Friday, January 27, 2006

Sunday, August 7th, it was time to leave behind the mainland and head back to old, very familiar territory: Taipei. I had decided that my original packing scheme for the summer, which involved my backpack overstuffed and very heavy, along with a small tote bag and a computer case, was not a convenient way to move things around, and that it would be wise to have a suitcase I could pull along. I picked one up near my apartment for about $7. I knew this would not mean a lifetime guarantee, but really, all I wanted was for it to survive the trip to Taipei, Singapore, back to Beijing and home.

To get to Taipei, I was taking the train down to Shenzhen, crossing the border into Hong Kong at Lo Wu, and then flying from Hong Kong to Taipei (necessary because there are no direct flights between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic, nor will there be until some political and territorial issues are settled). A little complicated, but I was confident it wouldn’t be a problem.

The first wheel of my suitcase broke in front of my apartment building. The wheel structure cracked further in front of the Guangzhou East train station, and the wheels just fell off altogether at the ticket checkpoint. I half carried, half dragged the suitcase (which was heavier than it had any right to be – I’m only up a couple books and five small terra cotta soldiers since Beijing, so it should be lift-able. Of course, when all the same things were divided into three bags in different hands and shoulders, they were easier to lug than when they were in a large box shape in front of me) and somehow made it onto the train platform. There the ground was quite smooth, so I gave up on all pretense of lifting the blasted thing and just started to drag it behind me. Minutes later, there was a loud THUD, and I noticed the suitcase was infinitely lighter. I looked behind me, and found my hand still tightly grasped around the pull handle, which was now, sadly, attached to nothing. The suitcase was flat on the ground a few feet back.
Somehow I managed to get the suitcase on the train, and from there a very nice Japanese gentleman (and a professional boxer, he informed me) helped me get it situated on the luggage rack over my head. I think spent the entire hour-long ride to Shenzhen wondering how I would manage to get myself and that suitcase across the border to the airport. These concerns were magnified by the amount of time it took me to lug it out of the train station and onto the sidewalk outside. About when I started quite seriously considering just abandoning it and wearing the same clothes for the next three weeks and forgoing the other assorted items inside, I saw my salvation: a very enterprising young man sitting just outside the station selling cigarettes, beer, and (da dum!) wheeled fold down luggage carts. For 30 kuai, he hooked me up with a cart and bungee cord to strap my suitcase down, and even did the honors himself, making sure that the weight was even so that the whole thing could not tip over. At that moment, he was my favorite person in China, never mind the other 1.3 billion.

As I trekked through the border, assorted pieces of the wheel and handle gear kept falling out at pretty regular intervals. In the no man’s land after clearing China immigration but before passing through the Hong Kong side, I finally dumped the wheels and handle that I had for some reason held on to. When I reached the Hong Kong side, I took the KCR (railway) one stop to the airport bus, where I lost two screws and another piece of the handle. As I went, I kept shedding loose parts, as if leaving a little Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail behind me in case I got lost and needed to find my way back to China. Once to the airport, I was delighted to be relieved of the burden of my suitcase, and made use of the little cart to pull around my backpack (the mere presence of my computer in the backpack, even with nothing else in it, is enough to make it too heavy to wear for long).

In Taipei I had arranged to stay in a hostel of sorts, which was actually just a three-bedroom apartment that the owner rents out to travelers. It was right behind the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, though, which put it a ten-minute walk from my destination, the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) headquarters. Right off the bat, I was unimpressed with the hostel management. I told him I was taking a cab in and wanted the name of an intersection to go to. Xinyi Road was not a problem, but I couldn’t get from him whether the cross street was Jinshan or Xinsheng Road – both intersect with Xinyi road, but a good two miles apart. What made it difficult is that fact that spoken aloud, the names sound sort of similar – especially when spoken by a guy who knows kinda how they sound but not the characters, the meaning, or the Romanization. With the help of a very patient cab driver with a cell phone, we found the right place – but not until after calling the guy three times, having the cabbie speak to him personally (which only led us further from our destination), and going down Xinyi from Jinshan to Xinsheng a total of five times. Here we go round the mulberry bush…

All told, it took over twelve hours to go from my apartment in Guangzhou to the hostel in Taipei, door to door. Pretty sad given the fact that the flight between the two cities, if direct flights were offered, would be a bit shy of 90 minutes.

My days in Taipei were consumed by my attempts to do research at the GMD Party History office. The research facility consists of one table up on the seventh floor, with a bank of lockers, a power strip, and about 300 little drawers full of cards on which one document each is listed. The cards are grouped into three, er, categories: party congress records, pre-1949 records brought over from the mainland, and everything else. Within these three categories, the cards – thousands and thousands of them – were arranged in semi-chronological order. The problem with semi-chronological order is that for every 10 cards that appear in order, there’s one so far off base that you still have to go through every card individually, but it feels more pointless than if you were going through cards that were arranged in no order whatsoever. I asked for some advice from the young woman in charge of things, and her answer was to take out a drawer, and flip, flip, flip.

I had only 8 days in the archive, so clearly I could not devote the lifetime that it would require to systematically search the drawers for references to relevant documents. What I did do was go all the way through the party congress and 1940s records at warp speed. Really. I’m surprised smoke didn’t start to come from the friction as my fingers flipped through the cards. I wrote down a list of about 50 files I felt I absolutely must see, and started ordering. Once the records came, I had the new challenge of trying to speed read and translate or type in Chinese anything I thought I needed. Because naturally they don’t allow photocopies or digital cameras. Of course not. Sometimes, at these little moments in historical research, bureaucracy on Taiwan and bureaucracy on the mainland is so similar, you can start to forget just how far apart the two governments’ politics really are.

The one advantage of research in China or Chinese renegade provinces is that no matter where you are, you can count on the facility closing early. With only 8 days to work, this was actually probably not an advantage, but I know that I can really only sit and speed-read Chinese documents for so many hours in the day – and after 8 or so (with an hour for lunch, during which all records must be stowed but the card catalog is available for extracurricular flipping) is about my limit, and then my brain turns to mush and frequent repetition of the epithet “those communist bandits” starts to make me giggle uncontrollably. So it is nice that at this point, the archives will inevitably close and I spend a guilt-free evening enjoying my surroundings.

The evenings in Taipei were like old times, for me. Lancelot was conveniently in town at the same time, so I got to hang out a bit with him, and I also spent as much time as possible with my good friend Yu-wen. We did the culinary tour of Taipei, trying to get in old favorites (my mouth waters at the very thought of the barbeque octopus at the Shi-da Road Korean restaurant. I know, me with the octopus cravings. I’m not sure how that happened, except that once you get over the tentacles, it’s really quite tasty), and try some new digs.

On Saturday night, we went to an all you can eat Chinese-style restaurant. I must say, Taipei has perfected the art of the all-you-can-eat restaurant. Most places are feature steak, Korean barbeque, or hot pot with elaborate salad and extras bars, but this place was a full-service Chinese restaurant with a standard menu and lots of pictures of the available dishes. It was made special, however, by the fact that you could order as much as you wanted, all for the same price. We got there at 5:30, and started right in. We ordered new dishes roughly every 20 minutes for the next three and a half hours. We skipped the beef and chicken dishes, but ordered literally everything else on the menu. And no little bits or “just a taste” – we sent back clean, empty plates with each new order. After every table in the area had turned over at least twice around us, the waiters began to approach us with trepidation. For the last hour, we had to go to great lengths to flag them down to keep ordering, as they started to steer a wide path around our table. When we finally conceded to their almost pleaded request to bring us our fruit and dessert and the bill, we stood very slowly and waddled up to the counter to pay. In US terms, $11 each, inclusive. Desperate to move, we decided to walk over an hour back home. On the way, we discussed whether we ought to feel good about our rather remarkable accomplishment, or embarrassed that the restaurant just lost money on us (I’ve attached a picture of the two of us, so you can see just how unlikely the two of us managing to consume so much really is). We ultimately settled on a sort of sheepish pride as most appropriate.

On Sunday, my only Sunday in town, I went first to my old church on Xinglong Road. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming back to Taiwan, so there was a great deal of exclaiming and “do my eyes deceive me?” After a lovely morning catching up and promising to stay in touch, I met up with Yu-wen’s whole family and we went out together on an adventure.

They took me up to Ye-liu on the North coast, which is known for colorful layers of rock that have been sculpted over thousands of years of typhoons. Parts of it look like a landscape on Mars or some other, similarly otherworldly, location, and other parts of it are made famous by the rocks’ remarkable resemblance to something of this earth, like a sandal or Queen Victoria’s head in profile (really). Sometimes you have to squint to see it, but then you line up to have your picture taken alongside it, which is really all you can do with rocks said to resemble long-dead foreign leaders.

From there, we visited an extinct volcano in Yangmingshan (a national park made up of gorgeous mountain scenery in Taipei) and went out for a fabulous dinner at an outdoor mountaintop eatery. Before heading back into town, we stopped at Wenhua University. Perched on the side of the mountain, the campus is reported to be the most beautiful college grounds in Taiwan, and it affords a panoramic view of the lights of Taipei at night.

Much, much too soon, I was back at the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport and headed for Singapore. My purpose in returning to Singapore, other than completing my post-research East Asian Victory Lap, of course, was to attend a conference on Overseas Chinese studies. 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of the start of the voyages of Zheng He (a Ming Chinese eunuch who commanded a fleet of ships that traveled across East to the East coast of Africa… and even to North America, if you’ve read Gavin Menzies’ version of events and were gullible enough to believe in it). The conference was interesting, certainly for the papers and the academic contacts, but even more so for the cultural differences between academic conferences hosted in the US and those hosted in Asia. In particular, I think of the evening of Perenakan culture presented by the local Perenakan society.

