Friday, April 4, 2008

Week 7

Friday March 28,

Hope and Lily pack up and return to the ol’ USofA. I am jealous. When I last wrote, let me see, we had no lights one day, no electricity in the outlets the next, no hot water for two days, and was told by “Horace”, no internet, but apparently that still works. So Friday comes along, Hope and Lily take off and I go to do a load of laundry and take a shower. NO water! No hot, no cold, nada. Joy of Joys! It is raining in Beijing for the first time in six weeks, and ironically TODAY there is no water. I pick up the apartment, move the furniture, rummage through collected debris, and about two hours later, the water is running, brown at first, but then clear, so I do the laundry and take my shower. The heat has been off for a few weeks, everywhere in Beijing, but today is so damp the laundry is taking forever to dry. Katie comes home from school and we hang around here, have some of our glorious Annie’s mac and cheese for dinner. She plays computer games while I watch the movie “Michael Clayton” that Celine gave me on the other computer. It is the first day since I have been here that I did not leave the apartment. I needed a down day.

Saturday March 29

Wake up and first thing I do is use the toilet and attempt to flush, but it overflows. I am plunging like a maniac, but no dice. The lovely contents are spilling over. I clean up as much as possible, get dressed and call Mercy. I’ve had enough. This place is a disaster. Like a little exclamation point, the curtain rod that holds up the shower curtain crashed on Katie’s head during her shower this morning. I tell Mercy to get a plumber over here asap. She says she’ll come over herself, but I say that won’t do. I am taking Katie to a friend’s and I will be out until it is fixed.

I take Katie all the way across town to Exilia’s and we have the opportunity to stumble upon the pool, spa, gym, and playground in Exila’s apartment complex. She is steps from a grocery store. She is on the subway line….not that she needs it, she has a car. Not everyone in Beijng is living like we are, and for the first time in my life I am insanely jealous of someone else’s material goods. I am the ugly American. I want that pool in MY building. I want an elevator that is well lit and does not smell of sewage. And yes, I know, it is one of the Ten Commandments to not covet your neighbor’s goods…..but, sorry Mom, I am COVETING my neighbor’s toilet!!

I spend the day on the subway, popping up at various stops to see the sites, find an English language book store, and later a Daoist temple with the most bizzaro statues where humans turn into animals or demons in one of the 18 levels of hell. Funny, weird and scary all at once. I get back to Exilia’s at 4:30 to retrieve Katie. They want another tomorrow and I say tentatively OK. We take the subway, with three not terribly direct connections, to the Walmart station about a mile from our apartment. We stock up on a few essentials at Wa-la-ma-la, three bags of groceries, takes about 90 minutes to find, and wait in long, slow, crowded lines with people cutting in front of me. We then take a taxi home. It is 8pm. I have not eaten since breakfast, and I really need to pee. I unload the groceries and head to the bathroom. There it is, as I left it, the lovely contents of the toilet overflowing. I LOSE IT. I call Mercy and start yelling. I have never been so mad in my life. She says she’ll come over in the morning. I tell her NO. If the toilet is not fixed tonight, I am going to a hotel. Five minutes later a maintenance guy comes, I assume to fix the toilet, but he starts repairing the broken shower curtain rod. I go into the bathroom and mime for him to fix the g.d. toilet. I need to GO! He disappears, comes back about fifteen minutes later with another Chinese guy and a French speaking resident, who is supposed to translate…accept I don’t speak French and he doesn’t speak much English, or at least does not know his plumbing vocabulary.

