Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Korean Food Hustlers

After the excitements of past days, yesterday was a very quiet one. I have been spoiling you readers with thick and eventful posts, I know, and today I'm afraid you will have to be disappointed.

I walked out in the morning, still feeling flushed with victory. It was the first rainy day since I have been here. Overall, the weather has been warm and muggy, but not unbearably so. Chicago was good practice in this as in many other ways. The rain was just a drizzle at first, not enough to make anything feel cleaner, if that ever happens. I decided to be adventurous: I would go out for breakfast. I first off discovered that the multitudinous cafeterias on campus are closed to me until I have a student ID: they effectively limit their customers to just students by not taking cash. So I wandered down the street. Meanwhile it started to rain hard, so I bought an umbrella from a newsstand. It is royal blue on top and silver underneath (the silver is some kind of UV protector). It is called a "sun and rain umbrella." After I got it, I sort of wished I'd got a more feminine pastel color; my hand just reaches for blue automatically, but I'm already built like a bear compared to the women here. No reason to make it worse by having a manly sort of umbrella too. Well, most guys' umbrellas don't have the silver UV shade, I've noticed, so at least there's that.

Soon I went into a little restaurant. I decided to have their breakfast special: six baozi and a bowl of porridge for 2 RMB. The porridge was sort of like cream of wheat but neither sweet nor milky. It was served with a little dish of some kind of brown bits, salty pickled something. The stuff was so bland without them that I dumped them straight in, whatever they were, and the result was quite palatable. Maybe I'd like cream of wheat better if I put brown pickled bits into it rather than milk and sugar. Chopsticks but no spoon--I guess porridge is to be drunk from the bowl.

After I got back from breakfast, I did my internet stuff and then wandered about looking for a place to get photos taken. I need 8 for registration--passport type photos. It's a good thing I waited to get them here! There was a little photo-shop in the campus Mini-mart where I ordered a sheet of 9 for only 15 RMB. I couldn't help thinking of Taiwan, where I had to do the same sort of thing but somehow ended up in a store that did graduation photos and senior portraits and such, so I got touched-up glamour shots (including making my tanned and freckled face many shades whiter and less freckly) and it cost me more than $20. Here it's just plain me for $2 or so. I just hope they're the right size. None of the school information is as informative as I might wish.

The only other notable thing I did was withdraw some money for my apartment transaction. More on that later.

I also looked in vain for a post-office. I will have to work hard and find one soon, but no luck on this occasion! I even wandered east along a big road off the south-side of campus. There I discovered that my new place is less than five minutes walk from not one, not two, but at least 3 huge multi-story bookstores. This is not counting the two university bookstores in the Mini-mart and another, actually called "The Peking University Bookstore" which I think sells products of their own press (housed in the same building). I have not gone in to any off these except the first one, as I am going to have to move soon and must force myself to resist temptation. But I will say that the money I have been saving on food is very soon going to become my book budget.

Speaking of saving money on food, I was starting to get a little hungry walking along that big street. You can tell I'm getting spoiled when I walked into a beef-noodle restaurant and found myself thinking, 8 whole RMB for a bowl of ramen? No thanks! Maybe I just didn't feel like eating ramen, though. Instead, my eye was caught by a fellow with a sizzling hot grill, making delicious looking toasted sandwiches. I know that by and large street food is a bit suspicious, but again, this fellows customers were plentiful, and the fire was very hot. Besides, the meat was a type of really salty ham, and what can go wrong with something that salty? I had a ham and egg sandwich with spicy hot pepper sauce and a bright fresh lettuce leaf on a toasted round of bread that reminiscent of a double-size English mufffin, 2 RMB (the egg doubled the price), the whole thing sizzling hot. Totally delicious, and no ill-effects thus far. I think eating even street-food ought to be okay in small quantities--I'll just sort of build up my immunities. And street food always looks so tasty.

After this I went back to my room and just hung out. It was very lazy of me, when I should have been out accomplishing things, but I just wanted to chill and do nothing. I have decided I will wait to start working on my dissertation again until I move in to my new place. I just hate to drag out all my books and papers when I'm going to have to pack them again. Besides, without internet everything would be slow and frustrating. I actually use the internet quite a lot in my work. So anyway, I read, dozed, made some lace, played around with my computer. The photo at right, by the way, is some of my recent productions. The one on the left is a fern pattern, and the one on the right is called Cluny. Which one do you like better?

Around dinner-time I ventured out. It was about 6:30. I had had the curtains drawn and it looked so dark in the room that the fact that it was still daylight came as a shock to me. I decided to explore the east edge of campus. There was nothing much there, though. All the workers were getting off work, and so there were big swarms of people waiting for buses. I had been walking south, but eventually turned west. I was sort of half-looking for the restaurant FL took me that first night, but I didn't find it. It must be on the north edge of campus? Or on some further-off side-street. Or I saw it and simply didn't recognize it. I was feeling a little glum. It's such a trade-off, whether to seek out social interactions which 9 times out of 10 cause me such intense anxiety and unhappiness, or whether to slog through the days and nights all by my lonesome, which is kind of a chronic sadness but rarely acute. Anyway, I would have been glad for someone to have dinner with, but not quite willing to go to the trouble of making that happen. At left, by the way, is a picture of my new phone. A real rock-bottom model as you can see, and nostalgically reminiscent of my old cell phone, which I gave up four years ago! Phones have got much fancier since, but you can still get a pretty simple one, as I found out.

Eventually I decided to have Korean food. The waiters in the restaurant I found were very pushy, cheery, and solicitous, which I found (for once) more soothing than embarrassing. However, Koreans tend to speak a horribly incomprehensible brand of Chinese. I can barely understand a word they're saying! I think it must be because they slip back into Korean pronunciations of some of the words, which are near enough for native Chinese speakers to get it, but for me, I have no clue. To make matters worse, these Koreans had memorized and frequently employed some jolly fast-paced set-phrases in Chinese, all rhyming and elegant, but totally incomprehensible to me. The upshot of all these lingual obstacles was that while I had intended to order some comforting homey sort of food like chapjae or bebim bop, what I got instead was a rather unsettling hot-pot. This was very Chinese-y Korean food. The stock in the pot was so oily that things you stuck in were half deep-fried, half boiled. As for the things they suggested I order… heart of pig, intestine of beef… They didn't really give me time to read the menu, which I could have done albeit slowly. I settled on lamb and chicken, seaweed, and napa cabbage. I was confused about what I was even ordering (at first I thought it was some kind of appetizer, and didn't realize it was a hot-pot at all). They found the tiny quantities I asked for rather hilarious (ONLY 4 lamb sticks?), but in the event it proved more than enough! In retrospect, I think it was some kind of uneasy marriage between chigae and Chinese hot pot. You stick the raw stuff in on sticks and pull them out when they're cooked, but the broth you stick them in to is a highly spiced chigae sort of broth, which would ordinarily be stocked with slow-cooking and odiferous things.

Well, I tolerated it well enough, though it wasn't exactly what I felt like eating. It did beguile the time agreeably, and provide lots of lively social interactions, what with the waiters chanting little Chinese ditties to the effect of "eat slow slow, eat more more" or "eat good food, eat until you're full." Okay, they were real food hustlers. What else would I expect from Koreans. It was pretty funny, though I felt rather indigested afterwards.

I got back to the campus in time to see numerous fruit vendors setting up on various corners. Why to the fruit vendors come to campus at night? I didn't see anyone buying any fruit. I guess it is just one of those mysteries. Melons peaches apples plums. Naturally I was still too guilty about the grapes to make any purchases!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Big Victories and Nameless Lake

I am writing this in the early evening, before it is even dark. The sun has been hidden all day in a white haze of pollution and clouds, but I suppose it must be near to twilight. And I have a wonderful sense of freedom. It was true what I said yesterday: I can use Chinese to get what I want, and I have gotten it.

Although I had been awake since 2 AM, I started the day (the actual daylight day) with a great sense of purpose. Perhaps I had been feeling lost and low in the evening and the night, but it was just a spur, as it can be at best, an encouragement to pursue my options fully.

For breakfast I had two slices of leftover raisin bread from last night, together with some milk tea. The milk tea was "wheat flavor." Yesterday I had accidentally gotten strawberry flavor, which was weird. My only other choices were "chocolate" and "wheat." I have never heard of wheat-flavored anything. Maybe it was a little like malt. It was weird too. It's funny that they don't make tea-flavored milk tea, but never mind. Perhaps tomorrow I may even try making my own British Breakfast tea. I can go out and buy milk, maybe sugar as well. Okay, yes, I admit that I imported tea to China. But it's a comfort food for me, and I sure haven't seen any for sale around here! Tomorrow I will celebrate perhaps by finally breaking it out.

