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2010-01-29 - 10:42 a.m.

....Diary of China Part 3.....

Here's more from my diary of China - hard to believe that I wrote this nearly ten years ago....

*****
17 November 2000 *** Arrival in Nanjing ***

It is now my 2nd day in China and I am feeling like a completely culture-shocked and jetlagged wimp. Nanjing is loud, cold, and dusty. There is no sunlight. It is completely obscured by grey clouds and haze. Below me is the constant rumble of machinery and the constant honking of car horns. As for me, I feel both tired and ill. I decided to simply let it pass over me rather than forcing myself to see the city today. After yesterday’s dinner, I could not face the crowds of the conference again. I am a bit ashamed by myself. Normally I am open to new things, but here I feel myself closing off, sitting quietly, in a personal haze.

At dinner last night, the conference organizer, a well-dressed woman from Beijing, plopped me down in the dining hall all by myself. And I felt distinctly non-Chinese. Perhaps this is because I was the only non-Chinese person there, and there was not a single person there whom I knew. I took my seat at one table and rather boldly said “hello!” as I sat down. No one responded. They just stared at me and continued slurping their noodles. “Right” I said under my breath.

Food was served on a large wheel in the center of the table. And there were piles of it. Steamed greens, unidentifiable meats – pork, chicken, eel – a soup with dark bones floating in it… I ate all of the vegetables and a hearty portion of the yummy mushrooms - before I realized that they actually were eels - in silence. A few minutes later a fellow with a fork and knife sat down beside me. By first appearances he looked Pakistani to me. But he greeted me immediately with ‘Guten Apetit!” Hmmm.. I was wearing no nametag. Do I suddenly look German to the rest of the world? Could he smell bratwurst on my breath? I responded in German and thanked him, and asked him if he lives in Germany. It was only then that I discovered that he is from Bangladesh and we started discussing his work, his plans..etc.

We managed to get lost during the 5-minute walk back to the hotel. It was very rainy and in addition to the constant fog and smog, I had to be constantly watching my feet for holes in the pavement full of muddy water. After wandering through the student quarters, we found our way, and I fell promptly to sleep at about 8pm. Actually, this happened after I sat down with a glass of water, read the hotel brochure, and discovered in the small print on page 11 that the tap water I had been drinking was undrinkable. Great. Always read the small print.

*** Ge’s Institute ***

This morning I met Xue Bin in the lobby at 9:30, and we took a taxi to the Institute of Geography and Limnology where he and Ge work. Seeing Ge and Xue Bin was very comforting – it felt good to know someone in this big country. As we drove along the streets, I saw bicycle after bicycle – some of the riders wore masks over their faces to protect against the pollution. I could feel the dust stinging my own lungs already. Xue Bin was so friendly and accommodating and pointed out buildings and places. It was all so foreign to me, I literally felt stunned. He said, “Today we have some beautiful nice weather.” I looked out at the same grey shrouded sky that I had seen since arriving…he added, “Today there is no rain.” Aha, yes, that was indeed correct.

I stared out the window until we pulled into the institute. It was a fairly cold day. We entered the building and he took me through an exhibition that described the institute divisions using a series of posters all in Chinese. But I could at least look at the pictures. Then he took me around so that I could shake the hands of many scientists. It didn’t take long for me to notice that there was absolutely no heating in the building. All of the doors were locked with bicycle locks. The floors and walls resembled the compounds where I lived in Barbados. The windows were even open. The only difference? Barbados is tropical. This was Nanjing in winter! All of the scientists were bundled in layers and winter coats. And certainly, it was very interesting to see the research that they do, but I honestly was hit so overwhelmingly by the differences of everything that I couldn’t focus on anything. In fact, this sums up my whole experience in China.

But there were some interesting moments. Xue Bin showed me the historical books and records room where books as much as 700 years old were kept. Books recording changes in environment, agriculture, population, city structure.. And then I finally got to visit Ge’s office. It was wonderful to see her again, and when I entered her office I felt that I had entered a sanctuary. Ge was familiar. The books were familiar. Everything was comfortable and warm. (Unlike the rest of the building, Ge believes in heat, God Bless her.)

After our discussions it was time for lunch, but first the toilets. Ge handed me a roll of toilet paper and looked a bit embarrassed – she covered her teeth and giggled and said, “In China we must have our own..” It was funny to see her so embarrassed. I was not upset by the prospect of carrying toilet paper through the halls and then having to squat (toilet seats are a western luxury). But Ge is such a proper lady. I think this was strangely humiliating to her. Well, I didn’t mind.

We then met for lunch at the institute food place. We walked through a campus of very cold-looking palm trees and trees with leaves still shivering on the branches – to a small little hut with two red characters printed on a glass door that stood open. We walked “inside” – I put this in quotes, because although this place had a roof overhead, it was more like a freezing-cold open-air veranda. In the middle of the room stood a low table with about 5 woks on it, each piled to the top with steaming food. We walked through, back “outside” and then into another room in which we found a round table, and several hard chairs. It felt more like we were sitting in a garage or storage room – the walls, roof, and door unfortunately brought no increase in temperature. In fact, even though there was a small heater in the room, it was turned off and the fan was running. Nu Jian (a research scientist who works for Ge), promptly turned off the fan and attempted to make the heater work. No luck.

So we sat, bundled in our coats, waiting for food – which came in little white boxes – just like a fast food Chinese restaurant in the US – except the rice in China was much better. And the food? Well, I doubt that it could be served in a restaurant in the US. We ate some combination of duck, tofu, pork, octopus, and celery. I swallowed quite a few duck bones, but it had excellent flavor. In retrospect, this may have been my favorite, simple, most memorable meal. (although, it made me sick afterwards – nothing new. Everything made me sick afterwards.)

*** The Conference Dinner ***

I returned to the hotel after lunch and fell into a deep sleep between trips to the toilet, and didn’t remove myself from my hotel room until the conference organizer called to tell me it was time to eat again. Oy. I first boiled myself some water for tea, and then took the amazingly slow elevator downstairs to the lobby. We (Barian Moore, Li the abruptly polite conference organizer, and I) took a taxi down to the restaurant next to the Confucian Temple. We didn’t actually make it into the temple, but we did get a chance to walk through the pedestrian areas. It was an area filled with colorful lights on buildings shaped like Buddhist temples, open squares, market stall upon market stall of every kind of object you could imagine! There were foods and jewelry and scarves and toys….All made in China. I couldn’t help but to think of how K would have loved this incredible version of “Preis Paradies!!” There were bridges across the river, lined with paper lanterns, that reflected red light onto the river below, and archways with brightly lit yellow dragons. It was incredibly beautiful.

Walking through these streets, I was the happiest I’d felt there. I felt as though I was finally coming to life. No cars, just loads of bicycles and people, all of whom were smiling and happy walking through the multitude of colors and shapes. And then there were the smells! They seemed to change every few feet – foods spices, incense, perfumes, and other pungent unidentifiable odors. The experience was incredible and largely because it is unlike anything I have ever experienced before in my life. I saw small elements of many places, but they were mostly feelings that had been invoked elsewhere:

Las Vegas: where reality has been entirely replaced by colored lights
Chinatown: where colors and smells and PEOPLE explode onto the streets
Toulouse: where the buildings feel so “south” but the temperatures do NOT
Russia: where the market is full and I felt just as helpless to manipulate it.

But none of these descriptions completely describe the activity and lights and sounds and smells.

Having run out of time, we proceeded back to dinner, which proved to be quite entertaining. There was a constant flood of singers and dancers in brightly colored costumes, followed by lots of karaoke – also entertaining…There was also a constant flood of food – all very interesting, but soon I couldn’t keep up with the dishes being places in front of me. Although, I *did* appreciate Congbin Fu’s occasional efforts to explain what they were… At the end of the meal we were each handed a Confucius “Bible” which all of the old Chinese men around me remembered fondly. You could see that they were being handed a childhood memory as they all smiled and chuckled, and reminisced about all of the stories they were forced to memorize as children. All in all it was quite a spectacle and very entertaining.

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