30 August 2015

The End of the Adventure Begins!

As promised I'm telling about my month in Beijing to teach a course in Business Writing in reverse. And so I arrived.

In fact, my airplane arrived a full hour early. Tell your grandchildren about this strange phenomena. Because of that, I missed my contact who was supposed to meet me at the airport. Fortunately, I had been to Beijing twice before and did not panic. After waiting a respectable amount of time, I took a taxi into the city and found my hotel, provided by my summer employer.

Then the fun began. My first class. The first welcome reception. The first case of Mao's revenge. The first sightseeing.

I found my way to the correct building at the appointed hour (8 a.m.) and was happy to see a tall floor model air conditioning unit. My assigned assistant met me there, had the room ready, the a/c on. Then the students arrived--all 58 of them packed into the one small classroom. I spoke slowly and carefully, unsure that first day how well they understood English. The class, like all of them at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE), was intended to be taught in English. All went well and we developed a good rapport that lasted through the final exam.

The first evening, we foreign instructors for the summer were invited to the formal welcome reception in a lavish venue just off campus. Students from the university entertained us with song and dance. The food was delicious, as expected at a formal dinner. What was served was supposedly representative dishes from several provinces around China. What was especially delicious was a mushroom soup which featured about a dozen different kinds of mushrooms. In the hours to come, it proved to be my undoing, forcing me to battle a case of Mao's Revenge for more than a week.

Since I had already seen the major tourist sites, I went to a few lesser ones. First up was a tourist enclave south of the Forbidden City (aka The Imperial Palace) called Qianmen. Men means gate and the gate there, obviously built just for me, was rather impressive. Something I might like to see in my neighborhood back home, just to show everyone where I live. Knowing I had plenty of time to gather souvenirs, I only looked at the many shops along this pedestrian mall. I did stop to enjoy roast duck once more--because you really can never enough of "Beijing Duck"!
Qianmen gate (one side of the street)
Gate at entrance to Qianmen pedestrian shopping street.

Me at the duck restaurant with the Duck Meister slicing it up.
Then I was off to another "minor" site: Beihai Park and its famous Bell Tower. To the west side of the Forbidden City are a string a lakes, intended for the Emperor's pleasure, all strung together with canals. This is the north lake ("Bei" means north; the subway station there is Beihai Bei: the north end of the north lake). The day was oppressively humid--as almost all of the days there, as I was to discover. 

However, once you totally sweat out your clothes, then you just go on for the rest of the day, moisture and all. Just part of the experience. I saw a lot but I sure didn't look good enough for photos. The crossing of the lake and the hike up the hill to the tower made me feel like I was really back in Beijing. The lotus-filled lake further convinced me I was no longer in Oklahoma. 
Beihai Lake and the Bell Tower.
The Nine Dragons Wall. Same design on the reverse side.
The most famous thing at this park is the "Nine Dragons Wall" so I took a few pictures of it. Everybody was taking photos of it, too. It was difficult to catch a moment without anyone in front of it, especially when I posed there. (Any of you who may write fantasy stories involving dragons, now you know: There are only nine of them!)
Another wall (gate?) with a lion. The wall is only about a meter thick.
View from top of the hill where the Bell Tower is, looking down at Beihai lake.
To get over the Mao's Revenge, I sought out cheese, the tried and true remedy. It might be easier to find a palm tree in Greenland than it is to find a chunk of cheese in Beijing. Milk, yes. Yogurt, now trendy, yes. Ice cream, for kids, of course yes. But actual cheese? Nope. So I concocted a plan to find a McDonald's and just eat a big cheeseburger, knowing full well that the cheese would not be real cheese but a fake version. I walked around in the heat of the day and subsequently dined at the first McDonald's I found. 

Your typical street Mickey's.
Strangely, the cashier woman couldn't understand me even when I pointed to the menu, so the young man standing in line behind me helped me. The dining room was crowded with students studying or "studying" on their laptops, tablets, and cell phones, so I invited him to sit with me. He was back home for summer vacation from studying at a university in Wisconsin. This is what we call irony. 

