Saturday, December 6, 2008


Did you know I have a barnacle beacon? Well, neither did I, until we went to Thailand. Yes, it was a case of Sarah swims in the ocean, Sarah sees cool fish, Sarah accidentally swallows some salt water, and just as the fun is starting, Sarah kicks a barnacle encrusted boulder with her bare foot.

Let's back up a little.

As I mentioned, we decided to take a week's vacation and travel to Thailand. As luck would have it, our original plan to go Thanksgiving week fell through because of David's work, so we went the week before all the protests went down in Bangkok. Whew. The stars really aligned on that one. So, after a 5 hour flight we were in the capital. We stayed the night there and left for Koh Samui in the morning. This is one of 3 islands in the Gulf of Thailand and the only one with an airport. Koh Samui is much more developed than the other two, and we were on a mission to take it easy and get away from all the hubbub, so we immediately boarded a boat bound for Koh Tao, the most northern of the islands and the smallest. And the farthest away, I might add, as I didn't thoroughly enjoy the long, choppy boat ride out there. I was having flashbacks of the diving boat incident in West Palm Beach last February, which was not pretty, believe me.

We arrived and were immediately solicited by every taxi driver on the island. We got away from the crowd and found our own taxi, which was a pick up truck with benches in the truck bed. Brilliant. Even though I kept a white knuckle grip on the bars the whole time, I enjoyed the unique view of the island as we made our way to our resort.

The town

It looked so prehistoric, like a dinosaur was about to waltz across the street.

Thailand is very affordable. We could have found a bungalow for 10 bucks a night. I would have been game. However, the cheap prices also mean that the really nice places, while expensive for Thailand, are quite a steal in comparison to most resorts found on tropical islands. I figured we should take advantage of this opportunity for at least a couple nights, so I booked our first two nights at a place called Thipwimarn. I was smitten the first time I looked it up and it didn't disappoint in person. Lovely little cottages on the side of a hill in the jungle, overlooking the sea. Relaxation personified. It turned out to be so nice, we stayed there the whole week. There were definitely other places that would have been fine, it was just easier to stay there. Plus, we were getting a fine work out going up and down all those stairs all the time...

View from our own little porch


So back to the barnacles. I have never snorkeled before. Gimme a break, I grew up in Ohio and I'm not the best swimmer. So we borrowed masks and those snorkel tube thingies from the resort and went down to the little bay directly below our room. We had the place to ourselves. So David gave me the basics and we went out. Koh Tao is quite popular for snorkeling and diving. Actually, the island is the number two place in the world to get certified to dive. There were tons of dive centers and tons of young people there to get certified. Myself, I have trouble with my ears, and I mentioned my poor swimming skills, so diving really doesn't appeal to me. Snorkeling is more my speed: float lazily on the surface and look at pretty things.

And what pretty things. It was so cool to swim in this clear, turquoise water and hang out with these brilliant fish. Yellow and bright blue, purple, orange. Real, live coral on the bottom with some urchins and wild colored animals that look like plants and suck themselves in when you try to touch them. Fantastic. I also enjoyed watching the little crabs above the water line on the rocks scurry in there little sideway manner away from David as he approached them. Actually, this is probably what I was preoccupied with when I sliced my foot open. Fantastic. Fantastic pain!

My first thought was,
If I see my own bone I'll pass out. After I actually looked at the damage, I thought How does one tell if one needs stitches? David came over, looked at it, and proclaimed that it didn't look too deep and I guess that was enough for me. I continued to swim around, wincing as the salt water swished through my cut. I cursed all the barnacles I passed, staying far away from all rocks.

Swimming turned out to be easier, because walking hurt quite a bit, especially on the sandy beach. The stairs were now a double challenge. But luckily for me, David had rented a motor scooter, so we were able to explore the island fairly easily while sparing my poor foot. I had to get over my irrational fear that two wheeled vehicles cannot possibly stay upright, but after that it was quite fun. Half the roads are dirt and thus a bit wild to drive on. (Evil Knievel, eat your heart out!) We spent a good deal of time just riding to different parts of the island, eating some really tasty food, getting strawberry smoothies whenever possible (this might have just been me...), and taking in the nice views of the beaches, jungle and ocean.

We got some fins at another resort and went snorkeling again. This was uneventful on the boulder bit, thankfully. A pleasant evening swim. The next day we traversed to the southern end of the island and spent a good deal of time trying to get to Freedom Beach, because it had the most potential for calm waters that day. Beautiful, secluded beach, with hardly any other people. More beautiful sights. David tried to teach me to dive to the bottom. It didn't go so well. Swallowed a bit too much water and then dog paddled too hard and wore myself out. And as we made our way back to shore, I kicked a rock. I couldn't believe it! I think I hit pure rock this time, so not so much slice and dice as just scrapes to my foot and my pride. I ordered a strawberry smoothie the first chance I got to make myself feel better.

Freedom Beach

We were pretty chill this trip, so not too much action to report. We did hang out at a beach bar one night and got to see some cool fire dancers. There's quite a hippie vibe here, perhaps because of the large number of backpackers here. I enjoyed it. Much different than the city vibe I've been surrounded with for months.

That's hot. ;)

Our last day, we took in some more sights, but mostly chilled on a beach for the afternoon. (Lemon shake this time!) David had burned his back earlier in the week, so he did not want to risk getting in the water. After a while I decided I needed to take advantage of my last chance to snorkel in this really lovely water, so I went in by myself. David watched from the shore. As I tried to make my way through the jostling waves, I promptly stepped on a rock...covered in...BARNACLES! More like I stepped on, slipped on, and then again, stepped on a rock covered in barnacles. Absolutely ridiculous. It was a small rock in really shallow water just feet from the strip of sandy beach, so I wasn't thinking rocks. I couldn't see it anyway since the water is cloudy at the shore.

I had a Why me?? moment, but then I went out anyway and I'm glad I did. Fairly shallow water meant that I could try diving amongst the parrot fish and such, this time successfully. Pretty awesome. Too bad I didn't have an underwater camera.When I came out, I discovered that I had at least six cuts on my foot, with one on the bottom running the length of my arch. Pathetic. I must have bad karma or something.

We weren't the only ones taking it easy...

Despite using an obscene number of band aids, I did enjoy the trip. We couldn't have asked for a more relaxing place. I know David needed it and I think it did him a lot of good. We both agreed that we would come back to Thailand if given the chance. Friendly people, beautiful place, good food. Get rid of those crusty devils of the sea, and I would be tempted to call it heaven.

