Friday, April 25, 2008

Week 10

Week Ten. Has it been ten weeks already? Half way there….

Friday April 18

Wow, what a full day! Lucy, Cate and Katie all were up early. We may have figured out what all the marching and chanting we have been hearing every night is all about: today there are no classes at Renmin because there is a big sporting event, some sort of track and field competition. We watch from our window as the various teams, chanting and carrying banners, march onto the field. Maybe, maybe, we’ll get some peace and quiet at night now that the Renmin Games are over??!! We hit the road a little after 9. To the bank, and then a cab into the central city. I drop Lucy and the girls at the Forbidden City and stay with the cab to go to the embassy and travel agency. Cabbie gets lost getting to travel agency, but eventually we get there. Trip to Chengdu and Lijiang for next week’s vacation is all set. At the embassy I drop off my borrowed DVDs and have a brief conversation with Ann McConnell before heading back to meet the gals at the Forbidden City. Ann offers some simple but right-on description of why the Chinese students and populace is so hyped up about western media bias: “they don’t know what they don’t know”.

My two errands, both within a mile or two of the Forbidden City, take almost three hours, so it is not until after 1 that I meet up with Lucy and the girls. We take a cab to the Houhai area and look for lunch. Katie is really wigging out with her allergies and whining. We find the Vietnamese Restaurant, Nuage, that Lucy had heard about which coincidentally was the one I had intended to go to, not knowing it was the same one Lucy knew about. Serendipity. Katie is still bothered by her allergies and there is no benedryl or zyrtec in my pocketbook. I know this sounds nuts, but I knew she would be miserable and the day shot to hell if we had to go back to Renmin to get her medicine. So shamelessly, I went from table to table in the restaurant “begging” for benadryl. Happily a nice German guy gave me his last dose of the German equivalent of Zyrtec, and instantly Katie is cured. (A placebo might have done the trick!) Meanwhile, Lucy has arranged to meet a friend of a friend from Belmont (Anne and Fred Paulsen). He’s a Chinese lawyer named Arthur, who kindly joined us for lunch despite being a corporate lawyer, PhD candidate, and rushing to a conference in another province later that day! Very nice guy and really went out of his way to be hospitable. That is what I love about international “relationships” people go to great lengths to repay the hospitality that was extended to them years ago. Hopefully, Arthur can meet Stephen when he’s here.

From there we walk to the Drum Tower, and happen to bump into several of my students on the street. I know about a dozen people in this city of 18 million, and yet I meet four or five of them in a neighborhood far from campus!! Small world.

At the Drum Tower, at the top of about a hundred stairs, Katie and Cate sit on a bench and it breaks, the legs of the bench collapsing under it, causing a loud thud and some embarrassed, but uninjured girls. A security guard hurries over, checks it out, and then motions for us to wait. A few minutes later, a worker comes to fix the bench and a translator arrives. The translation: “it is OK, we will not charge you for your mistake, because we are very nice guys but next time be more careful.” The translator tells us this in a loud, scolding manner and repeats strenuously “be more careful next time.” I am looking at Lucy and we are both a bit amused and incredulous. We could just as easily (and accurately) have threatened to report them for a faulty bench that could have injured our kids!

