The Beijing Journal

Deon Matzen

© Copyright 2020 by Deon Matzen

Photo of young people at summer palace.


Who are we and how did we get talked into this?

Can a woman who is past middle age, and cancer survivor, who hasn’t had a television for thirty years and has never eaten at MacDonalds, uproot her rural lifestyle and move to Beijing to teach Western Culture and idiomatic English in the largest foreign language university in China? Skagit Valley College sent a memo to all its instructors, asking for a foreign exchange instructor to teach English in Beijing. 
The big question posed to me by the college where I worked early in 2001 was this:
 “Would you go to Beijing for us and teach there for a year?” 
Me?  Am I qualified?  Am I interested?  How will I survive?  I’m not even through with long term chemo, I’m middle aged, I haven’t taught anything but art for a number of years.  How will I leave my home on rural Whidbey for a year?  Will I be able to cope with city living after spending most of my life in the countryside?  How can I teach Western culture when I myself only experience a small part of rural society and have little concourse with society in general, now or in the past?
But, for me, the most important question was this:
 Am I ready for a big adventure at this point in my life?
After a few days consideration, I decided the answer was, Yes!  I can handle these challenges and learn from them.  I can meet new people, study a culture that is quite foreign to me, represent the school and my society, and teach others who have an interest in my country how to survive within our society.
The result was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.  I am a more independent, adventurous, and tolerant person than I ever was before. In addition, I gained a knowledge about Eastern culture, not vicariously, but though experience. I made many new friends. Established a sister city relationship between Long Beach, Washington and Weifang, China (both the kite capitals of their respective countries, viewed in a later chapter). Now my Chinese students, almost hundred each term with four classes of twenty-three each, have a good feeling about Americans and confidence to come to England, Canada and the US knowing that they will also succeed with their adventure.  I have been called Grandmother by students nearly as old as myself as a show of respect and seen their tears when I must return to my own country.  Many still communicate and tell of their own personal issues in foreign countries and of their own family joys and sorrows.
Never would I have expected to have gained so much from such a simple choice as saying “yes, I will go.”
I lived in Washington State on Whidbey Island with a population of approximately 14,250 (2000).  A very green, verdant, somewhat rural, quiet, wooded locale.  Beijing is a city of 12 million (2001) people, teaming with traffic, lots of noise, smells.  One person who traveled there the year before told me there wasn’t a tree in sight.  I heated my home with a wood stove and cooked on a wood cook stove during the cooler months of the year.  They use coal and natural gas.  Coal creates cinder dust everywhere.  They also had sandstorms!  Luckily I loved Chinese food, so I didn’t think food would be a problem.
My husband, Bob, is a finish carpenter with a business on Whidbey.  At first he was very hesitant at first, thinking this was not a good project to pursue, as he was in the middle of a job and didn’t want to think about it. It seemed that Bob was not interested, but a few weeks later he asked me whatever happened with the memo.  I said I hadn't pursued it as he seemed uninterested and I would not leave without him.  He thought it might be good to apply.  We decided to apply to teach in Beijing, China.  We were accepted by Skagit Valley College and submitted for approval to Beijing Foreign Studies University in April, 2001.
Bob has a high school education from eastern Montana.  He took a few courses at Everett Community College, but never earned a degree.  He is a very quiet person.  Not at all the type of person to stand up in front of a classroom and conduct a discussion about English pronunciation, or culture.  His mother laughed at the idea of “Professor Bob.” We had heard that spouses often were drafted to work as there was a shortage of native English speakers available to teach continuing education English classes.

I had taught about three years at Skagit Valley College.  I taught painting, drawing, life drawing, color theory, art history, printmaking and introduction to art. I taught two days a week and worked as a fine art painter the remaining time, having shows and entering competitions with my work.
 We own a small farm with a large vegetable garden and laying hens. This presented a problem in itself.  We had financial commitments, animals that needed care, a home to be watched and protected.
A big, important financial question was this:
Was the proposed salary of $388 per month enough to meet our needs or will we be destitute teachers in China?”