For more photos, click here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Bag! Watch! Purse! Club

If you have ever lived in China or even visited, or heck, even been to a China town in America, you may well be acquainted with the experience of being viewed as a walking money tree. You hear English, but it is minimalistic, chucked at you in globs. "Bags!", "Watches!", "Hello!", "Hey Lady!" (my favorite), "Ok!", "Shoes!", and "Purses!" Sometimes you get more elaborate descriptions, like "Good price!" or "Come look!" or "Gucci!" They flash a laminated, folded sheet with pictures of goods, splaying it out for you to see and then quickly collapsing it back into their pocket, lest they be caught by the authorities, and then expect you to follow them to the secret shop. I am really, really good at saying "No" now. If I could figure out how to say, "Actually, I don't really care for purses much, thank you, " in Chinese, I might pull that on them. I figure it would stun them long enough to make my quick get-away.

Our friend, Gregg, is pretty much a genius because he came up with the most hysterical way to turn the tables on these guys. He decided it would be great if he could get a hold of one of the cards with all the pictures on it, so that when he goes to the high traffic areas, he can beat the sellers at their own game. As soon as you see a dude approaching you, you whip out the card. "Bags Watch Purse?!" The poor suckers wouldn't even know what hit em.

While I was walking along one of these shopping streets, waving my hand "No" at least two dozen times, I thought about Gregg's idea. It really was perfect. I found myself wishing I had one of those cards. Every non-materialistic, non-shopping crazy schmuck should have one of those cards, cause I know I'm not the only one who doesn't want that stuff. In fact, I will never want that stuff. I thought about getting a shirt made that says, in characters, "I'm Poor." But the card thing is both effective and potentially funny.

One night David and I met Kellie and Gregg on a corner to go to dinner. Gregg held out his hand and revealed one of the product cards. He smiled.

"You got one?" I asked, excited.
"Yup. Bought it for 5 kuai." We all laughed. This was excellent progress. He actually got one!

So after dinner, David and Gregg walked ahead of Kellie and I on the sidewalk. We were having our own conversations. Then Kellie and I realized that we were passing small groups of people who were laughing with a very surprised look on their faces. Then we noticed they were looking ahead of us, sometimes pointing. Gregg was whipping out the card any chance he got, leaving in his wake numbers of very shocked product pushers. It was comic gold. We quickly decided that very night that we needed to add to our army. We needed to get all the expats on board (or at least the 4 of us), each procure our own card and go out en mass. I decided we would have to video the action. Perhaps we would put it on YouTube. The possibilities are endless.

So this past Saturday, David and I went to Yuyuan Bizarre to attempt to do some shopping. The funny thing was, David needed to buy a couple fake watches for a friend back in the States. So before I knew it, we were actually following the bagwatchpurse guy. He took us to a side street and then a small little walkway amongst some old residences, still occupied. Then, Voila!, a secret room full of knockoffs. I couldn't believe we were actually doing this. It was interesting, but my patience with the ordeal was limited, as it is very, very hard sell in there. The price started at 1200 yuan for one watch and a half hour later, after thoroughly frustrating the salespeople, we got two watches for 700 yuan. I actually think we could've gone lower, but it came out to about $58 per watch, one being a "Rolex," so I think we did OK.

So even though we already bought some, Mr. Bagwatchpurse wants to take us to ANOTHER store. We follow just to see, but we're done. He then tries to drag us to "the best" store, but we managed to tell him we really were finished. He finally left us alone. But later, we ran into the same guy. I gotta hand it to Mr. B. He sure is a go getter, cause he tried to get us to look at some more stuff. Again. This is when David seized the opportunity.

"I wanna buy THAT," he said, pointing to Mr. B's card. The guy figured it out quickly.
"50 kuai." Damn. This guy is on the ball. And so, the bargaining begins.
"My friend bought one for 5 kuai!" David says.
"You kidding me! 40 kuai!"
"Too much! It's just a card! 5 kuai! My friend bought one for 5 kuai!"

By this time there are two other card toters gathered around and now they are trying to get us to buy their cards! I kept trying to walk away. This was getting ridiculous.
"30 kuai!"
"5 kuai!"
"You must be joking! 20 kuai!"
"Buy this one! 10 kuai!"
"Too much! I'll buy yours! 5 kuai!" More laughter. Things are whipped up into a frenzy at this point. These guys couldn't be more thrilled that some goofball tourists are offering them money for their cards.
"10 kuai!"
"Ok, ok. 10 kuai, " David agrees. "Still too much." There's a pause. "Pinky? (my nickname), do you have 5 kuai on you?"
"I am not giving you 5 kuai for that thing." I start to walk away.
"Can I borrow 5 kuai? I only have 5 kuai!"

I turn. I look at David amongst this crowd of Chinese folks. They are still haggling him. I relent. I hand the original Mr. B 10 kuai, take the 5 kuai from David and then drag him away. The other sellers still want us to buy their cards. Complete madness!

But at least now there are two members of the BWP Club. As for my future role in these dealings, I am going to self appoint myself as head camera girl. It's a war zone out there. I'd rather not be in the front lines.

We're taking back the streets...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pass It On

I ate dinner out tonight. Sometimes I just have to get myself out of the house even if I don't have someone to meet for dinner. So I went to Blue Frog, which is a very American-style restaurant. It's comfort food and it's close to our apartment. I took my notebook with me to make lists while I waited for my food, because no one likes to be alone at a restaurant AND be idle. One has to have a magazine or a laptop. I write. I'm sure I still look peculiar, but I don't mind.

I did look up from time to time to look out the window. Sitting on the second floor, I had a clear view of the street. I noticed a couple of men standing on the other side, not really doing anything. The thought crossed my mind that they may have been contemplating stealing one of the bikes in front of them, but they did not do this. They simply sat down on the sidewalk. I went back to making notes on all the things I want to eat when I go home. (This list makes me laugh, especially since it has WENDY'S on it!)

Throughout dinner, I gazed out the window a few more times. One of the men had gone, but the other was still there, milling about. He had a knit cap on and a red plastic bag in one hand. I couldn't help but wonder if that bag held all his worldly possessions. In the other hand, he held a small, white cup. I figured he was asking for spare change, although he didn't seem to be aggressively seeking out targets. He mostly squatted against the wall. I watched him approach a few people, but it was a meager attempt.

Something struck me about this scene. Now, since moving to a big city, in China no less, I am no stranger to people begging. Going to touristy areas is to agree to an absolute siege. "Hello! Money!" Then they shove a baby in your face. Not a good scene. But being able to observe this one man, far removed and for a decent period of time, I felt for him. I started wondering if I had some change on me. I normally do not do this, as sometimes you get yourself into more muck if you actually give to the clinking cup. But my gut said the guy needed it.

I watched him help a girl maybe my age or a little younger with her bike as she tried to lock it up. He held it upright for her as she fed the lock through the wheel and I was glad to see she smiled and said thank you. Then she made the universal sign for 'no money' by reaching in her pockets and shrugging, mouthing the words "sorry". I can't judge. I have done this. (Back in Columbus, it was usually actually true, as I used my debit card for most things and rarely carried cash. Perhaps a convenient circumstance for my conscience?) She then walked away with her friends to no doubt get some dinner. That decided it. I had watched him do a good deed.

