It hasn’t even been a week since arriving at the Beijing farm and yet it feels more like it’s approaching a month.
For a few days I settled into the routine of starting work around seven. Most of the crops on the farm are in a greenhouse, so the walk there is quite cold, but then everyone takes their jackets off inside. Never were two periods of work with the crops the same. I spent time trimming tomato plants, tying string to support the straight upward growth, and hung sticky paper for flies. Multiple times I helped weigh and sort vegetables for their delivery program.
Then, the weekend came and the owner, a middle-aged woman named Sammy, came with her two kids. She tells me on Saturday that some of her friends from the agricultural university in downtown Beijing are coming to visit. One of them is the Dean of Agricultural Science Department and the rest are PhD students. The Dean is a typical business man type. He’s big, has a barreling deep voice, and sits with his feet up, cigarette in his hand, and has everyone’s undivided attention. He doesn’t intimidate me in the least, but he does interest me, so I take every chance to talk with him.
By the end of the day Saturday the Dean invites me to come to live at the university and work on their team’s project. I figure that I will at least go to visit and check things out.
Literally, the next day, Sammy tells me that her cousin, working on the farm, is going for errands in Beijing and can drive me there. Woah! I thought I’d be going in maybe two or three weeks. Good thing I don’t actually have any real plans. I get my stuff together and before I know it, we’re stuck in the midday rush hour on our way to the city.
It’s interesting to see the suburb turn into big city buildings as we get closer and closer to the heart of the city. Also, the other interesting thing that really stands out is that even when we’re in the midst of the big buildings, there is still so much green space. More green space than I’ve ever seen in a city. The city is laid out and measured in rings. Each new ring added says, in Chinese terms,how much bigger the city has gotten. I think there are five or six here. Within ring three they’re not allowed to have skyscrapers at a certain height, so most of the big business operations are held out near the fourth ring. That’s exactly where he drops me off.
Not interested at all in this section of the city, I hit the subway and with my new found knowledge of the system. It’s quite easy to navigate the subway because the Chinese is spelled out phonetically with their Pinyin system along side English for the meanings.
I arrive at the campus to meet one of the PhD students who takes me down to their lab. Down there, the other PhD student, Kevin, introduces me to their work and calls the last PhD student of this specific group, named Iftikhar. He’s a Pakistani and the only other foreigner of the group. We go out to get dinner and then I end up spending the night in an extra bed at the Chinese dorm. Just like a Chinese kitchen, everything is absolutely filthy and not just they-haven’t-cleaned-for-a-month dirty. It’s more like spots that haven’t been cleaned for ten years have grown new organisms that have become mobile and attacked the rest of the area. The next morning I tell them that I want to go now to run a few errands around the city before going back to the farm. They’ve been very hospitable, but I just don’t feel very good about joining the project. I think the farm will be better for my Chinese learning and rest of life activities. Sammy ends up coming to campus at noon, so I decide to at least wait for her.
She takes me to a Chinese business style meeting between faculty and donor from outside the campus. First we all go into an empty room where everyone stands and talks about something, completely in Chinese. A young reporter from the school come sin to take pictures of everything.
Then, we go up stairs to a nice boardroom where everyone takes a seat. Unlike the normal head of the room at the end of the rectangular table, the boss sits square in the middle of the table. I watched everyone as the meeting goes on and then abruptly, without any smooth transition, the leader makes a loud guttural noise and everyone stands up.
Back down to that same empty room, some people start to bring in office furniture and they all argue and tweak the layout of the room. Layout is important to function, but I had no idea it had this kind of importance here. They would have a ten minute conversation over a few inch difference in positioning. I guess this has something to do with the feng shui style of decorating.
After the meeting is concluded some of us go back to the house of one of the bosses from the meeting. He shows us around his beautifully decorated three story apartment. Each new wall has a different collection of ancient Chinese cultural items. Some guy I’ve never seen before, on the first floor, appears out of thin air with a pot of tea in his hand. He pours me a normal, tall water glass of the tea. It’s a perfect temperature, just below being too hot to drink. It’s a perfect amount of tea flavor to water ratio. I’m not thirsty or particularly a tea drinker, but after about four glasses I figure I should slow down before the long drive back to the farm. This is by far the best tea I’ve ever had. As far as my tea ignorance can tell, this is the perfect cup of tea.
We get back on the road and head back to the farm. About an hour and a half later, it feels good to step back on the farm ground and not have fallen into that situation that seemed awfully like a trap to help some PhD students with their research. As the night goes on, the woman decides to stay and I’m yet again frustrated with my Chinese practice. The woman keeps undermining my attempt to speak and the others don’t give me a chance to find the right correct way to express myself.
After dinner, I lie in bed thinking about my predicament. I think I’m too early in my language learning to be so immersed. At this stage I need someone who will give me the time to call up that memory of the vocabulary and piece it together. It’s not fair to put that on the few people that are here at the farm who don’t speak English. I also can’t speak enough to prove that woman wrong that I can understand, just not express myself well enough yet to answer. Maybe being on that collage campus will give me the situation I need to learn at this stage. I will unfortunately have to be wrapped in English for the research assistance part, but I have a population of 30,000 students that I can go from student to student finding people who will hang with me and help me through this stage to becoming more conversational. I can’t help but think through all these options, so much so that it’s keeping me from sleeping.