We descend the 100 steps, and find a cab to take us in very stalled traffic, about one mile in about 1 hour. We are going to dinner with Martha G’s friend Elizabeth, who lives in Beijing. Both Lucy and I have met her before either here or in Belmont. The restaurant is across the street from the Silk Market, so with an hour to kill, we do a bit of shopping, but not before Katie pulls out yet another tooth on the street in front of the market! We meet Elizabeth at 6 at this out-of-this-world restaurant, Lan. Almost gaudy, almost hip, definitely unusual decor done by ……. Faux oil paintings hang flat against the ceiling, hovering over you, huge mirrors and chandeliers all around, none matching, every dish a different funky pattern, and my favorite: the enormous bathroom ROOMS with a square toilet, a swan necked bowl that serves as the sink, and a shiny silver wing chair, presumably for your guest to watch you do your business??! I wait for the girls to finish in their respective bathrooms and since there is an easy chair and ottoman parked outside the bathrooms, I decide to sit in it and put my feet up. Several wait staff walk by and look at me curiously, and finally a waiter comes over and says “did you go to the bathroom?” and I say “yes”. “Would you like to go eat now?” and I say “no, I am waiting for the girls to finish in the bathroom”. Clearly this guy is perplexed as to why I would sit in a chair that apparently must have been there for decoration not relaxation. We safely navigate our way back to our table, passing a long pink table lit with pink lights from below, with pink chandeliers above, and all pink dinner plates. The food is excellent. One specialty, “drunken chicken” consists of a whole chicken packed in mud and baked. It arrived at our table still ensconced in mud and the girls got to use a big silver mallet to crack open the baked mud/clay (Lucy and I were relieved to see a layer of tinfoil between the chicken and the mud! The conversation with Elizabeth, who has been in China for ten years, is illuminating. I could stay all night, but the Bostonians are starting to fade, and Katie is now sprawled on her seat feigning sleep. With a promise to see more of Elizabeth before I leave, we cab it back to Renmin. Walking onto the campus we see a group of students trying to get a makeshift hot air balloon aloft. The flame looks pretty big for the little balloon, but after a few failed attempts, they get lift off and up it goes. I just hope it doesn’t land on our roof and set the building on fire. where everyone is now asleep, a bit after 9. A very full and fun day.

Saturday April 19

We take a taxi into the city and head for Houhai, the back lakes area, where the guide book says there is a traditional two courtyard Chinese home of a renowned author Guo Morou open for viewing. We get stuck in traffic, but when we are near we decide to walk to find it. We go into the maze of the hutong, much of it under construction and renovation, and find our destination by following the hordes of pedicabs to the place. The house itself is not inundated with tourists, just the street outside. Guo was known for studying paleography, which I take to mean the study of ancient Chinese writing found on bones, known now as oracle bones (ala Peter Hessler’s book title). The house was simple and the garden courtyards full of peonies in bloom. The peonies here are more like bushes with sturdier stems than the peonies in my yard, but the blooms are the same. Guo was apparently a big shot, lots of pictures of him with Mao and Zhou Enlai.

We walk from there to lunch, Katie is dragging and bored. But we find a little pizza place tucked in the back of a hutong alley and she is revived. The pizza was delicious! From there we take a cab to the city planning museum, much further by cab than it appears on the map, and the taxi driver has no idea where the place is, but I am very proud that I can direct him with my limited vocabulary and we arrive safely. The planning museum I’ve described in an earlier blog entry, but it contains a huge model of the city of Beijing laid out on the floor. At the planning museum, we buy tickets for a 4p.m. 4-D movie. Having never been to one, I don’t know what to expect. But when we get to the theater the attendant refuses to let us in….because we don’t speak Chinese. She says we must go to the English language one at 6pm. We protest that we don’t care about the language we just want the 4-D experience, but no way. We don’t want to hang around until 6, so we go down the hall and watch a 3-D movie in English, full of dramatic music and patriotic zeal for the great city of Beijing at center of the world: China. Shockingly, in this 3-D movie of the origins and future of the city, there are no cars, traffic, people, trash or pollution visible in the city – just blue skies over glitzy Beijing. If we could only live in this 3-D movie!

From there we head to Liulicheng the antique shopping area and we return to my favorite tea shop. The owners daughter, a precious two year old, captures my attention. She had the sweetest little voice, parroting everything I would say in English. We had some nice tea made from lychee fruit and bought some, plus a poster of teapots. Lucy got a very nice peach shaped tea pot as well. The girls both got ceramic dogs. Everyone was pleased with their purchases.

