Journal Entry #8
Nationalism, Knives, and a Night Out
As we approached the end of our first week in Beijing, we were getting settled in our apartment. I found an international market to buy familiar food and Chinese markets to buy produce. I still needed to buy towels, pans, pots, and other items to live at least comfortably in the apartment. While we had lovely sheets on the beds when we arrived, we were informed that we needed to hand in our duvets, quilts, and sheets to the housekeeping staff and needed to buy three king-size replacements for all the beds. Since we missed the initial faculty orientation, we also missed some of the day-trips organized by the school to help faculty settle in. I heard that one of the day-trips was to IKEA – a Swedish department chain-store that I loved in New York. IKEA was apparently a bit of a drive and in order to get everything back from the store, I would need a vehicle. Luckily, the school informed us that they would arrange a van to take me personally to IKEA to pick up items. This was great news! I would not need to negotiate a cab there and back. And, after five days of Chinese food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I was ready for Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes.
So, early Friday morning, Munyiva joined me in the van to head to downtown Beijing. The driver dropped us off at the curb under the familiar IKEA yellow and blue sign and we headed in through the sliding glass doors. Just like the sign, everything inside looked exactly like the IKEA in Paramus, New Jersey – where I did most of my home shopping in New York. I grabbed one of the blue plastic-woven shopping satchels and Munyiva and I loaded onto the escalator to the next level – showroom floor.
I had heard that IKEA in Beijing was like rush-hour traffic all the time. I anticipated a lot of people, but the reality was even more than I expected. If you were wondering, New York has roughly 9 million people. Beijing has over 21 million — and only one IKEA. http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/beijing-population/
There were, what felt like, a bazillion people shopping on this Friday morning. There was hardly any space to walk or navigate a cart, and true-to-form, the typical culture of Beijing pushing and cutting lines. I told Munyiva that we should get food first because the cafeteria line would be horrible closer to lunch time. Even though it was only 10:30am, we got on cue first thing to get the Swedish meatball meal. It was wonderful. I like it well-enough in the States but having the meal after traveling to the other side of the world made it comfort-food for me. While we were eating, I began to notice that one of my lower molars was hurting. (Foreshadowing)
After eating, Munyiva and I split up to be efficient. She had already been on a big trip to IKEA earlier in the month and only needed a few items. I needed to buy tons of stuff and already felt I knew exactly where things would be since I am an IKEA-pro back home. Towels, sheets, trash cans, an Expedit bookcase, kitchen cookery, and bathroom items…. Go!
While shopping, I found out something curious while searching for kitchen knives. You cannot buy knives in Beijing without showing your passport and registering. Only special stores sell knives. There is some speculation about the reason behind this law in Beijing. Some say it is because of the 70th Celebration in the Capital city, which honors the end of WW2 and China’s allies. Some say it is to tighten laws due to knife attacks. Well, for whatever reason, I could only buy a small paring knife at IKEA, and since the government will have my passport for close to a month, it will be a while before I can properly chop up garlic and veggies. (Article that tries to explain the knife laws. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2839565/posts)
There was actually one other very curious thing worth noting. And, it has been confirmed by several people to be very true, especially on hot days, like when I was there. At IKEA, Chinese people can be found literally sleeping in all the beds and chairs, even under the covers of the duvets. I kid you not. Please read this article for verification and plenty of humor and photos. http://www.ministryoftofu.com/2012/08/ikea-stores-a-wonderland-for-chinese-freeloaders/
I found everything I needed and only had one really confusing moment. I had to figure out what size the sheets were for a king-size bed. There were no labels indicating sizes in English so I had to speculate on the size in centimeters and meters — really feeling my American ignorance for conversion tables. All the labels were in Swedish and Chinese only. I got what seemed to be the biggest size of sheets and duvets and hoped it worked out. Last thing I would ever want to do is return items to IKEA in China. It is hard enough to do it in New Jersey.
I did not want to really decorate our apartment. For now, we are only planning on being in Beijing for Soren’s two-year contract and there is no need to buy a ton of stuff that we do not want to ship back home. We are keeping our fully furnished house in New Paltz. Even though I did not want to buy any home decor, I bought one special item that was absolutely not necessary. However, this purchase was in keeping with every other time I have shopped at IKEA. I always went in with a list and came out with hundreds of dollars of other items I did not need. Usually, it included more extension cords, light bulbs, and some type of cute pillow or plant. At the Beijing IKEA, I had to have a series of three canvases that, when hung on the wall side-by-side, showed the entire skyline of Manhattan. I love and miss that City! In the photos, I could even see one of the apartment buildings we used to live in next to Riverside Church. I plan on hanging it right above our couch in the living room of our Beijing apartment. The kids will love seeing the familiar sight from the George Washington Bridge angle.