Perenakan is a Malay word for Straits Chinese – that is, people whose roots go back to China, if you go back far enough, but whose families have been settled in Singapore or Malaysia for the past few hundred years. The entertainment extravaganza consisted of a couple of very off-key numbers by a group of Perenakan octogenarians, who were cute in their sarongs, if nothing else; an elderly man in drag cracking jokes in English so accented it was completely incomprehensible; half of a DVD, which ultimately succumbed to technical difficulties; and a fashion show that involved all of three outfits, each repeated up to four times to make it seem longer. I would have tried to sneak out if I hadn’t found myself sitting next to an established Chinese-American musicologist with a talent for sarcastic commentary and biting remarks. We muttered and snorted our way through the evening, and ultimately thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

On my day off in Singapore, I went out to scoff at the 1421 exhibit on the esplanade in Singapore, devoted entirely to the bad scholarship and questionable findings of Gavin Menzies’ study of Zheng He. Rest assured, I had my snarky new friend with me, and a good time was had by all.

Flying back to Beijing (where I had left my suitcase full of research and books for the summer) was about the least fun I’ve ever had traveling in my life; up at 3:30 a.m. to head for the Singapore airport, then flying to Hong Kong, taking a bus over the border (with frequent stops for immigration and customs formalities) to Shenzhen, and then waiting for a much-delayed flight to Beijing, the city upmost in my loathing. I spent three days in Beijing, clearing up archival matters and doing a bit of last-minute shopping, and then I was off for home.

I think I was home a week before I began to really miss China. I don’t miss Beijing, of course, but if I stay away long enough, even that might happen eventually.

Things I’ll miss about China:
1. Everything’s just so darn cheap
2. Sleeper trains that go everywhere
3. Korean food (I know, I know… but I like this better than Chinese food and there is really a lot of it all over China)
4. Friendly people who love to chat about anything and everything, especially my much-beloved neighbors in Nanjing
5. Bicycle commuting (really!)
6. The randomness of it all, in particular the abrupt juxtaposition of old and new, communist and capitalist
7. Great Wall Dry Red Wine (Ack! I think I developed a taste for it!)
8. Fun new mandopop CDs every week
9. Constant challenges to my Chinese: speaking, reading and learning something new all the time
10. Having an Adventure every day

Things I will never miss about China:
1. Pick-pockets
2. The unbelievable crowds, especially on holidays but also on random Tuesdays
3. Defending Taiwan or the Japanese to every cab driver
4. Risking my life as a passenger in every speeding cab
5. Beijing in all its… Beijingness
6. Anything that costs four kuai, eight mao and three fen (it’s impossible to do exact change when it gets down to fen; the coins are so tiny, and they all look alike)
7. Being solicited for anything and everything while walking down the street: from spare change, to Chinese art to walk-on roles as the foreign barbarian in Chinese soap operas (the last of which happened three times in one day in Guangzhou)
8. Cab drivers who try to cheat you by taking an extra lap around the city… because you are, after all, a stupid foreigner
9. Registering with the police every time I move ten feet in any direction
10. Worrying about not having registered: visions, however unrealistic or unlikely, of Chinese prisons

Weighing the two against each other, there’s only one conclusion: I’ll be back.

Monday, August 15, 2005

At long last, the tree

I have a fan boy. I only mention it because it’s not something that happens often in the field of historical research. You can imagine my excitement.

Of course, when said fan boy (who is also, as it happens, a security guard at the Guangdong Provincial Archives) spends an hour at a time chatting at me in a freewheeling and, to me, largely indecipherable mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese while I’m trying to read and take notes on documents, the novelty starts to wear off. But still.

Actually, as of last Friday I took leave of my fan boy, not to mention the rest of the archives staff, and, of course, Louis of Citibank Guangzhou, because I’m now in Taipei. I admit, I was sorry to leave this archive. It was by far the nicest facility I’ve worked in anywhere in Asia and second only to London in the worldwide race to build the prettiest archive ever (it was built only last year, and it shows).

Moreover, they’ve opened all sorts of wonderful documents from the 1950s, which in addition to being helpful for my dissertation, have allowed me to brush up on my communist Chinese vocabulary (you know: struggle meeting, malevolent landlord, agricultural collectivization, rightist, counterrevolutionary, running dog, capitalist roader, Nationalist bandits, and so forth).

I admit, however, that only a few days ago my feelings toward the place were not so warm and fuzzy. Over the course of the last few weeks, I had applied to copy a stack of documents – some up to 20 pages of really tiny Chinese type – and because my previous copy requests had all been granted, did not think much about the outcome.

On Wednesday morning of this week, with just two and a half days left in the archive (they close early on Fridays. So China), they told me that none of my copy requests have been granted. None. The girl behind the desk (who lives across the street from me, so we sometimes walk home together at lunch) commiserated with me, and said that in her opinion, the head of the archive is somewhat … overzealous in protecting documents from foreigners. Unfair, but unavoidable.

Again, China. I got through what I could, laboriously taking notes and copying Chinese characters, but by Friday morning there were still three multi-page, fine print documents left. That’s when the girls at the desk really came through for me. It turns out that they were not merely feigning sympathy, but were quite genuinely concerned about my research. When I went up for the last few files with next to no time to read them, instead of the files, they handed me a disk. On the disk, were all three documents, typed. They had typed them up in their spare time while I was frantically reading the other files. This is a whole new level of archive service.

Anyway, I have promised Guangxi Province travel stories and these I will deliver. In June I had the supreme privilege of having friends from home in town– Sarah is my classmate at Georgetown, and she and her boyfriend Danny were traveling around China for a while and started their journey in Guangzhou. They took a few days in Guangzhou to relax and sightsee, though that first day it became glaringly obvious that I was also new to town and not able to be remotely knowledgeable about the terrain. Really, it was the worst tour ever. The company was great, but it was definitely a low point in my life as an amateur tour guide. We started with the Sun Yat-sen memorial, which involved a concert hall, a tiny museum consisting mostly of Chinese documents with no descriptive titles, and random trees and bushes named for mythical animals, like dragons and phoenixes, but which did not bear any actual resemblance to said animals, even if one squinted hard and turned one’s head.

Frankly, I imagine it would take nothing less than a fifth of bourbon to make those trees look like their descriptions, and I imagine that drunken tree gazing is frowned up on the grounds of the memorial to the Father of Modern China. There were also several "ancient trees" which did not even date as far back as imperial China and therefore failed to qualify in any discerning garden aficionado’s mind as ancient. (The astute among you might have noticed that I have previously mentioned Sun Yat-sen as having been memorialized in Nanjing. That fine structure is in fact where he is buried; however, Dr. Sun was from Guangdong province, so the memorials to him in these parts are abundant. Boring, but plentiful.)

From there we went on to lunch (some pretty random noodles which, in Sarah and Danny’s case, were served with unidentifiable chicken parts), and then decided to head to some of the famous markets on our maps and mentioned in their guidebook.

Now I can say with some authority that we certainly visited markets. There is not a doubt in my mind that we were in areas where things were being sold, and they were being sold on the street and in small, market-like stalls. However, I am not at all convinced that we were at any of the markets we were looking for. The first two contained Random Junk, and it was hard to see why anyone would get excited about them. Lots of soft, cartoon-character cases for cell phones and fake plastic flowers. Then, after much walking, and some backtracking, we came to roughly the location of another famous market.

I say roughly because we found a series of merchants hawking fish and puppies (for pets, no worries, though yes, dog is consumed in China, and in South China not even in Korean restaurants. The standard – and very old – joke is that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs except the table. This witticism ignores the fact that the people of South China will eat many things with fewer legs or none at all, like snake and frog and so forth. Of course, as we have seen over the course of the year, so do I, apparently. My, but how the mighty have fallen). But as an approximation of the infamous Qingping market (famous not only as a large, bustling outdoor market, but also as the site where the illegal civet cats were sold that ultimately transferred the SARS virus to the Chinese people and, from there, to the world), it was something of a humbug. Still, we faced south and walked to the left and found the street on the map immediately east of Qingping, then walked to the right and found the street immediately west of Qingping. I’m not sure how it happened, then, that the street in the middle did not seem to be Qingping. It is one of those mysteries of life, I suppose.

Ultimately, we ended up on Shamian Island, which is the former site of the British Maritime Customs Service (a.k.a. Arrogant Imperialists and Capitalist Roaders), a great deal of colonial architecture, and the current site of the American consulate. We admired the river, which looked precisely like a river, and was even, if fact, the river we were looking for, which at the end of this day felt like no mean feat indeed. Then we went to dinner at a bizarre restaurant that caters to the foreign crowd and claims to cook specialties from all world cuisines with equal skill. This should be viewed quite skeptically.

Sarah ordered Japanese Shrimp Tempura from a picture (which did look like shrimp tempura), but was surprised to be served shelled shrimp in some kind of curry sauce. After a long argument with the waiter, which ultimately involved the manager and finally the cook himself, everyone agreed that what was sitting on our table looked absolutely nothing like the picture on the menu. I’d been rather lazy, and in the meantime I read the Chinese description of the dish more closely: while the English just said "Japanese shrimp tempura," the Chinese read, "Japanese style shrimp curry." Never mind the fact that curry is about as Japanese as guacamole is Russian; in neither language should the shrimp have arrived without breading. The cook seemed ultimately to come to terms with this point, and some minutes later we were served breaded shrimp – that is, whole shrimp, with breading.

That means that the breading was attached to the shells, and when pulling off the shells, the breading, naturally, came with it. Still, we felt that we had won a moral victory of sorts, and accepted it. Only after the first few shrimp were consumed did we discover them to be resting on what was undeniably a bed of vegetable and potato curry. Sometimes it is best to quit while you’re ahead.

The second day were out touring Guangzhou together, we had a much better plan. We highlighted temples and markets and mapped it into a geographically logical route. Then it started to rain. The thing about rain at this latitude is that it does not come all that often, but when it comes, it has a monsoon quality about it. Hard and fast, and that day at least, long. Very long. We ended up ditching our pagoda plans in favor of a very leisurely lunch, the managed to take in a mediocre temple (I’m getting hard to impress in this area, I admit, though it was the oldest in Guangzhou and for that reason should likely be cut some slack) before the downpours began again. Then we cabbed our way down to another temple containing a couple of hundred gold statues- which would have been really impressive if they had been ancient relics, instead of reproductions a third the age of the ancient trees at Dr. Sun’s place- and we dashed through an outdoor Jade market, lingering at the one building that had many merchants under a single roof. As tourist adventures go, it was not an impressive day. Wet, though.

