Sunday, July 20, 2008

Week 19

Saturday June 21.Guangzhou.

The plan to day is to go to Hong Kong and get my visa renewed. We get up early and go to breakfast at the lovely hotel buffet, but feel a little queasy. Then I start to get really sick as a dog. There is no way I can get on a mini-bus to the train to spend a day walking around in Hong Kong. I have to get off and on the train in Hong Kong to re-activate my visa, but I know I need to be within inches of the porcelain throne. I have tickets for the 9am train, so I call the concierge from the bathroom phone….and he says I’ll forfeit the tickets, they’re not good for a later train. But I have no choice. No way can I go to Hong Kong. By 9 I have lost all that I can lose and fall asleep for a few hours while Katie happily watches TV. Around 11, I wake up, take as much stomach medicine and antibiotic as is tolerable and head down to the concierge. I cross my fingers and get tickets for a 1pm train and plan to return on the same train if my stomach is lousy. All I need is the stamp on my visa saying I have re-entered China for another 180 day stay. Well, thank God for immodium AD! I have no trouble on the train and feel almost normal when we arrive in HK. I realize we need Hong Kong dollars, they don’t take the Chinese RMB (one country two systems really means two systems!). I hail a taxi (thinking they must speak English in a former British colony….but they don’t). I point to a map, to a tram that takes you to the top of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong island and off we go. We wait in a long line for a tram, but the ride up the mountain and the view are spectacular. BLUE SKY! OCEAN! CLEAN AIR! It is a lot different than I remember it from 30 years ago. There is a giant mall at the top of the peak, for starters. And the view north, facing mainland China is chock full of skyscrapers, but the view to the south is gorgeous, mostly undeveloped, with lots of islands dotting the South China Sea. We take the tram back down, hop on a city bus which takes us to the pier and take a ferry across the harbor to Kowloon. From there, a very helpful tourist info person points us to another city bus (a double-decker that Katie loves) which returns us to the train station, with minutes to spare before the last train of the day leaves for Guangzhou. A lot done in a four hour visit. And, at last, I get the all-important stamp on my visa, allowing me to stay in China for another 180 days. The day certainly ended better than it began.

Sunday, We try the hotel brunch again, but I avoid eggs or anything else that might have contributed to my stomach woes. We then take a walk outside the hotel and do a little shopping. We spend about a half hour in the hotel pool and then go to the airport. The flight home is a hassle. We wait at the gate and then get smushed into this insanely hot and over-crowded bus, people stepping on your feet. I was literally afraid Katie would not be able to breathe at her height, being so sandwiched in between people. We drive across the tarmac forever and board a plane that is connected to the terminal at another gate. So why didn’t we just board at that gate? Then we get on the plane and go from sweltering to freezing. When I ask for a blanket, they say they have none, but as I am leaving the plane I see dozens of unopened blankets on seats. Katie watched the on plane movie, Golden Compass, and was engrossed in it until the screen went bust. They then offered her another seat, which she took. But before the movie was over, they came and took the headsets away. I was glad to get home. It is reallllly muggy and hot in Beijing.

Monday. Katie’s camp has been cancelled because not enough kids signed up, so she is stuck with me and I have a lot of work to do this week. We first go to her school to get the camp refund and her tuition deposit refund. Then start my quest to find an English speaking taxi driver for story on Only A Game. We go the the Olympic Village and it is still not looking ready. Lots of heavy equipment, laborers and piles of construction and landscape debris. We then head to travel agent to pay for Kashgar trip and then grab an early lunch. From there we go to the subway to try to find a way to get to the Olympic Village via subway. But those subway stops are still not open either. When will all this be ready? Soon, I am told. Then we take the subway to the embassy to get reimbursed for Guangzhou trip. Finally, return to Renmin. ? We notice they are painting the ugly dilapidated building next door and it looks a thousand times better. I suspect they’ll fix this building because it is visible to folks driving to the Gym during Olympics. The other hell holes on campus will be neglected, I suspect.

