Two Busy Weeks in China

For those of you without the time to read all of what may indeed be a pretty long entry, the bottom line is I’ve been in Nanning for two weeks now, have been quite busy with work, have overall been feeling great about everything, and am very grateful that this weekend I finally don’t have to work, since I’ve also been suffering from my first head cold in quite a while, for the past three or four days. No worries, just the usual congestion, runny nose and sore throat crap…but annoying just as things were getting into a good groove.

Also, a note about the posts here on my blog : if you are seeing this, it means I am able to post to my site. But I am not currently able to access my site, and believe I will not be able to access it from China. I still love the idea of folks posting comments to the blog, as a method of building community…but be aware I will only rarely be able to read the comments. So if you need to really reach me, feel free to write an e-mail : now that I am settled, I’d really love to hear from you !

The detailed report…from the top. My passport landed back in Paris around noon on Thursday the 31st of March, and though the departure desk initially thought it made more sense for me to fly out either Friday or Saturday, I made myself a bit annoying and ended up on an 11 :45PM flight that night. Paris to Hong Kong is a 12 hour flight with (during daylight savings time) only a six-hour time difference, which tells you something about the north-south distance. The five hours I had to spend in the late afternoon and evening at Hong Kong airport were a welcome chance to adjust a bit to being ‘back’ in Asia, if I can call it that after 21 years. The (to me still new, though it’s been open nearly two decades I think) Hong Kong airport ROCKS : it is without doubt my new favorite airport in the world. It feels space age, to me. Try it some time – you’ll like it !

The delightful thing about landing in Nanning is that four people were there to meet me – the administrator into whose role I have stepped, a British nurse from our Nanning HIV project, our assistant country administrator with whom I work very closely, and a driver. Yes, in China (at least this part of it) having a driver or two is a very nice things since the roads are terrifying chaotic. Naturally, having landed at midnight in a new city where I’d never been and finding myself suddenly in a car with all sorts of new colleagues I’d never met before was both wonderfully and a bit contextually challenging, but it was really a wonderful start.

Then began two weeks of more or less straight-through work. Since Beatrice, my predecessor, had existing plans to leave Sunday evening, I spent the weekend working with her to get a sense of which way was up and which down here in the office. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I got right into the swing of work in the office, trying hard to remember names of my new colleagues and to file them in my head with the right faces. The timing of my arrival, aside from being serendipitous in that it gave me some overlap with my predecessor, was also interesting in that MSF China held our mini-AG (mini general assembly) my first weekend here…and MSF France hosted this year. Which means that, on Thursday, I hopped in cars with many or most of my colleagues here in Nanning (from both the coordination office and the HIV project office) and drove up to Yangshuo, near Guilin, for the meetings which started with a dinner Thursday evening and ended Sunday morning.

This was mostly wonderful, in that after less than a week here I had the chance both to see one of China’s most famed beauty spots (think of the scroll paintings you may have seen of unusually steep mountains rising out of nothing – that’s Guilin and Yangshuo, both about five or six hours from where I now live), and to meet a good number of the MSF colleagues, from MSF France’s Baoji project (for which I also provide support) as well as from MSF Belgium (which also has an HIV project here in China) and MSF Hong Kong. It was also, I must admit, rather tiring in that it was my second weekend of working in a row, including trying to keep straight the names and rolls of a large number of colleagues, and to keep track of the interesting and challenging discussions (in both Chinese and English) about topics relating to MSF and our work here in China. The idea of the mini AG’s (which are held in many regions leading up the general AG each year) is to provide suggestions and ideas to the general governing structure of MSF from the actual field projects where the work is happening. It’s a wonderfully democratic and collaborative concept, but you can understand that it can all wear a boy down on his fifth through eighth day in a new job in a new field in a new country !

This last week started off great – Monday and Tuesday my energy was high, I was enjoying hosting and learning from a colleague from our Baoji project (children in difficult circumstances, mostly street children). Then Wednesday the head cold kicked in, and it was all I could do to stay energetic enough to complete the March financial close – hopefully in somewhat decent shape – Friday afternoon, before heading home to curl up with a good book (am now borrowing Harry Potter in French, though I also bought it in Chinese…the going is just too slow and hard in Chinese to make it enjoyable ‘I’m sick in bed with a cup of hot tea’ reading) and hope my first weekend without work here in China will help me kick this annoyance and get back to work fully energized on Monday.

I’d have to say I’m happy and excited about the year ahead. On the work front, I feel quite comfortable from an experience or technical standpoint that the job will benefit from my prior experiences. I believe the challenge will lie, for me, in learning and becoming conversant with MSF culture and expectations, with Chinese culture and expectations, and finding that best way to help them both merge in the project in a productive and meaningful way. This is a learning curve I am eager to work through, and I feel my colleagues (both national and international) are a great team to work with in doing so. I have already had the chance to spend two days in our HIV clinic here in town, and can only say I am proud of the work we are doing there, and I am excited to find ways I can support the clinic with my experience and work. I will visit Baoji the week of April 25, and am excited to see again the colleagues I met in Yangshuo, along with the rest of the team so they can show me hands-on all the great work they are doing.

On a personal level, the cold has me down right now, but overall I am also quite excited. Indeed, Nanning is much as I remembered China and Taiwan being 20+ years ago : loud, crowded, confusing, full of energy, constantly building, fascinatingly mixed between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ (donkeycarts sharing the road with Mercedes and diesel buses and trucks and bikes and mopeds and all other vehicles known to humans since the invention of the wheel, or so it often seems to me), and really an endlessly unfolding world that I am trying to decipher as I go. It’s not really a pretty city, but what I have seen of Guangxi province tells me there is a great deal of beauty all around me (mountains, lakes, rivers), and I look forward to exploring bus routes and other methods of getting into whatever ‘countryside’ I can find in this populous region to see if there a few mountains I can climb for a better view.

My life here will be, frankly, rather mundane : I have a day job that looks like it’ll keep me pretty busy ; part of the job will involve trips roughly every month up to Baoji, which is pretty much a full day’s travel ; part of it will also involve regular days spent at the HIV clinic here in town, which is about a ten minute bus ride away. The rest of the time I expect to do my job, try to learn how to do it better, try to improve my Chinese while maintaining my French (many of my colleagues are French, including my two housemates, so it’s a good chance to keep French going as well), and plan the occasional weekend escape to the countryside or further afield. When these happen, you can count on reports and pictures. Sorry I have no pictures to display yet – may camera didn’t make the trip to Yangshuo, or I’d have a few for you. Colleagues took one or two of me up there, and if I get my hands on them, I shall post them.

Hope this finds you well and sorry it’s so long. Take care —

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