Saturday, December 27, 2008

One version of a Beijing Christmas

Holidays are slightly daunting here. I suppose they are daunting anywhere if you don’t have a family on which to rely to fill that day on the calendar. But as a foreigner in China, to celebrate is more of a decision than an expectation.

China has picked up on the marketing potential of Christmas. While a Beijing Thanksgiving could have passed without my knowing, the reminders were everywhere for Christmas. Shopping malls have 60ft decorated Christmas trees outside and Holiday season sales. Though, these sales are overlapping and muddled with sales for the quickly approaching Spring Festival (Lunar New Year). Since both holidays are dominated by red it is slightly unclear what is being celebrated. Western restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels put up English signs featuring their set menus for Christmas dinner and the servers pressure you to make reservations. Businesses of all genres decorate their storefronts with paper Santa Claus cutouts, tinsel garlands, and even fake spray snow in a can. Supermarkets sell fake Christmas trees that come pre-decorated if you want. I am sure that here in Beijing one could also buy a real Christmas tree for a price. Christmas music is common in establishments and unfortunately on cell phone ring tones, but not nearly as ubiquitously as in America.

All this hype gives one a sense of urgency about making some kind of plan. My choices were: shell out 1000 Yuan ($150)a head for a luxurious dinner, pay 200 a head for a Japanese buffet, join some friends for drinks at their apartment and then go out on the town, make dinner at a friend’s oven equipped apartment, or eat dumplings with my Chinese roommate. I chose to spend Christmas Eve out on the town and Christmas day cooking and baking in the much coveted oven.

Chinese don’t spend Christmas with their families and most foreigners don’t have families here, so Christmas has become an excuse to hit the clubs and bars. After all, what’s Christmas without a Rudolf character piloting a Congo line of scantily glad, glow stick waving, Chinese girls around the dance floor to a blaring remix of “Celebration?”

Christmas day, on the other hand felt much more wholesome. My English friend brought his mother’s Christmas recipes and three of us worked together to create a feast of stuffed apples, stuffed peppers, roast potatoes and carrots, salad, and half a turkey. The other half apparently went to another foreigner at Wal-Mart who also seemed overwhelmed at the idea of a full-sized turkey in her toaster oven. We added mulled wine, cheese, and apple pie to the menu and ate and drank ourselves into that familiar holiday digestive state somewhere between fulfillment and misery. The night finished with a scrabble game and a Skype call to my family to share in their real-time holiday.

Just before going to bed on Christmas Eve, I put Santa Claus hats stuffed with goodies and chocolate outside my Chinese and Italian roommates’ doors. My note in Chinese said that it was from Santa Claus (literally “Christmas old man”) but I think my poor Chinese calligraphy must have given me away. My Chinese roommate saw right through it and put a note on my door in English that read: “thank you, nice is young santa claus. I hope you next year more beautiful." I have no idea what that means, and it might be an insult. But, I think she liked the chocolate.

Merry belated Christmas all and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Apartment Hunting

My employer paid for my first week here in a in a modest hotel until I could find an apartment. I used the entire week apartment hunting within a 3 mile radius of the institute. My criteria were simple: close to work and subway, clean, and at or below 1500 Yuan (~200 dollars). I began with the help of a Chinese friend at the institute. We looked at Chinese versions of Craig’s List and also expat websites like Beijinger. Though all the listings were advertised as individuals’ posts, we quickly realized that they were actually “middle companies.” The way my friend spit the out the word, “zhong jie,” made it sound like they were something obscene and abhorred. We scheduled a few visits on a Saturday and hit the neighborhood on foot. After just two calls, my name and number was out. No sooner had we finished one visit when my phone would ring with another company offering to show me a room. The mystery voice on the phone would instruct us to meet him at a certain corner/bus stop etc. We would arrive at the corner and locate a slightly sleazy looking man wearing a cheap suit jacket and black leather shoes. Upon seeing a lost looking blond, he would jump up from his resting squat and lead us to the next room, chain-smoking all along the way. As we walked I struggled to stay close to my friend and the middleman, bobbing and weaving around cars, carts, people, trees, and various gross things smeared on the sidewalk. The first day I mostly listened, memorizing the standard conversation as I knew that the rest of the week would be a solo adventure.

