Monday, May 26, 2008

Week 13 – A Very Unlucky Number

Saturday, May 10

The public address system kicked in early, 6:15 a.m. we started hearing all the marching songs. It is another day of athletic competition here with all the chanting and cheering that precedes it. It looks like track and field – with a twist: one of the events appears to be running races while hula-hooping! Now there is a sport for me!

Katie and Stephen head out to the electronics store in their elusive search for a Nintendo DS with English instructions and games. They are gone a long time, but return empty handed. Meanwhile, Stefanie has arrived to take a last photo of Stephen before he returns home. Stefanie tells me a little about her family. Her father was in the army, but was injured, so came home and started a business. She was raised on her grandparents’ farm, while her parents worked in the business. Now, the Party boss in her village wants to take the family farm away. Her dad has spent 100,000RMB ($15,000 USD) in legal fees to try to hold onto the land, but it still is not looking good. Her image of life on the farm was not quite as upbeat as the picture painted the other day by Li Qingsi.

When Stefanie is ready to take the photos, Katie is silly and not interested in being photographed, but then Stefanie lets Katie use the camera and she is more cooperative. Meanwhile, Eve has arrived to look at some other photos sent by Yiyang adoptive parents. Four or five familes on the Yiyang orphanage listserv have contacted her to see if she can get some information for them from Yiyang.

After the photo shoot we head into downtown Beijing for dinner with Mark Ma and his wife Tingting. Katie and Stephen occupy themselves for a while beforehand, while I interview Mark and his wife about some delicate adoption issues. Tingting is very quiet and Mark is very careful to put my questions into a broader context. He says he cannot confirm any first hand knowledge of corruption or trafficking, but he it is possible that those practices might exist. Neither has ever met a birth parent. And they share my concern that this has become a business and less about the interests of the child. They dealt with many prospective families who came to adopt but rejected the child when they got here for reasons that were not clear to Mark or Tingting. And they said the more recent adoptive families seemed to have unrealistic expectations. There are no guarantees of perfection with biological children, and there shouldn’t be that expectation with adopted children either. As Katie would say: you get what you get and you don’t get upset.

Stephen and Katie arrive and we have a great dinner, Vietnamese food, and have a lot of fun. Afterward we walk around the Houhai Lake area. Looks like the night spot of Beijing’s younger set. We watched a guy on the sidewalk with his potter’s wheel making lovely little pots, and Katie took a bunch of pictures of this parakeet chained up in a store window. We bid farewell to Mark and Tingting and hope to see them again.

Sunday, May 11

I hadn’t even realized it was Mother’s Day, but Katie made me a nice little card and surprised me, and then Eve sent me a text message, to “a great mother of three children.” Rory even managed to get a quick email in just under the wire at midnight. But my favorite was a Youtube link my friend Louise sent around. Check it out if you are the mother of warring boys:

We’ve arranged for a driver, the fellow Lucy used, Simon, to take us out to the furniture village, Gaobaidian. On the way we drop Katie off at her friend Yuanyuan’s house, in a hutong near the Confucian Temple.

Ann McConnell from the embassy leads us out and we followed in “our” car. Another Fulbrighter, Beth Farmer joined up. We revisited the factory where Ann’s furniture was being repaired and Stephen gave her some tips on stains and refurbishing techniques. We then went by the carver’s workshop, where four young kids, 17-20 years old, were carving wood in dim light. They are all migrants from Anhui Province, and live in a little room next to the workshop, four of them on two bunk beds, and each has a small box for their possessions. In the back of this very primitive workshop, we see a computer, guiding a lathe, carving the most detailed images into the wood. I am not sure who or how they program the lathe, but apparently they scan an image into the computer and then tell the computer the depth and other dimensions of each cut into the wood. The machine cost $50,000RMB or about $7,000 USD. Wild. It won’t be long before the computer puts those migrant kids out of work.

We end up in a shopping area in the center of Gaobaidian but manage not to buy a thing before we need to leave. We retrieve Katie at her friends and then head to the restaurant where we are meeting Celine and her family for dinner. Celine will return to the States this week and get her degree from BU. We eat at a great Taiwanese place called Bellagio, near Worker’s Stadium. Great food. And of course Celine and her family have gifts, tea and cosmetics, more than we have brought for the guest of honor!