I was beginning to realize that I, a German-English hybrid genetically constructed from the dairy regions of Europe required cheese like Chinese people required rice. I searched online for Mexican restaurants in Beijing, craving tacos. None were convenient to my location, the best choice requiring 4 subway line changes. I gave up on that idea. Instead, I did find a good ol' KFC. I also found a Subway franchise a few blocks down from my hotel, right across from the campus. In fact, one of my own students worked there! An Italian Combo footlong did the trick. Those deli meats and layers of cheese got my insides back on track. I would return to that Subway several more times during my month-long visit. Because, yes, you can have too much Chinese food! 

Nevertheless, I visited the Yonghe King Chinese BBQ restaurant around the corner from my hotel multiple times for my dinners. I could get a bowl of barbecued meat, a bowl of rice, a couple sides of veggies, and a tall glass of iced coffee with tapioca beads in it for around 35 Yuan--about $6, best deal in the neighborhood. I visited twice a week, often enough the girls knew me by name: "that weird foreign guy with the wicked grin." They jostled with each other for the right to take my order. Probably they did the same for the right to deliver the tray containing my meal to my table. I can only imagine.

Next time: Writing about Greenland in a Beijing Hotel

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

23 August 2015

Getting Hooked on Art in Beijing

If you have been following my adventures last month in Beijing, you know I'm telling it backwards. And that is not a metaphor.

So, after my second week's classes were done, I was finally ready to do some serious sightseeing. I checked maps for tourist sites I had not already visited in my two prior trips to Beijing, calculated subway routes, and prepared my knapsack with essential survival products (for example, t-paper for public restrooms).

Then it rained. They said it was the heaviest rain in Beijing in years. So I stayed in my neat little hotel room and worked on my new novel most of the day Thursday and Friday. I put in about 6 hours of original composition each day. The housekeepers came and went without incident (See previous post). By Saturday morning, I wanted to do something, anything so I wouldn't waste these days completely. I decided to return to Wangfujing Avenue, which is a tourist street in the heart of Beijing. If it rained, I could at least be able to spend the hours browsing in one of the two large bookstores there. 
Oriental Plaza shopping mall and hotel, Wangfujing Avenue in Beijing

So I took the subway to the Wangfujing station, which leads directly into the lower level of the shopping plaza near the Wangfujing bookstore. There is a food court on that lower level so part of my plan was to grab brunch there before moving on to the bookstores. I also planned to find some postcards and other souvenirs since I was in the tourist area. I walked casually through the food court area, more a collection of self-contained restaurants than “fast food” as we know it back home. As I passed an escalator, a girl coming down it called to me. She was short and cute, smiling and asking what I was looking for, as though she could help me.