Over the course of a week I looked at about 20 apartments. These places ranged from disgustingly dingy first floor slums, to dazzling newly refinished hotel-like rooms. If the other renters were home I tried my best to size them up quickly. Some were foreign students: Italians, Japanese, Kazakhstanis, Americans, and one German. All of those places were either too expensive or meant speaking to much English. Other prospective apartment mates included an older bachelorette with a hyperactive three year old niece (that told me I was beautiful and then threw candy at me), a young family that swore they would never be home, a middle-aged couple with a chain-smoking husband, and two young Chinese guys with a bio-hazard for a bathroom. One middle company sleaze-ball took me to an apartment and then admitted that he didn’t actually have the keys. He said he would see if anyone was home and I expected him to make a phone call. Instead, I watched in disbelief as he scaled the barred windows and peered into the second story apartment to get someone’s attention. I told him to forget it and left him hanging.

Finally, I met one middle company guy at about 9:30 on the last night of my free stay in the hotel. As we walked he suddenly stopped and pointed to a Jeep Cherokee that seemed to appear out of nowhere, suggesting that we ride to see the apartment. I hesitated; I hate these judgment testing moments! It’s a little like when an unleashed barking dog charges you in a public park while the owner runs after yelling, “He won’t bite!” You think, I don’t want to overact, but I don’t want to get mauled either! I was thinking, I don’t want to freak out and offend these guys, but I also don’t want to lose my internal organs tonight!

I peered in at the driver, a geeky looking college kid with glasses and a friendly grin. He addressed me in Chinese and explained that he could give me a lift to his friend’s apartment with the spare room. “I know where it is…it’s just down the road… I can just walk,” I said. “Suit yourself” he said, “But it's cold and I can’t park here.” A response with any more pressure to get in the car would have blown the whole deal for me. But, that was just enough indifference to make me try it. I got in, one hand on the door handle ready bolt if need be and at the same time thinking that if they were really going to steal my kidney tonight they would have found a way to keep me from jumping out [insert mother’s cringe here].

The young guy turned out to be extremely nice and he was indeed actually helping his friend. The three of us talked about the global financial crisis, NBA stars, and how cold it gets in Beijing in winter. He drove through a security gate and deep into low rise apartment complex to the foot of building number 22. The front was lined with hundreds of bicycles ready for the morning commute. The balconies were decorated with laundry, cabbages, sausages, leeks, and garlic braids, all hanging out to dry. The stairwell was normal for this price range: dirty, dark, unmaintained, and like it might lead to a prison cell. I was comforted that we stopped to get keys from the landlord on the first floor. The door opened to a warm, spotless, well lit, newly refinished, sizable three bedroom apartment that smelled like someone had recently cooked something tasty. The current renter, a young Chinese woman, was away. But a quick glance at her shoes, kitchen utensils, stocked refrigerator, and absence of filth was enough for me to think we might be more compatible than the screaming child or the stinky Chinese boys. The landlord couple came up to visit from their apartment on the first floor. He was a cute reticent old man with a Mao era hat. She was a typical middle-aged, plump, ruddy faced loud mouthed nosey woman, who I am sure would push me out of the way on the bus any day. They asked questions about my experiences in China and complemented my Chinese. They explained that they were “lao Beijing ren” (Beijing born and raised) and their old neighborhood was in the same place before it was leveled to make way for this apartment complex. I took it all hook line and sinker and put down a couple hundred Yuan for the key.

I left feeling a sense of achievement for independently securing a decent room, under budget, and all in a foreign language. I celebrated with a bowl of noodles and a chocolate bar. But, when I contacted the folks helping me at the institute to tell them the good news, my pride and satisfaction turned to angst and dread. They wanted to come and help with the contract signing, meet my landlord, check on the apartment, and barter yet another lower price. I knew what was going to happen. My bubble of ignorant trust was about to be popped! They would tell me that I was paying too much, these people were cheating me, my future roommate was probably not even living there, and I should not have made such a hasty decision. All these things passed through my mind too, but I was tired and trusting and went with my gut.

