Monday, June 5, 2006

sino journal one

The day before yesterday – both Wednesday May 31st and Thursday June 1st -- was extremely tiring. I left Syracuse Wednesday morning after three hours of sleep, and not a full night’s sleep for days before that. Since I wanted to get an emergency row seat for the Shanghai leg, very important for a 14½-hour flight, I rushed to get to the gate in Chicago. Found out the flight was delayed from 12:30 to 4:00. At 2:00, I hung out at the check in counter unit someone showed up and I was able to get an exit seat. Being tall helps. Always remember to stand up straight when requesting to sit in the emergency row. Especially when the clerk is barely over five feet in heels

United Airlines lost my luggage. How could they lose the luggage with an extra three and half hours in Chicago?

I stayed in a nice three-star hotel in the business district of Shanghai. Friday morning June 2nd Steve Robinson and I met with the man who runs the Shanghai program SLU uses. The program is in a nice part of downtown. Within a block of each other are the offices, classrooms, and student residences. They rent luxury four-bedroom, 2 bath with kitchen, apartments for the students. Very nice. The director said that they get the apartments cheaper per student than if they had to pay the local university for dorm rooms.

I was leaving for the airport and got the courage up to take the Metro (subway) rather than a cab. It turned out to be pretty simple. You buy tickets from a machine like in Washington, DC –English is an option. I had plenty of time so I got off the Metro at People's Park. Chinese parks are absolutely lovely. They are more like gardens with beautiful ornamental shrubbery, trees, and ponds. A work of art using landscaping; a beautiful and peaceful place to stroll or sit. Wonderful. Most in the park are older people reading or visiting. Occasionally in a quiet, more secluded spot, you'll find a young couple kissing on a bench. (Hey, where else can they go?)

I got back on the Metro and made the connection to the Maglev train. This train goes about 300 mph and takes only eight minutes to get to the airport. Did you ever try to put two magnets together the wrong way so they repel each other? That is the principle behind this train. It floats over the tracks. You don't feel like you are going 300 mph other than by watching the scenery whiz by. Very quiet. Very smooth. Very cool.

In Beijing, I'm staying at a no-frills two-star hotel a dozen blocks and a 10 rmb ($1.25) taxi ride (the minimum, taxi fare) from the Forbidden City. This is sort of a Chinese version of an Econolodge. AC, TV, sparsely furnished, no wall decorations, but it is functional. No one here speaks English. The clerk who checked me in had to show me numbers on a calculator so I knew how much to pay. The room also has a small, 4'x4’ bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower. No shower stall, the shower area is the bathroom. Different but it works.

I went for a walk in the evening just to look around, stock up on water and snacks, and maybe get some dinner. It started to rain so I was looking for a store and went into a drug store. Now, how would you ask for an umbrella? Think about it. I made a tent-like gesture over my head and then made a movement like opening an umbrella. The woman clerk got it, shook her head no, and pointed up the street.

I felt like a linguistic MacGiver. Who needs the language?

Now the store up the street had no language problem. They saw a foreigner walking in the rain, said “Umbrella?” and handed me one before I could see what was coming. BTW, a small collapsible umbrella is 10 rmb ($1.25).

Saturday June 3rd, this morning, I went out for breakfast and I went back to the drug store to get some athletic tape. (I have a lingering foot injury and should tape it if I am on it a lot.) How would you communicate athletic tape? How about tape? I couldn't figure it out. Now I knew they had something like it. I played charades with four young clerks at a time. They came close with bandages. One even tried elastic ankle wraps. I couldn't find them and gave up.

I guess I ain't no MacGiver.

I also did something I promised myself I'd never do. I had breakfast at McDonalds. Oh, the shame of it! I am the gauche American tourist rather than a serious academic undertaking a cross-cultural experience. I never do fast food abroad. (Starbucks in Hong Kong doesn't count.) I was tired of walking, I wanted something fast. I wanted something filling. I wanted something clean. Mostly, I wanted coffee. (In tea-drinking China, coffee is kind of iffy.) So I got the Egg McMuffin meal: 9.5 rmb ($1.19).

After breakfast, I walked to a five-star hotel to take a cab to see Mao's tomb. Now that I had lost my McGiver title, I thought at a five-star hotel all the bellmen would speak English. Sure, enough, the cab driver couldn't figure where I wanted to go and the bellman successfully intervened.

Mao's body lies in state in a colossal building at the south end of Tiananmen Square. There is a two-block line of people waiting to see him but I heard it moves fast. Basically, you walk at a slow pace rather than stand in line. I went up to the line and an older man asked me if I had a camera. He then led me away form the line and was trying to get me to cross the street to deposit my camera. Yeah, right. I figured out it was a scam where he’d take me out of the way and have a friend “hold” it for me. Who'd think that they'd have someone cross a 6-lane highway with no streetlight? China traffic goes by the survival of the fittest. The bigger vehicle has the right of way. Bicycles don't even stop for pedestrians.

I got within a hundred yards of the building when an army private pulls me out of the line, passes a metal detector wand over me, and discovers a camera in my pocket in its case. He then uses his complete English vocabulary, “No!” and points to the back of the line a couple of blocks back. So I had to walk back, every one knows why the dumb foreigner is walking back. I then cross six lanes of traffic and pay a small fee to have my camera stored.

I did get in to see Mao. He's still dead.

This is a good thing. He is responsible for more deaths and human suffering than Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and Saddam Hussein combined. Despite this, many Chinese, particularly in this part of the country, worship him. 99.9% of those in line to see him were Chinese.

I spent the rest of the day at the Forbidden City. This palace complex at the other end of Tiananmen Square is about two-thirds of a mile long and about ¼ of a mile wide. I rented an audio guide player instead of hiring a guide. I was jet-lagged, my foot hurt, I wanted to take my time, rest when I wanted, and not have to put up with a human being. Sometimes machines are just easier.

I can't really describe it. It is much bigger than I expected. The audio guide had an electronic map that let you know where you were and had lights for all the sights. It also kept track of where you have been. Very helpful in a place that big. Building and exhibits were impressive but my favorite part was the imperial garden.

The hotel staff did something very sweet while I was gone. Hotels in China always have these disposable slippers to wear in the room. They are made out of a sort of very thin stryofoam material. With no luggage and therefore no shower shoes, I wore a pair in the shower and then threw them in the trash. Today when I came back to my room, in addition to the usual slippers, there were pair of new sandals, basically a nice pair of rubber slides for me to use as shower shoes. This was really thoughtful, especially considering how little I’m paying for this room. I know how to say thank you in Mandarin, but how do I let them know what I'm thanking them for?

This evening my luggage arrived! After three days, I can change my underwear. This is a good thing. It was wonderful to shave and wear clean clothes.

Be blessed!
RB

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