Monday, August 30, 2010

The Second Week - Meeting the Old Hands

This week was full of meetings and more trips to places and a party or two. We learned that Carrefour, like Wal-Mart, is best visited at odd hours, such as right when it opens at 7:30 a.m. During one such visit, we met Kathy and Bill, SCIS parents who also happen to work for a US governmental agency, which means that our years here in China will count for our state retirement in AZ, and that's very good news. They have three kids at the school and I will have the youngest in my class, plus she wants to play the violin, so we made the parents a little happier. We also visited a music store (Best Friends), where I fell in love with the gu-cheng, a Chinese traditional harp that rests horizontally on a stand and has 21 pentatonic strings (that's the five note scale that many early American hymn tunes used). The instruments were beautifully carved and inlaid with mother of pearl and surprisingly not very expensive, maybe $300 at the most. We also had duck with noodles for dinner, which was more gristle and bone than meat, but tasty just the same, and we were pleased with our new mattress pad and sheets, so I guess that Ikea trip was worth it, sort of.

We had a terrible start to our Sunday with the news that our second toilet was stopped up, and we were still suffering a bit from, shall we say, digestive readjustment. We ran to school for Skype meetings with family, then to Carrefour (third trip in 24 hours) for plumbing supplies, then off to church, where we got a couple of miracles handed to us. First, the pastor preached on how hard it can be to maintain a marriage in a city where things go wrong (okay, who told him about our toilet?), then we happened to sit in the same pew as the Gifford family, recently of England but now reassigned to China by Mr. Gifford's employer, National Public Radio. Some of you faithful readers might be saying to yourselves, "Hey, didn't she quote a passage by somebody named Rob Gifford a few months ago?" Why yes, dear reader, and here was the very same Rob Gifford sitting down the pew. I confess that I had a short fit, recovered, and introduced the family to Joe, who was equally amazed. I also confessed to Mr. Gifford about using his book in my blog, but he generously agreed not to sue me. (He didn't mention his publisher, however.)

The returning staff is a fun loving and helpful bunch, and I have a true leader in Helen Bendell-Hughes, the other music teacher. She is completely unconcerned about my lack of experience in general music and brims over with great ideas for everything. We also managed to get the VPN downloaded to our school computers, facilitating my triumphant return not only to this blog, but also to FACEBOOK! We were welcomed back with many digital cheers. Our ayi, Luo Yan, is the best housekeeper ever and I think we're just sorry we didn't ask her to cook. I read a different definition of ayi as "caretaker" which is a much better description for this lovely woman. By the end of the week, all our plumbing in both bathrooms was back to normal, we had keys to our rooms, and we felt sort of ready to start with the children on Monday. We ended our second week with a school sponsored bash at a downtown club on the 65th floor of a swanky hotel. Joe was the social butterfly while I sat and reviewed the partygoers with my friend Cheryl.

Our last hepatitis shot was quite an adventure. Normally, this is a 30 minute process if the county nurse wants to chat for a bit, but of course, everything has a new path in China. We made the appointment on Monday afternoon to return on Friday morning and got it approved by our new health care provider (really excellent benefits, but not in the US or Canada). When we arrived for our appointment, the process became an intake interview with our new doctor, Dr. Hussain from India, who speaks no Mandarin despite living in the country for four years. His conversations with the staff are decidedly brief. He approved our final shots, then Nurse Tina took us downstairs, where she accompanied us in the security guard's car for a trip to the Japanese clinic where the shots are actually administered. We had to wait at the clinic for 30 minutes to check our reactions, then back in a taxi to the hospital, where we had to meet with Dr. Hussain again to be sure everything was done correctly. By the time we were done, more than two hours had passed, but I guess it's nice to have your hands held in a country where you are functionally illiterate.

Next post, the real adventure of China: riding in taxis!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The First Week: Meeting the Other Newbies