I contemplated a 5, but then decided on a 10 RMB note, which is about $1.50 U.S. I knew he could get a good meal for this, two if he went to a simple noddle shop. I figured I shouldn't be stingy if I was to make the effort. I just couldn't stand the thought of that guy staring at all the rich people in the restaurants, paying for overpriced food, and then not getting dinner himself.

So I packed up and left the restaurant. My heart sank a little, as I couldn't see the man at first, but then I noticed he was sitting nestled behind the line of bikes across the street. With the bill in my gloved hand, I crossed the street. He definitely noticed and for a split second I think he thought about showing me his cup, but I was too fast. I put the bill into his hand and looked him in the eyes. I said the smallest little "Merry Christmas" for lack of anything else to say. The handshake quickly became a warm, four-handed embrace, the 10 kuai in the middle. He said "Xie xie!" which is Mandarin for "thank you."

His genuinely grateful eyes almost broke my heart, so with a quick final squeeze I turned and walked away, choking on the moment. I didn't look back. The cold night air felt good on my face as I walked home. I found myself wondering what his name might have been.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


I spent an evening last week attempting to become a bit more tech savvy. I thought I had succeeded. I was super excited, as computer nerd I am not. I researched ways to tell how often people visit this blog. The basic blogger setup does not provide a visit counter. It only tells me how many times my profile has been viewed (and a good chunk of that number is from yours truly). So I found a website that offers a visit counter, signed up, got some fancy HTML code stuff and put it in the appropriate places and TA DA! I had a little box with 8 zeros in it on my main page. It was like a magical Christmas present from the Internet!

Well, it was until I had David give it a test run. I wanted to have at least 1 visitor showing up on the counter after all. But his visit didn't register. Not only that, he couldn't see the counter at all! Gah! Foiled! I fiddled around with it, but I had no idea what to do when systems are not go. So, I did the next best thing: I forgot about it.

Until tonight.

I now have 7 visits!! I must have done it right! Now we're talking!

In a nut shell, the counter is more a tool for myself. Honestly, I need some sort of cheering on to make my posts more frequent, as I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, they have not been thus far. But seeing that 7 people have stopped by (thank you, anonymous 7!) and have seen nothing recently posted definitely gives me some incentive. If just one person is reading it, it makes it worth it. So, even though I need to get to bed and fight off what I fear to be a looming cold, I am committed to publishing another post tomorrow, as there ARE stories to tell. (Close calls! Embarrassing defeats! Insect dramas! All this and more!) See you all on the flip side! Wait...I'm already ON the flip side...hmm...

p.s. It is officially December over here in Asia. I cannot believe how time has flown by!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Up Down Up Down...

The past two weeks: classic China experience, in the sense that it was filled with random experiences spanning the entire range of human emotions. Just another mini Shanghai thrill ride. This one starts with Halloween.

Up to mischief (or the day David let me give him temporary tattoos)

I had decided that I wanted to celebrate Halloween this year. I love Halloween, and I didn’t do much for it last year. So, with the promise of plenty of places to get our spook on, I brought the idea up to friends and David and everyone seemed game. So Kellie and I set out to find a rare costume shop to get a few costume pieces. She needed a costume, David needed one, Sanami just wanted some animal ears, and I was undecided as to whether to be a pirate, as I already had a striped shirt and boots.

First, let it be stated that Kellie and I had the “This Is Harder Than It Should Be” blues, as getting to said costume/decoration shop took nothing short of a miracle. ("Miracle" here means running into an acquaintance, chatting about the abandoned blow-up doll spread over the bushes in front of us near the subway, and getting some much better directions in the process.) Anyway, we made it, we found stuff for everyone even though the store was pretty cheesy and we made it back home in one piece.

"A pirate, a lady bug, a tiger and a biker walk into a bar…"

The night went well. We met another friend of mine and his crew at a British pub. They left a little past midnight, (on to “greener”, um, graveyards?) but we stayed there the rest of the night, throwing back some pretty generous portions of wine and Duvel (which means devil in…oh heck, I don’t remember what language). We stayed until closing time. I saw parts of Rocky Horror Picture Show that I hadn’t seen since I was 16 hanging out with the theater kids. The bar tender gave us a free round. We had a great time. However, I think in the future, I will abstain from drinking with the Devil. I’ll leave it at that.

Rock Bottom

After a care free night like that, the next morning was in stark contrast. One text message changed everything. I will not get into too many details, as it is long, involved and not my business to spread around, but a situation at David’s work came to a head Saturday morning and it was not the hoped for outcome. It was a situation David felt partly responsible for and there was a great sense of wrongdoings on the company's part going on. So, we felt pretty crappy the rest of the weekend, mulling it over. Feeling like something needs to be done to fix a situation, but not feeling like you have any power to change it is a hard thing to go through. David is a man of morals, and it just felt very wrong to him, like the type of situation where someone needs to stand up for what is right. To cut to the resolution, things were more complicated than we realized at first and the “victim” turned out to be dealing quite well with it. Just another example of how it’s virtually impossible to truly understand what is going on here. All we can do is trust our gut, and things still feel sour in regards to the powers that be, but the storming of the Death Star has at least been put on hold, with no immediate need to stand up against the empire for the sake of the people. (Yes, I AM making that a bit more dramatic than it needs to be. I just liked the image.) In conclusion, things are fine, for now. For all my worrywarts out there, don’t. Apologies for the vagueness, but we’re fine.

Up, up and away!

So, with that mostly behind us, we were able to concentrate on plans to take a real-live vacation. Sweet! So for the past week and a half I’ve been planning our trip to some islands in Thailand! The key words when deciding where to go were “nature,” “clean,” and “quiet.” Sounds like some islands in beautiful, blue water to me. Ah! But there's a catch! However relaxing this place will be once we’re there, it’s been less than simple trying to make the plans.

In a snapshot:

“How much did you say?!”
“No, no the red eye is NOT what we want.”
“We can’t pay with a credit card? You need CASH?”
“Password tries allotment exceeded” (This is the ATM talking, and it can be translated as "Stick that card in one more time and I'll shred the sucker!")
“Your requested transaction was rejected. We’re very sorry for the inconvenience. Again."

The booking gods hate me...

Hopefully, the results of my Thailand story will turn out way better than the beginning. At least we have all our plane tickets now, so we’re getting there at least! We leave this Saturday and we’ll be there for a week!

Down a peg

To give I. M. Nervous and Nelly another dose of adrenaline on another dip in this roller coaster ride, I hereby admit a blunder. I almost got robbed last Friday. Yeah, I know. It was partly my fault. Funny things happen to one’s well-honed paranoia when you actually live in a foreign country, in a city known to be quite safe. Luckily for me, a very nice Chinese girl told the dudes getting into my backpack that it was not a good thing to do because I was a foreigner. I wondered afterward if she would have stopped them if I had been Chinese… But regardless, after checking and seeing that the two small pockets on the bag were wide open with my money still inside, I thanked her profusely, swallowed my pride as she told me to be careful, and scampered off to the grocery store, hoping the would-be pick-pockets were not watching me. It was a very creepy feeling. Consider my paranoia back in fighting form.

