Thursday, April 17, 2008

Week 8…of 18…if I make it that long!

Friday – 4/4

The most glorious day since we’ve been here. I left the house in my fleece and parka and within five minutes was back, shedding the layers. Probably 65-70 degrees outside. Overnight everything bloomed. Pink and red tufts of perfectly formed buds cluster all the little trees outside. It is a holiday today, Tomb Sweeping Day, kind of like Memorial Day. (April 4th was the day of my father’s funeral so this feels appropriate somehow). The campus is quiet and everyone is moving at a more leisurely pace.

Katie did not have the holiday off and has gone to Exlila’s after school. I must go to the center of the city to retrieve her, so I head in around noon and spend the afternoon walking around Liuliucheng, the old-fashioned antique/arts shopping area. It is a lot more touristy than I remember, although there are some authentic art galleries; one had several artists at work doing calligraphy and painting. I ended up walking east into a hutong, extremely poor, and ended up at Tiananmen Square. The hutong was a real slum, about an eighth of a mile from the Great Hall of the People…..kind of ironic. I then went into the City Planning Museum where there is this huge model of the city, every building within a five mile radius of the center is there in 3-D and the rest of the city is depicted in aerial photographs that are laid out under glass underfoot. Essentially you have a bird’s eye view of the city at your feet. I had been here three years ago, but now knowing my way around a bit, it was even more impressive…..and more illuminating on just how far we are from the action.

I got Katie at Exlilia’s and went to TGIFriday’s for a burger. As we are leaving, an elderly man holding a baby approaches me. Initially, I think he is trying to hand me the baby. I don’t know what to do. My heart is pounding. He keeps pushing the baby toward me. This happened in Guangzhou ten years ago and the woman was trying to give us a baby. But here, smack in the middle of ex-pat Beijing? I am holding a bag of leftover food, French fries and potato skins, and hand it to him as I rummage for some cash. He takes the food and disappears. It is one of those ‘colliding culture’ moments where I can never quite switch gears fast enough. TGIFriday’s and desperately poor China. It is hard to get your head around the income gap here. I am reading a children’s book, “The Diary of Ma Yan” about a 13 year old girl in Ningxia Province. The annual income there is $48, yes, the equivalent of 48 U.S. dollars per YEAR….about what I just paid for a burger and fries at TGIFriday’s. How can we keep living with this insane disparity? The whole baby incident leaves me shaken and I am sure it was disturbing for Katie. I gave her a big hug and said ‘desperate people have to make desperate choices’.

We took the subway about half way home and took a cab the rest of the way. I hope the subway out to our area opens soon. It would make life much simpler. Although, the trains are pretty packed and it is rare when you can find a seat. But tonight, a nice young man, seeing Katie under the weight of her giant school backpack, offered his seat to her. That was a first. All in all a good day!

Saturday. 4/5

Gray, gloomy, and sleepy. We did not leave the house. I wanted to go for a walk but Katie had no interest. Eve from Yiyang came over in the morning to go over her Thoreau speech and we had a nice chat about philosophy and poetry. She loves William Butler Yeats and recited Innisfree, a poem written about an island in a lake about a mile from where my grandmother Donohue was born in Sligo. Yeats spent summers in Sligo and my grandmother was a big fan. Eve’s competition started at noon and she text-messaged us throughout the day updating us on her status. She was very nervous but ended up in the top ten, which means she goes on to compete in the next round next weekend.

I spent a lot of time messing with photo and audio software. Managed to make a quick slide show with audio I already had on itunes, but I cannot open software to allow me to import new audio to edit or mix. Need to figure this out. My tolerance for taking on new frustrations has definitely gotten more practice here!

I cook up some rice and veggie stir fry and have a quiet evening at home.

We ended up watching a movie, a DVD we bought here (at full price, not pirated – we are the ONLY people of 1.3 million Chinese to have done this, I am sure!), it’s the Keira Knightly re-make of “Pride and Prejudice”, which Katie really liked…..especially at the climax, where Mr. Darcy is professing his love, and the automated voice on my computer interrupted with “It is ten o’clock”.

