Friday, June 28, 2013

Moving Day

Moving day finally arrived. There were several times in these weeks leading up to it when I thought I might die, if it's possible to keel over dead from exhaustion. I finally got over my super long cold but am entering the third trimester with plenty of exhaustion and back pain, even without dealing with the move. Lately I am far too tired and uncomfortable to sleep. Apparently my body is gearing up for jet-lag because I've been waking up at 3:30 or 4am unable to sleep for hours.

A few weeks ago Kevin hurt his hand, which has been a bit of a problem in the packing and moving process. It is still sore but now he can at least pick up things again. Juliana is very familiar with packing suitcases for a trip but is completely thrown off by packing up everything we own. She has been pretty stressed and confused lately. Even though we've tried to explain what is going on, she doesn't quite understand that she will in fact see her toys again (like “8 months later” really means much to a preschooler), we're not just taking them all way. She also has been a little freaked out to leave our sight; I think she's afraid we will leave her behind.

Despite the challenges (Did I mention the heat? And the A/C unit in our bedroom just stopped working...), all of our belongings are packed and no one died in the process. Even if we wanted to move all our things down from the 6th floor, down the road, and back up to the 3rd floor on our own (which we didn't), I can't carry anything heavy and Kevin can't carry much with his hurt hand. So we hired a moving company for about $70. Originally we scheduled the moving guys to arrive at 9am this morning, but they called the night before to say it would be noon instead. Shortly before noon, they called back to say 2-3pm, and they finally arrived just after 4pm. I guess we should have expected it.

Three normal-sized Chinese guys pulled up downstairs in a large truck. We were their third move of the day, and they were happy that almost all the furniture belonged to the landlord. Still, we had 40 boxes and a dozen trashbags, plus two cabinets and a crib. I'm pretty sure we moved here with about 30 boxes total (larger ones, granted), so the accumulation mystery continues. Where did all this stuff come from?? It's not like our apartment is that big.

The three men sized up the load and then started hauling. They looked like average sized guys, no bulging muscles or anything, but looks can be deceiving. I watched the first guy tie together half a dozen boxes, strap it to his back, and head off down the stairs with a load twice as big as himself. One man was obviously the main mover. Even though he had already moved two households today, he was still smiling, joking with the other guys, and chatting with me as he energetically gathered boxes. He rather seemed to relish his job.

He strapped eight boxes together and hoisted them onto his companion's back. When the other guy wavered and decided it was too much, the main mover said something to the effect of, “Really? You can't handle these eight boxes? Come on!” Then he strapped them to his own back and headed downstairs with no problem. A couple of trips later, he hoisted our large 3-door wardrobe onto his back. It was too big to fit down the stairs frontwards, so he backed his way down 5 flights of stairs - with the giant wardrobe on his back. It was all highly impressive and a little nerve-wracking. I was a little concerned for our belongings and a bit more concerned that this would be the part where someone keeled over dead. If this were the States, they could probably put on a show and charge admission.

Kevin stayed downstairs to watch the belongings being loaded into the truck, and I stayed upstairs telling the movers which items to take. I would have felt a little bad about sitting and watching them work so hard if not for my big pregnant belly. At one point I moved a very light box out of the way and they said, “Oh no, don't pick that up. We'll move it.”

Halfway through, the men paused downstairs for a smoke-break and when they came back up they had stripped their shirts off. It was mid-90's after all. One guy paused appreciatively in front of our fan but the other guy explained that he was avoiding the fan because after sweating so much he was afraid of getting too cool. Uh huh. Two of the guys were starting to look winded, but the main mover was still energetic.  He showed his moving buddy how to balance a chair on his back and still have his hands free for a couple more items.  Finally he strapped four large boxes of books on his back and trotted off downstairs.

In just under 1.5 hours, everything was moved downstairs. Now all that was left was carrying it up 3 flights of stairs to our new apartment. Piece of cake. They were finished by 7pm.

I'd say those movers were definitely worth it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chinese phone conversations

By Kevin

I have a confession to make. I hate making phone calls, particularly to strangers.

