Monday, May 26, 2008

Week 14 – Nanjing etc.

Friday, May 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 17

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 18

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 19

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 20

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

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

Wednesday, May 21

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

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

Thursday, May 22

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

Week 13 – A Very Unlucky Number

Saturday, May 10

The public address system kicked in early, 6:15 a.m. we started hearing all the marching songs. It is another day of athletic competition here with all the chanting and cheering that precedes it. It looks like track and field – with a twist: one of the events appears to be running races while hula-hooping! Now there is a sport for me!

Katie and Stephen head out to the electronics store in their elusive search for a Nintendo DS with English instructions and games. They are gone a long time, but return empty handed. Meanwhile, Stefanie has arrived to take a last photo of Stephen before he returns home. Stefanie tells me a little about her family. Her father was in the army, but was injured, so came home and started a business. She was raised on her grandparents’ farm, while her parents worked in the business. Now, the Party boss in her village wants to take the family farm away. Her dad has spent 100,000RMB ($15,000 USD) in legal fees to try to hold onto the land, but it still is not looking good. Her image of life on the farm was not quite as upbeat as the picture painted the other day by Li Qingsi.

When Stefanie is ready to take the photos, Katie is silly and not interested in being photographed, but then Stefanie lets Katie use the camera and she is more cooperative. Meanwhile, Eve has arrived to look at some other photos sent by Yiyang adoptive parents. Four or five familes on the Yiyang orphanage listserv have contacted her to see if she can get some information for them from Yiyang.

After the photo shoot we head into downtown Beijing for dinner with Mark Ma and his wife Tingting. Katie and Stephen occupy themselves for a while beforehand, while I interview Mark and his wife about some delicate adoption issues. Tingting is very quiet and Mark is very careful to put my questions into a broader context. He says he cannot confirm any first hand knowledge of corruption or trafficking, but he it is possible that those practices might exist. Neither has ever met a birth parent. And they share my concern that this has become a business and less about the interests of the child. They dealt with many prospective families who came to adopt but rejected the child when they got here for reasons that were not clear to Mark or Tingting. And they said the more recent adoptive families seemed to have unrealistic expectations. There are no guarantees of perfection with biological children, and there shouldn’t be that expectation with adopted children either. As Katie would say: you get what you get and you don’t get upset.

Stephen and Katie arrive and we have a great dinner, Vietnamese food, and have a lot of fun. Afterward we walk around the Houhai Lake area. Looks like the night spot of Beijing’s younger set. We watched a guy on the sidewalk with his potter’s wheel making lovely little pots, and Katie took a bunch of pictures of this parakeet chained up in a store window. We bid farewell to Mark and Tingting and hope to see them again.

Sunday, May 11

I hadn’t even realized it was Mother’s Day, but Katie made me a nice little card and surprised me, and then Eve sent me a text message, to “a great mother of three children.” Rory even managed to get a quick email in just under the wire at midnight. But my favorite was a Youtube link my friend Louise sent around. Check it out if you are the mother of warring boys:

We’ve arranged for a driver, the fellow Lucy used, Simon, to take us out to the furniture village, Gaobaidian. On the way we drop Katie off at her friend Yuanyuan’s house, in a hutong near the Confucian Temple.

Ann McConnell from the embassy leads us out and we followed in “our” car. Another Fulbrighter, Beth Farmer joined up. We revisited the factory where Ann’s furniture was being repaired and Stephen gave her some tips on stains and refurbishing techniques. We then went by the carver’s workshop, where four young kids, 17-20 years old, were carving wood in dim light. They are all migrants from Anhui Province, and live in a little room next to the workshop, four of them on two bunk beds, and each has a small box for their possessions. In the back of this very primitive workshop, we see a computer, guiding a lathe, carving the most detailed images into the wood. I am not sure who or how they program the lathe, but apparently they scan an image into the computer and then tell the computer the depth and other dimensions of each cut into the wood. The machine cost $50,000RMB or about $7,000 USD. Wild. It won’t be long before the computer puts those migrant kids out of work.

We end up in a shopping area in the center of Gaobaidian but manage not to buy a thing before we need to leave. We retrieve Katie at her friends and then head to the restaurant where we are meeting Celine and her family for dinner. Celine will return to the States this week and get her degree from BU. We eat at a great Taiwanese place called Bellagio, near Worker’s Stadium. Great food. And of course Celine and her family have gifts, tea and cosmetics, more than we have brought for the guest of honor!

After dinner, Celine’s dad asks if we like to bowl. Apparently, there is an alley next door. Sure! Off we go -- Bowling in Beijing! It was a very nice, big, clean, well lit place – much nicer than Lanes and Games in Cambridge… I have never bowled with big balls and warn them that I am useless athletically. Well, I guess I had beginner’s luck, because I was really knocking them down. On one shot, there were two pins on the far right, and one remaining on the far left, and I managed t knock over all three with one ball!!!! I told Celine’s dad I was going to retire from BU and take up professional bowling! We had a great time. It was a great activity for a group that does not share the same language because we could share in each other’s victories and defeats, with high fives, and embarrassed winces, without ever uttering a word. But man, my shoulder hurts!!

We all squeezed into Celine’s dad’s car and he got a kick out of us giving him directions in Chinese “Renmin Daxue Ximen”, “zou guai”, etc. What a lot of fun!!

Monday, May 12

Stephen announces it is time to go home – his tooth has fallen out again. The day he arrived two weeks ago, he bit into some candy and pulled out a dental bridge (the same type of candy that triggered Katie to lose a tooth on the plane home from Shanghai). He had shoved the bridge back in two weeks ago and has been fine, but it is looking like he’ll need to spend some quality time at BU Dental before long.

We go in to school with Katie to have a parent-teacher conference with Katie and her teacher, Anya Dalais. All is well. We learned that Katie is a social animal, is liking math(!), needs to be more careful and take more time with her writing, and needs to follow through on all her good ideas. No surprises there. She’s had a great time at this school and with this teacher and we are both not thrilled with the idea of returning to Chenery. Ms. Dalais and her husband are moving to Switzerland at the end of the school year to work at another international school there. They’ve taught in France, England, China and now Switzerland. Sounds like a fun life.

I worked all morning on a lecture on war coverage, especially on the run-up to the Iraq war and journalists’ lackluster coverage. In retrospect, it makes me crazier than ever to know how well the administration sold this war to a group of “lapdog” reporters….with a few notable exceptions (Knight Ridder’s Jonathan Landay had the necessary skepticism, but few others). For all my griping about Chinese propaganda and misinformation, we aren’t doing a whole lot better in the US of A.

After lunch, I took a nap. In the middle of a very bizarre dream about a hurricane, I felt the bed move. At first, I thought I was dreaming, then I thought Stephen had come in to wake me up, but neither was the case. I got up to find Stephen and he was sitting at his desk, feeling like he was experiencing vertigo. I decided it must be someone doing work on the building. A few hours later we learn in an email from my sister-in-law Karen that we were in the midst of an earthquake. Never a dull moment! There was a huge quake 7.8, out in Sichuan Province, about 50 miles from where we were last week. The event in Beijing was minor. But sitting here on the 17th floor of a hastily and poorly constructed building, right above a major fault line in the earth’s crust, has got me just a tad worried. Stephen, of course, is not worried at all….but he’s leaving tomorrow to head home!!!