Upside down

Amongst all this, we have had some nice dinners with friends, meeting friends of friends, checking out cozy little bars and maybe sneaking in a guilty-pleasure stop at McDonald’s. I discovered just how valuable public restrooms are after a long, painful, somewhat panicked walk back to the apartment a few days ago. I also soaked in some more local culture, wandering around Chinese neighborhoods with Sanami after a good Chinese meal in a hole in the wall shop one night last week. I was reacquainted with the wild and crazy world that exists outside the normal expat circuit: fruit and nut stands, food streets with piles of oyster shells and fake shoes and neon lights, a man selling rods of sugar cane on the corner…the usual.

This place is a lot of things, but "boring" is definitely not one of them!

Friday, November 7, 2008

One World, One Dream

On August 8, I went with a friend to an Irish bar to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I always find the Olympics an impressive event, but it is very common for me to miss most of it. I realize they are going on about the time they are wrapping up. But this time, I found myself in the host country where the excitement had been building for over eight years. No one could escape the Olympics (or that ridiculously long them song, Beijing Huan Ying Ni or in other words, Beijing Welcomes You, or in other words, Sarah's Mind is About to Explode). Billboards, commercials, and public advisories suggesting people stay on the curb, help wheelchair-bound folks across streets, and refrain from littering, were everywhere.

There were plenty of people who were over "Olympic fever." These were the same people who had no intention of going to see the games live and in person. We contemplated it briefly, but it just seemed insane to join millions of other people flooding into Beijing. Plus we've never been there, so we didn't know the best way to go about it, even in normal circumstances. David and I were satisfied with seeing a semi-final men's soccer match in Shanghai, the only event taking place in our city.

We were new enough here that the hype surrounding the games had not gotten to us, so I was looking forward to watching the opening ceremonies in China. The last time I saw the start of the Olympics, I think Muhammad Ali carried the torch. So I showed up, a little after the ceremonies kicked off and found myself walking into a courtyard full of people, many of which who were Chinese, just as the Chinese National Anthem was starting. This may not sound like a big deal, but I have never been in a foreign country when its citizens were singing their own anthem. I was struck most by the swelling sense of pride in the air. These people were singing their hearts out. China had been looking forward to hosting the Games for a long time, even before they won the honor back in 2001. I was witnesses a people in one of their most anticipated moments of national pride. It was amazing.

It's a big year for America, too. Being on the other side of the world during a historical event like our elections this year is almost as strange as being in China for the 2008 Olympics. Although I could never claim to miss the presence of constant political ads and news coverage (especially when you live in swing state), it still felt weird not to be stateside during the actual election. So last Tuesday, I did the next best thing and went to a bar at 8 o'clock in the morning. It was strange to be in a place with so many Americans in one spot, as most times when out with other expats, there are plenty of other nationalities in the mix. But here we were, all gathered to watch the historic election results come in. We ate a very American breakfast and kept an eye on the TVs. By the time noon rolled around, I had once again experienced a moment of national pride. This time it was Americans abroad in China, hugging each other and cheering for an amazing moment in our nation's time line.

These two moments, involving two very different countries and two very different sources for celebration, were so strikingly similar to me. I couldn't stop comparing them. Essentially, they felt the same. The excitement, the pride, the purity of all felt so amazingly wonderful and positive. People at their best in a somewhat rare moment that brings them together.

The more I learn and witness, the more I'm convinced of our overwhelming similarities, rather than our differences. It's a small world after all.

Monday, October 27, 2008

It's Always Darkest Right Before It Goes Pitch Black...

So, you know when it's the beginning of December and you wake up and it's dark outside and when you get out of work it's, you guessed it, dark outside? I have long ago decided that it is in fact necessary to have Christmas lights during this time, otherwise we'd all go into hysterics.

Well, I need me some Christmas lights, stat!

Today, the sky went dark at 5:00 pm. I cannot believe it! I mean, it was bad enough that in the peak of summer, the sun went down around 8:00 pm. (A far cry from the daylight still lingering in the sky close to 10:00 pm in Ohio.) I definitely missed dayl
ight savings time, but on the other hand, it was dang hot and nighttime was the only time to feel halfway human outside. But now? It's getting colder. This is why I'm still in my (David's) flannel pj pants, long sleeve T-shirt, a cardigan sweater and knee socks. (And no, they do NOT coordinate together. The height of fashion right here, let me tell you. Didn't you know that "dumpy" was the new "black"?) It is, of course, light around some ungodly hour of 4 or 5 am, but what good does that do me? Now I am faced with half my waking hours being dark AND cold. Misery...

In case you were not aware, China is all on the same time zone. Now, go look up a map of China. Now, stand in awe of it's en
ormity. I mean the place goes all the way to India! It's about the same physical area as the U.S. and we have 4, count 'em, 4 time zones. So what does this mean? It means time is a weird thing here. It's dark way earlier than it should be because I am in a very eastern part of China. I think out west it's probably light until 11:00 pm or something crazy, but I hear the difference is so great out there that they actually have two different times: Beijing time (my time) and local time (so they can wake up in daylight and normal things like that). It seems a crazy system. Take that back, it is a crazy system. It's a wonder they make it work.

So now my dilemma is, it feels like bedtime again! Why in the world should I actually get dressed and all
that when I am about to go to sleep? Plus, my feet are frozen already, so I can't stand the thought of taking the socks off. It's sad really. It's probably only in the lower 60s outside, but my feet are ice. (Reasons Winter Stinks #1)

But the reality is, I am not about to go to sleep. I have a lot of "day" left. And some movement would no doubt improve the feet thing. I just wasn't expecting the siren call to hibernation to lure me so early this year. I must resist staying in lounge clothes past lunch time and force myself to acclimate quickly. After all, it is still autumn and will be for a few more months still. I refuse to think about winter yet. I'll cross that icy road when I come to it.

In the meantime, need to buy a hairdryer, a hot water bottle, a whole lotta hot chocolate and more sweaters. Oh yeah, and some Christmas lights. Maybe I can buy them in orange for a little Halloween cheer...

(And speaking of things fall and Halloween, do me a favor and throw some colorful leaves in the air for me. Autumn just ain't the same here in the East.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Go Forth and Learn, My Child

I had a moment of clarity this evening. I can't explain why it happened and there are no clear words from a heavenly netherworld to bestow upon you either. It simply felt like clouds parted for moment and allowed me to see a few bright stars shimmering in the cold atmosphere above. I confess it brought a tear to my eye, but I sucked it back in so I could ask the waiter for the bill. I mean the pizza was good, but it wasn't that good.

Most of my day prior to this was actually a major case of Low Motivation. (Doc, it hurts when I do...anything!) I can't really tell you where the hours went. Sometimes days like this make me feel worthless, wasting precious time and all that. But today, I managed to not be too hard on myself, for once. So I didn't harp on the fact that no checks were marked down on the ol' To Do list, and simply went out to get some dinner and read a book.