I had a carefully planned out set of objectives for the day. First I would check e-mail, put up my post, write to a few people. Next I would go out and get a cell-phone, according to a plan I also made: first see if FL or JZ had written back with advice, next (assuming they hadn't, and they hadn't) go to the huge electronics store across the street, third (if they had nothing better than the phone stand guy offered) buy the phone from the phone-stand guy. Objective 3 was to make at least three apartment appointments. Underneath this objective, I wrote "Just do it woman!"--because I was really terrified of doing this.

Objective 1 was easily completed, especially since I had written out even some of my e-mails and all of my post ahead of time. At the last minute, I decided to check the "That's Beijing" postings again. That's Bejing is a website of classifieds and such which is written in English and includes apartment listings. I had been checking it, but not turning up all that much. All of a sudden this morning a new ad appeared, an apartment with all the standard amenities I am insisting on (AC, internet, private bathroom, etc.), and only five minutes walk from Beida. I scribbled down the number and went straight back to my room to call. I just had a strong good feeling about it, exactly as some of the other posts had given me a bad feeling. It felt right. The number was local, and after some fumbling I was able to call it. I did the best Chinese I could muster, and spoke my lines. It was the first time I had spoken Chinese to a stranger on the telephone. I was able to make an appointment at noon. She told me the building and apartment number with great patience. ("Building FOUR not building TEN"--they sound quite similar in Chinese--"one, two, three, FOUR.")

Feeling flushed and eager, I went out to accomplish objective 2. The electronics store was an astonishing multi-story maze selling...EVERYTHING. New and used. Not much of a used electronics market in the States, but here nothing seems to get truly thrown away. Even if it's broken someone will scavenge it. Also, no point in dumpster-diving here, as someone who needs the stuff more has been there before you. I also got the sense (from seeing a fellow lugging a huge computer monitor through the front door) that they buy stuff. Well, where else would they get it? Just last June I had to throw away a similar monitor--because who would want it these days? Well, someone in China might, if there were a way of solving the transport problem!

I was pretty bewildered, wandering through the crowds and the undifferentiated masses of cords, wires, batteries, computers, ipods, palm pilots, and lots of unidentifiable things. I'm someone who tends to feel overwhelmed in a BestBuy, I'll have you know, and this was absolute chaos compared to that. But eventually I noticed a sign that said "Cell Phones Basement level." I will add that everything around here is in Chinese. This is not a tourist part of town. I'm sure a lot of the students here do speak English, but there is no need for bilingual anything in the signage department.

I went down the basement. Everything clean, white, deeply organized, more like an expensive jewelry store, like Tiffany's. No browsing either. I wandered about, looking at the signs and trying to be casual, like I was "just looking", and also trying to remember appropriate brand-names. (Nokia and Motorola predominated.) But I didn't get far before one particular saleswoman called out to me with such persistent politeness that I had to answer. Questions, questions. I picked up the cues, because the questions were easy. Fumbled some of the answers for once, because it's hard to put the concept of "average to low-end, no-frills, gets the job done type phone" into the vocabulary I possess. Ask me about the stylistic features and moral-textual transgressions of Sima Qian's Shiji according to traditional readers and I can do a creditable job. Ask me to join the modern world and I flounder a bit. I did manage to convey that I would rather not pay $200 or even $100. I said it didn't need to be able to take pictures. (Well, I have a brand new digital camera for that, don't I?!) We moved slowly down the ladder. Once I laughed. "You don't like it?" she asked, hopefully, looking back toward a more expensive model. "It's not that," I said. "It's just that I don't have a cell-phone in the States either, so to me they all look the same." Primly, she explained that the one had a color display and the other black and white…and so on.

She was a pretty good salesperson, which is to say, one after my own heart. At every step off the way, she asked "Would it be okay if I…" (show you the model from the box at this table over here, put in the battery, explain how it works, etc.) Always asking permission. This is highly civilized, I feel. At any moment, I could say no and then wander freely off. No being trapped in a net of words and persuasions. Not feeling trapped (though occasionally I was bewildered), I agreed at each step. The phone was a bit more than the phone-stand guys, though a fairly similar model. A little handsomer perhaps (though I'm no judge). But I guess I liked the notion of always being able to go back to this big store in case of trouble. Who knows when a stand will or won't be there? And other people's experiences have suggested to me that there is always trouble eventually. So I agreed to the phone.

It quickly became clear that I didn't know the first thing about the way these things worked in China. No one explains it because everyone who lives in the twenty-first century already knows. Yeah yeah. The saleswoman was really patient and friendly, but the girl (obviously in training) sitting at the table with us emanated an air of astonishment. Could a person really possibly be so ignorant, she was wondering. Yes in fact, a person could. Not only was I unclear on how it worked, but I didn't understand the vocabulary in which it was explained. It's all just so full of modern jargon. But well-placed questions of my own eventually got the thing worked out. Patience was the saleswoman's job, but she managed to convey a further impression of helpful friendly amusement.

Here is how it works. First you buy the phone. Then you buy the phone number, which is called a SIM card. It looks like a credit card, but then, amazingly, you pop out the little golden wafer from it, stick it in your phone, and then you have a phone number. (The saleswoman did it for me. The little trainee even started to protest…apparently this is something most people know how to do themselves.) Next, you have to buy another card which you activate by calling a certain number and entering the series of digits on the card. This is a declining balance thing. Now for the plan I got, it costs 20 RMB /month ($2.50) and a slight extra charge of each call (fractions of a cent, too tiny to calculate). Is this not superb, actually? far preferable to the way it is in the US where you usually have to pay through the nose for astronomical numbers of minutes that you'd have to live on the phone to use up--OR you have to pay so much per call that you end up not using the phone?

Another funny thing about the whole transaction. It involved almost no paperwork. I paid in cash (the total came to about $75). I only had to write my name on one form, together with my newly chosen phone number--I chose one I thought would be easy to remember--and nothing else about me. I never had to show any ID, provide any address. I could have given a false name and it wouldn't have mattered a jot. No registration, no control whatsoever. I think the thing I wrote my name on was something like a customer service form, nothing official. And then I had a phone.

Next order of business: find the apartment and look it over. This was harder than I'd anticipated. The place name, which I'd assumed was a street address, was not found on any maps. It turned out to be the name of the housing complex, but I didn't know that as I scoured all my new maps and even dared to ask the hotel desk clerks. No clue. "Do you have the person's phone number?" one asked. "Why don't you just call." Anyone who knows me knows how much I'd hate to do that. Why hadn't I just asked for directions the first time? But I didn't see much choice, so I gritted my teeth and did it. I used my new cell-phone. I had a hard time making sense of the directions, since they involved a lot of place names and landmarks I didn't know. At least I figured out the right corner of the map to explore! The lady was also extremely patient. Where was I just reading about the incredible reservoir of Chinese patience? I think it was LeCarre's The Honourable Schoolboy.

With an hour left until my appointment, I set off. It was actually really easy to find, and the "5 minutes to Beida" was not an exaggeration. It was quite near the bookstore I had explored yesterday, a housing complex of tall mustard yellow buildings. Okay, I admit, they are really ugly. But ugly in a friendly way, not to glitzy, not pretentious. Still fancier than Magie but somewhat reminiscent of it, because I think they are mostly occupied by Beida students. I walked around the place, getting a sense of the area. Along one side was a little street that was like a liminal time-frontier--high-rises on one-side and a little stretch of an older time on the other. Hole in the wall dumpling and noodle shops. A tea house. Vegetable market. Hutong-type alleys visible beyond that.

I got baozi from a wizened old guy who looked at me dubiously but didn't seem terrified of a potential language barrier. The language needed was minimal anyway. It went like this: "Want baozi?" "Yes." He takes a steamer off the stack that are balanced on a rack over a vat of boiling water. He whips the top off and onto the next lower steamer, dumps the contents into a little bag, and hands it to me. VERY hot. They seem ready to melt the bag…but not quite. "Three yuan." I give it to him and say "Thank you." Most of the game is just knowing what you want. I wanted baozi. The baozi were good, a little greasy, very hot and filling. The little street is clearly a fine resource.

Walking back along the edge of the complex, I sold myself on it. The windows showed various signs of occupancy--curtains, signs, clothes hanging to dry. The mustardy buildings, perhaps 9 or 10 of them, encircled a grassy center courtyard that was not exactly run-down, but not what you'd call manicured either. Garbage and recycling cans right in the middle of it. But also trellises and benches and stepping stone through the grass. One could sit there, surrounded by buildings, and not be especially aware of the huge street just on the other side. Lots of young people going in and out. Security guys were standing around, alert but unintrusive. They made no move to stop me or check me, but were just being there. I asked one about how the get to the apartment number (the big place was a bit bewildering). He pointed the way and let me in through the locked building door with his keycard.