Well, I look like a big dumb tourist but I’m actually an old professor here to teach an English class, so I had no reason not to be polite and respond to her attempt to help me. We had some small talk about food. I asked her what she recommended. She said the Wangfujing bookstore had restaurants in the lower level, too. I thought it would be one-stop shopping.
The main consideration for me was being able to use my credit card because I was getting low on cash; I knew most stores on Wangfujing would take credit cards. So I followed her out of the Oriental Plaza mall and over to the Wangfujing bookstore. By then, she was mentioning an art exhibition featuring Chinese calligraphy. I knew what that was and I had actually bought some beautiful scroll paintings on my previous visit years before. However, she presumed that as a tourist I would be interested in seeing scroll paintings. 
As we went around the corner of the Wangfujing bookstore--but not entering it--she pointed to the entrance to the lower level restaurants and continued on, determined to show me the art exhibit. It was between breakfast and lunch and I saw in the Oriental Plaza that the food court places were just getting ready to open, so it made sense to go ahead and see some art while we waited for the restaurants to open. I followed. 
She led me into the side entrance of the next building to the Wangfujing bookstore, a hotel, definitely not the front door. I thought that was rather strange to be going in the "back way" if we were going to some "important" art exhibit. But there was a sign there announcing the exhibit. She pointed to it. There was also a guard in uniform behind a desk which had the hotel’s name on it. Across from the desk was a service elevator. 
Hmm, I thought, what is this? She even said "Don’t worry" but it was more like "Don’t wooooooorrrry" like she knew just how to emphasize the word. That made me worry, of course. The elevator opened and we stepped on. Then two young men got on and stood in front of me--between me and the elevator doors. At that moment I felt uneasy; if the three of them were working together, they would have had me right there. Elevator robbery. 
But nothing happened. The elevator arrived at the right floor and the two guys stepped off and my escort showed me to the art exhibit a little ways down the corridor.
The so-called art exhibit was just a small room with scroll paintings lining the walls and a screen set up in the middle to divide the small room into two galleries with more space to hang the scrolls. The art was good. I'm no expert but I know what I like. Everything from nature scenes in traditional Chinese style--like the ones I already had back home--to more modern style paintings. Some with calligraphy writing (poem?) or pandas or even female models posing au naturale
I was particularly attracted to a large painting of a nature scene, a river and the rocks along the shore, summer trees and a Chinese temple hidden among them. The canvas painting was maybe 8 feet long. It as very beautiful, so my escort and the woman running the “exhibit” got me into a conversation about how much I thought it was worth. I countered by saying it would be impossible for me to take it with me on an airplane. So they showed me a much smaller painting, similar kind of nature scene but autumn, on a canvas but not put in a wooden frame. The older woman unrolled the canvas in front of me. It was about 2 x 3 ft. A lovely painting.
But for me it did not matter what the cost was. If it costs 100 dollars but you do not have 100 dollars it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. At first, I thought they were giving me a price in Yuan (about 7 to the dollar) but then it became clear they meant dollars (What if I was French and had no dollars, only euros?). Of course, I did not get up this morning with the idea of buying a painting of anything, much less be pressured into it before I’d even had my breakfast or lunch. So I balked, said I needed to get something to eat before I could decide on whether to buy it or not. I really did not want to buy it, but I was trying to be polite. Up to then my escort and the woman running the art exhibit had been pushy but remained polite.
The idea was proffered that my escort was actually the painter of the smaller unframed painting and because she was "only a student" they could cut the price. I started to see the ploy, but I was saved simply because I really did not have the cash and I was not too confident using a credit card there in that small “shop”. 
I was trying to extract myself because I really was hungry by that point. The deal was undone for me when the next middle-aged foreign man was led into the art exhibit by a young attractive Chinese girl. He was followed quickly by a young tourist couple led by another Chinese woman. We all had been found wandering the streets desirous of calligraphy and in need of a scroll! 

I was able to slip out with that distraction, but not without my escort following me. I said I needed to get something to eat, so I went out the way I'd come in and my escort followed me. I returned to the restaurants on the lower level under the Wangfujing bookstore that she had pointed out. I looked around to see what I might like, then saw the restroom sign and decided I needed to freshen up. I took my time and did not really concern myself whether or not my escort had seen where I went or would be waiting. When I exited, she was there waiting for me. She asked what I was going to eat, then switched to talking about that painting.
Walking among the different restaurants I found nothing that I wanted to eat, so I said I wanted to return to the Oriental Plaza's food court. I knew what was there, even though there were far too many choices. I started out of the lower level food court, got outside and was on the sidewalk back to the entrance of the Oriental Plaza mall next door when she suddenly shouted profanities at me and cursed me for “wasting her time”! That was shocking, but perhaps not so surprising. I knew she was a salesperson once we got into the art “store” but I was intent on maintaining my politeness as a mature adult.

I really hated that she had to let me know I’d wasted her time by using the most popular American swear words. That sort of thing makes you question humanity. You see, now the next time a college or high school student (or appearing to be) speaks to me, wanting to practice English, I will be suspicious. I might even be rude and put him/her off, refusing a conversation, simply because this one person who had seemed friendly and polite, sincere in speaking English with me, was in the end just part of a sales team. I could forgive the sales pitch, but to end it all with the cursing…well, that was uncalled for! I had been polite and I had politely excused myself. She could have done the same, saying “Thanks for taking a look.” I might have returned later to buy a painting, who knows? But to suddenly let loose her full range of profanity was quite disappointing. If her English was good enough to carry on a decent conversation with me, I would think she could put it to better use than seducing middle-aged foreign men out of the Oriental Plaza food court off Wangfujing Avenue.
No problem for me; I shook it off. Now that I was free from the clutches of the salesgirl, I did return to the Oriental Plaza and as I went down the escalator to the lower level food court, a reflection caught my eye: Pizza Hut. There it was! But just to be sure that’s what I wanted, I walked around looking at the other restaurants. I knew they would take a credit card so in I went. I ordered a salad and a medium-size all-the-meats pizza, both of which were rather good. I had peach tea, also. Total cost was 115 Yuan, about 18 dollars. I took my time, relaxed after I finished eating, watching the other patrons come in and order. Lots of young couples on a date, also families with small children.