We had agreed to meet the driver at 1:00pm, or as they tell time in Beijing, 13:00. As I made my way to the checkout, my tooth was beginning to really hurt and I had the same overstimulation feeling I always get after shopping at IKEA. All the turns and twists they make you take to get out of the store take a toll on your body and mind. I had been power-shopping to get all my items and be on time to meet-up. I literally tossed items in what turned into two shopping carts. I was trying to maneuver them throughout the store, and just like in Paramus, the wheels on the carts were totally dysfunctional and float across the floor. It was like wrangling cats to get the two overly-packed carts to the checkout line without hitting anyone or dropping items onto the floor.
I paid my bill with my Visa card and saw Munyiva standing a few feet away from the exit by the checkout area. Even though this was the most crowded IKEA I had ever been in, we had no trouble finding each other. She looked for the American blond and I looked for the Kenyan with dreadlocks. We stood out in a sea of Chinese shoppers. We had a few minutes to spare, so we decided to have an ice-cream from the food cart right outside of the checkout area. I ate my ice cream by tipping my head to the left so it would not get anywhere near my tooth.
Munyiva had a few bags worth of IKEA goodies and I had two flat-carts full of home items. We met the driver in the parking garage pick-up area. He had been waiting for us to return. We piled everything into the van and plopped into our seats exhausted. We made the whole trip to IKEA without speaking English or reading any of the products, so we felt very successful that we got everything we needed and more.
After unpacking all the IKEA bags back at the apartment, it was already time for the kids to return on the bus from school. They made it. Their first week of a new school in a new country. I ask them every day if they notice anything different or to share any new vocabulary or cultural exchanges. Nona said she thought it was funny how the British students say “toilet” for bathroom or restroom. When kids need to pee, they raise their hand, index finger pointed upwards, and say, “Toilet?” (I am sure you can hear this in a British accent.) They, of course, ask why we would say “rest” room or “bath” room, when neither of those adjectives make actual sense. Like football, which rarely uses feet, it appears that we have desecrated the English language with nonsense.
The Pub – Charcoal
It was Friday night and the teachers at Keystone were excited for the weekend. At dinner in the cafeteria a few folks asked if we were going to the “pub” later. Soren and I thought it would be nice to meet a few more folks and to go off campus to eat. It seems that teachers, universally, need to get out and let their hair down on the weekends. It is a tough job. Here they schedule trips for faculty to shop or sightsee and some trips that include going to the bar.
We met up at the front gate of the campus and got onto the school bus that would drive us to Charcoal, a local bar that mostly expats go to. See this review from Timeout Beijing: http://www.timeoutbeijing.com/venue/Food__Drink-Western-Western-_Food__Drink-Western-American-_Food__Drink-Western-Steakhouses/142756/Charcoal.html
Those of you unfamiliar with the term “expats”, it is a term used for people living abroad, in a country that is not their own, with the intention of returning to their country of origin – not fully immigrating. In this blog, it is a blanket term for those of us who came from countries all around the world to work and live in China.
I read an article before leaving for China that discusses living abroad. There is a theory that living away from your home country should decrease patriotism or nationalism by providing global opportunities to get to know other cultures and create more open-minded thought processes. However, as the article points out it may actually do the opposite in some ways, creating a “heightened nationalism.” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/isqu.12115/abstract
And, as I have experienced so far, I agree. I have never been more of an “American” than when moving to China. Visually, in China, it is pretty easy to see who is not Chinese, but easy to confuse all the expats. Are you from America? I have now learned how to say, “Wo shi meiguoren” (I am an American person) if the people asking are Chinese. (You can hear it here: http://www.standardmandarin.com/chinese-phrase/i-am-american)
It is one of the first questions expats ask if they can’t tell by your accent. It is one of the first questions I ask. Where are you from? Where are you originally from? Also, as I would find out at the pub, we tend to seek out our own kind.
When we got to Charcoal, the 15-20 faculty walked into a very rustic-chic bar. (I am sure my friend Beth could work some type of joke in here.) We sat at an outside area that had dark picnic tables on a wide-open deck. The outside area was covered in lovely mosquito netting and had twinkle lights lining many of the poles. It was a warm summer night, so we were comfortable in our shirtsleeves. There were several open areas to sit.
As it turned out, all the Brits sat together at one table and all the Americans sat at another. There were no Australians with us on this trip. Hardly any Chinese faculty came out either. At one table, all the young American teachers clustered. I was at the table with all the “old” Americans. We ordered drinks and appetizers and began getting to know each other. We actually had a conversation about nationalism and how Americans are perceived and the differences we noticed. There was one lone teacher who was from India at our table. He was lovely and, as we spoke about nationalism, he said he felt he was a man without a nation because he has lived abroad longer than he has lived in his “home” country. I became fascinated with how our experiences as a family would shape and change us.
We spoke of being Americans and living in China. Things like our total embarrassment over Donald Trump. And, how abroad, Obama is very respected. At home, he is ridiculed by many. We joked about how the nation wants to regulate our ovaries and gay marriage but not gun laws. I was told that I did not have the typical American smile. I have not gotten my teeth bleached yet. Americans are known abroad for their perfect white smiles.
We are also perceived as a very violent nation, even if the American expats are seen differently. One of the Americans at our table has her two children here in China. The daughter, a high school student, and multi-racial, hears from everyone how dangerous it is to be of color in the US and isn’t interested in going back. The knowledge of all the unarmed black men being shot and killed is well-known everywhere in the world. The US is seen as having a serious race-relation issues. (This does not mean that other countries do not also have similar reputations. But, it is the perception of the US abroad too.)
As we bonded over being American and what people think about our nation and what it means to be from the US, I was reminded of the book, “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum, http://www.amazon.com/Black-Kids-Sitting-Together-Cafeteria/dp/0465083617 We read this book as a whole faculty at one of the schools I worked at in New York. I recommend for all American educators working toward anti-bias and social justice in their schools and communities. While “enlightened nationalism” for me will never be the same as being black in America, it does allow me some insights into the need to seek comfort in people from my same culture and community. It also shows that people have perceptions about the US that do not represent me or my views. And, I will find, that I am asked to “represent” for the whole of the American people in many conversations as an expat. While studies may suggest that we do not benefit what we thought we would from living abroad, there are so many aspects that change your life forever for the better. There is great value, for white Americans living abroad, in opening our minds to what it feels to be a “minority”.
Article sharing positive outcomes for living abroad – http://masedimburgo.com/2014/06/04/17-things-change-forever-live-abroad/
After our appetizers were completed and our second round of beers delivered, I decided to mosey over to the British group to introduce myself – you know, a little cross-cultural exchange and all. As I arrived at their table, I wanted to explain why I was walking over. I said, “Hi! I’m mingling.” Well, I walked right into that one. I knew it as soon as it came out of my mouth. One of the Brits said, “Hi, Mingling! I’m Duncan. Nice to meet you.” We all laughed and joked, as really only the English can. See, the British have to bear the burden of being perceived as being the funniest people on the Earth. They certainly perpetuated this stereotype tonight at the pub. I heard Monty Python or Austin Powers in my head every time they spoke. I hung out with them for a while before we all needed to meet the bus back to campus.
It was a great end to the work week. I was productive at IKEA and we made if off campus for our first happy hour, where we met several new expats and friends.
There was only one problem. I had been unable to actually eat the appetizer that Soren and I ordered because my jaw and tooth were really beginning to throb. I had a bad feeling about it. By the time we got home, I needed to take Advil and went straight to bed. In the middle of the night, I woke up to take more and when I looked in the bathroom mirror, it looked like I had stuffed a tennis ball into my lower jaw, like a chipmunk. There was a hard knot that was formed, and I was in excruciating pain.
Next blog: It hasn’t even been a week, and I am off to the hospital in China.
Thank you for forgiving any writing errors.
They occur for a few reasons:
- I am writing most of the content on my cellphone in the notes section and then re-reading, retyping, and self-editing later. (Now that I have a Chinese phone, I am having even greater difficulty due to the software, layout, and NO SPELL CHECK in the notes section.
- No one else is reading or editing the blog before I post. Just me.
- I am having great difficulty with my technology situation, including the internet, and most importantly my blog page. Some errors I do see later, but cannot get in to edit until much later. Very frustrating!
- I am way behind on posting and would post more often so it would be closer to the actual date. But, between tech issues, software issues, and other drama, I am still trying to catch up.
- I prefer a much more superfluous vocabulary and writing expressions than I am capable of maintaining both with punctuation and spelling.
- I am only a marginally decent writer at best.
- But, I like to tell stories and hope that my errors do not distract from the overall feeling of our experience as a family moving to Beijing.
- The above disclaimer is part of the experience – clearly.