Quarantine!

After all the guests and groups I've hosted this year, I was feeling pretty good that everyone has managed to get in and out of the country without getting sick and being put under quarantine. 

That was until yesterday.

I'm hosting a group of 20 American college students for 2 weeks–hanging out with university students, sight-seeing, learning about the culture–and this weekend one of them came down with the flu.  Not THE flu, the one that has sent the world into a panic, but the regular, run of the mill, flu.  The doc at a western clinic in town put her on some meds and suggested she be quarantined, which we have done….in my apartment.  Yesterday she and the co-leader of the group snuck out of the hotel they were staying in (we didn't want them to know she had the flu) and moved to my place.  They'll stay here until Saturday afternoon, while I take the rest of the group to Xi'an, from where they will leave the country.  Our goal is to get the patient's fever down before she has to board a plane. 

It's rough for her to be trapped in my place because she was so eager to see Beijing, but she's being a trooper. 

Never a dull moment in The Jing!

Still Crazy After All These Years

Shortly after I did my first stint in China as an English teacher, way back in 1984-1986, a fellow Minnesotan named Bill Holm (who had also taught English in China for a year) wrote a book of essays called "Coming Home Crazy."  I, and others I'd worked with instantly fell in love with the book because it so aptly described in a way that we couldn't (but wished we could) many of our own experiences and observations and the fact that, upon returning to the US we all felt that we had come home a bit on the loopy side.  Life in China in the 1980's was really like living on another planet and our adjustment back to 'normal' life in the States was at times rocky.  As I read the book I kept shouting (to no one in particular) "this is what it was like!" 

Later, in 1990, when I found myself back in China living in a dormitory with other American students trying to learn Chinese, the book helped us see the sanity of our craziness.  Once a week we would gather in someone's room for a reading of a chapter.  The China of 1990 wasn't so different from the China of 1985, so these were the stories of our lives.

Because one of my purposes of this blog post is to convince you to run out and buy the book, allow me to include a longish excerpt from the introduction:

     "An anthropologist I taught with gave me an interesting insight early in my year in China….."In Asia," the anthropologist said, looking uncommonly wise and Confucian for a Minnesotan with a motorcycle," you either lose your inner moorings, start to sink, go some kind of crazy, and just let it happen, or you will leave sooner than you expected and not learn anything."

     "Impossible!" I fulminated.  "My moorings are set in steel.  I can't live without them."

     I woke up one morning three or four months later, crazy in exactly the way he described.  I felt no panic, no fear; I was adrift and looking around interested, even cheerful, in a manner that no one who has ever said the words, "Have a good day!" can begin to understand.  It would be a good day; nothing would work, nothing would be available, and everything would go differently than you imagined.  Now I loved China.  Now I was happy….

     Scott Fitzgerald, in "The Crackup," said he knew he was crazy when he became unable to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously.  The experience of China means that you will never again see singly; the contrary of every idea in your life and culture looks as sane and reasonable as the idea itself.  Your consciousness is bifurcated once and for all, so you might as well enjoy it. Every old truth is half a new lie, every perception half a deception.  It's all right; be calm."

Bill Holm passed away recently, but the book lives on and has recently been re-released.  Feeling a bit nostalgic and reflective in my 25th year of working in China, "the old days" are much on my mind. Amid the skyscrapers and cell phone towers and shopping malls and cars and coffee shops, I am trying to remember what life was like then and how much it has changed. 

To assist me in that endeavor, I'm re-reading "Coming Home Crazy, " and am realizing that, , I am still crazy after all these years. And that's a good thing.

Not a Black Taxi

This morning I made the mistake of trying to catch a taxi on Bei Wa Road 8:15.  It's a tough thing to do, although not as tough as yesterday.  At or about the tenth minute of watching full taxis go by a car pulled up to me and the driver asked if I'd like a ride.  Now, that's not such a strange ocurrance in this town because there are so many "black taxis" — drivers who will take people to their destinations based for an agreed-upon fee.  Mostly they hang out at train and subway stations or other high traffic places.  They also cruise the streets in the morning looking for poor sould lik me who can't find real cabs.  I generally only take them if I can't find a real one or if I am running late, which was my situation this morning.

I opened the front door and hopped in, telling him where I was going (to a nearby school).  Surprisingly, the driver greeted me in English.  I complimented him on his ability and asked if he was studying English.  "Yes," he said, and pointed to a book on the dashboard of his car.  I picked it up and to my surprise saw that it was a Rick Warren book on marriage called "40 Days of Love." Come again???  Our conversation then proceed in Chinese: 

Me:  You're studying this book?

He:  Yes, it's great.  I like it a lot.  I and the others in my 'small group' sometimes attend seminars at the International Church on the other side of town.

Me:  Are you a Christian?

He:  I'm a half-Christian.

Me:  What does that mean?

He: I'm still learning.

Me:  Do you go to church every week.

He:  Yes, but I'm going to America next month.  I just got my visa.  It was difficult.

Me:  America?  That's great. Welcome.  Why are you going to America?

He: Just on a tour.

Me:  Do you drive everyday? (I"m thinking he'd be a good driver contact to have.)

He:  No, I'm not a black taxi. I sometimes pick people up on my way to work to get some extra cash.

Me:  Are you on your way to work now?

He: Yes, I work at a government unit.

Me:  What do you do?

He:  I'm an engineer. 

By this time we'd reached the school and my head was spinning.  I got out, bid him farewell and God bless, and off he went.  I walked into my meeting chuckling, once again reminded that in China nothing is as it seems!

Get Me to the Church On Time…Or Not

Forgetting that the Beijing Marathon was skirting my neighborhood this morning, I set out at 9:45 on my way to a 10:30 church service downtown.  Big mistake. By the time I exited my housing estate and hit Bei Wa Road, it had become a parking lot, thanks to so many area roads being closed down.  My plan had been to take a taxi to the new subway station at the zoo, but every taxi had someone inside and was not moving. I looked south to see if there was a bus coming.  I spotted one up by Ling Long Road, but it was in the middle of the melee and clearly not going anywhere.

By 10:15 a neighbor and colleague showed up on the street, also with plans to get to an 11:30 service at another church.  We were both torn between frustration at not being able to get to where we were going and bemusement at the unfolding chaos.  How Chinese drivers jam and unjam themselves is really an art form, and the whole community was spilling into the streets to watch.

About the time we decided to walk out to the the 3rd Ring Road, we heard the sound of music and fireworks coming from the hotel on the corner.  A wedding procession.  But not just an ordinary wedding procession, this one was complete with revelers in Qing Dynasty costumes, an old-fashioned sedan chair, and a horse.  It looked like a 19th century village wedding, and here it was playing itself out on Bei Wa Road.  The bride emerged from the hotel and got into the sedan chair, the groom (decked out in his Qing Dynasty finest) mounted the horse, and off they went into the middle of the traffic jam, musicians and other courtesans in tow. Somehow, they made it through, and headed off down the empty part of the street, leaving the chaos behind.

My friend and I roared.  Even after 25 years in China, I can still stumble into a “just when I think I’ve seen it all” event.

We finally made it out of the area on a very crowded bus by 11, and I got to the church at 11:30, just as the service was ending.  At least I made it in time to eat noodles with friends.

The wedding procession heading into the traffic jam

Oops.  The groom’s gotta make a call. Wei! Wei! Wei!

Having gotten through the melee, the go merrily on their way!

(thanks to KG for the photos)

It’s Last Tuesday, or Next Thursday,…or Something

Thursday was the last day of the 8 day National Day holiday here in China, so everyone went back to work yesterday (Friday).  Now the weekend is here, and people are still working. You see, in order to get 8 days in a row, we have to have two make-up days this weekend.  Last night I was out for dinner with friends and we actually found ourselves in an absurd conversation trying to figure out what Saturday and Sunday are.  Are they last Monday and Tuesday? Or next Thursday and Friday?