Sunday 4/6

Katie’s school is having a picnic and soccer game at a park on the far eastern side of town. The weather is gloomy, but I did not see any word of cancellation on line, so we get in a cab with directions in Chinese that I badgered Katie’s teacher to send us. The taxi driver takes us to a Holiday Inn, not the park. So much for advance planning! So I pull out a map and show him where the park is. He is yammering away in Chinese, but eventually gets us to the park. The one parent who I know is there and we have a nice time talking and meeting with some of the other moms. I go to see where Katie is and find her sitting watching the soccer game with the girls, not playing. I encourage her to play, that is the main reason we are here. But she says no. Within a few minutes it starts to rain, the second time in 8 weeks, and I am totally unprepared, no raincoats, umbrellas, or shelter. I tell Katie we need to leave. She is not happy, she wants to play soccer! I tell her she had her opportunity, but I am getting soaked and we are leaving. She is not happy and will make me pay for this for the rest of the day. We hop in a cab and meet our first cabbie who understands some English. He was very funny trying out all his new phrases. He had a tape in the car so he can practice and he imitated it very well, although I am not entirely sure he knew what he was saying. I call another Fulbrighter, Beth Farmer, who I made plans to go rug shopping with. She meets us at the Kempinski Hotel….where I order a cup of tea (for $7!!!) and try to dry out. I am soaked and my clothes are unfortunately very absorbent. Katie is in a nylon jacket that dried quickly so she does not get to experience the joys of rain as I do…..Beth arrives and we check out a few rug stores and see some nice rugs, but I have no idea how prices would compare with US, so I take pictures of some of the rugs and decide to wait until Stephen arrives to buy.

The last rug store is not far from the Pearl Market, so Katie and I opt to go there. She is still in a snit…(and it did stop raining very soon after we left the soccer game, so she is even more mad)….so we did not buy a thing at the Pearl Market. Hard to believe! Head home via subway, get off at Wadukuo station where the map says there are a couple of pizza places. I can’t find one of them, and there is a half hour wait at the Pizza Hut. I am not waiting even though I am craving pizza. (Have not had any since we got here). We go to a French bakery, get some bread and head home for another night of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. I need to prep for a lecture on Watergate, and I have a PBS documentary “Watergate at 30” produced in 2004. Katie, surprisingly, really wants to watch it with me, and asks a lot of good questions.

Monday. 4/7 gray and gloomy

Chinese class. I am getting more and more lost. The students who are taking all three classes are really progressing, but I am not able to keep the characters straight and the teacher is speaking more and more in Chinese, less and less in English….

I walked back from class this morning, and stopped by the old women doing line dances in the park, except today they didn’t have their boom box blasting their Chinese disco tunes. Dancing without the music is an apt metaphor for China. The Chinese are enjoying much better lives materially now than at any time in living memory, but something essential is missing. The longer I stay, the angrier I get at the total control the government has over everyone, and how resigned, even the younger generation, is to the way things are. It is crushing, physically crushing, to listen to them talk about ideals that will never become realities, and even worse, they know it and accept it. I understand that the desire for stability outweighs the desire for many other things and given China’s history over the past century and a half, stability is a rare commodity. But I hope change will come, peacefully, soon.

I am pretty sure I will not be staying in China any longer than required. I am so sorry this has not worked out as I had hoped. And maybe things will turn around – I am eternally hopeful. I think many things could have made this experience better: more Chinese language proficiency would be high on the list, closer proximity to the center of the city, more connections with colleagues. But there are some things that could not have been improved and would always cast a pall over China. The pollution is hard to get past. I need a lot more sunshine in my life. Today, I cannot see the buildings at the east end of campus, maybe a half mile away. There is this whitish gray milky cloud just hanging over everything. To make matters worse, the headline in the China Daily propaganda rag today is essentially encouraging Chinese to go to the most popular web portal in China,, and sign a petition attacking western media bias. Even more disturbing, I heard from my colleagues at the Foreign Correspondents Club of China that some of their members have received death threats, some so severe and specific that one journalist has the left the country for his own safety. Not so mysteriously, personal data, including addresses and phone numbers of foreign journalists (which they all must supply to the government), have ended up posted on a very nationalistic website and journalists are getting inundated with nasty phone calls. Celine said that at NBC she fielded nasty calls all day. And the icing on the cake, I just read a new report from the Pew Center on the Internet and Society, on Chinese and the internet: 85% of Chinese support government controls of the web, and three quarters of Chinese web users trust the Chinese government’s web information* So it is an incredible uphill battle to even imagine a more open society when there are very few clamoring for more freedoms.

*The study was not specific to journalism on the web, and may have been a reaction to pornography and on-line gaming, so I may be reading too much acquiescence to government controls into this.

When Katie came home from school we took a walk to the grocery store and stocked up on a few essentials. Made a nice dinner of curried chicken, rice and green beans with the curry sauce Stephen sent over from Trader Joe’s. It never tasted so good! We also defrosted the Ghiardelli brownies he baked and sent over (which I froze to save for a chocoholic day). Let me add an oven to the list of things I am coveting! Watched the rest of Watergate at 30, and Katie is decidedly a democrat after watching this!

At 9pm, I attempt to flush the toilet and it overflows onto the floor and doesn’t stop, there is about an inch of water on the bathroom floor and it’s still coming. I try calling Mercy, then the waiban Mrs.Liu and finally, against my better judgment, the student, Michael, but no one is answering. I go down the elevator with a Chinese-English dictionary and start miming and attempting to explain in Chinglish that there is a minor flood on the 17th floor. If nothing else, the folks on the 16th floor will be down soon if the water is landing on them. Finally, I call the “Saline-Solution”, Celine, and ask her to translate via cell phone the situation to the woman at the front desk. I return upstairs and the water has subsided and gone down the washing machine drain. A few minutes later my new best friend in China, the plumber, arrives, flushes the toilet with no problem. He attempts to show me for the tenth time how to flush a toilet. I thank him, again, and go to bed…but not before emailing Mercy, the waiban, and Ann McConnell at the embassy, to let them know that the toilet has got to go, or I do…. .and for some reason Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” keeps running through my brain.