That night we flew up to Guilin, in the north of Guangxi Province. We spent a day hanging out, seeing the sights of the city. We started in a former Ming dynasty palace (a minor palace, for family, not the emperor himself), which included a bizarre little exhibition hall in which the lights for each room had to be located and turned on separately (we ended up following a Chinese tour closely to avoid disaster), and an odd little dance was performed by two women who seem to sit behind a curtain in one of the rooms for hours waiting for someone to come by and witness their show. We climbed the Solitary Beauty Peak behind the palace for a lovely view of the city, then took off for the Seven Star Park.

The Seven Star Park is so named because it has seven mountains that are supposed to be in the shape of the big dipper (we couldn’t see it, but if someone else can, more power to them). This part of Guangxi province was a communist stronghold during the revolution, a fact that was instantly apparent as we entered the park and noticed a tall stone with a row of characters carved in it. Now this in itself is not all that unusual in China – in Xi’an, there are carved bits of Tang Dynasty poetry everywhere, in Beijing Qing dynasty literature, in Nanjing Ming literature, usually things related to nature and the scenery and so forth. But in this case, the characters read, "Long Live Mao Ze-dong Thought," which to me would be better suited for, say, a meeting hall than a park, but perhaps the park is a nice place to go and contemplate the wonders of Mao Zedong thought.

Actually, though, the park itself was a nice place to observe Chinese capitalism in action. They had separate admission tickets for the park and for its greatest attraction, a large series of caves. The caves were a fine example of how neon lighting can be used to make visiting something not inherently all that exciting into a major event. We had to enter in groups, to be taken through the caves by a guide who would turn on the elaborate lighting in each section as we arrived. Many of the assorted stalactites and stalagmites were named for what the parks’ founders thought they resembled, which left us all squinting at the brightly lit, colorful and misshapen masses of rock trying to see a camel kneeling before a dragon or an old man visiting the theater.

On the bright side (as if the caves weren’t bright and garish enough), the park outside the cave had its own unique qualities. We went into the zoo, a very sad place, where an elderly and lethargic tiger was available to pose for pictures with your small children on its back (this does not strike me as being a terribly good idea under any circumstances, but anything for a few kuai, right?). In the zoo, we also saw the oldest living Panda in captivity, who at 36 was so ancient she did seemed to be past moving and content to lie in the shade, barely breathing.

Actually, we were among the very last people to see her in even that state, as the state media reported she died the following week. Another attraction in the park was the monkey, uh, area, where they wander at will and you wander among them, perhaps feeding them a few things they shouldn’t eat to tease them out of the trees.

In the afternoon, we grabbed a bus down to Yangshuo.

Yangshuo is a famous tourist area in China, something made obvious by the fact that along its main drag, West Street, you’ll see more English than Chinese and every restaurant’s menu sports, in addition to the standard Chinese fare, pizza and banana pancakes. I confess to being a bit puzzled about the supposed centrality of banana pancakes in traveling westerners’ lives – they’re even mentioned in the Lonely Planet – but still, a bit of a break from the standard fare is worth a visit in and of itself. But there was actually an additional reason for going there.
Traditional Chinese paintings depict scenes of scholars sipping tea and thinking sage thoughts out in the midst of oddly thin and rounded mountains that stick up into the sky looking like nothing that could possibly exist in real life, except that it does, and that is the skyline of the country around Yangshuo.

There are two recommended methods of seeing the countryside: one is to rent a bike and explore the paths, and the other is to take a boat up or down the nearby river. Since we had several days in Yangshuo, we thought we’d do both.

I was, from the start, wildly enthusiastic about the idea of the bike ride. I think that all of that biking around Nanjing sort of got to my head and made me overconfident about my cycling capabilities. After all, in my months of biking there, I never actually caused permanent damage to myself or others. I may have hit a few things here or there – other bikes in traffic, a parked bus, whatever – but no long term consequences had emerged from these mishaps.
What I failed to really note, however, is that there is something of a difference between taking your bike down the nice paved road with its wide bike lanes and taking it out for a spin on a rocky path that is sometimes a path and sometimes merely a single-tire-width suggestion as to which way one might go if one was crazy enough to try to bicycle through a rice paddy. What’s more, the path started out wide and paved, so the real difference was not immediately apparent, and in fact, only stood out in retrospect once quite far beyond the point of no return. That point being, of course, when the path back is as ugly as the path ahead.

The trouble really began with the maps. There were four total – the good one, which we lost before we even got out of Yangshuo; the pretty one, that was a fine keepsake but lousy for directions; the cave brochure one, that was intent only on directing us to a tourist trap we had no plans to visit; and the local one, hand-drawn one purchased off a man who gave us such elaborate directions I felt duty bound to accept his handiwork in exchange for two kuai.

With a solid plan to sort of follow the river up to the last bridge to cross over, and then come down the other side – paths for which all the maps showed in varying colors and scales – it came as a bit of a shock when we found ourselves spit out onto a highway far, far off course. None of us remember ever seeing a place where two paths presented us with a choice of roads, so the fact that we had made a wrong turn somewhere along the line was all the more perplexing. After a brief and terribly un-scenic jaunt through town, during which a kind women heading our way led us back on course, we managed to make it to the bridge.

At the bridge, the locals tried to talk us into hiring one of their boats to ride down the river, claiming that the bike path wasn’t great and that their way would be much better. Seasoned China Hand that I am, I scoffed at this. I mean really, I can recognize a tourist trap when I see one. They were just assuming we were unaccustomed to the exercise or easily cowed by warnings of ugly biking ahead, but we were not so easily daunted. A fine example, if ever there was one, of being too clever by half.

The bridge over the river alone should have clued us in to the fact that not so many people choose the bike path over the river boats. It was a series of steep stone steps, and pulling the mountain bikes up and over was not easy (well, for me anyway, which could have more to do with a lack of upper body strength than any inherent challenge in the task. Still, if bikers often traveled this route, there’d be a narrow ramp on the bridge to push the bike up. These are everywhere in China, er, everywhere else, at least).

Down on the other side and heading off, we started on an uneven path with huge rocks that made for a really bumpy ride. Unpleasant, but not impossible. This situation created some sense of overconfidence, I think. Whereas the path on the other side had many different paths available on the map and absolutely no visible intersections in real life, this side had plenty of intersections, but only one route marked out on the maps. From there, the path began to narrow.

By narrow, I mean it went from being a couple feet wide and epically bumpy to being the width of a single bicycle tire before averaging out at around a foot wide. The challenge increased when the right side of the narrow path dropped steeply, if only about a foot, into a muddy rice paddy, while the left side was lined with trees.

Here is where my lifelong steering deficiencies really worked against me. I was
incapable of staying on the path.

Twice I slipped off the path and down into the rice paddy on my right, then had to pull the bike up and try to get going again. Each time I fell, I got to be more concerned about my ability to stay on the path in the future, and the likelihood of falling only increased.

Ultimately, I overcompensated and landed in a tree on the left side, which resulted in about a half a dozen scratches on my arm but no permanent damage. I think, though, that in reality it might not have been my steering so much as the tree itself being overaggressive. I have something of a history with killer attack trees, but most vivid recollection being that one in the garden at UNC Charlotte that popped out of nowhere and took me down when I was out jogging one afternoon. I had some nasty scrapes from that incident, and I've never really trusted trees since then. In fact, I think I can blame the threatening nature of the trees on the left for my constant drops off the path to the right - trying not to get too close to something I knew could strike at any time.

It only makes good sense, really. At least this time, I escaped largely unscathed. When I finally decided to walk the bike, that proved no better, as I still slipped off the path and submerged my foot to the ankle in thick mud. Sarah and Danny struggled as well, but to the best of my knowledge did not fall off or hit trees. At all. Bit annoying, actually.

What’s more, I ended up covered in mud, and the two of them were only slightly dirty. I was, of course, the one with all the recent biking experience, whereas they both admitted it’d been a few years since they’d ridden. That, my friends, can be called a pretty serious loss of face for me. Call me chagrined.

Muddy and disgruntled as I may have been, we all shared a different problem: we were lost.

Quite lost, actually. Fortunately for us, we happened upon two other slightly shell-shocked bikers who no doubt were joining us in our wonder and amazement that the sales pitch for the boats was not merely hyperbole, but the honest-to-goodness truth, and they kept receiving directions from local inhabitants, which they would then relay back to us. When the worst was over – that is, when we were back on a rocky and difficult path that was once again a few feet wide (though my confidence was badly shaken, and I nearly fell a few more times) – we managed to get a few snap-shots of nearby mountains, small villages, and mostly submerged water buffalo.

When we finally made our way back to Yangshuo, close to five hours after we’d left, I made another discovery. In spite of my SPF30 sunscreen, I was pretty badly burned (blasted Norwegian skin). Not just badly sunburned, however, but oddly sunburned, which is infinitely worse. I had weird lines on my back from where my tank top and slid around, but far stranger, my forearms and especially the backs of my hands were bright pink up to the knuckles, where a stark line divided them from my pasty white fingers – the fingers that were curled around the handles of the bike and therefore not exposed to the sun. Lovely.

Thank goodness I had put all thoughts of appearances aside and donned my floppy sun hat for the duration of the trip, or I’d have had a Rudolf nose to match my glowing hands.

The really sad part of all this is that although we took a number of pictures and saw some lovely scenery, we did not manage to get to the place we actually headed out for in the morning. Sadder still was the fact that by the end of it all, we didn’t particularly care. We were content, instead, to visit a (slightly humbug of a) park, clean up, and then sit around at nice tables, waving fans, drinking beer, and working out crossword puzzles from a book Sarah had brought along.

The next day, we hired a boat to take us down the river and to a village, which we walked around a bit before boating back. We had bargained down the price on the boat, but typically, we probably still paid twice what the trip would cost a local. My only comfort there is that we saw the receipt book for other people booking trips, and they all paid more than we did, so if we were being cheated, and least we were all cheated together. Perhaps the most interesting site in the village came from looking in the open doors of homes and seeing the large, lit up Mao Ze-dong portraits, usually shown flanked by lesser images of Zhou En-lai and Deng Xiao-ping.

The village appears to be as poor as it has ever been – certainly, life in one of those homes could not be easy, and we saw people out walking cows and washing clothes in the river – but each lowly hovel now boasts a big screen T.V., which must be accepted as the positive proof of the virtues of communism. The peasants still work hard, die young, and live in poverty, but now they have access to state-produced soap operas to help pass the time. And, it only took 50 years to reach this glorious condition. Long Live the Communist Party and Mao Ze-dong Thought!

The boat ride itself was thankfully uneventful (not being able to swim, I would not have enjoyed any antics that resulted in falling in), and we lounged on chairs in the sun (my palms carefully placed upward, to protect my poor, blistery skin from more abuse) and watched the riverbanks slip by. A little shopping, an absolutely huge serving of Beer Fish (the local delicacy, aside, of course, from the banana pancakes where are not actually indigenous to China), and many crossword puzzles later, we were heading back to Guilin, where our diverging plans would take Sarah and Danny on to Beijing and myself back to Guangzhou.

My apologies to everyone for the fact that this message was long overdue. I’ve only hurt myself, really, because by swearing for so long that it was coming, I’ve likely only built up a few unreasonable expectations for how interesting the content would be. I can only say that I’m sorry, and that I have no idea when the Taipei stories will arrive in your mailbox. See, I learn.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Down and out in Guangzhou

Last week was not what you would describe as having a great week. Certainly not catastrophic or anything like that – I have at this moment no sense that the universe is actually plotting against me, in spite of my fleeting suspicions – but in the grand scheme of things, not the best.

Well. After a year of hearing stories of rampant thievery and lawlessness from friends long resident in China (not to mention Taiwan), I finally got a taste of it myself. This weekend I was hit by an extraordinarily adept pickpocket, who managed to unzip my purse and remove my wallet without my knowledge, and all in the space of a few minutes (i.e. from when I knew I had it to when I discovered my purse open and the wallet gone).

I want you all to know that I take great comfort in the fact that this person was that good. It would be rather disheartening to lose one’s belongings to a thief who is merely mediocre. A stolen wallet is unpleasant under any circumstances, but China being China means that I’m faced with a few extra, bonus complexities. I lost:

1. The Citibank ATM card that after all the blood, sweat, and tears finally showed up here to replace my expired card. The irony is almost overwhelming. Fortunately for me, and proof, in my mind, that things happen for a reason, the ridiculous confusion surrounding the replacement ATM card operation that led them to mail not one but three new cards to China meant that I actually had a spare one – the stolen one was the second, and the third could still be activated to replace it. So at least I don’t have to live on instant noodles while I deal with all this. Whew.
2. My Bank of China ATM card, which, of course, was for a Nanjing account- which means that if I want to replace it or ever see the money in the account again, I have to come up with a way to get myself bodily back to Nanjing. Fabulous. I have less than a week left in Guangzhou now, and then three days in Beijing in August before I fly home. This is like being in Washington for three days and needing to run over to Chicago to go to the bank. Sure. If I can’t make it back, I’ll have to take comfort in the fact that some day I will go back to Nanjing, and when I do, there’s about $200 waiting for me there.
3. My Citibank Mastercard, which by itself would not be a huge loss, except for the fact that I bought an e-ticket for Taipei on Eva Airlines, and they have this unique regulation that when you check in you must present the exact card that you used to book the flight. I remember thinking when I booked the ticket, "Gee, what happens if you lose the card?" Serves me right for thinking.
Apparently, without this card I have to purchase a new ticket at the airport, and then apply for one of the tickets to be refunded once I get to Taipei… or something like that. I’m still not clear on the details and the first time I tried to call, they reacted as if there has never been a lost or stolen credit card in all of history.
4. My driver’s license, which of course I can replace once I’m back in the US, but this is complicated by the fact that I moved out of the DC address on the card in April, 2004 and don’t have a new address and on’t for some time, and of course, there are no guarantees the new address once I have one, it will be n DC and not Virginia or Maryland.
5. My Nanjing University and National Library library cards. The latter I’ll need to replace if I want to check back on materials when I return to Beijing. Not a big deal, really, but I’m padding the list a bit to play up the sympathy angle.
6. My kimchi store frequent customer card. Hands down the most irreplaceable item on this list, and most definitely not list-padding. Now I’m going to have to buy all kinds of kimchi before I can start getting the sexy 10% discount again. There’s just not time. Talk about adding insult to injury.
7. About 350 RMB (divide by 8, about US $40) which is, frankly, the least of my concerns. Of course, that is what the thief was most likely after; it is quite possible that after taking the cash, the rest of the belongings that mean so much more to me found their way into a roadside trash can.
8. My wallet. As much as this pains me, the fact that I had purchased it for about US $2 on the street in Hong Kong probably means this does not qualify as having anything but sentimental value. But it was the perfect size, with a strong zipper and a handy ID window on the outside. I mourn.

The really frustrating thing is that aside from the cash, there is no real reason to have any of these things in my wallet at all, other than force of habit. But we will dwell no further on that point. Grrrrr.

Dealing with the fallout from the stolen wallet was complicated by the fact that I have no international phone line. I have no way of setting one up, either. The best solution I had was to try a phone card and a phone booth, but the first few times I tried this the phone card didn’t work; I ended up going back to where

I bought the phone card and got one of the proprietors, a college student, to accompany me to the phone booth to work it out. The two of us tried 5 phone booths before we found one that could connect internationally, and then all of the Citibank international toll-free numbers did not work.

There was only one thing left to do, and that was to appear before my dear friend Louis of Citibank Guangzhou first thing the next morning and ask to use the phone there to call the US Citibank line.

I just want to say, I love Louis. Good thing, too, because I’ll be seeing him next week when I head in to pick up the UPS’ed replacement card. Perhaps I should bring flowers.

At the end of the day, there are worse things in the world than losing your wallet. For example:

1. Losing your passport with its residence permit and absolutely vital reentry visas
2. Losing your computer (though I am fastidious about backups and mail CDs of information home to Minnesota periodically)
3. Losing a limb or an eye (I actually put myself in some minor danger of losing an eye last month in Yangshuo, when I was putting on some bug spray. I held the bottle right up to my upper arm and pushed down on the nozzle. It was not until the spray hit my face that I realized I was holding the bottle backwards. As uncomfortable as flushing out ones eye is generally, it is even worse with bad unfiltered, undrinkable water. That hurt more than the bug spray going in, but I felt a little Chinese water torture was worth enduring for the sake of the greater good of preserving my sight.)

Of course, I’m being slowly driven mad by the number of people around here (mostly archives staff, actually) who hear the wallet story and come up with the brilliant advice that, "you should really be more careful."

Ya think? Granted it’s me, but there is just the slightest chance that I might have managed to reach that conclusion all on my own without having it pointed out to me. Noting that having my wallet stolen is really more my own fault than anything is so remarkably NOT helpful. It may be true, mind you, but that does not make it helpful. The two are at times mutually exclusive, and I must insist - INSIST - that this is one of those times. Outrage and condemnation for the world of petty thievery would be so much better.

Two days after the wallet’s disappearance, and long before I’d managed to handle all the fallout, I had another adventure thrust upon me. (You know, as in, "some choose adventures, others have adventures thrust upon them." I have always fallen squarely into the latter category.)

When I came home from the archives for lunch the other day, my power was out. At first I didn’t think much of it; I wondered if burn-outs aren’t common with all the air-con blasting in Guangzhou this time of year. Then, of course, it occurred to me (as you knew it would eventually), that I had taken the elevator up to my 16th floor abode, so the power outage might not be general, but might instead be just me.

I went down to the doorman, and he explained that the building cut off the power to apartments with long overdue power bills. Having moved in last month, I wondered if the "long overdue" bill didn’t predate me.

In fact, I have no control over any of the utilities – I’m supposed to settle with my landlady when I leave, and before that she’s supposed to take care of it. My hunch proved correct, however, and it was eventually revealed that the bill hadn’t been paid in almost a year – the entire time the last tenant lived here.

(The question here is, how does it not occur to anyone that a long period of time has passed without that particular bill coming through? Does one live a happy-go-lucky existence in which power is free? Just how out of touch with reality do you have to be to be financially solvent and still not pay the power bill for a year at a time??)

My landlady called late in the day to say that she’d gone and paid the bill, but that power would not be restored until the next day. She felt bad, though, so she offered to take me to dinner, and then had arranged for me to sleep in the spare bedroom of one of her other tenants’ apartments, just two blocks away (the key being the air-con – its hot and muggy and still this week, so trying to sleep in my oven-like apartment would likely not do me much good in the long run).

We met down in a Hunan style restaurant, where she and a friend had already ordered an array of delicacies for my dining pleasure. She ordered two of the house specialties just for me: fish head and shredded beef stomach (I know, I know, hadn’t I suffered enough? Apparently not).
After dinner I went back upstairs to take a quick shower in the dark. All the light I had was what was floating up from the street, again, 16 sories below. In the light of the next day, I glanced over my bathroom shelf and was struck with a deep suspicion that I had mistakenly washed my hair with sunscreen, but that is no longer important now. (And, to be honest, that might have no connection to the darkness. Just today I absently doused all of my dirty dishes with olive oil before I realized that the dish soap is in the *other* green bottle. Whoops.)

The girl whose guest room was offered me did not get home until after 11. She had no bedding, just a spare bed and an air conditioner, but that was enough for me. I wrapped up a sheet and stuffed it down my pillow case, and headed out. The bewildered look on the night watchman’s face when I trudged out the door at 11:30 in comfortable clothes and clutching my pillow to my chest could be matched only by the one on the face of the morning guard who stared as I padded back in at 7 am.

It took until around 9 the following night to get my power back on, and then only after I had lost my temper and yelled at my landlord over the phone (the problem here was not that it was all her fault-although it was- but rather that she said she’d been "too busy" to follow up on getting my power restored like she promised, and was now out to dinner and pretending I didn’t exist. This annoyed me) and spent some quality time with the night guard (he seemed to figure out what I was doing with the pillow the night before when I told him my power was still out, though perhaps not where exactly I went) while he searched for a maintenance man.

When the lights finally blinked on and my refrigerator began to buzz once more (not before absolutely everything inside had spoiled, but at least I had an opportunity to defrost my freezer), I was filled with that greatest and purest of joys, the one that comes from the restoration of something important often taken for granted until it is lost.

Even with the power back on, the apartment continues to astound and impress. The kitchen faucet came off in my hand the other day, leaving a small geyser of water shooting up from a hole in the countertop. It would have taken much less time for me to get it screwed back on had I:

a) remembered to turn the water off first or
b) not been laughing almost hysterically at the sight.

Every time I plug something (most often my computer) into the same outlet the TV is plugged into, there is a bright spark and the TV spontaneously turns off or on. The air conditioner will only change temperature in groups of two or three degrees at a time. This place is, in a word, quirky. I suspect it suits me.

This is, once again, not about Yangshuo. But I wanted to share while the events were still recent, and with Yangshuo it is already much too late for that. So I promise, this week – as in, in the next six days before I head off to Taipei – there will be an email with my tree story. I swear it.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Everything is more complicated than it really needs to be

I have a cold. A dreaded, seemingly never-ending summer cold. This, of course, has no bearing on the rest of this post, except as a blatant and shameless sympathy ploy.

Ah, life in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). When I got into Guangzhou, I went straight for the cheap hotel I had booked over the internet. It was, well, it was not the worst place I’ve ever stayed in my life and travels, that award goes to a certain Kaohsiung crack house, er, I mean hostel, but let’s just say I had a strong motivation to get out first thing the next morning and find someplace to live on a more permanent basis.

After commuting around an hour each way to get to the archives in both Nanjing and Beijing, I was determined to live as close to the Guangzhou archives as possible. My plan was simple: I went to the archives, and then walking away from the building walked into the first real estate office I found and asked about renting apartments. The first few I tried told me to forget it – no one would rent for only two months. I have a friend who rented an apartment in Nanjing for only two months, though, and she gave me a few pointers.

First, she said, do not accept the "that’s impossible" line. It’s China. Anything is possible for enough money. There is always a landlord who sees a two month lease (at a rate slightly elevated over the standard) as better than an empty apartment waiting for a tenant. Then, she said, be prepared to make a snap decision. No thinking, mulling, weighing options.

This is difficult for me. I am a champion muller. I mull so well I rarely reach actual conclusions. So this advice was, essentially, to go against everything that is intrinsic to my nature.

Okay then.

As I walked out of my third "not a chance, but we’ll call you," a woman who’d been lurking in the doorway of the rental office followed me out. She asked about my requirements in an apartment, heard my request for a two month lease, and then told me to follow her to her office. She guided me to a storefront a few blocks away. As we walked, she called the office and spoke in Cantonese, presumably to prevent me from understanding when she reported that she’s bringing in a live one. Once there, they sat me in a chair and put a cup of water in my hand, while the whole office chattered over my head. After a lively argument, the women who caught me and, presumably, her boss, pulled out two keys and told me to follow.

A tall apartment building towered over their office, and they took me into this very building to look at apartments. The two they showed me were essentially the same – they had an entrance with a full kitchen and a table, a hallway with the bathroom on one side leading back to the main room, which had a bed, a desk, a couch, and (of course) a big TV. The whole place was quite small – like a studio, but with the kitchen divided out – but there was a small balcony with a view – it was up on the 16th floor), air conditioner, and a washing machine. The building was only a few years old, though, so everything was in good shape.

We looked at both places, and I after a truly minimal amount of hedging on my part, I told them to see if I could take the first one.

When they first showed me the place, the rent was 2000 RMB a month. After the landlord learned about the two month time limit, she raised it to 2400. I refused and countered with 2200, which she accepted. All of this, of course, was through the rental agency, which means that each stage was a separate conversation with me, followed by a phone call to her, and so forth. The rental agency also had its fee, and in spite of the fact that I was only staying for two months, I had to provide a two month security deposit. This meant, of course, that if I wanted to continue being Ms. Fabulous Snap Decision Maker, I had to go to the bank and pull out a fat wad of cash to make everything official and get the paperwork signed.

Being the full service real estate agents that they are, they offered to drive me to Citibank. I demurred, but ultimately found them to be more determined than I, and was soon strapped into their company car and heading for the bank. Just before we got there, a problem occurred to me. If I handed the landlord 4400 RMB as a security deposit, I’d get back 4400 RMB just as I was leaving China.

The problem is that Chinese currency is non-transferable – you can’t simply change it for dollars and head home. If you have a large wad of RMB when you leave China, you are stuck with a large wad of RMB until you can get back to China to spend it. And 4400 RMB (about $530) is somewhat more money than I’m willing to spend on last minute souvenirs.

Actually, I think it is also more money than I could spend on last minute souvenirs. How many stuffed pandas equal $530? I’d have to buy an extra seat for my flight home. I explained the problem to my real estate agents, and they called the landlord again, who agreed to take my security deposit in US dollars. Problem solved, right?

Nope. Now I had to figure out how to get $530. Even though my Citibank account is a US dollar account, it’s not a local Citibank account but an American account, so the only way for me to get cash is through the ATM, which only gives RMB. My Bank of China ATM account also only handles RMB. The real estate agent, a very nice Citibank employee, and I sat in the lobby of the bank for twenty minutes brainstorming possible solutions. The Citibank guy ("Call me Louis," he said, congenially) finally had the winning idea: I’d give the security deposit in RMB, then open a bank account that could accept US dollar wire transfers ("But not here," he said, "Citibank charges fees for this kind of account. You’ll go to Bank of China where it’s free").

Technically, I already have a Bank of China Savings account that could accept a US dollar wire transfer, but it’s in Nanjing, and I can only access it from Nanjing. So instead, I’d need to open a Guangzhou account, which is, incidentally, my third Bank of China account of the year. Finally, when the money arrived, I’d call my landlord and trade the dollars for the original 4400 RMB. That way when I left, she would give me back my dollars, which as we all know, can be traded freely anywhere in the world. Whew.

My only concern was that this plan would leave me with 4400 RMB to spend in 6 weeks, but then the bright minds at Citibank pointed out that I still needed to buy plane tickets, which in China is strictly a cash transaction. It wasn’t simple, but it was a solution.

It took a few transactions to get all the cash I needed, but soon we were off. Or so we thought.

Somewhere between the door of the bank and the car door, it dawned on me that I no longer had my ATM card. I apologized to the real estate agents and ran back to the ATM to get it, but there was no card there. I asked Louis if anyone had come to the machine in the five minutes or so I was gone, but he said no, and that if I didn’t take my card at all, it was likely taken into the machine. That began a rather lengthy process that began with them taking the back off the machine with a screwdriver to retrieve my card, and included copies of my passport and signing multiple notarized documents so they could affirm that I was, in fact, me, with me blushing beet red and stammering apologies to the real estate agents and the Citibank personnel all the while.

As we were waiting for this long process to be completed, we chatted about the apartment and the paperwork that needed to be done. Over the course of the conversation, I realized I had miscalculated and still needed to pull out another 2000 RMB. Along the way, however, it dawned on me that I was wrong to be taking all this money out of my Citibank account, when I still had a Bank of China account with RMB. So I continued to apologize and told them once I had my Citibank ATM back in hand, I’d walk up two blocks to a Chinese bank where I could use the ATM (it’s an internal network, so I couldn’t use my Bank of China ATM card on a Citibank ATM machine), and then really, I’d be ready. They said they’d drive up to meet me. I took longer than they did, so they ended up trailing me slowly in the car as I walked, shouting out the occasional commentary on my progress.

Poor Louis, incidentally, has not yet heard the last from me – he is a part of another rather involved process of getting my Citibank ATM card replaced. For some unfathomable reason, it has an expiration date of July 31. If I was staying in China until I return home in August, this would be no problem – I’d just budget out what I need and put it in one of my Bank of China accounts.

The problem is that I can’t use my domestic RMB Bank of China ATM in Taipei or Singapore, so I either need to apply for a fourth, international account (a very involved process), or get a new Citibank card. I don’t have a legal permanent address (I’m, er, not registered in the new apartment either, and have no mailbox), so I can’t have my parents send me the card. The Citibank in Beijing had the bright idea to have Citibank USA send my card to the Guangzhou branch, where I could simply pick it up.

Easier said than done: my poor mom, whom I now owe at least one, perhaps two very large pitchers of margaritas for her suffering, has spent literally hours on the phone with half the Citibank "customer service" people in the US (or more likely, based on her descriptions of the conversations, Bombay) trying to get this done. She has power of attorney and can call directly; I could call collect, but I don’t have a phone in the apartment and my cell phone is not registered for international calls (and I’m not paying the 2000 RMB to get access. My Nanjing number could call internationally – it was set up before China Mobile set up that fee – but it is out of money and I can only recharge it in Nanjing, so I’d have to go out to find a street phone with international access…. It should be abundantly clear by now that the moral of this email is: Nothing, but nothing, is simple in China.)

The problems began at the most basic level: Citibank USA claims it doesn’t have a branch in Guangzhou. Poor Louis would be heartbroken.

From that inauspicious start, there have been a total of four mailed replacements (three to China, one to my parents), about 20 phone calls, many requests for supervisors, three trips on my end to see Louis and discuss progress, and finally, one phone call yesterday from Louis to say my card has arrived. This at the same time that Citibank USA was telling my mom that in fact they’ve realized that they can’t send it at all without talking to me first.


Citibank is marvelous everywhere I’ve been outside the US, but it is a beast to deal with at home.

Anyway, back to our tale of intrigue and adventure in the Guangzhou real estate world. When we finally returned to the real estate office with all that cash in hand, the landlord had come and gone – she’d be back after lunch. So I returned to my chair and a fresh cup of water to wait. She came back and we worked on the rest of the formalities: signing the lease, handing over the money, getting the key, and so forth. Then someone from the office took me up to the apartment to do the standard inventory. That’s when the Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House sensation first kicked in, and it has not yet really worn off. If only my fixer-upper came equipped with Cary Grant….

Right off the bat, I realized something I hadn’t noticed before: the place was filthy. Covering every flat surface was a thin layer of grime. Clearly it had been a while since anyone had lived there. Then, we realized as we flipped all the switches on that the air conditioner, hot water heater, and washing machine weren’t working. The man from the real estate office told me not to worry – he’d have it all fixed within 24 hours. In the meantime, he asked if I wanted to hire someone to scrub the place down. We agreed this was a good plan, and for 30 kuai, a woman came and spent most of the evening making the place sparkle.

The boss from the real estate office – the same evidently multi-talented guy who chauffeured me around town on my bank adventures – came up and fixed the appliances. By the end of the day I was starting to feel like the service fee I paid them – which at first, I balked at – in actuality wasn’t nearly enough.

I left for a few hours to check out of my hotel, have dinner, open the new Bank of China account, and gather my belongings – I felt that the sooner I could get into the place and settle in, the better. When the cleaning woman finally left at 9:30 p.m., I grabbed my wallet and keys and dashed off to the neighborhood department store to buy towels, sheets, and assorted other necessary items for the night. I admit, though, I was feeling triumphant: I inquired about, rented, and moved into an apartment in a single day. It only took 12 hours.

Over the course of the weekend, I took four more trips out to various local shops to get the basics (one bowl, one cup, one plate, one set of chopsticks… bit sad, really). I also had a rather catastrophic plumbing emergency (turns out something else was broken when I moved in), which I will refrain from describing in any detail.

Soon, however, I settled into an easy routine in the place. Granted, it is still a bit quirky. The overhead bar for drying clothes on the porch came swinging down on my head and collapsed against the wall of the porch one afternoon, never to rise again (at least it didn’t tumble down 16 stories to the street below). And then last night, when I was making dinner, I ran into another little glitch. I had my vegetables and tofu all chopped up and ready to go, I reached for the knob to turn on the burner, and… nothing. It had worked the day before. What’s more, I could hear and smell the gas coming from the burner. There was just suddenly and spontaneously no fire. I went down to the 5th floor maintenance office, but I found it dark and empty. From there I went to the entrance guard, and explained my problem. He got on his walkie talkie and sent a guy up to fix my stove.

When the man came into the apartment, he spent about 30 seconds examining my stove before giving me his exasperated conclusion: "There’s nothing wrong with it," he said, "it’s just a dead battery." Right. The stove battery. I wonder why I didn’t think of that. He reached into my hot water heater (which apparently also runs on batteries), pulled out one D battery and replaced the one in the cabinet under the stove. He turned on the burner and voila! Blue flames.

I tried to save face. "American stoves don’t have batteries," I explained desperately. "I really didn’t know." He gave me a look and muttered a bit. I think it was something along the lines of, "Oh yeah? So what do they run on then? No batteries. Humph. You just don’t know where the batteries are…" I suspect I have failed us all, and the Fulbright program in general, in that rather than creating a positive view of America and Americans wherever I go, I have instead convinced one more industrious Chinese worker that Americans are so rich and spoiled, they don’t even replace their own stove batteries. I’m truly sorry.

My fabulous apartment is a mere two blocks from the Guangdong Provincial Archive, which means that not only is commuting a snap, but I have the joy of spending the forced two hour break at lunch time at home, instead of loitering in some neighborhood coffee shop watching the minutes tick by. It also means I have fewer excuses for skipping a morning session. In Nanjing, where it would be a full hour from my door to actually sitting down in the archives, I wouldn’t bother going if I was leaving my house anytime after 9. They’d close for lunch at 11:30, and so if I arrived much later than 10, the trek wasn’t really worth it. Here, I have no such excuse. If I leave home at 9:30, I get to the archives at 9:35.

The Provincial Archive is beautiful – a new building with some of the nicest reading facilities I’ve ever seen. Of course, the trade off is that they don’t have much for me in terms of records: everything before 1945 burned in the war, and everything after 1949 is not open or somehow unavailable (I’m working on this. They have some 1950s records, they just don’t seem to want to give them to me. Perhaps they think I’m a spy instead of a scholar. Or, better yet, a CIA agent disguised as a scholar. That must be it. The first class of Fulbright scholars to come to China in the late 40s were either sent home in a hurry in 1949 or stayed to be arrested as imperialist spies, and there could be some lingering suspicion about the program).

Hmmm, I know I promised tales of sunburn and violent forestry, but I had not counted on being so verbose (you’d think I don’t know myself at all). So stay tuned for the next installment, Guilin and Yangshuo.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Facing my terra cotta demons

I confess: I was very happy to leave Beijing. For a while I thought I just preferred Taiwan to China, but I really fell in love with Nanjing. Then I thought I had a weakness for Nationalist Chinese strongholds, but I adore Shanghai, Guangzhou and Suzhou. Then I thought perhaps it was a North/South thing, and I just prefer the ‘nanfang’ (South) – but I delighted in everything about Xi’an. Now I’ve finally realized that elaborate explanations are totally unnecessary: I just hate Beijing.

I hate the broad streets that can only be crossed with tunnels and bridges that are clogged with chaotic traffic and totally anti-pedestrian. I hate that no matter if you’re going 6 blocks or 6 miles by bus, cab, subway, bike or foot, it takes at least an hour to get there. At least. I hate that it must have one of the only subway systems in the world where there is no automatic ticketing system – every time you ride, you have to queue in front of a window for a ticket, then hand it seconds later to a young woman in a smart uniform and pillbox hat. That’s fine at off-hours, but at rush hour it is chaotic and time-consuming.

The Beijing subway, incidentally, has three lines, named Line 1, Line 2, and Line 13. (No word yet on lines 3 through 12, though I’ve heard rumors that there is a master plan and some of them will be open by the 2008 Olympics, but the ones that open will also be random, such as lines 4, 8 and 11.)

I hate the fact that downtown Beijing ‘night markets’ are neat and orderly rows of identically decorated stalls with official registration numbers and two wandering policemen for each stall. Actually, I just hate the sheer number of policemen or military guys you see on patrol in general – generally one for every three people walking the streets (my distaste for the police might have been related to residual guilt for being unregistered, but still).

I hate the fact that any time you walk down the street in Beijing, an art student tries to sell you a painting because you’re a foreigner. I totally grant that my bad experience there could be related to the fact that I lived so close to the tourist areas, so I couldn’t walk out the door without having an extended conversation with someone on why I didn’t want to buy postcards. Not just that I don’t want to, but why. They always required reasons. Once I was almost talked into a watch because I had trouble making a case for why I didn’t need one. Leaving Beijing did not hurt me, not at all.

The day I left, I got into a cab first thing in the morning and spent the next hour stuck in fabulous Beijing traffic. When we’d finally gotten out of the mess of the ring roads and out onto the Airport Expressway, I had an experience that I defy anyone who’s ever been to China to try to match – something so unexpected and unbelievable that I doubt that many of you will really have much faith in my account. But I will swear on anything you put before me that it did, in fact, occur.

What happened was this: on an open road with light traffic, my cab was the slowest vehicle on the road. What’s more, we did not change lanes once. Not once! I almost don’t believe it myself, and I lived it.

Beijing cab drivers, well, really any cab drivers in China, but especially in Beijing, are notorious road racers. They swing from the right ditch to the lanes intended for opposing traffic (minor detail) and back again, dodging trucks, buses and bicycles at neck-breaking speeds, covering at least twice the distance that they would if they had merely traveled in a straight line. They speed even when they can see the red light and traffic stopped ahead, causing passengers in the seatbelt-less back seats frequent whiplash. I don’t care how fast you’re going or what you’re driving – and that includes any vehicle currently on the NASCAR circuit – a Beijing cabbie will pass you, and without breaking a sweat or missing a word of his blasting talk radio show. Failing to pass everyone between you and your destination at least once is, it seems, a colossal loss of face. I have no idea what was wrong with my driver on Tuesday, but clearly it must have been catastrophic, because even the airport bus managed to lumber past us and leave us in the dust. Even I, as passenger, felt the shame of it all (only shame, thankfully, as I was in no danger of missing my flight).

On to my two day ‘vacation’ in Xi’an. For the curious, the name of the city is spelled with an apostrophe to indicate that it is made up of two characters, Xi and An, a two syllable word, as opposed to being one character with the pinyin Xian, which is pronounced as a single syllable. Apostrophes are used when there are multiple options presented by the pinyin. Another example is the ancient name of the city, Chang’an, in which case the apostrophe indicates that the name is made up of Chang and An, not Chan and Gan, which are also possibilities if all you see are the letters.

Pinyin is not a perfect – or even great – system for writing Chinese because it repeats too much – even with tone marks, there are often a wealth of possible characters with different meanings to choose from. Even as a stand-in for the characters it presents problems: Xi’an is in Shaanxi province. The proper romanization for Shaanxi is actually Shanxi, but there already is a Shanxi province – the names are different in characters, but the romanization doesn’t reflect that, so the "a" had to be added to distinguish between them. Some foreigners misunderstand this, and amusingly try to say the two names to reflect what they think is a pronunciation difference, talking about Shanxi and Shaaaaaaaaaaaanxi provinces.

Xi’an is where the emperor that united China in the Qin dynasty (think "Hero," if anyone saw the Jet Li flick last year) is entombed, and it is the site of the famous terra cotta army. In addition to these 2000-plus year old relics, Xi’an (as Chang’an) was the capital of China under the Tang dynasty, and in this era, was the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road connecting the Middle East with China and opening up a flourishing trade between the two.

As a result of this history, Xi’an still has a large Muslim population, and houses the largest and oldest mosque in China. It’s also one of very few major Chinese cities that has a standing city wall; once, most large Chinese cities had outer walls as fortifications, but these were declared rightist, decadent, and counter-revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution and many were destroyed (as were many priceless and now nonexistent relics of China’s past). Some, admittedly, particularly those more than a thousand years old, were in fact crumbling before the Cultural Revolution swept in to deal the death blows. But those that survived the Taiping, the Opium Wars, the Boxers, the Japanese, and the Communist Revolution were doing all right, largely because the brick makers (like those involved in the building of the Great Wall) had to put their names on their bricks, so if problems developed they, or perhaps one of their descendents, could be executed in punishment. Say what you will, the system led to excellent construction standards.

In Xi’an the walls contain so much history even the Red Guards didn’t care to bring them down, and in fact, they have been under pretty much constant restoration in the last decade or two. The combination of these things also means that the economy of Xi’an is quite dependent on its flourishing tourist trade – I think 90% of the people on my plane were foreign tour groups.

