Monday, August 29, 2016

The first week - living in Beijing

The first word that comes to mind as I reflect on this past week is wowsers. It has truly been quite a week. One week ago right this moment I was awake and getting ready to depart for the airport. In the week that has gone by I have done so much I can hardly believe it.
So close - if only I could have somehow jumped
up into the plane
First, I flew east to Seattle (and south) and then I flew west (and north and then south) from Seattle to Beijing. The flights to and from China always frustrate me because I spent 3 hours flying from Anchorage to Seattle and then the first 3 hours of my flight to Beijing were flying right back the way I came. According to the in-flight map, we flew within 3 miles of Anchorage. Since that is based upon whatever arbitrary point is defined as the city, I would say we flew right over Anchorage. I arrived and made through passport control quite quickly. It took a little bit longer for my suitcases to come out and then as I was putting them on the x-ray belt to go through customs a man stopped me and asked me I was transferring (catching a connecting flight). When I wasn't he wanted to know where I was going and how I was getting there. He even asked me if I was sure someone was meeting me. Well, I didn't know any details, but I also didn't have the address of the hotel I was going to so I was definitely dependent on someone picking me up.
Unfortunately, when I came out, there was no one waiting for me. I looked around. I tried to connect to the airport wifi and check my email. Everything was unsuccessful. I decided my best bet was to turn the data on my phone off, bit the bullet and make a phone call. I called the HR director and she told me she was stuck in traffic. I haven't seen the bill yet to know how much that 17-second phone call is going to cost me. C picked me up at the airport, but while she was finding me the driver left and so we tried to take a taxi. None of them were willing to take all of my luggage and so we needed a minivan. There were these men near this minivan who tried to act like it was there. C left me standing near there with my luggage to go and actually hire a minivan and one of the guys hid my luggage and was generally teasing me (I think he was enjoying the fact that because I spoke Chinese he could tease a foreigner, but I was exhausted and was not enjoying it AT ALL).
Wednesday and Thursday were filled with things like getting a SIM card, a metro card, going to the hospital and doing all of the things required for a medical check (that was a dehumanizing experience) and beginning the search for an apartment. During this time, I also went out with a number of the foreign teachers at my school.
Then came Friday. Friday was my first day at my new job. I really enjoyed it and really think this will be an interesting first day. The morning was filled with speeches. While I usually find speeches very boring, I enjoyed these because they explained the structure and history of the school. After the morning speeches, I finally felt like I had a grasp on who/what Tsinghua High School International (funny that the name includes high school when it is a grade 1-12 school). Friday afternoon was a blast! The director of "everything else" (he has an official title that includes extracurricular activities and a bunch of other stuff) had organized the Tsinghua High School International 2016 Olympics. The entire staff (except those who were judging or in some other way facilitating) were divided into 10 teams. The teams were comprised of both Chinese faculty and staff and International Faculty and staff (they really emphasize that we are one staff, something I appreciate). Each group went to each of 10 stations for 5 minutes at a time. At these stations, you had to work together to complete a task. The tasks varied greatly. We had to do things like create a cheer, perform a song, solve riddles and build a tower out of our shoes (and only our shoes). We also had to duct tape one group member to the wall (using only 1 roll of tape) and get them to stay there for at least 10 seconds. I really enjoyed it. I think my group had it a bit tougher, though. The Chinese teachers are all bilingual and the International teachers, for the most part, don't speak Chinese (I appear to have the best Chinese, possibly by far). The Chinese staff speaks widely varying levels of English. Our particular group had a number of members who did not speak English at all, one who spoke about the same level as my Chinese, and two who were fluent. Add to this three American women where I have the best Chinese, one speaks a decent amount and the third doesn't know Chinese at all and you have a very interesting combination. Each task assignment was written in both languages which helped, but our conversations reminded me of the tower of babble. I had a blast. I hope everyone else did too.