This is something I have started doing a lot of lately. Actually, besides reading for school, I have consistently resisted reading on my own since childhood (and yes, I do realize that this is a mortal sin of English majors, so just lay off). Now, once in a while a book would get through and hook me, keeping me up until stupid hours of the night, but mostly, I just didn't feel the urge. Maybe it's because my mom is such a voracious reader (which probably explains a lot about why she can out spell me any day of the week, bless her knowledge-soaked brain). I mean, how am I supposed to live up to that? She actually got in trouble for reading, in school no less, because she was supposed to be outside at recess, but instead stayed in to read. I cannot even begin to compete with this sort of devotion!

So, inexplicably, since I have been in China, I have developed a hunger for books. I daresay, maybe even a lust. I suppose it started out as a case of "we want what we can't have," since bookstores with books that are in English are not exactly popping up like Starbucks. And all I brought with me from home were books on China and learning Chinese, because books are pretty heavy and I moved here with just two big suitcases and one carry on. The seventh Harry Potter just wasn't happening.

Then, some time in August, David and I found a foreign bookstore and bought a book by Peter Hessler, under the recommendation of our friends, Kellie and Gregg. They had recommended River Town, but all the bookstore had in stock was Oracle Bones. Both volumes are about China, as Hessler has lived in China almost a decade. So we went ahead and bought Oracle Bones. Now, this puppy is pretty big, around 450 pages of fairly small print, so it's quite a task to take on, especially for a commitment-phobe person like me (Think of all the time it will take to read!), but I was hungry for words I could understand and, for once, I undeniably had the time. So, I blasted through it. I highly recommend it if you are either interested in China already or if you find you don't know a darn thing about this crazy place. It's fascinating.

As fast as I was reading through it, I found myself nursing the last few chapters because I didn't have another book to dive into, and I wanted more. I truly realized the severity of my new addiction when I went to the bookstore to get books for my tutoring gig and wound up with four books for myself. (It would have been five at the time if they had had River Town in stock, the only book I had set out to find.) When I walked out of there, more than 100 bucks less to my name, I felt like a kid who had just ransacked the candy store. I think I even had a stupid grin on my face walking home.

But when I got home, I started to do something even more crazy: I cracked open not one, but two the same time! And this was before I had killed off the last of Oracle Bones! I felt like I was channeling my former roommate, Mandy, who being a true blue librarian, often had maxed out her check out allowance and no doubt had 4 to, heck I don't know, 20 books going at a time! What in the world had come over me? I thought. A week later David noticed too. "Reading? Again?"

I have had guilt about this life of leisure. I mean, it's great and all, reading books, but what am I doing with my life? Such a haunting question sometimes...

But this is where my quick glimpse of clarity comes back into my little story. I felt, all of a sudden, that maybe I am supposed to read while I am here. I have realized that I cannot know what my experience here is supposed to be or even what it has been so far. At least not yet. Maybe I am simply here to learn. Learn about the culture, the people, and of course the predictable part, myself. But I did not realize that maybe the growth I will do here is simply expanding my mind. Learning all I can. Giving myself time to be still and see which way I'm being pulled. I haven't figured it out. But tonight, I felt really good all of a sudden. The possibility of discovery is thrilling in itself.

During my frantic cram session on China back in March when I was trying to decide if I wanted to come, I read a small piece in a travel guide by a western lady who lived in China for quite a while. I cannot remember her name or which book her segment was in, but her general take on this place has stuck with me. Basically, she said, you do not come to China for a relaxing vacation. It's not like going to the Bahamas for the sunshine and breezes. And it's not like a breathtaking trip to Europe, where the place is just dripping in patinas and famous artists and historic architecture and quaint cafes. The point of coming to China is not to simply see China; it is to see how you are affected by China, how you react to it. And you will react to it, this much I know is true.

So tonight, I have a newfound dedication to keeping my mind open to this strange land and to see what happens. I do hope to learn a thing or two.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


This one goes out to my Grandpa, who turns 90 today.

If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting this wonderful man, well, you have been missing out. I find that I cannot even do him justice as I sit here and try to write about him. But let's just say some of my close friends have told me I have the coolest grandpa. I have to agree.

And needless to say, it's a hard day to be away from home.

I spoke to him on the phone earlier and we agreed that he should eat an extra serving of Mom's macaroni for me. I'll just have to dream about being there while I sleep tonight.

Happiest of birthdays, Grandpa. I love and miss you very much.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Technology Test

So, as I haven't figured out how to put up large quantities of photos on my blog posts (they only let me put the slide show in the side bar) I have decided to try giving you a link to my album on Facebook. As I understand it, you should be able to view the pictures even if you don't have a Facebook account. Let's try it!

Facebook Photo Album

You'll see a couple repeats from former posts, but mostly these are never before seen! I still need to load the more recent ones, so more to come!

Wide Open Spaces

"Methinks I see the sky over yonder!"

Yes, this Sunday there was indeed clear, blue sky. It even had puffy white clouds! I cannot even describe what these rare days do for me!

I always knew I was a big weather person. I mean, I used to watch the Weather Channel for
entertainment. "Whoa look at that radar! The red part is heading straight towards us!" Not only that, but I talk about the weather, not because of small talk scenarios, but because I actually like to talk about sunshine and rain and temperature drops of 30 degrees at a time. I also remember the weather. As in, my Junior year of college, the first weekend of November was in the 70s, while the next weekend was down in the 30s.

I am a bit weird, I know.

So anyway, for a girl who used to take walks, not for health but for
sunsets, I am delighted at lovely weather. This is doubly true now that I live in a city known for smog. Ugh. Smog. How I hate thee.

I have recently let a few beautiful days slip by unappreciated, so this time I was determined to get outside. So I convinced David that we should check out Century Park, which is on the other side of the river. It's supposed to be pretty big, comparable to Central Park in scale, although it's pretty new and therefore more man-made feeling. (Get it? Central Park/Century Park? Designer bags aren't the only things the Chinese copy!)

So we rode our bikes to the subway station south of our house and took the 4 line over to Pudong and then switched to 2. Line 2 goes straight to the park, so it's really easy. There were many food vendors outside and we were hungry, so we tried it out. We bought some corn on the cob, which was edible, but not even close to Ohio corn. Plus, it needed butter! Then we bought some skewers of meat from one of many guys selling such things. We had it once before with a Chinese friend of ours after some beers one night and it was pretty tasty. This time, well, not so much.

"It's all fat!" David declared as he slid a second piece off the skewer with his teeth. I remembered that the mutton we had the last time was pretty fatty, but he was right. It was almost exclusively fat. "Aw man," he said, scrunching his nose, "I'm not eating this!" I nibbled, tempted only by the spices to search for bits of meat, but gave up quickly. It was indeed pretty disgusting.