I wrote about this quirky phenomenon in a post called "It's Next Thursday" a few years back.  Time to republish it here.

It's Next Thursday

Here
in China we're gearing up for the big May Holiday (May 1 is
International Workers Day), which officially begins on Monday.  In
1999, the government decreed that henceforth this holiday would include
7 days off, not the 3 that it had been for ages.  All government
offices, schools, factories, and most businesses (not retail) will
close their doors for 7 days.  The main reason for this extended
holiday (or "golden week" as its called) is not to celebrate the hard
work and dedication of the workers. Rather, the government instituted
the week-long holiday in an attempt to get people to spend money. 
"Hey, I know, let's give them 7 days to shop and travel and spend
money—get all those billions of yuan out from under the mattresses
and into the economy."  The great international communist holiday has
morphed into one grand frenzy of unabashed consumerism.  LONG LIVE THE
WORKERS.  WHAT'S ON SALE AT IKEA?

But this being China, nothing is as it seems, and everything is more
complex than it appears at first glance.  Ok, so beginning Monday, we
have 7 days off.  BUT….today and tomorrow (Saturday and Sunday) are
work days.  Come again?  That's right.  Everybody here put in a full
work week Monday to Friday, and have now had to work this weekend as
well.  The way it plays out is that this Saturday and Sunday are really
next Thursday and Friday.  Are you in school? Whatever classes are
scheduled for next Thursday and Friday are being held today and
tomorrow.  Today is next Thursday and tomorrow is next Friday!

It's true that beginning on Monday, everyone will have 7 days away
from work.  But, they've just come off of 7 days straight at work.  In
other words, in a 14 day period, everyone will have worked for a total
of 7 days.  In a normal 14 day period, everyone would have worked for
10 days.  Which means that they're only really getting three days off. 

Hey wait.  Wasn't that what it was to start with?  Me thinks that a billion people are being hoodwinked here!

The Great Moon-cake Exchange

It's Moon Festival today in China.  Below is an essay I wrote
about it a couple of years back.  Time for it's annual re-publication.

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In
colloquial terms, it's called the Moon Festival, because it's
celebration coincides with the full moon.  Much like Thanksgiving in
American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather
with their family members.  If that isn't possible, then people gather
with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and
think of their distant family members who are also gazing at the same
moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems
about the moon, so there's always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of moon-cakes.  It's
hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped
fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling.
Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being
a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

Making and eating and giving moon-cakes has always been part of the
celebration here, but as China's level of prosperity has increased in
the past number of years, like many other things here, mooncakes have
sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceding Moon Festival, all
the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully
gift-wrapped mooncakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8
mooncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The
more expensive the mooncakes you give, the more face both the giver and
receiver get. 

Moon-cakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients
send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Moon-cakes are exchanged among
colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers.
Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It's one giant
moon-cake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we
join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for
dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of moon-cakes.
I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it's not polite
to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for
them to leave, I gave them a box of moon-cakes.  We all  laughed at the
fact that we were just exchanging boxes of moon-cakes.  I always enjoy
my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own
society.  He joked that at the end of the day, moon-cakes don't really
get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where
they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than
welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give
away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).

Like many other things in a society like this that places a high
value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the
moon-cake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving
the moon-cake is performed. 

Moon-cakes, anyone?

And for your reading assignment, here is an article about the festival in a local newspaper:

Mooncakes Acquire a Networking Flavor
:    "Moon-cakes,
a traditional delicacy gifted to families and friends
during the Mid-Autumn Festival, have become an important ingredient in
maintaining business and work relations.  With the festival falling
tomorrow, the reception areas of almost every office building are
overflowing with boxes of moon-cakes.  The traditional festival has
become a Chinese Christmas of sorts, topping other occasions for giving
or receiving gifts."