Elevator, slightly shabby but fast enough, to the 16th floor. I was maybe ten minutes early but I decided to go up anyway. That proved an important and wise decision! The door of the place was open. Initially I was put off by how small it was. I'd been expecting 1 BR but it was actually a studio (it's sort of ambiguous here when they write ads, even though the ad was in English). Bathroom in the hall, with a washing machine in it. Then a miniature kitchen opening off on the left (fridge on the right against the wall). Next a bright red sofa (left) and a big TV (right). Then a double bed (left), opposite a tall glass-case bookshelf (right). Then a desk (left) and an armoire (right). Finally, along the back wall, a huge window with a gorgeous view. I mean, really nice, looking out over first the bit of city between the building and the campus, next the pretty green campus, and beyond an even greener strip of suburb with some mountains in the distance.

For one person it was small but not cramped. It will not feel cavernous with only my one suitcase of stuff in it. It had AC and heat, and on the little desk a DSL modem. Can't see myself needing the huge TV, but there's probably no getting rid of it. Hang a cloth in front of it, perhaps. In my heart I had already decided to take it. Expensive for market at $475/month, but the location--and the view… I bargained a little but not hard, got it down to $450. The landlady was a good person. At the FB orientation, they said that you should trust your instincts about someone being bad but not necessarily about them being good, as there may be cues you're not sensitive to. Possibly. But all the same: she was a middle-aged lady, owned the apartment herself, friendly, patient with my occasional incomprehension, gentle in the bargaining, and easily met my eyes. She talked about her daughter, who had just graduated from Beida with a degree in English. (Also, I should say that on the phone initially, she had interrogated me: are you renting it for yourself? What are you doing in Beijing? Where are you from? Scammers don't care who they scam, I'm guessing, but landlords care who they rent to.) The mother and daughter had lived in the place for a while, it seemed, perhaps different apartments in the same building? (a good solution I think). Now the daughter had graduated, so the mother was renting the place out.

She would take care of the electric bill for me (apparently it's quite complicated, and she wanted to make sure it was done right)--I would just pay her each month. She would go to the security bureau with me (a legal requirement). She asked only for a small sum of earnest money, about $75, and 3 months rent plus deposit payable when I picked up the keys. I hesitated a little at that, but I can swing it. And after all, I would have the keys already, and have gone to the security bureau with her, so it would be a pretty confusing scam at that point, right? So I took it. Perhaps it was wrong of me to take the first place I looked at, but an enormous relief as well. I had just handed over the money (she wrote me out a receipt in my own notebook), and was asking a few last-minute questions, when there was another knock on the door--someone else coming to look at the place. It seems that she had just arranged a sort of open house at 12, and I had got there first. She told them that I had decided to take it, sorry, better luck next time. The other apartment seekers were extremely disgusted and disappointed at this state of affairs, as I would have been if I'd arrived ten minutes too late. They were Chinese, though, and from this I know that the price was not wholly exorbitant, even by local standards. Perhaps they would have bargained harder (or not bargained), but it was a moot point. And though I suppose she could have, she was nice enough not to put the place up for auction! Especially since another potential renter called her cell phone just a few minutes later! Another sign of her being a good egg. Luck, timing, a good feeling. It's early to say until the keys are actually in my hand, but I think this will work out.

As with the cell-phone, but moreso: no forms, no paperwork, no background checking, no passport checking. She didn't even ask for my name, though she gave me hers in the receipt she wrote out for my earnest money. We just set a time to meet back at the apartment when she would give me the key. She said meanwhile she would have it cleaned and get me the proper quilts (I was clearly clueless about this, and she explained it with great amusement). There is something called "the three quilts"--I'll have to investigate in more depth when I see them! This is life in a deregulated system. It occurs to me that the big chunk of rent at the beginning is her assurance that I'm good for it, because she has no other. Now I just have to make sure I can come up with that much cash. I think I can, though I should probably spread the withdrawals out over a couple days to make sure.

Now I feel GREAT. Empowered. Confident. On the walk home I bought a melon slice on a stick. It was extremely sweet and mild, although the parts near the rind were bitter. Bitter-rind sweet melons, 1 yuan a slice.

I went home and rested a while. But as it was still early--and I felt so free--I decided to go explore the famous "Nameless Lake" in the north part of the campus. It was extremely lovely, as was the lightly wooded walk on the way, a rocky slope or wall along one side with occasional rough staircases and alcoves for outdoor studying. Traditional buildings, and even a tall pagoda. As far as natural and man-made beauty goes, this campus has Princeton and Harvard beat, I have to say. But since my hands are complaining about all this typing, I'll let the pictures make up the next several "thousand words."

The last photo, below, depicts one of the more foolish things I have seen people do. There was a very steep, rugged stone staircase that also twisted back and forth, and boys on bikes at the top were having an organized competition to see who could hope thier bikes down to the bottom in the shortest time and with the least falling off. This is the only time I have ever seen a Chinese cyclist wear a helmet, but even so it was amazingly foolish. A crowd of people had gathered to watch.

In closing I will just add that despite being occasionally lonely, occasionally alienated, often confused and insecure--I nonetheless feel very good here. Except for the lack of Colin, I might say I feel more whole. That's not quite right though. It's more like this: it's like having gone to the gym day after day, year after year, and building up a set of muscles you're hardly even aware of, much less confident in, because when you're not in the gym you hardly do anything but sit behind a desk. Then one day you find yourself in a situation where you're actually using all those muscles you barely knew you had. At first you feel apprehensive: am I really strong enough to pick up that piano? Very doubtful, you try anyway. And when you can pick up the piano, it feels great.

At home, the standard response of people outside my field (and that's most people) is, wow, China. That must be interesting. Or maybe, why did you decide to study that? Very little else to talk about, then, except a trip they or someone they know made, maybe a Chinese person of their acquaintance, his odd quirks.

My work has sometimes felt like a difficult to defend abstraction, but now I'm actually here--this is China itself, warts and all. There are plenty of warts! But at least no one asks me why I'd want to study Chinese. It is self-evidently the best language and culture in the world as far as most people are concerned! Probably this arrogance should annoy me, and maybe will, but doesn't right now. It's not like I identify with it--like I said, plenty of warts--but I am invested in the culture, more or less permanently. It may not, in fact, be the best culture in the world, but my choices are a declaration that to me at least it is the most interesting. And here are its living branches, rustling about on bicycles, chattering on cell-phones, and walking about with open umbrellas on a sunny day (okay, yes, actually functioning as parasols). Here I am and now (finally) I feel free to enjoy it.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Small Victories

My sleep schedule is quite confused, so here I am writing again in the small hours. I slept from 8 PM to 2 AM, and now feel quite ready to start the day, only the day hasn't started with me.

I shall start with the good things about yesterday. I got up early and walked around the campus for some time, looking at things, trying to figure out what was what. There are a lot of different student cafeterias, but I wasn't sure if one had to be a student to eat in them and besides, didn't feel like a heavy, unfamiliar sort of breakfast. Eventually I happened upon a convenience store and got myself a box of "milk tea"--cold, sweet and slightly chalky, but a reasonable semblance of my accustomed morning beverage. I also got some muffins, "orange milk flavor" which sounds unpromising but was perfectly fine. Eating is not exactly my top concern at present, just something to get out of the way.

After this, I went back and spent an extravagantly long time online. The business center here, where I can get internet, does not seem so costly by US standards, but (I am coming to see) is actually an incredible rip-off at 30 RMB an hour, relative to what the service needs to cost. The exchange rate may be (roughly) 8 RMB to the dollar, but the actual buying power of an RMB is probably more like 50 cents. Not that it need concern me, since my income is in US dollars, but it is an uncomfortable feeling to know you are paying too much for something. And yet I can't do without it. There is an ethernet line in my room, but it can only provide access to the university web system. I inquired about this at the front desk, since the hotel information implied that guests would have internet access. Apparently there's a special password that you need to get access to "international" internet. International students can get such a password, but presumably only when they're officially students, which I'm not yet.

I went out wandering again. Near where I am staying there is a little campus Minimart--really a bit like Wawa in Princeton, a big convenience store--which is together with the University Souvenir Store. Every university has one I suppose, only they're usually conjoined with the bookstore. I wandered in just out of curiosity, and asked the girl at the camera and battery counter about an adaptor for the computer plug. She had no idea what I was talking about, and also looked like she was about 12 years old. I explained in more detail, enough that she could say with certainty that she didn't have one. Still, I browsed around in some other areas of the store. To my delight I discovered a big display of bottled ink, both black and blue-black, my favorites and very reasonably priced. But no pressing need for it yet! And then I discovered a little section of various plug adapters, even converters (both ways). I took some time to decipher the Chinese on the converter so I would be sure to get the right type. As for the adaptors, I made a point of asking another salesgirl, explaining my situation and what I needed, just to be sure. They assured me it would work. I chose two different ones just in case (they were only about a dollar apiece), and it was a good thing, because only one had the right type of female connector. But that one did work, and my computer is now back in business--as you can see from this lengthy post.