3pm meeting. I have been asking to meet with the new media folks here since the day I arrived. FINALLY, the meeting. Just before three, the skies open up and there is a torrential downpour, so I walk the 100 yards or so from my apartment to my office and am completely soaked when I arrive. There were several inches of water on the ground and my shoes were completely submerged in this mucky goo….hope it was not sewer back up – but the odor is telling me it might be. The new media guy is very interesting and I would like to have built a relationship with him earlier. Frustrating. He tells me what courses they are teaching and also explains a bit about who gets blocked and why. He says he thinks there are commercial reasons not just political reasons that some sites get blocked. He says the Chinese version of YouTube has pressured the government to shut down YouTube to help draw audience to their site. He also says the Chinese govt attempt to force folks to use their Real Name on blogs was a non-starter. I clean out what is left in my office, give Mercy a few gifts and say goodbye to Renmin office…and do not shed a tear. My lasting impression of Renmin is that it was an opportunity largely missed, part of it my fault for not speaking Chinese and unable to find out who was who. But a bigger part is their fault for leaving me here with minimal and lame attempt to include me in the university, department, etc..

Head home and have a quick dinner of Annie’s Mac. I spend the night logging tape and rewriting script for OAG story. Now that I have my extended visa, it is now safe to book my return flight….but there are OUTRAGEOUS PRICES TO CHANGE AIRFARE..$2291 to fly home August 21 but August 14 only $465. Insane. Leave early? Try to get OAG or other clients to pay a portion of the fee? I call Stephen and travel agent for advice.

Tuesday. Load in audio for OAG, cut down soundbites, and figure out how to ftp files. I am feeling more tech-savvy than ever….so something must be wrong!

Katie and I head out to the grocery store late afternoon. I have been reading Richard Ford’s “The Lay of the Land”, the last in the Frank Bascombe trilogy. Bascombe refers to this phase of his life (he’s 55, divorced twice and has cancer) as the “Permanent Period” (some time after the mid-life crisis). As Katie and I navigate the grocery store, I decide that I have entered the “Permanent Pissed-Off Period”. What little patience I ever had (there was never much) is gone. I cannot listen to another person hawking yogurt at me from an over-modulated microphone attached to their head. I cannot watch people cut in line, or slip into the five-items-or-less aisle with a full carriage of food. I will not tolerate another shove or push by an eager beaver trying to get at the same bit of produce that I have my hand on. And I am dumbstruck every time someone hucks up a big wad of phlegm and spits it inches from me. I know I am being culturally insensitive, but common courtesies that I take for granted, are greatly in need here. One of my Chinese friends has made it her personal crusade to admonish every spitter she encounters. I wish her great success.

I use Skype to call Only A Game at 9pm for the final edit on the script and and instructions on ftp-ing the files….only to find out that my effort to send the stuff this morning worked, and they have all the files. All systems are go. Stay tuned to your radios for a very corny story about navigating in English around Beijing.

Meanwhile, I am in a panic that I will get stuck paying thousands of dollars if I wait another day to book return flight. So I book the return flight….and feel totally relieved. I hope any fireworks that happen during the Olympics will occur in the first week before I take off.

Wednesday. Record voice tracks and ftp them to OAG. Also send some not great audio to The World. Can’t seem to pin them down. Monitor wants every story I’ve suggested, but so far no final edit on migrant school. Clean out tons of files, fill the garbage can. Try lining up another story. I thought Eve was coming to take Katie to a movie but I guess I misunderstood. Katie is glued to YouTube cartoons until I force a bit of reading and journal writing. New York Times reports tonight that Tibet is now open to tourists….but I’m booked for Xinjiang and can’t get out of it. I am totally bummed.