After dinner, Celine’s dad asks if we like to bowl. Apparently, there is an alley next door. Sure! Off we go -- Bowling in Beijing! It was a very nice, big, clean, well lit place – much nicer than Lanes and Games in Cambridge… I have never bowled with big balls and warn them that I am useless athletically. Well, I guess I had beginner’s luck, because I was really knocking them down. On one shot, there were two pins on the far right, and one remaining on the far left, and I managed t knock over all three with one ball!!!! I told Celine’s dad I was going to retire from BU and take up professional bowling! We had a great time. It was a great activity for a group that does not share the same language because we could share in each other’s victories and defeats, with high fives, and embarrassed winces, without ever uttering a word. But man, my shoulder hurts!!

We all squeezed into Celine’s dad’s car and he got a kick out of us giving him directions in Chinese “Renmin Daxue Ximen”, “zou guai”, etc. What a lot of fun!!

Monday, May 12

Stephen announces it is time to go home – his tooth has fallen out again. The day he arrived two weeks ago, he bit into some candy and pulled out a dental bridge (the same type of candy that triggered Katie to lose a tooth on the plane home from Shanghai). He had shoved the bridge back in two weeks ago and has been fine, but it is looking like he’ll need to spend some quality time at BU Dental before long.

We go in to school with Katie to have a parent-teacher conference with Katie and her teacher, Anya Dalais. All is well. We learned that Katie is a social animal, is liking math(!), needs to be more careful and take more time with her writing, and needs to follow through on all her good ideas. No surprises there. She’s had a great time at this school and with this teacher and we are both not thrilled with the idea of returning to Chenery. Ms. Dalais and her husband are moving to Switzerland at the end of the school year to work at another international school there. They’ve taught in France, England, China and now Switzerland. Sounds like a fun life.

I worked all morning on a lecture on war coverage, especially on the run-up to the Iraq war and journalists’ lackluster coverage. In retrospect, it makes me crazier than ever to know how well the administration sold this war to a group of “lapdog” reporters….with a few notable exceptions (Knight Ridder’s Jonathan Landay had the necessary skepticism, but few others). For all my griping about Chinese propaganda and misinformation, we aren’t doing a whole lot better in the US of A.

After lunch, I took a nap. In the middle of a very bizarre dream about a hurricane, I felt the bed move. At first, I thought I was dreaming, then I thought Stephen had come in to wake me up, but neither was the case. I got up to find Stephen and he was sitting at his desk, feeling like he was experiencing vertigo. I decided it must be someone doing work on the building. A few hours later we learn in an email from my sister-in-law Karen that we were in the midst of an earthquake. Never a dull moment! There was a huge quake 7.8, out in Sichuan Province, about 50 miles from where we were last week. The event in Beijing was minor. But sitting here on the 17th floor of a hastily and poorly constructed building, right above a major fault line in the earth’s crust, has got me just a tad worried. Stephen, of course, is not worried at all….but he’s leaving tomorrow to head home!!!

For dinner, we attempted to go to a pizza joint I read about up by Beijing university, Kro’s Nest, but we schlepped up there to find it was closed, so we walked back to Papa John’s and got our fill of pizza for a while.

Tuesday, May 13

The news about the earthquake unfolded through the night, and so did the aftershocks. I watched TV a fair amount last night and this morning, trying to get a handle on this. I was struck by CCTV’s English language channel’s emphasis on infrastructure damage, buildings destroyed, roads closed, phone service out of order. And of course there was plenty on rescue efforts and Premier Wen Jiabao’s appearance with rescuers. Only about 4-5 minutes into the 9am coverage did they mention the number killed: ten thousand! I don’t know if this is representative of all Chinese coverage, but it was certainly a different inverted pyramid than we would have done in the US press. The newspaper was more direct, listing the number dead at the top and underscoring that the government’s first priority is saving lives…

I go into my office and prep for today’s class and a lecture I will give tonight at the Central University of Nationalities. The waiban, Mrs. Liu, calls and can give me little advice on my visa status, but she is hopeful that if I leave the country, I will be allowed back in….I certainly hope so! More disturbingly, she can’t advise me on what to do in the event of a fire or earthquake or any other emergency in our building. I ask her if there is an alarm system or any email or cell phone warning system that I might miss because I am unable to understand Chinese. She says no, no warning system, but there are fire extinguishers, and then she laughs and says, “but you wouldn’t know how to use them since the instructions are in Chinese”. Haha, not very funny! I mention that the electricity went out every night last week at 11pm and everyone else seemed to have been informed about this, but not me. What’s up with communication? Mrs. Liu is a very sweet, soft-spoken woman who seems very kind and concerned, but I find it very difficult to get a clear answer to my questions and concerns. I fully understand that I am the one who is unable to speak the language but there are many non-Chinese speakers on campus and it is a bit surprising that there is no method to communicate with any of us about what’s going on….not just for emergencies, but for other events (i.e. Hu Jintao speaking on campus and I was unaware until after it happened). As I left the building this morning, I see the lobby full of fire extinguishers. Are we supposed to grab one to have on hand? When I return at noon, the fire extinguishers are gone. And the two that had been sitting in the box near the elevator, are gone too. Bad timing to take fire extinguishers OUT of service.