For dinner, we attempted to go to a pizza joint I read about up by Beijing university, Kro’s Nest, but we schlepped up there to find it was closed, so we walked back to Papa John’s and got our fill of pizza for a while.

Tuesday, May 13

The news about the earthquake unfolded through the night, and so did the aftershocks. I watched TV a fair amount last night and this morning, trying to get a handle on this. I was struck by CCTV’s English language channel’s emphasis on infrastructure damage, buildings destroyed, roads closed, phone service out of order. And of course there was plenty on rescue efforts and Premier Wen Jiabao’s appearance with rescuers. Only about 4-5 minutes into the 9am coverage did they mention the number killed: ten thousand! I don’t know if this is representative of all Chinese coverage, but it was certainly a different inverted pyramid than we would have done in the US press. The newspaper was more direct, listing the number dead at the top and underscoring that the government’s first priority is saving lives…

I go into my office and prep for today’s class and a lecture I will give tonight at the Central University of Nationalities. The waiban, Mrs. Liu, calls and can give me little advice on my visa status, but she is hopeful that if I leave the country, I will be allowed back in….I certainly hope so! More disturbingly, she can’t advise me on what to do in the event of a fire or earthquake or any other emergency in our building. I ask her if there is an alarm system or any email or cell phone warning system that I might miss because I am unable to understand Chinese. She says no, no warning system, but there are fire extinguishers, and then she laughs and says, “but you wouldn’t know how to use them since the instructions are in Chinese”. Haha, not very funny! I mention that the electricity went out every night last week at 11pm and everyone else seemed to have been informed about this, but not me. What’s up with communication? Mrs. Liu is a very sweet, soft-spoken woman who seems very kind and concerned, but I find it very difficult to get a clear answer to my questions and concerns. I fully understand that I am the one who is unable to speak the language but there are many non-Chinese speakers on campus and it is a bit surprising that there is no method to communicate with any of us about what’s going on….not just for emergencies, but for other events (i.e. Hu Jintao speaking on campus and I was unaware until after it happened). As I left the building this morning, I see the lobby full of fire extinguishers. Are we supposed to grab one to have on hand? When I return at noon, the fire extinguishers are gone. And the two that had been sitting in the box near the elevator, are gone too. Bad timing to take fire extinguishers OUT of service.

At noon I return home for lunch and read some western media on the earthquake and answer a flurry of anxious emails from home wondering if we are OK. For the moment all is fine. But I am growing more anxious about being on the 17th floor of a paper-thin building. I scan the internet for images from the affected areas, but most of what I see, cell phone video taken by understandably distraught residents, is too shaky or blurry to really make out what is going on.

Stephen is packing to head off to the airport. I loaded him up with all the winter clothes and some of our purchases, and he has quite a heavy load. I walk him out to the taxi and bid him adieu thinking I’ll see him in six weeks. I head off to my afternoon class and we discuss the earthquake coverage. None of the students in this class are from Sichuan, and one girl from Chongqing, says her parents felt a lot of shaking, but no injuries. Some students seem really troubled, but others are a bit too cavalier, almost embarrassed that this has happened in China.

Later, a student asks about when the next few assignments are due. When I examine the syllabus, I reiterate the due dates through the end of classes on June 26. But the students say, no, classes end June 12. No, I assure them, I have a calendar given to me by Mercy, which says we go until the end of June. No, they assure me, there are no classes after June 12. OK, so I have passed out two syllabus/schedules to two classes and NO ONE has mentioned this to me until today? Stephen has arranged his travels to and from home based on my academic schedule, which I guess we can throw out the window now. I had heard of this last minute schedule snafu from previous Fulbrighters which is why I pressed Mercy for a calendar….so much good that did. I love the communication around here. And even more disturbing, I learn that TV news reported last night that there was apparently going to be another earthquake or aftershock last night and students were all evacuated from their dorms, but NO ONE TOLD ME up there on the 17th floor!

The students showed their first video stories. Some were good, others disappointing.

After class I return home, try to get answers to the schedule snafu, tell the Guangzhou consulate not to book my flights there for a late June lecture that I had agreed to give, because my schedule might change. I microwave (and manage to burn) the lasagna Stephen had brought frozen from home two weeks ago, inhale dinner and head out to lecture at Central Universities of Nationalities. CUN has 10% ethnic minorities so I was hoping for a Tibetan point of view in the discussion but none were there. The talk went very well though, good questions from an engaged and attentive audience.

Just before ten pm, Eve text messages me that we are to turn out the lights for three minutes in memory of the now 12,000 confirmed dead. I turn my lights off and look out the window to see a few more windows go dark, but the majority of lights remain on. Eve tells me the next day that she is disappointed that so many students are too busy with social activities, getting food or playing sports, to participate in the vigil. I spend a few hours awake in bed, worrying that every rumble of a truck or every thud from the apartment above, is the quake that will topple this building. Another sleepless night in Beijing.

Wednesday, May 14

I watch a bit more of CCTV’s coverage of the earthquake. There is more video coming out today (yesterday was mostly graphics or maps of the area covering phone interviews). The scene looks like Hell on Earth. The wailing mothers, the teenagers holding the hand of their dead friends, the children’s limbs reaching out from the rubble, crushed just inches from safety. Thousands of people are homeless, and thousand more are voluntarily choosing to sleep outside, in parks, to protect themselves from aftershocks. Rain only makes matters worse.

Kelly Proctor, a student Fulbrighter, also at Renmin stops by my office today. She is doing research on Chinese journalists covering the environment. She says that the journalists she talks to have a lot of liberty to say what they want to say, and when they do get heat from an editor/censor, they just put the controversial stuff up on their blogs, and it gets out that way. She says most environmental journalists here are also advocates, and often work for or develop their own NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Unfortunately, a blogger in Chengdu, who helped organized a “stroll” to protest a proposed chemical plant, has found himself in a bit of trouble. This from the site Danwei:

According to today's Beijing News, four persons involved in the May 4 protest in Chengdu were detained under charges of "fabricating and spreading rumors, distortion (炒作), incitement to riot and illegal demonstration." Chen Daojun, the man who allegedly masterminded the protest is so far the only one who has been formally arrested. He is facing charges of "inciting subversion of state power". Another two suspects sought by the police are still at large. The above information was released at a press conference by Chengdu police.

The mainstream media has little coverage of the May 4 incident. One of the few reports was in the ay 5 issue of The Beijing News. According to that report, about two hundred people gathered in downtown Chengdu for a "stroll" in protest against plans to construct a combined ethylene plant and oil refinery near the city . The protest lasted about two hours and during the whole process, no banner was carried, no threat of boycott was made, no slogan was yelled. People walked leisurely while policemen watched nervously. Everything went on peacefully, so much so that it was hailed by an editorial in The Beijing News on May 6 as a "rational expression of the public opinion".

"Rational expression of the public opinion"? But the police did not feel that way.