Finally I went into the Xinhua bookstore. On the first floor were maps so I got a new bilingual map of the city. My old map, which I had been using, did not have the newer subway stations marked on it. I also saw a fine selection of postcard packets so I got a few of them. Then I went upstairs to the English books. It was crowded on all the floors, given that it was Saturday, but I did not see much I had to have. My interest was in Chinese authors translated into English, so I could read their stories and learn about the Chinese condition (much like the human condition, which is what all fiction is ultimately about). I went to the other floors, as well, and discovered fewer books and more of other things like art supplies, musical instruments, and small appliances.
I got a few small souvenirs on one floor. Outside, the sky was dark, threatening rain, but the streets were busy with pedestrians. Business was good. I walked up the street, the wide pedestrian mall, got a cold bottle of juice from one of the many street kiosks, then went into the Beijing Foreign Book Store. I did not take my time going to every floor, just went straight to the English books. I did find two paperbacks of Chinese authors in English to buy, one a translation and the other written in English. After that, I continued walking north through the crowds of pedestrians, stopping in a shop here or there to examine the souvenirs items they had.
Eventually, I thought I was far enough north that I determined it was closer to walk east to meet a subway station than to return south to the station I'd arrived at. However, except when I was sitting in the Pizza Hut, I had been standing or walking for a few hours already (even on the subway I stood), so my legs were tired. I headed east along the street which should take me to the subway station I was looking for, a connection to the line that would take me directly back without having to change subway lines. But it was not where I thought it was and I worried I had gone too far. (On the way, I passed a storefront and a man came out, calling to me, asking where I was from and if I liked Chinese calligraphy! I said I was in a hurry and could not take any time to go into his shop and look at the scrolls.) 
Right where I happened to pause to check my map, I saw a McDonald’s on the corner so I went inside and got an iced latte and sat down to study the map better. Refreshed once more, I continued on and found the station. Once I got off at the subway stop nearest to my hotel, I climbed the many stairs to the surface and proceeded to walk the few blocks back to my hotel. On the way, I stopped at a convenience store to load up on drinks and at a “bakery” for a sandwich and a pastry for later. 
After I returned to my neat little room, I unloaded my purchases and peeled off my sweaty clothes, took a shower, and lay on the bed for a nap. It was a good day, all in all. Later I got up and did some writing on my book, then went to sleep again. Life in a little hotel in Beijing. 

Next time: The Adventure Begins!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

16 August 2015

Getting by in Beijing

I'm going to get through this--somehow! Not the best way to start a blog, I'll bet. But when living in a foreign city and stuck with foreign ways and foreign food and foreign weather, the experience can be rather daunting. 

When I was invited to teach a summer course in Beijing, I went with mixed feelings. I had visited Beijing twice before so I really did not have any tourist reasons to go. And I knew the university that hired me for four weeks would cover my expenses there and reimburse my air ticket so that it was essentially a free trip to China in exchange for teaching a couple days a week. I thought that was fair and reasonable. Some of my visiting colleagues even brought their families with them to share the experience.

July is not the best time to visit Beijing, however. It is hot and humid--oppressively so, helped along by the lid of pollution haze. For those of us used to getting around in air-conditioned cars, the switch to mostly walking with the occasional subway ride is a bit of a challenge. One quickly sweats out the day's outfit and languishes in moist fabric for as long as one can stand to be with oneself. There is some relief in the subway stations where fans blow more or less constantly. On the subway cars there is usually air-conditioning. The effectiveness of both are subject to the size of the crowds. Toward the end of the month, the fans and a/c seemed to blow less--as though someone had run out of their monthly allotment of electricity.
Yinghua ("Cherry Blossom") Hotel where I stayed for 4 weeks.
Being able to bring only a limited amount of clothing and thus needing to find ways to wash clothes during a four-week stay was also a challenge. From previous visits, I knew most hotels, even Chinese style ones, would do your laundry for a price. Seriously, there must be a lot of Chinese laundries in Beijing! I was surprised, however, at the high price demanded for washing underwear, as though they were trying to discourage hotel guests from submitting their unmentionables. 