Later, I wandered off the campus and along the street that surrounds it. I was vaguely looking around for a bookstore where I could buy a good map, and maybe somehow an equivalent of the Not for Tourist Guide we have for Chicago--a guidebook that actually tells you how to live in a place, not just which package tour to the Great Wall is the best. The street I walked along was a huge eight-lane monstrosity. I was again reminded of Seoul. Scattered along the way were venders selling melon slices for 1 RMB a piece. The melons were long and yellow, but the flesh looked like a cantaloupe. They cut it right as you watched, to remove any hygiene worries. I didn't have one, though lots of other people did. They looked tasty, but I wasn't hungry.

I did wander into a random bank as a test to see if I could change money, and how difficult it would be. It was a Bank of Beijing. I waited patiently in the queue for a long time, rehearsing my lines. When it was my turn, it all came off without a hitch. A lengthy and highly bureaucratic process, of course, but changing money always is.

At this point I should mention what a victory this all is. I approach every necessary conversation with the same dread I used to feel in Taiwan. I more or less know my lines, but it's the improv portion that always troubles me. Will I understand what they want of me? Will I be able to answer their questions? Yet unlike in Taiwan (a whole 6 years ago!), I pick up on my cues now. I often do understand the questions, and how to answer. I'm sure my grammar is all wrong and horribly inelegant, but they understand me too, more or less. I can use Chinese to get what I want--at least in daily life! Looked at objectively, my anxiety is all out of proportion to my actual abilities.

After crossing some very scary intersections, but only a block or so away, I found a bookstore and wandered in. A big, shallow, glossy place, surely something like a Chinese Barnes and Noble. Huge map and travel section, quite a number of Beijing maps to choose from. Whole BOOKS of Beijing maps. Nothing like the NFT Guide that I could see, certainly not in English (though they had a quite respectable English-language section). I don't think I want one in Chinese--too potentially confusing. But the maps in Chinese were fine, better even. After all, the street signs are in Chinese too. I remembered from Taiwan the habit people have of reading in a bookstore, maybe for hours. They do it here too, as if the bookstore were a library without borrowing privileges. People read whole books this way, and some of the books and the shelves are decidedly shopworn from having been read this way. But I applaud the habit, it being one I admittedly have myself.

In the same strip as the bookstore, there was a fast-food lunch place. The menu was like that at a sushi bar--you mark the things you want. Plenty of mysterious looking dishes, but I didn't feel like eating at random. I ordered Korean cold noodles and a Sprite. The imitation of naengmyun that I received was quite laughable. How can you make naengmyun with plain wheat pasta, almost spaghetti? or kimchee with just plain ordinary cabbage instead of Napa cabbage? Tomatoes? But despite its failings, it did convey something naengmyun-y. The broth was chokingly vinegared, but it had the right sort of flavor. The whole thing was quite funny.

On the walk home, I noticed that bicycles have their own traffic lights!

Not that it helps: just at the intersection where I took this picture, two bicyclists crossing illegally against the light in opposite directions at top speed collided with one another directly in front of an oncoming bus which actually had the right of way! The bus slowed, the cyclists had been popped off their bikes but landed on their feet, recovering nimbly with hardly a pause, riding on so efficiently that the bus didn't even have to come to a full stop--and it didn't. No honking horns, no shouted imprecations, just business as usual. But how the thought of a bicycle collision horrifies me. And all the same, I wish I hadn't put away my camera just a moment before, so I could have captured it on film. In view of the happy outcome, it was actually very comical.

My next order of business was to attempt to call my new friends. They had suggested I give them a call when I had done my errands. It didn't work from my room, though I assiduously read the directions for phone calls in both English and Chinese (to make sure nothing had been lost in translation). It didn't work from the hotel desk. I asked the lady in the hotel convenience store about a phone card so I could try from a payphone. I showed her the number. She looked at it and suggested that it was written wrong, there was no such area code. The five should be a three, she said. Go back and try that. I went back laughing and tried it, still no results. A guy in a little phone stand by the mini-mart offered to sell me a no-frills Motorola cell-phone (actually quite like my old one) for the equivalent of $50. Is that a good deal or no? I wished I could ask my friends, but I couldn't call them. I told him I'd think about it. I was glad that a cell-phone is so easily to be had, though, as everything here depends upon them. (I hate that.)

In the end I had to admit defeat and send them e-mail from the expensive business center computers. I did not hear back from them, though I made a point of checking several times. And of course I wonder (as I ALWAYS do with social connections, not just in a foreign country!) whether I wrote something wrong, or if they are tired of me, or if it was an insult to e-mail instead of call. I explained my phone troubles in the e-mail, of course. Most likely the reason I didn't hear from them is that time, for them, is not so strangely elongated with the sense that every moment must be purposefully employed. For them, it's just a day give or take. At least I hope so, but still I might have said something wrong, or they might consider their friendly obligations now discharged, and can't understand why I don't take the hint--or what? There are few everyday stresses more horrible to me than the stress of social relationships on the acquaintance level.

Also online I looked at some apartment listings. But they all looked like scams to me and I felt completely distrustful. I went back to my room to rest and read for a few hours, because I just didn't feel up to doing anything else. There I did make a wonderful discovery: sorting through my pocket change, I came up with an extremely miserable, pathetic little coin, worth probably some fraction of a fraction of a cent, and made in 1977 to boot. It looked like--could it be…? Yes! It in fact passed the water-glass test for worthlessness of currency: it floats on water!! I think there are a few such coins in Hungary, but foolishly I never took the time to try them when I was there. But this--this was a superb sight, and made me feel deeply satisfied. By some inverted scale of value, I will treasure it always--one of the most worthless coins I have ever seen.

Eventually I went back out to wander the campus a bit more. I found a big bulletin board being busily consulted by lots of returning students looking for housing prospects. Laboriously I waded through the crowd and read some ads. But they were mostly seeking roommates, or were for rooms in houses. My insistence on wanting a place of my own seems perverse when viewed through a Chinese perspective, I know that. How can I help it, though? There's no getting around the fact that if I try to live with anything else it will be stress and unpleasantness. A guy with a difficult accent came up and asked me what I was looking for. I spoke my lines well enough, but fumbled the cue each time he asked a question. I'm not sure what he had on offer, if he was honest or a scam-artist or just a curious person. In any case, whatever he was hoping I wanted, he hadn't imagined such luxurious perversity as what I told him (I suppose), and he drifted away. Possibly he was scared away by my apparently bad Chinese.

I have, incidentally, noticed in shopkeepers and waitresses a distinct tendency to be terrified at my approach. I can see them thinking, "Oh no, what if we are about to have an embarrassing language barrier miscommunication session? Save me!" This is generally transformed into relief when they realize that, however imperfect my accent or grammar may be, I can more or less talk like a normal human being. Well, except to this bulletin board guy.

Eventually I wandered away. Got lost trying to find my way back. I should add that there are other westerners around on the campus. My reaction to them surprises me. It may just be the hysteria of the first-week roller-coaster, but I don't feel any particular sense of fellow-feeling with them. I feel annoyed at their gangling, incompetent look, their ungainly expression of mild discomfort: no doubt it is a mirror of my own, so different from all the tidy Chinese faces who understand this world and their place in it. It's a wonder that the Chinese people tolerate us with such patient politeness. We are ugly. This is really different from my experience in Taiwan, where the sea of black hair and Asian faces seemed oppressive and my eyes used to seek out and linger on the occasional harassed-looking Westerner with great sympathy and friendliness...

All day today I did not speak a word of English.

I am sort of fascinated by the construction that is going on outside the building my room is in. I went in and out embarrassingly many times today, so I had many chances to observe its different phrases. Once I came out at lunchtime and all the workers were lined up and sitting down with their bowls of stew. There were so many of them, and the impression was startling somehow. Maybe because they were at ease, lacking in distraction, and so all their eyes turned toward me over their big enameled bowls. Another time I saw one of them mixing concrete by hand, and not even in a container, just on the ground--making a sort of grey mudpie. Another time, I saw a fellow shoveling up dirt and tossing it through a big propped-up screen. This had the effect of sorting out the stones and clods, making the resulting dirt pile on the other side very much finer. This MUST be done by machine in the U.S. I watched this process a little too intently, which attracted the attention of the others, so that behind my back when I set off again I heard them mumbling "lo wai, lo wai" (foreigner) and what I take to be the Chinese equivalent of a wolf-whistle, which sounded oddly like a bird-call, but was of course not polite. I guess you have to either ignore the construction workers completely (like everyone else does) or make up your mind to talk to them properly. So I took to ignoring them too, not wanting to attract the wrong sort of attention. But still I felt interested in how they did their work. Sometimes I really think men have so much more freedom than women. I can picture Colin (that is, if he could speak Chinese), having a really pleasant chat with these fellows. But there's some things, I suppose, that aren't worth regretting.

