Friday, June 20, 2008

Week 18 Guangzhou

Week 18

Saturday June 14. Flag Day

Stephen wakes me up at 9am with a phone call from home. I haven’t slept this late in a long time. He tells me that Tim Russert died. I read more on line and it is really hitting me hard. I never knew him personally, but I can’t imagine an election without his zeal and almost giddy thrill of the whole process. A real loss.

At eleven I head in to pick up Katie from her overnight. She calls me while I am in the cab about 90% of the way to her location, and asks if she can stay longer. I say I’ll kill another hour, so I have lunch at Starbucks and poke around the Friendship store. It is raining and I walk in sandals over to Aditi’s apartment complex and can’t find her building. I call and Aditi and Katie come to find me in the rain, carrying all of Katie’s last day of school desk contents, a backpack, an overnight bag and a box of home made Indian samosas, all getting soaked in the rain! We grab a cab and Katie and Aditi say farewell. I hope Katie will stay in touch with these kids…We are stuck in rainy traffic and it takes more than an hour to get home. I am glad, in a selfish way, that Katie did not have many playdates downtown because my entire day, from 11-3 is consumed with the logistics of going to get her and bringing her home…..only to turn around at 5:30 and head back into the city to meet Celine for dinner. We get there at 6:30 - a lovely place called Face near Worker’s Stadium, an old schoolhouse converted into a multi-story restaurant, Thai on one floor, Indian on another and Chinese on the first floor. Lovely, classy decour, but the food was just OK, or at least what I ordered, and very expensive. Celine had some interesting news, heard about her travels back to Boston. Funny that she has been to our house more recently than I have. It was nice to catch up with her. It will be odd to essentially be her intern in a few weeks as I get up to speed at NBC.. I hope NBC gives me some useful assignments, but if not, I’ve got enough freelance work to keep me occupied.

Sunday. Cleaning out. I start to go through all the accumulated papers, files, drawers of junk. It is amazing what you can collect in five months. I fill one giant suitcase with stuff to go home and fill a box with stuff that will stay for the next Fulbrighter, and third pile of what I will need to keep with me when I move to Elizabeth’s. Late afternoon Katie and I return to Subway, our new favorite restaurant, and check out the movie theater to see when “Kung Fu Panda” is showing, but it doesn’t start until next week. We buy a few groceries for lunches at modern plaza and then get some fruit and ice cream from Shen Shifu’s store. I wish I knew he was there all along, we could certainly given him some business.

Monday. Try teaching myself Soundtrack Audio editing. Too complicated. Download Free Audacity software and the computer starts revving up like a jet engine about to take off. Everything is frozen. I fear I’ve fried computer. Turn it off, try again, and it works! I actually send a soundbite to Joyce and David at The World and they get it. Major challenge met. Yuanyuan comes over with Katie after camp and they are outside the whole time. What I would have given to have found some kids in this neighborhood! Intense rain storm floods the porch…..we did leave the window open, but it wouldn’t have mattered since the water comes in all around the window anyway.

Tuesday --11 a.m. lunch with grads. Good discussion. Should have given them food long ago to make them talk. Louisa comes home with Katie and is staying overnight. Celine helps me line up tourism official for story for “Only A Game” on NPR. Judy leaves me her students’ papers. Unbelievable. The papers are all over the map in terms of quality of writing, research, analysis. The common thread is that they all think the western media is biased against China for reporting “bad news” such as: Beijing is polluted, inflation is increasing, the Olympic torch relay was disrupted. So the only news that is unbiased are stories that fawn over the wonders of the Chinese government. It is clear that they believe the purpose of journalism is to help improve the image of China, not to tell the TRUTH, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. But as infuriating, faulty and depressing as their analysis was, I was touched by several students who thanked me in their papers for coming to speak with their class and helping them to understand how western media functions and how Americans, or at least this American, think about China. One student really bought what I had to say, and told his classmates to stop playing the victim of the western imperialists and begin to recognize that China is not perfect and can and should listen to criticism. For that reason alone, to think that I actually did add to a few students understanding of American journalism, makes this whole adventure worthwhile.

Wednesday -- go to BISS to resolve camp $ and reimbursement and neither gets resolved. They are still not sure that there are enough kids to hold camp next week, and the accounting office still does not have our tuition deposit reimbursement ready. A wasted trip. I have my last class with the undergrads and they present their final stories and they were reallllly good. Eve especially, revamped her 9 minute opus into a much better 4 minute story on China’s family planning policy. Hannah, Rosa, and Sofia all did very touching stories on earthquake aftermath, and Michelle did a nice job on traffic problems in Beijing. After, we all go to lunch with the auditing undergrads. I take them to the Qing Dynasty place and they are afraid to order because it is all so expensive. Lunch for 11 of us was not even $100. Right after lunch I run to interview tourism official for Only A Game story. All is perfect in Beijing according to this guy. New signs in English with Olympic logo pointing to all the venues, including Renmin Gymnasium – apparently it is an official Olympic venue. After dinner we take a walk and watch the women in the park doing their fan dance. A black women and two veiled women join the Chinese women and all get applause for trying it out.

Thursday. Morning flight to Guangzhou. Enroute to the airport, I need to call Celine and wake her up since cabbie appears to be going the wrong way. Arrive at White Swan around 1pm. Looks remarkably the same as it did ten years ago. We get settled and then change clothers and head to the US Consulate Public Affairs Section. It is a good talk on who do you trust in the media. The audience is the most openly critical of the Chinese system of any group I have met with. After the talk I meet privately with two reporters from a Guangzhou newspaper which I have been told is doing some “envelope pushing”, trying to do more investigative work. But after talking with them, I am even more confused about what can and cannot be published here. Essentially, I got a lot of evasive answers and told every story is dealt with on a case by case basis in consultation with the government. They assured me that even though they were commercially run, the company is the government, and censorship is as alive and well at their paper as it is at the 12 main central government media organs. They say it takes a lot of wisdom to know where the always moving line is, and how not to cross it. Katie has been hanging out at the consulate playing on the computer and is ready to head back to the hotel. We have dinner at the lovely main dining room overlooking river.