So I went to the little store on the university campus, tucked under the bleachers of the soccer stadium, and bought a little bag of "handwash laundry soap" (the English subtitle below the Chinese characters) and learned to wash my own ditties like we all did once upon a time. The real problem, however, is getting them to dry. There is a cord that can be pulled out over the bath tub to hang clothes on but the humid bathroom is not the best drying environment. So I loaded up my windowsill with underpants and socks. Being on the fourth floor, they could not be seen from the street so I felt safe in doing that. The sun always battered those windows mercilessly each day and, with the blackout curtains closed, the heat would build up on the sill. Am I a scientist or what? 

The catch is to do it after the room has been cleaned. I had no doubt that the housekeeping staff would not approve of my items being stacked along the windowsill. Fortunately, I had morning classes and could return after my room was freshly made-up. Then I would wash my items in the bathroom basin, rinse them in the bath tub, hang them on the cord (I eventually bought some clips), then stretch them out on the windowsill. After several hours, usually by dusk, I would check my laundry and find them three-quarters dry. Fearing the onslaught of mildew, I used the hotel's hair dryer to finish off the drying process. Then I folded them and placed them in my suitcase for safe keeping.
Room 424 in its natural state, pre-housekeeping staff visit.
The outer garments were no problem. Except that I never checked the box on the form for "same day service." I could wait a couple days. I planned my garment schedule carefully that way. But each time I submitted dress shirts and dress trousers to the laundry patrol, they came back the same day with the "same day" charge added. I decided to grin and bear it. I knew I would be paid someday; until then I was living on just what I had brought with me--and my hometown bank did not have much Yuan to give me. Besides, if I calculated the exchange rate at the current 6.14 Yuan for a dollar, then 100 Yuan, which felt so rich in my wallet, was actually only about 15 U.S. dollars. 

By my third week in Beijing, I had the laundry business down pat. I could have opened my own Chinese laundry. The ladies on the housekeeping staff knew me well, also, for better or worse. I believe I'm a nice, reasonable fellow. And since I was living in my room, as opposed to staying merely a few days on business, I thought they would let me sleep in on days I had no class. And yet many times I was awakened at 8 or 8:30 by the doorbell and the housekeeping lady calling "Nihau"--'good morning'--even when I had already set the electronic sign on the hallway wall to "do not disturb" in both Chinese and English. In my sleepy Chinglish I tried to persuade them to come back later. That might get me only another hour.
The 4th floor--where all the fights occurred between room 424 and the housekeeping room.
One gal got rather feisty with me. She would knock hard on the door. When I opened the door she would look at me with evil in her eyes and a scowl on her face, muttering "clean room" in a voice better used for "death to America." Of course I understood they wanted to get on with their work and not be delayed by this foreign guy. I was fine with the room not being made-up. I live that way in my own home. But for this one, it was like I'd better get the heck out of the room and let them make the bed and replenish the bathroom supplies and empty the wastebasket of all my bottles of drinks--and I drank a lot, mostly flavored water or iced coffee or tea of some kind because of being constantly thirsty out in all that humidity. There was some discussion one morning among a few housekeeping ladies. After that only an older woman attended my needs. 