David and I have developed a new phrase that we now use quite frequently: "Brace yourself for disappointment!"

A few examples:
"They have pizza!"

"Brace yourself for disappointment!"
"Are those brownies? They look a lot like brownies..."
"Brace yourself for disappointment!"
"Is that a real live..."
"Brace yourself..."
You get the idea. It just keeps our expectations low enough so as not to be crushed when the truth is revealed. Adding punchlines is essential to survival in this world.

So we threw the fat skewers away, neglected to try Chinese cotton candy and went into the park. I enjoyed it all thoroughly just because it was gorgeous outside and I could actually see the sky! Pudong is more spaced out than our side of the river, with wider streets and fewer trees. While I really like the charm of our neighborhood, it is still nice to get out in the "open" such as it is, once in a while. There were trees and my goodness, stretches of grass! A lack of benches was disappointing, but there were a great number of multiple person bikes and bike cars rolling about and I daresay I saw some Chinese people actually having fun! But for me, the best part, or at least the most endearing, was the occasional small tent set up amongst some wooded spots throughout the park, sometimes complete with a pair of feet sticking out. It struck me that this was the closest thing that most of these folks will ever get to camping. So sad. I think a campfire with s'mores would blow their minds.

David and I had the blandest Chinese food ever for a late lunch, complete with a strange pile of pink discs. I think they were rice based and fried. I think.

Then we enjoyed a stroll by the "lake" complete with a washed out sunset and loads of the slowest boats you could possibly find, all filled with Chinese folks in bright (and I mean bright) orange vests. They looked like stranded rubber ducks in a huge pond.

We only saw half the park before the evening got too dark to see anything more. David said he liked other parks in this city better, citing better layouts, etc. (Oh, engineers!) But for me it didn't matter much. It was green space without too many people where I could almost believe that I could smell fall in the air. True, my vivid images of a lush natural wonderland are a bit diminished now, but oh well. This is China after all. I mean, what were you expecting, really?

I had braced myself, but this time, I didn't find it disappointing at all.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Status Report

It is Sunday, October 5. I am sitting in David's apartment in Yanzhou, waiting to catch a ride at 4:30 to the airport. It's back to the city for me. It's hard to sit here and reflect and process, because so much happens here and so fast and the same goes for my mood. I've been quiet in blog land lately because I was suddenly super busy, and when that subsided, I was suddenly a bit mopey. Like I said earlier, I expected to have more hard times. I just never know when, why or for how long. I have had good experiences in this time, so hopefully I can catch you up a bit and get back on the horse.

Class has been interesting and no doubt helpful. I still completely blank out when it comes time to actually use the language, but oh well. My last class before the holidays this week was the low point for sure. When only you and another student show up, and he happens to be quite good at speaking because, well, he's been in China for two years and has already mastered four languages, the pressure is a bit intense. Anyone who knows me from back in school, I was the straight A kid. Valedictorian. Nerd. In short, I'm used to feeling like I understand or at least like I can achieve that goal. But when the teacher speaks to me over and over in Chinese and I just blink at her, contemplating if learning Klingon would be any easier, it does not feel very good. I literally feel like a dunce. I know it all takes time, but she sorta laughed at me and said maybe I was still asleep. No I thought to myself I just have no idea what any of those words you just spoke mean. I could have guzzled a pot of coffee that morning before class and I still would only have heard bing bang ling tang yao!! Blah, blah, blah...

The week of the windstorm in Ohio I was pretty busy with part time work with my old company. This was good for the hours and bad for my Chinese study time. Not that I was dying to study Chinese...

Other news includes a new small gig as an English conversation tutor to four 10 year old boys. More on that later, but it is quite the experience!

And now, after being here for three months, I finally made it to Yanzhou. The Chinese National Holiday was this week, so I didn't have school for a few days. David stayed in Shanghai a few days after the weekend so we planned to take the overnight train together. It was definitely a good time to come here, at least for me, but David had to work a lot more than expected, so I didn't see him much. It makes it hard to leave. He is back at work right now, so I will be long gone by the time he gets home. And after seeing that this place truly is depressing and crappy, the apartment in an industrial complex in a land of polluted skies and empty refrigerators, it makes me even more sad to leave him here. He deals with it well, better than I would for sure, but still, I know it gets to him. But if anything can be counted on in this crazy place, he should be back in Shanghai this Friday.

More of a report this time, but wanted to get something posted sooner rather than later. I must pack up and prepare for my first regional flight in China. Remember, if engines fail, I love you all. (Just kidding! Well, mostly...)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lesson Learned Today

Learning how to say "excuse me" in Chinese has done wonders for my confidence. I was able to ask, at several little shops today, whether they had phone cards or not, without feeling like a rude laowai (foreign person). I never really knew how to get someone's attention without doing some sort of weird "ahem"/cough thing, or perhaps waving my arms around like a maniac. I hardly know any Chinese, but now being able to be polite can make up for some of my linguistic shortcomings. People seemed to smile a little more when I tried, at least I think so. It felt quite good.

Also, while I'm doing a short post (I know, hard to believe), I have NOT seen Tobias yet. I had a few inquiries and thought I would give an update. I promise I'll let you know the minute I see him. Also, the leak in the bathroom turned out to be from Old Mr. Wang's toilet upstairs, which I prefer not to contemplate too much. It is fixed now, so once we get the plaster redone and painted, should be good as new. At least for a while. The toilet and the washing machine are on the fritz though. Always, always, always something here!

She Paved the Way

In July of 2007, my sister did what no Grooms had done before: studied abroad. She flew off to Argentina for a four and a half month stint as an exchange student in Cordoba.

I think it is safe to say that the first two weeks were fairly traumatic. Communication was a mess. Using the internet to call home was not an immediate reality and her $50 phone card disappeared within a week. Her first call to my cell phone, using her precious last thirteen minutes of air time, was an emotional experience for both of us. I tried to comfort and encourage her as much as I could before time ran out and we were forced to say goodbye. She also faced the challenge of adjusting to the Argentinian accent and improving her Spanish speaking skills. She started school, met new friends, and learned her way around, but it was still hard and we spent much time on the phone trying to cheer her up or calm her down.

She didn't stop missing home, in the way that makes you physically ache at times, until two months had passed. I think she almost felt guilty that she was finally feeling OK. She had traveled around the country a bit, become close with her classmates, spent time with her host family and their relatives. She knew which bus went to the city, to the school, to their favorite haunts. She didn't feel the urge to beg for an easy way out and instead was able to enjoy more of her time there.

As the second Grooms to embark on a global experiment, I would say the pattern has held true in my experience. For the past couple weeks, I have felt better. It's not that I wasn't enjoying some of my time during the first two months I was here, but there was a definite sense of struggle. Now, the air feels a bit lighter.

