Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Hello, Hangzhou, Part 2

After arriving, I was brought to my new apartment (housing is provided by the school, so we don't have to find an apartment on our own, or even pay for rent) a very spacious on campus flat. It was clean, and bright, with all new appliances. They've done renovations on the on-campus housing this summer, so I have a new fridge, a new washer/dryer machine, and a new stove. It's nicer than my house in the States, I think. The apartment has two rooms, a huge master bedroom with an attached bath, and a smaller spare room. There's also a bathroom off the living room. The kitchen is tiny, but that's okay. There are huge floor length windows in every room, providing lots of natural light, albeit, very hot natural light (there are floor length curtains to go with said windows). There's a foot high ledge around the windows, which provides the perfect spot for Lucy to sit and watch the world. It's a great view (for her) that looks out onto the school blue top, which means, I hope, she'll be able to keep any eye on all the happenings on campus during the school day.


The apartment is sparsely furnished, and we were provided with a few groceries to get us started, and a single plate, and set of silverware. We are given a generous settling in allowance, so that will help in buying the list of goods that I need.

Thanks to Target's Dollar Spot, I brought along a couple of colorful tablecloths and placemats. With one of my Malian baskets, and apples, I was able to dress up the sparseness a little. I'm don't have a decorator's eye, but I'm trying to be really intentional about decorating my flat (it's pretty stark at the moment).

The view outside my living room window.

My first day was spent getting up very early, unpacking a bit, getting a SIM card for my phone, finding a pet store with a few other new teachers, and eating lunch in a little restaurant near the school. Even though they had an English menu, I ordered dim-sum (not on the English menu) by pointing at the pictures (I speak fluent "smile and point"), and was successful in getting something that tasted delicious.
I desperately needed a caffeine fix at lunch, so I ordered "Milk Tea in Ice Bucket" which was, quite literally, milk tea brought in a bucket of ice. One cultural observation - cold drinks seem to cost more than hot drinks.

After lunch, I did a little more unpacking, took an unintended nap, walked Lucy around campus a bit, and then found some other new teachers going to supper. This time I had Italian food (I know), which was delicious.

The neighborhood the school is in is green, with wide boulevards and wide side walks. Trees line the streets, which is wonderful, especially in the heat. The school is about a half a kilometer from the river, which has a wide walking/biking path along the bank. There are no dogs allowed, but on the other side of the street, there is a tree-covered sidewalk that works fine. There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area, and many tall apartment buildings all around.

It's funny how quickly it is to forget what it's like to be a foreigner when you live in your own country for a few years, and how quickly it comes back to you, the natural patterns of being Other, of being the only Westerner around. At the airport, the children stared at me unabashed and wonderingly (and this was after I had checked-in Lucy, so it wasn't the dog thing). One little boy wouldn't stop staring despite his mother's attempts to get him to stop (it didn't bother me; I just thought it was funny). This is also the first country I will live in, other than my eight weeks in Taiwan, where I can't understand the language at all. It's definitely humbling, and a little terrifying.

One last random impression just for my West Africa friends - I keep wearing my indoor shoes outside. I think there's a song about that.

Today starts our official orientation events, which kicks off with mandatory medical tests to make sure we are healthy enough for our visa. Tomorrow our meetings will begin, which I am oddly looking forward to, probably because I know it will finally jump start my brain into focusing on school (and not packing, moving, saying goodbyes, my dog, and so on).

Hello, Hangzhou, Part 1

Well, we made it to Hangzhou. I've been in my new home for about a day now, and we are adjusting to the time zone and the heat and the culture slowly but surely.

It was one of the most stressful 30 hours or so of my life. Travelling with a pet is definitely not for the faint of heart. Susanna spent my last three weeks or so with me in Baltimore, which was convenient because that meant I drafted her to take me to the airport - all the way in New York City. She's using my car, so it was only fair. Of course, this made my parents more nervous than my flying to China. I drove to the airport, which was terrifying. I'm a cautious driver, and it was pouring rain most of the way. We actually saw one accident happen (a car slipped off the road right behind us and slid into the median strip in the middle of the highway, thankfully missing all incoming traffic), and had to call 911. There were a couple of other near misses that made me stressed for Susanna driving back.

We made it to the airport in one piece, lugged two carts with my four suitcases, 2 carry-ons, and one dog into the airport. We waited forever for an elevator because our two carts took up so much room, but finally manage to get up to the check-in level. China Southern Airlines was right by the elevator, we waited in line for about twenty minutes and then, the best thing happened: we were collected from the line and taken to the VIP line. I think the VIP line is one step up from the first class line, mostly because there was a red carpet. The reason for this VIP treatment was the dog, of course. Processing the dog took just a few minutes, I checked in all my bags, and then was told to go walk the dog and bring her back at midnight. So, Susanna and I took turns walking the dog up and down the outside of the arrivals terminal until it was time to bring her back. We brought her back to be inspected by TSA, which isn't as official as it sounds; I closed the door and sealed it with a zip-tie, and the guy cheerfully took my dog off to be loaded on the plane, unseen by me for the next 18 hours or so.

After that, I went through security, waited in line to board the plane, and was in my seat within the hour. I spent most of the fifteen hours somewhat sick to my stomach about Lucy, but I was able to sleep a bit, and sleep through a few movies (watching movies is the best way for me to get any sleep on a plane). I was lucky enough to get an exit row, which I usually don't like, but it was nice to have lots of leg room and be able to stand up easily.

