[Originally written August 4, 2010]
- -The taxis are turquoise in Tianjin
- -Pollution? What pollution?
- -Rice is not served in restaurants, except sometimes at dessert
- -The noise on the street is intense, but it has nothing to do with traffic
- -Rianna and Morgan have moved out
- -The signs rarely have English errors, because they rarely have English
- -Places are not crowded, traffic flows moderately well, but intersections are scary
- -I’ve seen exactly three non-Chinese people, not counting us.
- -Dragonfruit looks the same in B
Day 2 to Day 4
You know that emotion you feel on encountering the extremes of nature — standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, for example? Awe, the sublime, smallness of self. Beijing is the first place where I’ve felt that awe in the presence of the works of humankind. After our spectacular multi-continental breakfast buffet (including porridge, a Finnish staple), we went up to the swimming pool and spa on the 26th floor of our hotel. We’ve been told we had rare clear day, and a spine shiver met the wide view from the top. Beijing is a carpet of highrises out to the horizon in all directions. There is no skyline, no familiar string of shapes as in New York; no central pile of skyscrapers.
Instead there packs of buildings of a similar style (often gridded) interspersed with post-modern “statements”, like the crooked O of the CCTV building. The second awe is the Beijing South railway station. The traditional train station is a big box, as long as the tracks are wide, and
more or less with a flat roof. But this one is a) much much bigger than any train station I’ve ever seen, and b) curving and arched upward to make an interior space of vast scale and beauty.
That was our start for the trip to Tianjin, about the same as the distance from Hartford to New York, which we covered in 30 minutes on the bullet train, at a maximum speed of 200 mph and a cost of $15 (1st class, not necessary as coach is just as nice). The ride was smooth and quiet. (Here’s a short youtube video ….)
Between the two cities is some agricultural land and tree farms, but shortly we arrived at our own little megacity, Tianjin, like Beijing but not quite as splashy. Our circumstances don’t afford a view from above, as we are quite focused on the basics, beginning with our apartments in the “Foreign Guests Housing” at the University of Nankai. The university is a sprawling campus of 30,000 students, which takes about 20 minutes to walk across. Along the main drag of modern buildings are ornamental lakes and lily pad gardens with platter leaves and giant blossoms, and tree lined boulevards of bicycles (of which there are millions, all dilapidated (because they are the only property that is routinely stolen)). Off the main way are side streets and alleys in which folks of all ages live, pretty much on the teeming street amid bicycles and clotheslines and cooking grills and broken chairs and tiny shops. This juxtaposition of sleek 1st worldliness and something very else is jarring and a regular feature of life here. This is on campus, by the way. Our apartment is a one-BR with a balcony and a very basic kitchen (hotplate, microwave, sink, fridge, and washing machine). And excellent A/C, essential since the weather is just like Hartford over recent weeks, in the 80s or 90s and humid. It is too small for a family of four, and so the girls have the same apartment, one floor up. A 13-year old and a 16-year old, living on their own in China. We visit them often, but only when we are invited. (This is very strange.) Even though we are on the 2nd and 3rd floors and there’s construction in front, it’s quiet, except in the evening when the cicadas and frogs get rolling. Then you have to shout to be heard.
Each day we’ve had at least one really great meal. On Sunday it was the breakfast buffet in the hotel, where we discovered dragonfruit. On the outside its a technicolor spikey pod suitable for B-movie Sci-fi; inside it’s juicy white with black seeds, and a taste in the neighborhood of pineapple, melon, orange…? That night our student helpers took Cheryl and me to a genuine and highly regarded Chinese restaurant, which looked like a VFW post or church basement, florescents over linoleum. Another tasty mystery fruit, fish, and a wonderful crunchy corn dish. On Monday lunch, Cheryl was the guest of honor with Professor Zhang, one of her academic hosts. There we sat at a round table with a big lazy susan in the middle, enjoying a flow of wonderful foods — probably 12 dishes or more, that just kept coming and coming. The local folks we’ve met so far have an informal table style — it’s OK, for example, to eat straight from the common platters in the center of the table. Napkins are usually nonexistent or tiny little tissue squares.
In between the meals we’ve been negotiating the basics, with the help of two student guides, Andy and Andrea, who will only let us use their English names (these are assigned first in Elementary School, but are often changed at will in later life). These processes have been confusing and slow, but we have internet and cell phones. We managed to arrange our water cooler on our own, and get to the kids’ school too. (For taxi rides, you must have the Chinese for your destination, and home, written in characters to show the driver.) In short, there is almost no English anywhere, and almost none spoken except in academic zones. That has moved Rianna, with two years of high school Chinese, into an important role. Last night she asked where the nearest dumpling restaurant was, got us there, asked which items were vegetarian, and so forth, which won many smiles in the hole-in-the-wall dumpling place — where the food was great. As with the other meals, rice was not served, although Prof. Zhang insists it is still a main food source. After that we found a convenience store with oreos, and were happy. Early indications are that Morgan will be a quick study for Chinese. The rest of us are struggling to remember how to say goodbye, zaijian. People here seem very open and welcoming.
Update — since this was written (early Wednesday morning), a different weather pattern has set in, a thick haze that obscures everything beyond a few hundred yards. The sky is a uniform light gray with a little yellow; a very heavy hot day. We had monumental noodle pots for lunch, and then bought a powerstrip at… Walmart.