Monday, May 26, 2008

Week 14 – Nanjing etc.

Friday, May 16

I go with Katie as far as her school with Shen Shifu and then take a taxi to the airport. Katie will go home with her friend Yuanyuan for an overnight until I return from Nanjing tomorrow. Once aloft, the trip is bumpy. It seems every domestic flight I’ve taken here has had a fair amount of turbulence. Not sure why, but it can be scary at times. Really violent bumps up and down.

A lovely student named Wang Qian meets me at the airport and after a little difficulty finding the driver we head into Nanjing. It looks like a much greener city, more tropical. It is about two hours west of Shanghai and it reminds me of a smaller version of Shanghai. I am staying at the guest house of Nanjing Normal University. It is a lovely, lush campus with wisteria vines and bright pink flowers dotting the grounds. The room I am in is quite basic, but it is a small three story building, and I am told that two students from Wellesley College are the only other inhabitants. I spend the afternoon walking around Nanjing, stumble upon the Johns Hopkins center there, affiliated with Nanjing University and meet two American girls, one from Andover, MA!

At a local park I am surrounded by a couple dozen elementary school kids who want to try out their English. I am very impressed at how well they speak. They are out collecting money for the Sichuan earthquake victims and I give them a few bucks. About ten minutes later I am surrounded by another school group and repeat the same performance. It is at least 80+ degrees here and I have dressed in all black, so I head back to the university for a shower before my evening lecture. Only problem is, no towels, so I drip dry in my curtainless room and hope that the Chinese peeping Toms are getting a good show.

The lecture is actually at a satellite campus almost 40 minutes from the man campus. Enroute, Wang Qian and I have a nice conversation. She is from Jiangsu Province where Nanjing is located, the only child, and her family did not want her to accept a job offer in Beijing because it is too far away. So when she finishes her master’s in English next month, she will work for the Foreign Affairs office in Jiangsu. Qian is about as sweet and innocent a person as I have ever met. She is quick to hold my arm as we cross the street, carry my bags, opening doors, and bending over backwards to be helpful. I am guessing that I am the only American, perhaps the only foreigner that she has ever spoken with. She giggles shyly when I ask her about various customs I am observing out the car window: split pants baby peeing on his mother’s clothing, man blowing his nose on his hand (without the benefit of handkerchief or Kleenex), people pushing and cutting in line, girls holding hands. I told her how sweet it is that girls and women almost always are holding hands here and that it wasn’t reserved for lesbians, as it now seems to be in America. She is wide eyed when I tell her that Massachusetts allows gay marriage. “America has too much freedom”, was her response. She marvels at all the places I have been in China. She has never been anywhere except her nearby hometown and Nanjing.

We arrive at Nanjing Normal’s other campus, and it is a space age looking facility, enormous, all white modern buildings, very impressive from a distance. However, when we get up into the classrooms, it looks pretty shabby. Rows of broken down desks, peeling paint, and no air conditioning. Two girls are there to greet us, and they take a box of colored chalk and create a lovely sign on the blackboard for my speech. Around 6:30 the two faculty members, both men, who have invited me to give this lecture on adoption, arrive and we have a brief chat before I begin. The audience is about 30-40 undergraduate English majors, almost all girls. Not the social workers or early childhood audience that I anticipated. I can’t imagine holding a lecture at BU on a Friday night at 6:30 and filling the room, but here it happens. They are very engaged, have great questions and a lively discussion afterwards. I don’t think many of them were aware just how many Chinese girls are abandoned or adopted. None of them said they knew of anyone who was adopted.

Just as thought I was going to have a “clean getaway”, one of the professors asked about western media bias against China…and the conversation continued after the lecture during our 40 minute drive back to the main campus. He seems to think things are great in China, that there is religious freedom, that the one child policy is not enforced (all of his relatives have large families), that the Dalai Lama was on the CIA payroll earning more money than the president of the United States, and that the western media gets it all wrong…..

I spend the night in the lovely guest house but unfortunately, a few mosquitoes have joined me and I don’t get much sleep.

