Need to skip day 2 for now and do some public, and hopefully airing of anxieties: because that makes you feel better, right?
Day 3 was a trip back to Baby Cube, followed by an attempt to find someplace to hold interviews after the weekend. Unfortunately, because I’ve been go-go-go, I’m not sure I actually have any confirmed meetings on Monday. I will have to handle that on my cellphone from the road today as I head out to the countryside for the first time.
I briefly considered just having people over to the apartment, but based on advice from a couple of people, decided that’s not such a great idea. Decorum and all–there is a whole etiquette and protocol around home visits that is just too complicated to navigate on such short notice. Then I had what my translator and I thought was the brilliant idea of borrowing or renting a classroom from one of the many education centers on the 5th floor of the nearby Viva mall. In we went, but no one was interested. ‘Our rooms are not open to the public.’ ‘Our rooms are very clean and sanitary for the children, if the parents see you, they might complain,’ as if we were going to do what I don’t know. At one place I even offered to do a free English lesson (their classrooms are all named after English speaking countries, and every one of them was empty on each of my 3 visits to the mall). On our way out, my translator said with no small amount of contempt in her voice: “They are not business people. You just offered them money to do nothing and they refused. I am a business person. When an opportunity presents itself, you seize it.”
While I am not a business person, I do seize opportunities. So, despite tossing my dinner last night after a cold-hot-cold-hot sprint to a restaurant to meet the secondary translator (consolation prize. She offered to hang out and I wanted a companion to go see a live show–which we canceled), at 5:00am Lao Meng will be arriving to drive me out to his home village. I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I’m a bundle of nerves. And I’m not even sure of where we are going. All I know is that the rain has stopped, the temperature is predicted to drop below freezing tonight, and we’re having breakfast in Hengshui. Oh–and just in case my anxiety has spread to any of you: I’m not being sent to the countryside for any sort of forced re-education. It’s voluntary.
Not the city itself, but my visit this time. Almost too mellow, with only two specific visits on the calendar and a lot to stuff up in the air.
Still, here I sit at 5:40, after an hour of tossing and turning and a half hour of diddling around the apartment. Yes–the apartment. I’m in a super-cute one bedroom owned by the father-in-law of my Chinese bestie Lao Meng. The location is central and the amenities are perfect. The building itself would be intimidating if I hadn’t already been in a number of Chinese apartment buildings. Hallways and stairwells are dark, lit by small bare bulbs on motion detectors. Concrete walls whitewashed many moons ago, and each landing has a pile of I-don’t-know-what. Old furniture? Belongings of former occupants? Storage? Nonetheless, there’s someone sweeping out there sweeping.
Outside there are a series of sheds that might have been communal kitchens back in the day. There do seem to be some people living out there, or maybe they are just overflow living rooms.
It’s the start of my second full day. The day I landed doesn’t count, right? Yesterday I walked off my jetlag, and discovered the one thing more stressful than attempting to order food on my own: buying clothes on a deadline. I found myself in need of a dress shirt and tie, and while I’m not a jumbo sized-American, I am taller and wider than most of the Chinese. It’s strange that there’s not more range, given that there are no shortage of men taller than I am. There must be big and tall shops here that I don’t know about. Anyway, on my third try I went to an international mall on Wangfujing. Versace, KNY, Liz Claybourne, and all sorts of places I’ve never heard of.
Who buys $1000 dress shirts? Anyway, $200 later, I’m the proud owner of a Brooks Brothers shirt and tie, and I walked myself to exhaustion in hopes of sleeping through the night.
The building is waking up. Toilets flushing, doors squeaking, maybe a kitten crying. Fortunately the dogs have been quiet–I was a little skeptical yesterday as I came home. I’m also skeptical that the long march yesterday really killed my jetlag, but I’ll worry about that tonight. Today, it’s off for a day of art with Elma. Elma, there’s no other word for it, latched on to me last year and insisted that she wants to help with my project. Her English is not so good, but her enthusiasm is infectious.
