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.

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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!).

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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.

Tuesday, 15 Aug 2000

BEIJING, China

I leave home extra early today because I woke up craving zhou mantou (they’re like beignets) with sweet soy milk for breakfast. It’s already a very hot day. I notice that a thick, milky haze hangs over the city. For just a moment, I think it’s the lovely fog of a Seattle morning. Then I remember where I am and realize that the haze is nasty stuff, a brew of pollutants along with fog. Beijing’s air is very bad, and today’s haze is oppressive.

I’d heard that environmental awareness in China is low and that people are unaware of the issue. That isn’t completely accurate. I’ve found that while very few people know what climate change is, everyone knows the air is bad and getting worse. It’s a common subject of conversation. Some people even know that coal burning and car driving are causing the problem. But, to most people, it’s just another development in a country that is spooling out change faster and faster.

After breakfast, I hop on a public bus already jammed with people and find myself face to face with a large smelly burlap sack of onions. Beijing is huge and, in practical terms, made larger by the awful gridlock. It takes 40 minutes for the bus to crawl past my office, which is all of four miles from my home.

I edit the proposals, then meet with Ms. Song to discuss the budget numbers I’ve used in the proposals. She doesn’t speak English, so we communicate through Gaoxiang, GVB’s patient interpreter. The conversation is very slow as we go over the different sets of numbers and discuss changes. I want to make sure I’ve understood everything so I insist we go over all the changes a second time.

We finish. Ms. Song smiles and says “thank you” (one of her few phrases of English) and I say “mei guanxi” (one of my baby phrases).

Then Sheri comes in, returning from a week in Sichuan province. She looks exhausted, but valiantly copes with everyone’s requests for her time. She has at least two full-time jobs: running GVB, and representing the organization all over China and the world. Everyone has been waiting for her approval or advice on something, and we all buzz around her. After asking about the status of the grant proposals I’m working on, she surprises me by asking me to make substantial changes to the website. I tell her that I’ve never worked on a website before — isn’t there anybody el
se? There isn’t, so she tells me to try.

I’m no techie whiz, but I’ve always reckoned that, when the moment came, I could work out the basics of HTML. Well, the moment has come. And unfortunately, it has come while I am sitting in front of a Mandarin-software computer. I never thought I would say this, but I would like to hug Bill Gates to show my gratitude for Windows. I can work out major commands even when I can’t read the characters. But today, when I try to download web documents to change them, I get an error message in, of course, Mandarin. My colleagues try to translate but it’s no use. They don’t understand and neither do I. No one says anything, but I can sense the disappointment in the air. The thinking here is that, because I am American, I must be good at all computer matters. No refusal on my part seems to change this belief that I must have super technical skills that I am just too modest to demonstrate.

Desperate for help, I email my friend Bryan in Seattle. He emails back right away with clear, simple instructions. I hate to be one of those people who gush about how wonderful the Internet is, but gosh, isn’t it? Help from across the world in no time flat. Amazing. I make changes to the site and promise Bryan a suitcase full of tacky, faux jade trinkets.

At this point, the day is going fine. I should doff my hat, accept the gratitude of my impressed colleagues, and leave for Chinese class. But no. Drunk on my own power in figuring out the website (well, yes, I had help, but in the end I managed to do it and on a Mandarin computer), I get a little ambitious. I decide to place a photo of Sheri on an inside page of the website. I do the coding, upload the document, and check out the website to find that I have managed to delete the splash page, replacing it with a horribly distorted image of Sheri’s lovely face (must have gotten those dimensions wrong). At this very moment, Ms. Song decides to check out the GVB website, which she does about once a year. She almost shrieks when she sees it. I calm her down, calm myself down, then email Bryan again. More pledges of faux jade trinkets. I make the changes he advises and the crisis is resolved. I then tear up the website password into teeny weeny pieces so that I will not be tempted to toy with that which I do not understand.

I head off to my Chinese session and my classes.

