Sunday, June 8, 2008

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.

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