A whole lot of catching up to do

We are now in Guangzhou, having arrived later in the day on Thursday. Our apartment is relatively spacious but shabby – all tile and concrete, in need of a new paint job. The kitchen is a Chinese style galley. The counter is about knee high, maybe thigh high. There is a dorm fridge on the counter with a small microwave oven on top, a counter-top gas range, and a sink. I suspect it will be difficult for me to go an entire 10 months without baking so we will likely acquire a toaster oven at some point. The bathroom is the same size and shape as the kitchen with an open shower area (we need to aquire a curtain and tension rod) sink, Western toilet, and small Chinese washing machine (we dry the laundry by hanging it out on the covered balcony). The living/dining room has just enough space for a table with 4 chairs, TV and television cabinet, coffee table, and horrendous old leather sofa. The sofa is technically sectional, with three pieces that are not attached and tend to slide apart. The girls’ bedroom has enough room for 2 beds. The room is without closet or dresser so we need to purchase a dresser or armoire in the next couple of days. Our room is quite large, with a built in armoire and a small desk.

We went to IKEA first thing on Friday. This is the easiest IKEA access I have ever had (about 20 minutes by subway. I am not sure if it is a good or bad thing that I am not going to be here long enough to justify routine and significant IKEA shopping). We outfitted the kitchen, bathroom, acquired fun carpet spots, kids sheets and a children’s art table. We also got a bookshelf, additional desk, carpet for the living room, and table linens. I would have liked to get new curtains to replace the dull yellowed old curtains in the apartment but it seemed too big a project for the time being. The apartment is coming along nicely. I am quite certain that we can live here comfortably for 10 months.

Guangzhou is very green. There are 3 stately palm trees right outside our bedroom window. The vegetation seems to consist of palm and banyan trees and loads of bamboo growing to enormous heights. There are so many dragonflies – many a beautiful crimson and others turquoise – that when you look up into the sky you see dozens of them flying about. I have caught glimpses of birds as well but they seem to be staying within the shade and safety of the tree limbs. It is very warm and muggy. However, although I do a fair amount of sweating, for the most part I don’t find it intolerable. Yesterday morning was quite sticky but some storms rolled through and the humidity decreased a bit. Everyone says the heat lets up by the end of September. I am looking forward to a time when we don’t need the AC.

Mei-mei seems to be missing Vermont. She keeps talking about going to see a farm and about what is happening in her garden back at home. Whenever we are driving anywhere, she informs us that she would like to look out the window and see some cows and horses (a common activity when driving in Vermont). She tells endless stories about the cows and horses she has on her farm at home. Although we have had only one farm animal sighting (a donkey near the Ming tombs) we have seen many goldfish. In fact, there is a small fishpond at the bottom of the stairway leading to our apartment. The kids love to check in on the fish. We have seen some small lizards – one inside and another outside of the apartment. In addition to the lizards we have seen many of the other animals that, based upon peace corps residency in the Caribbean, I consider to be warm, wet climate creatures: bats, roaches and rats. We have yet to round out the category by coming across any snakes or frogs.

The city itself feels so different from Beijing. I would say that the power and importance of the State and the Party are at the forefront of things in Beijing. Also, so much of Beijing’s development is new – entire districts did not exist even 5 or 10 years ago. The 2008 Olympics also left their mark. Thus, like many capital cities, Beijing is a bit full of itself.

Because the free market was introduced first in Guangzhou and on account of the city’s proximity to Hong Kong, there is a grungier, edgier, cosmopolitan funkiness to Guangzhou. The city also feel more manageable. There are pedestrian thoroughfares on both sides of the Pearl River, the metro is cleaner, faster, cooler and comprehensive than Beijing’s subway system. The air quality is significantly improved over the capital.

All of this is not to say that the oftentimes capricious power of the local and central authorities are not to be felt in Guangzhou. In fact, Jason was stopped by the local authorities on our very first day in GZ. I will leave that experience up to him to recount. Also, we are finding it difficult and time consuming to navigate the multiple bureaucratic hurdles. Jason recently had to provide reams of documentation and an additional 9 passport photos for various agencies. We have been told that it will take them longer to process our residence permit than we have before our temporary guest visas expire. If this is the case, we will be in the country illegally. Most annoying of all, the University and the Hotel both claim they cannot provide us with internet access and that it will take many days for the necessary permissions to be obtained.

It is exceedingly frustrating dealing with the bureaucracy. First of all, it is not clear what the purpose of it all is. I can only conclude that there are 2 motivating factors: people throwing their muscle around; and people covering their asses.

There is a decent restaurant in the hotel. We ate there with some acquaintances our first night in town. At the beginning of the meal the server brings a pot of boiling hot tea. People then proceed to use their tea to sterilize their cup, bowl, plate, and chopsticks. The used tea is then dumped into a large glass bowl placed in the center of the table. Usually just the host orders the meal, engaging in lengthy conversations with the server. That first meal we ate tofu topped with soy sauce and fish roe, steamed pumpkin, bokchoy with garlic, and a steamed chicken. The chicken was served with the head on the plate (the kids thought that was very cool), skin on and the bones in, chopped into bite size fragments. You eat the chicken and spit the bone out. For dessert (although it is served with everything else) we had my favorite sweet dim sum dish – mini egg custard tarts – imagine a softer crème brulee in a flaky crust as well as white carrot rolls. We’ve been back to the restaurant on our own. It is so close to the apartment that we can look out our window and see the chefs working in the kitchen.

At this point, I feel like Guangzhou is completely live-able. All the same, will I have to experience the entire year with children in tow? Also, how am I going to get any work done without internet, childcare, a workspace, etc? I suspect that these issues will largely resolve themselves with time but, having been on the road three weeks already, I am quite ready to return to revising the dissertation and experiencing a meal not punctuated by frequent requests to visit the restroom.

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