Beida seems a very elite place. It feels more like Princeton than like Harvard in that way. The students are very prettily dressed and neatly groomed. Girls ride side-saddle on the back of boys' bicycles, balanced very romantically. It makes me feel broad and very clumsy. It's like watching a movie of fairyland.

I got some bread and yoghurt from the Mini-mart and had a very small, quiet dinner in my room, together with some grapes from the bottomless box that FL and JZ gave me on my first day.

There is no way I will come even close to finishing the grapes. They are a strange oppression of kindness. They were fresh-picked the day I arrived, so they are going bad only slowly, but unrefrigerated the process is inevitable. We're talking about something like five pounds of grapes. They are supposed to be washed, but do I wash them in the suspect tap water or in the hot boiled water? In the hot boiled water they of course get hot. It is all rather overwhelming. On the other hand, while they last the grapes are a constant and healthy food source for snackish moments. (Now for example. I think I shall have some. Eating them seems like a virtue. The slight undoing of a sinful waste which will inevitably result from such a gift.)

Anyway, to round out the account of the day, I made an effort to watch some Chinese television. There was a nature program even, called "The Thrill of the Kill." Wolves snapping up hares, bringing down a buffalo which kept on fighting even when it was missing big bloody chunks of flesh. It was rather gory and also had a tendency to put me to sleep, so I switched it off. I should probably have made an effort to stay up longer but instead I drifted off.

And woke up oppressed by the anxiety of apartment hunting. Time is constricting. The end of the month approaches, and I will have to move out of here (Sept.1) and into SOMEWHERE. This area becomes highly congested around registration time, all the hotels filled up, I am told, this one included. I wonder who will have my room with its leaky bathroom. Will they be grateful or outraged? I will feel much better when I have my own nest. Much much better. But it seems so difficult. JZ is leaving for home today, and I don't know if FL will come through on the help he promised with her not around. Or if it was really a promise, rather than an empty courtesy. I worry that they are both put off by my perverse desires in the apartment department. In any case, tomorrow I suppose I am going to have to just do stuff without their aid. But first a cell phone... etc. I create my own difficulties, I suppose.

In the balance sheet of the day, I should consider that victories outweigh defeats, shouldn't I? I changed money, got an adaptor that works (though the transformer box gets alarmingly warm!). I know that a cell phone is obtainable, and could walk out tomorrow morning and obtain one, right at the corner. Of course I pay more for things than I should, but with the exchange rate so much in my favor the loss is inconsequential. And there was that wonderful floating coin. Today wasn't such a bad day. I hope tomorrow will be even more productive. As in Chicago, I have trouble getting used to a new place except very slowly and tentatively, always wanting to walk down the same street three or four times so it gets familiar before trying another one. I hate shocks and feeling lost. But this method is not conducive to hurrying, which is sort of what I need to do!

Beihai Park and a New Hotel

It seems like I have already been here a long time. Jet-lag plays tricks, for each day and each night seem like a separate day during which I am sometimes awake and sometimes asleep. So although I have only been here for a day and a half, really it feels like three days worth of time.

Yesterday morning I got up very early and went for a walk. I accidentally forgot my map, but simply looked very carefully at every turning and made my way back all right. Of course, I didn't know where I was going. So early on a Sunday morning (it was around 7), most things were closed also. But not the middle school I passed. Do they go to school seven days a week? On the way out, I saw a confused jumble of cars and kids riding double on bicycles, everyone arriving in the usual school-morning chaos which probably exists everywhere that schools do. On the way back I saw the students standing together in groups in side the high-gated school-yard, while parents stood outside watching them with with craned necks, all extended in the same direction, vacant and rapt, somehow reminding me of turtles (I suppose in Chinese that's an insult, but I personally love turtles so nothing bad intended). A better metaphor, I suppose, is concerned sunflowers, their faces turned longingly toward the sun. There were so many of them, it seemed like perhaps it is a custom to watch your child standing around with his or her peers--as if by a few minutes of observation you can discern something about that long space of time each day when your beloved and protected child passes beyond your reach and has adventures you know nothing of. But through some kind of parental divination, can you read the substance of these adventures from the few moments before the kids are summoned to their classrooms?

Also on my walk, I passed another schoolyard, this one a sort of playground, I think for much younger kids? There seemed to be playground equipment, though none of it matched any of the stuff I grew up with. Still, it had that look. And there was a ping-pong table with a line of bricks instead of a net. Two grown-ups, a man and a woman, were playing a game of ping-pong which if it had been a conversation would have been a relaxed and gentle banter. Then I walked past.

I was a little intimidated at first by the cars, but I think reports of the danger to pedestrians are over-rated. True, even when you are crossing with the light in your favor, at least one lane of traffic still has the right to zoom through your path most of the time, and bicycles seem to ignore traffic lights completely. But no one actively seek to run you down. As long as you are very alert and keep out of their way, it is possible to make it to the other side without becoming road pizza. Still, especially when there was no light, I was careful to follow some other more confident person across the street. Pedestrian crossings (the same flat white ladder that we have) mean nothing here. I am quickly getting used to it all, though.

Without really finding much of interest, I returned to the hostel and had a shower and some breakfast, for which the hostel charged 15 RMB (slightly less than $2). Breakfast consisted of some nice seed-bread, with butter, jam, and cheese, also a little pile of scarlet-veined peach widgets balanced on a tomato slice, a little pile of small banana wheels piled on thinly sliced cucumber, and a some chunks of nice ripe watermelon ("fruit and vegetable salad"). This was the "vegetarian" breakfast. For an extra 50 cents or so you could have bacon and eggs with it, but I didn't feel like it. Oh, also orange juice and the weakest, hottest coffee I have ever had. I think the boiling water here IS hotter than elsewhere.

I also spent some time online, with my own computer this time, though the batteries are rapidly coming to an end. Why oh why did I not spring for the extra battery while I was at it? I still did not manage to find an adapter today, though this was I think the neighborhood I was in. A lot of dubious mom and pop shops, decidedly low-tech, a little like the shops on Mokpo in Korea. Some more upscale ones for clothing. Some that seemed to sell nothing, but possibly it was internet access? Anyway, I am for sure going to find something today. Am kicking myself for not just bringing the plug adapter Colin had as part of his set. It would work perfectly well.

Anyway, to get back to my day: after I had rested a bit, I went on a major excursion to Beihai Park. This is an enormous park dating back to the Yuan dynasty, possible to Kublai Khan. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan... Perhaps this was his Xanadu. The park surrounds a huge man-made lake, shaped like the top part of a slipper with the big toe pointing north (right foot). The excavation debris was heaped up make a towering island near the southwest corner (where the instep would begin if it were a foot). The lake is edged with beautiful weeping willow trees, some very young, some very old, and a carved stone railing. It being Sunday, there were people everywhere, but in a pleasant way. Not horrific crowds, but spread out little groups of people walking or sitting or eating or doing various activities. Many children, obviously deeply beloved. Out on the lake, paddle boats and tourist ferry boats with painted eves like the eves of temples or palaces.

I didn't go out on the lake, but instead opted to walk all the way around it, which I did, though it took me several hours. A BIG place. Besides, there were a lot of side distractions: temples, halls of various kinds, gardens. Many I didn't even explore, but I did look into an art exhibition hall, where there were contributions on the theme of "Protect our nation's historical places." Calligraphy ranging from the classic to the eccentric, paintings of which some were obviously related to the theme and others relying (I suppose) on some symbolic connection I don't understand, terrifyingly intricate paper-cuts--all of it was, I think, fairly amateur stuff, but in way interesting because of that. Exceedingly heterogeneous. Photography was not allowed in the halls, but I took a lot of pictures of the lotus flowers outside. The light was exactly wrong for photography, I must add, but I took a lot of pictures of everything anyway.

Other highlights in the park included people with huge brushes doing water calligraphy. I was really fascinated by this. I watched a little girl of about 7, obviously prompted to try her hand, produce some characters that a) I didn't know, and b) were more nicely written than I could ever aspire to! Well, maybe she was being prompted to try it out because it's a special forte of hers. I was also really excited to see little groups of women sitting together with crochet and knit projects. Excited because it means that yarn is to be had here somewhere! I thought of asking them where they got it, but decided against it. Anyway, on the way home I saw a yarn shop which had been closed during my outbound trip. I controlled my longings, as I already have more stuff than is practical, given all the moving around I will have to do!! But I made a note of the location. Things are cheap here. A big bottle of water (partly frozen to keep cool) cost me 3 RMB, or less than 50 cents. Later I found that that was nearly twice what I would have paid in a convenience store for the same water!