Saturday, May 17

Very early I am awakened by a cacophony of tropical birds outside. Really incredible. Loud, but lovely. I take another towel-less shower, using yesterday’s clothes to dry off with, and head out to this great German bakery around the corner that Elizabeth Knup had told me about. Great stuff. I then meet up with Qian who will be my guide for the day. We head to the Confucius Temple, which really is no longer a temple, but a shopping mall/tourist area along a small canal. There are boat rides up and down the canal, and tons of shops selling the same stuff I’ve seen all over China, only here there are no westerners. We visit an old, thousand year old home, full of thousand year old pottery, scrolls and paintings. Ho hum…I keep wondering how the Chinese (and the Arabs) had such advanced civilizations when Europe was in the dark ages, and then Europe has the Renaissance and China (and the Arabs) seem to stop moving forward. In my limited understanding of the history of China, I recall some of the reasons, lack of competition, insularity, etc. but those reasons don’t seem to make much sense, since the examination system and the notion of the Middle Kingdom were in place during the periods of advancement as well as stagnation and decline.

From there we head to the Nanjing Art Museum which was gorgeous, phenomenal collections of jade, porcelain and silk, in addition to on site looms and kilns, still in use.

After the museum we head back to Nanjing Normal. Qian has been such a lovely guide, solicitous in every way, I want to take her out to lunch, but she insists on taking me to this sidewalk hole-in-the-wall place. I had the most delicious “Shanghai dumplings”, kind of like regular dumplings but filled with soup as well as meat stuffing. If you bite into it, the soup goes everywhere, as I quickly discovered. But oh, so delicious. After lunch Qian and I part company. I encourage her to come to Beijing before she starts her new job, but that seems like asking her to go to the moon! She is so sweet, gives me a big hug, and refuses to accept a nickel in payment. I insist and try to slip her a few hundred RMB into her purse but she is adamant. No money for almost 24 hours of babysitting me!

I return to my room, pack up and a young man arrives to take me to the airport, also an English student, who has just defended his dissertation yesterday comparing Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s first novels.

My flight to Beijing has been “delayed indefinitely” (nothing here is cancelled) but they get me on an earlier flight and take the turbulent skies back to Beijing. I land at the new terminal 3, get into one taxi, and point on a map of Beijing (with Chinese characters) to my destination, the Lama Temple (near where Katie is staying). The driver goes about ten feet and then stops and motions for me to get out. He can’t figure out where to take me, I guess. I go back to the taxi director on the sidewalk and ask if he can tell the next cab where I need to go. He says fine, but then doesn’t tell the next guy a thing. So I get into cab #2, and the cabbie is shaving with his electric shaver (this is very common here, shaving is NOT restricted to the bathroom in the morning). He is so consumed with his facial growth, that he gets on the wrong ramp leaving the airport. But in his infinite wisdom, decides, still shaving, to go in reverse BACK UP THE RAMP….I am having a coronary, but we eventually get safely back onto the highway. I call Katie and discover that she is not at the friend’s house, but rather at a restaurant so I hand the phone to the driver so someone can give him directions to the restaurant. We get there, but not before we nearly kill -- and I mean inches from crushing to death -- a guy on a motorbike. Katie gets in the cab and we head back home, both of us exhausted. She stayed up until midnight last night and was up at 6. She spent the day at the Carnival at her school, had a great time and won a lot of prizes.

Sunday, May 18

Lazy day, laundry, catching up on news and email, getting reimbursements for all these guest lectures sorted out, etc. Katie has busied herself making a boat out of a paper bag, chop sticks (which she has whittled using a dull kitchen knife – which is a lot duller now!), and the indispensable all purpose duct tape. It is quite a boat. Looks exactly like the dhow that Arab merchants first used to explore east Asia. Not sure if it is sea worthy, but I suggest we take it out to the pond in the park and give it a try. She says no, that would be too public. A year ago, even six months ago, she would have been fine with that idea, but now the “tween” self-consciousness is setting in.

Around 4 we head out to the grocery store. It is really balmy and breezy. We walk by a group of chanting waiters and waitresses, marching in place, singing and grunting in military style, apparently getting ready for another night waiting tables. If anyone had asked me to march and chant before starting my shift at Eadie’s Restaurant in Needham, I would not have lasted long on the job.

