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.
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?
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.
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….
Saturday morning, August 27th –the first time we’ve woken up to rain, one of those rains that feels like it will hang around all day and may signal the close of a season. The swimming pool is uncharacteristically empty for a Saturday – except for my weirdo family who is down there swimming in the rain. It has been a week of change. A week and a half ago Henry and Jack started back to school. Amazingly on day two the weather became tolerable – no longer this curtain of wet humid air that hit you when you walk out the door and made you quickly reconsider how to shorten whatever errand you had planned – but just plain old air – for three or four days I marveled about it everytime I left, now I’m used to it. This is big! It means that we can explore without feeling like we’re going to drop.
It has been a big week. The guys starting school meant that I could finally get on with planning my own life. I’ve had an odd feeling when moving here of wiping the slate totally clean (as far as obligations and activities) which was quite liberating at first - then building up some activities
and obligations but TRYING to not put quite so many things on the plate. For the month of August, (post settling in) I was itching to get things going - wanted so badly to make some work connections and "know what the new rhythm of life" would be - but it was hard to get some things off the ground with the guys not in school yet and with all the preschools closed for the summer. I was also getting tired and bored of the vacation/travel/hotel life that we have been living this summer – anxious to get out and see some of the “real” city and not just experience the sanitized safe tourist version we have mostly been connecting with. I tried to go with the flow and actually began to enjoy just hanging more with the guys and doing basic life routines. Now things are starting to come on stream (yoga
classes, work stuff, school connections - projects,) which is exhilarating, but also a little scary. We have the semblance of feeling like we "know how to get around" (only because we no longer
tremble and get freaked out each time we walk through the door) but our basic living skills here are still very new - and we will need a lot more slack time built into our day to deal with the inevitable
cultural dislocations which will come up. We want the guys to get into some activities, for example, as it will connect them with other kids, get them off the computer, etc. but there's no way we can
shoehorn quite so many things in we can do in Minneapolis. We'll see if we can balance this all.
So, anyway, once the kids got on the bus, life in this next phase of the trip started with a bang. Steve and I went to our first hot yoga class (see his entry) where we met two women who have kids at their school (one American, one Chinese from Hong Kong). As things seem to happen in the “expatriate community” connections come pretty easily. By the time we had all showered and dressed I had been invited to get a ride home with one of them, and would have gone to lunch with them too except that I had made other plans. A random email to an international education prof at the U of M had been passed on to a Chinese TA in his department who directed me to her friend here in Shanghai who was willing to do some legwork to connect me with some preschools here. The kindness and help this woman has shown me has floored me – she has made school connections, helped to translate my resume into Chinese and has been a source of basic info about Shanghai. Why? Who knows? She had invited a teacher from a school to meet with me and they were interested in the idea of me participating in their school in some way. The location wasn’t perfect but it was a start. I had my English resume ready to go and was looking forward to the adventure. She suggested a Pizza Hut near where she lives. Probably to make the American feel at home. This being a “quasi-interview” I was a little nervous and wanted to have everything organized. Five minutes into my cab ride my heart sank when I realized that I had forgotten the resume. Amazingly I was able to call upon enough Chinese to explain to the driver that I needed to return back home – then said, (5 minutes, got it?) dashing out the door without paying, hoping that he would in fact get it. (Thank goodness we had done time and numbers the week before in Chinese class.)