By then in my month-long sojourn, I was in a writing marathon, working on my "Greenland" novel. I awoke several mornings with the next scene in my head and went straight to my laptop to write. I did not care who wanted to make up the room or what time it was. Sometimes I rose at 5:30 or 6 to begin writing. My new, older housekeeper could take care of business without disturbing me at the desk trying to write. And it was good she saw me writing on the laptop; I was not some slob with no job lazing the summer away in a cheap hotel. No, I was working--in my shorts and t-shirt. I always thanked her as she left each day--"Xie xie"--one of the few Chinese words I knew.
Yonghe King "barbecue" restaurant which turned out to be good for my stomach. A few doors down from my hotel.
And how was I so refreshed each morning that I could write like a blazing writer-on-steroids? After a few hours on that hard Chinese style hotel bed, my back was straight and my meridians were aligned, my fluids flowed and my chakras were cleansed. Seriously, the bed had about a half-inch of "padding" as a mattress. You did not sink down when you sat or lay on it. Being a Chinese style hotel and having stayed in similar ones on previous visits, I knew to expect it. Yet it still took a few nights for my body to get used to it--then it was great. Back home now, my traditional American bed is too soft for my back.

So on days that I had a class, typically I would return to my room, completely dripping, and strip off my soaked clothing, crank up the a/c, grab a cold beverage from my mini-fridge (thank Mao for that!), drop into one of the casual chairs by the windows, flick on the TV and watch something like Jerry Maguire in Chinese, where I could learn how to shout "Show me the money!" in Mandarin: 给我钱!(That's "Gěi wǒ qián!" for those of you who do not read Hanzu characters--like me.
I also had an excellent Shanghaiese style dinner at the upscale mall The Place.

Next time: Getting hooked on art

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

09 August 2015

How I Ruined my Summer Vacation

In my previous blog post I ranted and complained about one very long, very stressful 36-hour superday flying back home from Beijing, China. It was a genuine rant. I meant every word. However, I don't wish to give anyone the idea that the whole trip was so angst-filled and absurd. It wasn't. The four weeks I lived large and sorta worked in Beijing was an experience that I cannot adequately describe--yet I shall try my best.

Once upon a time I was invited by a university in Beijing to teach a course for four weeks in July. I had mixed feelings about the opportunity. First, I would be teaching--and if you know a teacher then you know the summer vacation is quite sacred; there is to be no teaching during that time. But it seemed it would not inconvenience me too much. I thought it would be four days a week, a couple hours per day, like we do at my university here. I planned accordingly with regard to my flight schedule and my visa. By the time I was flying there, I had learned that I would only be teaching the course three hours a day on Monday and Wednesday mornings.

So I desperately wondered what I would do with a four-day weekend. I had visited Beijing twice before so I had already done the tourist thing with the major sites like the Forbidden City (aka Imperial Palace [aka Palace Museum]), the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and so on. I had visited the new sights, too, all the "weird" modern architecture in the central business district. I had hit the well-known shopping avenues, as well. So I decided there must be some smaller sites to see. I could make it work. I refused to let myself be bored. (More on that later.)

View from my hotel window on first morning; sun trying to shine through pollution haze.
The buildings are dormitories of the university, across the street from hotel.
The university put me up in a decent hotel across the boulevard from the campus. I only had a 10 minute walk between my room on the fourth floor of the hotel near the west gate of the campus and the first-floor classroom in the building at the far southeast corner of the campus. As a "typical" Chinese hotel (that is, not intended for Western guests), it was clean and comfortable. I really had no complaints although other guests were often a problem and there were a few "minor" incidences with the housekeeping staff. (More on that later.)

Usually it was a pleasant walk to school, trying to get there a little before the 8 am start. It was not so hot or humid at that early hour. I dressed professionally but without coat and tie yet the 10 minute walk in the often oppressive humidity, locked in under a lid of brown haze, produced a flood of perspiration which began about the time I arrived in the air conditioned classroom and continued for much of the next hour. Luck of the genes. 

In four weeks, I failed to scientifically explain the phenomena. The cold of the a/c unit in the classroom caused a reaction to my overly heated skin and with so many pores opening condensation resulted. Any meteorologists here? I tried different shirts; some breathed and some did not. Same result: an unsightly mess for much of the class period. Fortunately, my students did not seem to mind. I should mention that I employed proper hygiene every day so, while perhaps unsightly, I was not unpleasant to be beside.