It may all be because of the weather. The relentless heat of July and August paired with the high humidity dampened my spirits a bit. I am an "open windows" kind of gal, so living with the necessary air conditioning in a closed up environment I usually associate with the cabin fever of Ohio's winters, the isolation I felt was two-fold. Too hot to explore, no one to invite over. But September has arrived and there have finally been some days that could be considered comfortable. A sunny day with cool breezes at the start of the month left me positively giddy, which in turn made me giggle inside, wondering to myself how the Chinese people would react to a crazy white girl skipping down Shannxi Rd.

Weather problems aside, it took a while to just adjust to living here. I had to figure out where to grocery shop and what sorts of Western food I could obtain at specialty stores. I studied the map every time I set out to go somewhere, either by foot or by taxi. It was a month before I tried the subway system. I longed for a shopping trip to Target. I practically fell off my couch in a swoon when my grandpa told me all about a cookout my family had just had with all my favorite summer foods: corn on the cob, steak and Ohio tomatoes. I grumpily ate another bowl of ramen noodles.

I also had a lot of cooking equipment to buy and that proved tricky because any sort of baking dish, pizza pan, muffin tin you could think of were not readily available at the local shops because, news flash, Chinese folks don't even
have ovens. They use the stove top and steaming baskets. Heck, I had to go to an expensive cooking store to buy an oven thermometer because the dial on the oven, instead of listing temperatures, had "1-11" on it. I don't know about other people, but my cookbook has never said "Preheat your oven to 8."

It is tempting to declare that I am past the danger zone of culture shock and all is smooth sailing ahead. I'm not so naive. I am enjoying the sense of accomplishment and calm that I have worked towards, but I am well aware that the challenges do not stop here. I have started Chinese classes, so I am now actively tackling the language barrier. This is, of course, no small or quick task. Chinese is massively challenging to learn, but every word I master helps a little bit. Baby steps. This seems to be the best way to go about this country to avoid being completely discouraged by it's mysteries and challenges.

Back in February, when not even a full week had passed since David had told me about his job offer in China, I came to Amy with my dilemma. I was still very disoriented by the surreal decision I had to make. Move to China, stay in Columbus. I noticed her lips tighten at the first mention of the idea, a subtle sign that she was not exactly happy to hear the news. She waited me out though, let me talk about the scenario, the details, the fail safes, and the time line. She asked questions and we talked about it over our lunch of Greek food. She seemed more relaxed by the time we left. She drove me back to work and pulled into a parking spot. We sat for a moment.

"At first," she said, "I wasn't sure about the idea, but the more I think about it, I think you would have a great experience. I will never regret studying abroad. I wish I had stayed longer even, maybe not in Argentina, but maybe somewhere else. I learned so much." She paused for a second. I focused on her dashboard.

"If you decide to go, I would support you. I'd miss you like crazy, but I'd support you."

And in true Grooms fashion, we both burst into tears. We also chuckled through the tears, knowing full well we're pretty sappy. But I hugged her and thanked her. She'll never know what that meant to me. Her encouragement was exactly what I needed that week. Her selfless blessing made it all seem possible.

Amy had been home from Argentina just three months when I broke the news to her. She had grown in ways she never would have if she hadn't made the leap to study abroad. This conversation was proof. Now my little sister was supporting me and inspiring me to pursue a life changing event of my own. And so far? I'm not regretting it either.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Eating With Sticks

As one might imagine, my life is quite different from what it used to be: different city, different culture, different country. Some changes are obvious and to be expected, but many are not. I’ve decided to make a list…

  1. I often wake up to the sound of a tin bell jangling in the alleys, along with a rather jarring recording of some mysterious words in Chinese. This is most likely a man asking for empty plastic bottles and scraps of cardboard. There’s recycling in China after all.
  2. Yes, I can buy live turtles, eels or frogs at the grocery. I think I could get a live chicken at the wet market if I wanted to be extreme, which, of course, I do not.
  3. I have a translated guide to the buttons on our washing machine, since everything is in Chinese characters. The translation, however, took some trial and error. I mean, what does the “Assist” button do?
  4. I do eat a bit with chopsticks, a skill I was hopeless at acquiring back home. I actually do better grabbing one grain of rice than I do with a slippery noodle. I practiced with ramen quite a bit in the beginning. Now, I find them more useful than a fork in some cases. “Hello, this is the Dark Side calling. Wanna come on over?”
  5. Some men here, when it’s hot, walk around in their underwear and/or push their shirts up over their bellies, creating somewhat of a midriff look. I just…I have no words to describe how odd this is to me.
  6. I don’t drink from the tap. The water most likely does not contain any organisms that will make one sick, but I am not entirely sure if this is because of Shanghai’s water treatment practices or because the organisms can’t survive the exposure to chemicals and heavy metals. It tastes like rust anyway.
  7. Little kids pee on the street and sidewalk. No one even looks twice.
  8. I can buy a bottle of beer that is twice the size of bottles in the states for a mere 40 cents.
  9. I can buy an imported Lean Cuisine for the reasonable price of around $8. This is a prime example of what I label “Ridiculous.”
  10. A housekeeper (or an ‘ayi’ as they are called) comes to the apartment once a week for four hours. She does laundry, floors, dishes, bill paying, water ordering, bathroom cleaning and general helping out. To say I’m not a bit spoiled by this would be offensive, but it can be awkward and uncomfortable. I never pictured myself in this situation. She does make a really good wage of 20 yuan (about $3) an hour and most ayis work at least twice a week, if not all week. Some day I’ll speak to her properly instead of with grunts and shrugs of my shoulders, so then she may also become a language tutor. I am thankful for her help in many, many ways.
  11. Some restrooms consist of a porcelain hole in the floor with no toilet paper and no soap. This usually tends to make me grumpy, but I am happy to report that one’s squatting skills can, in fact, be improved with time. It's good to have goals in life.

Stay tuned for my next “list” in the future. You can’t make this stuff up.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Sublime + The Ridiculous = A Great Thursday Night

Tonight was one of those nights when it feels great to be in Shanghai.

The weather has cooled down a bit from scorching to simply warm, the humidity easing up, making for great patio weather. I really respond to good weather and have noticed what a difference it makes in my enjoyment level. Up until now, evenings were the only bearable time of day to be outside at all, but now I can explore during the day if I wish without wilting and passing out and then enjoy a refreshingly cool evening as well.

Our first friends in Shanghai, Kellie and Gregg, are great companions for such evenings out, exploring new found eateries or watering holes. David met these two before I arrived, when they approached him on the street to ask advice about where to live. They have told me since that they "profiled" him: white guy who looks like he lives here. It's funny to think how this one small chance meeting made all the difference in the world to my life here. When I moved here, we all met for dinner and it just clicked. The guys are similar and the girls are similar. We're all easy going. Kellie is a journalist, so we go to a writer's group here fairly often and talk about writing in general. The guys are really into studying Chinese (cough...nerds...) among other common interests. We all like hiking and camping, having a drink, making new friends, etc. It is also great to have friends who are going through the same stages as you are, so you don't feel too alone in this big ol' town.

