference from the noisy eateries we’d encountered to date. Far and away the best meal I’ve had in China. The waitress showed us three different ways to eat Peking Duck, and as a special treat, offered me the head of the duck (which sat before me un-eaten for the duration of the meal). This is the first place that made me agree with what Julia Child was talking about when she said the five greatest cuisines in the world were French, and four Chinese provinces.

Katie and I attempted to watch a movie when we got home, but all the movies I recorded off our TIVO before we left won’t play. So I guess we’ll join the rest of the Chinese and buy the pirated version for $1.

Smoggy Sunday, 3/9. I call my sister to wish her a happy birthday, since it is already March 9 where I am, but she’s gone out for Saturday night dinner. Katie and I decided to explore another market closer to where we live. Vast, endless rows of everything under the sun. And not a Caucasian in sight. This was a real working class market in a pretty rundown neighborhood. I felt like we might be invading their turf. We try to take a picture of some baby chicks and get told “mei you”, no way. Katie said she doesn’t like going to places like this, because people stare. And I did feel like we were getting more hairy eyeballs here than elsewhere. Katie said she likes going out with Celine, because people assume she and Celine are related and they don’t stare. She wants us to adopt Celine as her big sister.

From there we take a taxi to our new favorite grocery store wah-la-mah-la, (Walmart), and stock up on goods for the week. We get more than we can easily carry ourselves. Big mistake. We take a taxi home, but for some reason the taxi can’t enter the campus, so we schlep the groceries across the campus to our apartment. I cook a Stephen-esque chicken, broccoli and white sauce. Enough for two nights.

3/10. Monday comes as a relief. Back to routine. I pay Shen Shifu, our driver, and Katie heads off the school. I go to Chinese language lessons, then to my office and get a lot of uninterrupted work done before Katie gets home at 3:30. Hope Kelly will arrive next week and I want to prep for as many classes this week as possible so I’ll have more time to spend with her.

3/11. Tuesday. I’ve arranged to meet one of my students, Ashley, at 8am to do some interviews. We meet at the Tai Chi park and talk to one of the older women. She is adorable. 69, been doing tai chi for ten years. Former chemical worker. She encourages me to try it and I promise to come back another day. Then we talk to some older women doing what looks like a country western line dance,(Chinese cotton-eyed Joe?) to the tune of some very cheesy pop music. Barry Manilow Wang? The women have two pieces of bamboo in each hand with a long red sashes flowing out. They smack the wood together, sort of like castanets, as they dance. One of the women graduated from prestigious Fudan University in 1950 with a degree in business management – a degree that she was never able to use under state-run communist system. She is charming, with a slight wave to her silver hair. And she and the other gals, all in their 70s and 80s, can really dance! It is amazing to consider what that generation of Chinese has lived through: civil war, Japanese invasion, communist revolution, cultural revolution, opening up to the west, Tiananmen crackdown and now a “capitalist” revolution. I would love to talk to all of them at length. So much to do, so little time. We venture around the park, serendipitously meet a student photographer who readily agrees to take photos of all the folks we’ve been interviewing. Two hours later, about a dozen beautiful photographs arrive in my email inbox. Just when I’m feeling most stressed out about dirty, urban, frustrating Beijing, the people I meet more than compensate for the environs. Every person I have encountered, except for the pushy guy at the grocery store, has been exceedingly nice and generous. If only they could live in a cleaner city.

After my class gets out, I go straight home. This is the first day Katie will be coming home alone. Until now, either Stephen or I have been there to greet her. Shen Shifu* will get her to our house around 3:30 and I get out of class at 3:30, so she may arrive to an empty apartment for five minutes. I unlock the apartment door and Katie is sitting inside crying hysterically. She can’t tell me what happened and I am freaking out that something AWFUL has happened. After she calms down a bit, she tells me that her key got stuck in the door and when she went to force it, she broke her brand new Olympic key chain!!! Well, I am greatly relieved, but decide I don’t want to come home to this scene again where a more serious drama might have unfolded. I am going to move my class back 15 minutes so that I get out at 3:15, and I am also going to tell Shen Shifu to drive more slowly or find some traffic to get stuck in on Tuesday and Wednesday when I teach. Wouldn’t you know, the days you WANT traffic, there is none and when you don’t want it, it abounds.

*Learned in Chinese today, that Shifu is a generic name for driver or laborer! And Celine, who has been translating messages between me and Shen Shifu, tells us his name is Shen, not Shun. Glad we finally got his right name after a month!

Weds 3/12. Still horribly smogged in. Five days of really bleak skies. But things are looking up. They have filled the pond in tai chi park, so spring must be coming. For the past two weeks, my Chinese teacher Chen Chen has worn the same turquoise turtleneck with a big lime green lion on the front. Today, she has a new spring outfit! And my Tajik classmate is dressed like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, pin striped bell bottom suit with white patent leather pointy shoes. The Australian in my class who has been studying Chinese for four years, has been catapulted out of level zero and is gone. And I actually am starting to use Chinese to communicate my needs – and people understand what I am saying (more or less!).