At noon I return home for lunch and read some western media on the earthquake and answer a flurry of anxious emails from home wondering if we are OK. For the moment all is fine. But I am growing more anxious about being on the 17th floor of a paper-thin building. I scan the internet for images from the affected areas, but most of what I see, cell phone video taken by understandably distraught residents, is too shaky or blurry to really make out what is going on.

Stephen is packing to head off to the airport. I loaded him up with all the winter clothes and some of our purchases, and he has quite a heavy load. I walk him out to the taxi and bid him adieu thinking I’ll see him in six weeks. I head off to my afternoon class and we discuss the earthquake coverage. None of the students in this class are from Sichuan, and one girl from Chongqing, says her parents felt a lot of shaking, but no injuries. Some students seem really troubled, but others are a bit too cavalier, almost embarrassed that this has happened in China.

Later, a student asks about when the next few assignments are due. When I examine the syllabus, I reiterate the due dates through the end of classes on June 26. But the students say, no, classes end June 12. No, I assure them, I have a calendar given to me by Mercy, which says we go until the end of June. No, they assure me, there are no classes after June 12. OK, so I have passed out two syllabus/schedules to two classes and NO ONE has mentioned this to me until today? Stephen has arranged his travels to and from home based on my academic schedule, which I guess we can throw out the window now. I had heard of this last minute schedule snafu from previous Fulbrighters which is why I pressed Mercy for a calendar….so much good that did. I love the communication around here. And even more disturbing, I learn that TV news reported last night that there was apparently going to be another earthquake or aftershock last night and students were all evacuated from their dorms, but NO ONE TOLD ME up there on the 17th floor!

The students showed their first video stories. Some were good, others disappointing.

After class I return home, try to get answers to the schedule snafu, tell the Guangzhou consulate not to book my flights there for a late June lecture that I had agreed to give, because my schedule might change. I microwave (and manage to burn) the lasagna Stephen had brought frozen from home two weeks ago, inhale dinner and head out to lecture at Central Universities of Nationalities. CUN has 10% ethnic minorities so I was hoping for a Tibetan point of view in the discussion but none were there. The talk went very well though, good questions from an engaged and attentive audience.

Just before ten pm, Eve text messages me that we are to turn out the lights for three minutes in memory of the now 12,000 confirmed dead. I turn my lights off and look out the window to see a few more windows go dark, but the majority of lights remain on. Eve tells me the next day that she is disappointed that so many students are too busy with social activities, getting food or playing sports, to participate in the vigil. I spend a few hours awake in bed, worrying that every rumble of a truck or every thud from the apartment above, is the quake that will topple this building. Another sleepless night in Beijing.

Wednesday, May 14

I watch a bit more of CCTV’s coverage of the earthquake. There is more video coming out today (yesterday was mostly graphics or maps of the area covering phone interviews). The scene looks like Hell on Earth. The wailing mothers, the teenagers holding the hand of their dead friends, the children’s limbs reaching out from the rubble, crushed just inches from safety. Thousands of people are homeless, and thousand more are voluntarily choosing to sleep outside, in parks, to protect themselves from aftershocks. Rain only makes matters worse.

Kelly Proctor, a student Fulbrighter, also at Renmin stops by my office today. She is doing research on Chinese journalists covering the environment. She says that the journalists she talks to have a lot of liberty to say what they want to say, and when they do get heat from an editor/censor, they just put the controversial stuff up on their blogs, and it gets out that way. She says most environmental journalists here are also advocates, and often work for or develop their own NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Unfortunately, a blogger in Chengdu, who helped organized a “stroll” to protest a proposed chemical plant, has found himself in a bit of trouble. This from the site Danwei:

According to today's Beijing News, four persons involved in the May 4 protest in Chengdu were detained under charges of "fabricating and spreading rumors, distortion (炒作), incitement to riot and illegal demonstration." Chen Daojun, the man who allegedly masterminded the protest is so far the only one who has been formally arrested. He is facing charges of "inciting subversion of state power". Another two suspects sought by the police are still at large. The above information was released at a press conference by Chengdu police.