After the "Olympics" we had dinner and then I went with one of my coworkers to meet his wife (who's Chinese) and an agent to look at apartments. The apartments were really nice (and 2 bedrooms), but I felt they were a little too far removed from this. Thus, on Saturday I continued my apartment search. It took all day and the first hour and a half or so were just the agent and myself, thus requiring me to use Chinese exclusively. My co-worker C came later and actually, we still kept most of the conversation in Chinese (except when I wanted to talk to her without the agent or others understanding) unless I couldn't follow even with an explanation (in Chinese). By the afternoon when we were signing the contracts I was so worn out! Not only was the search itself difficult, but then doing it all in a foreign language too.
My apartment is a one bedroom located about 3.5 miles from school. I plan to get an electric scooter so that I can get there quickly. With the walking and the metro it takes right at an hour to get to school with 35 minutes of that being on the metro/ in metro stations and 25 minutes being walking to and from the stations. I'd like to shorten my walk.
We negotiated a new couch (and boy is it nice and comfortable) and new chairs. I got my Internet installed and today I learned how to deal with the gas, electricity, fresh water and toilet water (2 different water connections). All of this was done using only Chinese (and a few translations). While I must say I'm proud of how much I've been able to communicate, I am also frustrated that it is so hard. Setting up an apartment has shown me a whole set of vocabulary words.
Today at work involved more typical school meetings, getting my teacher's edition of the textbook and discussing lab set-up (they are still assembling the labs, remember the school is brand new). I also got my school email address, a brand new Macbook Pro (it belongs to the school of course), and my meal card (we get breakfast, lunch and I think it we are there dinner). I believe this is also the card that I will use to access the building, the classrooms, etc.
As I write this, even I'm amazed at everything I've done in a week and I only mentioned Wednesday's dinner out in passing and didn't even mention Sunday's dinner. I still have a crazy amount of things to do including registering at the police station, applying for my residence permit, buying sheets and a pillow (last night I slept on my winter coat and used a hoodie as a pillow, tonight I plan to sleep on the brand new couch and use a cushion as a pillow. Tomorrow, I will hopefully find time to buy pillows and sheets), and of course get ready to teach. School starts on Monday.
I will try to write individual posts on subjects like my apartment (once I'm more settled) and my school (once the lab is assembled) and include pictures as I can. I sometimes can't believe I lived in China for three years because there are so many things I'm having to learn how to do that I've never done before, but there will also be some opportunities for Chinese experiences too. One of those will be tomorrow. Throughout the week at different times, people are assigned to what the school calls an opera workshop. What it is is a time where a Peking Opera make-up artist makes you up like you're in the Peking opera and then you have some sort of photo shoot. I'm excited. They did something like this on the Amazing Race and not only do I get to do it, but I get to have time to enjoy it. And with that, I bid everyone adieu. Until my next post.

The school building is very large and confusing...

But somebody with quite a sense of humor...

Left these messages...

Posted on the floor...

Along the way to the library...

Where the first day's meetings were held

The view from my apartment this morning

Sunrise in Beijing - the view from my bedroom window

Monday, August 22, 2016

T-7 hours and counting

My flight to Seattle is scheduled to leave in 7 hours and 15 minutes. My uncle is supposed to arrive to take me to the airport in 5 hours and now 14 minutes. My alarm will ring in 4 hours and 44 minutes. I think it is safe to say that my time remaining is growing very short.
I think I have everything finished and ready to go (well except my backpack isn't packed). As is typical, things haven't gone quite as planned. I have a tendency to put off packing. One time when I was living in Kobuk I didn't start packing until the plane was on the ground (I did have everything already laid out, but nothing was in my bag. The plane was on the ground before I got home and I had two students and a coworker waiting to help me get to the airport. The four of us all smashed my things into the bag as quick as possible and then I jumped on the four wheeler and the students drove me to the airport - which was really just a gravel runway about 100 yards away). This time, I was determined to be more on top of things. I even started packing on Saturday. Packing on a Saturday for a Monday flight is definitely preparing in advance. However, I didn't finish, but I wasn't worried I had all day Sunday with only two things planned: church in the morning and a family dinner at 6 pm. I figured I would have plenty of time. However, as seems to be the norm for me there was a surprise in store for me. This morning while I was at church I caught sight of a woman out of the corner of my eye. It was a good friend of mine from Kobuk (and the rest of her family)! I hadn't seen them in several years. It was so great to see them, but I spent five hours with them after church. By the time I left it was time to go home and pick grandma up for the family dinner. So much for packing.
After dinner, I resumed my packing. I had decided that I was going to check three suitcases instead of my allowed two because it is both cheaper and quicker than shipping a box and I want to take more with me than I can fit into two suitcases. In Bush Alaska, people do not use suitcases much of the time. Oftentimes boxes and plastic totes are used instead. I decided a long time ago that I was going to travel to China with two suitcases (I bought a new one on Saturday) and a tote. However, I got cold feet this evening. I had already packed everything into a 24 gallon Rubbermaid roughneck tote. When I lived in the Bush, I typically used 18 gallon totes, but I had moved to California checking a 24 gallon tote on the plane and then I checked one when I returned here, but I believe it is actually just a little bit larger than allowed total size. Thus, I began to worry that they wouldn't accept it. I decided instead to pack on old suitcase (I've only flown with it twice - the airline messed it up pulling the foot most of the way off of it the first time I flew with it). This, of course, meant I had to rearrange. Then, I couldn't quite get everything into my carry-on suitcase so I rearranged again. This time, I moved some heavier, but smaller items into the carry-on and moved the bulkier items into the bigger suitcase. Voila, I was done. Or was I? I then remembered I hadn't packed a couple of my swim items. I got them squeezed into my carry-on suitcase. Then I was finished, right? Oh no, I found a couple of clothing items I forgot (luckily they are pretty small); I will have to fit them in my backpack.
Then I took a shower. My hair dryer is packed, but I have a hair straightener that isn't going with me because it only works on 110V. Therefore, I decided that I would shower tonight let my hair dry overnight and use the hair straightener to fix the damage in the morning.
Unfortunately, I still wasn't done. I had a bill I needed to pay (online) before I leave the country and forget about it and I needed to install my VPN on my computer (I bought a yearlong subscription a couple of days ago). Now my more techie friends and my friends with experience in China know what I'm talking about, but some of my other readers may not. China has a "project" officially known as the Golden Shield Project. Most people refer to it as the Great Firewall of China. This firewall blocks Facebook, Twitter (I don't use it), all Google products (including of course this blog), all oter major western blog sites, most major western news media and anything else that they deem harmful  to China. The Chinese government also will temporary block things when there are topics trending that are negative about China. One way to get around this is to use a VPN (virtual Private Network). A VPN obscured your location. You pick a server (for example in the US) and log into that server and it gives you an IP address in wherever that server is located. As a result, I will be able to use this to get around the Great Firewall. Now, hopefully it will work. China is always working to block these VPNs and there is never a guarantee that even if it works one day that it will work the next. Also, a VPN slows down your connection and from what I understand can be a pain (the last time I was in China these things were not blocked so I am not experienced at using a VPN in China). Therefore, I would recommend that if you enjoy reading my blogs you sign up on the follow me via email button. That way, if I have trouble getting to Facebook to post the link you can still get the update (remember though Blogger is also blocked so if my VPN isn't working, I won't be able to post at all).
I'm excited and nervous. The adventures are about to start (again? Continue? I actually seem to be having quite a few adventures lately) and I will try to do my best to update my blog with them. I have a post started about Croatia so at some point I will at least get that finished and up.
Goodbye for now. Next time I post, I will be on the other side of the world!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Kristin Returns to Germany

The U.S. Embassy. I made the guards nervous I think because
I spent a bit of time early one morning sitting on a bench just to
the left of this picture.
It feels rather weird. I am trying to write up my summer vacation, but I am simultaneously preparing to move to China. As I wrote in my last post I have received my Chinese visa and (not previously written) this morning I got confirmation of my flight reservation. While I am not looking forward to another long flight it is time to tell you about my last trip before living life gets in the way.
At the Brandenburg Gate
After a week in Zurich, I flew to Berlin. Landing in Berlin was almost like getting a breath of fresh air. While I greatly enjoyed Zurich, Germany is familiar and comfortable. In Switzerland, I couldn't usually understand people on the street. Swiss German is very different to High German; so much so that I can't begin to understand it. When I landed in Germany it was almost like magic: I could understand everything! In Germany, I typically understood how things worked (for those of you who do not know, I spent my senior year of high school in Germany as an exchange student and have been back to Germany to visit several times). When I had questions in Germany, I had friends to ask. Thus, returning to Germany was kind of like going home.
The dome was closed for cleaning. I went up to the terrace, but it's
not nearly as interesting as going up to the dome
 (something I've done before).
I spent the first 4 days in Berlin visiting my friend A and her son B. Switzerland is so expensive that when A offered for me to stay with her I jumped at the chance. I have been to Berlin many times, but I spent most of my days checking out the sights and often finding museums and exhibits I had not seen before. I spent my evenings hanging out with A and B. I had a great time. Be sure to check out the photos.
After 4 days in Berlin, I took the train to Munster where my friend C lives. Munster is a fairly small college town and there isn't that much to see there and I had been there before, but I had a good time nonetheless. There is a guidebook author, Rick Steves, who has a great book called Europe Through the Back Door. I read it a couple of years ago before my trip and throughout the book, Steves talks about always being on the lookout for opportunities to spend time with locals. Additionally, throughout Steves guidebooks, he speaks about trying to be a temporary local. In Germany in general and Munster in specific, I got the opportunity to be a temporary local. Not only did I spend my evenings with C and her husband U and their son B, but I also got a couple of other opportunities to live like a local. Munster is a bicycle city. Everywhere you turn you have to watch out for bicycles. My friend C often will go up to about two weeks without driving her car (an unbelievable feat for most of the United States). Most of the time she travels by bicycle. My first afternoon in my hotel I was reading the guest book and saw that they rented bicycles for only six euros. Thus, the next day I rented a bike and headed out to meet C. Now I love to ride and I often bike 10-15 miles at a time, but I had a few challenges with this bike. First, it was big! I lowered the seat all the way and I could just barely reach the pedals. This wasn't so much a problem for pedaling as it was for handling the bike, especially in traffic. This brings me to point 2: in Anchorage, I bike mostly on trails, many of which aren't crowded at all and those that are I can maneuver easily because my bicycle is small. The third challenge was a bit of a surprise. When I was a child my bicycle had brakes that you applied by pushing backward on the pedals. For my tenth birthday, I got a road bike (my current bike is a mountain bike though) and it had hand brakes. At first I found it rather difficult to use the hand brakes, but of course, after a short while, I mastered it. I had never seen an adult bike with brakes on the pedals. I can no longer truthfully say that. The bike I rented in Munster had both hand brakes and pedal brakes. Now you might be thinking, "wait a minute if the bike had hand brakes why has she listed this as a challenge riding this bike?" That's because Munster is a city and cities have stoplights. When I would stop at stoplights (a bit of a challenge because of the bike's overwhelming size), I would have trouble starting again. I was accustomed to resetting the pedal by pushing backward so that when the light changes I push off and away I go. However, push backward on the pedal resulted in applying the brake. My starts were often rather awkward and I have to wonder what people thought when they saw me (probably not much because unlike in China, I do no stand out in Germany).
Despite these challenges, I had a great time riding along the bike paths and getting a feel for the city via the most common transportation system. I also had a great time in the downtown area. On my second day in Munster, C, B and I rode downtown (C has a child seat on the back of her bike that B rides in). We did some shopping and other things downtown before heading to the local market to get B some waffles. After we got the waffles we found a place to stand/sit/ hangout. It was near an older couple who engaged in conversation with C about housing prices and other topics directly related to
"Munsterland" (the way people in the area refer to the greater Munster area). Now while it might not sound interesting to engage in this kind of conversation I enjoyed it. This is part of what it means to be a temporary local. I got the chance to really hear what locals think and about the local issues. After a while, though the wife engaged me commenting that I must not be from Munster because I hadn't said much on the topic. I replied that I wasn't even from Germany. The husband tried to guess where I was from and guessed Scandanavia (throughout my entire trip I don't think anyone ever guessed correctly - a number of people, especially native English speakers, guessed Canada). Now I have to admit, my least part of this conversation was when they asked me about the election (a topic that all the Europeans I engaged in conversation with wanted to speak on). One thing though that I found particularly interesting was the wife's tale of traveling through the US alone (the husband's tale was also quite interesting, but that was more related to the fact that he doesn't speak any English). She told me about how a lot of people we really surprised that she had traveled throughout the U.S. by herself, but she had told them she was never really alone. She had been very surprised but greatly enjoyed how the Americans were always engaging her in conversation. Everywhere she went people were friendly and talked to her. It's always so nice to hear people have a good impression of your country.

After Munster,

A lives near the Charlottenburg Palace

This is painted on the Berlin Wall in a section that has
been turned into an art display:
The East Side Gallery.
 I traveled to Croatia for a week. I had a number of really interesting times there and so I will try to get that written up before I leave for China (in 79 hours!)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Obtaining a Chinese Work Visa part II

I returned from my trip to Europe last Tuesday (I will try to write up more on my European adventures and my trip this past weekend to North Pole later) and immediately began working on my Z visa again. While I had been overseas the Chinese State Administration for Expert Affairs had granted my working permit and my school had created my Invitation of Duly Authorized Unit. The school said that copies of these documents would be sufficient, but from what I read I needed the originals and since I was in Europe anyway and couldn't do anything with the documents I requested that they ship me the originals and so they did. Thus, when I arrived home last Tuesday my documents were waiting for me and I immediately began to complete the paperwork for my z visa application.
The paperwork for the application is rather complicated and when you have just gotten off a major international flight lack of sleep makes it even more difficult! It took me two hours to complete paperwork that I imagine if I was thinking straight I could have completed in half an hour. While I was working on the application forms my aunt texted me and asked if I wanted to join the family for dinner. I replied that I was hungry, but I couldn't because I was working on my application form. She read between the lines that this meant that I was struggling and called. I lost it. I was so tired I simply couldn't think straight and felt like I was losing my mind.
My aunt came over and helped me work my way through the forms (I had actually just completed them before she arrived, but she helped me go through them and make sure everything was correct). Then she drove me all around town. First to the bank to get a cashier's check (to pay for the visa and the visa processing center) then to the UPS store because I thought that I could get the passport photo I needed there and then immediately ship it out. Turns out UPS stores in Alaska no longer do passport photos (I had gotten the picture and shipped it out directly from a UPS store the last time I applied for a Chinese visa). So then we are googling places that make passport photos. I don't even remember where we went (everything is a bit of blur), but I do know that it was a really awful photo (not only was I not allowed to smile, but after traveling for 3.5 weeks and then being up for over 24 hours I looked beat). We got to the UPS store (again) and it turns out that the deadline for shipping was 2:30 in the afternoon (because everything from Alaska has to go by plane) and seeing as how my plane had landed at 2:30 I couldn't have completed everything in time. Perhaps I should have just completed everything the next morning.
As a result, my documents did not make it to the visa processing center until Thursday morning. Just after I woke up I received an email telling me that my application was on hold! I had a couple of problems with my application. On problem was the processing company said that I needed a third document from the school. I emailed the school thinking that there was no way I would even hear from them because it was 11:30 pm in China. I did hear back from the school who insisted I had all the documents I needed while the visa processing company said I didn't. I didn't know what to do so I decided to take the processing company's suggestion of applying at a different consulate. I was really concerned though because my documents said which consulate I was supposed to submit to (if I hadn't agreed the agency would have probably simply shipped my documents back to me because they will not submit the documents if you do not meet what they consider the requirements. At this point I would have then had to fly to Los Angeles and submit my application myself) and now I was submitting them to another consulate. The visa processing company said they had had this exact situation before and it had been fine, but I held me breath for the next five days.
On Friday, they submitted my documents to the Chinese Consulate and then today (Tuesday) when I woke up I saw through the online check that my visa had been granted. Later, I received an email with the FedEx shipping information. My passport should be here by 10:30 am tomorrow. I will feel much better when I have it in my hand.
Meanwhile, I found the flights that I want to take to Beijing and submitted the information to the school. They submitted it to the travel agency (they are booking our tickets through a travel agency for us so that we don't have to front that much cash - last minute tickets to China are rather expensive). Hopefully, if everything works out I will be flying to Beijing next Monday to start my next adventure.
Update: my visa arrived! Here's a redacted photo of it.