The three of them go into the bathroom and I go into the study to cry. It is also about 30 degrees outside now, at 9pm, so the apartment might be 55 degrees at best. I am frozen, and of course, still have to pee! Then someone knocks on the door. It is Mercy. She is sympathetic, but she cannot translate plumbing issues either, so against my explicit request, she calls one of my students, Michael, to come over here at 9pm on Saturday night to examine the contents of my toilet! He arrives, I am mortified, angry and tired. There are now five people in my tiny bathroom yammering away in Chinese. Meanwhile, Katie has decided to clean the apartment (her way of bringing order to chaos) and is sweeping and wiping off the table…she too has to pee. By 9:45, the toilet is allegedly working, and I tell everyone that Katie and I need to sleep so they can continue their chatter elsewhere. Mercy and Michael try to explain to me that the problems are caused by a hot water thermos in the kitchen that is too full. I explain that the thermos was not in use when the electrical and plumbing problems occurred. Then they decide it is because we are taking showers and the steam is getting into the electrical system. I explain, given that the hot water heater is about a five gallon drum, there have been NO long or steamy showers here! I am really concerned that the wiring and the plumbing mix is going to electrocute us. I go to sleep with that happy thought, under two down comforters and two wool blankets.


Quiet Day hanging around the house. Celine calls mid afternoon and says her parents want to take us to dinner. They pick us up at 5 and we head to a restaurant that serves food from Shandong Province. The lobby is full of fish tanks and other prepared food where we can pick out our meal. I tell them to order what they like and we’ll sample. We have a very enjoyable meal with Celine translating. Her father has been to every province in China, so offers us some good tips on vacation destinations. Her mom is very quiet but enjoys Katie. Her dad is in the salt business. They moved to Beijing from Kaifeng in Henan Province when Celine was in high school. Kaifeng was the home of China’s earliest Jews, who came here from Persia via Silk Road in the 8th century. There was a Jewish temple there until the 19th century but was torn down after a flood. The Jews were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and few remain. Maybe 200 people now.


I head out to Chinese language class and the classroom has HEAT! Someone has managed to get the AC unit to generate heat. Too much for most students but I am sitting right under the heater and it is blasting me and I am happy, happy, happy. When the students complain that it is too hot, the teacher, in very Chinese fashion, says she does not control it, and moves on. Well, someone controls it, someone got it to work this morning, someone must know how to turn it off or down. Not her. “I do not control it.”

I am not learning much Chinese, but at least I am warm!

My office is colder than the apartment so I opt to stay home and work under a blanket. I attempt to get our air conditioner to turn into a heater. I find the remote for the AC unit and turn it on, but all I get is cold air. Of course, the remote is all labeled in Chinese, so I don’t know what buttons to push. I am preparing three lectures, one on the First Amendment, one on McCarthy and Murrow, and one on New Media that I will present in Shanghai next week. A very productive day, and the laptop generates enough heat that I keep it on my lap like a little kitten to keep me warm.


Go into my freezer of an office for office hours and get a lot of work done. No visitors. Because it is April Fool’s Day, I am going into class pretending to be Hillary Clinton and the students are going to have a mock press conference with Hillary. It is a big hit. They were very well prepared, and caught “Hillary” in a few gaffes (what is her position on Taiwan? Ummm, I dunno). They all thought it was very funny and wanted my autograph at the end. After class, a student named Eve asked if I would help her with a presentation she was doing on Saturday and I agreed to meet with her on Wednesday.


Katie has no school because it is conference day (and she hasn’t been here long enough for the teacher to want a conference with us yet) so Celine is supposed to be here at 10 to babysit. At 10, the cleaning people arrive and I decide Katie and I should go to my office and wait for Celine. My student Eve arrives and meets Katie. She asks if she is Chinese and I reply yes, from Hunan. Eve says she is from Hunan. I say Yiyang and Eve gasps and says she is from Yiyang! What are the odds of that? Well, 1.3 Billion Chinese, only 4 million people from Yiyang, and my class only has ten students….This makes all my “didn’t I go to Camp Huckins with you?” small world encounters seem like small potatoes! We decide we need to talk more about this later, but I am crashing to get ready for my 1:45 lecture. Meanwhile, Eve has asked me to listen to her speech. She is in a competition where she has to memorize and recite aloud a speech in English. She has chosen a passage from Thoreau on “Solitude”. When I tell her I swim at Walden Pond she is blown away. Thoreau is her favorite philosopher!