Friday up and out by 9am to Jinan University. Student meets me in the lobby to take me to the 10am lecture. It is muggy. Guangzhou is way bigger and dirtier than I remember and no bikes. Ten years ago thousands of bikes were at every intersection. The morning lecture on whether western media is biased against China is great; students are very engaged, defensive, combative. After, I have lunch with Ellen, the professor who invited me and a very young Dean of the communications. Katie calls and is bored with the hotel babysitter I’d arranged and wants to join us for lunch. Katie arrives with sitter. She is bored and wired, precocious bordering on obnoxious, but the Chinese faculty, staff and students are all enamored with her and treat her like a princess, calling in an IT person to help her play her computer game!!! My afternoon lecture on new media is a snooze. I think the students had used all their energy in the morning. Katie listens in to the QA portion which is pretty lame. We head back to hotel for a long swim in the pool, and dinner of pizza in the hotel bar.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Week 17 -- The latest from Lake Wobegon

Friday, June 6

Work around the house in the morning trying to manage some freelance work. In the afternoon my student Rosa takes me to a school for migrant children, in the western fringe of the city. You can see the Beijing skyscrapers, but nothing in this neighborhood is very glitzy. We need to walk about a mile over dirt roads and cross a dry irrigation canal to get the school. It is a series of small one room red brick buildings around an open court yard. We meet the headmaster, the English language teacher and then hang out on the playground before entering a third grade classroom. 40+ kids crammed into the 10x15 room, three to a bench, squishing against each other. All of the kids are here because they are not permitted into the public schools. I wrote a newspaper article that will hopefully be published in the Christian Science Monitor, but I’ll include it in the blog here.

After the school trip I was walking through the Renmin campus and a kid was selling tickets to the new Indiana Jones movie, playing tonight on campus for 5 yuan (about 65 cents) so I bought two not knowing what to expect. Katie and I went, sat in the hard seats of a classroom to watch it, but it was in English with Chinese and German (!) subtitles, but we enjoyed it and the price was right, even if the legal permission to show it probably wasn’t.

Before the film I returned to the English corner and recorded some audio of folks visiting there, to hopefully use for a radio story later. I also got some audio of the old women dancing, this time using a fist full of chopsticks to create this great rhythm.

Saturday, June 7

Finally, I can be in limbo no longer and make the final decision to stay through the Olympics. I really, really want to go home, but I’ve convinced myself that if I go home and all hell breaks loose here, I’ll regret that I didn’t stay. So, of course, if I stay, this will be the calmest Olympics on record.

In the afternoon, I interview my student Hannah’s parents, for the maybe book. We meet at a Starbucks in the Xidan shopping area. Her mom is a sharp dresser and much younger looking than her 48 years, her dad is quiet and seems disinterested in the discussion. Neither are at all what I expected. Her mom is a Party member, very supportive of all that is going on in China. Both parents seem a bit cautious and do not say anything critical. They both “absolutely” want Hannah to join the Party. Hannah is disinclined.

After, Katie and I go clothes shopping and she gets 3 soccer uniforms, shirt and shorts, for about $5 each. One from China and two from other countries, and then we go and buy “fancy” clothes for “graduation”. She picks out an adorable white ruffly skirt. She looks so grown up! Then I attempt to buy shoes, big footed American, but manage to find some open toed sandals that aren’t too much shorter than my size 9 peds. For dinner, we head to the Sizzler salad bar. I am really on a diet now. All veggies and no snacks.

Sunday, June 8

Take Katie to her friend Louisa’s birthday party way out by the airport. Get lost getting there, cabbie is on a dirt road paralleling the highway and I keep saying mei you, not this way, but he keeps barreling along for several miles. Finally I get the host of the party on the phone, who finds a Chinese speaker, who then guides our taxi back down the dirt road to the correct location. Another adventure in uncharted territory. After I drop Katie (I have told the cabbie to wait), I get back in the taxi and head to the 798 Art district to meet a former Fletcher student who we hosted a few years ago, Yuxin. It was great to see her. She is so bright and funny and interesting. She has a pretty senior job in the foreign ministry, and is full of revolutionary fervor – but wants it directed at all the guys who spit, and are rude! She is pragmatic, logical, authoritarian go-getter. Can’t be complacent, can’t ignore, always questioning, challenging. How refreshing after all the complacency I’ve seen here!! Unfortunately our day is cut short because my stomach is telling me that the salad bar from the previous night was not such a good idea! Katie gets home around 5:30; we are both tired and she is not being cooperative. I am tired of doing it all, alone.

Monday, June 9

Spend the day at home, drumming up freelance work, organizing what I am going to give away to my students. Eve stops by so that I can look at her 9(!!!) minute final project (supposed to be more like 2 or 3 minutes!). I am pretty ruthless but she is so smart and capable of doing much better. I meet Katie at 4:30 at school (she stayed late for rehearsal for her dancing role in “BISS Idol”. We head into the city, make a quick return at Silk Market and then join Janice Cotton and Katherine for dinner at Lan. Great to see them. We’ve got to get to Birmingham one of these days to visit.