It was one of my least favorite parts about being a journalist. I hated being the interruption to somebody's day. I hated the impersonal nature of it. But it was a necessary evil. If I wanted the story, I had to make dozens of calls a day. So I sucked it up and did it. For an introvert like me, it was always a task. It wasn't something I did on the spur of the moment. It took deliberation. It was a means to an end. I even got to the point where I didn't mind it so much because I can type much more quickly (and legibly) than I can take notes by hand.

If I hated making phone calls in America, imagine my hesitation in China. For my first year in China, I didn't even have a cell phone. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to go for a hike in the hills behind campus and not have to worry about it ringing with some pressing need. My students and superiors all had my home number. That was good enough.

I only broke down and bought one because Ruth and I were dating and I wanted another way to talk to her on the days when our Internet in Tonghua cut off at 11 p.m., making Skype useless. I also decided I'd need something I case I needed help getting out of inevitable travel difficulties on my first solo domestic China trip to see her in Yangzhou. But I only spoke English. Only to friends. In fact, the only people I gave my number to were friends -- and if they were my friend, at that time, they could speak English. If someone on an unrecognized number spoke Chinese to me, I apologized, told them I was a foreigner and my Chinese was bad, and hung up. If it was important, they'd find an English speaker to help them call again.

Year three, when we moved to Weinan, I was forced to pick up the phone and call my first Chinese stranger: the water delivery company. In China, you can't drink the tap water, so you must purify your own water with a boiler or filter or buy bottles of purified water (a bit like those 5-gallon Sparkletts bottles you can sign up for in the States). The first words out of my mouth (in Chinese) were: "I am a foreigner." Then, reading from a script, I informed them that we needed them to deliver a bottle of purified water to my door. I crossed my fingers and hoped that they'd understood. Thankfully, the water company had gotten the routine down from the previous foreigners who lived there, so as soon as they saw our telephone number on their caller ID, they knew the drill. Before long, I just had to tell them I was the foreigner on the third floor. An hour later, water would magically appear. Success. I could speak Chinese. As long as it was written out in script form. If they varied from the script, I was utterly lost. I usually just went back to the top and repeated myself. In Tonghua, this wasn't an issue mainly because I had a water purifier in my apartment, so I never had to order water delivery. This continued for years three through five. My Chinese improved incrementally in that span of time, but not enough to branch out beyond the now memorize script, plus a few variations.

Year six in Yinchuan was the start of language school. Day one, we repeated the water ordering routine we'd established in Weinan, first informing them I was a foreigner, then explaining our need for water and where we lived.

A month later, one of our homework assignments was to call information and ask for a particular phone number. I was so spooked when the operator asked me to repeat my request (the name of a park) that I had to call back a second time to get the number right. I continued to avoid phone calls.

Halfway through the year, I signed up for a Taobao account (kinda like an of China, though China also has I figured it would be easy, I'd use Google translate to sort out any problems I had with ordering, then the items would arrive. The delivery guy would either call or send a message upon arrival (most domestic deliveries in China don't arrive via the standard postal service), but it wouldn't be too difficult, even with beginner Chinese. Then one of the orders was bad. Apparently sometimes Taobao merchants continue to list items that are out of stock. So one day, after ordering something, the merchant called to explain to me that they didn't have the item. It took me awhile to figure out that she was asking if I wanted another similar item or if they should return the money. Eventually I figured out to just ask for a refund. It didn't make me enjoy talking on the phone any more.

An aversion to talking on the phone isn't exactly a great trait to have as a language student. Some students might relish the challenge of a phone conversation. They might be excited to see how well they can communicate. They may be excited to see if the other speaker is able to guess that they aren't Chinese. Generally that isn't me. I just want utility. Usually talking on the phone is nothing more than a necessary evil.

The one highlight to my phone experience in China was when one day, I had to order more propane. Our apartment has a small 10 gallon propane tank underneath the counter to run our stove burner. It needs a refil every 8 months or so. Anyway, when the delivery guy arrived, he was shocked that I was a foreigner. It was the ultimate compliment: I hadn't made enough pronunciation or grammar mistakes in my short phone conversation to reveal myself as a non-native speaker. I was ecstatic.

I should probably put today's phone calls in the "language win" column. After all, in the end I was successful at completing my task. I think. But after a rash of miscommunication, it feels like it belongs in the "loss column."

Let me explain. We will be moving next week. Ruth is 6 months pregnant and I fell down while jogging two weeks ago. Nothing was broken, but I scraped the knuckles of my left pinke badly enough that I still can't bend it and sprained my wrist badly enough that twisting bottles and lifting heavy boxes is out of the question. Not ideal timing for us to move. Since we live on the sixth floor and will be moving to the third, we need to hire movers to do the heavy lifting. Thankfully hiring movers plus a van here costs less than renting a moving van in the States.

So I called up some movers recommended by my Korean classmate (who ironically taught at the same college in Tonghua as I did the year after I left -- but that's a different story). My classmate said they charged them 200 RMB for the move, which is half of what some American friends paid for their move. The caveat -- their new building has an elevator. So the operator answered and cut quickly to the chase: where were we moving from and to, how much stuff and what floors. She didn't recognize the new apartment complex, so I explained that it's just across the street from our campus gate. I explained that we have very little furniture, just a wardrobe and a crib and 40 or so boxes of various sizes. Then the floor - sixth to third. It took her a few seconds and she gave me a quote: 350 RMB. Reasonable, but I figured I'd try another mover.

Yesterday, my classmate Kevin -- whose apartment we will be moving into -- had arranged to move some other furniture and boxes belonging to our friend Kaylene into his apartment at Cai Xiao (the name of the complex). Kaylene had to leave early last year for medical reasons and plans to return to a different city in China after she recovers. So we packed up her stuff, bought some of her furniture (since our new apartment is mostly unfurnished) and decided to store it all in our apartment while we are in the States awaiting the birth of baby #2.

Kevin had also bought some of her stuff, so he called the movers and got a quote that he could move the stuff -- from floor 2 to floor 3 of Cai Xiao -- for 260 RMB per truckload. Plus, the movers would charge a little extra for big stuff like refrigerators and giant wardrobes. He set it up for Tuesday morning. Kevin said the guy's Chinese was a bit hard to understand, but he'd worked things out fine. Granted, of everyone in our class, Kevin's Chinese is the best. Every semester he gets the award for being the best student in class.

So, since I also needed movers, today, I sent the same mover a text message with the details of our move and asking for a quote, hoping to avoid a phone conversation that would immediately reveal me as a foreigner. But when he hadn't replied after an hour, I decided to give him a call.

I asked if he'd received my text message and told him I wanted to move from Ning Da to Cai Xiao (our new complex). Immediately, he seemed confused. "You called earlier about moving on Tuesday, right?" he asked. I feigned ignorance."No. That must be someone else." I didn't want to admit that I was a foreigner. Often the price quoted to a foreigner is significantly higher than that offered to a Chinese. I didn't want to be a target for being cheated. I just told him that I wanted to move on Friday. I didn't mention that my friend had spoken with him yesterday. He said that he'd already said that it would be 260 because He charges by the truckload.

A couple hours later, he called me back. "I just saw your text message," he said. "If it's not the second floor to the third floor, but the sixth to the third, it is more agonizing (Sometimes Chinese is a bit melodramatic -- word used to explain difficulty -- 痛苦 -- literally means pain and bitterness). "The price will be 350 RMB." So, a bit more than 20 RMB extra per extra floor.

Then he asked, "Aren't you the international friend I spoke with yesterday?" I told him I wasn't. I'd been foiled. So had Kevin. How he figured it out I'll never know. Was it my limited vocabulary or my repeated requests for him to repeat himself. Who was I kidding? I'd mostly hoped he would think I was someone from a different province, whose Mandarin was poor. "But you are moving to Cai Xiao also, right?" "Yes." I gave in. "Yes, my friend spoke with you before. He is moving from another apartment to Cai Xiao on Tuesday. I am moving from Ning Da to Cai Xiao on Friday."

We'd thoroughly confused the poor guy. I was afraid that might happen. Now I'm hoping he still shows up on Tuesday. Maybe I'll wait till then to decide if it goes in the "language win" or "language loss" column.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Moving On (Again)

In just over three weeks we will be finished and heading back to America!  In some ways I feel like it couldn't get here soon enough.  Maybe it's the pregnancy or the heat or the fact that we do practically the same thing every lesson, but I am so ready to be done with class.   I realized I have been a student for 24 of the past 25 years, and at this point I'm pretty sure I'm losing brain cells at a faster rate than I am gaining knowledge.  Just seven more days of class!

There are also things I'm looking forward to in America.  The way you go to the sink to wash your hands and water actually comes out.  The abundant use of A/C.   Doing something different than going to class every day.  Eating guacamole and real sour cream and Tums.  The Tums aren't necessarily related, but I am looking forward to them...breathing pretty much gives me heartburn these days.

Three weeks really couldn't get here soon enough...except for one little thing.  A couple of weeks ago we found out we have to move.  Not exactly great news.  Fortunately another apartment option presented itself pretty quickly - we are going to move into the apartment our teammates will be vacating.  It is just across the street from the school and less than a 10 minute walk from where we live now.
Just before we found out we'd have to move, Juliana packed her toys - and herself - into a box in what is commonly called foreshadowing.
Unfortunately while our apartment was fully furnished, theirs was not.  Fortunately someone has a bed and desk we can borrow, another teammate gave us a good deal on the couch she was selling, and Juliana has a giant stuffed bear which can take the place of furniture in her we're almost good to go.  We are buying all the main appliances (in China unfurnished really means unfurnished) from our teammates - fridge, washer, stove (two burners!), hot water heater.  While we're able to buy all these things for less than we'd probably spend on one appliance in the States, it still irks me to have to buy them when we managed to avoid having to buy them two years ago.  But there's not much we can do about it, and hopefully we can re-sell them whenever we move back into teacher housing. We can do without a lot of things, but I'm not quite ready to try life without a fridge and washer.

Another unfortunate is that the rent is a good deal more than on our apartment.  $50 more dollars a month might not seem like a huge deal until you consider we were only paying $125/month for rent the past couple of years.  It's a pretty sizeable increase, but our apartment was a really good deal and I don't think we'd find something else like it.  With the more expensive rent we will get some pleasant perks like an actual eating area instead of a folding table in the living room, only climbing to the 3rd floor, a kitchen that won't freeze over in the winter, and best of all - water that actually stays on all Spring!  With two small, messy children and cloth diapering, I think having water every day will be a big asset.

While less stairs will be nice, I will miss our view of the mountains
So now that we have a place to live next year when we return from our time in the States, the next step is packing up everything.   Why do I feel like we just did this?  We haven't accumulated much in the past two years with one notable exception: when we came to Yinchuan Juliana had about 6 toys.  Now she has, well, a whole lot more.

There is nothing like packing and moving to make you realize just how much stuff you have.  It makes me a little squeamish to think about.  In the last move we did a pretty good job of eliminating things we didn't actually use, so our "give away" stash is pretty small this time.  But still - how do we possibly need so much?

Take the kitchen, which I have yet to tackle at all.  We have a square baking pan, 2 round pans, 2 bread pans, a 9x13 pan, a muffin tin, and 2 cookie sheets.  I use them all, but is it really necessary to do baking in that many shapes?

I do like the organizing and purging aspect of packing but not much else about it.  Especially frustrating is looking around seeing all the things we will need to pack but knowing we'll still need to use them for the next few weeks. 

The biggest impediment for me has been exhaustion.  The temperature has recently been hanging out in the upper 90's.  Heat doesn't usually bother me so much, but in pregnancy I feel the last remaining shreds of energy draining away.  We just started using our A/C since I decided I won't be able to get anything done without it.  Even so, the A/C is only able to cool some of the rooms in the house, and of course very few other places (like the classroom) are air conditioned.

The past couple of days we have been enjoying some wonderfully cool days though.  Thank you, Chinese government.  This weekend is the all-important 高考 (college entrance exam) for students across the country, and apparently every year they seed the clouds at this time to make cooler weather for students taking the exam.  We are trying to take advantage of the coolness - as well as our 3 day holiday this week - to get some more packing done.

Juliana has been doing her part in aiding the packing process.  When I finally packed up the first box of books last week she promptly unpacked it for me, no doubt for quality inspection.  As the pile of boxes slowly grows,  she's starting to get the idea.  The other day as Kevin and I worked on packing, Juliana rushed into her room, "I'm bringing bunny!  We need to pack bunny!  I'm going to wear my backpack!"  She understands packing for a trip a little better than packing for a move, and her concept of any future more distant than "right now" is still a bit fuzzy.  What will be even more confusing is when she moves into her best friends’ house next year and they aren’t there!