Next, we head to the area where the acrobatic theater is located. When we get out a cab, there is a sign on the south side of the street “ticket office”, but somehow, something on the north side of the street looks familiar. A man approaches us, trying to unload some tickets for half price, but he smells of alcohol and I am leery. We go into the ticket office, and ask if the tickets I called ahead for are there. The girl speaks no English, and I am about to purchase tickets, but she indicates it is for a 7;30 show and I was told on the phone yesterday that the show was at 7. So we venture outside and across the street and find the right ticket office for the acrobats. Lucky we didn’t get tickets from whatever-the-heck was playing across the street. The nice man at the acrobat ticket office directs us to an area where we can find a restaurant and we go into a storefront advertising “English language menu and service”. (We learn later the name of the place was “John’s”. We order a few items, all of which are yummy and head back to see the acrobats. Another incredible display of the bizarre abilities of the human body. This show was particularly splendorific thanks to the addition of a troupe of young boys, maybe 6,7,8, years old, doing incredible tumbling, flips and climbing up wooden poles and leaping between them. One little guy, who couldn’t have been more than 4, stole the show and was beaming at the end as we applauded.

The girls fall asleep in the taxi enroute home. Its been a long day. So I convince the cabbie to go in the North Gate, and we are permitted to do it in a taxi! Direct to our front door.

I check my email when I get home, and the Chinese reporter who had agreed to speak to my students is canceling. He says is wife is concerned that he will be targeted and harassed if he speaks.

We learn later, that the French embassy was besieged by protestors and dozens of armed Chinese soldiers were posted outside for added security. In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, about 2000 protestors marched in front of a French grocery chain Carrefour’s. The internet nationalistic sites claim the company is a supporter of Tibetan independence.

And there have been more arrests in one Tibetan area after apparent/alleged/reported rioting there. Hard to know what is really going on since no objective observer is allowed to get to the affected areas.

Sunday April 20

Up verrrry early for a trip to the Great Wall. Lucy has arranged for a van, which holds six, so we invite Eve and Stefanie to join us. It is gloomy in Beijing, and as we get about an hour out of the city it starts raining. Lucy and Cate have rain jackets, but the rest of us don’t. When we get there, Eve and the driver get us some rain ponchos and umbrella and off we go. I have been here twice before, and Katie came once three years ago, but for the others, this is their first visit, and I am so sorry for them that the weather is lousy. We take a ski-type chair lift up the mountain, getting thoroughly soaked as we sway in the breeze. But once there, there is a misty, foggy quality to the wall that is very nice. So now I can say I’ve been to the Great Wall in January snow, June baking sun, and April misty rain. One of these days I’ll get there a pleasantly warm and sunny day.

The two little girls run way ahead of us and head for the highest point. I am winded but keep on trudging, stopping at every guard tower to get out of the rain for a few minutes.

The peach and plum trees are in full bloom, lovely pink and white blossoms dot the mountainside. Despite the weather, it is a lovely scene. After the highest turret, we see in the distance, two little girls way ahead of us. I am exhausted from climbing but start running trying to get within earshot of Katie and Cate. Fortunately, they are not as far ahead as I feared, and we call for them to come back to where there is an enclosed gondola that we take down the mountain.

We are all pretty wet and cold but manage to find time to buy two “I climbed the Great Wall” sweatshirts for Katie and Cate before heading to the van. The driver cranks up the heat and we begin to dry out.

We decide to try to find this contemporary art area called Factory 798. We get a little lost but find it. It is not one huge enclosed gallery as I had thought, but rather dozens of old munitions factories that have been converted to galleries. The rain is coming down fast and furious and no one is thrilled with the idea of running around in the mud. We eat at a storefront restaurant. Eve orders really spicy chicken, full of red peppers, a vegetable curry, noodles, dumplings, a green sautéed spinachy thing, and this wild fried egg in sugar that tastes like candy. More food than any of us can finish. We then drive through the 798 area and stop at one gallery and poke our head into a tiny shop across from it. There’s some very provocative art, including one of the Statue of Liberty wearing a dress with pink laughing clown masks, looking on as the World Trade center burns and collapses. At the shop across the street, Lucy and I each buy a poster of Colonel Sanders and Ronald MacDonald standing over a famous Mao revolutionary saying. What would Mao say now!?

From there we head home, stopping briefly at the Olympic village, but too rainy to walk around. We all are eager to get home, dry off, and rest. And rest we did. I slept for two hours, and then had to wake Lucy up at 6:30, while the girls watched two movies on the portable DVD player that Cate and Lucy brought. No one wanted to go out in the rain again, so we had a not-so-delicious dinner of leftovers and called it a day. Lucy kindly brought me a digital picture frame from home, so we figured out (she figured out….) how to use it, and we watched our photos from the Great Wall in a lovely slide show before collapsing into bed.