The Bird's Nest at the start of my visit.
The course was business writing. While a seemingly innocuous set of lessons in the obvious, I slanted the course (in my proposal to the university) to teaching the way American business likes writing to be done. I covered the usual business documents, American style and grammar issues, and things to consider when writing for business such as biased language and cross-cultural considerations. The cross-cultural lesson is designed to acquaint American students with the other ways people around the world think, see, and argue differently than Americans do. For my Chinese students, I flipped it over so they were learning how Americans typically think, see, and argue. 

The Bird's Nest an hour later when the haze left.
Did I mention that all classes at the university were taught in English? Except, well, the foreign language courses. That was my first concern: how well did the students understand English? I found most of my 58 students (only 6 were boys) to be quite proficient, especially in their writing. I began each lesson slowly, enunciating my words, choosing more basic vocabulary to help them ease into an English environment after a weekend "back in China." I had my five years of teaching English in Japan to help me with how I conducted the course. After the class ended each day, a few students always gathered to chat with me or ask questions. I also was given an assistant who made copies of handouts, collected papers, and served as a go-between for the students. He was quite helpful. I felt spoiled there.

Me at Lama Temple. No alpacas!
This blog post is only intended as an overview of my month in Beijing. I'll expand and complain further--or explain, as the case may be--various aspects and events in coming blog posts. Yet, I will leave you with two thoughts today: I spent many strangely hypnotic sessions alone in my hotel room, intrusive housekeepers be damned, writing on my newest novel. The new book had nothing whatsoever to do with China. I started it in April and did not want to set it aside for a month. I brought materials with me that were part of my research as well as stimulation for writing a story which is set in Greenland. As it was, I wrote about 50,000 words just while I was in Beijing. (More on that later.)

Inside is the big Buddha carved from a single huge tree trunk.
I also shall continue the theme of a reverse vacation by showing you pictures from my last week in Beijing--just before I boarded my flight and had that awful experience I previously wrote about. 

On the Monday of the last week, I presented the final lesson and collected final projects. On the Tuesday, I went out sightseeing and souvenir shopping. On Wednesday was the final exam. After that Wednesday class, I again went out sightseeing. I went to the 2008 Olympic facilities which were only under construction during my previous visit in December 2007. I then visited the famous Lama Temple, home to a really huge Buddha carved from a single huge tree trunk (no photography allowed). So I saw the modern and the ancient, the new and the old in the same day. I also got some ice cream.

Next time: More on that later.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

03 August 2015

Existential Absurdity and the Flying Experience

I have returned--though not too much wiser for all the brouhaha that I have experienced lo these past few weeks! 

Against my better judgement, I accepted an invitation to teach a summer course at a university in Beijing, China. The course went well enough (more on that in a later blog), but the day to day living was rather taxing, especially given the heat and humidity of my environs. And then there were the food options (Yes, you can have too much Chinese food.).

First of all, let me thank you for your patience during this stressful summer season. For those of you who never knew I was gone, then I thank you for your indulgence this time.

Let me begin with the end and proceed in reverse. 

I last took an overseas flight three years ago and since then, a lot has changed, it seems. While going was quite a delight, returning was a harrowing gauntlet of redundant security operations and existential absurdity

The Beijing Capital Airport's new Terminal 3, which opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, is the largest terminal building in the world. They boast about that but a large building is not an easy place to get around in. Even though I moved from my hotel in the city, provided by my employer, so as to make the morning flight hassles a little less worrisome, the 5 minute hotel shuttle was only the beginning of my ordeal.

Little did I know that I knew so little about this terminal. Dropped off on the ground level, I knew I had to go up to the departure level and yet all the elevators stated boldly in English that they did not stop on levels 3 and 4. So I walked to my right for about 3 km until I found an escalator. Up I went, then I walked about 3 km back to where I had been only on the new level. Checked the map of the terminal to find where to check in at my airline, then walked about 4 km to get into the end of the line. Only about a dozen got in line behind me.

The check-in line took about an hour. (No, a 3 hour lead is not enough, even when you start from next door to the terminal!) Then I followed my fellow passengers to the gate. To get to the boarding gate, one must of course go through a security checkpoint. The first one (Yes, I did type 'first.') was simply to scan the bar code on my boarding pass and the gate opens. That was easy, I thought, never having been one to wish harm to fellow passengers. Then I proceeded about 2 km further to the train platform. 

