Thursday, August 23, 2012

23 August 2012 – Journal Log

Scooter's JournalTravel Log
Earth Date 23 August 2012

Special Note about "China" the name: As some of you who know me know, I have never been a fan of the idea that we, meaning USAers or less specifically Westerners, invent our own names that we can pronounce and spell well in our native tongues for other countries. I do not see why we cannot, at the very least, use our own letters to produce a name that fits with the pronunciation of the countries used by the citizens of that country. We do not need to call it Germany, we could all say and pronounce Bundesrepublik Deutschland, couldn't we? So, for the purposes of this journal, when I refer to the country of China, I am going to call it 中國 / Zhōngguó. The latter part (after the slash) is what is called the Pin Yin spelling of the characters,中國 – if your computer does not display these characters, that is unfortunate because they are cool. The first character (Zhōng) which looks like a box with a line drawn through it literally means 'middle' or 'center'. The second character (guó), which looks like a box with a lot of things going on inside of it, means 'kingdom' but is used these days to mean 'country'. So, Zhōngguó literally means 'middle kingdom' or 'central kingdom'. It is so named because, at the time of its naming, the people believed their world was the center of all the universe – not such a crazy notion as this was invariably the belief held by most people at the time that their place was the center of all existence. I am not going to call it China anymore. And just as an aside to those of you who are really into the real, real, real names of things, China is called the People's Republic of China, officially, which would be 中华人民共和国 in Chinese. I hope you will forgive my abbreviation to the traditional 中國 / Zhōngguó, which is also used all the time and more frequently throughout the country.

While, I would also like refer to the language spoken as the Mandarin dialect of 中文 / Zhōngwen, not Chinese, and the Chinese people as 中國人 / Zhōngguó ren, I feel that might be too much at this point. I will take the one step to embrace a cultural shift in thinking.

Now, of course, I would be misleading if I were to give the impression that westerners are the only ones who have a history of corrupting the local names and imposing their own. The Chinese people have created their own names for all of the countries too. For example, the United States of America is called 美國 / Měiguó (the first character meaning 'beautiful' and the second 'country' – and before you get to excited it is due not because America is beautiful, but because Měiguó sounds a little like A-meri-ca). Doesn't it? So, you can see from this inverse example, why I again feel it would be great and cool if we could actually just learn the actual names of the countries and spell them in their own languages. This truly would be a better exercise in helping us all to understand each other just a little bit better rather than employing a system whereby we each have to learn what and why we call each other whatever it was that was chosen to be what we call each other.


For starters, no, I am not already having so much fun that I skipped a day in my journal. I am having so much fun, but the missing day is attributed to crossing the international dateline as one does when flying from the USA to 中國 / Zhōngguó. That being said, the morning began bright and early to the dulcet tones of my cell phone count down timer I had set the night before to awaken me at approximately 5:00 am. My intention was to spend one hour on my journal and one half hour getting ready to depart, leaving one half hour to locate and gain entrance to the sky high apartment of the principal of the International Department wherein the new teachers and returning teachers who had volunteered to be guides had been promised to be fed a rare, traditional, American breakfast of omelets and French Toast. I arose and worked on my journal probably a bit longer than planned given I had no idea how to make the shower work. I gathered my toiletries and my clothes and rushed into the bathroom. There is much about the bathroom to address in another post. For now, suffice it to say that there was no shower curtain and nothing to enclose the water and prevent it from running everywhere. It did not even seem like there was a slope to get the water to run toward the in floor drain. Never mind, I just turned on the water, got it nice and warm, and planned to reign the water back in later. I then finished the process of getting dressed and ready. I grabbed everything not knowing what I would need and exited the apartment turning the key in the lock to engage the four double-long bolts. I took the elevator to the first floor, and exited into the courtyard in front of my building.

The apartment complex is made of 16 buildings with a 17th and an entire new shopping mall under construction. Apparently, the entire complex is fewer than three years old. Each building consists of three or more towers of varying heights from 10 to 25 stories. In and between each building are paths and gardens and fountains and trees galore. No cars! Bikes and scooters are ok. It is beautiful and modern. I found Todd's building and some other teachers walking toward it. We had Todd buzz us in and rode the elevator to his high floor. His apartment is very nice, pretty much like the rest of ours only maybe a bit bigger, higher up, and well-stocked with furniture and glass shower stall etc. The sounds of eggs and bacon frying emanated from the kitchen. Several people were already present. Orders were taken and prepared in succession. The eggs and French toast were amazing. No syrup, but honey was just as good. It was so great of Todd to do this for us. I washed all the dishes as a gesture of thanks inducing some teachers whom had not been on my shuttle bus to think I was either a veteran returning teacher or the servant.

After breakfast, our entire group departed for the bank led by Todd and three returning teachers: Santosh (Physics), Cameron (Calculus), and Jarrod (Pre-calculus). We were to meet Jasmine at the bank. Little did we know that the branch of the bank used by our school closest to the school cannot set up accounts for international persons. So, we needed to walk approximately four or five more Beijing blocks to a branch that could. Beijing blocks, by the way are like Las Vegas blocks. In other words, they are long, long, long. Literally, they are at least a half of a mile.

Once there, we all got numbers and waited for our turns. This put a crimp in the original plan which was to have the guides take on a grocery store tour and a subway/bus smart card acquisition trip while waiting for our numbers to be called. So, we all just waited at the bank. We were all processed and done in and around an hour and fifteen minutes. We walked out with a debit card loaded with a minimum of 50 CN 元 / yuan and a six-digit pin.


Special Note about the Money: The money in 中國 / Zhōngguó is officially called 人民幣 / rénmínbì which quite literally means "the people's money" yet it is also called the 元 / yuan or kwai (sort of like how USAers call dollars, bucks). I will refer to money in this journal as CN 元.

Special Note about the PIN: In China, PINs are 6 digits. That gives us two more digits of security and makes it harder to crack your PIN. USAers might want to think about it. Six digits is not that much more to remember.


This will be our card to our account. "Don't lose it," we were told. This is probably a good time to mention that here in 中國 / Zhōngguó, everything official is about the red ink stamp. Sometimes it's the stamp of the name chop of the person, but usually it's about something else official, like a red star or a date and star, or some other information. Without a red stamp or two, no document in a bank is official. So, when you are involved in an official process, expect there to be what might appear to be an angry flurry of stamping at each step of the way, when really, this is just a part of the process.

By this time, just about everyone was getting pretty hungry, so we walked down for our grocery store tour to look at all the cool and exciting new food but not get to eat any. This is a tactic developed to make people really appreciate their first meal when it actually comes. The nearest grocery store to our school and apartment complex is huge and stocked with just about everything you can imagine (more on that in a later post). I bought a box of cereal, of course. Then we met up with Todd and our entire group for lunch at a really nice neighborhood Chinese restaurant where groups eat in exclusive rooms with giant circular tables and huge lazy susans in the middle. Before we knew it, dish after dish was being placed on the middle for sharing. Soon we were filling our mouthes with delicious foods of every category of the Chinese menu. There were things that were straight out of the American version and some excellent new dishes. The good and bad standouts were a stunning and delicious, crispy fried, glazed shrimp served in a blue blow floating in a clear bowl filled with water and dry ice as if to add to the mystery and a aromatic tofu served in a mini, wooden sandbox (smelled, unfortunately to the uninitiated, like used hockey gloves and tasted like wallpaper paste). Dessert was in the form of sweet potato filled pastries. The lunch, all in all, was magnificent. We left the restaurant and our welcome luncheon to go to the Subway stop at the corner and get our subway/bus smart card. The bus costs .4 CN 元 (6-cents US) each trip and the subway deducts according to where you get on and off but is said to be around 1 CN 元 per segment. In other words, Chicago, New York City, and Denver, there is no reason to be charged $2, $2.50, or even $8 to ride your rails and buses! In the epitome of the good conscience of the Chinese system, we put 50 CN 元 on the card for which we received a smart card for the system and five different slips of stamped paper as receipts including two each for 20 RMB and one for 10 CN 元 adding up to the 50 CN 元.

Then we all took the 308 bus, one of our main west/east bus lines, to the police station where we registered as legal aliens. This is required within 24-hours of arriving in Beijing for people on work visas. We arrived, however, to find the police station on lunch break and waited until two o'clock to get in. I thought of it as one of those planned stops in the "Amazing Race" that allows everyone to catch up. The process was smooth and easy and full of stamping documents. They took our photos and information. They did not, however, give us anything to prove we did this. I hoped that was ok.

Santosh took those of us wanting to go to Walmart to Walmart on the 308 bus, same bus just opposite direction from campus, afterward. Everyone else went home for a nap. I will have to write up an entire Walmart post later as it was an experience in and of itself. There was just too much to see and do and describe on a day that was already so full and about to get more so.

