For whatever reason, today, 19 August, I am able to access my blog, and for this I am grateful. Given that I have this opportunity, let me revisit some of this past week, as it has been only 9 days since I arrived.
As I think I may have mentioned to some of you, my first night began with some highly unintended drama. Besides my flight being about 4 hours late into Beijing, or as a result of this, I was exceptionally tired and bit distracted when I landed.
I got off the plane well enough, and navigated customs without event. The first rabbit hole appeared at a currency exchange both in the airport, and then the drive into the city. In a nutshell, after doing a currency exchange in association with another Chinese woman, now working in Alabama, I thought I had put my passport (required for anything like this) back into its appointed place. Of course, I should explain that by “rabbit hole,” a term introduced to me for China purposes by a former middle-school student of mine from Virginia, and who herself is a budding Sinologist, refers to anything and everything bordering on the entirely unexpected, the existentially vertiginous, the whimsically inefficient, eyebrow raising wonderment, or the plain surreal, when the universe as you know it vanishes and is replaced by something vaguely familiar, but altogether different in its operation. I suppose the following qualifies as the existentially vertiginous: “What?? How??”
Soon thereafter I was met by one of our Chinese hosts, who have been wonderfully helpful and accommodating; he drove me into Beijing. The drive into Beijing from the airport was a bit circuitous. Since the Olympics, the roadways around the city have changed. What I marveled at was that on what we would call expressways or freeways, there were bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, and I found myself a bit nervous when this colleague stopped more or less in mid exit of an expressway to ask directions of a pedestrian attempting to walk across the expressway. The stopping and asking for directions happened more than once. Very subtly I reached to the dashboard and put on the emergency flashers, as cars whizzed by us at speed.
We finally got into the city, where an amazing banquet was awaiting those arriving that evening, me and two other teachers, one from San Francisco, the other from Torronto (who grew up in China). At the end of this meal, which included the famous Beijing duck, I was asked for my passport in order to register at the hotel. I reached for it in its appropriate pouch. Not there. I checked pockets. Not there. I checked my jacket pockets. Not there. Needless to day, embarrassment and panic quickly took hold. It then dawned on me what had happened. At the exchange booth my passport did not make it into its resting place, but rather landed on the floor of the airport, and I was too tired and distracted to notice. Thankfully — thankfully — on the receipt for the exchange was the phone number for this particular booth. One of my Chinese hosts made a call. Sure enough, the passport had been found, turned in, and was now at the airport’s lost and found. For this I was exceptionally grateful and relieved, but also deeply embarrassed by this gaffe. In any case, after dinner, late at night, a carload of us trundled back to the airport, where, after signing a few papers, I got the document back.
So far I have needed the passport for: the visa, boarding the plane in Chicago (where the visa was again checked), currency exchange, hotel registration, getting a phone, applying for work visa and permit, registering with the police, signing a lease agreement (all in Chinese: what did I sign?), cashing traveler’s checks and opening a bank account (yesterday). Here in China the passport is like a logistical credit card: you simply cannot leave home without it. I don’t think I needed it to mail a letter, which I recently did at the Regent Hotel — which is not where I am staying. However, I did have to open the card, which allowed the hotel concierge inspect it, and then put it in a hotel envelope. And, because the card did not fit into the new envelope, I had to ask for some scissors to trim it.The first photograph below is a certain motor car dealership to the left of the hotel’s entrance. To the right of the entrance are found dealerships for Ferrari and Maserati, far cries from the Cultural Revolution, I would imagine.
In a separate post, I will write more about the school and the students. For now, though, I want to point out that the school was founded in 1724 as a school for the royal family under the Qing (“ching”) Dynasty, and it has occupied the same location since. The photo below is that of the last surviving original building. I believe Yale has a similar building, located at the south end of the Old Campus quadrangle. All schools, I found out yesterday, were closed for about a decade during the Cultural Revolution, but this one has survived the numerous political and cultural seismic shifts that have catapulted China into the forefront now at the beginning of the 21st century. Indeed, many of China’s future leaders, whether political, academic, social or financial, will come not only from this school, but, more specifically, from the program I am helping to establish. A symbol might be helpful. The principal of this school, Principal Niu, is a very gracious gentleman, but one who must have a firm stock of guanxi. He was selected to be one of the individuals to bring the Olympic torch into the Olympic stadium. In my mind, this says as much about China’s regard for education, as for the prestige of the school and its principal.