But there are good reasons to fear of a chemical plant so close to Chengdu: the earthquake has damaged a chemical plant out there, and 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia has been released. 600 people died there, not sure if it was chemicals or the quake itself. Two other chemical plants also collapsed. The worst has been the schools and public buildings. They seem to be the most devastated and it makes me wonder if these public building are just older and more vulnerable, or if they were built using less than stringent building codes or cheaper materials. Thousands of students are among the dead.

My afternoon class submits its preliminary research for their final reports. Pathetic. No research again. These are PhD candidates and 13 weeks into the semester I have seen ZERO research on their topics. Frustrating. Michael, who audits the class, is from Sichuan Province. He is shell-shocked. His city, Leshan, is south of the epicenter, and his family was shaken, but not injured. But he is really sad. The other students are equally sympathetic. Two girls who just happened to be in the classroom when I started class ask if they can stay and I say sure. Maybe they’ll talk? I talk about war coverage, and the poor job most American journalists did in the run up to the Iraq war. After all my griping about Chinese journalism, I feel I need to let them know that all is NOT perfect on the other side of the Pacific. The students seem to follow and stay awake, but still, it does not spark much discussion. So disappointing.

I still have not heard from Mary Ekmalian, traveling in China this week. Her itinerary was not supposed to take her to Sichuan, so I am assuming she is OK.

Thursday, May 15

I spend the day hunkered down doing final preps for my talk in Nanjing tomorrow and working on the two lectures I have now agreed to do in Guangzhou. I am also reading and watching the earthquake coverage. It is unrelenting grief. The numbers just keep climbing and rescue workers and the army have still not reached the areas closest to the epicenter because the roads have been buried in rockslides or bridges collapsed. The army is taking boats where possible and then hiking 6-8 hours over mountainous terrain to get into the worst areas.

I received an email from a journalist friend asking if I would like to be interviewed about how it feels to “have a daughter of China” when so many Chinese are losing the only child they have. I say I am happy to help but not sure that I have any special perspective. I speak with the journalist that evening and the question is vaguely, do I have any special emotional reaction to the earthquake because my daughter is Chinese? I say I feel very sad as a mother, as a human being, but that it is not because my daughter is Chinese. I feel closer to this disaster living in China than I might if I were living in Boston. It feels slightly akin to 9-11 with the candlelight vigils, public mourning and wall to wall coverage. The journalist does not seem interested and we end the conversation. But afterwards I wonder what they were after. Should I feel guilty having a Chinese daughter when Chinese families have lost their only child? Like my daughter should be “returned to sender” to some Chinese family in need of a child? I hope that is not what they were after, but it really troubled me that that might be what they were fishing for…disturbing.

Even more disturbing, the government is saying tonight that as many as 50,000 people are presumed dead, even though only about 20,000 bodies have been found. As feared, the closer to the epicenter the relief efforts get, the less likely they are to find people alive. Jim Yardley’s story in the New York Times, of parents at a morgue dressing their dead children in their favorite clothes, or giving them their favorite toy to go into the crematorium with, is just heart-wrenching. So much sadness.

I have little basis for comparison, but according to other journalists here, the coverage of this earthquake is more thorough, balanced and transparent than other major stories here. It certainly is better than the Tibet crackdown, but that is not surprising, since Tibet was a political issue. I suspect, however, that when we get into the reasons for why so many died, and why buildings collapsed like a deck of cards, we’ll see less critical coverage of potential government responsibility. I am struck by the repeated announcements from Wen Jiaboa, who has been on the scene all week, that the primary mission is to save lives. I guess I feel that goes without saying, but maybe here it needs to be stressed. In the past, apparently, that was not the case. I am reading Colin Thurbon’s book, Shadow of the Silk Road and one Chinese person interviewed says ….”You know, in China, there is no tradition of respect for human life. It is simply not in our past…..That is our problem: inhumanity.” That is certainly not what I have seen here. There seems to be a great outpouring of concern, sadness and money to help the victims. And the people at the epicenter, grieving for their lost friends and family are no different than I would be under the same circumstances, distraught beyond belief.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Week 12

Week Twelve

Saturday May 3

We called the boys back in Boston and all is well there. Jeremy was planning a day trip to New York to see the dreaded Yankees. Rory was looking into summer internships. Over the course of the next few hours the view outside our window went from the usual gray, milky smog to a completely pitch black sky by 10 a.m. We had all the lights on and wondered what the heck was going on. Very weird. Many times in China, I have thought of the book Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s novel about life under the Soviets, but never more so than on this dark morning. By 10:30, it started to pour, harder than it has rained in Beijing the entire time we’ve been here, and then slowly it grew brighter. By the end of the day, we had sunshine and a cool breeze.

I spent most of the day doing laundry, downloading photos from the trip, catching up on email and online news, and finishing last week’s blog. I had not had a computer all week so it was a long process. Stephen spent the day practicing his Chinese. It amazes me that he is so into this. He has several online lessons and a few books and together he’s determined to master at least basic Chinese. This may turn into a family competition, to see who can learn the most. I am more than willing to concede defeat.

After dinner we called my mother and we all sang her Happy Birthday in Chinese: shang ri quai le. Stephen also checked in with his mother, and learned that his father is doing well in rehab after breaking his hip last week. He should be home in a few days. All in all an uneventful, but necessary down day.

Sunday May 4

We headed into the Temple of Heaven Park. Stephen had never been and I had been there in the freezing winter of 1998 and scorching summer of 2005, but never been there on a nice day. After yesterday’s storm, it was turning out to be a lovely day outside.( The China Daily today says there have been 84 “blue sky” days in the first four months of 2008…..which sky were they looking at???). The park is vast, but not much activity. I thought we’d see more kites and Frisbees, but this seemed more solemn. But the peonies, roses and wisteria were all in bloom, so it was pleasant. We went from there to the Pearl Market across the street and bought a few more gifts. Stephen patiently waited while I haggled. Rui Pei Pei Pearls is not what it used to be – more expensive and more perturbed bored salespeople. We then ventured to the toy market next door, where Stephen and Katie were about to buy a Nintendo DS for 700 quai until they got down to the real price (which included games), that was more than 1000. No go.

We took a cab home and I noticed several Chinese flags hanging out dorm windows of a nearby university. This is the first overtly nationalistic symbol I’ve seen. I wonder if the dorms at Renmin are similarly adorned –I see only one at this end of our campus.

I am reading The Bookseller of Kabul and for all my complaints about life in China, this is a paradise compared to Afghanistan. I wonder how my friend Sarah Chayes has managed to stay there so long. A better woman than I.

Monday May 5

Head into my office for a full day of work. I’m prepping for this week’s classes, plus two guest lectures in Renmin colleagues’ classes on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, plus I’ve agreed to give a lecture on Chinese adoptees at Nanjing University next week.

The research for the adoption lecture is tricky to find. All my books and resources on this topic are back in the States and online sources are often blocked blogs. But I send out a slew of emails to adoption aficionados and get a fair number of positive responses, with leads to good information. Several years ago, I read Kay Johnson’s book Wanting A Daughter, Needing A Son and remember the highlights. The piece that is hard for me to get my head around is her research that indicated that 80+% of adoptees have sisters still in China. I am haunted by this. Somehow, knowing there are birthparents I can deal with, but siblings seems harder to grasp. I know Katie is curious about this too. I am torn between my desire for her to know more about her past and fear and confusion about what we would do if we “found” some relation. The prospect of finding some biological relative are extremely slim and I don’t think “family” is defined by biology, but still, I think it would be good to fill in as many of the blanks on Katie’s origins as possible.