When we last left our heroic traveling couple, they had just been dropped off at their new apartment in Shanghai...
Carnival Garden 4-201 is our new home, and it is far more beautiful than we could have imagined. Three large bedrooms, two bathrooms, large main living/dining room, laundry room and kitchen, and more storage than we needed even if we had brought everything from home. The floors are either terrazo tile or varnished wood, and the A/C works beautifully (which we might regret when we get our first electric bill). Our abundant luggage was waiting when we pulled up, and the bus driver and a few doormen got it up to our apartment, where we were met with the lauded fruit basket, one key, and yes, the famous stacks of money. We had to count it before we signed for it. We have two beds, one "king" (which might be larger than our king at home) and a "twin" (which is definitely a double), and the only drawback is that a Chinese mattress consists of springs covered by probably a 3/4 inch piece of solid wood, encased in material about the thickness of corduroy. It is, as promised, harder than anything we could have imagined, and we are eyeing the overstuffed leather couches as a potential alternative. Jet lag did hit hard the first day, so we took a long nap at noon, then got up, put things away and took a walk around the neighborhood.
Having no phone or internet service for the apartment, we headed over to school as soon as we could the next morning (which was quite early, as the time adjustment also meant we woke up around 4:00 a.m.), and Skyped with Joe's parents, then Rhonda and my mom. We had a little tour of the local shops, including the French sponsored Carrefour, which is much like a Super Wal-Mart, except with very little English and a cat in the vegetable/fruit section. We also put some faces to email names and started working on setting up utilities and finding someone to fix a stopped toilet (the school sent over a maintenance worker right away). The weekend found us again at Carrefour, where we met some of our new colleagues and had a nice dinner at a little diner. We had an initial unintentional subway ride on Saturday evening, when the security guard ordered some tickets for us and sent us on our completely unguided way. We managed to make it home again, and had a better experience on Sunday afternoon when we took off to find the Shanghai Community Fellowship, a great non-denom evangelical church with excellent A/C (that is becoming very important to me) and an even better preacher. The sermon was from Psalm 121 and was about how God guides us through the most confusing of circumstances if we will only trust Him, a much needed word in a long weekend.
The first week was a series of meetings and tours to different places: a hospital, a shopping mall, Ikea, the health inspection (not too bad). We met the Gribbles from Seattle, Amanda from Tucson, the Watts from Australia, and just about everyone else. The school fed us both breakfast and lunch (although after the first day, breakfast was just muffins and fruit), and we had one nice dinner at Big Bamboo, an American-style restaurant in a food street (Hong Mei Lu). We managed to get our bottled water service started (through Nestle, but not much English), had more toilet issues, and everyone started getting sick. Montezuma visited most of us, just cramps and such in our house, but some were running rather high fevers. I was the sickest on our Ikea day, and have vowed never to go back unless I must. We do need a few more things, but I'm going to try to get them online and delivered from the local store! We also met our ayi, a lovely tiny woman named Luo Yan, who will start next week if we can get an extra key and door card.
By the end of the week, we still didn't have internet or phone at home, but we had our school laptops and could run back and forth for email and Skype purposes. We also got a few electronics matters handled (good old Carrefour doesn't do clock radios) in the special electronics mall, which is conveniently close to the Shanghai Best Buy for anything else. My email buddy Steve Venema, who is unbelievably tall, led that expedition, and it seems that whatever you need, Steve knows a guy. Very handy.
We got a crash course in Mandarin and received a four page "cheat sheet," with lots of phrases in Chinese characters and pinyin, the English equivalent. Our tutor, Shirley Huang, teaches Mandarin at the school and is fixing us up with her university son, who needs to polish his English, for some language exchange. The cheat sheet is an amazing entree into the Chinese world; as soon as we bring it out, smiles break out everywhere and we are quizzed (and corrected) on every page of the guide, followed by instruction in more words and phrases as our Chinese friends deem useful. Our Mandarin, while still quite pitiable, is increasing every day, and we practice, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, like when we went to the apartment management office to get an extra door card for Luo Yan. It is frustrating to be so hogtied by a lack of language skills, and we are certainly experiencing lots of adjustment, but the city is exciting and we are seeing so many new people and places that we have hardly had time to be homesick.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Flying and Landing

We've been in Shanghai now just over two weeks, and I have more to post than I ever imagined, so I'll try to break it down into manageable chunks, which is not my strong suit, so good luck, dear reader (always loved that phrase).
The flights were both great. Southwest got our bags checked with a minimum of fuss; it seemed when we were okay with paying for the extra two bags, nobody really cared how much they weighed. I did have a little moment during boarding because my carryon was too stuffed to fit in the overhead, so the flight attendants had to check it from the plane. I didn't figure I would need very much in a one hour flight, so that was fine with me.
LAX was an easier gig than I had expected. To begin, it was total fog when we landed around 7:00 p.m., so that made for a nice walk from one terminal to the other. We had our ten bags loaded onto two SmartCartes (a very well named device) and were hustling up on the elevator in the terminal where we landed to find our Korean Air gate. Silly first time travelers! Fortunately, we made some small talk with a maintenance worker in the elevator, and when he realized what we wanted, he got us directed back downstairs and out to the sidewalk, where we found an LAX volunteer who pointed us to the international terminal. There was no way we were going to unload all those bags into any type of motorized transportation, so we just started pushing, and after about 15 or 20 minutes, we got to the right place.
Korean Air is a complete delight. First, the baggage check was very simple (once we found the right desk) and the desk clerk politely told us that we could put more weight in the checked bags if needed (something about our pounds to kilos conversion). Hallelujah! We moved a ton (or at least twenty pounds) from our carryons to the big red duffles, and wheeled our lighter selves away. We had some Mexican food, more or less, and headed to the gate. LAX does not appear to offer wifi, free or otherwise, and the boarding process was less than orderly, mainly because our gate had absolutely no seating, so people milled about like sheep. We sat on the ground near a plug to juice up the laptop and wouldn't budge even when a gate agent was trying to set up some boarding lines. I told him if he wanted me to move, he would have to find me a new outlet (it was nearing midnight and I was getting pretty tired), so he backed down from the Ugly American.
Did a lot of sleeping on the big flight, and that is definitely a good preventer of jet lag. Our seatmate was a very quiet young Asian woman, and we really didn't talk to her until we had landed in Seoul. The Seoul airport was a bit hot (oh ha, I didn't know what was coming), but we managed to settle in and Joe napped while I gratefully surfed the web and did my last Facebook posting and chatting. The connecting flight was more organized in the boarding and we got a little bit of immigration paperwork done, as well as a pretty good nap. The Shanghai airport seemed completely deserted to us, and we almost didn't find our way off the jetway. After the wonderful service by the Korean Air staff, the Chinese airport workers seemed a bit distant, but I'm guessing it was more of a language barrier. The immigration line was swift and easy; not only did I not get hauled immediately to prison, I'm not even sure the clerk looked at me. I tried my best "ni hao" and "xie xie," maybe even "zai jian" to no effect. Baggage claim was also simple and everything made it, much to our delight. We cruised through customs with nothing to declare (our musical instruments probably exceeded the dollar limit, but we don't have valuations and weren't going to make extra trouble), and no inspection of our bags.
The pickup by the school was just like a movie, with our names and the school name on a butcher paper sign, and I'm sorry I didn't ask for the sign then, because it has since disappeared. Our Head of Schools, Mike Donaldson, was there to greet us and he knew us right away, probably due to the ten bags. He loaded our luggage into a school "bus" (which is really a 15 passenger van), loaded us into his very nice car, and off we went to our new apartment and life.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Longest Week