Off I go to class and bore the students to death with First Amendment Law. Instead of inspiring them, this topic seems so remote from their reality, they are more glazed over than usual. At the end of class we talk about press reform and whether there are any efforts to try to change the system here, to open a dialogue between journalists and the government propaganda office, but only one student seems engaged and optimistic, the rest seem so resigned “this is China”, “that’s just the way it is”, “we are used to it”. It is sad but painfully realistic. Rocking the boat here is a very bad idea. Most of these students were too young to remember Tiananmen 1989, and none learned about it at school; all they have known is China’s economic growth, yet all of them seem so passive. I don’t know if they have been taught to be cautious and fearful by parents who do remember darker days or if they are just happy to ride the economic wave and think civil liberties are unimportant. I am mystified.

Intellectually I knew that the Chinese had immense control over individual’s lives here, but in reality it is even more pervasive than I could ever imagine. Obviously on the big issues, family planning or free speech, there is total control. But on even the littlest things, the government dictates your life. Take the heat, for example. The city of Beijing (and I think all of northern China) shuts down the heat everywhere on March 15, whether it is 10 degrees outside or not. It is not just my apartment that is cold. You cannot escape the cold. Restaurants, malls, everywhere is the same raw cutting cold. I teach in a brand new gorgeous building, but the classroom is bitter cold. When I asked my students what we can do about it, they shrug and say, “wear warmer clothes”. I am wearing a turtleneck, a polartec fleece and a down parka! Well, as global warming takes center stage, maybe all of us will be living like the Chinese, but I hope not.

I head home and Katie is still out with Celine. Around 4:45 I hear a knock on the apartment door and it is Eve. She has been all over the city looking for food from Yiyang to bring to Katie. Hours on busses trying to find the right stuff. She says she called her mother to tell her about Katie and she and her mother cried. They are so ashamed that girls are abandoned in their city and that they cannot provide for these children. Eve says she is quite poor, but scored #1 in all of Yiyang on the college entrance exam. She must pay her own way at Renmin and has several jobs. She says she loves Thoreau and solitude, and does not love Renmin. It is too crowded, six students to a small dorm room, and she finds the students shallow, not interested in philosophy. She wanted to go to Beijing University but did not have the right “connections”, guangxi.

Katie and Celine arrive and Katie is too enamored with Celine to be sufficiently grateful to Eve, but I insist we oooooh and ahhhh over the Yiyang food: dried fish snacks, bean powder, noodles, and sesame cookies. (The cookies were not bad). I ask Katie if she wants to ask Eve anything about Yiyang or would like to return to Yiyang with Eve. Katie has no questions and does not care if we go to Yiyang. She is clearly not into this self-exploration. Eve leaves and Celine (who we are now calling the Saline Solution) plays with the AC remote and gets the HEAT to come out of the AC!!!! I am jumping up and down with joy. The heat is only in two of the four rooms but I find a fan and try to draw it down to my bedroom and the living room. Amazing what a little warmth can do for one’s disposition. All in all, a really good day.


I was supposed to go into NBC News today to talk about staying through the Olympics but my contact there was sick and cancelled. We’ll try again in a few weeks. I am not terribly optimistic and not completely sure I want to be here that long.

I spend the morning tackling the power point presentation for the four lectures on new media that I’ll give in Shanghai next week. Then I start working on the Murrow – McCarthy lecture for next week’s class. As awful as blacklisting and McCarthyism was, it pales compared to the Chinese experience during that period, and especially the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Those days were like McCarthyism-on-steroids. People were beaten and killed for their beliefs here. I wonder how this topic will play with my students. I am trying to drill into them tales of heroic journalists, to inspire them to push the envelope, but given the powerful force they are pushing against and the draconian punishments for those who have pushed, I wonder if I am being hopelessly naïve and idealistic. Hu Jia, a dissident journalist, was sentenced today to several years in jail for his benign attempts at heroic journalism. Case closed.

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