New York to Beijing – Hey, wait! Did I move to England instead? – Journal Entry #6

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Journal Entry #6

Hey, wait! Did I move to England instead?

On Lars and Nona’s first full day of school, our third day in Beijing, their school held an evening event for sports and creative arts at 6:00pm.  Munyiva and I agreed to go together. We finished dinner in the cafeteria close to 5:30pm, and I ran up to the apartment to grab my backpack so we could leave for the event. We left our kids with Soren and her husband, Richard, a high school design-technology teacher. He is from England.

We hoped to share a cab. It is only a 10-15 minute ride away, but we needed to find the cab first. Even though we live near the airport, cabs are scarce in front of the school as the road is not a naturally busy one. We decided to walk a few blocks to the subway because there is a better chance that cabs will be hovering there. The school is located on the outer edge of Beijing, not downtown. Sort of like being in West Chester compared to Manhattan, or for those in the Midwest, Carmel vs. Indianapolis. Cabs need to be arranged. Photo below shows an aviation training facility right outside our window. Our view is on the backside of the campus, facing the mountains. The green lot is designated to be built-out this year.  Not sure what yet. The airport is about a 20 minute drive and the subway is to the right of the photo, only  a few blocks away.

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Living on the Edge of Beijing

Munyiva and I walked through the front gates of the campus, past the guard booth and took a left on the sidewalk, heading towards the elevated subway stop. The sidewalk is wide and lined with trees on either side. There is an annex lane for bikes and parking that is separated from the sidewalk and the main road by low boxy hedges. The main road, Anfua Street, is wide with 2-lanes going each direction. There is another annex lane for bikes and parking on the other side of Anfua. Looking out from the school entrance, directly across the road, is an apartment complex and a small side-street shopping center. There are a few banks, coffee shops, and of course WuMart on the end. The buildings are about 5-6 stories high with apartments and warehouses on top of the shops, like NY but not as high. There is a parking lot in front of the shops.

It is turning dusk as we come to the first cross-street corner. I am looking around for both pedestrian signals and street signs. There are no crosswalks at this particular corner that I can see, and people walk when the car signal going their direction turns green. It is rush hour. It can be compared to crossing a much wider 125th street. Except there are not as many buildings or people on foot, but more bikes, scooters, and took-tooks bustling about – some going the wrong way on the street. It is more the general feeling of 125th for me as a driver or pedestrian. Pay attention so you don’t get run over or in an accident.

We make it across the street. There is an area under construction on the left-side corner. There are weeds growing at the edges of the low cement divider between the building they are working on and where we are walking. We are using a lane designated for foot-traffic, bikes, and scooters going both directions. There is no side-walk on either side of the road. And no signs that actually designate this as a walking lane. I am only guessing due to the patterns of how it is being used. Also, Munyiva walked with confidence. Having been in China a few weeks more than me, she had figured out at least the surrounding blocks of our new neighborhood.

On the right side of the street there is stone wall about 10 feet high that runs the length of the block. It has spray paint on it and places where the wall is crumbling and falling down. Weeds grow all around the base. A stark contrast from the fancy facilities of the school campus just yards away on the opposite corner. I learn later in my time in Beijing that the area we live in has grown exponentially over the last few years. It is all relatively new construction everywhere and we should expect any open lot to be built up in the next year.

At the far end of the block (avenue and a half to me) I can see an elevated train crossing. There seems to be an area where vehicles are clustered. We walk toward the subway, hopeful to catch a cab. A crowd of people getting off of work are headed in the opposite direction as us on foot and scooter. I see some moms driving their children sitting side-saddle on the back of the scooter, with surgical masks on their faces to protect them from pollution. As we near the subway, there is a Subaru car lot. Nice, new cars are parked perpendicular on the road next to us and the lot is filled with a variety of vehicles. The car lot looks just like home. 