Wednesday, 16 Aug 2000

BEIJING, China

Yesterday’s white haze has burst into torrential rain. By the time I get to the bus stop, I am drenched but happy. The rain is refreshing. And it’s fun to splash around in the puddles like a little kid. I get to the office and realize that I look awful: wet clothes, mud-splattered shoes, pieces of hair sticking up like porcupine quills. This would not ordinarily matter at laid-back GVB, especially if you’re a foreigner. They expect you to be a slob. But just as I notice the huge mass of electrical cords in the hall, I remember that today is the day a TV crew is taping footage of Sheri for a story about her winning the Sophie Prize. I sneak inside, hoping I won’t be noticed. No such luck. A huge camera is pointed at Sheri. She is an old pro at this sort of thing and looks utterly at ease. She sees me (without registering any shock — do I always look this bad?) and comes over to ask a few questions. They’re clearly taping the “prize winner talking engagingly to her staff” segment. She talks to me engagingly. I mutter back.

(I feel better when I realize that I will have left the country by the time the shots air. If footage of you looking wretched is shown to millions of people, but you don’t see it, does it affect your coolness rating?)

After more work on the proposals, I leave for my tutorial. Tough session. We go over some complicated sentences that I can manage in bits but not in their entirety. No good, of course.

I grab a bite of dinner at my favorite noodle stand. Rice noodles with chili peppers, washed down with lemon tea. All for about 60 cents.

Then I teach class and head on home. I share a large apartment with three other foreigners in Beijing’s university row in the Haidian district. Very cool setup, but I gather that there is trouble afoot. During one of those routine you-ate-my-peanut-butter discussions that roommates everywhere enjoy, it seems that my Korean roomie made some disparaging remarks about my Japanese roomie’s home country’s imperialist actions during the last world war. True enough, but it’s hard to see just what the hapless, Ricky Martin-loving Naho is supposed to do about it all. I say hello to the roommates, who are all sitting sullenly around the living room and rush right up to my room. I am definitely sitting this one out.

Thursday, 17 Aug 2000

BEIJING, China

The rains have passed, and today Beijing is mud-stained and humid. Walking the two blocks from my apartment to the bus stand is quite an adventure, as there are huge mounds of dirt and pieces of machinery everywhere. What used to be the road outside my building is now a giant trench, filled with about 50 men digging even deeper. More construction.

Beijing is a boom town. Construction cranes loom everywhere; I’ve heard the fun but unconfirmed factoid that fully 20 percent of the world’s cranes are now in Beijing. Due to the huge unemployment problem, much of the construction is still done by hand. Men with bicycle carts, their muscles straining with effort, haul loads of bricks, concrete slabs, and pipes. Entire buildings, modern looking though they might be, have been put up by teams of gaunt laborers.

And the buildings are very modern. Charmless, Los Angeles-style high-rises and strings of strip malls are popping up everywhere, joining the aggressively ugly, Soviet-style concrete buildings put up in the 1950s. There are a few hutongs (old alleys) left, but not many. Some gorgeous examples of ancient architecture still exist, though; it’s quite a thrill to stumble on an old neighborhood that has somehow escaped the press of bulldozers.

I arrive at the GVB office and find that we’ve gotten an email from one of our partners, signing off on an important proposal for holding capacity-building meetings for Chinese NGOs. Sheri arrives and we discuss the proposal. She wants to make a major change to it. The central government recently announced plans to spur economic growth in the country’s major Western cities. Sheri wants to amend the proposal to add two sessions for NGOs in that area of the country. She thinks that NGOs are needed there more than anywhere to raise awareness of green issues as the growth machine gears up for action.

GVB’s stated mission is to make people in this country more aware of environmental issues and to encourage the adoption of sustainable lifestyles. It’s a grand aim. But, living in Beijing, I sometimes wonder if it’s not also utterly quixotic. Consumption is all the rage here. Disposable chopsticks, styrofoam containers, and plastic shopping bags are the norm. GVB and other environmental organizations try to convince people to refuse such single-use items and combat “white pollution” (as styrofoam boxes and plastic bags are described), but the message is at odds with the sleek materialism of Beijing. (I have noticed that only one woman in our office brings her own, non-disposable chopsticks to lunch. Though I’m told that no one drinks Coca-Cola at work because Sheri regards it as a symbol of mad consumption.)