Tuesday, June 10

It is the last day for the grad class and three have their final presentations. They all were prepared, but the intellectual rigor was pretty thin. I’ll attach the power points here, but my favorite was the analysis that the reason westerners like “bad news” (his perception of critical, honest, balanced reporting is “bad news”) is that we believe in Original Sin and evil in all people, and Chinese believe in Confucianism and that people are basically good. So I asked how Taiwan, Japan, and Korea all influenced by Confucianism all have a free/critical/“bad news” press. He said they developed earlier. So is it Original Sin or development that is at the root of Chinese censorship??!! One student is convinced that when the NY Times uses anonymous sources from Tibet, that they are making it up and have not talked to real people. One other presentation was quite illuminating on how the censorship works on a day to day level. At the end I asked the10 students, in a dream world in the future, would you like the government to get out of the news business and every single one of them said NO. I have failed in my mission to convince them of the virtues of an independent press. Defeated and depressed, I agree to go to lunch with them all next week.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Katie wants a pedicure for her graduation, so Eve takes us to the local nail joint and Katie gets strawberries painted on her fingers and pink polish on her toes. At least an hour’s work, and the bill is $3.50. I gave the girl a huge tip and she was completely taken aback. We then discover a Subway near the nail parlor and decide to have an all American sub sandwich for dinner. On the way home Katie and I start talking about all the kids she has met, from all over the world and I realize she has pretty limited geography facts. So we spend the night on line looking at world maps and mapping out where her classmates are from: India, Finland, Canada, Korea, Australia, and teachers from New Zealand, Portugal and Singapore. She now knows her seven continents and roughly what countries are where.

Wednesday, June 11

This place is officially nuts. I just left a scene out of 1984 or Alice in Wonderland.
Mercy tells me she wants to have a meeting at 9 with department colleagues to talk about courses. They will meet me in my office. I am there before 9 and no one shows. About 9:15 some air conditioning guys show up and I call Mercy to see what is up with our meeting. She says she'll come get me. The other faculty (four others and two students) are waiting in a conference room. They hand me a four page document about all the course listings, in Chinese. I cannot read it but they keep pointing to it and I keep saying I can't read it. I tell them how BU runs its program. THEN, they tell me TODAY, that each of my students has been taking TEN courses all semester....I REALLY should have known all of this BEFORE the last day of classes. I would have altered the amount of work I dumped on these poor kids. I should have known what else they were taught last FALL so that I could prepare a course that they actually NEEDED. But even though I am steaming inside, I keep my mouth shut. The faculty members are all gabbing amongst themselves in Chinese and I say, well, is that it? No, they want to talk about NOTHING for another hour. So at 10:30, with NOTHING on the agenda, I try to escape. I tell them I am giving three lectures in Guangzhou next week, one of which is on western media bias. Do they think western media is biased? “YES” Can you give me examples? “Why don't you report good news about Chinese government, why don't you report that the Dalai Lama has slaves, why do you criticize our earthquake coverage when it is not the right time?” I say that American media is critical of everyone and our role is to be an adversary of the government not a supporter. They say, “our role is not to support the government” ... and then in the next breath, they say “the government tells us we can investigate the earthquake in the next phase, after the first three phases [of propaganda and hero worship]”. I say the families of the dead children in the badly built schools can't wait, they are asking for justice now, right? Their stories need to be covered now, no? I say the government should look like they are listening to these distraught parents, not have police dispersing them and carrying them away, right? And the government should not tell journalists they can't cover it anymore, no? “NO the government must keep order. We cannot report it if the government says that it is not the right time”. This, said by the same people who not TEN minutes ago denied vehemently that their job is to support the government. One guy is wagging his finger at me, and apparently saying that the Dalai Lama is a slave owner, CIA spy, and violently wants to dismember China. They are all yammering away in Chinese and I keep begging them to translate and no one does. Then, Mercy jumps up and says, “Well, its time to show you the studio and all the editing facilities where your students work” (should this not have happened in FEBRUARY?????). I go with her, still trying to hide my utter frustration, but then decide to tell her some of what I am really thinking: that this meeting would have been much more useful to me, to the students and to her department had it happened in February or even in an email conversation before I arrived. She smiles like she hasn’t a clue what I am saying. She says her colleagues want to go to lunch. I can't take it anymore without screaming, and I have to be at Katie's school at 2 for graduation so I say I can't. “No?”, asks Mercy. No. I explain to Mercy, that she informed me of a 9am meeting, nothing about lunch. The most basic communication cannot happen here. It is stunning. I am soooo glad I did not stay here for the year. I am living in a very different world.

I go home, have a quick snack and then head out to get a taxi to Katie’s school. I hand the taxi driver the piece of paper with the address of the school in Chinese characters and he looks at it and says mei you, can’t take you there, and motions for me to get out. I get out and hand the same piece of paper to the next cabbie … this is the same piece of paper that I have been using for 16 weeks….and this cabbie says no, parroting his buddy in front of him. Five cabs and five minutes later I finally find a guy who can read it and get me where I want to go.

The graduation is lovely in 105 degree heat. Katie looks adorable in her fancy duds, as do all her friends. I am sitting under an umbrella but the kids are baking on the asphalt of the playground. Exilia is in a black velvet jacket and looking rather overheated. Yuanyuan lists a few memories for the handful of kids who have actually been here since kindergarten, and Aditi has a few words as well. The teachers read from Dr. Suess, oh the places you’ll go, and the kids sing a few songs “we need a leader” and it is over. Katie is beaming. This has been a great experience for her. At 3, Shen Shifu arrives and takes us home.

Thursday, June 12

I work at home, start organizing what goes home, what stays. At noon I head into Katie’s school for BISS Idol. It is a wonderful collection of kids singing and dancing some to pop songs, karoke style, and others playing piano or violin recital style. One girl did this fabulous Indian dance. Another Caucasian girl from New Zealand sang in the indigenous Maori language and wore traditional Maori skirt. Katie and five buddies danced around the stage to “Low, low, low” and had a blast, but the winners were three third grade boys (few boys participated in any of this) and a Brittany Spears overly sexualized third grade girl break dancing to the Black Eyed Peas tune “Let’s Get Started” but the lyrics were changed to “Let’s Get Retarded”. The audience loved it, but I very much doubt this would have been the winner in politically correct Belmont. The highlight for me was seeing Katie’s very large teacher dressed in a skimpy dress and blonde wig playing one of the judges, “Bunny” Abdul, and dancing wildly to all the music.