Anyway, I also wandered into a hall (Happy Snow Hall? Quick Snow Hall?) built by the Qianlong emperor to honor a certain calligrapher--was it Zhao Mengfu? Anyway, it was a really pleasant place, quiet and peaceful with rubbings or carved stones hanging along the breezy open corridors. I also liked watching the people. They had quite thoroughly appropriated this former imperial sanctum of successive courtyards and fine artworks. There was no sense of the intimidated reverence that a tourist sometimes feels in the face of royal artifacts, nor any sense of resentment. The place belonged to them, and they relaxed in it, eating their lunch, taking pictures, sitting on the edges of the walks swinging their feet. It seemed to me an entirely appropriate situation, a bit like the British Museum or the Chicago Zoo. Cool things should be free to the masses, I think. Protected from potential depredations, but free.

A lot of restoration was going on, no doubt in preparation for the Olympics. Some of the bigger halls were closed and (I should have taken a picture) many lawns on the east side of the lake were so thoroughly covered by blue tarps that they looked like blue lawns instead of green, people sitting on benches or walking on paths beside them just as usual. It would be funny if grass were blue. I liked the effect of this one, which is a photograph to show what it's going to look like, surmounted by the real thing. Belows are some tiles to be used for the restoration, bound in straw to keep them from breaking.

Finally, I crossed the curving stone bridge to the tall island, with its towering white dagoba at the top. It was about half under construction as well. I found the construction almost more fascinating than the finished product--young fellows wandering around pots of intensely colored paint, or balanced on dubious looking scaffolding over steep staircases sans steps. Nonetheless, it was possible to climb to the top on trippingly irregular steps made from eroded stone. I ascended with care, rewarded with many interesting views of the lake and city as I got progressively higher. I didn't go all the way up to the dagoba because I was (I thought) running short on time. Also the word dagoba (unfairly) reminds me of Star Wars. But I got high enough to have a pretty good view!

On the other side of the island were vast lotus fields, now in bloom or perhaps a little past their prime, so that there are many of the big fascinating seed heads. I wonder if I can obtain some from a florist or something? I really like their shape.

By this time, I was very much in need of refreshment, so I left the park and on the way back I dropped into a steamed dumpling (baozi) shop I had remarked earlier. It was a sort of baozi fast-food shop, long benches for people shoveling in their baozi together with a variety of exotic cold dishes. I considered the menu and ordered two portions of vegetarian baozi. I should add for most types, the portions cost 2 RMB (= about 25 cents). Apparently I am a baozi lightweight, as the couple in front of me ordered about 6-8 portions. Baozi are one of my favorite food, but six was definitely plenty. There was a huge bin of terrifying hot pepper mush, lots of seeds (Colin would have loved it), which I self-served into a sauce dish, and poured vinegar over at table. The vegetarian baozi were full of mushrooms, not veggies, and were delicious. What a find!

On my peregrinations, I got mostly ignored but received a few long stares. ("What are you anyway?" they were thinking) At one point, there was a patently Western girl walking ahead of me wearing a very beautifully patterned skirt and a black tank top, carrying an umbrella for a sunshade and a healthy looking salad/wrap lunch in a clear plastic bag. She had long, strawberry blond hair, and was tall and relaxed looking. I watched her with some interest. So did a little boy who was walking toward us, hand in hand with his mother. He was maybe 4 or 5. He had eyes only for this girl. As they came near to crossing, he stood stock still, having turned to face her with a ravishing smile of pure adoration. I was walking behind her and couldn't see her face, so I don't know if that smile had the same heart-melting effect on her as it did on me, but she did just keep on walking. I felt momentarily seized by a discreditable envy, and for a moment wished that still had pretty long hair, and was tall, and wearing lovely clothes--or whatever it was that had caught that little kid's eye and made him look like that. O ye olde biologickal clock. I suppose what I need is a tiny elephant of my own. But not yet.

When I got back to the hostel, I was pretty tired and spent most of the afternoon resting or reading Hyperion, which is a little bit too much of a horror novel to be reading when I'm all alone and unsettled, but is admittedly very fascinating. Well, I also read the first two chapters of Moby Dick, which Colin and I have decided to read together, four chapters a week. All this enforced inactivity was due to the fact that I was waiting for JZ and FL to show up. They said they had a lunch meeting, and would come by after, but in the event they didn’t arrive until after 4. This left me an unfortunate amount of time for dozing and worrying in equal measures. I was feeling helpless and out of the loop, so far from the campus, and was depending on people I had only met a day before and who had no particular reason to help me.

They did come, though, to my great relief. They were visibly tired and suggested I move to a place near the campus (also nearer to where they both live). This seemed like a good idea to me, especially since they were helping me find one. I would have to lose one night's fee at the hostel of course, since it was long-past checkout time, but I got the third night back. It's all small change anyway, and smaller still compared to peace of mind. So I quickly packed up and went with them. The drive out to the distant reaches of the city, where Beida is located, was thoroughly terrifying. In a place where the consequences of having an accident are legally so grim, it's amazing that people drive so recklessly, FL included. But perhaps it is just the appearance of recklessness that great confidence sometimes produces.

We got to campus, and I had a driving tour. FL, whose family is huge in the parking lot business, had a special pass allowing him to drive through the campus. "Usually only people like the University president get to bring their cars in here," he said smugly. A driving tour was actually less useful than a walking tour would have been, it being impossible to get my bearings while moving so fast. But I didn't say anything. Their goodwill counted for much more than my disorientation! More on the campus later, when I have had time to explore properly and take some photos.

Eventually we pulled up in front of a sort of dorm/hotel building called Zhengda guoji zhongxin (Zhengda international center). FL marched in and demanded (in Chinese of course), "What's the cheapest room you have?" "200 RMB," came the quick and polite response. That's $25, only slightly more than the hostel actually, a good buy. I booked it for five nights, paid in cash with my dwindling stock of red 100 RMB notes. We went up to inspect the room. Construction off to one side of the building, unsightly, but not so bad given that most everything is done by hand labor rather than loud machines! The room looks exactly like a hotel room with two single beds, two desks, a private bathroom (which is a huge bonus), air conditioning. I have slowly discovered the little quirks that make it a deeply discounted room, like the slightly misaligned sink faucet and the fact that there's some kind of slight plumbing leak so water is slowly but constantly seeping over the bathroom floor. Well, there's a drain hole there, and the hotel provided two sets of slippers, so whatever. Totally worth it.

FL says that some people actually live in this building year-round. For two people it would be pretty economical (by our standards) and with maid and laundry service… not bad really. But I'm not really considering it, even if I could get a place. Their guest policy seems very strict--opposite sex overnight visitors of the guests seem to have to have witnessed documentation (presumably that they're married). Besides, for $750 /month I can do much much better. I saw a few ads in the $300-400 range, hopefully not scams. Will check them out soon.

Anyway, after checking in, FL drove us to a favorite restaurant of his student days. The food, I will say, was indeed excellent. Unfortunately, he ordered enough for about 10 people, one of those culturally instinctive reflexes to provide a lavish feast. Notable were black eggs (pickled in something and interestingly flavored), tender succulent lamb on sticks and flavored with cumin, grilled steamed bread (I loved it), and Kung Pao chicken which wouldn't even acknowledge its American cousin as a member of the family (totally delicious). That describes less than half the dishes presented, each one enough to feed two, as well as three 1-liter bottles of Tsingtao. I made a valiant effort on mine and succeeded in getting deeply tipsy after drinking only 2/3 of it. It was a feast all right. The waste, when we got up from the table with bulging bellies, was horrific. But I said nothing but a warm thanks.

Then there was another driving tour, this one in darkness, of the picturesque parts of campus, including two beautiful lakes, and some other things that faded into the darkness, a secret hint about a 24-hour gate (whose location I have already forgotten) and in general a lot of talk. It was a good but wearying evening, in part because it was conducted mostly in English to help FL practice, but instead of trying on his own, he would be constantly asking for translations from JZ, who herself couldn't always produce the English word, so then there would be a guessing game. ESL teachers must be saints. But I was as saintly as I could possibly manage myself, from a combination of friendly gratitude and (I admit it) calculated cultivation.

The new hotel room had a much better water situation. Unlike the scary superhot kettle of the hostel, it has two gigantic thermoses of boiled water, resupplied daily by the hotel maids. It is impossible to describe how soothing it was to my incipient hangover, having several generous cups of hot water in an actual teacup (also provided). Fortunately, I am already a fan of the original "white tea" (plain hot water), and have a very comforting association with it. I say fortunately because bottled water is the only alternative. Of course bottled water is cheap, but not convenient.

Anyway, soothed by the white tea, I fell asleep at 10, only to wake up again at 2 AM! Alcohol is so bad for trying to get over jetlag, and I did know it, but had little choice. And of course my nap of yesterday afternoon didn't help either. So I worked on this post for about an hour until my computer battery died, then wrote some by longhand, then read in bed. Around six, I went back to sleep but woke back up to the sound of my alarm at seven. I am so wound up, I didn't even feel like setting it forward and going back to sleep. I just hopped up and started the new day.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Arriving in Beijing

Here I am in Beijing!