We arrive at Carrefour, the French super market chain that has been the target of a boycott for its alleged pro-Tibet activity. I am hoping the boycott will mean the store is quieter. It is usually one of the least zooey of the many stores we have tried shopping at, but even here, I confess, I hate grocery shopping. I have gotten used to a lot of things in China – my funky plumbing, my one burner dinners – even the permanently hazy sky – but the grocery stores, I have not grown to love. The noise, the crowds, the smells, the pushing make me crazy. I wish I would remember to bring my audio recorder to one of these shopping excursions: you would hear insipid muzak constantly overhead, coupled with TV monitors at the end of each aisle cranked up at full volume, plus girls with Brittany Spears style microphones attached to their heads hawking yogurt or some other product, while big, loud men hawk fish next to bigger, louder men hawking beef or pork, and for good measure, add the constant screams of mothers looking for momentarily lost children, or children wailing because, maybe, they too are overwhelmed by all the noise! Trying to push a cart through the throngs is futile, but today we need to get a lot of stuff, so we cannot hold it in our arms. And reading labels is always fun. There is an entire aisle of what looks like soy sauce, but which one to buy? How do they differ? Are they really even soy sauce??? Oh to understand just a little Chinese!! We left the house at 4:15, and we return at 7pm….all for three bags of groceries. And they are our bags: China is now charging for plastic bags to encourage people to bring their own, which we did. Here’s one idea where China is ahead of the USA. Of course, my backpack now is full of chicken blood and watermelon juice….

We eat a pasta dinner and watch the TV for news on the earthquake. It is the only story, 24/7 and there is incredible footage of people still being hauled out of the rubble alive six days later. Lots of images of newly orphaned kids. The government has called for 3 days of mourning starting tomorrow, and a three minute silent pause at 2:28 tomorrow, the moment the earthquake hit. Katie is sad because three pandas from the Sichuan Reserve are missing. The Reserve is 18 miles from the epicenter of the quake. While I am sorry for the pandas, I am always troubled that Katie has more concern for the animals than the humans in these situations (remember the dog we almost adopted from Beirut?!).

Monday, May 19

Eve texts me in the morning to let me know about the three national days of mourning starting today. All flags are at half mast. Apparently nothing like this has ever been done before in China. At 2:28, (the moment the quake struck a week ago), I turned on the TV to a black slate saying “Deep Mourning”, and outside cars honked their horns all over the city in a dull, aching drone for three minutes, traffic was completely stopped everywhere as people got out of their cars in silence. The image on the TV screen changed from black to Tiananmen Square where people stood silently, to train stations where trains were stopped, to the rescue scene, where rescuers stood on piles of rubble and likely, human remains. Silent for the three minutes. Very moving. Sadly, I did not see any students stopping to pay respects; from my vantage point everyone outside continued walking or biking. (But I was told later that all classrooms fell silent for three minutes).

Rescuers are still finding people alive and the newspapers are full of these accounts of survivors, who somehow stayed sane while pinned under debris for days. The headline in the China Daily is that all nuclear facilities in Sichuan, of which there are many, are all safe. Let’s hope so.

Katie returned from school to report that they had also marked the 3 minutes of silence, and all the kids are collecting new toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, etc. to send to the quake area.

Tuesday, May 20

I work on some writing in the morning and then go to class. We discuss the earthquake coverage, and how families who have lost their only child have it hardest, and that leads into a discussion of the one child policy. There are more loopholes in that law than I had imagined. Two of my students both went to the same high school in Chongquing. One girl says everyone in her class had siblings, while the other says no one in her class had siblings. Apparently, one girl had mostly rural students who are allowed more children? I don’t get who, why, how, you get around the policy, apparently legally.

After class, Eve comes to babysit and I head into the city to meet up with Mary E. at her hotel. She is staying at Raffle’s Beijing Hotel and the lobby, and I am sure the rest of the joint, is lovely. A little oasis of calm after an hour long cab ride in traffic. Mary and I then head to the satellite building of the US embassy to hear a talk and see home 8mm movies shot by a former diplomat who traveled with Nixon to China in 1972, Nicholas Platt. He and his family returned to work at the pre-embassy mission here before formal diplomatic relations resumed. The home movies were fabulous, a real flavor of every day China at a time when few westerners could peek in. He and his wife were both charming in their humorous recollections of life here. Their youngest son enrolled in school here while the others were in the States at boarding school. The text book that the youngest son brought home for math had problems like: if 5,000 brave North Koreans lined up at the border with guns to shoot the running dogs of capitalism in South Korea, how many bullets would they need? The ambassador and his wife have three sons, one of whom is the actor Oliver Platt, and another is a food critic in New York. In the films we got to see the children (including pudgy Oliver) skating on the ice at the Summer Palace, playing hockey, and pummeling each other in true NHL style – to the delight of a gaggle of Chinese who had apparently never seen hockey “American style”. We also got to see up close the Zhou Enlai - Richard Nixon handshake that began to heal 20+ years of estrangement.

