Thursday, August 19, 2010

Found an Apartment

I've found an apartment in Beijing! Living with a French girl and an American/Chinese couple, slightly overpriced at 3000rmb (about $450) all-told, but available for just the month (and with the screwy dates I have) and in a great location...actually around the corner from my hostel. Moved in yesterday.
Interestingly, Beijing seems to be cheaper than Shanghai in almost all respects, from food to transport. Been exploring a little, had dinner with Larry the other night (and his girlfriend...OOPS, he didn't know it was Chinese Valentine's day until I told him.) You can live in a country for 20 years, but if it's all in an office...the story behind this holiday is fun, it has to do with a goddess [in the moon. obviously.] and mortal falling in love, but the goddesses protective father separates them. Once a year on this day [by the lunar calendar so it changes every year] the birds form a bridge to the moon and they meet. Met a friend with a scooter (and my landlord has one! he took me to the bank and the police to register) so I've been scootering around Beijing a bit. Terrifying. God save the third world as they get cars. The visit to the police station was interesting--they have an old-time stamp for everything instead of signing and I got to go into the fun 'interrogation room' sign stuff. Little nerve wracking, but certainly an experience.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Beijing Impressions

Beijing: So much more alive, more vibrant, more smelly! A city of big causeways and myriad wending alleyways that threaten to swallow you. Each is a city in its own right, replete with markets, shops, hair salons, restaurants, old women complaining, young couples walking, and nearly naked children with wise faces perched on handcarts, surveying it all. Public toilets abound—one on every corner, wafting its odour to mingle with the food and people and dog smells of the street. The air is hot but dry, the sun casting mottled shadows on the larger, tree-lined boulevards, catching the red lanterns lining the street and washing out the neon facades of the more glamorous restaurants, making them even more tacky. Three bird cages hang from one tree above a stand of bicycles. I sat in the only restaurant I could find that was still open and busy for lunch at 3 in the afternoon and devoured a bowl of eggplant-pork noodles drowned in enough oil to fry a cat. I sipped a can of cold coconut milk.

I feel much more at home here than in Shanghai. People seem less rushed, more relaxed. The mere presence of trees and gardens does wonders for the spirits, and the older, crumbling architecture gives it a sense of concrete PLACE (spatiality) in this McWorld that Shanghai lacks. And on the steet, a white UN truck honks in irritation as a taxi cab cuts it off.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Still alive in Shanghai

Hey! I'm still alive, still in Shanghai partying the weekend up before getting serious about Beijing next week (like how to get there....where to stay...the small stuff).

I've read that the more time you spend in China the less you are able to say. Stuff that at first is really odd becomes everyday, but I thought I'd start a list, for my own memory as much as anything.

It starts with the hallway outside our apartment, on the 25th floor. Coming out of the elevator the first thing you notice is the shiny plastic wall hanging--two tigers around a character. I imagine it is left over from some holiday or festival--we saw similar things in Guangdong on the doors of houses. Moving down the hallway you notice a row of cactuses and plants on one window ledge, then the next window open and leading out onto a rooftop area, where one of the neighbours has installed a pigeon coop. Pigeon is a fairly common item on all the menus here. Further on my neighbours have hung their washing and have a stool and bucket out in the hallway--their apartment is only maybe two rooms so they leave the door open most of the time and a large amount of day-to-day life is lived in the corridor. Should also mention that the corridor is the parking garage for everyone's bikes.

And speaking of bikes, the things people here fit on them boggles the mind. Today I saw someone on a motorcycle with a flowerpot--that was just surreal, but its not uncommon to see them loaded with wood or water cooler tanks or anything you can imagine (plants are more common than you might expect). Also popular are attached trailers with everything from goods to people, with the poor person in front pedaling furiously in the traffic. And bikes and motorcycles here consider themselves halfway between pedestrian and car, zooming around on sidewalks and even 'jaywalking' when no cars are coming. A lot of the streets have unofficial bike/motorbike lanes, and cars seem to be as used to driving around them as the cyclists are to performing all sorts of vehicular acrobats to not get run over.

That's all for now--more next time!

Thursday, July 29, 2010


There is a world of difference, as far as I can tell, between US and UK university experience. Doing some brain-digging, I think the language used in each country to describe the experience is revealing of the overall experience itself:

UK: "at university"
'At' refers to a place or a temporary stage of life--"I'm at work right now", or, "I'm at National and 1st street". The experience is temporary, transient, a one-way relationship. You can be 'at' something, but it can't be 'at' you.

