Saturday, August 2, 2008

David Bowie, Damien Rice, and Dave Matthews Band in a mixed whirl: Dongwangzhuang 东王庄

"你好. Please show us your student ID," says the service attendant.

"I'm just going to my room," I reply.
"We still need to see your ID."
"I don't have mine on me."
"It's for your safety."
"Against what?"
After a few more seconds of haggling with the attendants, I climb the three flights and tread the hallway down to my dorm room. The aftersmell of an overused mop lingers. As I take off my shoes, a droplet of water from the ceiling soaks into my shoulder. The air conditioner is still not fixed. The ceiling panel is darkening with spots of black and green. After a swig of Pocari Sweat (a popular beverage in Asia, also known as Monkey Sweat), I lay down on my hard bed. It is moist.

On the fifth floor whiteboard, someone has put up an advertisement - "2BR Apt in 东王庄, 3000approx./month, if interested call Wiley!" During my hour break, I call Wiley. Immediately we set up a meeting to look at the apartment and meet the landlords. The landlords are an old couple who live in the vicinity. The wife, Ai-yi, reminds me of my grandmother - the way she wields her fan threatens her timid husband, who doesn't collect money until Ai-yi spreads her fan.

Outside, I hear the hooting of pigeons and chirps of sparrows on the first floor balcony and overworked air conditioners groaning. The elderly yell at each other - the accent is too strong for me at this point. With the smack of a playing card on a makeshift wooden desk, a man showing off his round Buddha stomach yells "Wo Cao!" (Profanity) Around the wastebins, ladies squabble over the ownership of a few plastic water bottles.

As soon as I sign my lease agreement with the landlords, I bike back to my dorm and scramble to pack everything before the Foreign Student Affairs Office closes for the night. After an hour, everything is squeezed in two pieces of luggage, two bookbags and two boxes. Unfortunately, no taxis are around. A white unmarked car drives up.
"Where are you going?" he asks.
"Dongwangzhuang. I need to move a few stuff as well. Will your car handle the weight?"
"No worries."
The man looks like he was part of some Chinese gang with his huge tattoo on his deltoid enlarging every time he flexes. We quickly stuff all of my clothes and books into his trunk and are on the road. If all unmarked cab drivers are like this man, then I don't know why I'm still riding state-regulated taxis. He gives me recommendations on the best restaurants, best markets to buy household goods, and best places to meet Chinese girls. "My neighborhood has too many of them. Come by, we'll have some baijiu (vodka, but not really) and I'll introduce you to a few." We exchange phone numbers. He promises to call.

The first few days in the apartment I furiously organize my library, clean the kitchen, dust my bedroom, mop the floor and pay the internet bill. I have announced that I will hold a "happy hour" at my place for IUP students to mingle and bond over wine and snacks. Fortunately, I am sponsored by IUP with an allowance of 500RMB. After running around the Lotus Center and only finding disappointing Great Wall red wine (a soury excuse for vinegar), Jason and I head to the Carrefour store in Zhongguancun. The Carrefour store in Beijing is the size of Costco, but nothing is sold in wholesale. That doesn't seem to stop the locals from taking advantage of the lower than average prices and the wide selection of imported goods. Fortunately, in the evening lots of IUPers come to warm up the apartment. I'll admit it - the happy hour was a good cover for my housewarming party. Over Alcantra and Merlot, we pass the night identifying Chinese emperors and government officials on playing cards. I was hoping for a rowdy game of Kings.

As with any new environment, time is necessary to adapt. My daily commute to IUP has doubled. I actually have to learn to cook, force myself to go the market and buy cheap packaged noodles, or drag myself to the restaurants in the area - the cafeteria is no longer fifty meters away. Over Skype, I've asked my mother for a few recipes. Apparentely, to make a good stew, all I need is some vegetables, ground meat, cooking oil, spices and water. I've also been pestering the teachers to teach me some Chinese plates. In any case, would anyone like to be my foodtaster?

While at one of Beijing's best jazz clubs called the OT Lounge at Jianguomen, Carol told me of a doctor who learns another language to see life from another perspective and wrote a book about her reflections. I suppose I am attempting the same thing - to approach life from a younger perspective, to force myself in a strange environment that changes as fast my vocabulary and thoughts change. This past Friday, IUP held its Speech Day. I related my years working as a waiter in San Francisco. I expected the speech to be difficult because I was using Chinese, but because I was speaking about bundles of experiences and emotions buried in my mind and heart, the speech wrote itself on the podium. I am surprised how much clear my thoughts are when I speak Chinese now - perhaps its all due to more subtle adjectives and verbs that are now in my vocabulary, but I do not feel the need to memorize anymore. I speak from the gut.

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Genevieve said...

hey, thanks for hosting. your apt is awesome.

Steve said...

If I come visit you in China, can I meet that sweet taxi driver?

Also, I hate to say it, but I doubt you'll find a game of kings in China that is on par with kings in I23.

Glad to hear about your Chinese adventures. New Haven's not quite the same without you.

Grand Master - 108 Tongues, 中国制造团体, Bust Out! Family said...

your place looks great; interesting stories. I'm sure your time in 北京 will be well spent.... ahhh I'm sure you've far surpassed my now-meagre 中文。。。 我的中文已经退步了好多。。。

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