There are more than 50 McDonalds in Beijing, including two near Tiananmen Square. They are hugely popular, though “Kentucky” — nine stores and growing — seems to have more cachet right now. Large, terrifying statues of Ronald McDonald and the Colonel (surely I’m not the only one who finds these figures menacing?) dot the city. Standing at Tiananmen these days is a bit like standing at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco, looking from Ben & Jerry’s to the Gap. You have to work hard to imagine t
he tumult of earlier eras.

Back to GVB’s mission. Sheri and I talked a few days ago about the relative importance of various environmental issues, including biodiversity and climate change. She said that her thinking has shifted in recent years and that she has come to view climate change as the most important issue in the world. We commiserated about how hard an issue it is to talk about — scientifically complex and unfathomably vast in scale. I mentioned that it is, in many ways, a hard question for people to feel empowered about. There are many steps people can take, but so many important decisions are not in individuals’ hands. Sheri disagreed, saying that she sees a great opportunity in China to educate people about appliance efficiency standards and the impacts of cars. I was cheered by her optimism

After work and my Chinese lesson, I stop at my favorite dumpling house (three kinds of vegetarian jaozi!) for a quick bite to eat. The food arrives and I dig in. When I look up, I notice that the Chinese family of three sitting opposite from me is eating silently, their eyes fixed on me.

This is a standard experience in Beijing. All foreigners attract attention, and short Indian women get the circus-freak treatment. People stare at me openly, some even point. One guy on a bicycle nearly hit a pole because he had wrenched his head around to look at me. I’ve been in other countries where I attract attention because of my appearance, but it’s never been this extreme. Here, when I smile to establish that I am a friendly alien, people burst into laughter. It would seem that the Chinese are hard-wired to find me hilarious.

Very young Chinese babies wear either bibs that leave their backsides exposed or shorts with slits in the back. Makes sense when you consider — well, you know. One day in a restaurant, a youngster toddled up to me, took one look at my face, and laughed so hard that he fell down on his bum. To be considered funny-looking by someone with a slit in the seat of his pants is a bit much. Sigh.

Friday, 18 Aug 2000

BEIJING, China

Today I went to a large international meeting on capacity building. Five hours later, I still had no idea what the phrase means.

After weeks of being in a constant state of bewilderment (my Chinese is coming along, but slowly), it was very strange to be in a room where I understood every word.

And what words they were. The meeting was one in a series aimed at coming up with a framework for funding projects to stop climate change. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Climate change is maddeningly complex. You can combat it by planting trees, improving energy efficiency, promoting renewables, or tying Americans to their chairs so they can’t consume. Which approach you take determines where project money goes. At one point, there was an absurd discussion on whether desertification or loss of shoreline was more important in the scheme of things. A very somber and dignified man from Pakistan stood up and squashed that particular debate.

Deciding that I had learned enough about the meeting to give a report to GVB, I headed back to the office to work on a proposal. This one is for money to hold a binational meeting in the U.S. between Chinese NGOs and their American counterparts. The explicit goal of the proposal is to introduce American NGO approaches and practices to Chinese NGOs. I softened the language, but the idea still makes me squirm. American and European environmental groups have achieved great things, no question. But are our NGOs such models of strategic thinking and good management that they should be emulated? The answer might be yes; I just don’t know.

I then headed off to an Internet cafe to catch up on email and news from home. Before coming to China, I had read loads of articles about the rise of the Internet in this country. I had grown misty-eyed at the thought of Chinese people gaining access to worlds of information previously unavailable to them. This happens some, but what happens more at Internet cafes is the playing of video games. Rows of overweight, pimply boys sit in cubicles, shooting at things on the screen. Has there ever been a better time in history to be an adolescent male?

My weekend plans include boating at Beihai Park with friends and seeing the Great Wall at Badaling (tourist-infested but worth it, I’m told). I’m headed home to study Chinese before the festivities begin.