Thursday. Work all morning, organizing files, researching stories. Katie’s friend Louisa is supposed to come for an overnight but she calls and says she sick. Katie is really bummed now. So we decide to go see Kung Fu Panda at the nearby theater. Not bad. This film has become the latest insanity in China’s nationalistic blogosphere. There are calls for a boycott of the movie cuz it is about pandas –i.e. Sichuan, and thus insensitive to earthquake victims, or boycott cuz it was not made by a Chinese film maker, or boycott cuz there aren’t enough Chinese stars. This irrational, nationalistic strain in the Chinese populace scares me deeply.

Friday. We make a plan to meet Celine for lunch and get my haircut. Katie had a lousy night sleep, was attacked by mosquitoes (even though the windows are all closed – they must come in through the AC vents). She is miserable, but seeing Celine she perks up. We eat pizza at Kro’s Nest and then Celine takes me to this outrageously expensive pamper salon where I get a great haircut, compete with head and neck massage, for less than I’d spend at home, but still way more than the average Chinese shop. We then walk around the Sanlitun area and then head to Silk Market yet again…..this time Katie wants a pocketbook and flipflops and I figure I owe her that after a week of mom’s little junior reporter. Celine heads off for a dinner date and Katie and I manage to find Annie’s Italian restaurant on the 3rd ring road. Reallllly great food. Nice place. When we leave, it is pouring and getting a cab is tricky. It has been raining a lot lately – of course we never have an umbrella when we need it. Everyone is saying this is a much cooler and wetter summer than normal around here, but I’d prefer this to the heat.

Saturday: Last night at 11 I plunged the toilet and got it to work. But Katie’s first flush of the day doesn’t work. And all the plunging and snaking tricks that usually work, don’t. Simon arrives at 10 to take us to my student Pensy’s house. Before we leave Simon and Pensy try to get the ladies at the front desk to call the plumber but they won’t unless I stay to let them in. I try to give the ladies my keys but they won’t take them. Don’t want to be responsible if things are stolen. We argue back and forth and then give up. I’ll deal with the toilet later. We drop Katie at Louisa’s on the way for an overnight. It is a two plus hour drive to Pensy’s and we are still technically in Beijing! Pensy lives in the peach capital of the world and it is peach season so there are peach stalls all along the roads. The rotary in the center of her city is a giant multicolored peach designed by Tsinghua University art students. Pensy’s family’s apartment from the exterior looks like your basic four story apartment building. But inside it is lovely, shiney, modern and comfortable. Her mother is cooking up a storm, two kinds of homemade dumplings, my (and Mao’s) favorite red pork dish hong su? rou, tons of green vegetables, chicken stomachs in a hot pepper sauce, chicken and cilantro soup, and diet coke. Clearly Pensy was paying attention to what I liked at our lunch last week! On the coffee table in the living room were huge bowls of fresh peaches and apricots. Delicious. Her parents were lovely, very talkative and funny. I wish I understood more of what they were saying. Simon and Pensy did their best to translate, but I lost a lot of good laughs. Pensy’s mother needle pointed and framed this adorable picture of two Chinese kids playing and gave it to me as a gift (I had her sign the back) as well as two huge boxes of peaches, and a bag of apricots. I was so touched by their generosity. I will never be able to eat all of these peaches! On the way home, Simon tells me he is in touch with some very interesting people who might be good sources for journalism. Unfortunately, I don’t have my recorder or we would have stopped to interview one of these guys. I get home around 5. Everyone is moving out this weekend and the lobby and elevators are chock full of people with boxes, furniture, etc. This building was not designed to move in and out of. The narrow passage between the front door and elevator is impossible to get through with anything bigger than a bread box. But they manage. I am holding two huge boxes of peaches, the framed picture, a bag of apricots and some of Katie’s papers and am squished in the back of the elevator that stops at every floor….Finally, get home, unload, and continue the cleaning and packing of our place. And eat lots of peaches for dinner. Sue comes over with chocolate cupcakes and I offer her some of the peaches. Stephen emails. His flight is delayed and he won’t be in until at least 5 tomorrow night.

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