It was wonderful to finally be sitting at a table (even a pizza hut table) with some real teachers. (Han teaches English at a local university.) Her English compensated for the more basic English of the preschool teacher. We began to chat. My heart sank when I realized that her school was not, in fact a preschool, but was an “English training school.” While they worked with preschool aged children, (3 to 8) I imagined it as one of these assembly line “English factories” preying on the strong desire of Chinese parents to “hone their kids” from an early age to be ready for the big college placement test. It seems kind of crazy and I’m still trying to get a handle on it, but it appears that there is one test, heavily weighted towards memorization, which is the weeding out system for good colleges – (and thus good jobs and all the goodies of the new capitalist age) and parents are willing to spend big bucks and start very early to make sure that their kid is ready for this. We have some of the same thing that goes on in the US, without a doubt, but multiply that craziness by the fact that folks only have one child here, there are SO many more of them here, there is not a similar group of “second, third and fourth tier” colleges as there is in the US which can still get most people launched into some sort of decent job, the single test score and your GPA from high school are not “rounded out” or humanized by an essay or any focus on extracurricular activities and you begin to appreciate why people are so fanatical about “English instruction.” Finally, don’t forget that China has seen rapid transformation in 15 – 20 years, everyone has seen so clearly the difference between basic material subsistence and middle class “western style” living and so the stakes feel pretty high for people. Shanghai has boomed so much recently that housing prices are sky high (food and other stuff is pretty cheap,) so most families have both parents working to pay the rent,) so the English class comes after a full day of not seeing the kids too. Or they’re scheduled for Sunday morning. Pretty bizarre but there you have it.
I wondered how I could gracefully bow out of this – my heart has been set on seeing Early Childhood practices – not one hour grammar lessons for 4 year olds. I explained that my goal was to learn about “daily preschool” from a Chinese perspective – and fell back on my safe reason, “so I could understand better the desires of the Chinese families who come to our Lab School.” They certainly understood this, but also hoped I could come THIS EVENING to meet the headmistress who really wanted me to see the school and just see if I could help a little bit somehow! And these women were starting to grow on me too – it was fun sitting and talking about educational theory and cultural norms and I was frankly needing some plain interaction with people, so I thought – fine, I’ll meet with the headmistress and see what comes of it. I was certainly grateful for how Han had gone way out of her way to help me, a total stranger, and here she was, someone with excellent English, an ability to help me understand some of the nagging cultural questions I had built up over a month or so, quick wit and politically knowledgeable so in true Chinese fashion it seemed to make sense to make some compromises to keep the relationship going. That seems to be the Chinese way, (guanxi – or friend connections and webs of favors.) The young teacher was the daughter of a good friend of Hans, so it seemed pretty comfortable to climb into the web. We went to her apartment for a few hours to wait out the time until our headmistress visit, and I got to see Chinese baby care first hand as Han has a 5 month old son. Her parents in law were both there (farmers from the North) and two younger cousins too. We sat around and ate watermelon and ogled the baby as happens when an adorable 5 month old is present. Of course they made the young shy cousins speak their standard English phrases to me.
The English Institute was on the 3rd floor of a pretty basic business building and was a place that is hard to compare to anything in the US: three or four very traditional style classrooms with three lines of desks each, chalkboard and not much else. They proudly showed me the eight “books” they used – I tried not to cringe too visibly. The teachers were a mix of young twenties Chinese women, all of whom spoke pretty decent English, but my new friend Jasmine seemed to indicate that most of them were studying English in the University and were doing this to work on their own oral English skills in order to get a “big” job with all the perks of modern life. Then there were the “native” speaking teachers – two guys from Liverpool of about the same age. I didn’t want to generalize before getting to know them, but all I could think was that they were here mostly for the great, dynamic night life that Shanghai offers and were hired only because of the fact that they speak English, and the fact that it’s considered a selling point for the school to have some native speakers. In fact, to “distribute” the native speakers around the school, the schedules had the native teachers alternating weekly with the local teachers. This was reinforced by the headmistress’ explanation that she had a big problem with the native teachers because they didn’t know how to “handle” the little children and help them learn their lessons. Ack! In fact they probably didn’t know too much about teaching young children, but maybe little children who have been away from mom all day aren’t MEANT to sit at desks and be neatly guided through grammar books. And yet, I got very excited and felt there was some openness to change when I heard Jasmine, my new friend, take my stack of photos from the Lab School and go through them one by one, explaining to the headmistress the various things I had told her about how these Americans were able to combine learning AND play. We spent about 10 minutes in a five year old class with a Chinese teacher. They reviewed letters, and the children were able to come up with multiple English words beginning with a few different letters. By the time I left I had agreed to teach a biweekly class of older children at a Government “Children’s Palace” -- these institutes with extracurricular classes for Children which are found in each district. They wanted me to start the following Friday sight unseen, but it felt doable when they explained that a Chinese teacher would be teaching on the alternate weeks and I could go and see her first class the next morning. I also told them I would check with my family to see if I could come occasionally and help out with the younger children at their Language School. I figured this gave me some “out” if I needed it.
Jasmine and I were planning to go out and eat some noodles, but when we arrived at the door it was raining tremendously hard, neither of us had umbrellas so she made me go and wait under the overhang while she got drenched hailing a cab for me. Made mental note – always travel with umbrella. I knew I was roped in when I had trouble sleeping for the idea generation going on in my head about what I could do to plan for my mystery group of 20 6 to 8 year olds, how maybe we could start an occasional class where the parents joined the children in the class (as they were all sitting out in the lobby chatting with each other) how I could explain to the teachers the idea of concrete learning in a way they might understand….
Here is a message I sent today to a friend - Since it had some updates on recent adventures, I pass it on to you all. We have been pretty darn well, finishing up the first of our "other Chinese city" trips. We went to the beach yesterday and ventured out with a taxi cab driver who then agreed to stay at the beach and wait for us.
The place was jam packed but we did get a little beach umbrella - old women vendors selling crabs along the beach, and a steady stream of very old looking fishing boats going out with their putt putt engines. Otherwise pretty typical beach scene. Lots of extended families, throwing friends in to the water - people bring 5 or six round watermelons, float them in the water to keep them cool and then eat them by breaking them open with their fists. The guys collected lots of cool rocks, (it was "golden pebble beach") and caught some good waves body surfing. Amazingly the taxi guy was there at the appointed hour. It was our first big outing without the help of "Shining," our 24 year old sweet young guide - sent to us by friend of a brother of a Chinese friend in Minneapolis - a language student who seems to enjoy the chance to use her English and who has helped us negotiate some good meals that we never could have managed otherwise. We found Dairy Queen with her and the guys enjoyed that - they also played a little soccer on a really big field in the broiling sun during halftime of a local game. The hotel we're in is very nice, ritzy and fancy and not too expensive. We're finding all kinds of curious local foodstuffs, for instance little stick pretzle things but with flavors like tomato and corn and vegetable. The translations are always very funny when they do attempt to translate. For instance, I'm looking across at the "Dalian Delight Hotel." Or on a billboard around a construction site for a fancy new residence, "Shanghai Dynasty - Style and vogue, Concinnity and Sublimity, Rarity and Treasure, Elegant Lifetime, Time breeds Life." Aren't you ready to move in? We hope you are all well and enjoying the summer. So far so good here. Took us two cities and 6 computer stores to find our brand of computer ink, but now we're set. Most products you need and want are here, you have to hope you know your brand colors and labels well from western advertising, as the colors are frequently the same but it's all translated into Chinese characters. Tried to find some sunscreen though yesterday, and only could come up with a tiny bottle that would have covered one of the four of us for a beach outing. When I went to the woman and using the word "big" and some hand movements, let her know we would like a larger version, she brought out a bottle which was about a quarter again larger. Oh well, we had our umbrella.
Hey! I'm in CHINA! Got your message a few nights ago, at the really cool "work-station" I had just discovered I could use for free in the Shangrila Hotel in Dalian, (Two hour flight north of Shanghai) City of 2 to 5 million depending upon how you count, and with the biggest, most socially active plazas I've seen in awhile. Anyway, I was excited to see your name, but distracted from instantly replying by the contents of another email we received that evening telling us that we were almost a month late with tuition payment for Henry and Jacks’ school and that if they didn't see evidence of a wire transfer the next day they were going to give our kids spots to some one on the wait list. ACK! How did I miss that July first payment date? Maybe the fact that we left Minneapolis on July 2nd? And I had called the school and planned to visit to finalize things while we were in Shanghai but the day we were to visit three of the four of us had been hit with gastrointestinal distress that one expects to get at some point here. And here we are in this city far away with none of our files and only a computer. I saw all the hours we had spent on applying for the school lost and us homeschooling instead! This moved me to action. Thank heaven for computers. I knew things had been going way too smoothly and this was finally the fire drill that would let us know that we were really in China. Amazingly, things were all smoothed out by the next day. I was able to use Google to get Wells Fargo info and despite the fact that it was 10:00pm for once the time difference was working in our favor and I could call the bank as they were opening that morning and the rest clicked into place....... And the nice guy at the school gave us a week's grace time to get the payment to them. I guess I was appropriately apologetic on the email. So.....
To comment on your email - Henry has not only finally settled in to have enough time to be on email, it would be fair to say that that was the NUMBER ONE priority in settling the family in. The computer was set up and humming with World of Warcraft before we had soap purchased for the bath room. The computer has been KEY to keeping the guys happy - allows us to go out and explore and know they are safe. We are trying to demand one outing per day so we don't feel like total parental slugs, but sometimes this outing is once around the block, course with the heat, that can be expecting a lot. While the immediate block we live on is very tony and could be any where western, the block behind us can be a little intense when you're not feeling top notch, (smells, sights, footing, and lots of bicycles, moped and cars which seem to have little rhyme or reason in their order - except that sometimes they all seem intent on running you over.) Fortunately there’s a swimming pool as part of the apt complex so that gets them going, AND a squash court, and after a purchase of a few 4 dollar racquets at the PEOPLE'S NUMBER ONE DEPARTMENT STORE, we are outfitted for the guys to get down and run around the little white box chasing the little ball. The only other major family outing of note was to "ChinaJoy" a mega, earsplitting trade show of computer games - two huge convention halls of every computer game company I've ever heard of and many new ones to us, each trying to outdo each other with pounding rhythms, dancing, live bands, attractive armies of young women in matching outfits giving out free fans and even occasional groups dressed up like some of the characters in the games. I fear for the hearing of the young of Shanghai! There is also a "geeky Asian" look I could discern. The guys fit right in, playing games, causing some heads to turn. Jack was filmed by some guy for a while playing a game, (I could hear the broadcaster commenting on the evening news, "even some westerners joined in the fun!") The Chinese seemed very willing to wait on pretty endless lines to play certain games. Gratefully, our guys were less patient. Then, last night, Steve and I went to the adult version, the Dalian "beer festival" equally huge and ear pounding, with each beer company, (local and int’l) having a huge stage with more gyrating bodies performing, also goofy "audience participation” events, like filling contestants mouths with lots of beer and them having them try to say the name of the beer, (or whistle) before swallowing. You can imagine the fun, I'm sure. It was not unlike the Minnesota State Fair, gobs of people, lots of food on a stick vendors (and most of the food was still wiggling before being put on the grill) entertainment - all a little too intense for us to stay too long, or even to have a beer - which tells you something since you know Steve's desire to taste new beers.
Mostly, though, it's been pretty low key, settling in, learning where to buy food, where to get a yoga class in, (not a problem) outfitting the kitchen with the essentials, taking some Chinese lessons, and continuing to listen to my CD's of Chinese. It's sort of working, I can say occasional one word phrases which can get us the basics: cold water from the little vendors, a beach umbrella yesterday at the beach. I need to master, "stop here" for the taxi cab drivers and "that's beautiful" because taxi drivers seem to show us cool stuff and I want so show some appreciation. But the language does seem to be crackable. And it is amazing how adept the locals are at having the english appropriate to their immediate job, (but no more) and how comfortable everyone is with negotiating price by writing numbers in the sand, or punching them into a handheld calculator and then offering you the calculator to counter offer. Jack has bought his first two bootleg computer games for about 2 dollars, and amazingly, movies (on Dvd's with english) are less than that even in "reputable" department stores. Clothing is very cheap from little stalls and stores and western priced at the MANY MANY upscale designer malls with more impressive foreign names than you'd see in Minneapolis.
So that's the basic update. We leave tomorrow for one more week of travel up north - the home city of Ming's brother, the heart surgeon. Then we'll be back and it will be the week before school starts for the guys. Who knows what sort of rhythm we'll be in then. Other than a few days early on when everyone had stomach distress, we've been pretty darn good. Thinking of you all - and hoping that your summer has been good, and that your trip was fun.
August 9, 2005 "Hey, so what's with the Typhoons?" I was prepared for possible Tsunamis (psychologically, certainly not ACTUALLY prepared) but I hadn't realized that Shanghai is kind of the equivalent of North Carolina on the Chinese coast, (not so far south as Florida) as to get ALL the typhoons that come off the Pacific, but in a great position to get some of them.
Taiwan seems to be in the Florida position, it has been hit by two of them since we arrived four weeks ago. That one was actually kind of nice here, the winds blew away all the pollution and you could actually see that the sky is blue and see all the many beautiful buildings for a few days. In case any of our friends and family were worried when they saw the news that a million people were moved from their homes in this area, please know that we were not affected, or at least not directly affected. We were safe and sound much further north in China, in Changchun, north of the North Korean border, trying to escape the heat by heading away from the equator. It was a great little city, very pleasant and walkable. I remember thinking while out one day, "these smaller cities in China are really quite comfortable for strolling." Smaller as in 3 to 6 million people which struck me as kind of bizarre. Only the crazy frantic pace of Shanghai (with its 12 to 15 million) can make a Changchun sized city seem like a small town. Kind of like the difference between New York and Cleveland, I guess.. I don't know, I've never been to Cleveland. Turns out China has 166 cities with populations over 1million - which is why I'm suprised at every turn reading the guidebook by these large cities I've never even heard of. The same article I saw that stat in claimed that the US only had 9 cities over 1million. Must not be SMSA's - as Henry and I promptly drew up a list of 25 US metro areas that we figured had to be at least a million. Try it sometime, Anyway, I'm off the topic....
We were driven to the Changchun airport by Harry, a business manager at the Jilin Heart Hospital, (more about that later), and fortunately he came in with us because there was a white board posted up near the place where you would check in which explained in Mandarin that all planes to Shanghai had been cancelled. We had seen on the weather the day before that there was a typhoon abrewing, but that it wasn't expected to hit until sunday. Anyway, if we have learned one thing in China it is that when someone local offers to take you to the airport or the train station, you ALWAYS say yes. We had learned this the hard way making our previous connection, from Dalian to Changchun. We had hoped to take a train and had declined the gracious offer by "Shining" our new friend there, to see us off. I mean, "how complicated could getting on a train be?" we reasoned. There when we walked into the bustling station (a 2 to 5 million person city in this case) and didn't see our train number listed anywhere on the board, we showed our ticket to two guys who were porters. They immediately made an "X" sign by crossing their index fingers over each other. This gave us pause. It might have meant, "no good" or, since a T is the chinese symbol for 10 it might have been confirmation that the train was to leave at 10 am (which was what it was scheduled for) or that it was on track 10. Hah! Turns out it was DELAYED for 10 hours. We only found this out (all the info was in Chinese Characters) because I had managed to put Shining's cell phone number into my pants pocket when packing and because she is a gem and answered the phone and we passed the phone to the uniformed attendant who was able to relay the info to her. She then truly amazed us by leaving work to come and get us and problem solve with us to get our tickets refunded and get us airplane tickets instead to Changchun. So when our Typhoon delayed airplane had us considering taking the train home, Henry quipped that there was something ironic about having to take a plane when the train was cancelled and having to take a train when the plane was cancelled. At the end of the day, we decided that a twenty hour train ride was a little long and that instead we flew to Nanjing (there's a city I had actually heard of!) Sorry, don't know the size, where we sat out a day, figuring that it made sense to wait a day to let travel infrastructure around Shanghai dry out. It is sobering at times like these to have to make decisions without knowing a lot about basics like, "what is a typhoon? How quickly do they disappear?" We are extremely grateful to both Harry, (who also helped us find cash, stow luggage, get us lunch and get us back to the airport - thereby killing whatever he was going to get done on Saturday) and Shining for how they helped us out in a pinch.
Now, here's the good news, the rest of the trip has been going wonderfully - we are settled in, making our way around, learning some language, over the initial jetlag and stomach distress and while not exactly "at home" at least much less tentative everytime we set foot out the door. And there have been some wonderful moments along the way. More later - hope you're all doing well