Lazy Day. Katie is off the school and Lucy and Cate are heading into the city with a tour guide, who unfortunately for them, is stuck in rainy traffic and does not get to Renmin until 10:30 to pick them up. They head to Lama Temple and the Temple of Heaven and the Pearl Market. I hang around the house, report the leaks coming in all of the windows, and watch the rain. I am giving a guest lecture tomorrow in a Chinese professor’s class and need to prepare for that, as well as for the day that my VOA guest cancelled. Eve stops by around 3. She wants to see some family pictures, so we have a little slide show. Around 4 the workmen come to assess the leaks. They tell Eve that the problem is “outside rain is leaking in”. I know that already. They also look at the toilet, and explain to me for the hundredth time, how to flush a Chinese toilet. I explain that I know how to flush, I have successfully done it dozens of times, but for the past two days, the toilet does not drain without using the plunger. They shrug and leave.

Lucy and Cate return from shopping and sightseeing. The rain has finally stopped and we walk up to the Qing Dynasty restaurant up the street and have a lovely, festive meal, served by the same sweet English speaking waitress we had when we went with Hope and Lily. She also allows us to go sit in on a Sichuan mask show, and explains the history of the restaurant, only 7 years in existence. But the property and the gardens stem back to the first Qing emperor, some 300 years ago. We walk back to the apartment, and Lucy and Cate get ready for an early flight to Xian.

Tuesday. blue sky and very windy. The rain really cleaned things up!

Lucy and Cate are gone before I wake up. Katie heads off to school and Stefanie joins her as part of the photo documentary she is producing on Katie. I get a call from Mrs. Liu that the workmen will be here at 8:30 to fix the leaky windows. They arrive and I move all the furniture out of the porch. One guy (who has responded to all my toilet emergencies) ties a belt onto his co-worker and the co-worker steps up onto my narrow (non-existent?) windowsill and hovers over the 17-story drop, while he shoves caulking or some sort of white goo into the cracks outside the window. They do the same outside the other windows. We’ll see if that solves the problem. The rain has gone and it is a gloriously sunny, bright, clean and windy day. Feels like autumn. For the first time, I see real clouds, not smog and haze, in an otherwise blue sky.

I leave at 10 to give a guest lecture in Judy’s history of journalism class. The students are primed with good questions about why western media is biased, why don’t we report that the Dalai lama is a liar, why doesn’t Jack Cafferty get fired from CNN, etc. etc. I do my best to defend my profession, to encourage them to read multiple sources over time, and to tone down the rhetoric. I discuss the Duke University student, a Chinese national, who tried to encourage dialogue between pro-Tibetan and pro-Chinese students, and ended up being harassed. One lovely email advocated boiling her in oil for being a traitor. I wonder if my comments, encouraging dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government will spark a similar response. I hope I have helped sway some students to take a more measured, objective approach.

I then head to my office and get ready for my class. They are unusually quiet today, and when I tell them the VOA guest has cancelled because of fear of harassment, they laugh. I ask them why they are laughing, and they say he is silly to be afraid. But I say my western journalist colleagues aren’t laughing at all the harassment they’ve been receiving and this Duke student’s parents apparently had to flee their home in Tsingtao because they were so afraid….I don’t see what is funny. But I keep getting nervous laughter….strange. I brought a few more photos for Eve of Yiyang and as she is transferring them to her portable drive, all the girls hover around and look at family photos of Rory and Jeremy and start chattering in Chinese at how handsome my sons are. I agree!

I spend the afternoon reading “Now They Tell Us”, a pretty scathing indictment of journalism pre-Iraq war….my profession is far from perfect, but it is still not the demon the Chinese media has made us out to be.

Tonight I cut about five inches off Katie’s hair….would love to cut even more. She has a big sports competition all day at school tomorrow and unfortunately I can’t go. Thursday is her exhibition on endangered animals in China. She presents her group’s findings to a Chinese middle school. I’d love to go, but she says no way.