The flight was 13 hours as promised, but we also spent over an hour on the runway. I had a middle seat, which I didn't discover until it was too late to change or complain. Besides, checking in was hectic enough, due to my luggage being overweight. Not just a little overweight either--I had to take out 10 lbs or pay $300. I put most of the 10 lbs in my backpack and paid $50 instead, but it was pretty hectic and my backpack got heavy. Never mind. It was at least a four-across row with aisles on either side (not a five-across), and besides, all the people in it were very friendly. To my right, a young fellow who worked for HP and was doing a month-long training program in Dalian. To my left, an older man originally Iraqi who teaches anatomy and is doing a one-week lecture gig, also in Dalian. Being in a middle seat, at least for a small person, is only miserable if you decide to be miserable. If you are reasonably comfortable with the people beside you, it is not so bad. I did feel a little constrained about getting up and down, especially since my backpack didn't fit under the seat and if I wanted to change activities it was a bit tricky. Also I often got very thirsty because I hadn't managed to fill up a water-bottle at all, and the water-service was not more frequent, despite the new restrictions. Every time they came by, though, I took two and all in all it was a reasonable flight.

There was one especially exciting part, when we were passing over the Queen Elizabeth Islands (northern Canada) and there was for a while no cloud cover below us. I managed to squeeze out of my confinement and take a couple gorgeous pictures through the airplane window. Everyone was taking pictures of the frozen trackless white encroaching on the receding brown of the islands. Then no islands, just sea ice shattered by lapis-blue gems and traceries. This must have been pretty near the north pole. It was amazing to have the experience of seeing it, a sight that so few people in human history have been given to see.

When I got to the airport in Beijing, things when surprisingly smoothly. I guess somehow I was expecting nightmare bureaucracy. Instead, the lines were short and fast and the checking of things quite perfunctory. At the luggage claim, I waited a long time with a couple of other foreigners around my age and stage (or a little younger) and we cheered each other on. My particular suitcase had not one but two identical twins, just as heavy as itself, which I pulled off the belt several times each, but finally got the right one. Then it was out through the "nothing to declare" line and into the main corridor of the airport.

An absolute riot of faces behind a barrier rail--faces and signs and taxi drivers jostling for business. At the last minute, a friend of my bro's had e-mailed and said she really must pick me up from the airport. I didn't know what she looked like, but I told her what I looked like, what I would be wearing, and also sent her my website address with my picture. I probably could have done okay myself from the airport, but I felt infinitely better having someone pick me up--I have to admit it. The problem was, all those faces and signs, but no sign with my name on it and no face that seemed to recognize mine. I curtly refused taxi drivers and curved around behind the passenger exit runway. Stood in front of the Starbucks. Thought about buying a phone card to call the girl's number (which I had carefully written down).

Then I did see a familiar face that recognized mine--one of my fellow Fbers, whom I had met at the orientation. She didn't remember my name and I didn't remember hers, but we remembered each other's faces and were full of fellow-feeling. She had been here two weeks and was picking up another Fber on my same flight. I borrowed her cell-phone without hesitation. Unfortunately the number didn't work. Had I copied it down wrong? She was concerned and wanted to know if I needed help. I thought of leaving with them but decided it was better to wait around a bit and see if bro's friend would show up.

She did, very soon after, and I was extremely glad I had waited. So was she. I will call her JZ. She had just been running a bit late. She had in tow a tall, well-fed fellow she introduced as her sort of foster-brother, FL. Their families are very close friends, she explained, and his parents consider her their daughter while her parents consider him their son. There is no word for this kind of relationship in English, but she said it is really common here. Somehow a natural thing like the sibling relationship recreating itself, despite the one-child policy. It is nice.

Anyway, the fellow had his own car. He is a Beida graduate and reading between the lines--well--rather privileged. Also JZ said he is Beijing tong (北京通), which is to say, he knows everything about Beijing. This is a great quality in a new friend! Of course, we spent a while finding his car in the parking garage. But I didn't mind one bit. I had slept several hours on the plane, and was enjoying the intoxicating feeling of not being quite so much a stranger in a strange land as I had feared. Also we got very lost looking for the hostel I had booked, which turned out to be quite a hole-in-the-wall place. Literally--the alley (hutong), when we finally found it, was not wide enough for FL's car. The whole neighborhood turned out and looked on in amusement. This is definitely how I had imagined Beijing hutong life, but I had not envisioned arriving in a big car.

All the time we had been driving (and it was a long time!), we had been chattering in a happy mixture of Chinese and English. I am absolutely at my best talking Chinese to other young people who also know English but often prefer Chinese. Knowing I can use English if I get stuck, and also that I can just be me and not have to mind my manners, are two comfort factors that combine to improve my language skills considerably. Alas I am less good at talking to older people! We also had quite a tour of outer bits of Beijing. High rises springing up. JZ pointed out some and said they're like housing projects, where poor people live. To my untrained eye, it is not easy to tell the difference between them and the ones for rich people in Chicago's near north where we live, but I assume the difference is internal!

Weaving effortlessly through traffic, FL simultaneously made a quick round of calls round to all his friends--regarding apartments near Beida. Can you believe that? Just preliminary, he said. Later he would give me a couple websites, and I could pick out some, and he could go with me to look at them. "You can read Chinese right?" So thankful that I could. One place was too expensive in FL's opinion. "You could use the money to buy nice things, have a good time!" Then rattled off a list of things in Chinese, which included things I didn't understand, and qipao, a traditional Chinese dress which would not suit me too well at the moment due to the pot-belly but might later on? "Ah no," I said, "it's books I'm planning on using the money to buy." "BOOKS!" FL exploded with laughter. "Books are soooo cheap. I heard that in America books are like 10 or even 100 dollars." I owned that some were. "Books here are usually about 10 yuan" (=$1.25). I said, "Well, I'll have to ship them back." He agreed that shipping them back would be far more expensive than buying them! But still laughing and shaking his head.

JZ and FL were not too satisfied with the quality of the youth hostel, when we finally arrived, but consented to leave me here for a night at least. They promise to whisk me away to a much more convenient and "much much much much nicer" hotel near Beida for the same price, tomorrow or the next day. It is really funny how Asian people either ignore your need for help or totally take over your life (the latter being the case here). Shades of my dad's former grad student in Korea. JZ and FL even brought me a huge box of freshly picked grapes. In this particular case, I have zero objections to my life being taken over by them. It makes me feel less anxious. It make me feel warm and happy.

They insisted on ordering dinner to be delivered to me here, and then they went off to meet up with their parents and let me rest. The hostel is a bit on the rickety side, but not as bad as FL's affronted looks might make one think. It is as promised very clean. Not very lively, but that is for the better. Weirdly unprivate, with thin walls and curtains open by default over big windows into the courtyard. I am happy to have my own room, which is tiny but also clean and air-conditioned. (I closed the curtains, hoping it didn't seem too unsociable.) The two beds are exceedingly narrow and hard, but not uncomfortable for all that. They have a spring, I think, and though not futons are comparable to futons. The architectural style is "four-sided courtyard" (sihe yuan) which is just what the name implies. The shared bathroom is comfortable because it is reasonably modern and for one person only--comfortable unless you are waiting outside the door! But never mind, the person who was taking a shower in there did come out before I actually died.

The employees seem to outnumber the guests here, one fellow who does the money and three or four bored young women who do the various tasks like bringing you a plate or an electric kettle for boiling water. Internet does not take the form of wireless or individual jacks, but rather an ancient laptop with a tenuous connection and an eccentric keyboard. No skype tonight!

For all the place is not exactly a four-star hotel, it has its charm. The courtyard is full of flowering plants, and there are two very tiny but playful white kittens. A huge porcelain jug holds goldfish. There is a lot of carved wood, and a pleasant feeling as everyone sits around in the courtyard watching TV. I will add that Chinese TV is much less annoying than Japanese TV. It is surely strictly controlled propaganda, but it has a soothing, soft-edged feel to it that I actually kind of like. Even the annoying song-and-dance shows are gentle somehow. And news is soft as a spring rain. Also, it's easier to tolerate TV when it's not in your native language. It's an interesting challenge to try to understand something/anything.

As usual, I did okay making myself understood, despite an embarrassing lapse or two. If the person spoke Chinese too fast, though, I got a bit lost. Well, my ear will improve I hope.

So far the only real mishap is that, after pouring boiled water into my Nalgene (hopefully it will be okay to drink), I somehow slipped and splashed some on myself. I know it's not possible that Chinese boiling water is hotter than American, but it sure seemed like it. Two big blisters right on--well, right over my heart, let's just say. Somehow the setting is right for superstitions and the freakishness of that little accident makes me wonder if it's some karmic just deserts I don't quite understand!

