New York to Beijing – Taking a Tuk-Tuk and Other Transportation – Journal Entry #5

Journal Entry #5 IMG20150911080214Taking a Took-Took and Other Transportation

I slept through the night! It seemed that everyone else did too on our third night in China. Take that jet-lag. I told the children that they could not get out of bed if it was still dark out. Daybreak began around 5:15am and the light subtly shifted outside. I could not get back to sleep at that point, so I walked out of the bedroom to check on the kids. Lars poked his head out of his bedroom into the hallway. “Good morning Mom,” he said cheerily.

I asked if he was up for good and noticed that Nona was already sitting on a chair in the living room playing on her iPod. Lars said he was awake around 5:10am – he checked. He said he “might” have woken up Nona when he went to the bathroom on their end of the apartment. He said he used his flashlight on his iPod and it may have shined into her room. Hmmmmm. Fishy at best.

I told them that this was the last morning they could be on their tech before or after school. They are allowed Friday nights, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. Last school year, if it had been a good week, they could watch TV on Thursday night. We might do that here too. We have to see what their schedules are and how much homework they will have, and, as of now, we are not sure how we would be able to watch anything.

I showered in the master bathroom. Nona showered in the kid’s bathroom. Before I could wrap a towel around me, Lars was knocking outside the door asking if he should get dressed. They were both eager and excited for their first day at their new school.

The master bathroom has a sort of suite layout. There is an outer counter space where you can do hair and get dressed and an inner bathroom area with a door separating the toilet, sink, and shower. This sounds great. However, there is no mirror in the outer room. It would make more sense if the sink was out there too. Then folks could brush their teeth and wash their face. But, the counter space is nice and I have all my jewelry unpacked and tossed on top as well as my hair dryer, curling iron, make-up, and first-aid kit.

I have not been able to do my hair properly since we got here. (Only 2 showers worth – but still.) While all the electrical outlets are both western and Chinese combined, they do not accommodate 3-prong western plugs or the plugs that have a wider-tipped prong on one side. I cannot dry my hair. I can manage to just brush it and pull it back, but on a frizzy day, or when I want to look nice, I will need to figure this out.

Nona came to the outer master bathroom area and asked for help with her kilt. I was still in a towel. I told her to brush her teeth and that I would help her once I was dressed. They both got ready and actually did not look as bad as I thought they would in their uniforms. Lars looked nice in the powder-blue color and Nona looked very sweet in her very girly outfit. Her hair was wet, so I pulled it back and made one braid. She wore her tie. They were ready. It was 6:30am. The bus comes at 7:50am.

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Headed Down for Breakfast

We headed down to the cafeteria at 7am sharp for breakfast. There was bacon, fried eggs, and some very good fried-dough-hash-brown-type of Chinese dish. I put hot sauce on mine and it was quite good. The bacon was not crispy. Nona ate a croissant and Lars went straight for the cereal. We couldn’t get them to eat anything else. The cafeteria is quite large and not very full in the mornings. A slow but steady stream of people come in throughout the breakfast hour. Faculty, staff, and boarding students arrive at different times to grab a bite before classes start. We sat at a table with a few other administrators and teachers. Many people were new to the school, like us. Some just arriving only a few weeks before us, when we should have been here. (Saga of our delay on our passports and visas to come in a later journal entry.)

I walked the kids out to the front of the campus. There is a large, open archway that connects the primary and secondary schools near the front gate. The campus is situated a bit like a castle keep. Parents dropping off and picking up their children use the large drive-up area and the gates are wide open at this time in the morning. Administrators and teachers have morning duty, just like in the States, and can be seen greeting all the students and parents as they escort their children to school.

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Campus – Archway Connecting Primary and Secondary Schools

We exited through the wrought iron gate, swimming upstream against all the parents headed onto the campus. We passed the guard booth and headed straight to the curb. It is like Grand Central at this time of the day – cars lined up to drop off, cabs honking, school buses pulling up to drop off students. We were the only westerners I could see.

I scanned the area for our bus.  Earlier in the week, the bus company sent the bus number and a photo. That was extremely helpful! I saw what I thought was Lars and Nona’s bus driving toward the school. It has a British crown on the outside. When I say buses, even school buses, I mean the type that is usually chartered for tourists in the States. Large buses. Fancy buses. Buses that college teams take to travel games. As the driver approached our gate/curb, the guards who were managing all the drop-off traffic, signaled the bus driver to keep going. I am worried that we are standing in the wrong place, that we were supposed to be further out in the street, past the orange pylons used to steer drivers in the right direction. I had a moment of panic as the bus continued driving without stopping. Thankfully, the bus driver pulled to a stop about 25 meters further down the road. I rushed the kids over, avoiding traffic, and stepping between hedges that were not meant to be pathways, and deposited the children to their bus matron. She stood in the open door, waving at me. I said, “Hello.” It was easy to tell that neither the bus driver or the matron spoke English. I then said, “Ni hao.” (Knee-how) and gave Lars and Nona a kiss goodbye and crossed my fingers it was the right bus and that they would somehow return to me at the end of the day. I waved and said good-bye, “Zai Jian!” (dsigh – jen)