Friday, June 13

I work all day, three Guangzhou lectures: done. Newspaper article on migrant school: done. It is amazing what you can get done with no interruptions! It is Katie’s last day and she is going right from school to her friend Aditi’s (who lives in the same diplomatic compound that I will live and work in this summer). Celine and I were planning on meeting for dinner, but around five this intense thunder and lightening storm kicks in, and I know there will be no taxis and I will be absolutely drenched the minute I walk out the door. So I cancel, stay home and watch the DVDGarden State” and liked it more the second time around. Lots of great one liners. I finally finish “The Bookseller of Kabul”, and for all my gripes about China, it certainly ain’t Afghanistan. It is unfathomable to me, that in the year 2008, women are still treated like dirt, or worse.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Week 16 – busy, busy, busy.

Friday, May 30

I head into my office to interview two more of my students for the blog/book “The Girls of Room 405”. After school Katie’s friend Yuanyuan comes over for a two night sleepover. They immediately go outside to the campus park to play…the first time Katie has had a playmate here at her place since we got to China. She is ecstatic. What a difference it would have made to have had kids in the neighborhood. We head down to the nearby mall to see if this is where they are playing the film, “Spiderwick Chronicles”, but it isn’t. We dine on a gourmet meal at KFC and Cold Stone Ice Cream, and then head back toward campus. We stop at an exercise park and the two girls have a blast playing on the equipment. I have not seen Katie this happy in months. Gleeful! We then head into campus and head smack into the “English Corner” -- what a trip! I felt like a rock star. Hundreds of people are here to practice their English and the few native speakers, including Katie and Yuanyuan (who is Chinese-Canadian), are surrounded by eager Chinese wanting to talk and listen to them in English. We spend a while there and then mosey home through the campus where everyone is out strolling and lounging on the grass on this lovely, breezy summer night.

Saturday, May 31

In the morning, one of the grad student who routinely audits my class (but rarely speaks) stops by the apartment. She has signed a contract to be an NBC tour guide and she wants to borrow my guide books. (This is the same NBC that hasn’t got much of a budget to pay moi. Maybe I should apply to be a tour guide?) And this student who has been in Beijing five years, has never been to the Great Wall, no clue about good restaurants, shops, sightseeing, and her English comprehension is not that strong. I am baffled. I wish her well and then email my contacts at NBC….what’s up?

Katie, Yuanyuan and I head out to the movie theater that we think has the “Spiderwick Chronicles” and we find it nearby! Wow, a whole group of stores and action nearby that I never saw before. Initially, I am assuming this will be typical silly kids movie and I’ll nap, but it is actually a pretty good, scary-ish movie. No napping here, I was jumping out of my seat. We then go to the Friendship hotel for a swim in their very cold pool and then to TGIFriday’s for dinner. There is a family at the next table, Asian, with an African-American baby…we smile pleasantly, and I restrain myself from asking, is this kid adopted? If so, that would be the first time I’ve seen an Asian family with a black kid.

Sunday, June 1

Katie and Yuanyuan head out to the park and play happily all morning, feeding fish and birds and just being kids. This is so great. After Yuanyuan’s mother comes to pick her up, Katie and I head up to Carrefour’s for groceries. While we are in the store, it has started to rain – no, pour -- and there are about 50 people under the store awning trying to get cabs. And the cabs are all full. We have four huge bags and there is no way I can carry them, even if it wasn’t raining. We attempt repeatedly to get a cab and after 15 minutes I am getting impatient. It is after 6 and I have a meeting at 7:30. It is time to get aggressive. I go out into the middle of the road and run up to a cab that is offloading its passengers. I fend off, with a few shoves and my large American butt, several other Chinese rushing the same cab. I wedge my bottom into the front seat and park myself there. I know if I leave the cab to go help Katie with the groceries, the others will take the taxi, so Katie is stranded at the store entrance with two giant bags of groceries. I tell her to come quickly before I lose the cab to the others hovering at the back door like vultures. She drags the groceries to the cab, but she is pissed to have been left at the curb with ten tons of groceries. (And probably mortified to watch her mother nearly get into a brawl with some folks to get a taxi). But there was no other way. We would have been there all night if I remained the polite, restrained, wait-your-turn American. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – or in this case the Beijingers do: push your way through and aggressively grab what you need. If this is the best lesson I’ve learned in Beijing, maybe it is time to go home!!

One of the boys who had been in class where I gave a guest lecture contacted me a few days ago and asked if I would like to be part of a discussion group that they have on Sundays. I agreed to meet with them at 7:30. There were four students, two girls and two boys. One is a member of the Party, another on his way to Rhode Island next week to take part in a conference about “liberty”. The Party girl does not believe in Communism and thinks the name is unimportant, “no one cares about Communism. It is a way to get ahead in your career”. I asked them what it would take to reform China and provide more liberty and freedom of expression. They said time -- be patient, and work for economic prosperity for more people. They felt that the rural Chinese are too uneducated to handle voting and democratic reforms. They felt that gradual change was best. They are bothered by internet “friends” and other westerners who want to tell them all about China’s ills. They say they know all of that and they just want China to continue to get better. They felt that the students in 1989 were too idealistic, passionate and impractical. They spoke of them dismissively, as foolish students who got themselves into trouble. These are the voices of the new generation of China: resigned to a life of few liberties in exchange for economic security and social stability. Fear of rocking the boat. One boy in particular thinks the Dalai Lama cannot be trusted and that autonomy is a slippery slope to independence, that Tibetans are ignorant and backward and China can help them (this is the guy who told me previously that Tibetans only bathe three times a year. He has never been to Tibet). I find the mindset exasperating and full of contradictions. I say that patience is a virtue and a curse. Few have put up with more hardships than the older generation of Chinese and for them, I can see why they feel beaten down and resigned to what they have, but for the younger generation, they have only seen good times, so why are they too so resigned to the status quo? They are not brainwashed, they have access to western media but couch everything as stability first. Complacency. They concede they are selfish, care about their own lives, not the bigger picture.

