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....

No comments: