September 17, 2005

Asleep at the Wheel

What do you do when your taxi driver is sleeping at the red lights? Steve and I were surprised to hear some pretty heavy snoring coming from the front seat of the taxi this past Tuesday afternoon en route home from our government required physical exam.

After a two hour stint of highly organized visits to 7 different individual stations (along with a group of about 25 other “Shanghai wannabe’s”) where we had blood taken, an EKG, an ultrasound, a cheesy eye exam, blood pressure, a chest XRay and various other poking and proddings, we emerged in a neighborhood we were unfamiliar with to try and get a taxi. The guys were already home from school (the careful reader of the blog will note we have learned our lesson and provided them with a key for such moments,) but we were still anxious to get home. I wondered whether it might be hard to get a taxi, but, amazingly, there was one right there. I concluded that the taxis were tuned in enough to know that lots of foreigners left this establishment and would be likely to need rides home. I now think I may have been wrong – he had merely pulled off to the side to take a snooze and was embarrassed when we opened the door and climbed in.

Anyway, the first part of the trip seemed pretty normal, though I did notice it was first taxi we had ridden in without the white seat covers and white gloves on the driver, a small affectation we had noticed upon arrival. I remember wondering whether he might not be legit, but noted he had a meter and a name plate and decided to relax. All the taxi drivers so far have been very professional. It was when we hit the rush hour traffic and sat crawling for a long time, that we noticed the snoring. I was reading my Chinese class notes and not paying too much attention, (I’ve found that travel time is a great time to do homework and vocabulary review) but when I heard Steve say, “nee how” to the guy to wake him up (the traffic ahead had moved on and he hadn’t) that I got a little worried. At first I thought it might just have been a momentary thing, as his driving seemed to be pretty good, but it must have happened about 20 times, at each slowdown, he snoozed, and then generally woke up on his own or Steve and I began to talk loudly to each other in English at that moment to spare him the embarrassment of being constantly awakened on purpose by his charges. It was a little weird, and I planned what I would do if I saw him ever nodding off during the driving portion, and got my Chinese phrase ready to express that he could pull over and let us off - that there was so much traffic that we wanted to walk home. Fortunately for us, (!?) there was quite a bit of traffic and so the speeds never got too fast and he (consciously?) chose not to take the highway, so I didn’t feel as worried in actuality as I thought I should in theory. (How do I explain to friends and family that we had an accident because our taxi driver was falling asleep and we knew it, but stayed in the cab nonetheless.?) Jeez – have I become warped by life here already? We eventually got home where Steve claimed he wasn’t too worried because he knew the guy had a really nice car and wouldn’t want to wreck it. Hmmm.


Posted by sprut003 at 5:07 AM

Walking home Friday at 5:15

Friday at 5:00pm is a hard time to find a cab. This is a first for me as there are gobs of taxis in this city, but I realize I’ve never tried to hail one at this time. I guess five o’clock is quitting time all over.

. I left my yoga class and after waiting about 15 minutes decided to walk the 45 minutes home. This was just after getting some unsolicited advice in Chinese from an old grandpa who I imagined was saying something like, “you’re crazy, lady, why don’t you just walk!” As I walked I noted the usual random kaleidoscopic street scenes. Guys with little plastic buckets filled with turtles, clusters of guys squatting on corners fixing bicycles so old you imagine there are no original parts left on the machine. Fruit vendors balancing two baskets the size of car tires on a bamboo pole over their shoulder. I have no idea what fruits they are. Fancy professional women riding their clunker bicycles. Grandpas riding their three year old grandkids home on their motor scooters, the child thrilled with the rush of air in his face as he stands between the handle and grandpa’s seated body. My initial knee-jerk “oh my God, how unsafe!” now has switched into sharing the joy with the kid and trusting that grandpa is a safe driver. Back alleys with people serving meals at informal “restaurants,” (picture an old desk set next to an old table, put some stools under it, people slurping noodles out of big bowls.) A guy rides his bicycle by with the ever-present “tricycle/wagon” attachment filled with 15 or 20 large plastic office-cooler-sized water bottles (everybody uses these here at home because the tap water can’t be drunk). The bottles are carefully attached with bungee chords. Another pair of guys is balancing at least 50 fire hose sized thick bamboo poles on a similar bicycle apparatus. These are probably moving from a job scaffolding one construction project to another and are the length of two cars, so people are giving them pretty wide berth. I consider that there should be a Guinness Book category for carrying the largest, bulkiest or weirdest thing on a bicycle – the Chinese would surely take all the records.