I have been back and forth and up and down about whether to stay in China for the summer or head home. I ask my family for input and this is Rory’s response:

1) You may not like it there, and you may miss home, but I guarantee that you will regret it more if you don't stay. Similar to The Clashes remark "if I stay there will be trouble, but if I go it will be double." Also, if you come home early, I am going to yell and complain at you for not staying and generally make your life a living hell. Promise.
2) You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, so you might as well do it. That is to say, you will probably be unhappy either way, but if you stay it will certainly be more interesting than if you came home. The most miserable of experiences make the best stories. Trust me, I'm a glutton for punishment.
3)You'd miss the Olympics. In
China. Seriously. Why would you do a thing like that?
4) Dad and Jeremy and I like having the house to ourselves. We can sleep in all day, not clean ourselves or the house, walk around in our underpants, etc. Don't get me wrong, we love you, but it is nice not having to tidy up and behave ourselves for the women folk.

So, Rory wins me over. I miss him and everyone else and want to come home but he makes a good point. Staying is a once in a lifetime deal.

Monday, June 2

I head into my office to see Michelle and edit her script. Then I work on corporate influence of media lecture. I start making contacts for summer freelance work here. Hannah stops by and informs that all computers are broken, her entire story is lost, there is only one person who can fix them and he’s away for a week – the last week of the semester when everyone has final projects due. This is hard to fathom. I email Mercy and ask if there isn’t anyway on this entire campus that can deal with the computer meltdown. Ugh!! I am in a snit over that when I head to lunch with a Chinese girl attending the New England Conservatory who is looking for a place to live next fall. Stephen is open to the idea, and I could use the sitter, but my gut says it won’t work out. I need someone after school hours who can drive and she won’t be able to do that. We to the nearby Angel Restaurant and I order, via the NEC student who speaks English very well, chicken with NO bones, no spice and water. I get spicy chicken necks with a million bones, and boiling water poured into my wine glass. When I try to explain that I really want a bottle of cold water, the stuff you can get at any store in China, they look baffled. And then the waitress comes with a bucket of ice and plunks a few cubes into my boiling-water-wine-glass. I am laughing and fuming and deciding I want to go home where everyone understands what I am saying.

After lunch I nail down Guangzhou travel for a Guest lecture I am giving there next week. I also looked into a Tokyo visit to see Kyrie, but its $1000 per ticket, so that is a NO-GO. Tibet is still closed, it was supposed to open June 1. Not sure what we’ll do for July vacation. If the temperature stays like this all summer, I’ll be happy here -- very cool, need to wear a jacket at night.

Tuesday, June 3

I hear from the book agent who likes the idea for a “Girls from room 405” book. I interview Sofia for the blog/book and spend a long time not completely understanding what she is saying. I worry that much of what I am hearing is not really what the students mean, but what their limited English allows them to express. If I really do this book, I think I’d need to work with an excellent translator for some of the interviews, to broaden the vocabulary available to the students. Sofia tell me no students have their stories ready due to broken computers….except Rosa, who managed to get an excellent piece done on time. Rosa is concerned about saying too much on book/blog and wants to retract some of her interview comments. Need to negotiate this. Show the class the sixty minutes, Kevorkian tape and talk about un-balanced coverage. Walk to bank after dinner. Very cool again. At 9pm I have skype call with Ben DeWinter, the BU person in charge of international programs about possible links with China and BU…..

Wednesday, June 4

I wear black in memory of the students who died 19 years ago today (my subtle protest). I interview Pensy. Stability, steady are most important to her. She worries that earthquake parents protest could get out of control. A student comes to my office and reveals that she has a boyfriend, someone she has known since high school. But she needs my advice: Should she tell her parents? She worries they won’t like him, he’s not prominent or rich or handsome, she says. My new role in China: love counselor! I give my grad class a lecture on corporate influence on the news. After class, Michael invites me to Beijing University where he says there will be a candlelight service to mark the June 4th deaths. But we go and no one is there with candles. No one publicly acknowledges this horrific event. So sad. Michael tells me he’s a member of Communist Party. I am quite surprised, because he is always the one provoking discussion of ‘sensitive topics’. Meanwhile, the School collapse story is getting zero coverage in the official Chinese press, while the NY Times says protesting moms were removed by cops. Back to heavy lid coverage. Wouldn’t it be better to cover the investigation, show the government really taking charge of school safety? Why is the mindset so defensive, paranoid? Great Op-ed in the Times linking the grieving for the earthquake to the lack of acknowledgement of 1989. My sentiments exactly.

Thursday, June 5

Busy Day. I head out to BISS with Katie, sign her up for soccer camp and get signatures on leavers form so we can get our deposit back. Then head to Starbucks to wait for the driver Simon, who is late again. Simon has had no college or high school, but Becket is his favorite author. This is what I love about China, so many interesting characters. He knows film, art, literature, but says he is lazy and does not want to have money. He wants a simple life driving his ‘friends’. He does not try to drum up business, and gets money when he needs it or goes without. We drive to a Tibetan furniture place. The owner is Tibetan, with no schooling. His English is nearly flawless. He asks me to speak into his little tape recorder and articulate the different sounds of saddle, settle, and subtle. This is how he has learned English, by listening, carefully. I buy a Tibetan chest and some Tibetan boxes, and manage to just squeeze it into the back of Simon’s car. We then head to Gaobaidian for few other purchases, and then schlep it all out to Shunyi for shipping from Radiance. Last stop, in lots of traffic is the travel agent and get Guangzhou tickets. Then I walk up and down ChangAn Blvd looking at hotel pools and trying to negotiate a rate that will make a summer stay here bearable. I am still on the fence, but trying to convince myself to stay. I head to St. Regis hotel and wait for Elizabeth, who is running late. Around 7:30, I go to Elizabeth’s absolutely lovely place about a fifty foot walk to the NBC bureau, and decide I would be nuts to NOT stay. This is the deal of a lifetime. But let me mull this over even more....