Wednesday, May 21

Mary continues with her tour group to the Great Wall. I’ll meet up with her again on Thursday. I head off to the office and work on the book chapter on living here with an adopted Chinese daughter. Mercy has re-surfaced and asked me to lunch. We go to this street, about a mile from here that is ALL restaurants. We eat at one that specializes in Yunnan, Dai Nationality food. It really would have been nice to know about this street four months ago! Mercy has just returned from five days in Sichuan, where she was working for CCTV. She was deeply moved by all that she saw and has come back to Beijing with plans to adopt a child from Sichuan. She said she talked to her mother and her husband and they both agree. The outpouring of sympathy of every Chinese person I’ve met upends any racist perception westerners may have about the “life is cheap” attitudes of Chinese.

In class, I suspend my normal lecture to discuss the earthquake and its coverage. Most students are heartened by the extent of the coverage and the government’s response, but are obviously devastated by the loss of life. The death toll keeps climbing. One student provocatively asks, “on Monday, thousands of Chinese stood in Tiananmen Square and chanted ‘go China, go Sichuan’. How does that differ from the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square?” This is the first time anyone has mentioned 1989 in class (although several students have talked to me about it privately). I say one was a threat to the power of the Party and the recent one was an affirmation of the Party. We got into a long discussion, with a few students speaking, but most very silent. After classes, I return home. A friend from Belmont’s friend, Elizabeth, has offered for me to stay in her apartment for the Olympics. I am thrilled but still on the fence about whether to stay or to go. My heart wants to go home, my head says stay. Meanwhile, NBC emails and says that because of the earthquake and the unexpected expense at covering it, they have to cut corners and cannot offer me much. One step forward, one step back. After dinner Katie and I go out to buy Mary a birthday cake at the campus bakery. Katie is in a mood and doesn’t want to weigh in on what kind of cake to buy. She won’t tell me what’s up, but I am guessing it is because the bakery girls all talk to her in Chinese. Katie wants to know if it OK to have more than one godmother. She wants Mary to be her second godmother and I would be more than thrilled to arrange that.

Thursday, May 22

I go in with Katie to school and then mime for Shen Shifu to take me to the nearest subway. We get into traffic, but he won’t take extra money for driving out of his way. I head to Mary’s lovely hotel, Raffle’s Beijing Hotel, gorgeous room and decide we should be staying with her rather than her staying with us! We have a great buffet breakfast, then walk down ChangAn to the “bird’s egg” national theater, try in vain to get an English language schedule of upcoming events. We then cab it over to Liulichang, where Mary buys two scrolls, one of peonies and one with calligraphy. Then we head down to my favorite tea store. I get more jasmine and lychee tea and a nice little pot and some glass tasting cups. The owner’s little girl emerges after a few minutes and is as adorable as ever, pouring herself a cup of tea which overflows down her pants to a puddle on the floor. How you manage to have a two year old in a store full of glass pots is an interesting challenge. We then head back to Mary’s hotel, retrieve her luggage and head to Katie’s school. Katie keeps saying Mrs. Dalais, her teacher reminds her of Mary and there is a slight similarity, mostly in their coloring and good dispositions. Katie has won 3 gold medals in swimming! We get back to our house and Mary unloads all the loot she has accumulated from all the five star hotels she stayed at. She had half a suitcase, at least, of toiletries, slippers, etc. We quickly re-package high end soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes and combs into plastic bags, that Katie will then bring to school tomorrow for donations to earthquake victims. I feel a little like Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor. But this exactly what the relief groups are asking for, the most basic daily needs for hygiene. For dinner we head to the Qing Dynasty Restaurant, and after our not great meal, go the main dining room for a show of mask-changing, opera and traditional music. When we get home, I check my email to see a gushing note from my Nanjing guide, Qian: “At the first sight of you in the airport of Nanjing, I felt that you must be a very elegent [sic] lady, and it has been proved. Even when you talked with me in the taxi or on the road, I could feel the quiet atmosphere around us. At that moment, you were just like one of my old friends coming far away from Nanjing”. What is not to love about China?

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