Wednesday – gorgeous, cool, blue sky.

I head into my office and look through some DVDs that I brought showing some good professional and student examples. On one DVD I see two stories: one on the “Tiananmen Papers” which were leaked in he late 90s showing the power struggle between the senior Party members about whether to crackdown on the demonstrators is 1989. We know who won that battle. The other was on Harry Wu, journalist dissident, detained and arrested repeatedly in China. I wonder how much trouble I would get into if I showed either of those to my classes?. I had lunch with my PhD candidate/teaching assistant, Jessie, and asked her what she thought. She was pretty sure I’d get into a lot of trouble. She explained to me the Marxist theory of journalism -- that it stems from class struggle, and it is there to serve the Communist Party, not to challenge it. I knew that but am intrigued that they call it journalism and not propaganda. The division that supervises the media is translated as Ministry of Propaganda, so they are clearly not offended by the term.

We leave lunch and I once again get nearly mowed down by a car. I explain to Jessie that traffic rules are an apt metaphor for the differences between China and the US. In China, the pedestrian has no power, the bigger the vehicle, the more they dominate the rules of the road: trucks cut off cars, cars cut off bikes, bikes cut off pedestrians. In the United States, if a pedestrian puts a foot into an intersection, all traffic stops. The individual rules. It does seem odd that one individual has the power to stop bus loads and carloads of drivers, but it works. We all get where we need to go, more or less safely. Here, with the cars all trying to cut each other off and angling to get a two inch advantage, it is chaos. And the little guy is left standing at an intersection for 5-10 minutes waiting for the cars and trucks to move on. Here, more pedestrians are killed by cars than anywhere else in the world, so I am told.

In class, I plan to play some of George Clooney’s Goodnight and Good Luck, but the projector does not work. While we wait for the technician, I ask the class about the Carrefours boycott and demonstrations outside the French embassy. And for the first time this semester, all the previously mute students speak up. And their English is flawless!! Why have they been so quiet? We abandon the film and keep discussing Jack Cafferty, CNN, and all the so-called “western media bias” coverage. One very earnest girl, who somehow reminds me a Catholic nun relative of my mother’s, says she is praying for China, and for the Olympics, but she is very confused about all the conflicting reports about Tibet. When I ask her what sources she reads that she trusts, she answers, “the government”. Discouraging. I wonder what she would say if I played the “60 Minutes” Tiananment story! After class I come home and Stefanie is here taking more photos of Katie. She stays for an hour or so while I cook dinner. Lucy and Cate are due back from Xian around dinner time. I am reading Ian Johnson’s book, Wild Grass, and I want to give copies to all of my students. Johnson profiles three brave but ordinary Chinese citizens who are trying to work within the legal system to ease their tax burdens or keep their homes from being demolished and yet, the legal system gives them no protection and they still get screwed. Depressing, but extremely well written and well documented.

Cate and Lucy return after a nice visit to Xian.


Spend the morning with Cate and Lucy at the Summer Palace. There are throngs of tourists and the walkway that I walked in solitude ten years ago in January is packed with people chattering away in Chinese. Not at all how I experienced it. We make a quick visit and head home, but not before buying a few trinkets, different stuff than I have seen at any of the markets. Cate and Lucy head off for the airport. I am so glad they came and we had a nice, quiet time together. I tidy up the apartment and go out and buy milk. Stephen calls from the airport around 2.

At 3:30 Katie arrives home from school (with Stefanie in tow again) and Stephen has still not made it from the airport, so we decide to walk out the west gate and wait for him. And in the distance we see him dragging his suitcases. Katie makes a dash and Stefanie hopefully gets some nice shots of their reunion. Great to see him!

After he settles in, he and Katie go out for a walk while I make dinner.

After dinner they go for another walk to the grocery store. Stephen is trying to stay awake for as long as he can. By 8:30 he and Katie are both out for the night. I read Jonathan Franzen’s article in the New Yorker about birding in China -- another depressing take on the nascent and frustratingly powerless environmental movement here.

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