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Bus to British School of Beijing

Munyiva, the other “dependent”, volunteered to take me around the neighborhood. She said we could walk to a grocery store called Bravo and I could get a few bowls and spoons. The school had arranged a van to take our family to IKEA, which is in downtown Beijing. Yes, IKEA! I was so excited about this prospect. Who knew I could find my kaarlsbarge and my vorkensporken in Beijing. I figured I would understand the directions for assemblage the same as I did in NY, which was not-at-all Swedish, but familiar cartoon drawings. I even packed an allen wrench. However, this trip wouldn’t happen until the end of the week and I wanted to get paper towels, hand soap, dish soap, and a few dishes to hold us over until we stocked our kitchen properly.  

I went back to the apartment, grabbed my backpack, taxi booklet, water bottle, and return address card, and headed down to meet Munyiva close to 9am at the front gate. She said that it wasn’t that far. It was an absolutely beautiful day in Beijing. We took a right on the sidewalk past the guard booth and walked past three traffic lights before taking a left. I could call these blocks, avenues even. But that would be misleading to anyone familiar with block or avenue lengths in NY. The distance between blocks here is about an avenue and a-half in New-York-speak. We continued for many lengthy avenues.

When people came to visit New York City, they always commented on how exhausted they were from all the walking, especially on concrete. I had developed a pretty good tolerance or city legs. I have also developed the ability to carry several plastics or recyclable bags full of groceries for many blocks until my fingers take on a completely different shape and lose all feeling. Beijing was not intimidating when it came to the concrete jungle of New York. But these blocks are long here people! They seem to go on forever.

It was my first time walking around the neighborhood and it all seemed so impossible. All the signs were in Chinese, the street lights do not signal the same way, there are annex roads and lanes that run down each side of the street where scooters, bikes, and other vehicles drive, supposedly in the same direction. It is also where cars park. Very impressive to commit this amount of real estate to pedestrians and alternative transportation and parking.

I noticed several cars that appeared to be cabs driving about the neighborhood. They were mostly white with Chinese lettering on the doors and triangular signs running across the tops of the roofs. I have since learned what cabs look like here and am sharing a helpful link to cabs around the world that I found funny and useful. It compares NY to Beijing to UK to Paris.)

https://www.quora.com/How-does-the-taxi-signal-light-system-work

Anyway, the white cars kept driving in groups, following each other in packs of five or six. Randomly, at corners, they would all make U-turns. Munyiva explained that these were driving school cars and the students were practicing. At one point, we hear a student driver blast his horn at another car. I believe that was part of the lesson from what I know about horn honking and driving in China.

As we walked, Munyiva and I got to know a little more about each other. First, we realized that we were very close in age and we both have older children from former marriages. She is from Kenya but has lived abroad in several places. She met her husband while living in England. We were both very pleased that our children were at the same school and that we could help each other out. She had been in Beijing a whole four weeks more than I had, so she seemed like a pro already to me. She had figured out where to shop, where the subway was, how to catch a cab, and where to eat. She pointed out landmarks and shops as we walked. It was very helpful and she made me feel secure in getting around and orienting myself. It was only my second day in China after all. I didn’t even know the name of my neighborhood/district.

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Munyiva and I on our First Walk To Bravo

When we got to Bravo, I noticed several differences in the store than what I was used to. Something I would begin to notice in most places are the rubber flaps that hang in the entryways of the stores. Many places do not have doors, but rather a series of curtain like flaps you walk through that slap you in the back or face, depending if you are not careful. We go through the flaps/door past the men saying, “Foot massage?” in very broken English. Inside it looks a little like a mall. There are open shops selling jewelry, clothes, food, and electronics. It feels completely different from malls I am used to though, mostly because we walk through the shop area and have to go to an escalator that is flat – it has no stairs, but it transports you, with your shopping cart, hence the flat ramp-like quality, up to the next level where the grocery store is. There is an identical escalator that takes you and your cart down when you are finished.

We poked around the grocery store. I noticed the difference in smells and products. They had very fresh fish in big tanks. It smelled a little fishy – not my favorite smell. We maneuvered our way to a section that had bowls and spoons. I noticed something odd at that point. All the silverware was packaged in groups of three – three spoons, three forks, three knives. It took me a second, then a light went off in my head. I wondered if it was because, in China, most families have only one child. You would only need a mom, dad, and baby – three.