We start to pay attention to the cars driving on the road next to us to see if any of them are cabs and are on duty. Cabs are dark green here with yellow strips on the side. The on/off duty sign is hard to see and I have yet to see one lit up. (The know-how for Beijing cabs is in the  previous blog entry and covers the basics.) We signal one cab driving towards us. No luck, even though the cab was empty. There is talk that all foreigners are profiled here. No driver wants to pick us up because our Chinese is most likely non-existent and that makes it difficult for drivers to figure out where we need to go.

We began signaling what New Yorkers call “gypsy” cabs.

Sidebar social justice lesson — This term is not appropriate and is a slur to the Romani people (gypsies), as it refers to illegal cabs and therefore by calling them gypsy, the impact suggests a stereotype that the Romani people are thieves. See article: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8729619 The correct term would be livery cabs. In NY, livery cabs are mostly town cars. They are not supposed to pick up pedestrians off the street unless they are called by their cab company. You have to negotiate a price because they do not have meters if you hail one without calling ahead. If you do not know the price for the distance, the driver’s can take advantage of you. Another term to avoid is “getting gypped”, which comes from “gypsy” and is a racist term stating that you have been cheated and that the Romani are cheats.

The next Beijing livery cab pulled over to us. It was a minivan. (I will comment on private drivers in a later post.) Because Munyiva knew roughly the cost to drive to the kids school in a metered cab, we felt we could negotiate the price. I leaned through the open passenger seat window and showed the driver my little flip book and pointed to the address of the school. He spoke absolutely no English and I spoke absolutely no Chinese. He looked perplexed at the card. Then Munyiva said that sometimes they did not know the address of the British School (BSB) because it is not on a well-known street. She flipped the pages to a location of a more well-known school, The International School of Beijing (ISB), just around the corner from BSB. She pointed to the directions to ISB. The cab driver said yes. Well, he nodded his head in agreement to us. We got in the car.

Munyiva said we would have to signal him when we got close so he wouldn’t drop us off at the wrong school gate. He still assumed we were going to ISB, not BSB. A great number of international schools are located in our district – Shunyi. They are all fairly new,  and were built where the land was available. BSB is only eight years old and Keystone Academy, where Soren works, is only two years old.

I had only been to BSB once, the previous day, but had a general sense of direction and where it was compared to our apartment. We felt that the driver took a little detour to add some mileage, but only a bit. We were both paying attention.

It was getting dark out and the street lights were coming on. All the roads were very wide but there was not a lot of traffic. As we approached the International School, we could see the gate and lettering of the other school in English. We signaled with our hands to the driver to keep going straight, past ISB’s entrance. There was a moment of him grunting and trying to turn left into the gate, but we were insistent with our hand signals. He drove on, hesitantly, grumbling under his breath. I imagine something like, “Foreigners! I shouldn’t have picked them up.”

About a block and a half further down the road, we needed to turn right, into our children’s school driveway. The signage at the street level is not that great. I can see why driver’s wouldn’t know about the street or the school. We are able to use our crude sign-language to get him to turn right and drive us about a half a block to the entrance of the school. Munyiva said that cabs usually cost about 23-25 Kuai for the trip. (American $4) The charge for this trip – 27. He did drive around a bit. We were right, but we didn’t haggle the price.

We agreed that Munyiva would pay for the way there and I would get the return cab. She paid and we got out of the cab on opposite sides. Other parents were arriving, some in fancy cars with drivers, some on foot, some in cabs. They were mostly white, I am assuming from England since is it a British school. (I find out later that many are German due to the large amount of car industries in Beijing.) We approached the guard booth, similar to the one at Keystone. Munyiva already has her school ID badge and can swipe it in the security system and enter. I have to sign my name on the clipboard and wear a green visitor pass sticker. Apparently there was some email asking parents for photos to use so they could create our IDs. Add that to the list of things I need to get done this week.

We go into the lobby, a bright, airy, open space with high ceilings and a reception desk to the right. The room is filled with folding tables covered with banners indicating the sport, drama, or music selection. Faculty and parents are mingling. There are tables with food and wine. It is loud and confusing. My jet lag was catching up to me and I was having a sensory overload experience. Thankfully, some coach, I assumed due to the athletic get-up he was wearing, took mercy on us, having apparently seen the deer-in-the-headlights look we were giving off, and said we were to head directly to the “theatre” for a brief presentation. I put theater in quotes as one of the English terms I will begin spelling differently — well as Gary, one of the Brits at Keystone pointed out, correctly.

The door we entered opened up toward stadium seating. We sat in the second row, of about 25, as soon as we walked up a few steps in the theatre. Munyiva sat two seats in and I was on the end. The room was beginning to fill up, but it was not packed yet. I checked the time on my phone, which is its only use other than a camera these days. I still carry it in my back pocket out of habit and a secret belief that somehow it will still work to text and call if I shake it hard enough. We made it by 6:08pm to our seats. Not bad since we didn’t think we would be able to navigate the cab.

We faced the medium, c-shaped stage located by the entrance doors. There was a large screen pulled down in the back used for the presentation. There were tables lining the back and sides of the stage piled with trophies and ribbons. The middle table had overly large trophies, giant silver bowls with black bases, ones you could not possibly carry. I realized later on that these had plaques all around the base where students’ names would be engraved for winning these awards during a given year, for a given team. The screen presentation was running in the background. It had a photo of each sport team from the previous year with a list underneath of the name of the students who won most-valuable, most improved, and honestly I stopped reading them at that point.

I had already been feeling funny about the competitive nature of the school. As an inclusion advocate in America and a social justice educator, I have developed a visceral reaction to bragging and lifting up one superior child to be the beacon for all others to aspire to. The games are rigged in my opinion. Rigged by a system of those with access and privilege. Access to lessons, equipment, schools, parent support, even good genetics. This privilege comes in many forms and trophies and awards continue to keep the status quo in place. As a person who has been awarded more than her fair share of athletic ribbons and awards, and having coached several teams, I believe in competition and recognition of athletic feats. Don’t get me wrong. I also believe that striving for success and setting goals are real ways to help children improve and achieve. But, early cuts from teams can cause real harm when it is important that students be encouraged to be physically active and participate. The states can be overly competitive too. This is not just a British or Chinese thing – it is a worldwide system.

I digress.

This evening presentation was for sports, music, and drama. And, as with theatre, I learned that it is actually called “sport”.  They speak of sports the way we talk about deer. There is no plural.

The Headmaster, a British man, welcomed us and shared the school’s values with all the parents. He was charming and warm. He spoke of children participating in sport. Also, he advocated for creative arts in the same way Sir Ken Robinson did in his TED Talk. If you haven’t seen it yet, give it a listen. All educators should watch this powerful reminder. http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en

Apparently, BSB has been making a big push to increase creative arts and sport offerings for all the students. It is one of the pet projects of the Headmaster. I am very pleased to hear this and am looking forward to Lars and Nona’s participation.

After the Headmaster’s welcoming remarks, a bevy of coaches were introduced as well as the creative arts staff. Parents were invited to peruse the tables in the lobby to make selections for their children for the first term. Munyiva and I left the theatre and discussed what we wanted our children to sign up for. Amazingly, this private school offered after school activities (ASA) every day, and sport is a part of those offerings. This is in addition to the PE and arts classes they will take during their daily school schedule. And, it is all free. There is no additional charge for the ASAs.

I did not understand it at the event, but figured it out later in the week, the ASA sports are different from the competitive sport teams. After all my grumbling about awards, it appears they are doing a wonderful job in making sure all students who want to play a sport can, at least in the “primary” grades. (They use the terms primary and secondary school, which are elementary and high school to us. Their secondary starts in 7th grade.)

Oh, and they do not have grades levels. They are grouped by “years”. Winona, 4th grade in the States, is year 5 at BSB. Lars, 5th grade, year 6 here. I will have to correct myself at each table in the BSB lobby ASA sign- up as each teacher asked what year my children were in before telling me the schedule.

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Winona Playing Football 

Some other differences to note…

We say track or cross country, they say athletics. Munyiva and I had a funny and confusing conversation around this difference. She said she wanted Gui to do athletics. I thought, I also want my kids to be as active as possible and join as many in the ASAs as possible. “Which table should we start with?” I asked her. She said let’s find the athletics table. I was confused and she was surprised that I had never heard track called athletics. We laughed.

Then I said I wanted them to sign up for soccer. Well, as you fine readers know, it is called football in most of the rest of the world. Many other words pop up that are different to us. Cleats, for instance. All the folks here have never even heard of the word. They say football boots. I asked, “Why boots? Do they go up high on the ankle.” The answer is, no – they are just regular cleats. They literally had never heard the word before.

Munyiva and I want our kids to join swimming, which seems to be the most popular sport at the school. I thought it would be great for Lars and Nona to learn how to swim properly. To this point, even though Lars is learning to surf and they both swim well, their form is pathetic. We head to the swimming table. There I am informed that I need to purchase them a swimming “costume” for PE classes. Just means swimsuit. Then I started wondering why ‘suit’.

Here is where I began to get really confused between ASA sport, regular classes during the day, and the team sport. I wandered around to all the tables and became overwhelmed and decided to take the sign-up sheets home and decipher all the choices later. Munyiva used one of the 10 laptops they had in the center of the lobby for parents to sign-up on site. The ASAs and sport team practices wouldn’t start for two weeks and sign-ups were due by the Friday, a few days away.

As it ended up, Lars in on the football (soccer) team which practices two days a week, Monday and Thursday. He and Nona are also on the ASA football team which practices one day a week, Tuesday. I took them shopping for their football boots, shin guards, and football. Seemed ridiculous to by a football that looked like a soccer ball to me. Honestly, I call it soccer as much as possible, even in the emails to the coaches. Just to be a nudge. I can’t call it football, especially with American football season kicking off. We have had some silly conversations around the cafeteria tables discussing where American football gets its name. A sport where only the kicker uses his/her foot on the ball only a few times during the game. The irony is not lost on me.

As for creative arts, both Lars and Nona are signed up for Choir and “Pips” (band) during lunch at school. Nona is learning the trombone, and Lars is learning the trumpet. They are also getting private piano lessons during the school day. They both do ASA swimming on Wednesday in their swimming costumes and Nona does athletics (cross-country) on Thursday with Gui. Their school bus brings them home on the late sports bus each day, just in time for dinner at the cafeteria. A mom could get used to this.

The Headmaster was right – the school is focused on a well-rounded education and wants all the children to have access without additional fees. Even though signing up was overwhelming, I am thrilled with the amount of additional activities my kids get to be part of this year. If only every school could offer such a range for students, rather than having the arts and sports cut from the budget.

At the end of the evening event, I felt that I had moved to England, not China. I got over my initial attitude toward the school’s competitive nature and I realized that we would be experiencing many cultural differences during our time here.  And, most likely, we will move back to the states with a British accent after living in Beijing. But, I will still call it soccer.

Next Post: Riding side-car in Houshayu,  finding a Western (American/European) food market, and going to the pub with faculty from around the world.

2 Comments

  1. Hey, Aunt Angie!! I just started reading your blog a week ago and am enjoying it very much. It reads like chapters in a memoir and there’s nothing I love reading more 🙂 I appreciate how descriptive you are of your surroundings, really setting the scene for us and I feel like I could draw a map of your new neighborhood if I had to 😉 thanks also for the insight into the gypsy slurs. I use the word “gypped” and have for a long time wondered where that word came from, assuming it began as something offensive. Actually, most recently when I have used it, I have paused after, feeling like I shouldn’t use it. I don’t know, something just didn’t sound right about it as I’ve gotten older and tried to be more aware of such things. I always visualized it being spelled “jipped” though, so “gypsy” as a root was never on my radar. I also digress, but wanted you to know that I appreciated the little lesson and will now be more mindful and not ignorant in that regard. Thanks for sharing your journey and keep the posts coming! I try to spread out reading so I don’t have to wait for the next 🙂 lots of love to you all! Xoxoxo ~Jody

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