Sunday, March 16, 2008

Week Three

Week Three

Friday Feb 29 Leap Day

Go to my second day of Chinese language class and the teacher asks me after class if I would like to be her language partner to help her practice her English. I am more than happy to, as long as she’ll suffer through my tortured Chinese. The class is an hour and a half. A bell rings at 8 and another rings at 9:30. If we are done with the lesson, she just reviews until the bell rings. No cutting out early, not by a minute. I walk home via tai-chi park and see a group of older women, maybe in their 60’s, playing badminton. I need to get some rackets and birdies. How do you say “birdie” in Chinese? Could be a fun activity for me and Katie.

Work around the house until 1:30 when my former BU student Celine Li comes over for tea. Great to see her and hear of her adventures with NBC News. At 2:30 we head out. Shun Shifu is going to drive all of us to Katie’s school and then on to IKEA. Traffic is not great, but we pass by the Olympic park and it is pretty amazing. Almost equally amazing is IKEA: good stuff cheap. And Celine is a great translator/Katie entertainer. She and Katie really hit it off. IKEA has exactly what I am looking for: a thin foam mattress for my bed and a cheapo fold out couch for comfortable reading location with extra bed for guests. We get both. At last, hopefully, a good night’s sleep awaits! We have a lovely dinner of IKEA’s Swedish meatballs, and head back to the apartment, again passing the Olympic village. It is even more spectacular lit up at night. We realize that one of the odd-shaped buildings that we can see in the distance from our apartment window is right next to the Olympic village and is still under construction. Huge hot embers are flowing down 50-60 stories. The welders must be working around the clock to get this built by August. We have been using this odd-shaped building to gauge the air quality: if we see it clearly, it is a good day, if we can’t see it at all? stay inside!

Saturday March 1.

Call mom and Jeremy via Skype. What a deal! 2 cents a minute.

Morning of laundry, moving furniture to make room for new couch, hanging more pictures, trying to feel at home. We were told there would be a cleaning service that would clean house and change our linens, but so far, no one has appeared. We were also warned by our American neighbors that the cleaners actually lived in the apartment whenever the former Fulbrighter here went away for a weekend or week. Not sure we want this service, so we spend the better part of the morning, sweeping and washing. The dust is incredible. Katie is having a real homey Saturday morning experience: set up with Youtube on the computer watching Saturday morning cartoons.

The air is the worst we have seen it. We cannot see the odd-shaped building over by the Olympic village. In fact, we can barely see the building at the far end of campus less than half a mile away. You can taste the dust. I’m not too thrilled about going out, but need to get some exercise, so we walk about a mile north of campus hoping to make it as far as Beijing University. Katie is whiney and I am really bothered by the air both in my mouth and my eyes. We take a cab back to the apartment. I hope this is not the future air quality. Katie does her homework while Stephen and I dump our camera photos on to the computer.

We decide to check out one of the on-campus restaurants for dinner, and unintentionally end up at one that only serves western food. Pizza and ribs. We then head to the on- campus bakery, a little hole-in-the-wall place, maybe even student run? Very nice selection, and gorgeous cakes. Across the street is a little grocery store and we go to get milk. Apparently they are about to close, but let us in despite our protests that they don’t need to stay open for us – “Mei wenti”… no problem. Stephen quickly grabs a half gallon of milk, only to find out when we get home that it is really a half gallon of plain yogurt. Reading labels is very tricky. The first week we were here I was washing all the dishes in this nice smelling liquid, but it didn’t seem to lather up like American dish-washing liquid….come to find out, I’d been using fabric softener! I’m glad to report, our clothes are now softer and dishes now cleaner!

Sunday March 2, 2008

Hung around the apartment in the a.m. Stephen decided to check out the Chinese church in the neighborhood, but I needed to stick around to wait for the IKEA delivery. They were supposed to be here at 1pm, but knowing delivery services, decided to wait all morning just in case. But at exactly 1pm, they knocked on the door, came in, assembled our $100 pull out couch and left. At last a comfortable place to sit, and for the last two nights, a comfortable bed thanks to the new foam pad we got at IKEA on Friday night. Life could not be better.

We venture out for an afternoon walk to what appears on the map to be a park about a half mile away, but apparently it is now a big construction site. Another green space bites the dust. We then go to the mad-house grocery store. It is packed on a Sunday, but its packed every day it seems. Everyone is shoving. No sense of personal space. “I need yogurt and I’ll bulldoze right through you until I get it”. Even at the checkout line, a guy starts to cut in line to my right, so I push my cart forward to let him know I’m no American pushover, then he tries to cut in on my left, and I elbow him back. Then he goes around me and tries to cut off the guy in front of me, but gets rebuffed there as well. Finally, he cuts in on the person in the line next to me who isn’t paying attention. People wait in line breathing down each other’s necks and think nothing of walking right into you. I am so busy trying to remember how to say “oh, I’m sorry, excuse me” even though they barreled into me, but they are already long gone.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that people don’t like to get involved. Yesterday this young woman on a bike plowed right into a parked car and fell off her bike. I jumped to go see if she was OK, yet none of the Chinese gave it any notice. They looked at her from the sidewalk and then just walked past her.

I think Katie is getting bored with no kids to play with. I’ve got to track down some kids in the neighborhood. Even if they speak Chinese, she could play badminton or soccer. We play UNO almost every night. Last night we attempted cribbage, but I forget the rules and looking them up on line did not jog my memory.

Monday March 3, 2008

Off to Chinese class on a gorgeous blue sky day, meandering slowly through tai chi park. Where did all the dust and dirt of yesterday go? The Chinese language teacher, Ms. Chen Chen (convenient when the first and last names are the same, you can avoid that awkward “should I call them by their family name or given name” issue) gave dictation and we were supposed to write down what we hear. There are four tones in Chinese, and I am clearly tone deaf! But I am learning and listening, so hopefully with time I will get the hang of this. But I can’t be too sure --- one of my classmates has been at it for four years and is still in level ZERO!

Full employment and global warming: Everyday I enter my beautiful new office building and there is a man there in a business suit. Sometimes he is opening the door for the handful of people who are entering; sometimes he just stands next to the fully opened door and lets the heat blast out. He isn’t wearing a security uniform, and there is almost NO traffic into this building, so I am not sure why he’s there, but he is there for at least 8 hours every day. Just Standing.

I go to my office hours and no one comes to visit. THAT has never happened at BU. It is amazing how much more productive you can be when you aren’t interrupted!! I prepared for my Tuesday undergrad class on writing and reporting with no difficulty. But prepping for Wednesday’s talk on new media, I met the Chinese Firewall. I went to search some sites for info on new media, but was stymied. My very astute friend Leigh sent me an article by James Fallows in the latest issue of the Atlantic that describes exactly what, why and how the Chinese are messing with internet access. Very interesting and frustrating. They’ve certainly thwarted my efforts to gather information.

Stephen has a call to London right before dinner, so my days of the pampered wife are over: I attempt to make dinner. But just as we are ready to eat, the phone rings. Someone is at the East Gate of the campus (about a half mile away) with a delivery. Stephen goes to retrieve the package, while I watch my chicken and peanut dish turn to shoe leather. The delivery guy keeps calling every minute, and in broken English says he is waiting and cannot wait all day. It occurs to me that maybe Stephen went to the wrong gate, so I send Katie out to the WEST gate, right around the corner, to see if she can find Stephen. Apparently the elevator Katie was in got stuck enroute, and people started asking Katie questions in Chinese which she didn’t understand. She returned home peeved. Stephen returned home about the same time, also peeved: no package and no sign of delivery guy. Another day of communication frustration in China.

Whenever we get into cabs and try to pay the cabbie in a 100 yuan note (the largest bill they have, about $13) the cabbie puts the bill up to the light to check and see if it is counterfeit. Meanwhile, Katie, has been getting an allowance for taking out the trash, putting away laundry, cleaning her room (one yuan or about 13 cents per chore – Chinese wages are really low!). It is pay day and Katie wants her allowance. We give her a ten yuan note and she holds it up the light to make sure it’s the real deal! No pulling the wool over her eyes.

Tuesday March 4

Held office hours and had three students visit – unfortunately two came to have me sign a form to drop my class! I signed the form, no idea what it said in Chinese. But when I arrived in my class that day, both of the students were there, plus about a half dozen who were not there the first week. About half are taking the class for credit, the other half “for fun” (their words, not mine)…we’ll see how that goes. The students’ first writing assignment was OK, not stellar, but not as bad as I’d been warned to expect. I am definitely going to have to scale back my ambitious agenda and cover much less material than I had planned. But the kids are eager and fun.

I prepped most of the morning for my Wednesday lecture on new media. The US consulate in Shanghai has invited me to give a lecture on journalism on the internet in April. So I’ll use much of this same material there. It is always difficult to know how much your class/audience already knows about a subject and where to enter the discussion. In doing the prep work, I was able to access most websites (however, not wikipedia, blogspot, wordpress) but not any blogs. I emailed Jim Fallows and got some tips on circumventing the firewall, so we’ll give that a whirl.

Katie has adopted my BU student Celine as her new big sister, best friend, and cool college kid. Apparently she has been text messaging Celine all day, and around 8 tonight, goes down the hall to her room and before closing the door announces, (parroting Stephen) “please don’t disturb, I am getting on a business call” (with Celine!).

Wednesday March 5, 2008

Leave early for Chinese language class so I can spend more time watching the tai chi folks in the park. There is also a group of singers that I’ve seen there before, practicing some sort of high-pitched, almost wailing sound. I need to go there with a Chinese speaker and find out what that is. The tai chi folks are so soothing to watch, fluid motion. I am tempted to just walk over and try it, but feel like I would be a disruption to their serenity.