I return to my colleague “Judy’s” class to give her students feedback on US journalism practices. The students have done a content analysis of several US publications (NY Times, Time magazine, Washington Post) and are looking for evidence of anti-Chinese bias. One student found the Post’s coverage of pre-Olympic food issues to be mostly balanced and sensitive to Chinese culture, but she took exception to two passages. In one, the lead is (paraphrasing here) “The Chinese are concerned about food safety after several recent incidents of tainted food ..examples 1,2,3….BUT, the IOC is confident food will be safe for the Olympic Games.” She felt the lead should have started with “the IOC is confident…” and if the Post wanted to mention previous food issues it should have quoted specific sources, not just “the Chinese”. I disagreed, and found this to be very slim evidence to call “western media bias”. The same student also quarreled with another passage: (paraphrasing again) “Premier Wen Jiabao says inflation will stay under 4.6%. But outside economists say it will be much worse.” She says the outside economists need to be named…the Post is deliberately trying to undercut the credibility of Wen’s statement. I argued that if she can find an economist who thinks the economy is doing fine, let me know. But with oil prices skyrocketing and food prices doubling, I think it is fair to say that most economists think inflation will continue to rise.

Another student looked at the NYTimes editorials over the past seven years and found 11 on China, 9 of which had to do with China’s human rights violations, one on pollution and one on security. He felt that emphasis on human rights was presenting a skewed image of China. I didn’t disagree with that, but I did ask him if he was aware of China’s human rights abuses. He said he knew of two journalists who were jailed, but otherwise, could offer no other examples. I suggested that he read the Times news pages and other western sources on this issue to round out his knowledge on this. I also asked how the Chinese government gets feedback on whether policies are working or not, if there is no independent reporting of how things are going. They told me about leican, internal newspapers produced by journalists and academics that are circulated only to the upper echelons of the Party. They also told me there is a similar leican at the Renmin student newspaper. Students report back secretly to the administration about what students and faculty are doing/saying without the students or faculty knowing they are being reported on…Apparently there was a very independent, critical student newspaper here a few years ago, but the Renmin administration shut it down because they didn’t like the heat.

Then the discussion devolved into Tibet again. And one student informed me that Tibetans only bathe three times a year. When I scoffed at this, saying that must be an urban legend, he and the other students assured me that this was the case. Now I really need to go to Tibet to find out the truth of what is going on there. Bathroom journalism!

I am very curious what the students’ final papers will look like and I request that they send them to me. If I get any, I will include them in the blog later.

What has been encouraging is the reporting done by Chinese papers on both the child labor scandal in Guangdong and the enterovirus deaths in Anhui. In both cases the newspapers scolded local officials for not finding out about the labor conditions themselves and in the Anhui case, not reporting on the disease sooner. So at least occasionally, there can be criticism of local officials when they drop the ball. The China Daily reported on the Guangdong child labor situation, but said they could only document one confirmed case of a child being locked into a factory job against his will. The Guangdong paper that broke the story said as many as 1000 kids were “sold” as virtual slaves to this factory.

The Hong Kong papers have also managed to keep a great deal of autonomy. Maybe, slowly, the notion of an independent press will spread north, Hong Kong, Guangdong today, Beijing tomorrow??

I go to my afternoon undergrad class and I am a bit disappointed on the stories they have written. Most are fluffy features, taking video and copy right off websites. I give a lecture on plagiarism and then stress that original reporting, digging for facts/truth/depth, is what journalism is about, not being a stenographer and regurgitating facts supplied from PR folks. They need to remember to ask WHY something is happening, not just tell me it happened. I hope their next two assignments are stronger. I would like to post those on the blog in the future as well.

After class, grad student Michael interviews me for a travel story in the China Daily. I reluctantly agree to help him, even though the China Daily is my least favorite publication. I will be in next week’s edition, complete with photos. Check it out!

Later, Eve stops by. She has been contacted by five Yiyang adoptive families asking her to get information or take photos for them. So hopefully she’ll have a little business next time she returns home.


Today I give a guest lecture in Li Qingsi’s class. He is a fellow I met at a luncheon of Fulbright alumni when we first arrived in February. He teaches International Relations here. The students were armed with examples of what in their view was negative coverage of China by western media. I asked them if they had also assessed the coverage of George Bush – I am sure that coverage would have been negative through their lens, and I explained that being a critical check on governments and institutions is the purpose of western journalism. Western journalists are not there to be cheerleaders for the party line. Anything that is not glowing boosterism ala China Daily, is seen as an attack on China. One student asked why Americans had such negative views of China (he had some American poll data that said between 48-58% of Americans had a negative view of China over the past few years). I said the history in the 20th century, from civil war, to communist takeover, to cultural revolution, to Tiananmen 1989 (this was the first time I had mentioned 1989 publicly in China), had left a negative view on the part of the older generation. He quickly jumped in and said that America had its own case of killing students at Kent State. I politely said that I was fully aware of all of the ills of America, and that I was not here to defend the USA. But I reminded him that he had asked why Americans had a negative view of China. I also privately bristled at him equating Kent State with Tiananmen. Kent State, in my recollection, was prompted by trigger-happy National Guardsmen, acting on their own or with confusing instructions from superiors, killing four student protestors. Tiananmen 1989 was a decision directed by the highest leadership in China to shoot and roll tanks over hundreds, perhaps thousands of students in the dark of night. In America, the Kent State shootings were investigated publicly. In Tiananmen, the whole event is brushed under the rug and not mentioned in any history books. Any website mentioning it is blocked.

I am slowly beginning to realize how effective the Chinese government has been in developing a whole generation of Chinese who unwaveringly support them. Lulled by a booming economy and an educational system that discourages critical thinking and reinforces the Chinese history of oppression at the hand of westerners (not their own government’s repression), most of the next generation of Chinese is not looking for western style freedoms. Any criticism from outsiders is viewed as racist or imperialist, anyone who criticizes from inside is seen as unpatriotic or a traitor. The brilliant public relations strategy, to turn the news about the Tibet crackdown, into a story about westerners (media) once again ganging up on China, was a stroke of genius. Of course there are exceptions to this and many of my students and other Chinese I meet and speak with privately can see the government propaganda for what it is and are able to have a more nuanced view of the west. But there is a well organized mass sentiment that the west is out to get China. There is a thin-skinned defensiveness that has really surprised me.

After this lecture I head to my afternoon class where we discuss ethical issues of what images, stills or video, are OK to publish, and what crosses the line. The same three students engage in discussion, and the rest of the class remains mute.

Before I leave my office, I finally take the time to listen to the interview I gave to BU Today, the Boston University news website. (LINK) I am blown away by the volume and the ferociousness of the responses. More evidence that no criticism of China is tolerated, even among a vocal group of Chinese living at BU.