She insisted on picking me up at the airport, which was awesome. I still think I would have gotten downtown faster on the subway, but if I had I would have had no way of knowing that my plans for the night had changed. Meng’s previous tenant hadn’t left, so he put me up in a hotel down the block from his own apartment. After some comical Chinglish sitting on the left-hand shoulder of the airport expressway, I figured out this change of plan. If she hadn’t been there, I suppose I would have just met Lao Meng at the subway stop and gotten right back on. In the end, no problem at all. And I got to spend yesterday morning at a truly giant outdoor market. Fruit, veggies, and meat yes, but also antiques! Well, junk anyway. But an impressive array of Chinese junk. Crickets. Commemorative Communist-hero china plates. Cameras, video editing equipment, and speakers. Recycled wood. I can’t even tell you.
The day was actually set aside for interviewing translators. I got 2 nibbles from six contacts that I made before leaving and then put out 2 extras. The person I picked, Patty, has great SEO–I’ve had her bookmarked ever since last year. She codes the html herself. There’s something to be said for basic, static markup people. So one interview in the morning, then I met Meng to get into the apartment. We grabbed a couple donkey sandwiches for lunch and then he headed back back to work at his state-owned children’s publishing house and I headed back to Costa Coffee for my second interview.
Afterwards, it was off for my shirt-and-tie quest. By the end of it, I was sweaty and truly dragging. I was going to settle for a mall meal, but by the time I got there I just wasn’t feeling hungry (boy, that donkey meat really sticks to your ribs). I made it until about 8:45 before laying down with Mockingjay. L attempted to keep our call at 10:30, but I sure don’t remember any devices beeping.
Seven days from now exactly I’ll be finishing up dinner on my flight over the Pacific. The parameters of the trip have already changed, as Lucy has mysteriously relocated to a small town in Jiangsu Province. But that’s to be expected.
I have to admit to being a little bit giddy. Last year was such a mystery because he schedule was being arranged by Lao Meng. This year, it’s much more collaborative, and I have more control over my calendar. I still have two days in Beijing to fill, and am thinking that one really needs to be reserved for art. Last time, there was only art in Korea.
And this just in: I’ll be at Beijing’s Baby Cube for a session of my Chinese 103 class at city college. Hopefully there will be someone there to help me read my Stinky Poop book.
Let’s do it again! I haven’t even told you about Shanghai or Seoul, but the ticket is already bought for the next trip.
Well, already is relative–I haven’t updated the Growblog in eleven months. All the action has been over at ReadingEverywhere, where I have been trying to organize this year’s trip.
Shortly before leaving Beijing, people started telling me about an upcoming children’s book fair in Shanghai. I attempted to alter my itinerary a bit to try to squeeze it in, and meet a manager from the YouBei chain of children’s libraries. I couldn’t quite make that happen, but the fair is becoming annual (2015 will be the 3rd), and I am becoming more interested in the publishing side of things–at the very least to share with content providers the idea that Chinese parents are starved for good picture books.
In the meantime, I’ve been sucked into Chinese social network chatting with people I met last year. WeChat truly is a wonder–allowing almost synchrounous conversations if I pay attention to the time difference. Two super-enthusiastic new friends offered to help organize this year, and I had the pleasure of spending time with one of them, Lucy Shu, in LA and San Diego over the summer. Lucy is part-owner of the Mujizi library in eastern Beijing’s Tongzhou district.
So this year I’ll be returning for a week in Beijing with Lucy, Elma, my old friend FutureMeng and others. I will hopefully re-visit a couple of the libraries from last year, and meet with folks from the Beijing municipal library to see what they think of the wacky private children’s libraries. Maybe there will even be a MeetUp!
Then I will decamp to Shanghai and attend the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. And maybe even speak! I’ve been trying to communicate directly and indirectly with the fair organizers (Reed Elsevier employees all), but it’s been really difficult to get the to commit.
I’ve pitched the idea of having Baby Cube’s Echo Liu, who you will remember from a couple posts ago, sit on a panel with the manager of Nanchang’s Century Library–who’s name I kept thinking was Sasha, but is actually Sasa. I think. Big city, little city. And then to add another dimension of scale, Nana from Shanghai, who this blog hasn’t met yet, would give the perspective of a one-woman shop operating out of her family’s Shanghai apartment.
Echo Liu and daughter showing a video from Baby Cube’s Halloween party.
Soon to be mom Sasa showing off her parent company’s books.
I’m writing on the train to Shanghai from Nanchang, the least developed city I have visited on this trip. Of course, as with everywhere in China, it develops quickly. I used to think the new train station in Wuhan was out on the outskirts, and was drastically underused. This time, it’s more active (and more worn in), but the Nanchang West train station obviously has a lot of excess capacity.
And yes, it’s on the outskirts of town, and the area around it is developing rapidly—although it is still a construction ghost town.
The center of town is also a giant construction site—Ba Yi Square is a closed much like Wuhan’s Zhongshan Square was a few years ago as a subway gets put in. But nearby is a giant, modern mall complete with Western brands, a baby jail (playground), and restaurants jam-packed with people waiting for tables outside.
And in never-ending quest to imitate the United States, they are doing their best to import our life-style diseases—plenty of KFC’s, cake bakeries, and something I’ve never seen before this trip: donuts!
I blasted a photo onto WeChat when I first arrived admitting to splurging on my hotel, and it was a bit expensive. I could have gotten by with a cheaper room in this place, but was nervous about the description. Instead of photos on cTrip (which has been down more than it’s been up), there were a lot of architectural renderings. Indeed, the hotel is in ‘soft opening,’ which means the staff is overly solicitous, anxious to use their set-phrases of English (‘May I help you?’), and befuddled by most operations (‘Please wait a moment’ as they took 20 minutes to check me out this morning—running my credit card about 10 times as they tried to clear my deposit and charge me what was still due. My cab got impatient and left and they wouldn’t let me go out and hail my own. The concierge went down the block and hopped in one himself). Still, the view from the 58th floor was awesome.
Even if the hotel lacked its advertised gym, would only give me cheap beer or soda for my complimentary welcome drink, and refused to let me use the club floor (maybe, like the gym and pool, it was not yet open) or give me a further discount when I mildly complained about the lack of gym. Though one person listened with interest, and showed some glee that she understood, when I told her that they need to make the Hanzi on their taxi card about 5 times bigger so that the drivers could actually read it. Klaus, my interpretor for my visit, told me the building is actually 20 years old and sat vacant for most of the time until rented by the Swiss and heavily renovated. I’m not quite sure if I believe him, but looking into the hole that was being fixed above this ad hoc construction barrier, I can perhaps see it.
What passes for a construction barrier outside my hotel
Nanchang has all the things I’ve come to expect for a Chinese city, with plenty of street life. The traffic, especially in the center of town where I was staying, was as exciting as anything I’ve seen. And yes, they pack themselves onto electric scooters.
There are some efforts to enforce order. Many intersections have police. I actually saw someone getting a parking ticket. And during rush hour Friday afternoon, the bikes were made to stop under threat of clotheslining.
I imagine that Nanchang today is a lot like Wuhan was 10 years ago, before so many people moved into more modern apartment buildings. New businesses celebrate with inflatable arches, flowers, and firecrackers…
…the debris of which starts to get swept up even before the smoke clears.
However, I didn’t see a whole lot of effort into picking up the dog shit or all the puke outside the bars. You can’t do too much rubbernecking in Nanchang and expect to get home with clean shoes. Steps from my fancy hotel were plenty what you might call back-alley shops if they weren’t packed-to-the-gills with people living their lives.
And it’s in these sorts of places that I avoid paying 135RMB for a breakfast that costs 4RMB. 6.5 if you get a couple stuffed buns to go with your noodles. My breakfast alley also had a small restaurant (6 tables by my count) with this amusingly large sign:
It was unseasonably warm during my visit, which makes me wonder if the food that’s being dried for winter is going to get screwed up.
As always, there are what are very likely migrant workers hanging out looking for work. These guys are plumbers and electricians, but as it was later in the day, I’ m guessing they hadn’t found work for the day.
