Monday, September 05, 2005

Beijing Dispatch

It's 8:44am on the start of my sixth full day in Beijing, and it feels really late because Mark and I have been falling in bed as early as 9 and waking up around 6. The days are exhausting, exciting, new, hard and long and the mornings come early because China wakes up at the crack of dawn. Many mornings, even on a Sunday, we hear the sounds of marching coming from the students doing military training on campus, and all students are required to attend morning exercises at 6am.

We kind of live out in the sticks--we have a map of urban Beijing and the Beijing Sports University is literally the last dot on the top left corner of the map. To get from our place to my school takes about 45 minutes in a taxi (and costs a whopping $2.50!). But that's mainly because of traffic—without it, the ride is only about 20 minutes. I think it's equivalent to, say, living in Queens and working in Manhattan. It's definitely a world away from my old Beijing neighborhood, with its Subway sandwiches and many street lights, its multitude of DVD stores and the expensive supermarket at the nearby fancy Western hotel where I could treat myself to delicacies like vegan margarine and Heinz baked beans.

Here, we are definitely the only Westerners walking around the streets, which means that this neighborhood, with its dirt and rough edges, is probably really good news for me. I keep worrying about how Mark will do, but he assures me that he’s taken a liking to our new digs. The campus itself is really pretty—green and quiet and filled with students wearing sports attire. It’s a nice respite from the extreme bustle of downtown Beijing. And there are dumplings made to order, and 20oz beers for 25 cents, and any fruit or vegetable you could ever imagine for pennies at the nearby market.

My Chinese is pathetic. Seriously. I get incredibly tongue tied speaking to strangers and my vocabulary is practically non-existent. I have hope that it will all come flooding back to me when classes start, but for now I sound like a toddler being strangled. This is especially unfortunate because we’ve had to tackle a whole range of unanticipated challenges, mostly in terms of our apartment, and things would have been faster, if not easier, if I my Chinese was better.

That said, I don’t think I ever knew how to say “There is a flood in my bathroom every time I take a shower because the floor is not angled toward the drain properly,” or “How do you plan to extract the Rock of Gibraltar from the pipe that leads to the sink?” This vocabulary is really important because the building that we live in is new, and all the marvels of modern Chinese construction are on display. For example, the aforementioned pipe for the sink: it was leaking, so we complained. In response, a man of average strength and size came and pulled the sink of the wall using just his bare hands in a maneuver that lasted approximately three seconds. After this sturdy structure had been removed, and the inside of the pipe made visible, and it became clear that there was a serious blockage in the pipe, one that could not even be slightly penetrated by a man of average size slamming the metal end of a broomstick using all of his average strength. Literal rocks, accompanied by lots of dust, came out of the pipe, but still the end of the broom stick could enter the pipe no more than an inch.

I was confused—how could there be such a blockage in a new pipe, in a new building, especially when our apartment is on the top floor? But Mark figured it out in an instant: the people constructing the building had clearly poured their leftover cement down the drain and it had dried there. This ingenious construction site cleaning technique stunned us momentarily, but was almost immediately rivaled by the action taken when we told the man working on our bathroom that the drain on our bathroom floor was also clogged. We watched in (diminishing) astonishment as he extracted the drain from the floor and then proceeded to clean it over the sink, washing handfuls of hair down the drain of the sink.

So, we’re living and learning, my friends. We’re taking things one step (and one drain) at a time.

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One of the many other blocks over which I have stumbled this last week is the discovery that Blogger is blocked in China. While I can still access the main site to post, I can’t view my blog, or any others on Blogspot, or on several other blog hosting sites. More importantly, nobody else here in China can easily view my blog. This discovery shocked and depressed me—the last time I lived here I had no difficulty accessing virtually any site. But I should have done my homework better; apparently Blogger has been blocked in China for the last three years.

So, I am trying to decide what approach to take with my blog. I am considering paying to get it hosted with some kind of webpage provider, but I am so utterly inexperienced with this kind of thing that I don’t know how, or how quickly, I will manage to do this. I would love to hear any suggestions that anyone might have. For now, I think I will continue to post here for now, but I just wanted to give a heads-up that I hope to migrate soon.