Tuesday, August 24, 2004

I have landed in Beijing and all is good.

I have more or less settled into my apartment in the Southwest end of the Haidian district. I live on the 17th floor and I've got the place all to myself! The floors and many of the walls are all tiled and stark white, but the place is more than liveable, and I've got an outside bit where I can hang clothes to dry and look down into the street.

The neighborhood I live in is really quite cute and everything I need is just a block or two away. At night the street I live on becomes an outdoor restaurant and all kinds of things on sticks can be boiled or fried up for dinner.

Beijing is absolutely massive. The streets are wide, long, crowded, busy and ruler straight and I get lost most days. There's a bus or five to take you to nearly everywhere you'd want or need to be and by the trusty bus, I'm about twenty minutes to the nearest subway station. The subway system is rather limited in its coverage, but it's ultra clean, fast and cheap--a whopping 3 yuan (35 cents).

Dalian, and I know I'm pissing loyal Dalian people off by saying this, doesn't hold a candle to Beijing when it comes to culture, people and general liveability (for foreigners). There are film clubs, expat circles, Mexican restaurants, English magazines, decent bookstores and the people here don't spit THAT MUCH. It is a lot more expensive to live here, and the air isn't quite as fresh (though not that bad), but the pros outweigh the cons and I make a lot more money here.

Overall, life is good.

My new school is a private boarding school. Our department relies on the American Carden method of language teaching (actually quite good) and parents pay princely sums to have their little ones educated by us "foreigners." I teach third and fourth grade and all that is English falls into my realm of responsibility: grammar, spelling, reading, writing, etc. My boss is a Taipei-born business lady who spent 20 years in America. She's very straightforward, but very patient and, with the exception of the delivery of my new television, she is reliable and organized. There's a patient and smiling man with gold teeth who carts us around in a worn white van; he doesn't speak a word of English outside of "hello."

All of the teachers this year are new. There are six of us: three preppy, but decent guys, fresh from college, from Minnesota; a quiet, but quick and observant grandmother of three from Ohio; a writer with two masters degrees from California (who comes with an Italian fiancee) and me. The writer was in Japan for two years teaching, but aside from him, I'm the only other teacher with any experience. School starts the first and at present we are working to absorb the Carden method, in all its specialized glory, enough to look somewhat prepared and competent for the first day.

Today we went in for our medical exams. I was discovered to "overnourished" and a prescription for lozenges was written for a red throat I didn't realize I have (I blame the pollution and a long walk along a major road yesterday, though I wasn't bothered).

Other Beijing happenings:

I bought a small stack of DVDs from someone in the street and paid with a hundred. I was given one fifty yuan note and two ones in change. I went for an ice cream straight after and when I went to pay, my fifty was denied because it was fake! Pissed off beyond all belief, I went out in search of the DVD woman, but she was gone. I went back to the ice cream shop (a Baskin-Robbins, by the way) and Carol, another teacher, pointed out the woman going in the opposite direction from where I was. I ran back out with my bunk fifty, ready to knock the scheister over and thinking hard of words I could put together to effectively express the extent of my fury. Realizing that neither were going to happen, I shouted out at the woman and told her I wanted to buy more DVDs. She turned back a bit surprised. I told her that my friend, the other teacher wanted some DVDs and sent me out to get them. I went through her collection, pulled out a few, then handed over the phony bill for payment. She looked at the bill carefully, snapped it a couple of times then said "no good." I then told her it was good--it was the bill she gave me and then, miracle of miracles, she lost all of the English she knew, and it was a bit, and started rambling away in Chinese. She called another vendor over and from what I gathered, he told her to take it. With immense reluctance and frustration in her greasy eyes, she eventually took the "money" and I went off with the goods.

On the second day here, I went with the other teachers to Wangfujing, a touristy shopping street in the center of the city. The shopping was expensive and unexceptional and after a couple of hours we looked to make our way back. Between the four of us there, we didn't know enough Chinese to find our place on the map, so instead wandering I hailed down a well dressed foreign man. He turned out to be an American from Jersey and his wife, who he turned to for directions, is a Cambodian-American with family in Beijing. They offered to walk us and we chatted a bit. Then she invited us to dinner and we obliged. We had dinner in a more-elegant-than-usual food court underground and as we ate, Pekina, the woman, accompanied by all kinds of family, revealed to us that she is the granddaughter of the king of Cambodia! More and more family members arrived, all well dressed and well-to-do, and eventually the party had to move to accomodate its size. We parted ways there, but before leaving, they took my e-mail and invited us to visit the Summer Palace with them the next day. She gave me her cell phone number and when, the next morning, I determined I couldn't meet with them in time and called her to let her know. Her tone of voice at the other end was friendly, but a bit put off, and I think she was a bit relieved when I told her we couldn't make it. She said we should keep in touch via e-mail and we left it at that.

Culture bit:
The bus lines are run by different companies here and so the quality of the buses differ. Most are pretty standard, but some are old and dingy and some are plushy and air-conditioned and have cushy seats. On one of the buses I took, there was a small flat screen TV behind the driver's seat and it was showing women's singles ping pong at Athens: China versus South Korea. My fellow riders were glued. When the score got to a one point difference, in either direction, the bus went silent. Then one of the players would score a point and the entire bus, in unison, would groan "Aiyohhh!!!" if it was South Korea and "Ehhhh! Hao-le, hao-le!! (Good!)" if it was China.

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