The assignment was to teach for the 2001-2002 school year consisting of two semesters.  The wage was 3200RMB per month, half paid in yuan and half in US dollars, which was equal to $388US.  It included an apartment, all the utilities, and a modest health care coverage at the university’s hospital.

With the possibility of Bob acquiring work as well, we would probably be fine as far as our expenses abroad.  Skagit Valley College agreed to supplement our income to cover our financial commitments at home. With those issues solved, we were ready for our big adventure.
Our arrival
August 28, 2001-- We are here!
Wow!  Things really got going toward the end.  I still felt the sense of urgency to do tasks related to the trip, only now I had arrived in Beijing. I could take a little time to get our lives in Beijing settled and ourselves whipped into shape. Classes were to begin in a couple of weeks. Now when I had a few minutes peace, I wanted to tell what happened right as we were getting ready to leave and didn’t have time to record.  Here it is.
The morning of August 27th dawned, or rather hadn’t, when we were up and out of the house.  Carol and Paul, my sister and brother-in-law, took us to the airport.  The four trunks weighed in at 70.5, 70, and two at 69.5, no excess baggage charges.  We had one last opportunity to say farewell to Whidbey as the pilot took a path to Vancouver which went directly over our house. 
The flight  from Vancouver, Canada, left on schedule and our route took us north toward Anchorage then past Nome, over the Pribiloffs and off to Russia.  Over Russian Siberia we witnessed massive forest fires burning though the taiga which we later viewed this tragedy on CCTV, the local Beijing television station. From there we headed south to Beijing.  It was after 11 pm at home when we arrived in Beijing at 3:15 pm the next day.  The time difference between home and Beijing is fifteen hours ahead and across the dateline from Pacific Time.  I didn’t know if they observe daylight savings time.  They do, however, have only one time zone for a country that is as broad as the US.

Our pilot flew a low altitude loop over the city before making a southerly approach to the runway about forty minutes north of the city.  We were able to observe that the freeways were almost free of cars.  Large apartment complexes were everywhere and THERE WERE LOTS OF TREES AND THE CITY LOOKED GREEN contrary to reports we had received at home about it being a barren, leafless city.
Arrival at the airport went uneventfully.  No inspection of baggage, no questions, no delays after our passport check.
We arrived in the baggage area and found our queue.  All our fellow passengers had already departed.  Our four trunks were circling with a few other miscellaneous bags.  It was a relief to see they had made it with us, even if not safely.  They must have dropped them out of the plane.  Two of the trunks had one corner split open from top to bottom.  These were metal clad, wooden trunks with straps. They would be unusable for our return trip. 
As we approached the exit area from baggage, a young woman was standing with a sign over her head with our names.  It was Zhou Wei from the Beijing Foreign Studies University.  She introduced herself.  A very pleasant woman with excellent English; she led us to the area where cars were waiting; called on her cell phone and a small bus came to the curb and helped us load our bags.  The bus was owned by the University.  They had decided to bring the bus because I had sent information that we would have four trunks. They definitely would not have fit in a small Audi taxi.
Our new home was about forty minutes from the airport.  If a normal westerner had been driving it probably would have been an hour and a half.  It was a hair-raising experience.  At one point the driver slammed on his brakes so hard we had to grab Zhou Wei’s arm to keep her from flying out of her seat.  I focused on the city and the beautiful buildings, the trees and the green grass.  If I had focused on the driving, I would have had a heart attack.
I had been feeling a little green around the gills during the last two hours of the flight.  The airline had served baozi (a stuffed, steamed bun filled with pork, bean sprouts, rice noodles and vegetables), kept warm for fifteen hours since leaving Vancouver, to wake everyone up before landing.  It had not agreed with me and I felt a little nauseous and was afraid I might have diarrhea as well.  I still tried to focus on the area and Zhou Wei.  We arrived at the Foreign Expert’s Housing about 4:15 and humped the trunks up four flights of stairs.  We had a little help. Most Chinese intellectuals are small, out of shape, lacking in any muscle strength. They were always surprised that I was so strong. We managed the trek upstairs without having to partially unload them.
 Zhou Wei announced that she would take us out to dinner.  It was expected that we say yes.  The university was picking up the tab and she would be by at 6:30 to give us a walk around the campus and over to a nearby restaurant.  I turned even greener.
We had our first, very quick look at the apartment.  I was not too excited as I was feeling very punky by that time.  We were both dragging from our early start time more than a day before.  Neither of us had slept well the night before we left, nor en route.  We put the bags and trunks in the bedroom and tried to wash up as best we could.  The temperature in the apartment, with the air conditioning on, was 82 degrees, comfortable. 
Having arrived late in the day (their time) and exhausted after hoisting three, seventy pound trunks up three flights of stairs, we gave ourselves very quick spit baths. We didn’t have enough time to try out the bathing facilities before we had to meet Zhou Wei.  We changed into some fresh clothes and made it to the door to head downstairs just as she knocked.  It was warm outside, but not unpleasant.  It was humid, but not stifling, the temperature now in the 90s.  We walked to dinner while she showed us places around the campus.  It was still light at 6:30, but was dark by about 7:15, very dark as there were no street lights. 
The restaurant was on a street that bordered the South side of the West campus.  It was very busy with steamed up windows, with rivulets of water trailing onto the sills, but we were shown to a table right away.  The menu was about ten pages all in Chinese characters, no pictures. Odd because it is adjacent to an international language university with ten thousand students, many foreigners. Prices seemed to range from 10 to 15 Yuan per dish.  There are 7.67 Yuan to the US dollar.  We asked Zhou Wei to order for us.  We didn’t have any idea what the menu said and no one else seemed to speak English.  There were several tanks of fish by the front door and you could have your choice prepared in a number of different ways.
Zhou Wei started us out with a cold dish of tofu, sliced thinly and drizzled with a combination of chicken stock and sesame oil, and sprinkled with chopped green onion.  She ordered chrysanthemum tea as the beverage.
The next dish to arrive was not easily described and resembled nothing I could possibly image.   She told us it was duck.  I am not sure what part and she wasn’t sure either.  The protocol in China is if you don’t know, don’t ask. It had been steamed and marinated in mustard oil, which is tangy, but not too hot.  The substance was pale color and consisted completely of gristle or possibly some form of pale rubber.  It was striated and may have been either the crop of the bird, or the feet with the bones removed.  I am still unsure.  This was cold as well.  Bob, my husband, was wonderful. I am not a fussy eater, but he can be at times.  I was sure this was one of those times.  What a way to start out our stay in a country that eats all parts of each animal so as to not waste a thing.  He ate a few bites without even making a face.  I ate it also, but made a point to never order that dish again when were returned on our own.  The consistency of the “duck” didn’t bother me, but the mustard oil was decidedly unpleasant. Now I know why they used mustard gas during war time. Later I did discover it was the webs of the ducks feet, steamed and chilled.
The next two items were served hot.  First was cashew chicken, which was great, and green beans sautéed and served while still crunchy with pepper flakes, sprinkled liberally.  I enjoyed these as well as I could with a still troublesome stomach thanks to the airlines “snack” before our arrival.  There was enough food for six of us instead of three.  We took the chicken and the beans home and put them in the fridge (did I mention it is ‘60’s avocado green?)
The green bean dish became one of our favorites, one I still make, and one we ordered often while living in China.  I never experienced that part of the duck again while we lived there and ate with our students on hundreds of occasions. Thank you.
Here are a few observations we made having having been there for just a few days:
Many things in Beijing were NOT as we were told. 
Everyone did not smoke.  The large number of people dying of smoking related illnesses must be reaching the people effectively enough to cause them to change their ways.  I would have said at that point in our stay that a higher percent of Americans than Beijing residents smoke. (I had to adjust that opinion somewhat, however many more men than women smoke.  Some very old women smoke incessantly. Japanese foreign students smoke A LOT! Cigarettes were forty cents a pack. Most who passed from respiratory died from pollution.)
Pollution was not a critical problem.  Not during our time there.  Days were mostly clear, both of clouds and of smog.  We had some, but Seattle on a day with an inversion layer is worse.  This would change in the winter when there were more coal fires started to generate heat. We later discovered that the government had moved much of the industry out of town in order to have clearer skies when competing for the Olympics.  The Olympic committee wouldn’t want to choose a city that had extreme pollution.
We could purchase bread in Beijing.  You could, we had croissants most mornings, and they were delicious. Also Uyghur (the ethnic minority populating the province of XinJiang) bread was available which was similar to foccacia.
 Spitting in public was not out of control.  In the first six days we were there we had not witnessed a person spitting.  We had seen occasional evidence, but it was less than in our area of the US. Later we discovered that spitting was a ticketable offense inside the third ring road.  Half the campus is inside, half outside.
We would need to bring your own toilet paper.  Not true.  There was a substantial supply in the bathroom and it was not too different than the brand we used at home. The Chinese invented paper, why not toilet paper?
I would need to wear suits or conservative dresses to teach. Not true.  The previous instructor had told me all the female instructors wore suits or nice dresses for teaching.  Not the case as most of the instructors, including my foreign affairs officer, wore jeans and T-shirts to teach. Very casual and here my wardrobe was suits and dresses.
We heard no derogatory word or inflammatory remarks about our foreignness ever during our stay.  We never distinguished any animosity toward us.  Most stared, even if you looked back and smiled.  They did not look away, but there was no unkindness in their eyes.  Some would smile; some would say ni hao (hello).

There are lovely trees, potted flowers and the city is green. We had been told it was a barren place, almost completely brown and gray.  This was a person who owned a nursery here.  I was surprised to see trees on almost every street. Beijing planted over a million trees in the city during our stay and a million more in preparation for the Olympics after we left.  There were lots of shady lanes and BeiWai was considered the garden university for its beautiful gardens.
There are things that we WERE told that are true.
There WERE days with no hot water.  Yes, we experienced this several times in the first six days.
There were days with no water at all.  Yes, for about an hour one morning our first week we had no water and it was pretty disgusting when it started up again. We needed to find a source of safe drinking water very early on. 
Merchants would cheat foreigners.  Yes, this will happen and we had to be more cautious.  Our fifth day, when at the grocery store, we were purchasing a melon for Y1.2 per 500 gm.  When we had the price sticker put on the melon after the clerk weighed it, the price was Y2.4 per 500 gm.  The Persian melon still cost us about 40 cents even with the overcharge, it should have been 20.  We did need to remember that we earned only Chinese wages and not western wages and could little afford to be overcharged.  The merchants thought of us as the rich tourists and felt that they could charge accordingly.  We had been told this would be the case and I had read it in several books.
The school gave us more work than we had contracted. That certainly fulfilled this with the addition of hours to my work to fill in for the Canadian who was late arriving. I also received an extra salary for taking on a second writing class because of the extra time reading papers. They had added work for Bob as well, something we were told when at home, but still quite unexpected in the scope, but an asset for us.
They drive badly—yes unbelievably badly.  I would tell Bob to look out the side window and enjoy the scenery, if you looked at the road, you would have had a heart attack.  Traveling 110 kmh while weaving in and out of traffic was scary.  Challenging other drivers when lane changing.  Honking incessantly.  Mini compact taxis challenging large tour buses that want to pull into their lane.  No seat belts in the back seat added to the terror.  Seldom did the seat belts work in the front seat.  In some areas we had been warned that using the seat belt will result in a filthy shirt.  We didn’t experience that.  Cabs were very clean, even the cheaper class cabs.  Cabs, busses and most public transportation, had removable cotton seat covers and backrest covers that were removed and washed frequently, making it tidy and clean to ride in a cab.  Also no cigarette smells.  Restaurants also used fancy slip cover-like covers on the chairs so they could be removed and washed.
I found many more differences, similarities and peculiarities over our stay, but we enjoyed all of them.  The people were friendly and tried to be helpful, though frequently the language barrier interfered, but I practiced charades and used them a lot.
Early into our stay we seemed to be settled and adapting and certainly NOT experiencing any hardships.  We also felt comfortable and somewhat energized by our new project.  The warm weather was helping too.  We both certainly liked that.


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