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

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  1. Were your students Chinese literature majors?

  2. My weekend job during Reganomics was as a hotel maid.
    (knock knock)
    who's there?
    Go Away.
    (Guest requested no service--1 down 15 to go.)

    1. They would not take "go away" for an answer.