Day 1: the Academy

Seal School: Day 1

Tuesday 1 November 2011
Welcome to the Academy

8:37 PM – I arrive at the campus on a Tuesday night. As I get out of the taxi from the bus stop there’s a French bakery right in front of me called La Briioche Doree. I’m hungry so go inside, pick up a tray, and put a couple of very familiar-looking breads on the tray. Just as I turn toward the counter, an employee points at a pair of tongs in his hand, and indicates I should take and use them. I’m not getting anything else so I wave him away and walk up to the counter to pay. Back on the sidewalk I don’t see a crosswalk but do see people doing their best to navigate the heavy night-time traffic without one. I see a break in on-coming traffic and walk out to stand on the yellow stripe in the middle of the road, waiting for a chance to get the rest of the way across. A bus rushes past behind my back as I wait and I realize that I’m wearing all black and think how ironic it would be for me to get flattened like a bug on the pavement just as I reach my destination. But I make it across and, standing there in the darkness, wonder what to do next. A security guard sits next to his booth by the large front entrance to the University so I ask him where building number nine is, but only got a blank stare in response. I’d been told by email that I was to go to the third floor of building nine upon arrival, and that there would be staff there twenty-four hours a day who could help me get into the dormitory. While I stand trying to find any numbers on the buildings a woman walks by and must have seen the look on my face because she stops and asks, in English, if I need help. I explain my situation and she says she’s the Librarian at the other campus in one of the other parts of town and doesn’t know her way around either. She asks a few people and is able to bring me to the entrance of building nine.

I go upstairs and find a sign for the International Division next to a closed and locked glass door leading into that floor. No one is around so I continue upstairs to the next floor and find an unoccupied desk just inside the open glass doors. I stand for a while hoping someone will come back to the desk, take the stairs up to the top floor, back down to the ground floor, then come back and stand again. Finally someone comes to the desk but we’re unable to communicate. I try using the desk phone to call a western friend of my teacher who lives in Hangzhou but only get a recorded message in Chinese.

As I stand pondering my next move a young western student walks by and asks if I need help. After more explanations he speaks in Chinese to the person at the desk and then tells me this person is new at the job and doesn’t know what to do with me, was told nothing, and can find no written directions concerning me. We ask if there’s anyone he can call and while he’s on the phone, the student, named Tim, and I chat. He’s Canadian, has been here a few months, and is a scholarship student in the Chinese language program. This is how I discover that many, if not most, of the foreign students are not here to study art. He lives in the dorm but has a roommate so can’t put me up in his room. He tells me about the dining hall in the basement and recommends a Muslim restaurant around the corner. After a few moments the desk person hangs up the phone and says he is to put me in one of the rooms for the night and that I can speak with the office staff in the morning. He leads me to a room just two doors down from his desk, Room 328, where he uses an entry card to open the door, but gestures that he’ll have to keep it. We go in, he points out where everything is, picks up the extra pillow and blanket from one of the two beds, and leaves. Without the entry card I’m a prisoner unable to leave my cell but, by that point, all I want to do is sleep. I eat my bread without water (I’d been warned not to drink the tap water and I forgot to buy anything to drink while I was in the bakery). I can’t brush my teeth without water so my only option is to go to sleep. Not knowing how clean the sheet and blanket are, I opt to sleep in my clothes on top of the bed. The room is hot and stuffy, and the big bay window won’t open, but I find a thermostat with switches that allow me to turn on the fan. I turn out the light, lay on the bed, and am glad to be done with my first day.

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