US: "in college"
'In' is different--it refers to a physical placement as well, but the connotation is of enfolding, encircling, protecting--what you are 'in' has agency, in that *it* contains *you*. And it does contain--it becomes institutional, you are 'in', you can't just leave as if you were merely 'at'. But to be 'in' also implies entrance (exclusivity!) or membership--"I am *in*, they are out." And it comes with greater propriety and ownership: "I am *in* my house" versus "I am *at* home"."In college", you own it and it owns you, protects you, keeps others out but keeps you in. It is altogether a more infantile relationship than the autonomous "I am *at* university--I am here, for now, for my purposes. Tomorrow I may leave."

In the UK, most of the population goes to university, derailing its 'elitism', and schools themselves are government service institutions that are taken somewhat more for granted. The US does a better job of 'branding' and 'owning', one of the upsides of the common complaint that US schools are just businesses. Or is it an upside? It's been interesting speaking to Jason, who goes to Cornell--his freshman year has been absolutely harrowing, by the sounds of it, in terms of workload and expectations. I'm conflicted how to feel about this--I recognize the huge value of the leeway and free time or 'reading time' that St Andrews gives, but further structure and a comprehensive liberal arts agenda would actually probably have been more beneficial *for me*. The followup question, I guess, is about results: which of us winds up knowing more, or being able to think better? And how much of that can actually be attributed to whether or not we took a mandatory Writing 101 class?

One of the things I'm missing this summer is real academic interaction. I still read my blogs but it definitely is not the same--the lack of someone to have 'idea' talks with is dead depressing, and I can actually feel the scope of my thoughts shrinking. I've learnt a lot of specifics here, but the big-picture general stuff and the connections are lacking.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Swords and fauna

Yesterday in front of the fitness center there was a guy with a sword! Just with his buddy, out in the courtyard, practicing classical Chinese swordfighting (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but with less flying!). Have also had some interesting observations about the fauna here--Mom commented when we were in China last summer that there are no birds. This is still true, though little birds in little cages (think Mulan!) are quite common (there is actually a 'market' where they are sold in a nearby park) and our neighbors have a pigeon coop. Tasty! These are no messenger birds...Where the skies fill up though is at dusk, where it seems like little sparrows suddenly appear everywhere--but watching their movements more closely, you realise that they are bats! Everywhere. There are a lot of mosquitoes around, so I guess it makes perfect sense, but its actually caught me by surprise a few times.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My medical experience...

I called Qi, who is the head of marketing at our company and just generally the sweetest woman you'll ever meet (she is sort of the go-to for all questions and advice) and she knew about a place nearby (10 minute cab ride). It looked like a university hospital, or at least one attached to a university, and there was a small upstairs area that was an 'international hospital'. Qi was actually slightly concerned making sure that the place I went would treat foreigners. At the international hospital the people who spoke english were the receptionist, pharmacist, and one nurse (not the other! though it meant i did a spectacular pantomime to tell the woman taking blood 'I faint sometimes with shots'...hooray for nonverbal communication, she took me to a big recliner right away, though I didn't faint in the end). The doctor was a much older woman who spoke very broken English--I understood her well but I often had to ask questions several times. The man who took me down to get x-rays and the x-ray people spoke no English. I paid at the end. Interestingly, at the beginning they did say 'the doctor fee is rmb500' but I wasn't told a price tag for any of the other tests or medication until the end...they just assumed, I guess, that I would have the money? When I paid, they presented me the entire bill at the pharmacy (the special little 'international' pharmacy) rather than paying just for medicine there. Because of the 'international pharmacy' I'm sure I got 'international prices'--seeing the doctor was 1/2 of the bill, and I'm sure if I'd gone downstairs the doctor visit would've been much cheaper. The staff were overall helpful and friendly, though, and I was pleased with pretty much everything, though a bit disappointed that the doctor didn't actually speak much English.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It was Bronchitis!

Of the acute bacterial variety, believe it or not. Oh joy, my first real adult illness.

Spent most of today at the hospital. Bill came to about RMB12500 (around US$180) for drop-in doctor, bloodwork, x-ray, and perscription (antibiotics, something for my sinuses, and "traditional Chinese cough syrup"[mostly honey and herbs]). Phew. Long day. Good to know what the crappiness was and have something to do about it. I've got records and a receipt if you think Kaiser will do anything about it, along with a nifty x-ray of my lung that looks like someone exploded a spider in it.

So...taking it easy for the weekend?
Though we may go see pandas tomorrow.