Week 15 – Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy….

Friday, May 23

Start the day with the toilet overflowing. Mrs. Liu sends in two plumbers who fix it in a nano-second. What are they doing that I can’t seem to do? She also re-issues the key to 1702 if things get bad again. Mary somehow sleeps through all of the commotion.

Around 10, Mary and I head out to coal hill behind Forbidden City. The view would be spectacular (I have seen photos) but the pollution is awful and you can barely see. We stroll through Beihai Park, Houhai, and have lunch at hidden-away yummy Hutong Pizza, and have a Mojito for lunch….which makes the rest of the afternoon a little sleepy! We take a pedi-cab to Prince Gong’s mansion and it is a sea of Chinese tourists. It is hard to make out why this place is so packed. It is a nice palace and garden, and apparently there is a show in some sort of theater that we missed, but it is too zooey for me to enjoy. Not exactly the tranquil experience that Prince Gong might have enjoyed.

We then head to Katie’s school and wait for her to finish at a nearby Starbucks. Katie is not in a good mood. They brought their exhibition project on endangered animals to a Chinese public school and apparently it did not go well. Her teammate Exilia did not show up at school, and one of the other 4 teammates was struck with stage fright, so Katie was left holding most of the bag. They did not have enough games for the students (they made 20 but class had 40 students). And the teacher that videotaped their performance was apparently very critical. From BISS we get into wicked traffic, and end up getting out of the taxi on the highway and walking to the Silk Market where Mary shows her prowess for shopping! We then go across the street to Lan for another incredible dinner of beggar’s chicken. We return to Renmin and Mary and I go out to the park across the street and watch a couple do Latin dancing, samba, maybe, alone with a boombox. Very sweet. We then resume our Scrabble game with Katie until nearly 11 p.m.

Saturday, May 24

Katie’s teacher emails with concerns, vague, but clearly Katie’s performance at exhibition did not go well. She’ll need to stay after school next week to get it into shape before the final show in a few days. We take a cab all the way out to Gaobaidian and Mary and I are ready to buy furniture, but I am incapable of making a decision, Katie is bored and whiney, and we opt to not buy but come back tomorrow. I decide I’ll buy Katie the Nintendo DS she’s been bugging me about and that will occupy her if we have another “boring” day of shopping. We then head to the New World hotel pool which is lovely, and expensive, and pamper ourselves with hot tub and lovely relaxing environs. We then go to the Silk Market and get (what we later learn) a defective Nintendo DS and more shopping. We then go to the Red Theater Kung Fu show, grabbing a crappy dinner at a nearby restaurant ahead of time. I ordered KungPo chicken, bu la, no spice. I think they took out the Sichuan spicy sauce and threw in some sugary tomato sauce. Yuk. Mary and Katie like the Kung Fu show. I found it too loud, too macho, too Las Vegas, for my taste. Return home and the toilet does not flush again. It is too late to deal with plumber so I go to bed and like Scarlet O’Hara, will deal with it tomorrow.

Sunday, May 25

I get up early and read on line about plungers, snakes and other remedies for a plugged toilet. I try hot water, a bent coat hanger and then plunge and voila, it flushed! I am so proud of myself!!!

We had hired Lucy’s driver, Simon, to take us out to some areas near the airport. First we go to a private collection, called GuanFu, out in the middle of nowhere. It is FABULOUS! Sort of like the Chinese version of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum. The first floor is all antique porcelain and furniture, beautifully displayed. Then there is a modern photography gallery where the floor is all gravel, kind of like walking through a Zen garden. The photos are spectacular, everything from Mao in his bathing suit and Cultural Revolution re-education scenes, to what appear to be (from camera POV) giant ants crawling out of Olympic swim cube. Really spectacular. Upstairs is a gorgeous collection of Chinese doors and other carved windows and screens, and then a gallery of contemporary art. From there we head to the 798 art district, a collection of old munitions factories turned into artist lofts. Some very provocative stuff. We have lunch at a bright white hip place with jazz playing and delicious food. I could be in New York. After lunch, we go to an opening of a new exhibit. Everyone is arriving with flowers, there’s wine and soda and cookies. I really like what I am seeing, but Mary is stopped at the first gallery and decides she’s “gotta have this one”. I tell her there is more inside, but after looking at several good ones, she goes for the first one she saw. It is a lot of money, but she’s OK with it. It takes a while to work out the paperwork, contract, shipping, etc. I am really glad Katie is amused with her Nintendo DS! However she says two buttons are not working properly, so after Mary completes her art purchase we return, 3rd day in a row, to the silk market to return defective Nintendo. We get a brand new one and all is well. We head home and spend the night debating whether I should stay through the summer or go home. Heart says go, head says stay. Ugh….

Monday, May 26

5 am Mary is leaving. We go downstairs with her considerable cargo (!) and cannot get out of the building. It is locked from the inside. We have to wake up the woman in the first floor office to unlock it. This scares me: all I can think of are the Coconut Grove and the Station nightclub fires – locked in. Mary is a great guest, and we vow to travel together in the future, perhaps take a bike trip though Vietnam and Indonesia? I spend the day picking up the house, doing laundry and writing last week’s blog. I am finding keeping current with the blog more work and wonder if anyone is reading this! Hello, anyone out there? Ann McConnell and her husband come over to check out the apartment for future Fulbrighters, but mostly we have a good talk about China, frustrations, need for change. William says they went to the Military Museum which documents the Korean War as a war of American Aggression. The People’s Daily says the same thing in an article today. Ann repeats her sage advice: “they don’t know what they don’t know”. After they leave, I get an email from a journalism colleague saying they might need help during the Olympics. Was it The Clash who sang: should I stay or should I go?