I ask my Chinese language teacher if I can join them and she cuts me off abruptly, so maybe it wouldn’t be cool, or maybe she doesn’t like taking personal questions before class? She gives dictation and I get about a third of the words and/or tones wrong. I am hopeless!

My Wednesday afternoon class goes better than last week, but still not as engaged as the undergrads. There was a full room, but assume many are auditors or just there to gawk at the crazy American.

When I arrive home, I know Stephen is up to so something. This is his last night and he’s gone to the upscale grocery store on the far side of campus to get some special treats. Here’s tonight’s one burner wonder: Mashed potatoes, braised cauliflower, chicken and broccoli in a white creamy CHEESE sauce, and the pieced rĂ©sistance, green tea ice cream! To make the mashed potatoes, he boiled them, put them in one of the trillion zip lock bags I brought (more on that later), and pounded and squished them together with cream and butter. Who needs a masher, blender, food processor when SUPERcook is here! It was the best meal I’ve had in ages. Green tea ice cream was, shall we say, interesting. Kind of like spinach ice cream might taste….there will be lots of it in the freezer awaiting future guests!

Stephen is an amazingly resourceful traveler and improvises whatever he needs. His glasses broke a few days back and after a futile trip to an eyeglasses store, he came home, stripped a twisty from a bread package and took the wire out and threaded it into his glasses to hold them together

Future Fulbrighter take note: when someone at an orientation suggests you bring zip lock bags, or Kleenex…bring a package or two. For whatever reason, perhaps because I packed in stages over many weeks, I kept throwing zip lock bags and Kleenex into boxes and suitcases. We now have more than half a dozen boxes of baggies, and maybe 50-60-70(?!) little Kleenex packages. Every time we are running out of milk or some other staple, Stephen suggests I eat Kleenex!

We decide to take a walk to the grocery store after dinner to buy Katie some treats. I think we’re going to really miss Daddy around here.

After 11pm there is a rowdy party going on upstairs. We’ve been hearing some weekend shenanigans but now mid-week! Stephen has had enough. He gets dressed and heads upstairs. No phrase book required, he knocks hard and says “shhhhhhh”. “oh sorry, sorry sorry”, says the occupant, and the party breaks up about 20 minutes later. I asked Stephen if he would have done the same thing if we had just moved into an apartment in New York or some other part of the world. He says no, but we’re older than most of the residents and we’re guests, so he felt OK doing it. I’m not sure I would have done the same. But I’m glad he did and hope the partiers find another place to hang out.

Thursday March 6.

Katie says goodbye to daddy and heads off for school. I attempt to call Rory several times, with no luck. He is leaving for London tomorrow and I want to wish him bon voyage. My family will be strewn over three continents!! Stephen packs up and then we decide to go to out to lunch. We check out a campus restaurant, but it serves just “expensive” (by our new standards), steak and pizza, so we opt to go off campus. There is a noodle joint down the street so we go in. The menu is all in Chinese, no pictures. The food smells and looks good, but we don’t have the phrase book, so no way to order. We leave there and head to another chain we’ve seen, Mr. Lee’s California Noodles (Mr. Lee looks a lot like Col. Sanders on the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign next door). There is a menu with pictures. But all the pictures look the same, noodles with some sort of meat topping. We point to two items and end up getting spaghetti in beef bullion. OK, but nothing to write home about ( —oh, I guess that is exactly what I am doing)! There have got to be good restaurants; we just are too clueless to find them. Next week I start taking students out to lunch and learning the ropes here.

Spring has sprung. The sprinkler system (and the firehoses) are flooding the dusty park. So now we have mud season! We saw forsythia, or a reasonable facsimile, beginning to bloom. I think there is a huge plot of peonies or similar plant emerging in the garden across the street. This place will look a lot more colorful soon. The sky has been blue, temps around 45-50F. Very pleasant. Stephen can take home Katie’s never-worn boots and snow pants.

Stephen finishes packing and after a teary goodbye, heads out…only to return a few minutes later with a broken suitcase handle. I help him carry one of the suitcases and he puts the broken one over his shoulder and we head out to the West Gate. A girl on a water bottle delivery bike nearly plows into us, and I say something snide in English. Then she stops and gestures for us to put the suitcases on her bike trailer so she can carry them for us. We graciously decline. It is clear, people are not being rude when they plow into you, it is just the way it is done. I think I am beginning to get the hang of how to maneuver in the streets. First, it is a lot like jumping rope: no one is going to stop swinging the rope to let you in, you have to seize an opening in the crowd and then jump in. Then you just get pulled along until it is time to carefully jump out. The bikes, cars and deadly silent mini-bikes grab whatever advantage they have, swerving so close to you, you are sure you are going to be hit, but they never knock anyone over, at least not that I’ve seen.

Katie arrives home and it really hits her that dad is gone: mom is cooking dinner! There are a lot of tears (AND NOT JUST BECAUSE I AM COOKING!). I think this is going to be a long six weeks for both of us until Stephen returns.

No comments: