Out of the Well: A Frogs-Eye-View of China and the World

Random Jottings on China, History, Culture, and Life as seen by an American student in Beijing.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Shower; or How a Daily Ritual Became a Daily Horror

My apartment is fantastic. It is modern, spacious and populated with extremely pleasant people. My rent is more affordable than that of my fellow Laowai, and I get a huge bedroom with a sunroom all to myself.

There is of course a catch. Our shower seems to be possessed by a daemon. For weeks it will work much like any shower. Nothing amiss, hot water, cold water, a full range of warms, cools, and in between. Then, one day, for no reason what so ever, it turns on you. The hot water will come out as a tiny trickle if at all, or worse, the water pressure will be fine, but there will be no heat.

There are two ways of dealing with this problem. 1)Work for ten minutes before the shower to perfect the perfect amount hot water running in the sink. It must be on enough that it will keep the water heater running, but not so much that it will use up all of the pressure. 2) Shower less. I have been working on both of these fronts, but the basic result is that I have gone crazy.

Today, after weeks of a trickle, the pressure came back and for seven delicious minutes I had a perfect shower. When it went cold after that I did not care a bit. The only reason I can think for this blessing is that I am leaving in the morning for a week in the south. I am sure the moment I return it will be back to the good old shower purgatory.

See you in a week.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Sportsman; or the secret history of a Beijing bicycle

Its origins were obscure. The Sportsman came into my life when american-roommate-Jed went looking for a theftproof bike. Two very expensive bikes had come into and out of his possession in the previous two weeks and he had decided that he needed a bike no one wanted. The bike dealer had offered him a variety of very nice used bikes but Jed was adamant. He only wanted the absolute worst bike in stock. The man thought for a moment and went around back. After a few moments he returned with a medium sized "woman's style" bike. Black with touches of read that looked like they were hastily added with spraypaint.

The shopkeeper pointed at the downtube sticker which read Sportsman USA, "its made in America", he promised. "10dollars*." In the end Jed got it for seven on the condition that the man remove the broken basket on the front.

The sportsman passed into my possession when Jed left Beijing to return to the sunny beaches of Florida. I put some money into it, replacing the pedals and the seat. For about one dollar I had the breaks repaired the day I slid into traffic on my way to school. In the end it still looked like a piece of crap, but it rode pretty well and I have taken it many places the last few months, exploring little corners of Haidian District.

I last saw it last night when I came home from dinner with some friends. I locked it up just like any night, but this morning it was gone. No one in this city really "owns" a bike. Bikes get stolen everyday and as a result they are cheap. I don't know anyone who has ever sold a bike, but the shops are full of second hand models.

The Sportsman had a secret history. I am sure it had many owners before me, and I bet it will have many after whoever gets in next. I hope they enjoy it.

*all monetary units converted for the readers convenience.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Big Test, Big Plans, Big Pain-in-the-Butt

I woke up at seven this morning to the sound of my alarm clock buzzing inches from my head. Strange, this seemed strange as I thought it was still the weekend. As it turns out I was right, but I had signed away my Sunday morning to the HSK. The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi is a Chinese proficiency test comparable to the TOEFL tests in the states. I have no real reason to take it, and no hope of testing as proficient, but as my program was paying for it, it would seem rude to turn it down.

The test was held next door at Beijing Yuyan Wenhua Daxue, the Beijing Language and Culture University. BLCU is notable for being a majority frowner school. And even more notable for being mostly Korean. On the way to the test I swung by a campus shop to pick up a juice box and I saw for the first time in months boxes of Coco Crispies and Frosted flakes, if this was not surprising enough the boxes were in Korean!

The test was two and a half hours of educated guessing, and was comparable to the practice test that put me squarely in the intermediate category. If I did really well I might have gotten a 5(of 9), which is one less than necessary to attend a Chinese University in Chinese (unless you major in science, in which case you need a 3).

After the test I had an enjoyable meal, and a walk through a clothing market that seems to have sprung up from nowhere in a parking lot in Wudaokou. (fellow-ex-reedie-friend-Jen claims it has been there all along, but I have my doubts.)

The rest of my day was spent planning trips, first the one I will take with my family in June, and second the one I will be departing for this Thursday. Hmm... in retrospect this seems backwards.

originally I was going to spend the International Labor Day holiday in the ex-people republic of Mongolia, but time, logistics, and lethargy made that plan seem a little two much. Instead I will be heading to one of my favorite places in the world. Putuo Shan, and island off the coast of Shanghai. Hours were spent today with my travel companions trying purchase tickets online (ultimately successful), figuring out boat tickets on Chinese web pages (still having trouble), and worrying about money (ongoing). All and all though it should be a good trip. I promise to take many pictures.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I go walking, after midnight; or a new look at an old place

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Originally uploaded by ebenlindsey.
Last night, while wondering the Tsinghua campus playing with my camera, I had the opportunity to see a different side of a neighborhood I consider myself quite familiar with. That is, the neighborhood between my apartment building and the Erxiao Men (pictured in the previous post, this is the old school gate and still lies on the equator of the campus, separating the "residential" southern half from the academic and dormitory buildings of the northern half. I guess it should be explained that students live near the class rooms, while the southern half of the campus is inhabited by professors, workers, shop owners, retirees and the like. But I digress.) While my neighborhood is made up of cookie cutter five and six story apartment blocks laid out in regular rows, this neighborhood is dominated by one story brown brick courtyard houses separated by narrow alleyways and small streets. The inhabitants of these residences have set up a variety of businesses, from dry-cleaners, and seamstresses, to print shops that advertise good rates for photocopies and digital photo printing. In general any service neglected by nearby supermarket and post office provides a cottage industry for the neighborhood.

While my elderly neighbors have all turned in by eight at night, these was a surprising variety of activity going on in this area after midnight. I noted, as I passed the windows on a small street, seamstresses finishing up dresses at their sowing machines, I saw a man in his mid thirties smoking and working on a computer in the print shop, and I even saw a woman asleep, sitting up in a small lit booth from which she sold egg pancakes during the day.

At the end of the street I found a Kodak shop (pictured) that I wanted to photograph. As I was struggling to level my tripod I noted that this part of the street was particularly active with people walking by every few minutes. It was not until I saw a gentleman a little older than myself tromp by in polka-dot pajamas that I realized the building next to the shop was the neighborhood bathroom.

After standing there for about twenty minutes a young lady who had been watching me from the bathroom entrance (I must have looked odd) came over and after greeting me in English, proceeded to question me in Chinese. I am quite proud of myself that we were able to carry on pretty well. When she used an unfamiliar word, she was able to supply the English equivalent, "hobby", which to my mind recommends a pretty high level of education, although perhaps informal.

It seems that she lived in the neighbor, which she exclaimed dated back to before the schools founding, and were some of the original building used as residents for teachers and administrators. It was not until after she left that it occurred to me how remarkable she was, or at least that she represented a somewhat remarkable phenomena. By American standards, or even Beijing standards, living in a coal heated brick house without a private bathroom would suggest poverty. But here was a neighborhood, that although outwardly shoddy, was positioned in the middle of one of the greatest institutions of learning in the country, and populated by hardworking and reasonably educated people.

I walk through this neighborhood several times a week. I have never given it much of a thought, except maybe once or twice when I was buying an egg pancake. It's nice to live in a place that confounds and confuses you.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Change in Plan

2006-4 night pictures 011
Originally uploaded by ebenlindsey.
Once upon a time I was a karaoke (here we say Ka La OK) King. I was averaging three weekends a month spent in the enjoyment of, and recovery from singing my heart out until four in the morning. In these more sedate times, I must admit that I have not stepped foot in a Karaoke bar since early February. So the plan tonight was to rekindle our love of packing into a tiny room with two mikes, a TV, and a loud PA system.

After a tasty dinner at the Yunan Restaurant on Chengfu Road, another neglected former love, we took a stroll down qinghua nan road to the fantastically named "Rambling through Time". We arrived to find that not only had it changed its name, but it was booked up by a private party for the evening.

So instead I took a stroll around the campus and gave my new MINI-tripod, recently purchased at the photography market, a test run. The results tend to lean a bit to the left, but I like them. Check them out on my flickr page.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sandstorms, Brainstorms, and Months of Silence; or Drinking from the firehose of Knowledge

Well it has been a looooong time since I have written in this blog. For that I am truly sorry. I worry that perhaps there is no one left to read it. Oh well, better not to dwell on the subject.

So what have I been up to all this time? A reasonable question, and I am glad you asked. I have been drinking from the fire hose of knowledge. My classes here at the IUP Center for Chinese language studies at Tsing-hua U. have been keeping me quite busy. While I still sound like a six year old who has been spending to much time with an Econ text book, I have found that, little by little, I am becoming marginally literate in this ridiculous language. Now what does that mean, really? It means that If I was given a bit of academic text on a subject that I was not completely ignorant in, as well as the use of a good dictionary, I can figure out the point at the rate of about 2-3 pages an hour. This may not sound like much to you slackers who have studied French or Spanish, but to me this is like walking the Appalachian trail.

The weather these intervening months have been uniformly awful. Cold, polluted, dry and windy. The last two months things have gotten really nice, with interrupting weeks of cold or sand. "Sand?" you ask. It seems that, due to deforestation in north china, anyone downwind from inner Mongolia is periodically blasted with the all of the loose soil that used to be held down by trees. The good news is that these sandstorms are far less frequent then they were ten years ago, as the government has been planting trees as fast as possible.

Today however is fantastic, sunny, not a cloud in the sky, 70 degrees, ahh. The trees all have leaves again, meaning that my world of yellow and gray has been infused with green. Now that I have been re-invigorated by the weather, I will endeavor to write in this blog more.

If you want to see pictures of what I have been up to the last few months check them out at my flickr page.