I arrived in Xi’an at midday, found my hotel, and after a cup of tea, took off for the Shaanxi Province History Museum. The museum is quite famous, or so they told me at the door when I paid for my ticket, as one of the finest collections of ancient Chinese relics in the world (for those who’ve followed my Chinese museum adventures from the very beginning, yes, this is code for "a bunch of pots") (but they were awfully nice pots). The weather in Xi’an was just a bit warmer than Beijing, around 103, so the museum seemed like a good plan.

After the museum, however, I looked over the map and realized that the Big Goose Pagoda (I’m actually still not sure why it is named that, other than to distinguish it from the Small Goose Pagoda a few blocks away) was nearby, so I wandered over there. Never one to reach a pagoda and not climb it, I trekked up the seven stories almost all alone (climbing pagodas apparently not being a popular pastime on stiflingly hot afternoons). By the time I got to the top, I wondered if the Cooked Goose Pagoda wouldn’t be a better name for it (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The pagoda was originally built in 684 AD, which is a new personal best for ancient pagoda climbing (my previous record being the 1005-year-old one in Suzhou). Sweaty and wilting, I returned to my hotel. I’d been back in my room for about ten minutes when my friend’s brother-in-law and his wife came for me.

This is standard Chinese etiquette – I know someone who knows someone who’s in the city I’m in, so they take charge of showing me a good time while I’m there. I’ve never actually met my friend’s wife, but her brother spent two days taking me around and buying me dinners. They were the nicest people ever and they made my trip to their city perfect.

First, they brought me to the Muslim quarter for some proper night market snacks and a "light" dinner (it was important to keep it light, they noted, because we would eat again later; overfeeding foreigners in my experience is also a very Chinese thing - they ordered us three dishes apiece which did not exactly fit my own definition of light). From there we went back down to the Big Goose Pagoda to wander around and wait for the fountain and light show at the plaza near there. As we were walking toward the pagoda, my friend asked if I knew its significance. I confessed my ignorance. He then asked if I was familiar with the story of Sun Wu Kong, a.k.a. the Monkey King.

In the story (written in the Tang Dynasty and officially titled Journey to the West), a monk is joined by the monkey king, who has god-like powers but is somewhat mischievous and uncontrollable; Ba Jie, who was once punished by the gods for being overly lascivious by being made into a half-man, half-pig; and Wu Jing, once a sea god. Together, the four travel to the West, or India, to collect the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to the Chinese emperor. It’s a famous adventure story, and it is filled with battles and obstacles and general trauma before the ultimate triumph. Every few years, someone makes it into a serial drama for Chinese TV (even NBC did a mini-series in the US a few years back), and last year Mayday wrote a song about it.

I told my friend that I, too, knew the story (I cheated – I read it in English. I have an abridged Chinese version but I haven’t gotten to it yet). He replied, "Oh good. Well, this is where they translated the texts brought back from India."

I was momentarily flabbergasted. As soon as I recovered, I realized that I had to tread lightly. After all, I’d known him for all of an hour; perhaps his entire belief system is founded on an absolute faith in the evident truth of the Journey to the West, but I had always thought that the story was accepted as that, and had no place of its own in Buddhist mythology.

I nodded, and hoped I sounded simply ignorant rather than doubting or defiant as I asked, "But there, ah, wasn’t really a monkey king, right?" He stared hard at me, and for a moment I thought I’d offended him. I’m sure in actuality he spent that moment trying to decide how to address my question without mocking my apparent faith in monkey adventurers, but he finally started to laugh. He explained that he only mentioned the story as a reference; of course the texts were retrieved by real live monks, not through any great monkey/pig heroics.

After the pagoda, we got some ice cream and sat down to wait for the fountain performance. The ice cream was inexplicably in the shape of an ear of corn on a stick, and was vaguely corn flavored, but still sweet and, most importantly, cold. The fountain performance was, er, everything I’d hoped it would be, and somewhat inexplicably to the tune of the "Blue Danube Waltz," which, incidentally, I’m still singing. From there we took motorcycle taxis – a three wheeler with two back seats for me and my friend’s wife and a regular motorcycle for my friend – across town to a restaurant (the idea behind the private motorcycle offering lifts to wayward travelers is that the driver gets a little extra cash, and the rider gets a ride that costs less than a taxi – my friends say they often take them if they only have a few kuai on them and need to get somewhere, but that night they took them for my benefit).

We spent the rest of the evening toasting to friends, the wonder that is terra cotta, Sun Wu Kong, the fountain and so on with beer served in bowls, which is apparently local custom in keeping with the ancient China theme (and eating, of course).

My second day in Xi’an I took care of an important bit of business. Many of you are aware of my past concerns that the terra cotta warriors have been stalking me. To date, they have tracked me to Washington, San Francisco, Paris, and Hong Kong; they just missed me in Seoul (I outwitted them). I once presented all of the evidence I had in favor of this to a friend of mine here, who listened quite seriously and ultimately wondered if perhaps it wasn’t that it was the terra cotta warriors themselves behind it all, but in fact the ghost of the emperor of Qin.

Either way, being stalked, even by inanimate objects, is somewhat unsettling (perhaps all the more so because they are, or at least ought to be, inanimate). I felt that the best way to put the whole thing to rest would be to confront them, en masse, in their place of residence. The soldiers are in their excavation pits about 40 kilometers outside of Xi’an. Fed up with organized tours that involve more shopping than sightseeing, I decided to go the Chinese way, on the public bus. 8 kuai (US $1) for the roundtrip, with a stop at Huaqing Chi (the imperial baths – a retreat for the emperor in the Tang dynasty, like the summer palace in Beijing was for emperors in the Ming and Qing Dynasties).

The gardens around the baths were very pretty (the baths themselves were decidedly not, as the hot spring source that supplied them with water in the Tang era have long since dried up), but the place has an additional claim to fame: it was the site of the Xi’an Incident during World War II, when two of Chiang Kai’shek’s officers placed him under house arrest to try to get him to adjust his policies of ending internal strife (read: hunting communists) over fighting the Japanese. Naturally, these two were lauded as heroes by the Communist government and there’s a rather lovely, if somewhat heavy handed, display complete with original preserved bullet holes, devoted to the affair.

Once at the site of the terra cotta soldiers, I wove through a tent city of souvenir stands and finally reached the entrance, where I hired a guide to show me around at the site. At first I wasn’t going to just because he stood right in front of a sign in Chinese that said that guides cost 30 kuai for groups of five people or fewer and asked for 100 kuai to show me around. When I pointed to the sign, he told me that price was only for Chinese people. I told him that if I could pay the Chinese price, he could give the tour in Chinese, but otherwise to forget it.

He must have decided this was better than nothing, because he came running up as I stalked away and started in on the history of the terra cotta soldiers (I did not reveal that I have a personal history with them. This is not a story I generally share with strangers). He did not tell me anything that was not on one of the handy bilingual signs posted around the area, but because I was visiting alone, he was at least useful as a photographer and occasionally, for holding my water bottle (had to get my 30 kuai’s worth somehow, right?).

He tried so hard to get me to buy a personal scaled down set of warriors in the gift shop that I assume the usual Chinese deal where the guide gets a cut of the profits was in play, but I expressed no interest in spite of his earnest claims that having at least one, but ideally, a group of five displayed in my home would ward off evil spirits. Having at present no evil spirits (other than that insidious sprite, dissertation procrastination) needing fending off, I politely declined.

In fact, I bought a set for a fraction of the price from one of the touts outside (using the classic bargaining trick of walking away, yelling ever lower prices over my shoulder until the peddler caved and ran after me to complete the sale). My logic is this: although I do not require them to help me ward off evil spirits, I would be eternally grateful if they will serve to ward off other terra cotta soldiers. It’s the same principle, for example, as having a small, portable ninja on hand to ward off its life-size (and infinitely more dangerous) counterparts. You understand. (Some of you actually do. The others, I trust, are well accustomed to humoring me by now.)

When I returned to the city that afternoon, I met up with my new friends and trekked up to the top of the city wall. There we rented bicycles and cycled the whole loop, stopping at each of the large city gates for rest, shade (107 that afternoon, and a cloudless sky), water, and, naturally, pictures of us wilting in the sun. It was easy biking, being flat and wide with nice tall walls on either side once used to conceal archers but now necessary to keep bikers with sub-standard steering capabilities like myself from careening over the edge.

Still, by the end of that long day in the sun, I was exhausted and starting to feel a bit sick from the sun. From there, however, we went straight for dinner at a Latin American barbeque place (which they chose because the restaurant brews its own beer, and they thought I’d appreciate some ‘good’ stuff. Of course, the beer showed up bright green and turned out to be seaweed flavored. Words fail me).

The concept behind the restaurant is that young men in soccer uniforms come around with big slabs of different kinds of meat – more than 20 in all – and cut off a bit for each diner before bringing the next kind. I knew I couldn’t refuse them all, as much as I would have liked to, so my plan was to work slowly on the first few kinds they brought and then claim I was too full to continue past there. This plan, I discovered, was somewhat flawed. If the first few things had been squid and roast beef (which I can choke down past my vegetarian esophagus pretty convincingly), I might have managed it.

Sadly, the first thing that showed up on my plate were two little sort of round, sort of oblong things that I couldn’t identify. I heard something about chicken, so I bravely doused them in ketchup and popped one in my mouth. As I was chewing, my friends asked how it compared to other chicken hearts I’d eaten. After a brief internal battle, I managed to swallow and look more closely at the other piece on my plate. Pushing the ketchup aside, I could see the little blood vessels pieces sticking up and recognize the shape for what it was. That was pretty much it for me. I managed some watermelon and most of an ear of corn, but I was resorting to some of my childhood antics with napkins to clear the meat from my plate, even as it kept magically reappearing in new and ever more frightening forms as the scary soccer guys attacked from all angles.

After dinner I said goodbye to my new friends, as they’d be working the next day when I took off for Guangzhou. Before my flight, I went and toured the mosque and had a snack in the Muslim quarter, and then finally tore myself away from a city I loved at first sight. The flight from Xi’an to Guangzhou was quite turbulent, which caused the flight attendant to come on the intercom and make the standard announcement in Chinese about encountering light turbulence, returning to seats and fastening seatbelts. A few moments later, and almost as an afterthought, the same woman reappeared and announced in English, "The plane has run into some problems. Fasten seatbelts." While absolutely true, I suspect this phraseology did not quite accomplish the same task of calming and informing that the Chinese version managed.

Da da da dum duuummm, dim dim, dum dum….. (you ripple and gleam....) sorry.

Okay, next time, and quite soon for that matter: Guangzhou apartment hunting (complete with a ravenous Citibank ATM), overseas visitors, bizarre sunburns and a run-in with a vicious attack tree.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Beijing life- traumatized by basic tasks

Nothing is ever simple, it seems. And as much as I would like to blame China for this, I suspect that it is only part China, and that the other factor making my life somewhat, uh, interesting, is just me. But I have to say, lately accomplishing even the most basic tasks feels like a major production.

Recently, I wanted to call the water company and have them send over a new bottle of water for the water cooler (a fabulously convenient way to make drinkable water accessible in places like China where water has to be boiled before it can be ingested). Johanna, whose apartment I’m staying in, has a company that she goes through for this. They way she explained it, the process was very simple: leave the empty bottle outside the door with a ticket in it good for one new bottle, and then call and tell them to come exchange the empty bottle for a full one. She said that she had checked with the company on which number they prefer we use for ordering water the day before, and had noted it on the order slip.

Brimming with confidence, I called the phone number and explained that I wanted to order water. The women asked me what I was talking about, and I explained that I was out of water, and wanted them to deliver a new bottle. She hung up on me. After a few huffy thoughts about the quality of the company’s customer service representatives, I called back. A different person answered, which made me glad. This one just might have a bit more patience; my water-ordering-Chinese is fine, really, but as always, my pronunciation is a bit, er, accented, so over the phone, at least, I do best with patient people. "I’d like to order water," I told the young women grandly. "What?" She replied. "I’d like to order…" "Where are you?" She cut me off. "I live in the Denglongku hutong. One bottle, please." Without as much as a "excuse me," or "just one moment," she hung up.

Growling, I tried once more. This time, at the automated answering service, I selected 0 for an operator rather than staying on the line for customer service. When someone answered, I explained that I have an account with their company, that I’d like to order some water, and asked when they thought they might be able to deliver. The operator responded with a curt, "what?" "WAAATER," I emoted. "I would like to order water." She seemed to pause for a moment, filling me with hope, and then she hung up.

At this, I gave up. I was chagrined. My confidence in my phone Chinese was gone. Clearly, my tones were all wrong, my vocabulary limited, and my listening comprehension, as usual, abysmal. It was a flashback to Taipei when I’d always blow the dictation on our unit tests. But also, it was partly their fault: what lousy service. They apparently couldn’t be bothered with me, so finally I decided I’d ask the ayi who comes twice a week to clean the apartment to call for me (this, by the way, is Johanna’s set up – this women has been cleaning for her for months. I am, I admit, a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing, to the point that I always find myself frantically scrubbing counters and wiping tiles just before she comes over. After all, I don’t want her to think I’m messy. But given the dust in Beijing and how quickly it builds up, it is quite common to hire someone to stay on top of it. She also does laundry and helps me buy vegetables, because the vendors around here – especially, I’m told, a rather nefarious egg man – always try to cheat foreigners).

When the ayi came, I explained the situation and she was very understanding. She marched straight to the phone, and called. She talked to the person on the other end for a few minutes, and then hung up, satisfied. "Are they bringing water then?" I asked with interest. "Nope," she replied. "Why not?" I asked. "Because they," she explained, "are not the water company." Three times they hung up on me, and it never once occurred to me to ask if I had the right number.

Embarrassed as I was, I ended up being quite glad that I asked her for help. In addition to the wrong number that Johanna had written down for me, we had a second number for the company. The ayi called that one, and they gave her another number to call. At the other number, they were uncertain about whether they or the original number was closer for a deliver to this location, and wanted the ayi to call the first one back. She suggested that they discuss the matter among themselves and then call us back, which they ultimately agreed to. They called back twice asking for more information. The second time, it was a bicycle delivery man asking for directions (Johanna has used this company since last September, so I have no idea why they didn’t know how to get here, but we guessed this guy was new). I sat alongside her and listened to just this end of the conversations. I heard the ayi tell him first to head to Tiananmen Square, and then she’d direct him from there. Then there was a long pause, and she repeated, ‘Tiananmen." A few seconds later, she sounded exasperated as she said forcefully, "TIANANMEN. Look, if you don’t know, just go out on the street and ask absolutely anyone where it is." What followed, I assume, must be the Chinese for "sheesh."

When she left, we thought we had it all in hand, but about a half an hour later the water company called back and asked me to call yet another office, and have them take care of it. Thankfully, calling this number was more like what I had originally envisioned for the ordering water task: I said I wanted water and where I am, then how many bottles, and then they said "Ok!" and an hour later, there it was. I think, though, that I’ll go back to boiling water before I willingly go through that process again.

The day after the getting the runaround from the water company, I received a phone call from
Federal Express. They had a package for me, but it was hung up at customs and they wanted me to fax a copy of the identification page of my passport to their service at the airport right away. I looked around my apartment. Nope, no fax machine. I asked about the alternatives. The women I talked to was flustered: apparently everyone who receives FedEx packages in Beijing has instant access to a fax machine. She gave me a different number to call, telling me that they will send someone to my house to pick up a copy of my passport. Er, okay. I called the number.

They told me the best thought they had was for me to FedEx a copy of my passport to the Beijing Airport. Let’s all just pause for a moment and let sink in just how asinine that idea is.
We went back and forth for a few moments on possible solutions to the problem. I finally suggested that since there is, as she noted with the FedEx-ed passport idea, a FedEx office near here, why don’t I just run over there and ask them to fax my passport to their airport branch? She put me on hold for a bit while she, apparently, located a quorum of unhelpful customer service representatives to mull over and ultimately agree that my suggestion "might work."

This was my fault, really, I shouldn’t have asked. I should have simply gone directly to the FedEx office and demanded that they help me. When I got there, I found one very bored young man who snapped to and faxed my papers with such alacrity, I suspected I was the first customer he’d seen in days, if not weeks.

It took a full day for my package to be cleared by customs (the Hostess cupcakes and birthday cards inside sent by my parents being particularly suspicious). The next morning, I received another call from FedEx. This time it was the delivery guy, and he couldn’t find my hutong. After a few failed attempts at directions (he, at least, was on the right street and did not need to be informed of the existence of Tiananmen Square), I told him to wait out on the street and I’d come find him. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I slipped on my flip-flops and grabbed a sweater, and rushed out to the street. I looked in either direction, and finally saw the van about a block south from the entrance to my hutong. I started walking to it, but I hadn’t gone more than a few steps when it started to drive away, and turn left into an ally. This is how I came to be running down Nanchizi Street, arms waving, flip-flops thwacking the sidewalk noisily with each step after a disappearing van. It was a picture I daresay few people on the crowded street that morning will soon forget. Fortunately for me, the van got stopped up by a three-wheeled bicycle trying to pass him in the narrow ally, and I managed to close in and demand my package.

Speaking of cupcakes and cards, a few of you have asked how I spent my birthday. I was tempted to spend the entire day in bed with a new Korean soap opera, but was ultimately lured outside by gorgeous Spring weather and a desire for fresh air. I thought for a bit about what, ideally, I’d like to do, and then the proper course of action for the day came to me in a flash: I went to see the dinosaurs.

The Beijing Museum of Natural History is not on the level of the Museum of Natural History in London or the American Museum of Natural History in New York (which has the best dinosaurs I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen dinosaurs in six countries and around the US – but loses points for being too expensive. If you have to pay $13 or more to get in, you cannot justify simply going to see the dinosaurs and then leaving again; you feel somewhat obligated to go look at boring gemstones and dull anthropological dioramas to justify the expense. It saps some of the joy from the experience, really), though Beijing is miles ahead of Shanghai. (I remember when I showed up at the ticket window in Shanghai and asked to go in, the women at the window just stared back at me, with an incredulous look that plainly said, "Really? Why?") (To demonstrate the contrast between the two museums, I’ve included photos of a typical exhibit hallway outside the dinosaur area in Beijing and in Shanghai.)

Seeing dinosaurs in different parts of the world often means seeing very different fossils. Dinosaurs found in China date mostly to the Jurassic Period, whereas North America is known for its wealth of Cretaceous Period fossils, and they also developed quite separately; it is fascinating to see that, for example, a North American stegosaur (like the Stegosaurus) has rounded plates, but the Chinese stegosaur (most famously, Tuojiangosaurus) has pointed ones… I could go on, of course, but I think I’ll just say that in short, I had a lovely time at the museum. Everyone, I think, needs something (like the dinosaurs for me) that makes them inexplicably happy just because.

Aside from the dinosaurs, I also got myself some ice cream for a near-perfect afternoon. I stopped short of buying myself a balloon, largely because they were not dinosaur shaped, but also because the sad memory of my last balloon had not yet faded. (One day a few months ago, I was standing on the side of the road in Shanghai. A man walked up to me and handed me a balloon. "For you," he said. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never just gotten a balloon from a stranger for no particular reason before. It made me quite happy. Then, as I was walking into the way into the Shanghai Railway Station that afternoon, I heard a sudden, loud BANG! I jumped about a foot, let out a little shriek, and then stared down sadly at the little bits of blue rubber at my feet. And that was the end of my balloon.)

After the Labor Day holiday (celebrated May 1 here, as in most of the world outside the United States), which provided for most of the first week of May off, a sort of anti-research, anti-translation, anti-dissertation lethargy set it. This, I believe, is also known as spring fever. Many days went by when I could not force myself to open the Word files on my computer, much less work on them. Those of you who are in grad school, if you have never had this experience, please don’t tell me. I won’t believe you anyway. But I’m trying now to fight my way back into making progress. I have just a little over a month left in Beijing, and much to do before I depart, so cheer for me, will you? In the meantime, another trip to the dinosaurs might be called for.

Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen