Eau de chow mein

September 26, 2008

Okay, I had two problems last week. (Actually, I had more than two problems, but these two combined in an interesting way.)

The first problem was that my hair was getting sticky. I’m still not sure how this happened, but the shampoo I was using when I first arrived in China was leaving some sort of buildup in my hair, and no matter how many times I washed it and rinsed it thoroughly, I would get out of the shower and find it very, very sticky. It was getting hard to manage, so I looked online for solutions. The best answer I found was that some shampoos can react with very hard water, so I needed to switch brands. Beyond that, one way to get rid of the residual stickiness was to put a wash of equal parts vinegar and water on my hair and let it soak in, then rinse it out. I was determined to reclaim my hair, so I did this without hesitation.

The same day, however, I was a little clumsy getting together a cup of tea, and I dumped boiling hot water on my lap. Fortunately, I was wearing sort of thick pants; otherwise, I would have been racing to the hospital. As it was, I iced my thighs for about four hours. In the end, there was only one section of my left leg that was left with a large burn (not too large – only about two square inches). I then ran out to the local pharmacy to see if I could find some sort of burn ointment to stop the stinging.

The stuff the pharmacist sold me was this blood red liquid that you spray on your burn, and which then runs down your leg like you’re an extra in a horror movie. Well, no matter – it helped with the pain. Recognizing that it would be messy, though, the pharmacist also sold me some gauze. I was picturing neat little gauze pads that I could tape to my leg, but when I opened the package at home, I found a giant piece of woven cloth the size of a bath towel. Lacking a scissors, I used a kitchen knife to hack off a strip which I could then fold down and tape to my leg with medical tape – also sold to me by the pharmacist, and also far, far too narrow to do the job efficiently. In the end, my leg sort of resembled an abstract rendition of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing.

The next afternoon I went to meet a student in my office. I noticed my student punctuating her sentences with odd little sniffs, like she was trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. Well, once in that reasonably small, confined space, I noticed that my hair was still radiating vinegar and the smell of the lemon shampoo I used to try to get the vinegar out. Meanwhile the ointment on my leg was giving off a very strong smell – which closely resembled sesame oil. All you needed to do was add some soy sauce and I’d have been ready to stir-fry.

I got ready to pretend I had my lunch in a desk drawer, but she didn’t ask. Though now I wonder what kind of a reputation I might be developing among the students. My office still smells from that afternoon, even if my leg and hair have returned, more or less, to normal. (Though in the words of Tommy Boy, my burn will definitely leave a mark.)

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Luxury Life

September 26, 2008

My pretty apartment does not just have the groovy oven; it has all the amenities you would expect to live the high life in China. There are potable water faucets in the kitchen and bathroom, thermostats to control the air and heat in every room, there actually *is* air and heat, maid service twice a week, there’s a laundry room with washers AND dryers in the building… it even has underground bicycle parking with controlled entry.

Like any “well-to-do” Nanjinger, my apartment also sports a big television and, of course, satellite tv. Now, I’ve never even had so much as cable before, but suddenly I have the wonders of the satellite opening up the world to me. There’s never nothing on, either. I get all the Nanjing channels: Nanjing News channel, Nanjing film channel, Nanjing Life, Nanjing Amusement, Nanjing Information, and Nanjing Education. Then there are the provincial channels: Jiangsu Satellite Television, of course – I’m in Jiangsu Province – but also the Jiangsu Children’s Channel, Jiangsu Education Channel, Jiangsu Arts, Jiangsu Films, Jiangsu Public, and the Jiangsu News Channel. But there’s more! I also get Hubei Satellite Television, Dongnan Satellite Television, Shandong Satellite Television, Jiangxi Satellite Television, Sichuan Satellite Television, Qinghai Satellite Television, Shanxi Satellite Television, Heilongjiang Satellite Television, Guizhou Satellite Television, and Hunan Satellite Television (my favorite). We even get the Military Satellite Television feed. Then there’s CCTV 1, CCTV 2, CCTV 3, CCTV 4, CCTV 5, CCTV 6, CCTV 7, CCTV 8, CCTV 9, CCTV 10, CCTV 11, and CCTV 12, CCTV music (this is not Mandopop, though, which is sort of a bummer), CCTV children and CCTV news. (In other places, CCTV means “closed-circuit television” – here it’s “China Central Television.”) It’s a cornucopia of entertainment options. Of course, every night around 6:30 all of these channels simultaneously broadcast the same newscast. It’s sort of surreal; no matter how much you flip, it’s the same people, speaking the same sentence.

Well, actually, in addition to all this we also get CNN International and Star World Asia, the latter of which is the only channel to come in in black and white. I have no idea why, but I am somehow unsurprised by this. Star World Asia is mostly reruns of Jimmy Kimmel Live, old episodes of Friends, and assorted reality tv programs from the US – nothing that makes color necessary, at least. It would be sort of a bummer if they decided to show The Wizard of Oz one night, but other than that, I don’t spend much time on Star World Asia.

But of all these options, Hunan Satellite Television is far and away my favorite. It’s not just that I have a history with this channel, though I do – I attended their Chinese New Year Extravaganza in Las Vegas in 2007. (Yes, on purpose: I liked the bands playing.) They also broadcast Taiwanese soap operas on weekends, and have an impressive lineup of Korean soapers during the week. But what’s got me hooked is this one program on Hunan Satellite Television every night at 9:00.

For an hour, we watch people attempt to run an obstacle course. It’s a big, fancy course built up with a moat of water around each obstacle; runners get one chance to go through it, and if they fall off any part into the water they’re out. It starts out with contestants running a treadmill with hurdles on it. If they clear that, they swing over water to a platform, where they run across three circular platforms turning in opposite directions. From there they have to cross a rocking balance beam, grab a bar and glide down to another platform, where they jump on spinning logs across the water. If they make it that far, all they have to do is make a basket with a basketball and hoop to win a new cell phone… but almost nobody makes it that far. For an hour every night, however, I watch people try.

Unlike American reality programs, there are no extended behind the scenes sob stories about the contestants’ personal lives. We barely get to know them at all – depending on how quickly they fall into the water, there could be 20 different people running on a given night, all of whom we see for about two minutes. I also love the fact that it is the same obstacle course every night, over and over again. The fact that you’ve seen people attempt and fail at this course dozens of times before somehow in no way negates the fact that you want to see what this next person does on this run. It’s almost hypnotic. And then, every once in a blue moon, someone makes it to the end. I’ve seen the show about a half dozen times now, and I’ve seen someone succeed twice. And yet, I keep watching.

And of course, now I sorta want to run the course, too. I wonder if I’ll be able to make a trip to Hunan this year…


Return to Nanjing: the travel saga begins

September 12, 2008

Ahhhh, here I am again, sitting in an apartment in Nanjing, drinking a glass of “Great Wall Dry Red Wine”… it’s like the last three and a half years never happened. Well, except for the part where my apartment is a lot nicer this time (ask me about the potable water!!), and the daily schedule is a lot less flexible. But, you know, in a good way.

In my determined effort to avoid the evil overlords at Northwest, I came out on Asiana Airlines. A thousand apologies to the surprisingly large number of friends and relations of mine who work there; it’s just that on my last trip to China on Northwest (flying from DC to Guangzhou via Detroit and Tokyo), I reached the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Actually, there were a few tossed on at once, so I’m not exactly sure which of the three was responsible: the fact that they no longer serve free alcohol on those flights (I don’t even always drink it, but there’s a principle at stake here: trans-Pacific flights are long and expensive – if you’re going to give out the free booze at any point, this should be it); that my vegetarian dinner, snack and breakfast on my Detroit-Tokyo flight consisted almost entirely of grapes, grapes and more grapes; that three of my four international flights on the trip were showing the same movie; or that the movie was The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. If you think I’m being unfair, let me just add that on my most recent domestic Northwest flight, my seat cushion was wet – something I didn’t realize until the dampness started to seep through my pants (ugh) – and the flight attendant was stumped about getting me something to sit on, suggesting that I try the in-flight magazine before bringing me a blanket. No apology, of course. No, I may be flying in and out of Minneapolis (i.e. a Northwest hub), but there is no reason to suffer like that.

So I decided to look elsewhere. As my dad notes, the benefit of flying international airlines is that they still seem to want customers, something reflected in their policies. Like my two free checked bags, each up to 50 lbs. Like free wine (yeah, didn’t drink it, but I could if I wanted to, and that was the key), or a nice shiny new 747-400 equipped with groovy entertainment consoles in coach. And free toothbrush/toothpaste packets laid out in the bathroom.

But, you’re thinking, who or what is an Asiana? Their call-sign abbreviation is “OZ,” which conjures up images of yellow brick roads and, perhaps, flying monkeys (depending on who you are), but in reality, they are the second flag carrier of South Korea (second to Korean Air; my plane, at least, was monkey-free). I actually flew them the last time I went to Korea, which is how I happened to think of them. The beauty of flying Asiana – beyond not flying Northwest, of course – is that although I still had to make two stops, I could do it in such a way as to get some real joy out of it. First I was on a United flight down to Chicago (because it was booked as an Asiana codeshare, they could not charge me for my checked luggage; because it was still United, the flight attendant spilled orange juice all over my lap). Then I had a six and a half hour layover in Chicago, where my friends Abby and Cam very kindly came out to the airport to get me so we could go have a nice dinner elsewhere (and I could spend less time languishing at O’Hare). From there, it was on to Seoul, Korea. Here I have to be totally honest: for as lovely as the in-flight service and amenities were, leaving at 1:00 am and arriving at 4:00am (the next day – you lose 14 hours) is brutal. Really, really brutal. On the bright side, there’s no line at the immigration desk at Incheon International Airport at 4:15 am.