As with many Chinese cities, there’s a lack of places to sit. But that doesn’t stop people from having a squat and a card game. Lots of buildings also have convenient ledges that get re-purposed by grannies who refuse to stop hanging out.
And there were also a few people conducting business without shops—which is typically limited to selling cellphone cases, socks, turtles, and bunnies, but in Nanchang includes barbers and seamstresses.
Saturday I had a half-day off from my visits, which allowed me to walk around a bit. A group of about a hundred soldiers also seemed to have the morning off. The first 30 marched around the corner, but the rest were casually strolling, some arm in arm, and others straggling behind to buy cigarettes.
My Saturday afternoon visit turned out to be in a library that was inside of Uncle Sam’s English school. English classes aren’t the only extracurricular lessons that happen. Some kids go to drawing class as well, which I previously thought was restricted to brush painting, but apparently includes perspective drawing as well.
On Friday, I stopped to see what a gaggle of middle-schoolers were looking at, and met a handful of Jordanian medical students watching with interest as the Halal butcher was taking care of a sheep outside of a Uighur restaurant. I made a note of its location, but was never able to make it back for the fresh meat.
The medical students seemed to be clinically interested in what was going on, but they were easily distracted by my presence and offered me the better view of the organs being tied off and extracted. I deferred in Chinese and they laughed that I assumed they were from here. ‘Why does he think we speak Chinese?’ they guffawed as they introduced themselves. Of course, their Chinese is better than mine, and I’m sure they know all the characters the body parts being removed from the carcass hanging in front of us. I wonder if they would be as amused as I was by the man who refused to stop smoking while he picked up his prescriptions from the pharmacist.
Back to Saturday, it was a day with plenty of weddings. I ran across more than one on my stroll.
This inspired me to pay a bit more attention to the fashions of Nanchang—again, a bit less developed than Wuhan. Taking inspiration from my friend Tricia, I tried to document a few of the ladies’ choices. I don’t have her moxy (or her language skills), so many of my attempts are blurry. But plenty of people wearing exciting patterns have their noses in their cellphones, so that makes it easier to capture them.
Shiny pants and platform sneaker girl is blown up from a wider shot.
And I’m pretty sure these girls were getting ready to pose as a group for me after I caught their friend preening in her thigh-highs and new winter coat. They looked a little disappointed when I walked away after getting the thumbs up to take the photo. Bus stops are a pretty good place to get these pictures without being noticed.
In addition to these exciting tights and fur vest, I was able to get a shot of a whole other group of folks concentrating on their phones. Don’t think that I’m only after the ladies. The men are harder capture, and many are reluctant or annoyed. The army officer husband of one of the librarians refused to be in our post-lunch group shop, and even refused to sit at the same table with us because he wasn’t feeling well. I was grateful for his concern about being contagious, but wonder if his reluctance was really because he came to the restaurant still wearing his quilted pajamas. But again, waiting for transit is a great place to spot things like buff middle-aged men showing off their biceps.
And my new friend Dilly, the Brazilian owner of Klaus’s favorite bar where we had our victory drinks last night, was only too happy to pose with his Chinese wife Baby after serenading me with Bessame Mucho and The Girl from Iponima. I have no idea how to spell bessame or Iponima—sorry.
My three days in Nanchang went better than expected, even though I’m still pretty unsure how two of the three libraries operate. I never did get to go into the pagoda which is the city’s symbol and is somehow related to (featured in?) a Wang Bo poem.
But I did get to walk through Ba Yi Park, which the Lonely Planet seems to think is the only worthwhile part of Nanchang.
It was awfully pleasant, filled with many of the features typical of the Chinese city park.
But there’s a lot more on offer in this city that is changing just as rapidly as anyplace else in China. The things that don’t change however are the ways that people use their public spaces to entertain themselves with Chinese chess…
…and never-ending card games that hold the undivided attention of the old men.
And of course, other traditions are present as well.
And less you think I’m kidding about visiting libraries, I’ll leave you with this image from the corner library room at Uncle Sam’s English School. As you know dear reader, I also love treasure hunts.