I spent three hours on line or on the phone last night working out the logistics for the next four days. Katie goes to the city of Tianjin by train tomorrow with her class to see another school’s Exhibition. She needs to be picked up early in the a.m. and retrieved later in the afternoon. So I need to find someone who can translate that information to Shen Shifu.(call Michael). Shen Shifu needs some clarification (text message Eve). Friday, Katie has a track meet at another private school out in the far eastern part of the city and we need to arrange late pick up and we need a babysitter (email Eve). Stephen and I want to go see Madame Butterfly at the National Theater, but need a translator to order the tickets and arrange delivery (email Celine back and forth 3 times). And Stephen and I need to hire a driver t take us to the furniture village on Sunday (text message Simon). I also need to work out daycare and travel for Katie when I go to Nanjng and Guangzhou (Celine is unavailable). Every interaction is complicated and time-consuming….and especially so when the internet is only connected sporadically. For the past several nights it goes off at 10pm and doesn’t kick in again until after 9am. And it shuts off for no apparent reason several times during the rest of the day.


Katie is up early for her field trip to Tianjin, a city about an hour away by train. I had been following reports of the deaths in Anhui Province from the hand, foot and mouth enterovirus that has killed 26 children. What I hadn’t realized until I read this morning’s paper, was that 1400 cases have been reported in Beijing, many of them in the district where Katie goes to school. So now I am shoving bacterial wipes into Katie’s backpack, and berating her to keep her hands out of her mouth and wash her hands obsessively. I don’t want to scare her, but this disease, even if it isn’t always fatal, can lead to meningitis and encephalitis. And Katie is pretty lackadaisical about what she puts into her mouth.

We saw on the web that the Olympic torch had made it to the top of Mt. Everest. I turned on the TV for the first time since we’ve been here, and watched re-runs of the morning’s ascent (with commentary in Chinese). It was quite spectacular. As a former TV producer, I was marveling at the number and variety of camera angles that they were able get and transmit from such an inhospitable peak. It was an ambitious undertaking and I’m glad it was a success. The whole production was layered with this very dramatic music, but it actually seemed appropriate to the drama of the ascent.

I had lunch with Li Qingsi, the international relations guy whose class I guest lectured to yesterday. His specialty is US-China relations and he had just returned from a conference in New Mexico, somewhere near the El Paso, TX border, where he spoke for only 16 minutes. A long way to go for a short speech! He was pretty upbeat about the direction China is heading. His brother remains on the family farm, and now pays NO taxes, as well as receives a stipend of (not sure I’ve got this number right) 24RMB ($3.50) a month to continue farming. Li says farmers have never had it so good. He also says as long as economic growth continues at 10% a year, he doesn’t see the Chinese clamoring for more political reforms. Everyone is doing better economically and that is all that matters. He also boasted of the new high speed railroad that will go between Shanghai and Beijing. He said the difference between China and India, is that because India is a democracy, they would take forever to approve such a massive project, but here, in China, they just DO IT. I asked what happens to all the folks who will be displaced to build this project and he dismissed that concern. They will be compensated for their land and then unemployed. And undoubtedly, the jobs created to build the rail will benefit many more than will be hurt by this project.

Katie gets home late afternoon from Tianjin and reports that the city stinks, but the train ride there and back was fun…..but no, they do not sing baby songs on the train.

I spent the remainder of the day and late into the evening on the power point for the adoption lecture I will give in Nanjing. I am really enjoying all the research and gathering all this data in one place. On schedule, the internet dies around 10pm. Stephen sarcastically suggests that this will trigger the real big uproar in China. “Forget human rights, forget pollution and poverty….if you take away people’s internet, they will revolt!” And Stephen will be leading the charge!!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Week 11....We find Heaven

Friday – April 25

Katie heads off to school and Stephen and I head up to Beijing University. It is a gorgeous campus, much larger than Renmin. There is a beautiful lake with everything in bloom around it. We see a camera crew shooting a guy doing martial arts at the side of the lake. It turns out the kung-fu master was Italian, as was the camera crew. We meander around the campus and stumble upon the Sackler Museum. The museum holds the skeleton of a 24,000 year old man, or I think that is what it said. There are tools, pots and cooking vessels from the earliest humans in China and detailed explanation of the various settlements along the Yellow and Yangtze River basins. The descriptions are in excellent English (unlike most museums where one has to really work to get the English meaning). I am slowly beginning to get a timeline in my head about the various Chinese Dynasties.

We return to Renmin and invite Eve over for lunch. Stephen has brought a lot of documents from Yiyang to show her. He also brought her a gorgeous photo book of Walden and another book of Thoreau’s essays about Cape Cod. She keeps calling him Mr. Conlin!

At 2:30, Shen Shifu picks us up and we go to Katie’s school. Shen Shifu then drives all of us to the Lama Temple and we stroll around there. I really need to take a crash course on Tibet and Buddhism. The temple is lovely, but after a while, I feel like I did when I was in Europe, one gorgeous cathedral after another, and then they all blend together. The most memorable thing at this temple is the giant Buddha, in the Guinness book of World Records. It is three stories high made of a single piece of wood.

From the Lama Temple we head off to an early dinner with Mark (Ma Chenyi). Mark was our wonderful guide when we adopted Katie ten years ago. I dubbed him Katie’s “godfather” because he was so helpful to me during our first special days with Katie. Mark is now married to a lovely woman who is still in the adoption field. They met at the airport one day when both were surrounded by a gaggle of adoptive families. They both went to grad school in St. Louis at Washington University and got masters degrees in social work. Mark now works for the World Wildlife Fund. We had dinner at an old family restaurant with a beautiful courtyard. It was on a street full of restaurants so we’ll have to remember how to get back there. It was just great to see Mark again. He looks the same, but seems older and wiser, and somehow, reminded me of Bill Gates with his mannerisms and speaking style.

Saturday April 26

Stephen checks his email first thing and we get one entitled “bad news” from Stephen’s sister, Maureen. Stephen’s father fell and broke his hip. He is having surgery tomorrow. Unfortunately, we are headed to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China and not sure how much internet access we’ll have. I know Stephen is worried. We get to the Beijing airport, the shiny new Terminal Three. We wait in line to check in and told the 11am flight is “delayed” and we need to go over “there” somewhere to see if we can get an earlier flight. We wait in another long line and the first flight we can get is not until 3pm, and it leaves from Terminal One. While Stephen is waiting to get the new tickets, I go to the ATM to get money, but the machine is broken, then I attempt to go to the ladies room, but it is out of order. So much for the “new” terminal!! We have lunch/snack at Starbucks and Haagen Das and a Chinese noodle place at the airport and then take a shuttle bus that says it goes to terminal 1 and 2. Katie and I shove our way onto the bus, while Stephen gets the luggage loaded under the bus. But it is so packed, I fear he will not get himself on the bus and we’ll be split up. Thankfully, he squeezes himself on at the last minute. The ride is maybe 15-20 minutes, going back on the highway. And it leaves us at Terminal Two. The driver motions for us to walk to the left to find Terminal One. Well, it is a very long walk, maybe a half mile or more, to Terminal One. Why the shuttle bus can’t take you there is a mystery. I am really glad we had hours to kill, because the total time to get from Terminal Three to our Gate in Terminal one was more than an hour. We would never have made a quick change. The three hour flight to Chengdu is very bumpy, jumpy, and scary and the flight attendants incessantly come on the speaker to tell us that “we are experiencing turbulence”….like we didn’t know?