This brings us to another perk: Asiana allows you to take a stopover in Seoul for a few days for pretty much the same price you pay for an immediate connection. My friend Lancelot, of whom I have written much in the past of our various meet-ups in Taiwan, China and Korea – still lives in Seoul and was kind enough to invite me to stay for a few days. Ah, a glorious 48 hours in Seoul.

It’s not hard to explain why Korea has so captured my imagination: it’s the food. Well, that and the soap operas. Basically, I’m still riding the Korean Wave, though so is much of China, so I have a lot of company. In the end, though, I really went to Seoul to see my friend and to eat, but I had some time outside of those two things (like when Lancelot went to class and after I had just eaten), so I felt duty bound to try to be a tourist. Not too duty-bound, though; I made it to exactly one museum this time, and that was the Kimchi Museum. This is a three room exhibit on the history, variety, and health benefits of the Korean staple, complete with a tasting room. Although the last display featured a variety of nontraditional ideas for how to eat kimchi – on hamburgers, in scrambled eggs, cooked into spaghetti sauce – it failed to mention my favorite way, which is on crackers. Yup, kimchi on crackers (usually soda crackers, which here in China, at least, tend to be a little thicker and come in flavors like green onion) – it is the ultimate snack. The sight of it horrifies most Koreans, of course, but nothing is ever truly perfect.

One thing I did do in Seoul that I am sort of proud of is climb Namsan. Okay, normally this is not much of a feat – yeah, there are some steep inclines and lots of stairs, though the greatest challenge is probably still the fact that little old ladies in jogging suits go marching past you, so feeling chagrined you try to pick up your pace in spite of your panting. But we set out up the hill around 7:30 of the night I got in. Yes, this was after being pretty much awake all night and all day, jetlagged, and landing at 4:00 am. I took some slightly blurry night photos of the marvelous view from the top of Namsan before we started down the other side, muscles shaking (mine, that is – Lancelot had not broken a sweat), and wandered into the heart of Seoul to admire the night markets. This is not something I remember remarking upon on my last visit, but Seoul feels more like Taipei than any city in China (well, Seoul came first, so maybe Taipei feels more like Seoul…). Yes, it is a completely different culture and language, but the free-market chaos of it, the way the modernity and glossiness collides with streetside vendors, just pushes the two cities together in my mind. Chinese cities – even big, modern, expensive cities like Shanghai – just feel different. They feel, somehow, a little less free, a little more polluted, a bit more like they are still catching up. Of course, they are still resplendent in their neon (or, as I like to say, their “psychedelic neon funness,” which is a hallmark of China. If something will hold still long enough, someone in China will hang some neon on it and charge a few kuai for admission to see it).

My layover in Seoul was all too short, and then I was on a plane bound for Nanjing. It’s a bit of a homecoming for me; I was last here in March of 2005. Three and a half years would be enough time to see changes anywhere; you’d expect some new buildings up, some old ones torn down, maybe an increase in traffic. But this is China: three and a half years is practically a lifetime. Add that to the fact that the human memory is very fallible, and yes, it took me a few extended detours to find some of my old haunts scattered among the new landmarks. There’s a new subway in Nanjing, which opened right after I left and has that marvelous “new subway” smell, and there are now underground highway tunnels making the trip from the airport a breeze. My old CE Mart is now under Taiwanese management and renamed JT Mart, and the only Starbucks in this part of the city has closed.

One of the more instantly visible changes is that there are a lot more foreigners in the city. And, of course, with a growing expat population comes Nanjing’s pretty new Ikea store and lots of small import groceries. While bragging about my pretty new apartment to friends, I’ve talked about the fact that I have an oven, which is very, very rare in a Chinese kitchen (think about all the Chinese food you know, then think of how much of it is baked). I joked all summer about how I might have an oven, but it’s not like I can run to the corner store to buy a frozen pizza to bake in it… well, it turns out, I actually can. The neighborhood import store has pizzas. Sigh. I’m one of the 0.001% of people in China with both an oven and easy access to frozen pizza, and I’m allergic to dairy? Life is really not fair.

One game that is particularly fun to play when you first arrive back in China is the “what websites are blocked today” game. Much to my surprise, the BBC, Wikipedia, Blogspot and YouTube are all unblocked; I’d say about 80% of the sites I try to raise prove to be easiy available, and the rest just never load. WordPress, and all of its blogs, is currently blocked, for example. Why block WordPress and Typepad, but not Blogger? Honestly, I think the whole thing is no longer about controlling information; now they’re just messing with us. And, of course, you’ll note that I’m posting on a WordPress blog blocked in China from China. Yeah, the system has some obvious flaws in it. Anyway, I’ve been here a week, and there are already stories, so here we go.


The end of an era

January 28, 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.


At long last, the tree

August 15, 2005

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.


Down and out in Guangzhou

August 1, 2005

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.


Everything is more complicated than it really needs to be

July 18, 2005

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.

Ahem.

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.