A lot of airports have some kind of tram to move from terminal to terminal, but here the train ride was something more like the airport express subway line that takes about 20 minutes to deliver you to Terminal 3 part 2. Fine, I thought. Now to find the gate.... Oh, here is the real security checkpoint--and the lines for it. Take everything out, empty pockets, walk through, get personally scanned, answer questions about the stuff I have, smirk, attempt to hide smirk, then pack up and go. About 45 minutes from entering line to exiting checkpoint.

I had showered and dressed in fresh clothes that morning but at this point in the process, I wished I could start my hygiene regimen over again, get a new shower and put on new clothes--especially if I would be wearing them for the next 20 hours. But that was not an option, although I did bring a spare set of clothes in my carry-on bag. I hoped not to change to fresh clothes until I arrived in San Francisco and transferred to my domestic flight. 

So on to the boarding gate! To the boarding gate and beyond! And...keep going.... And it should be right...ahead...and the farthest possible point in the terminal. I calculated about 7 km. It seems that the national airline gets pride of place while foreign airlines are clustered as far as possible from convenience. And yet, I was not quite done. With all of the obstacle course ran, I did not have long to wait to board. About 5 minutes for my boarding group.

Through the little gate, smile from the attendant, and down the gangway--

More security checkpoints. Remember we went through one earlier with the full x-ray of carry-on items and our beloved persons. A cute young Chinese TSA girl directed me to one of several tables set up along the path to the cabin door manned by Kung-Fu behemoths. Both of my bags were inspected by hand. More questions asked. Then I was passed on down the line. I got on the plane, found my seat, and met my seatmates: a former fashion model turned fashion entrepreneur and an actor ("bodyguard"/"bouncer"/"fighter #2" etc.) who just finished shooting a Chinese movie in Mongolia (exteriors) and Beijing (studio).

Arriving in San Francisco, I was welcomed by an even more daunting gauntlet to run. This time, I had only 1 hour and 40 minutes to make my connecting flight. And the international flight landed 20 minutes late. The rush to the immigration checkpoint! Yes, citizens go to the short lines. Still took about 20 minutes. First we go to the self-check where we self-scan our passports and self-click a photo and some kind of receipt prints out. I thought this was a new, streamlined system, but NO. I had to then get into another line to present the printed receipt to an actual immigration person and answer the same questions I already clicked 'yes' and 'no' on the selfie machine!

At this point, the citizen lines and the foreign passenger lines merged. That would make sense from an organizational point of view. Having experienced the reverse upon my arrival in Beijing, it seems the only fair way is to get the short line one direction and the long line the other direction. Then comes the customs checkpoint--but first, get your bag--wait for your bag--then get your bag. Nothing to declare, just let me get to my connecting flight! Recheck bag and dash through the terminal to...wait for it (literally, you have to wait for it!)...another security checkpoint. Three years ago when I passed through SFO, there was no security checkpoint between the international gates and the domestic gates.

One more line, I thought, trying to remain calm. My line--the one I was assigned to by a supervisor--was guarded by the oldest woman the TSA ever hired. And she was meticulous. Along the same x-ray scan line were dozens of crates of "perishable fruit" but by the time I got my turn they were all out. And employees coming for their shift work at the airport (not flight crews) kept cutting in line, because they didn't want to be late for work.

Got through, finally! Checked the board for the gate again. Looked up at the gate where I am: not bad. I could make it. I did a quickwalk through the terminal... to... the... farthest... possible gate again! Boarding started 2 minutes after I arrived. I had planned to change into fresh clothes during the layover but there was no spare time. No restroom time, either. No buy a water bottle time! Right on to the claustrophobic mini-jet for the next 3 hour flight home.

I was not too fresh at that point. My polite fellow passengers did not let on. But the thing to remember is that I did arrive home safely, in the sense of physically yet I would question my state of angst. Now I'm jet-lagged. I also seem to have carried with me some Chinese germs that are laying me low just when I want to do something fun--like unpack my bags. 

Me at the Lama Temple. They had no alpacas.

Details of the job next time. That sounds exciting, doesn't it?

[PS- No flight crews were hurt in the making of this blog.]

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