Tuesday, May 27

I have invited all my undergrads in to be interviewed. I want to include each of them in the blog and I am thinking this could be the start of a book: The Girls of Room 405. I will follow them after they graduate and follow their thinking over time. I ask about religion, politics, family, dreams, what they know about Tiananmen 1989, what they think of the Dalai lama, Tibet, etc. It is a great experience. They are all so different in every way. One is a member of the Communist Party, another thinks communism is a joke. One I thought was from a very well to do family is in fact the daughter of two taxi drivers. For some, the less sophisticated ones, I am the only American they’ve ever met; for others, they know many westerners and have a more nuanced view of the west.

Later, during class we talk about the pitfalls of Live coverage (earthquake was the first time CCTV went LIVE from a disaster zone). We then look at two stories about human cloning and have an interesting discussion about medical/science reporting which devolves into a discussion about the ethics of cloning – a few actually think it is a good idea! We also talk about forced abortion, late term abortion and they are OK with all of it. After class I call Mercy to see if she can have maintenance fix the electricity in my office, which has gone out. I also decide to write up a list of what would have made things better.

Here goes:

Things that would have made my experience here much better:

Department Contact: (not waiban)

1.Before Fulbrighter arrives, should have an email conversation with your department contact, not the waiban, about what the students have already learned and what courses would be most appealing to students and most useful to the department. Department should recruit students to take the course. I had only 3 grad and 5 undergrads taking it for credit…and about 20 others whose English was perfectly fine for auditing. Why didn’t more take it for credit?

2. Dept. contact should have a strong command of the English language. Mine was very nice and well-meaning but did not understand much of what I said and vice versa. Other faculty member’s English is much better. Why wasn’t she assigned to me?

3. Dept. contact should be a more senior faculty member who knows policies and procedures, not a first year professor who is learning herself. i.e. the calendar. When are classes cancelled, holidays, when do classes end, when are exams, etc. What are the workload expectations, what other courses are the kids taking? What are the resources available, cameras, studios, computers, etc.

4. Dept contact should arrange meetings with the Chair, the Dean and as many colleagues as possible for lunch, coffee, dinner. I met only 4 other faculty, once, and never again. Never met Chair or Dean.

From the waiban:

1. What to do in the event of an emergency, how would a Fulbrighter be contacted or made aware of evacuations from buildings, gas leaks, what to do in an earthquake or fire. How to find out when there are notices that electricity or internet will be shut off, etc.

2. A TOUR and map of the campus and a list of what is here – (Sue shared a draft of hers. It is a start, but incomplete.) It should add athletic facilities available to Fulbrighters, English language section of library, how to use and access the library, the cafeterias, etc. Where to find English language newspapers and periodicals. Tell them about Friday night English corner.

3. How to find out about events on campus (all notices are in Chinese, get someone to translate and communicate them via email to westerners on campus): (Hu Jintao came and went without me knowing) ---especially events in English or with music or art exhibits that don’t require Chinese proficiency

4. Have a reception (cookies and tea, nothing fancy) early each semester to try to create a community of ex-pats or former Fulbrighters or supply Fulbrighter with:

List of former Chinese Fulbrighters on campus with contact information

List of other non-Chinese, English speakers on campus

5. A list of area ATMs, grocery, convenience, pharmacy, office supply stores, restaurants, western, Chinese and others that are walking distance and a map in English and Chinese of how to get there.

6. Information on travel agencies or how to plan trips for guest lectures. (to avoid paying cash for tickets).


1. Directions to appliances in English: heat, air conditioner, hot plate, washing machine, hot water heater (so you don’t get scalded after cleaners adjust it to its hottest setting).

2. Have drinking water delivered and how to re-order it in the future

3. Arrange for an English speaking student to go grocery shopping with the Fulbrighter for the first few times to help reading labels (dishwashing liquid vs. fabric softener, cream rinse). And see if faculty could offer to go grocery shopping with a CAR anytime they are going

4. See if faculty member with a car could take Fulbrighter on excursions inaccessible by public transportation, or provide a list of drivers in the area.

5. Information about north gate taxi entrance.

6. Information about cleaning service/laundry before you buy cleaning materials….

7. Who to call for maintenance, toilets flooding, leaks in windows after rain, noisy neighbors.

If you have kids:

Find some way to find and connect with kids on campus. They are here, just hidden.

After dinner we take a walk out to the East Gate, to get milk. The parks around the campus are full of young people lounging on the grass, older folks out walking dogs and babies in split pants toddling around. It is a perfect summer evening.

Wednesday, May 28

I finish draft one of book chapter and send it off. I then interview two more students for the blog/future book. Before class I meet with the three post-grads. One works for a Party legal daily newspaper. She says her senior editors (and the senior editors at 12 Party news outlets – Xinhua, CCTV, etc) have been having nightly meetings with the government Propaganda Department to discuss coverage of the earthquake. Usually, the censors just make a phone call to the editors saying what can be published and what can’t. It seems the earthquake is allowing greater discussion about what is OK. Until now, the coverage has been extensive and thorough, if a bit maudlin and at times schmaltzy. I am really disturbed by how many children are being interviewed and asked to re-live their trauma!

One story, about a group of angry parents marching in protest to Chengdu, holding pictures of their dead children, did not initially make it into the China Daily. The New York Times photo showed the mayor of the town on his knees begging his citizens to stop the march. But the parents want justice and want to know why their kids’ schools crumbled when other buildings withstood the quake. Three days after the story was reported in the Times, it was included, several paragraphs in, on a front page story in the China Daily.