Well, yes, I'm a bit overdue on my blog post, but I'm not really talking about temporal matters here. I can't even remember back to when I last posted; the last few days have been so full and busy that I thought they might never end. However, now I'm sitting in Sky Harbor ("the friendliest airport in the country"), our SIX bags are checked (more in a moment), and we're waiting for our flight to LA, where we will connect with our flight to Shanghai. This is it!

On the house front, the renters decided to stick with the original three-bedroom plan (oh thank heaven!), so we stuffed the entire studio with our personal belongings, at least those that didn't end up in luggage or the Salvation Army, where the staff now recognizes us by sight. We found a second twin bed on Craigslist and outfitted everything with new quilts. Dan tracked us down at our last La Fonda Friday night dinner and got the keys, so the house is no longer our own. The rental idea had one unexpected consequence learned in our Tuesday meeting with Gerry the CPA; if we rent our home, we are not allowed to spend more than 14 days per year in the house. The more alarming statistic was about exclusion of our Chinese income, however. If we don't want to pay US taxes, we have to be out of the country for 330 days, which means we can't come home until July 7th. That was a pretty big shock, considering that our teaching year ends on June 17th, but we did take some comfort when we realized that Canada is NOT part of the US, so we can at least come back to the North American continent. We're working on a big family trip so everyone can see us sooner (my brother-in-law wanted to know if the dogs should come as well). It makes me feel slightly like some kind of weird draft dodger.

The luggage was packed, re-packed, and packed once more, and we were still overweight on all four checked bags, so Joe called both airlines (Southwest and Korean Air) and found out that we'd be better off paying for two extra bags. Jill and Rhonda were conscripted into baggage transport, having made the mistake of offering to drive us to the airport. The Southwest guy could not have been nicer, although I think he was a little surprised at so many bags for just two people. Family farewells were hard, but Joe's family was kind enough to gather together for one final Skype, and we managed to break up most of the goodbyes to my family over the last two days. My mom had knee replacement surgery yesterday at the same hospital where my father had his open heart surgery, and it was very hard to say goodbye to her while she was sitting in a hospital bed, but she is quite the good soldier and wished us her very best, while amusing us with her morphine-induced conversation. That is one fun drug to observe!

Little things from this week: we had a great lunch with my former accounting professors, the Pitts, and their son Brenden, who taught for two years in Japan. Ron has also recently traveled to China, so we got many good tips, and the food was fantastic (Kay is a good Oklahoma cook). We transferred title for the Corolla to Aaron, who has already washed and waxed the car, tinted the windows and fixed just about everything that was wrong. He loves that car more than I ever did, so I'm glad it's in his hands. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, claims in a blog post that he has a FB network in China, but he didn't mention how I could connect to that network. Very helpful, Mark. Finally, a piece of advice: when you need to cry, find a nice public place. We had our last dinner with Faun and Randy and Mira and Bruce on Saturday night at Horsemen's Lodge, a great Flagstaff steakhouse. Joe needed to do some shopping at the mall (very unusual for him), and I finally got to tired to walk around, so I took a seat outside Dillard's and did some people watching. At some point I realized I wouldn't be near Faunie again for a good long time, and I just started to cry. Although there were lots of people all around me, nobody came over to try to help me or ask what was wrong; they just let me get it all out. It was terrific, and I'm going to remember that probably quite a bit in the next few days/weeks/months.

I hope to post again very soon, but have some patience. Next post, Shanghai!