We finished shopping and carried our bags out of the store, past the dangling plastic flaps. Munyiva said we could take a “tuk-tuk” home so we didn’t have to carry all our bags home. She had been saying this before, while we were walking to Bravo, and I had no idea what she was talking about but thought maybe it was the name of some type of subway or cab. It turned out to be one of the three-wheeled, scooter-ish, golf-cart types of transportation. Apparently, they got their name from Thailand, where they are powered by gasoline and make a puffing sound as they drive. “Tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk,” I asked later in the week what the Chinese call this type of vehicle. I was told it is called a tricycle in Beijing. Well, these tri-cycles are electric. They have a small covered cab on top of a thin-wheeled three-wheeler. I think my Indiana friends might be able to picture it now. I have included a photo below for more visual confirmation and enjoyment.

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Chinese Tricycle or Tuk-Tuk in Thailand – Inside View

Munyiva seemed confident in being able to negotiate the ride back with the driver. Remember, we speak no Chinese and the driver speaks no English. She approached one of the waiting tuk-tuks and pulled out our laminated return address card provided in Soren’s orientation packet. “Take me to Keystone”. The driver was able to decipher the Chinese direction’s on the back of the card and shook his head in an affirmative movement. We said, “Xie xie”, (Shea-Shea) or “Thank you,” and climbed into the small cab with our groceries on our laps. We made it back very quickly by using some hand signals to turn right then left. When we stopped he said a number in Chinese. I had been reviewing the numbers the night before, assuming I better learn how to negotiate money as a first lesson. Munyiva had a rough idea what it should cost since she had taken a cab that had a meter for the distance. I had not. She said that it should cost between 20-26 kuai (quie – like quiet without saying the t.) This term is sort of like how we say “bucks” vs. dollars. Kuai is another term for the RMB or Yuan amount. These terms are interchangeable. So he charged us 26 Kuai. “Er shi liu” (R – sure – leo) and Munyiva paid him with the exact amount.  I will provide a small Chinese lesson in numbers in a later blog. They are actually quite easy to learn.

We exited the tuk-tuk and headed back onto the campus, past the guard booth and to our apartments. We live in the same building but on different floors. I live on the 7th floor and Munyiva lives on the 2nd floor. We said good-bye in the lobby because there are two elevator banks and we are on opposite sides of the building. Munyiva and I agreed to meet each other when the kids got off the bus and then we would  figure out a way to get to the British School for an evening afterschool and sports presentation. We hoped to take a cab together there and back. Boy, was I happy I met her and that our kids go to the same school. I was feeling very relieved to have someone to navigate all the new experiences with together.

Later in the day, we met the kids at the front gate for bus pick-up at 3:55pm. They literally bounced off the bus, chewing gum. No idea where they got it. Gui, Munyiva’s son, was with them and they already seemed to be fast friends. Lars and Nona were enthusiastic about their day without a trace of jet lag. Nona was missing her tie. She was told, funnily enough, by her classmates to take it off. They were both told by peers and teachers that while the school code says black shoes with black soles, the converse I bought Lars and the Vans I bought Nona would not pass dress code.

They wanted to play in the recreation center before dinner at 5pm. I asked if they had homework. Lars said no, but Nona and Gui both said they had a reading assignment. Both Munyiva and I agreed that they could do that before bed and that they could all go play.

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Fresh Off the Bus!

Munyiva and I walked them to the lobby of our building where the rec center is located. There are about four ping-pong tables (table tennis here), many lounge couches, air hockey, foosball, pool table, and game boards like Chess on coffee tables. The kids went right for the air hockey table. Faculty children can use the rec center whenever they want, however, they need to be respectful of the students who board at the school. The older students have limited free time and get priority when they are in the lobby. Munyiva and I took our kids backpacks and went to our separate apartments after we warned our kids to share the equipment and be nice. We agreed to meet with the children at dinner in the cafeteria at 5pm.

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Recreation Center in Lobby of our Apartment Building

The children had their freedom and I was able to go upstairs to rest. Soren arrived to the apartment shortly after I did, looking exhausted and walking with straight posture – they way you do when your back is out, not as a dancer. He went right to the bedroom, took off his work clothes, and gently laid down on his back in his boxers and t-shirt, on top of the covers.

Around 4:50pm, Lars and Nona knocked on the apartment door. They were still bouncy and energetic. We prepared to go down to the cafeteria for dinner. The kids decided not to change out of their uniform. Next time I will make them so I can keep the uniform clean. We only ordered one skirt for Nona and two shorts for Lars and I have yet to figure out how to do laundry. The apartment has a small washer in the kid’s bathroom suite, and I bought the soap at the Bravo store today. But, I do not know yet how to dry the clothes other than hanging them on the shower door.

I packed my backpack with the map of Beijing and a handy taxi guidebook provided in Soren’s orientation package. It was an index-card-size flip-book sectioned off by categories such as educational institutions, shopping, business etc. The address to the children’s school was included in the book – in English and Chinese. The idea is to show the taxi driver the card and see if he recognizes the address and ask him to take you to your destination, all using hand signals and pointing. Definitely, an act of faith for me to get in a cab in China with someone who speaks no English and hope to get dropped off where you are supposed to go – secondary is that they don’t drive around in circles to up the fare. Taxis in Beijing are metered, but that doesn’t mean that drivers won’t take advantage of a naive foreigner.

The children and I headed down to dinner. The cafeteria is located about 20 yards from the lobby. We leave the building, turn right, and walk on a covered pathway, passing a few windows on the way to the cafeteria door not too far away on the right. We left Soren in the apartment, sleeping. He said he wasn’t hungry and couldn’t move. I said I would walk the children back up after dinner because I feared he wouldn’t hear them knock on the door and they would be stranded outside until I returned from the school event. Soren and I both have IDs on a lanyard that we wear around our necks while out and about on campus. The IDs double as a key to our apartment door. (The ones that say staff for him and dependent for me.) The children do not have these yet, so they cannot come and go as they please.

Dinner consisted of sticky white rice, curry chicken (Chinese style), sautéed Chinese vegetables, and some type of pork. There was a garden salad too. The dining room has three serving stations located at the counter that runs the length of the far back wall from the entrance. Silverware, including chopsticks, are on a table that is centered perpendicular in the middle of the back wall. Another refrigerated glass case area near the counter contains fruit and desserts, tonight watermelon and small rectangular cakes. There is a small water cooler located next to one of the room’s support columns about 10-yards from the counter that has small IKEA like colorful cups on a tray placed on top of the cooler. Part of the back wall has an area to place used dishes and garbage cans for the waste. The rest of the room has blond-colored wooden round tables with eight sturdy wooden chairs around each.

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Cafeteria

Lars took a cream-colored hard plastic plate located next to the one of the stainless steel serving areas and, using tongs, put two pieces of chicken and nothing else on his plate. He said he wasn’t hungry. I said, “But you love curry chicken.” He said, “It doesn’t look like this.” Wishfully thinking, I put white rice and one piece of chicken on Nona’s plate. She said she wasn’t hungry either. We sat at a table near the water cooler with a few other faculty members. I made Lars and Nona take a few bites of food. It was a battle. I tasted the chicken and, although it looked like it was the type that was chopped and cooked in small pieces – bone and all, there were no bones. It was quite good. The kids should like it. But, they were not open to new foods back in the States, let alone in China. I decided, that over the last few days they had moved to a new country, new apartment, and went to a new school, I would let them slide on trying the new food – for today.

They were beginning to look tired. They were slouching in their chairs and Nona started sucking her thumb, a habit we have not been able to break her of yet. She usually only does it when she is very tired or stressed. They asked to have one of the cakes. I said sure. They looked better than they tasted. I didn’t have one, but the kids said they were too cold and very hard.

Around this time Munyiva came in with Gui and they joined us at the table. Gui’s plate was full of white rice only with a squirt of ketchup making a trail around the top. She said he was also a picky eater. As we started to eat, I noticed Soren making his way to dinner. He filled a plate and joined us. I was happy he would eat now. The snacks I brought home from Bravo today would not be filling enough. Both Lars and Soren get “Hangry” when they are hungry and I try to avoid that.

Julie, an administrator at Keystone, was at our table. Interestingly, and small-world worthy, she met Soren when he was a child. She had worked at the Webb School in California where Soren’s father, Roy, was the Dean of something. She knew Roy well and recognized Soren’s name when she heard he had been hired. She is American and has a strong and warm presence. She was helping Munyiva and I figure out if we could actually call a cab or if we needed to try to hail one. There was a hearty discussion about apps used in China to hail cabs. Uber works here. But I don’t have my phone set up yet and Munyiva does not have an Uber account and I am sure there is some other complication. There are also some great Chinese apps. But, they are all in Chinese.

The office was closed and couldn’t help us. Julie tried to call one of the driver’s used by the school but they had previous engagements. So, Munyiva and I would have to walk to the subway, about 2 avenues in NY speak, away. Apparently, there would be a better chance of cabs floating around that area than in front of the campus gates. It was still going to be a fingers-crossed-that-we-make-it-there adventure. 

To Be Continued……….

Part-Two Posting in a Few Days – What Sport Means to the Brits – Football vs. Football – You Say Tomato, I say something completely different

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