The mainstream media has little coverage of the May 4 incident. One of the few reports was in the ay 5 issue of The Beijing News. According to that report, about two hundred people gathered in downtown Chengdu for a "stroll" in protest against plans to construct a combined ethylene plant and oil refinery near the city . The protest lasted about two hours and during the whole process, no banner was carried, no threat of boycott was made, no slogan was yelled. People walked leisurely while policemen watched nervously. Everything went on peacefully, so much so that it was hailed by an editorial in The Beijing News on May 6 as a "rational expression of the public opinion".

"Rational expression of the public opinion"? But the police did not feel that way.

But there are good reasons to fear of a chemical plant so close to Chengdu: the earthquake has damaged a chemical plant out there, and 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia has been released. 600 people died there, not sure if it was chemicals or the quake itself. Two other chemical plants also collapsed. The worst has been the schools and public buildings. They seem to be the most devastated and it makes me wonder if these public building are just older and more vulnerable, or if they were built using less than stringent building codes or cheaper materials. Thousands of students are among the dead.

My afternoon class submits its preliminary research for their final reports. Pathetic. No research again. These are PhD candidates and 13 weeks into the semester I have seen ZERO research on their topics. Frustrating. Michael, who audits the class, is from Sichuan Province. He is shell-shocked. His city, Leshan, is south of the epicenter, and his family was shaken, but not injured. But he is really sad. The other students are equally sympathetic. Two girls who just happened to be in the classroom when I started class ask if they can stay and I say sure. Maybe they’ll talk? I talk about war coverage, and the poor job most American journalists did in the run up to the Iraq war. After all my griping about Chinese journalism, I feel I need to let them know that all is NOT perfect on the other side of the Pacific. The students seem to follow and stay awake, but still, it does not spark much discussion. So disappointing.

I still have not heard from Mary Ekmalian, traveling in China this week. Her itinerary was not supposed to take her to Sichuan, so I am assuming she is OK.

Thursday, May 15

I spend the day hunkered down doing final preps for my talk in Nanjing tomorrow and working on the two lectures I have now agreed to do in Guangzhou. I am also reading and watching the earthquake coverage. It is unrelenting grief. The numbers just keep climbing and rescue workers and the army have still not reached the areas closest to the epicenter because the roads have been buried in rockslides or bridges collapsed. The army is taking boats where possible and then hiking 6-8 hours over mountainous terrain to get into the worst areas.

I received an email from a journalist friend asking if I would like to be interviewed about how it feels to “have a daughter of China” when so many Chinese are losing the only child they have. I say I am happy to help but not sure that I have any special perspective. I speak with the journalist that evening and the question is vaguely, do I have any special emotional reaction to the earthquake because my daughter is Chinese? I say I feel very sad as a mother, as a human being, but that it is not because my daughter is Chinese. I feel closer to this disaster living in China than I might if I were living in Boston. It feels slightly akin to 9-11 with the candlelight vigils, public mourning and wall to wall coverage. The journalist does not seem interested and we end the conversation. But afterwards I wonder what they were after. Should I feel guilty having a Chinese daughter when Chinese families have lost their only child? Like my daughter should be “returned to sender” to some Chinese family in need of a child? I hope that is not what they were after, but it really troubled me that that might be what they were fishing for…disturbing.

Even more disturbing, the government is saying tonight that as many as 50,000 people are presumed dead, even though only about 20,000 bodies have been found. As feared, the closer to the epicenter the relief efforts get, the less likely they are to find people alive. Jim Yardley’s story in the New York Times, of parents at a morgue dressing their dead children in their favorite clothes, or giving them their favorite toy to go into the crematorium with, is just heart-wrenching. So much sadness.

I have little basis for comparison, but according to other journalists here, the coverage of this earthquake is more thorough, balanced and transparent than other major stories here. It certainly is better than the Tibet crackdown, but that is not surprising, since Tibet was a political issue. I suspect, however, that when we get into the reasons for why so many died, and why buildings collapsed like a deck of cards, we’ll see less critical coverage of potential government responsibility. I am struck by the repeated announcements from Wen Jiaboa, who has been on the scene all week, that the primary mission is to save lives. I guess I feel that goes without saying, but maybe here it needs to be stressed. In the past, apparently, that was not the case. I am reading Colin Thurbon’s book, Shadow of the Silk Road and one Chinese person interviewed says ….”You know, in China, there is no tradition of respect for human life. It is simply not in our past…..That is our problem: inhumanity.” That is certainly not what I have seen here. There seems to be a great outpouring of concern, sadness and money to help the victims. And the people at the epicenter, grieving for their lost friends and family are no different than I would be under the same circumstances, distraught beyond belief.

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