I also notice people seem to be moving a little faster on foot, and they’re carrying more packages and bags. Ahh! It’s the start of mooncake weekend. The mooncakes have been on sale in China since we arrived in mid – July: little round hockey puck sized/shaped cakes associated with the mid autumn full moon festival, so we’ve wondered for a while what this holiday is all about. It’s one of the few that rivals the U.S. in holiday anticipatory marketing. Every restaurant, temple, coffee/tea house and hotel seems to have it’s own variety, with very fancy packaging. But today is the first day I’ve actually seen anybody carrying them. The bags are shiny and sleek and the boxes inside are bright red and gold. Even at our university today, there had been an informal table with a guy giving out mooncakes to students. There had been one news article that some group was questioning the ecological impact of the large amount of packaging that went into the presentation of mooncakes to family and friends. Hagen Dazs and Starbucks have joined the fray with their “chocolate and mocha” concoctions. The Chinese are more likely to put red bean paste, a hardboiled egg or even meat in theirs. There’s a definite vibe on the street, it feels like it might the day before Thanksgiving, when folks are scurrying a touch with some “gotta do it” celebratory preparations. I feel curious and a little left out. It’s kind of odd to want to partake in something everyone else is doing, yet have little info on the festival and how people will celebrate it. I’m limited to what’s written in the English language press, what I can get the handful of Chinese people I know to explain to me, and what Jack and Henry are picking up in Chinese class. (According to Jack, there was something about one dynasty falling when the new dynasty put messages inside the people’s mooncakes to tell them about the upcoming uprising?) Anyway, I continue on.

I come to a busy intersection and notice there’s a subterranean option to cross the street, and go towards it, wondering what it will be like down there – shops? Beggars? puddles? You just never know. Surprisingly, it’s got four huge fish tanks, dentist style, and lovely tropical fish well tended. Go figure. There are some long lines of people on the other side of the street. Maybe a place with particular famous mooncakes? A little further on, in a part of town which changes block by block with fancy new granite sidewalks in front of sleek foreign label shops to Chinese merchants where families live and work in the same small storefront area, mom and grandma are stooped/squatting in front of a little plastic basin with a small child getting a bath on the sidewalk. I can’t see the child’s reaction when I pass, but looking back I see his huge grin as he is scrubbed and splashed and I note grandpa’s amused face nearby. It’s fortunate for me that Chinese family life frequently spills out onto the sidewalks here, giving me a chance to see such a touching, sweet moment of family interaction as this.

Think of us this weekend when you see the full moon, will you?


Posted by sprut003 at 5:05 AM

First day at University

Got a call from Henry and Jack’s school last night, saying that because of the typhoon, they would be closed today. Wondered whether the university would be similarly affected but decided it wouldn’t be. (Universities never close, do they?)

Jack was about as ecstatic as I’ve seen him when he heard he was getting a “typhoon day.” Left at 7:45 in taxi for 8:30 class. Rainy and windy but nothing too weird.

Our classes are in the Nuclear Engineering Study and Storage building. Weird. Pretty typical low budget classroom. Uncomfortable chairs. Hot room with whirring fans, Hard to hear some of the subtle differences between ts, tc, tj, sh, dg and ch sounds.