It was interesting to learn how the censor process works. But the postgrads said the propaganda department is not all bad. They say it also forces/encourages reporters to cover “good stuff” too, issues that might not get much coverage in a commercial enterprise, like the plight of farmers, elderly, etc. Some part of me wishes we could force news organizations in the west to do a lot less on Brittany Spears and Bradgelina and more on the plight of America’s poor, or social security or other issues that aren’t “sexy” enough for many news outlets.

In the grad class that day, I also learn that the earthquake LIVE coverage may not be so live. There is a “minute” delay (not sure if it is a whole minute) to still allow the censors to cut off a controversial remark, should one attempt to say such a think on LIVE TV here. We then discuss the ethics of undercover camera work and Chinese reality TV. A program similar to “American Idol” was cancelled, in part because people got to VOTE for the winner – and the government felt threatened by this mini-exercise in voting. One student thought it was cancelled because the host was rude. But many reality programs have been cancelled, one student thinks, because they have become too popular and the government was losing control of the content.

After class, Ann McConnell has managed to find Yuxin Ai, a Fletcher grad who we hosted while she was a student at Tufts. She now works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we will reconnect next weekend.

One of the things I will miss most about China is the life outside, and summer only makes it more alive. In the park tonight older women are doing a fan dance routine with these giant pink fans, and a group of young men are doing tai chi. In front of the gym, a large group of all aged women are doing line dances, and around the track, hundreds of people are walking, jogging and stretching and it is after 9 p.m. The place never rests. My guess is this is a society that has always spent little time inside in cramped quarters, and the outside life is part of the culture. I also think there is a greater sense that exercise is an essential part of healthy living, even if it is the old women just slapping their arms and legs (to improve circulation, I am told). I could stay out here every night and just soak up the scene.

Thursday, May 29

Peter Berger, a Boston University Professor who specializes on the Sociology of Religion, is a guest at Renmin, giving a lecture. Mercy tells me about it (finally getting word of some event on campus, even if its an American from my home university), so I decide to go to his lecture on Modernism and Religion. Modernity does not lead to a diminution in religious activity, according to Berger’s research. It is quite an interesting lecture, interrupted by the arduous consecutive translation. I’d like to get the text of the whole talk, not just the truncated version. I introduce myself to Berger at the end, offer to take his picture for the BU Today site, but he’s not interested.

After the talk I take a taxi to Torana carpets out by the airport and get hopelessly lost. We get off the highway at the right exit, but it is clear to me from the map that we have turned west, when we should be going east. I try to mime this to the driver, pointing the map and saying: dong bu xi, east not west. The driver stops to ask another cabbie which way to go and the cabbie tells him to keep going west…..and as he is saying this, he is giving me a sinister smirk, and continues to hang his gleeful head out the window of his cab as we drive on – clearly he knows he is steering us astray and helping a fellow driver to jack up the meter. I am a bit nervous, as we continue to drive to a less and less developed part of town and eventually the road turns to dirt and peters out altogether. Where the heck are we? We turn around and head back, east to the highway, and then continue in the direction I was trying to get us to in the first place. Eventually we get to Torana and I am bummed out. I was under the impression that there would be a large selection of rugs out here at their ‘warehouse” location, but there is not much here. The neighborhood is a lot of interior design style stores so I poke around and end up at Radiance, which Ann McConnell had told me about. Lots of lovely furniture, but nothing I want. Then I am told there is another Radiance, just a short cab ride away. I head there and hit the jackpot. Lots of gorgeous stuff and I do my part to help the Chinese economy, buying two pieces and a lot of other trinkets, nicer than I have seen in most markets. I will ship the furniture to the Boston port, $350 for one cubic meter. I only have enough stuff to fill half a cubic meter so I promise I will be back to deliver more stuff to fill the crate!

From here I have a tough time hailing a cab, but eventually find a speed demon who gets me from Radiance to Katie’s school in about 20 minutes in 5pm traffic (illegally driving in the bike lane, aggressively snaking in and out of every crack in the traffic flow….amazing driver!) I eat dinner at the Sizzler, and then head to The Exhibition for a 6pm show. The kids are all in their very creatively designed T-shirts, and sing a couple of songs, dancing and prancing to a heavy beat. They’ve changed the lyrics from “we need a hero” to “we need a leader” to help solve the world’s problems. It is amazing to see all these kids from all over the world (I can count at least 10 countries represented on stage) working together to tackle problems big and small. I am moved to tears, and I can see Katie looking at me and mouthing to her friend “oh-my-god, my mother’s losing it”. After the musical introduction, each group went up and did a brief introduction to their topic. Katie’s “Chinese endangered animal” group paired up with the “Chinese orphan” group and did a rap to “somewhere out there, the love is missing”. Very inspiring. I sat behind Katie’s new friend Louisa’s parents, who just moved here from Australia. Nice couple and I could see myself living here, in a proper house, and developing a community of friends. What has really been missing in this experience is any sense of community. I don’t feel connected to the university, because few speak English or have time to try, and I don’t feel connected to the ex-pats because I live so far from the center of their universe. After the performance part of the Exhibition we go upstairs and look at the posters and power points each group has worked on. Katie and her group have risen to the occasion and managed to put together a decent project, focusing on pandas, Yangtze River dolphins, tigers, and Katie’s bailiwick: the moon bear, who is killed for its bile, used in Chinese medicine. Other kids focused on clean water, bullying, ways to help non-English speakers at BISS, ways to improve recess for kids who don’t like sports. Really quite impressive! Katie’s friend Exila is in tears. Her parents have not come to see Exhibition. I feel really sorry for her.

If every week here had been as full, as pleasant and as interesting as this one, I’d stay forever.