We arrive in Chengdu and are greeted by our guide, a young woman named Echo, whose English is quite good. She takes us to the hotel, and we are in a smoking room, which really reeks of cigarettes. But we’re tired and decide to stay. We go out for a little walk. Looks like another big, dirty, Chinese city, with the checkerboard of glitzy malls and dumpy garage-style shops. Stephen calls home on his cell phone and checks in with his mother. His father’s hip surgery went well and he’ll head to rehab in a few days. We all feel relieved that he is OK.

Sunday. April 27

We have a buffet breakfast at the hotel and then Echo meets us for a drive out to the Panda Preserve. It is a huge park, with groves of bamboo and other lush vegetation all around. We go up a flight of stairs and resting on branch in front of us is our first panda. This is a young one, chomping on some bamboo. He lumbers over to us, and sits down about four or five feet from us, separated by a cement ravine. He looks right at me and playfully chomps on his bamboo. Very cute. We come up to another area where there are twin pandas, “adopted” says the sign by International Data Group. I believe that is the company that Hugo Shong founded (he and I were at Fletcher and BU at the same time, but did not meet until a few years ago when he became a trustee at BU). We then go to the next area and a bunch of giant pandas, maybe 5 or 6 are playing in a pool of water. Down the road a young one takes a ride down a slide. At one point the guide says if we want to hold a baby panda, now is the time. We go over to a closed door that says “staff only”, and fork over a lot of money….I am embarrassed to say how much but more than is rational! Katie and I are admitted inside quickly, and the door closes behind us. Stephen is not allowed in, and he is having a coronary over the money I just shelled out. Inside, they give us booties to put on our feet and Katie is draped in a surgical gown. The family before us must have paid double, because they have mom and daughter suited up and the dad and grand-dad are both there with cameras. They get a few minutes with the panda and then it is Katie’s turn. They sit her on a bench and bring in the baby panda for her to hold. It is almost as big as she is and she tells me later she almost dropped it. I snap four or five pictures with the panda on her lap and I am waiting for them to sit the panda beside her for another set of photos like the previous family took, but she is whisked away and a new customer is on the bench. All told, we had maybe 45 seconds with the panda. Worth it? Not really. But if I hadn’t done it, I’d kick myself later, I’m sure. Katie is ecstatic!! So for her, it was definitely worth it. After an hour or two of pandemonium we take a quick walk through the area that is set aside for red pandas, who look more like raccoons than pandas.

From panda heaven we go to lunch and learn that Sichuan food really is the spiciest stuff on the planet. We also learn the words bu la: no spice, for future food orders! Then we go to Renmin Park, a lovely park in the center of Chengdu. Everyone is out for a Sunday in spring. Echo, our guide, treats us to a candy lollipop, made to order for us. We spin a wheel and whatever animal it lands on, the candy maker pours the hot sugary substance on a slab or marble and creates this ornate, thread-thin outline of an animal. I get a dragon which is extra special and very tasty! In the teahouse in the park, people play board games or sprawl out for a nap. Children in split pants are everywhere. We also see two men walking around clinking two small pieces of metal together and hawking their trade. Echo explains that these are ear cleaners who will clean out your ear wax in the park! At one point we see a bunch of large color wedding photos with some old black and white passport photos attached. Apparently, during the cultural revolution or other times of real poverty, people could not afford a wedding or a photo, so now, they bring black and white photos of themselves in Mao suits and this guy digitizes them into these color glossies of them in tux and white dress to create a faux wedding photo. Later, we go into this wysteria covered gazebo and listen to “karoke” of sorts. Old folks are belting out Communist Revolutionary theme songs in one corner, while another group is offering up Tibetan dance and song. The Tibetan dancer wears a cowboy hat and his two women companions are dressed to kill in glitzy costumes and spike heels. A bit later, we see a group of dolled up older Chinese women doing ballroom dancing, and they manage to enlist a western tourist to join them on the dance floor. The American man looks a little awkward, but his Chinese dance partner, a 60-ish woman with a red-dyed bouffant hairdo, is beaming!! On another park bench we see notebooks filled with dossiers in Chinese. This is matchmaking in the park. Mothers bring pictures of their sons and daughters, complete with information such as education, occupation and SALARY, and put them in the notebooks so that other mothers can check out prospective dates/mates for their children. A very low-tech….orchestrated by the mothers. I am so glad we took this stroll through the park instead of going to the museum which was on our planned itinerary. What a lovely little window into ordinary Chinese lives.

From there we went to a silk “factory”…there are dozens of these show “factories” all over China. You get a demonstration on how the silk, in this case (or jade, or cloisonné, or porcelain) are made and then get a hard sell sales pitch to buy from their overpriced store. But despite the sales pitch, it was fascinating to learn how silk is made, from mulberry tree cocoon to gorgeous embroidered quilts, clothing and artwork, even if the whole scene is contrived. We did buy a few scarves there, but know we could do much better price-wise at some other location.

For dinner, Stephen orders a curried chicken dish, but does not say bu la so he has to leave dinner early to go take a shower. The sweat was literally pouring off his face. I am glad I ordered a western club sandwich and fries! After dinner, we go to a variety of show of Sichuan opera, hand puppets, mask-changing magic, and shadow-finger show. Very cheesey, but Katie enjoyed it.

Monday April 28

We check out at 10 and head to Leshan, about two hours away, to see the Giant Buddha. The ride out is lovely, through rice paddies and tea plantations. We stop at one roadside tea “factory” and taste a few teas and walk through a tea grove. I buy some jasmine tea allegedly grown in this area….although someone else has told me it is a specialty of Fujian province along the southeast coast.

We eat lunch in Leshan, and order some of the food that my student Michael, who is from Leshan, had written down for us to order….but we remember to say bu la this time. It is all delicious and I text message Michael back in Beijing, to thank him for his good recommendations. From there we head to a boat dock and board a ferry out onto the river. We wait around for enough other tourists to board. A group of country bumpkins want to take their pictures with Stephen, who, Echo translates, they think is a movie star -- which one, I am not sure! We take the boat along the river and carved into the cliff is a Giant, (maybe 15 story tall) Buddha. It is the largest Buddha in the world. His ears are 7 meters long. (I think the Chengdu park ear-cleaners would have a field day here!) Very impressive. It is situated at the confluence of three rivers, and many people were killed in the treacherous waters. So in 713 AD, the Buddha was carved into the cliff to protect the boats. After we leave the boat we take a hike up the side of the cliff and stand above the Buddha looking back down at the river. This is a lovely park and walk, and another bunch of country bumpkins want our photo. This time I look like the movie star, apparently! I think this group has had a liquid lunch…they are effusively friendly! Leaving the Buddha we descend this long staircase. Ahead of me is an elderly woman, less than five feet tall, who is carrying a 6 or7 foot load on her back, full of plastic bottles. She will recycle them for money. About half way down the stairs, I give her my bottle and she is beams with this extraordinary smile across her wizened face. I marvel at her industriousness, but I worry about so many elderly Chinese women, scrounging for a few jiao to stay alive.

We leave Leshan and return to Chengdu for a night flight to Lijiang. We eat dinner at the airport Kentucky Fried Chicken. Stephen orders in Chinese and he is so proud of himself that they understood what he wanted. I think it is great that he is so into learning the language! I think the three of us should divvy up the vocabulary and each learn something useful, rather than all of us learning the same stuff and being only a third as competent. But Katie nixes that idea.

The flight to Lijiang leaves at 8:30. Lijiang is in Yunnan Province, bordering Tibet. We will be in the mountains in a ancient village that UNESCO declared a world heritage site in 1997. We arrive after ten, greeted by our guide Peter, and it is cold and raining. We are dressed for hot Chengdu. We arrive at the hotel around 11. We ask Peter if we can have a late start tomorrow, but he says we have tickets for the Snow Mountain between 9 and 10 so we need to leave the hotel at 8:30. The hotel is an old courtyard style house and our room door is actually a carved wooden screen with a padlock on it. Very quaint, but the interior of the room is very modern. We figure out how to turn on the heat and fall sound asleep.

Tuesday – April 29

Up early and it is raining. Katie is exhausted but we drag ourselves across the street to this Tibetan restaurant for breakfast. Great little place, two stories, covered with images and trinkets from Tibet. The furniture is all this brightly colored Tibetan stuff, and stuffed couches, not really a traditional restaurant. Breakfast is western, so we eat up and then head back to the hotel to bundle up in as many layers as possible. Peter takes us to the lodge at the base of the Snow Mountain, where hundreds of Chinese, all in identical red and yellow down parkas (rented for the day) are waiting. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. It is after ten and we are cold and tired. Around 10:20, we board a shuttle bus that takes us a few hundred feet up the mountain, where we wait, and wait, and wait, with the same hundreds of Chinese in parkas. We are at about 3500 meters above sea level. I am cold, tired, and on less oxygen. And my sneakers are getting wet as it continues to rain. Why are we waiting two hours to go up a mountain in the rain, when the mountain is covered in clouds and we won’t be able to see a thing??? To make matters weirder, we are surrounded by TV screens playing this almost cult like music video of some anthem to the mountain. The video was on the shuttle bus, in the waiting rooms, everywhere. For a place that outlaws religion, it seems to be putting a lot of effort into deifying this mountain experience. Apparently the gondola cannot go the summit, because that is where the gods live. Sometime after 11, we get in a gondola and are whisked up the mountain, to about 4500 meters (13,500 feet for all those who are math-challenged) above sea level. This is as high as I’ve ever been. I get off the gondola and immediately am dizzy from the altitude. It is snowing like crazy, almost white-out. Can’t see anything, it is cold, we are unprepared with the right clothing, and now feeling nauseous and dizzy. We stay long enough to take a few photos and head back down. Really disappointing. A better guide would have suggested that we do this another day and hope for better weather. I am not happy. Peter, our guide, does not seem to understand much English. He does not answer questions we ask, and does not give us much explanation of what is going on.

After we thaw out, we drive to Suhe village that is full of tourist shops selling local crafts. Yunnan Province is home to 25 or so of China’s 56 ethnic minorities. This area is mostly Naxi, a matriarchal society. Many of the shopkeepers are wearing traditional clothing, some seem authentic, some, who wear them over jeans with Adidas sneakers, look a bit more contrived. The village is beautiful, despite the artificial feel to the shops. We eat lunch in front of a fire as an elderly mason puts stones around the fireplace. Peter has ordered for us and is a little too conscientious about bu la, and the lunch is actually bland. So now we say xiao la: a little spice. We head back to the hotel and the sun begins to shine, and for the first time, I begin to appreciate what a glorious setting we are in. The city is surrounded by mountains, breathtakingly beautiful snow-capped jagged peaks. Man, I wish we had done that mountaintop trek now instead of earlier in the day!! I go across the street from the hotel to the Tibetan restaurant and sit on their second story porch, order a giant pot of tea, and soak up the sun and the street scene below: women in minority costumes, Li, Miao, Bi and Naxi, are coming into the village selling vegetables or other products. The man in the shop across the street is pulling taffy, which I later learn is very potent ginger candy. I am in heaven. Even though the old village part of the city is mobbed with tourists, sitting on this roof deck, I feel apart from that and try to take in the natural environs of Lijiang. I take a walk around, trying to scope out a good restaurant, but strike out. We end up eating dinner at the Tibetan place. After dinner we walk around and lo and behold, I bump into one of my students from Renmin, a Japanese girl named Keiko. Small world! We walk further into the heart of the old village and a group of young men crank up a boom box with Tibetan music and the entire square is filled with young and old doing a Tibetan “square dance” of sorts. This is the same song and the same dance that Stephen and I danced to at the Tibetan restaurant in Beijing our first week here. There it seemed totally contrived, but here it seems more authentic. There are bars and tons of restaurants that I missed earlier. The bars are full of folks in ethnic costumes doing this whirling dervish sort of dance. Great fun! We walk to the other end of the village and see a fire burning outside a restaurant and folks standing around it, little kids are dancing to the karoke type ethnic garbed singer inside. Old women in traditional garb are chatting with family. A lovely scene. We head back to the hotel for a sleepless night. Katie has picked up a cold and is sniffling and blowing her nose all night, the heater turns off and on with a real rattling noise, and the guests in the upstairs room sound like a herd of elephants (which for some unknown reason, Stephen knows the Chinese word for – xiang - not to be confused with banana – xiang jiao). We have a good laugh trying to figure out ways he can use his new vocabulary.

Wednesday April 30

Have a relaxed morning getting up and out. We take a walk north of the Old Town of Lijiang to the Black Dragon Pool. It is the loveliest park I’ve ever been to. The pool is a series of ponds and streams broken up by nice little foot bridges and pagodas with the Snow Mountain off in the background. The pools are full of fish and Katie has a great time feeding them and trying to catch them with a stick. Art students are dotting the sides of the ponds trying to capture the vista, brides and grooms are here to be photographed, and children are running around being adorable in their split pants. At one point there is a band stand and a group of elderly musicians wearing traditional clothes are playing Naxi/Dongba music on Chinese instruments like the erhu, a two string violin-type thing. The temperature is perfect, the azaleas, roses, wisteria and peonies are all in bloom. Heavenly. The only problem is, I’ve picked up a case of traveler’s intestinal bug and feel lousy. I am not interested in eating and go back to the hotel for a nap. Katie and Stephen go for lunch and ice cream. At 3 I head out with Katie to do a little shopping. She gets a new school bag, and I buy a few gifts. I then sit in the lovely courtyard of our hotel, surrounded by orchids and lilies and wonderful Chinese/Naxi architectural details, enjoying my book. This is so pleasant; I want to move in permanently. For dinner, we go to restaurant row. I am still dealing with a stomach bug so don’t eat much, but what I do eat is delicious. Gung Po, chicken with peanuts, is becoming a staple. We are sitting beside a stream that runs through the town and every once in a while a guy with a guitar and boom box amplifier stops buy to serenade us with the same folk tune. I think it is some rendition of “I left my heart in Lijiang”. We walked around the village, learned more about Dongba, the pictographic writing that the Naxi people created, as well as paper making, another local Naxi craft. The old village is a tourist trap (mostly Chinese with a smattering of Europeans and Japanese – very few Americans), but it is still charming somehow. Stephen has an 8pm call back to the States, so Katie and I continue to walk around, while he goes back to the hotel. It begins to drizzle, so we head back too. In our hotel, there are National Geographic black and white photos of the Naxi, probably taken in the 1940s and 50s; it was not so long ago that this was a primitive mountain tribe isolated from the world. The culture shock the older residents must feel --seeing guys with boom boxes and spike-heeled women wearing gobs of make-up --meandering around their village must be staggering. I really want to talk to the old folks of China, and am so frustrated with my lack of Chinese…although here, I’d need to know the Dongba dialect, I think, in order to talk to some of the elderly here. Another night of sniffles, noisy heater, and elephants upstairs….other than that this hotel, San He, is charming, really. Note to self: next time, get an upstairs room.

Thursday May 1st. National Holiday in China, Labor Day.

I headed out early to see if I could see the snow mountain without cloud cover, but to no avail. The sky is blue, but the peak seems to be perennially covered in clouds. A building that had been under construction day and night next to our hotel was completed, and ready for business. It had no walls three days ago and now this gorgeous restaurant is open for business. Amazing!

We met Peter and the driver and headed to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Peter told us it would be a three hour drive over rough roads and we all groaned. My stomach was already upset and the thought of jumping up and down for three hours was unappealing, but we went anyway….and I am so glad we did. The drive took us up over a mountain, on a winding switchback road. Like all mountain roads, this was precarious, and even more so in China, where there are no guard rails or speed limits posted. To make matters worse, the better mountain road was closed for paving, because this is the road that will hold the Olympic torch run in June. Everything in China is getting fixed for the Olympics. To underscore how dangerous the road is, we passed a crowd gathering along the roadside with the police where we were told a minvan had just gone over the edge and was submerged in the river below. At least one person was dead, according to Peter, who gets updates from the government via text messages on his cellphone -- in this case, warning everyone to be careful. So we took an extremely pot-holed and bumpy road up the mountain and back down again. The scenery was spectacular. The valleys and hillsides were a patchwork of neat plots of farm land, some terracotta colored red clay, others bright green with vegetables or gold with wheat, and others with these beautiful purple flowers that are apparently a plant that is fed to livestock. Nestled against the hillsides every few miles were these little hamlets of red peat brick houses. And the backdrop for this spectacular vista are 13,000 foot snowcapped sharp peaks where the Yangtze River originates. At one point we stopped to pee at the first bend in the Yangtze River, and it was a very shallow silt-brown, with river stone islands all around. The “bathroom” was the worst I’ve seen in China, really an outhouse, no walls for stalls, no wall for privacy, just a peat, clay fly covered pit. My stomach was really in trouble so when we stopped for lunch I could not eat. I was sure I was going to lose it, but we then took a long walk along the Yangtze and I felt much better. We walked along the river on this pathway carved into the side of the mountain. Every few hundred yards, a guard was posted to yell in a bullhorn for us to walk close the mountain so that we would not get hit by falling rock. There was ample evidence that this was a real possibility. In several places, they have carved long tunnels into the mountain, through absolutely gorgeous white marble, to keep us from getting beaned by boulders. After about 40 minutes, the Yangtze narrows through this gorge where a huge boulder has fallen mid-stream. The legend is that a tiger leapt from one side of the river to the boulder, to the other side….thus the name Tiger Leaping Gorge. This gorge is deeper than the Grand Canyon and the Three Gorges (near the new dam many hundreds of miles further east on the Yangtze). The vista is gorgeous, with snow capped peaks dotting the river on either side. Peter tells us there is plan to dam the Yangtze here to generate electricity. What a pity if it happens, but if the alternative is the filthy coal that has blanketed most of eastern China in a grey cloud, maybe it is a reasonable choice. The air here is clean, fresh, and brisk. The sky has been blue with big puffy white clouds for two days. I’d hate to see all that lost to coal. The walk has been very therapeutic for my stomach and by the time we return to the car about an hour and half later, I feel fine. The three hour ride back is much more enjoyable, although just as bumpy. The area we are driving through is populated largely by the Naxi minority group and most of the women are wearing traditional costumes of a blue hat, blue apron, and white belt criss-crossing their chest. In most cases, a basket is attached to their backs, and they are bent over their crops all day. Many have babies tied to their backs. I can see how the one child policy hits the rural poor the hardest. This is back breaking labor, and many of the people we see today are elderly women hunched over their fields.

We get back to the hotel and decide to eat at the brand new restaurant that opened next door. The menu is not in English, but the manager speaks English and orders for us. Yummy and spicy meat and potatoes, some sort of pancake, a green vegetable sautéed in garlic and soy sauce. Delicious! From there we opt to go to one of the two shows in town….a variety of show of Dongba/Naxi dance and music. It is a little too glitzy and Las Vegas to seem real, but some of it was interesting. One guy writes what is happening on stage in the Dongba pictograph alphabet and the audience guesses what each symbol means. Two older women sing some traditional songs and play traditional instruments and they seem genuinely committed to preserving their culture. The rest of the performers look like something out of American Idol with “Chinese characteristics.”


Stephen is not feeling well. He was up several times in the night with a queasy stomach. We need to check out by 7am to spend all day in transit. I feel sorry for him. I felt lousy yesterday, but at least I could just get out of the car and walk around. He’s stuck at airports and planes all day. We take the 40 minute ride to Lijiang airport and the area along the way is spectacular in the early morning light. Green terraced farms, red soil, blue sky, and snow capped mountains. I hate to leave and vow to return. We fly from Lijiang to Kunming, which takes less than an hour…and then hang around the NOISY Kunming airport for four hours. At the KFC, my new airport hang out, we run into two Korean students from my Chinese language class at Renmin! Small world. So now, I have been to the KFC in Changsha, Chengdu and Kunming….and never in the United States!

The flight home is bumpy, with the requisite incessant announcements that “we are experiencing turbulence”. We arrive back to 80 degree, smog-filled Beijing, to an apartment that smells of toxic paint fumes. But it is good to be “home” to a semi-comfortable bed, and a semi-working toilet! Lots of laundry and good night.

One thing that keeps bothering me is that the Chinese officialdom seem to care more about impressing tourists and the outsider rather than their own people. All the tourist traps are filled with excessive cautions about falling rocks, or hold the railing on the escalator, or beware of turbulence, but there seems to be little concern for conditions for workers putting in 20-hour days, sucking in toxic fumes, or welding without proper eye protection, or clean air and water. The Olympics has brought a better road to Lijiang, because the torch will go along it, yet, there were no guard rails on the other road that regular folks drive on, and someone plummets to his death. Much else that needs fixing in China for the benefit of the Chinese, goes without attention, but the stuff that the rich and foreign see are top notch. Strange priorities for a ‘communist’ workers’ state.