After Chinese class I head in to the central city. I have arranged to have my students meet with my friend Rob Gifford from NPR. He’s in Beijing on a book tour, peddling his great new book China Road. Rob, Melinda Liu from Newsweek, James Kynge from the Financial Times, and Jon Watts from the Guardian are speaking on a panel at Beijing’s English language hang-out, The Bookworm (part paid lending library, part bookstore, part bar/restaurant/coffee joint). The panel is sold out, although I got a complimentary ticket, so my students can only see Rob after the main event. The panel is great. Reminded me of why I am here, why I love China, why it is so fascinating. There were 350 foreign journalists in Beijing when I was here last. Now there are more than 700. And 21,000 accredited and 10,000 unaccredited journalists are expected to be here for the Olympics. The panel said many press restrictions had been lifted, and they were split on whether this would continue post-Olympics. On one hand, if the Games go well, China will feel that opening up the system worked. But if things don’t go well, and China is embarrassed in any way, things could get very ugly after the Olympics. Melinda Liu said the Olympics or nationalism, maybe boosterism is a better word, was the new ideology, and when that is over, what will replace it? Jon Watts pointed out that while things are easier now for journalists, the sources journalists interview are still hassled, detained, or worse. Rob posed the question, are journos presenting a realistic view of China to the world…too negative, or panda-hugger? His relatives arrived here a few years ago and were surprised that the Chinese drove cars, not all bikes Some images die hard. .(I am actually surprised by how many are still riding bikes…I hope that habit never dies) Jon Watts’ mother arrived here two years ago and whispered, ‘can we talk?’, assuming every utterance was being listened to by Big Brother. Is this really what folks think about China now? Melinda Liu visited No. Korea recently and was struck by how much it was like the China she first knew in 1980. When she asked a North Korean guide/minder how tall a statue of Kim Il Sung was, he responded, “out of respect for the Great Leader, we do not speculate on its height”. She said ‘come on, you know how tall it is”. He responded, “off the record?” She was surprised he knew what off the record meant….but said “sure, off the record, how tall is it?” and he responded, “I don’t know”. That bizzaro exchange would have been typical of China in the late 70s, early 80s. But now she says it could not be more different. An entirely different country in every way.

My students arrive at The Bookworm (many of them I have never seen before!) and Rob graciously holds court-- in Chinese, thankfully for my students, for another half hour or so. I run into Mary Kay Magistad and another Fulbrighter Allen Lepp (who first clued me in to Rob’s visit a few weeks ago). Here in this ex-pat enclave, the Sanlitun/Chaoyang section of the city, it is easier to imagine living here, and having a life that is not so different from the life we had in Boston. Out at Renmin, it is not totally alien, and it certainly is not an authentic “Chinese” experience, like living in a rural village, but it is also not going to feel like home if we can’t make real friends or go out to places that we enjoy. There is no sense of community out here….at least not yet. I think if we lived more centrally, we’d be able to make connections more easily, at least with other ex-pats, and probably more worldly Chinese.

3/13 Thursday. We finished our first of six months today. It seems like we have been here FOREVER. But when I look at my calendar, it is filling up fast and I am sure the time will start flying by. It is an absolutely GLORIOUS blue sky, 60 degree day today. Where did all the crap from the last five days go?? My mood is totally dependent on the color of the sky. Rory just sent a line from some London sage who said something like,’if the color of the sky and the color of the sidewalk are the same for more than three days you go crazy’. Well, if that is the case, then I am certifiably NUTS. Grey, grey, grey! But today was spectacular.

I went out this morning and took the plunge: I actually participated in tai chi this morning, rather than just watching from the periphery. Several people came up to me to say welcome and offer tips on how to not look like a complete fool: “bend your knees more, lower, lower”, “move gradually”, “do not use any strength”, “relax” – easy for you to say, you know what you are doing, I wanted to fire back. But I just smiled… I look like an ostrich out there. But it was fun!

Spent the rest of the day at home prepping for lectures on first amendment and history of journalism. Looking at the history of my profession, it is striking how cyclical it is. Today’s blogger is the lonely pamphleteer of 1776, albeit on steroids.

After dinner, Katie and I go out the on campus grocery store looking for milk, but no luck. Lots of yogurt, but no milk. Go to the mini-mart on campus and find pints of whole milk but no half gallons of skim. I loathe, loathe, loathe going to the big grocery store outside of campus, too smelly, too crowded, too much of a pain to lug it all back. I am really missing being a lazy suburban housewife with a car, a driveway, a full-sized refrigerator, and a grocery store with a ventilation system. And I’m tired of clothes that are stretched beyond recognition in this washing machine and stiff as boards after hanging on the line. Wah, wah, wah. I’ll stop now. On balance, I’ll take this change in scenery over six months in Belmont anyday. But I am not sure I could ever make Beijing my home.

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