Shalini Ramanathan works with Global Village of Beijing, a Chinese environmental group. Previously, she was international coordinator of the Earth Day 2000 campaign, based in Seattle, Wash.

Monday, 14 Aug 2000

BEIJING, China

Today, I sent two faxes to a UN office in Washington, D.C.

If that doesn’t sound like a major accomplishment to you, you’re clearly not working in an NGO office in Beijing. I am darn proud of those two faxes. The faxes went through; the day was well-spent.

When I first arrived at the offices of Global Village of Beijing (GVB), I was impressed by how shiny and spiffy everything looked. There were computers everywhere, a copier sat in the corner, and people were bustling about with modern good cheer.

GVB is a very sophisticated and well-ordered office, especially by Chinese standards. But once in a while, the reality of Beijing intrudes. Sending those faxes took two hours. Getting a dial tone and coaxing the fax machine to work was hell. At one point, I was on my knees, waving incense sticks and pleading with what is, after all, only a machine. My GVB colleagues were not surprised by what a hassle the faxing was. It’s just how life is.

I came to Beijing to learn about environmental issues in China and to learn more about Chinese NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, a new phenomenon in this country. I met Sheri Liao, GVB’s founder, when she came to Seattle in February to discuss plans for Earth Day 2000.

I worked for Earth Day Network at the time, and I remember that we were all excited about what Sheri and her NGO coalition were doing for Earth Day. In July, I came to Beijing to see firsthand what GVB is all about and to breathe the air myself (enough already with those World Health Organization reports!).

GVB has been around for four years now. During all of that time, there has always been an American expat or two around to help with grant proposals, English-language outreach, and written materials. And that pretty much sums up my job here. Unlike the rest of the GVB expats (who were all old China hands), I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin when I got here. I know a few key phrases now, most of them relating to food. Between my colleagues’ English, my nascent Mandarin, and lots of pantomiming, we manage.

Aside from The Faxes, I spent today finalizing three proposals in preparation for a meeting tomorrow with Ms. Song, GVB’s ace second-in-charge.

The faxes upset my schedule, and I was going to work through lunch to get back on track, but this is unheard of in my office. Three of my colleagues all but dragged me out to lunch. The people in this office are great — 10 in all, mostly women. They are fantastically supportive of my efforts to learn putonghua, which is what the locals call what we in the West call Mandarin. My colleagues cheer loudly whenever I roll out one of my noun-verb-adjective baby sentences. Today, I managed “Wo chi su de” (I’m vegetarian) to the waiter at the Uighur noodle place near work. My colleagues beamed at me.

I really love this noodle place, which is tucked away on the same dusty, unpretty street where our office is located. The shop is tiny and stiflingly hot. We sweated, sipped tea, and talked until the steaming plates of fresh, chewy noodles arrived. My only gripe with this place is that, with every bite, my condescension for the noodle places in Seattle grows.

After lunch, we trooped back to the office. And everyone settled in for a well-deserved little xiuxi (nap). The office that naps together stays together. (America might be the only country in the world where you’re required to fake productivity in the afternoons.)

I made a few more changes on the proposals, then dashed off to meet my Chinese language tutor, Sunny. She is studying English very seriously, having decided, like so many Chinese young people, that she wants to go abroad. I have heard that fully two-thirds of the students at Beida, China’s top school, want to leave the country. Can you imagine if two-thirds of Yale and Harvard grads left the U.S.? What would happen to our country’s critically important smugness reserves?

Sunny fed me loads of new words at rapid fire and I repeated and wrote, trying to absorb every bit. Written Chinese is intimidatingly hard, but the spoken form is fairly manageable. We worked on a few new sentence patterns, then reviewed some old lessons.

I had a bit of a break before I had to teach English, so I wandered the streets near Beitaipingzhuang. Off the main, car-choked avenues, there are lively little alleys. I strolled through them and bought fruit and some hot, yummy naan-like bread. There were lots of other things on offer, including whole roasted sparrows, their little bird feet all too recognizable, that I passed on. Living in China is only reinforcing my lifelong commitment to vegetarianism.

Then I was off to teach English. The classes went well tonight. My students were all over the who/whom distinction and we had a great free talk discussion on the Olympics. “Beijing 2008″ is a rallying cry here; posters plaster the city and just about everybody I’ve talked to wants the Olympics here eight years from now. Free talk, the one section of the class when students talk without their books, is kind of hit or miss. Yesterday’s topic, My Favorite Foods, was a dud. It was satisfying to have found a good topic today.

But those faxes were definitely the highlight of the day.