In Guangzhou, we disembarked, and entered the airport, which was extremely hot and sticky inside, and so I proceeded to sweat, as if a sprinkler had just been turned on over me, following me down the long corridors to passport control. I followed the crowd through passport control, where I met another person going to China to teach at an international school (but not mine), and a college student who assumed I was just out of college due to my Jansport backpack because, and I quote "only college students would wear a Jansport backpack." This simultaneously amused and irritated me. I mean, I just needed a new backpack, and they had this really cute one at JC Penney so shut up and I'm old enough to have been your teacher since you were in elementary school so shut up again. After passport control, which was less invasive than entering the United States as a United States citizen, I went to pick up my bags and my dog at the baggage claim. I had a bit of a panic attack when I couldn't find her, and couldn't get anyone to understand me (which was just the beginning), but finally a sweet China Southern attendant disappeared for five minutes, and returned with Lucy's carrier (with Lucy inside...) on a cart. I was at the wrong baggage carrel.
I know. Mad luggage stacking skills.

I somehow loaded up all four of my suitcases and the carrier on one cart (they were bigger than stupid JFK's overpriced "smart" carts) and stumbled through customs (they barely looked at me), found the animal and plant inspection area, registered Lucy, and then, just like that, we were out of there. It took me a little while to figure out where to go. I went up and down the elevator three times, much to the amusement of one of the airport workers who kept trying to help me, but whom I was reticent to let help me because I had no idea if I needed to tip him, or if he was just being helpful. In Africa, everyone expects a tip. Well, not everyone, but attendants at the airport definitely do.

I finally located the departure hall of the airport, found where I would need to check in about five hours, and settled in for a long, bathroom-less wait. I got a lot of weird looks. Like, a lot. Like, "Look at that crazy toubab and her dog" looks. I don't know the Mandarin equivalent for toubab, but I was definitely getting the "crazy toubab" vibe. And, let's be real - in this moment, I was a crazy toubab.
Five hours of waiting with no bathroom breaks (too much luggage). At least Lucy's carrier made for a good foot rest. 

When you have five hours to kill, can't sleep, and can't go to the bathroom, you watch The Middle and Parks and Rec until it's time to go. 

I waited till 12:00 pm to check in my bags and figure out what to do next with Lucy. The check-in attendant was overwhelmed by my bags, and seemed almost unable to process (mentally) the dog. I think it was just striking because now I was flying domestic, and people normally don't have four bags, much less an animal carrier. I finally understood what I needed to do with Lucy - check her in at the "oversize baggage" office. After paying for my excess luggage, I waited another hour to check-in Lucy. At this point I realized that the professional handling of Lucy by the airline at JFK was probably just because it was an international flight, and I started to get incredibly anxious, again.

I took her to the "oversize baggage" office, where the attendant and I had a very confusing conversation which involved taking my only piece of proof that Lucy entered the country legally (yep, took it away and I didn't even get a picture of the document, not that a photo would be legal tender), lots of "Okay" symbols, and a few major sighs on the part of the attendant (everyone I talked to that couldn't get me to understand had these huge sighs - it was kind of funny because several people did it; I know it was just polite frustration, but still interesting). I finally understood that I had to go pay for the dog back at the airline counter (I was quite confused because they took my boarding pass!). I paid, and came back to try and get my paperwork, but they wouldn't give it too me. I had hoped it was just being held as collateral, but no. It wasn't. So, I don't really have any evidence that Lucy entered the country correctly. So, that's a bit worrisome!

Lucy had been taken off by this point, so I reluctantly passed through security (in which my roll-on suitcase was completely unpacked because I had electronics, like a travel transformer and digital camera that I didn't take out the first time through the x-ray machine). I made it to my gate in good time, and anxiously waited and prayed that my dog wouldn't die on this flight.

We finally boarded the plane - a classic take-a-mile-long-bus-ride-to-the-plane situation a la Lisbon airport, where I was one of the first to board, thanks to being perched precariously on the doorstep of the bus on the ride over, with other passengers pressed awkwardly against me for that hot, stuffy mile to the plane. As I was waiting in line, I saw Lucy's carrier being tossed - yes, basically tossed - up into the hold, so at least I knew she was on board. And yes, I wanted to throw up.

Once on the plane, I made sure the flight attendant knew the dog was in the hold, having had the foresight to look up in my English-Chinese dictionary app the words "dog" "baggage hold" and "verify/confirm" and shoved the phone in her face, and said "Please tell the captain." She went to tell the captain about the dog, and my temperature request (26 Celsius) for the hold. I went back to my seat feeling sick and hoping that the hold was pressurized and temperature controlled, despite the cheerful thumbs up I got.

It was a quick flight to Hangzhou, wherein we made the hardest landing I've ever experienced (and I've traveled a lot), and were bustled off the plane. I saw the carrier from the distant window of the airport. After a bit of a wait, Lucy was actually one of the first pieces of luggage off the plane, wherein, again, I got many strange looks as my dog carrier came around the conveyor belt. I loaded her up, and was met outside the baggage area by my new principal and a driver from the school. I had to borrow a strong pair of scissors to cut the zip-tie on the door of her carrier, but finally released poor Lucy after 30 hours in her carrier.
Happy dog.
Fortunately, Lucy seems her normal self. A bit more clingy than usual, but that's understandable. She's camped out on my bed  most of the day, but we've taken a few walks around campus, despite the heat, and she's eating and drinking, which is the most important thing.

Like I said, animal travel and transport is not for the faint of heart. I don't want to think about the process of getting her out of China. We're going to worry about that in two, three, or more years!

More to come...first day in Hangzhou, first impressions, etcetera, ectetera, etcetera.