After returning home, I got in about an hour nap before I awoke suddenly remembering the trip to Wanda Plaza Mall at seven. I grabbed shoes, key, and smart card to the complex and smart card for the bus and ran out. I was lucky and not the last person to arrive at the rendezvous point. Todd was leading this trip. We took the 308 bus that goes to Walmart but in the opposite direction – same direction as the police station but a couple more stops west. We rode it for about ten minutes or so, and got off and walked a block to the giant indoor mall. This place was absolutely enormous. Four levels throughout. It will definitely take its own post later as well. For now, I recalled it had a KFC and a Pizza Hut, a giant IMAX movie theater, an Apple Store, tons of other restaurants, and zillions of shops. In the basement, it had a giant Carrefour store which is similar to USA Walmart Super Center except that unlike Walmarts here it carries a lot more USA-similar products. For example, I am told I can get microwave popcorn but I didn't look! I bought a shower curtain and a lot of people bought hangers. Apparently they do not feel the eight the school gave us will be sufficient! The group voted to not eat at KFC or Pizza Hut and instead eat at Sobikawa – a Japanese, fast food bowl restaurant over my objections. "We had Chinese food for lunch," I said. We were short of time, and everyone else was still seeking the authentic Chinese experience as if Pizza Hut in Beijing isn't authentic. I ordered the teriyaki chicken bowl which I guess is really Japanese. One person who shall remain nameless, ordered something she could not then eat, and I couldn't blame her. Todd volunteered to swap with her reminding me what an excellent gentleman he is. I would probably have agreed to swap too, but her meal was clearly pork. I have decided that I will not knowingly eat pork here in 中國 / Zhōngguó. If I eat it unknowingly, so be it, but not knowingly. Same goes for other exotic animals. Of course, usually, these are considered delicacies wasted on Westerners, so I don't think I need to worry.

We left the mall and took the bus back halfway to our apartment complex. Todd treated those of us who went to a one-hour Chinese foot massage at his favorite massage center. I was not sure if my feet wanted such a thing after seeing what happened to the people on the "Amazing Race" when they had a Chinese foot massage as a roadblock a few seasons ago. But, I figured, I would try it once and pray it wasn't as painful. My feet were mostly numb anyway from the whirlwind day. We were seated in a room for four in giant, reclining lounge chairs. Todd and another teacher also ordered a back massage.

The foot massage began with a soaking of the feet in boiling hot water. I had to have them add a lot of cold before I could even put my feet into the bucket. Then they gave us a short back and neck massage while our feet soaked and served us a delicious green tea to drink. Then they gently scrubbed and washed our feet. I would have ordinarily loved this had my feet not been so sore and tired and had the lady been just a bit more gentle. Still, it was my favorite part. After this came all sorts of various feet tortures designed to bring health to the skin and blood flow to the feet. Todd taught us the Mandarin word for pain, which he said is pronounced like the English word "tongue". I checked this out later and think I found that 痛 (tòng) might better be pronounced more like the 'o' is an 'oe' in the word 'toe' and technically means more of a pain as that from losing a loved one or heart ache, whereas I think 疼痛 téngtòng means a pain, ache, or soreness in the body. Of course, my Chinese is not really good enough to be certain on this point. Any one else care to weigh in?

Anyway, using the word got my masseur to calm it down. And, anyway, once she did, either due to jet lag, an exhausting day, or both, I apparently feel asleep for some time and was snoring away. I awoke to a loud popping sound and a flash of fire by the feet of the people next to me. I was forth in order and therefore about a step behind everyone else. "Was I next for the popping and the fire?" I hoped not. The popping was being creating by inserting a flaming stick into a small glass orb. The orb was then placed on the bottom of the foot. As the warm air in the glass cooled, the pressure inside was reduced. This caused a rapid increase in the blood flow to the area of the skin under the glass. Then when the orb was removed, it made a popping sound as the pressures inside and our equalized. I was only able to stand this once on the bottom of each foot before asking for no more. Fortunately, that was the end of the massage, and I was allowed then to rest and drink tea while Todd and another teacher received very unique full body back massages that bore some resemblance to acts I witnessed at the Shanghai acrobatic show years ago. I was certainly glad, I had opted out of the back massage portion of the event. The massage I got cost 44 CN 元 or just under $7 US – totally worth it, and I will certainly return but this time I will know how to ask for a very gentle type of foot massage! I was so grateful, mostly, to Todd for spending so much time with the new teachers and then treating us to the foot massage. It was a generous gift and welcome introduction to this part of Chinese culture and well-being.

We took the 308 bus back to the apartment complex where I and Lena (English) went to shop for fruit for a late night snack in preparation for our midnight to 9 am fast. We were told earlier in the day we would not be able to eat or drink between midnight and the scheduled time of our government-mandated, alien-resident physicals the next day. I did not end up buying any fruit. I was not the least bit hungry. Lena ended up buying a lot of fruit including a giant watermelon the size of a basketball and weighing over 8 pounds. I carried the watermelon to her apartment for her. She lives a few buildings away. This might be a good time to mention that the new teachers are spread all over this sprawling complex rather than being grouped together. This has many plusses and minuses.

After that, I returned to the futon in my apartment for a good night's rest. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, I had a dream that something was biting me on the ankle. It woke me up because it was so real. When I examined my ankle, sure enough something did bite me. I think it was probably a spider, but I have been unable to find a single trace of it. The bite was painful and caused an immediate swelling. I put triple antibiotic ointment on it and went back to sleep praying it was not some kind of known killer spider like the brown recluse or the black widow of Beijing.

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