Fifteen to twenty students, 7 Swedish guys, two puertoriquenyas, guy from India, woman from Russia. Guys from France, Austria, Norway and Canada, everybody there to climb aboard the amazing Chinese miracle growth machine. The woman next to me is from Australia but born in Malaysia. They are all pretty young. When the teacher asks me to practice numbers by giving the date of my “younger brother’s” birth I decide to fudge the date. I’m somehow not willing to fess up that that his birth year is around the same as her mother’s.

The teacher again looks like she’s 16, particularly with her outfit, (mickey mouse shirt, white bobby socks, 50’s style skirt and pony tail.) I like her. She has enthusiasm, energy and keeps a quick pace going. Despite the fact we have taken four weeks of tutored lessons, we finish the class with many new vocabulary words. Plus, she expects us to learn the characters too!

It’s pretty basic in the woman’s rest room. Bring your own toilet paper, soap and towels. Half the toilets are squatter Chinese style, two are western. Something for everyone, I guess. Maybe I’ll donate a bar of soap and see what happens.


Posted by sprut003 at 5:02 AM

The bureaucracy of school

I’ve known all along that we were going to be taking Chinese language classes at a local University. Somehow in my mind, however, I kept picturing Language “lessons” at an Institute, you know, small, personal – that sort of thing.

When we went last week to do the final payment and registration for classes, I was hit head-on with my misperception. It had been a long time since I had stood in line to register for classes at a university, and this was the full thing, Chinese style. This meant that after getting our confirmation slip picked up, (no line there,) we went upstairs and were handed a number. Number 447 to be exact. And after a few minutes the young “handler” held up a pad with 332 on it. Ack, we thought, we should have come in the morning. It was two thirty pm, Henry and Jack get off the bus at 4:00 and we had not thought to give one of them a key. There were two steps to the process, four operating sites for each, two people moved through in ten minutes. We had planned to go in the morning but also knew we needed enough cash to pay the tuition, and found the ATM rejected our request in the morning. After freaking out a little, we reasoned (hoped?) that since we had taken out our daily limit the prior day in the afternoon, we were still technically in the day before (US time) and that once midnight (US time) passed we would be able to get the rest of our money out. With our pockets bulging with cash, we were now sitting amongst our new peer group, but we probably were not going to get served, or would need to split up or something. Heard Spanish spoken behind me, chatted with the Spaniard and two Ecuadorian women. The Spaniard graciously offered to give me her number when she heard our dilemma. Once again, the kindness of strangers. I decided to get a little information, before adding several hours to her wait, so approached one of the other sweet young things (all China seems to be managed by young women who look to be about 16 and in fact are about 22.) She offered to check with the processors and see if they thought I would get served today and also ask if I needed to be present or if Steve could do the dirty work for me. At the last moment I thought to ask her if they would be willing to look over our papers and verify that we had everything, so that if we did have to return tomorrow, we would know we had all the things in order. That was a VERY wise final request. Amazingly they were willing to take a look, so with about 4 minutes from the time I had calculated I needed to be streaming out the door, we were allowed to approach the table.
The immediate reaction of the registration woman, (yes, this person was actually over 30) was not good. “Your visa has expired,” she said, fortunately in pretty decent English. Thus began the Visa adventure which was to consume the next week. All the stages of grief flashed before us, starting with denial, (“No, it’s not, let me show you,” said Steve, assuming she was looking at his expired visa from last summer’s visit.) Yes, there was some anger too, and not just a little fear too – messing with the Chinese Visa authorities is not something you do lightly. The silver lining was that since we were pretty screwed up, they at least let us in the line there and then and took care of the other stuff and I ran home and Steve stayed to do the rest and then headed back when their line closed to hear what the next steps would be. So, we had the pleasure of seeing first hand what we had read from various authors about the “back door” system of getting things done in China. In Venezuela government bureaucratic procedures are so crazy and convoluted that anyone with a little money hires a “gestor” to do the line waiting and “greasing the system” for them. Here, you hope you have a friend who works at the agency and will “let you in the back door.” So when we went the next day to the Department of Public Security, we had a little map drawn by the 30 something woman of exactly where “our” door was located. This meant we avoided the two main doors which had about 30 people each waiting at them at 8:45am. Of course, there is a guard at the back door and you have to be able to convince him that you should be let in. While our first visit required only a little wait for Mr. Chou to come down and look our stuff over and say, “wait here,” during our second visit, the guard was convinced that Mr. Chou wasn’t around and that we should vacate the premises immediately. All this was communicated by attitude and sign language, as our Chinese was certainly not up to the task. The juice on my cell phone was nearing empty and Steve’s cell phone was forgotten at home as we dialed our contact at the school, (no answer) and Mr. Chou’s office, (his deskmate said he was at the University and his opinion was also that we should not be bothering him.) For a few minutes we feared we had crossed wires about where we were supposed to meet Mr. Chou and we worried we would never be let in the back door again and might have to pay some outrageous fine or be deported or something. It seemed time to call on the potential kindness of strangers again. There was a young dude with a ponytail also waiting on the back step of the back door smoking a Dunhill. Everything about him said, “I’ve studied some English.” Sure enough, when asked he was willing to at least confirm our understanding with the surly guard and come up with a plan. And before we had done anything rash, there was Mr. Chou inside motioning us to come in. He and another “guy from upstairs” waited with us on one of the processing lines, and explained to the sweet young thing at counter 17 why it was okay for her to go around the usual regs and give us an extra 30 days to get our act together. We had to leave our passports with her, (someone behind us explained that the Chinese characters on the receipt required us to be back Tuesday next to reclaim them,) and we were told to schedule a medical check up and then things would be back on track. So that’s the introduction to school. It’s not all over yet but I have reminded myself that seeing how the bureaucracy works is an important part of really understanding a place. I clearly remember the craziness of doing the similar Visa application process in Spain, (waiting one rainy morning outside with hundreds of people only to get inside with my many questions and see the sign over the worker’s desk saying, AQUI NO SE DA INFORMACION, and wondering if information could not be given there then where could it be given?) And further back in college, remembering when I went to pick up my DAS identity card in Bogota, Colombia how the ID they presented to me had a man’s photo on it, and how when I complained the worker didn’t seem to want to do anything about it and another citizen in line who was Colombian went to bat for me demanding that this was not right and explaining to me in manageable Spanish what the next step would be. And I feel the same concern when I see immigrants on line at the Hennepin County Government “service” center and wonder how they will make sense out of the multitude of forms we require for life in America. Help out somebody who seems to be having some trouble with bureaucracy. It really brightens their day. The other upshot of the experience is that the Spanish woman lives a few blocks from us and is becoming a friend….


Posted by sprut003 at 4:58 AM

September 12, 2005

Gan bei!

Gan bei! is a frequently heard toast at Chinese banquets. It means bottoms up. If you are one of two foreigners at a big banquet, then people will go out of their way to share a toast with you. I innocently emptied my glass each time.

We visited Changchun in northeastern China where our friend is a doctor in a new hospital. Our arrival coincidently coincided with the celebration of the hospital’s grand opening. He graciously included us in all of the festivities. I met local government officials, health care executives and physicians from all over China. Banquets were the order of the day.

Each round table seated about twelve people with a giant lazy susan in the middle. A new dish arrived about every five minutes until there were about twenty on the table. It was an amazing buffet with the food gliding by my seat. I partook heartily.

We started toasting with wine, then beer and finally moved onto clear 80 proof rice liquor. It all tasted good. Since I spoke practically no Chinese, I had little interest is offending anyone offering me a toast. Later that night I reflected on the wisdom of that decision, for about an hour in our hotel bathroom. Enough said.

I believe that my experience has been shared by many innocent westerners. There is no real American experience that I can compare to a great Chinese banquet- maybe a wedding feast crossed with a frat party.

Posted by sprut003 at 8:56 AM