As predicted, what seemed to me like a simple six month agreement to exchange money for a place to sleep and a hot shower turned into hours of discussion. Voices were raised, teeth were sucked in dissatisfied, and the smiling faces of my landlords were twisted into disgust and distain. But, I know that all this is necessary. Nothing in China is ever as simple as I feel that it should or could be. My friends know this system and can predict the 110 ways I could be taken advantage of later. I know that this flagrant display of skepticism and distrust are normal in these negotiations. But, after almost two years it still makes me uncomfortable! As I followed the fast loud conversation, I wanted to scream, “I don’t care what you think! This location is convenient, the place is clean, I’m under budget, and if things get ugly at least I’ll have something to write about!” But, I kept respectfully quiet until the contractual negotiation/shouting match subsided and I got the cue to sign. I felt somewhat vindicated in that after all that the landlord wouldn’t come down on the price. My friends were not satisfied, but were luckily too busy to insist that I keep looking for something cheaper.

While I am truly thankful for their help and local perspective, I recognize that our objectives are different. I am personally willing to pay a small premium just too keep the pleasant and polite comfort bubble intact. When I see my landlords playing with their grandchild outside, they will smile and ask me if I have eaten yet. And, I can smile back and continue to think of them as a sweet “lao Beijing” couple that may actually have my best interest in mind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is Midwest Culture; A call for your comments

All this moving around has sparked some new observations and has me wondering; what is it about trying to maintain a Midwest character in China that is so exhausting and futile?

During college I was convinced that the Midwest was the most generic place on Earth: flat, no wilderness yet no cosmopolitan areas either, strip malls, K-marts, gray skies for half the year, corn fields. Picturing it? If you grew up in rural or suburban Midwest you were stuck being aware of all the extreme hobbies and cultural scenes of the rest of the country, yet had to make do with what the region could provide. You could only go so far into these interests before you either had to settle on something else or bail for one of the coasts or Rockies.

My friends were all from places that I imagined to be more . . . authentic. I listened to my friends' hometown stories with envy. In Marion, Virginia they had southern accents, bluegrass, and hometown doctors that cross-country skied to the office in the winter. I am sure there were grassroots revolutions started in the coffee shops and vegetarian joints in Amherst, Massachusetts. High school students in Seattle, Washington knew how to deal with both glacial crevasses and inner city scuffles. And in the tiny hamlet of Pultneyville, New York, old ladies will interrupt your long run to taste test their homemade cookies. I spent my summers in Alaska, Idaho, and Washington, hoping to gain some kind of character that I thought the Midwest had shorted me on. So, I was surprised and even delighted in China when a friend from California paused after something I said and exclaimed, "God you're so Midwest!"

That got me thinking. What exactly is that Midwest character? I thought there was none. But, the Beach Boys Sing about it: "The Midwest farmers' daughter's really make you feel alright..." So, there must be something distinct there right?

Here are some undeveloped thoughts:

Is it for better or worse, that the Midwest feels a bit generic?
In her song entitled Iowa, Dar Williams sings, "Way back where I come from, we never mean to bother; we don't like to make our passions other people's concerns. We walk in the world of safe people and at night we walk into our houses and burn."

Is it that people are friendly, or that they keep to themselves?
After a flight of unwelcome chatter on a plane, my sister-in-law's friend said that he appreciates Ohioans as seatmates because Ohioans will always say hello, but still let you read your book.

Or, is it some obsession with a constant hyper-awareness in social interactions. With tedious utterances of "Sorry" and "Thank you," a good Midwesterner is continuously aware of how to help others while simultaneously staying out of their business and never, ever, inconveniencing.
Author Jonathan Franzen captures this in The Corrections, as he describes his main character's visit to a museum in St. Jude. I did not bring the book to Beijing so I cannot quote it directly. He explains perfectly the constant awareness with which everyone moved about the exhibits. Each person will pretend to view the display even after they have lost interest, so as to not pressure those ahead of them. If those ahead of them are also good Midwesterners, they have a guilty fear about lingering too long which becomes activated by the tacit signals from the people behind them. The whole system works very well.

Or, does it have something to do with a balance of restraint and indulgence. My friend told me that is his father, a good Midwestern man, could never bring himself to give his cat straight kitty treats, but rather mixed them with the other less decadent cat food.

Here is call for your thoughts and suggestions from Literature/music/films/comedy and your own musings. I need some material. So please, give me Garrison Keillor and the lot. What's your Midwest description? You can email or comment.