Tuesday. 4/8

Not much sleep last night. They are doing construction through the night and the trucks keep going over the speed bump in front of our building and making a racket every time they go by. That coupled with the militaristic “hop-2-3-4-“ drills that go on until after 11pm, I am exhausted.

My class is a lot of fun today. We go over their scripts for their second stories. They all picked good, challenging, off-campus topics…migrant children’s school, one-child generation, inflation, lack of toilets at the Olympic venues (I can reallllly relate to this one). (I did not raise the attacks on western journalists because I didn’t want to get bummed out if they thought this was a good thing). We work on their voice and delivery, but I am really focusing on making them speak in understandable English so I can actually understand the finished product (which I unable to on their first assignment).Confusing V with W and R with L are the ones they have the hardest time with. And I am beginning to understand why. The Chinese R is actually a zhrrr sound that is made by putting the tongue about half way between where we put our tongue for R and L. Aha! Now I know how to pronounce a Chinese R!!

Ann McConnell from the embassy calls after class to discuss housing. I tell her I am not ready to move yet, if they are truly going to replace the toilet. But if it still acts up, I’ll call her next week about plan B. It would be a dream to get moved closer to the center of the city, but I doubt that is in the cards. I think they’d move me across the hall, which would not be much better. Ann also wants me to come down and talk to folks there about the harassment of western media. I am not sure I know any more than what has been reported in the papers, but I’m happy to discuss this. I at least hope the US government will register a protest, and try to get the journalists’ phones and addresses taken down from these nasty websites.

Wednesday 4/9

I skip Chinese class this morning. Too tired and too much else to do before my trip to Shanghai tomorrow. I head into office and finish up my Murrow lecture preparations. One of my undergrads has sent me a nice email with all kinds of ideas of what to do and where to eat in Shanghai. Very sweet. I also had a few emails from friends back home that made me laugh, and I begin to realize that most of my dissatisfaction with my time here is that I don’t have friends to share all the laughs and frustrations with. All of my Chinese colleagues’ English is too poor to carry on a substantive conversation and certainly not good enough to understand the subtleties of humor. And the other Americans live too far away in the Chaoyang district. I have not seen any other Caucasian adults (other than the students in my Chinese language class) in this neighborhood at all.

Eve from Yiyang comes to visit me in my office, ostensibly to go over her speech for her competition on the weekend, but we end up chatting for more than an hour about Yiyang, adoption, identity, and the one child policy. She says she is 100% sure Katie would come from a rural family and the woman would hide her pregnancy by going to live with relatives in another village until they find out the gender of the baby. If it’s a boy, keep it, if not, not. Eve says in the letter she wrote to Katie in Chinese that she sent me the day she met Katie, she wrote that if Katie had stayed in Yiyang she would be working in a field or sent off to work in a factory in Guangdong Province. She would have had no chance for higher education. Eve is concerned that the one child policy is causing this, and also causing the imbalance in male/female births. At last count, there were 120 male births to every 100 female births. A nation of millions of bachelors….She says the sex industry is booming and bride selling will become more common than it is.

I give my Murrow vs. McCarthy lecture to the grads and showed sections of a documentary on Murrow. Relative to the Cultural Revolution, McCarthyism must look like child’s play to them. The documentary is a bit “inside baseball” and even for an American, there are a lot of names and references that would be challenging. My students are lost, but at least they are asking questions to explain that they are confused rather than just blankly staring. I guess this is progress. At the end of class I have about 15 minutes left and talk to them about censorship and how you go about getting the truth when the government so blatantly lies. They are very candid that things are not good, but one guy Tony, says most of China is worried about where their next meal is coming from and don’t know or care about democracy. Good point. But for the millions who are riding this economic boom, they don’t seem to care either. The material life is too good to rock the boat.

After class I check my email and the Shanghai consulate has a last minute change in my itinerary – I’ll be giving a lecture at Fudan University and meeting with China’s oldest journalism association, but instead of going to China’s largest web portal, I am going to the offices of my favorite propaganda rag, The China Daily! I will have a hard time NOT telling them exactly what I think of their brand of “journalism”. If you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know why.

I return home and they have installed a BRAND NEW TOILET. (Bring in Bob Barker here saying, “Anne Donohue, Come on Down, You are the Lucky Winner of a BRAND NEW TOILET). It is much bigger than the old toilet, but I am trying not to take that personally. Neither Katie or I dare to be the first to ‘christen’ it….

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