I certainly got lucky meeting JZ and FL. FL in particular was enthusiastic about helping me find a room. But couldn't for the life of him fathom why I would want to live alone in a one-bedroom place--which, he says, are also difficult to find because what Chinese person would want one? Wouldn't you be lonely? Or feel unsafe? I hinted that a nice neighborhood was something I'd be willing to pay extra for, and mentioned that my boyfriend would be coming to visit. I hope we can work something out! In any case, FL offered to help with the landlord negotiations, and I really hope that will happen, because he is perfect for the part, namely, Chinese guy with loud voice and used to getting his way! But definitely under the thumb of his "older sister" (jiejie), John's friend JZ.

JZ is leaving for a trip to her hometown of Xi'an in a couple of days. I have a sneaking suspicion she put off the trip a bit so she could welcome me. I feel guilty but glad! She says she will love taking me to Xi'an sometime and showing me around, including Sima Qian's birthplace, which she says is an area totally sunk in rural poverty. She says she will be back and forth between Beijing and Xi'an for the next few months, because she has a job there but her parents want her to look for one here. They have her booked up with various lunch appointments, people who might be able to help her get a job--that's the way to do it here.

Well, I should stop writing before I run down the battery too much. By the time I alighted, it was already too late to go out looking for a plug adapter, so the recharging situation remains uncertain. I will post this as soon as I get a slightly more reliable connection!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Art Stuff

Yesterday we finally got around to visiting the Art Institute. It was superb. On Thursdays and Fridays after 5 the museum is free, and there's nothing like something being free to make it more fun. It was a very drippy muggy overcast evening. Colin spent the day at school and I spent the day at home, but we met at the Art Institute at 5, which was romantic. Lots of people were waiting to get in free but not horribly many. We waiting under Colin's umbrella, admiring the cloud-obscured skyscrapers. They opened the doors and people poured in, but the wave dispersed though the big halls, so the place barely felt crowded. We saw the Asian art first. Especially wonderful were these wooden Chu tomb figures. That wacky Chu culture. I loved how these guys were so flat. And the one on the right definitely resembles Edvard Munch's "The Scream"--no?

We were admiring the Chinese bronzes and jades first but caught a glimpse of a roomful of Korean celadon to one side. "That's Korean celadon," I remarked to Colin. "They lost the recipe for it, so although there are lots of imitations, they're not quite the same." We went on admiring the Chinese stuff, including some very cute pottery pigs in a pottery pigstye. Colin said, "The celadon can't have been very tasty if they lost the recipe." I thought he was making a joke, so I laughed and then I said, "Well, that's specialization for you. Probably there were just a few families that made it and kept it a family secret and then they got wiped out somehow without passing on the secret." After a while, we made our way through the Japanese woodblock prints and to the celadon room. Suddenly Colin, intently reading captions, said, "Oh! you meant the glaze is called celadon." "What did you think I meant?" "I thought it was some kind of tasty Korean food that they used to put in those dishes, but now they don't know how to make anymore." I had a good laugh! But I will admit that it was my fault for saying "recipe" instead of "formula."

After we had enjoyed the Asian art for a good long time, we went down to see the photography exhibit. We are both huge fans of photography in museums, I'm not sure why. It's just fun and inspiring, and makes us look at the world differently when we come out. The one they had going at the Art Institute was Henry Callahan. We thought he was really great. As Colin said, he seemed to have a good grasp on what's interesting about photography. The picture I chose to put up here is one he did of some trees in Chicago by the lake. But he had a lot of interesting one of people especially his wife, who is the subject of one of the most famous ones.

When we got out of the museum it was getting dark and the tall buildings looked silver and beautiful in the rain. We dropped by an art store to get clay for one of Colin's lectures (lumpl and Goliath for those of you who know something about the philosophy of material constitution--Colin's students soon will). Colin got a teacher discount. It was a cool art store, called Blick. But it was an ART store, NOT a craft store--so no crochet cotton, which is what I was looking for. I have almost finished a big crochet project, but I ran out of thread halfway around the last row. What a bother. Oh well, I'm still looking. Meanwhile, I got a Micron pen because they really come in handy sometimes.

Then we wanted to take lots of pictures. We took pictures of each other while we were cooking dinner, inspired by Harry Callahan and by the fact that we will soon be apart. I have not really played with them very much yet, but I include a couple of them below:

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Evening Entertainments

All week I have been enthusiastically reading other people's blogs. Some people's blogs are quite boring of course, but occasionally you latch onto someone who's a good writer and also updates frequently. That last reminded me that I have been somewhat lax with my own updating lately. It has been an eventful week. I guess we are trying to cram a lot of fun into the last little bit of time we have left together before I leave.

On Monday we went to see a show by Barrel of Monkeys. It turns out they are not the same as the Neo-Futurists, even though they use the same space. They are a theater group that does creative writing workshops in local elementary schools and then performs some of the pieces. I guess during the summer they do performances for the general public. Some of the skits were a barrel of laughs all right.

When I Fell Off the Top Bunk
By Stephaun, Loyola Park After School Program
When I was three I was on my top bunk and I fell and my mom came in and said "Are you okay" and I laughed, she picked me up and I bit her.

And another example:
The Little Cowboy
By Devonte Vivians, 4th grade, Reavis
little cowboy: Dad can I go out an feed my horse.
Dad: NO boy because it is danger out there.
little cowboy: But my horse is out there, he can keep me from the danger.
Dad: That horse is the danger.
little cowboy: Dad please, I love that horse, how can I show him that if I do not feed him, he will die.
Dad: I said NO okay boy.
Mom: Wat did you do that to that boy he is become a little cowboy he can not be one if his horse is dead so let him feet that horse.
Dad: I sad NO and no means NO I said.
little cowboy: I wish I can live by my self.
Dad: boy you can go feed your horse and you can ride your horse boy because I love you and I am your dad and I will all ways love.

One must admit, they're pretty brilliant. The execution was uneven, though. Some stories were superb and the theatrical versions tended to disappoint. Other times, the stories were pretty mediocre and boring sounding, but the plays came out hilarious. I should mention one in particular, a Poetry Corner style reading of a brilliantly angstful lament entitled "I am Poop"--a deeply felt rendition.

At $10, I felt it was a bit pricey. But it was certainly well-attended, so it's clearly what the market would support. All in all an interesting experience, and of higher intelllectual and artistic quality than what we did the next evening.

That was, see The Da Vinci Code at the Brew and View. Don't get me wrong, the theater was awesome. They had long padded benches with tables in (also more tables with chairs) in lieu of your typical seating, and naturally served beer of the most plebeian varieties. The shabby but wonderful run-down garishness of a fine theater fallen on harder times. Gold moulding, private boxes now dark, and a screen just slightly too narrow for today's movies!

Alas, today's movie was an extreme disappointment, and mind you we weren't expecting much. We thought to ourselves, well, we wouldn't pay full price to see this. And we probably wouldn't want to see it sober. But even drunk and discounted it was pretty grim. We hadn't read the book, but the big surprise was obvious as soon as we got through the academic versus academic expository dialogue. And the puzzles got solved so fast, and in such difficult accents, that we hardly understood that they were puzzles before they were dispensed with. As one review I read put it, it should have been a TV miniseries, not a movie. Yeah, perhaps it would have been better if either of us had read the book. But who has time for that!?

On the way home we got into a tremendous argument about just what kind of bad it was, focusing on the question, "Would it be rational for a Christian to change ANY of his or her beliefs about Christianity due to watching this movie?" Colin answered a vehement no, while I felt it was kind of beside the point. Or as Colin put it later when we were in a better frame of mind for thinking: when someone already holds to irrational methods with regard to beliefs--faith, anti-intellectualism, etc.--purely rational arguments aren't what will be most effective in convincing them. But I don't think this long, vehement argument improved either of our opinions about the movie.

We made up in time for our monthiversary yesterday though, fortunately. I don't know how we got started celebrating them, because neither of us have done it muchc in past relationships. But we have got into the habit of celebrating our relationship on the 16th of every month. Yesterday it was 21 months. We went to a really great Italian restaurant called Mia Francesca, and as we happened to have a $50 gift certificate from Colin's bank, we had whatever we wanted, including appetizers, wine, and dessert! It was festive and wonderful, the food delicious. Even the bread at the beginning was superb, warm and crusty, and it only got better from there.

It's been a really long time, actually, since we went to an Italian restaurant by choice. I think it was a type of cuisine we had both overdone in the past, and besides, what we were likely to order was relatively easy to make at home (and much cheaper). But Mia Francesca definitely renewed our faith in restaurant Italian food. It's the fresh ingredients thing, I guess, or unusual ingredients. We might get good bread in the grocery story, but not bread this good. Besides, wild mushrooms and Italian sausage don't usually appear on our grocery lists. Anyway, a lovely night. The people at the next table were obviously on a first date. After 21 months together, we unabashedly spilled stuff on ourselves, left long happy silences, and generally appreciated each other.

Our last monthiversary together for a very long time.