Follow-up, March 16, 2013:
For all the “cheerleading” signs, as Frank Bergland so aptly called them, around our apartment complex to encourage proper sorting of refuse, we’ve noticed that very few people actually make any effort at all to sort. After over a month of tossing our rubbish daily into their proper bins, it is clear that a majority of the people in our complex throw whatever they want into any of the three types of bins. This is one answer to my question of how much people actually are inspired by the slogan programs.
So we had some pressure when we arrived in Beijing: we had to find a school for the kids and an apartment for the family within the first week, as we struggled with jet lag, spending our days bleary-eyed and foggy-brained (see Manu’s post, The Faces of Jet Lag). Not only were we looking to move out of our hotel for financial reasons, but with China’s biggest holiday of the year, New Year/Spring Festival, approaching fast, we had to move quickly to make a deal before much of the city shut down for business for 1-2 weeks.
Fortunately, we’d done a lot of preliminary research on schools and had concluded that we’d try to send both of the older kids to a Chinese kindergarten. Our top choice was Brown Kindergarten, which was recommended by a friend of a friend. The school is a five minute walk from Minzu University, where Manu is a visiting student, so it was fantastic news that there were spots for both Sophia and Dylan. Right after visiting Brown, a screaming Isabel and I (and a friend who translated for me) stopped by a realtor in the neighborhood and were immediately shown three apartments. While the third seemed a viable choice, it wasn’t perfect. When Manu went to check it out later in the afternoon, he was also shown another, which he immediately agreed we’d take. That night the realtor came to our hotel, where we signed papers and made an initial deposit.
The next day we all visited the 18th floor, two-bedroom, almost 1100 sq. ft. apartment for the first time. Located right near the West Gate of Minzu’s campus, it’s a ten-minute walk to the kids’ school through a very multi-ethnic neighborhood with a plethora of restaurants and food stands from all different regions and nationalities of China (Minzu University is called the Central University for Nationalities and is meant to educate students of various Chinese minority groups, including Tibetans). When we entered the apartment, I knew right away that it was the perfect space for us, but it was so dirty I could barely stand to have the kids moving around it, where I knew they’d be dirty and dusty within minutes. Manu had bargained for the realtor to hire a couple of people to do an initial cleaning, so I oversaw this effort, while the kids played around and became dirty and dusty.
The next day we left the safe haven of our hotel and lugged our seven large suitcases, two carry-on suitcases, and three backpacks into our slightly-less-dirty apartment and were *home*! While Manu went shopping at Wal-mart for initial supplies, I spent a couple of hours scrubbing the bathroom and then the kitchen. I was most eager to get some laundry going, though, as we’d piled up a lot in the first week. When I looked at the washing machine, located in a dusty corner, surrounded by windows that looked out over Minzu’s park, I couldn’t begin to fathom how to operate it. With all the buttons and settings in Chinese, the best I could do was to turn it on, which offered a perky little melody, assuring me that I had in fact found the right button.
That afternoon when the realtor dropped by, I tried to get her to show me how it worked. With Manu out at the time, I had no real way to communicate with her and it became clear to me, as she pressed various buttons and turned different knobs, that she actually didn’t have much of an idea of how to operate it. I used a Mandarin phrase book to ask her what setting would make the water hot. She fooled around with some knobs and indicated that the washer ran only with cold water. Having lived with an even worse situation in Nepal (all the water had to be carried by hand from the kitchen and poured into the washer), I was fine with this news and it alleviated the concern that I’d end up with hot water washing and bleeding various dark clothes.
After the realtor left, I realized that the washing machine wasn’t stopping anytime quickly, as a flashing light seemed to indicate that the empty machine would run for another two hours. I tried to stop it, but I got a “lock” message in English and couldn’t open the door. When I put my hand on the machine’s front-facing window, it was extremely hot – so much for its only working with cold water! Now I was feeling stressed about how to work the machine that was set to go on much longer than I thought it should and Manu was back. He told me to turn it off and to just send our laundry out to a local washing service, which tends to be extremely affordable. While some people might like this idea, we’d used laundry services throughout our six years together in Asia and I didn’t relish the packing up, noting down, and subsequent concern about how carefully the clothes would be washed, especially the kids’, which I’m pretty particular about. I’m not a big fan of much housework, but doing laundry is one of the few aspects of it that I actually enjoy.
Fortunately, the following afternoon we had a Tibetan friend, Norbu, come at the same time the realtor dropped by again to try to address our remaining questions. We all looked at the washing machine together and this time I knew for sure that the realtor knew nothing about the machine (my guess is that an Ayi, or househelper, does her family’s laundry). Norbu ended up patiently translating all of the buttons and knobs to English for me and I finally had a template with which to experiment. Now that I’ve done several loads, I’m confidently refining my relationship with the machine and am generally content with its abilities. One of my discoveries is that the “dry” setting proved to not dry the clothes at all, so I’m left hanging up everything on the bar hanging above the laundry area, which is fine. The moistureless winter air, combined with the fairly warm state-controlled heating system, means everything will be dry within several hours.
With the clothes situation almost mastered, another concern we had was what to do with our fast-growing pile of bags of trash. We ended up figuring this out on our own, after paying attention to some signs outside our building that told us, “Sorting the Rubbish. Building a Harmonious Society.” With that slogan in mind, we zoned in on the various bins located nearby and suddenly understood why there were so many small trash cans floating around the apartment: separating kitchen waste, other waste, and recyclables might actually lead to harmony in our home, if not in the society at large.
So here we are on our fourth night in our new apartment. Most of the laundry is clean, the trash is sorted, and the rooms and floors are much cleaner than when we signed our lease. While there’s still a decrepit exercise bike blocking the laundry area , which the realtor promised to have removed after the Spring Festival is over, and the dingy walls are pretty much still bare, we’ve moved in and bought the basics for contented living over the next six months. We’ve made a couple of dinners in our humble kitchen, which now has, at least to me, a sense of homey-ness. The five of us have sat down together for breakfast on the last three mornings around a kitchen table that has only four chairs, but somehow it’s worked and I can feel us being happy here, exploring living a life that’s very different from what we’ve known together as a family in Charlottesville, Virginia.