I always know it's a great thing when I can hang out with a couple and not feel awkward at all. When David is here, we all get together and get along so well, and it doesn't change a bit when I fly solo. Nights out with Kellie and Gregg are a really fun time. (Now, I know they might read this at some point and think, Damn! We are awesome! All I can say is, don't let it go to your heads. I can very easily tell the "We Got Scammed" story!) Evil grin....

So Kellie is finishing up an article on wine bars in Shanghai and we've been helping her "research."

"Another glass? Why yes, I believe I will..." Homework has never been so sweet.

I've been to a couple of these test visits and it's been a great way to see some different areas. Wine is somewhat new in Shanghai, popular for ages in the expatriate circles for sure, but the Chinese are just starting to catch on. At least with very few wine specific bars in existence, it narrows the search and we don't have to become winos to get the story right.

This evening was projected to be the last outing for the article, and we ended up at Globus Wine in the northwest corner of the former French Concession, the same district David and I, and Kellie and Gregg, live in, although on the opposite end. An acquaintance of theirs, Yan, from France, who also brought a friend along, met us for the evening as well. His friend had a French name that only the French can pronounce, so I decided not to slaughter it, and therefore cannot remember it. But they were very nice folks and the friend picked out the wine for us to share, so it felt more authentic having been picked by a Frenchman. Plus, there was cheese involved. It just felt like the good life. Wine, cheese, friends, sitting outside in the cool night air. Just lovely.

After a couple hours of great conversation, we parted ways, at first in the apparent way of Americans, i.e. the handshake, but then a retry with the French double cheek kiss when we suddenly felt too formal. Ah, culture clash. If there had been a Chinese person present, we would have been in a real pickle, because they don't even shake hands goodbye. Heck, they barely even wave!

I shared a cab back with Gregg and Kellie as my bike was at their apartment. Cabs are very cheap here, but they are even cheaper when you share one and boy was I glad I did on this particular evening. Halfway home, I noticed some music and asked if it was coming from us, as in, from our cab. The three of us agreed that it was indeed coming from the car stereo and that it was, in fact, Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" song. (For those not into the rap/hip hop scene, this is a pretty well known singer/rapper. I am definitely not cool enough to know much about this genre, but I know enough to recognize Snoop Dog when I hear it. Word to the wise: don't look up the lyrics.) Now, cab drivers here are pretty straightforward and all business, at least in my experience, and any music I have ever heard on the radio has been Chinese pop or some type of music that requires only that the lyrics be sappy. So this WAS a change!

We all got the biggest kick out of this and started laughing and dancing in our seats. This got the cab driver excited, so he cranked up the volume! Here we are, cruising down some busy street in Shanghai, blasting hip hop. That, my friends, is living. It made absolutely no sense, and was quite the juxtaposition to the first part of the evening, but that's why I loved it. Start with cheese and wine and end up bustin' a move in the back of a cab. You just never know what this city is going to throw at you!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Fabric Market

It was an intriguing concept, and another of many surprises that China held for me. David and I had heard that there was a market filled with fabric close to the west side of the Huangpu River where you could have clothes tailored to fit your Western self. The possibilities were tantalizing, especially considering the limited clothing options for those of us with hips who find ourselves in Asia.

For me, and perhaps other Americans, the word market is a somewhat exotic term, conjuring up images of colorful stalls filled with goods and crafts and oddities. But when I thought of markets, in general, I thought mostly of food. It was the ancient supermarket, a far cry from the fluorescent lit groceries, mini marts or, egad, Wal-Mart. Columbus had its own fancy schmancy modern manifestation of the old world style cluster of food stalls called the North Market, which was a good place to buy specialty food items in the city, with whole ducks or foreign cheeses at your fingertips. Even if it was a touch pricey, I always enjoyed going there, if only to look around. I was in awe of those who were able to pick one ingredient from 5 different vendors and somehow turn it into a dish. It was a cool place to tap into the old way of doing things, albeit in a pretty high brow fashion. But not all new versions of the market concept in American culture are for the rich or wannabe foodies. If you were not fortunate enough to live close to an actual farm, some towns would have fruit and veggie stalls line up along the main street during the weekends from spring to fall, manned by the local growers themselves. It just sounds more quaint and wholesome to call it a farmer’s market. So with a firm romantic concept of the markets of yore and the hot tip that a market existed in a foreign land filled with textiles rather than with food, my head swam in a sea of colors and patterns.

The realty, while not too far off the mark, is that the market is in a modern building, with escalators to each of the three floors. At first it is inspiring, halls filled with dresses and suits and shirts and skirts and bolt upon bolt of fabric from silk to denim to wool. It quickly turns into a disorienting experience, however, with every vendor trying to convince you to buy something every time you stop to look. I know some people thrive in this sort of environment, thrilling in the hunt and the bargaining that is mandatory in these places. I, however, am at my core a shy person. I basically love u-scans and price tags. No muss, no fuss. It does not feel good to know that I will always pay too much here, even if it is relatively cheap. I just don’t care enough about a shirt to haggle over it.

When I arrived in Shanghai, David had already found himself sucked into the Fabric Market cycle. He had gone once with a new friend, Sanami, who could speak Chinese and frequented the market herself. He had already negotiated a new suit, a couple dress shirts and a copy of a rare pair of pants that actually fit his slim frame. We were told that if you brought a piece of clothing to the market, it would be easy for them to copy it. You could, theoretically, take that favorite shirt of yours and make a copy in several colors, fabrics, patterns, what have you. The stalls, and there were many of them, all had examples of articles you could order, some fashionable, others decidedly not. I personally thought some vendors had bought wholesale fabrics from the 80s. I thought perhaps a delivery truck had gotten very lost en route and sold its load years later for pennies, or rather, jiao. But no matter what the media or the girls five years younger than me were saying, any decade with that much neon, plastic and hair needed to be left alone. I could not imagine who was buying the stuff.

So the way things worked was that you placed an order, picking out fabrics, taking measurements, choosing buttons, and then received a mingpian, or business card, so that you could return a week later and pick up your order. This is how it is supposed to work. Many times you would need to have something corrected, like raising a hem or adjusting the fit on one sleeve. A return trip the next weekend would be in order. This was par for the course. But sometimes, you get the pleasure of going back several times.

I went with David a week after having moved into our apartment to pick up the suit and dress shirts he had ordered a few weeks back. This was his third or fourth time there, having made several adjustments already, and he had only been in China for two months. In addition to picking these orders up, he wanted to place another order this trip, because miracle upon miracles, they had actually succeeded in copying his pants the first time and he wanted more.

I had contemplated having some skirts made, so I brought three of my favorites with me. I figured skirts were pretty simple and a good place to start my foray into the fabric market world. I was soon overwhelmed, however, with not only the number of fabric choices, but the number of crappy fabric choices. I was looking for cotton for the cool factor, but most bolts seemed to hold very thin, very cheap versions of cotton fabric. I receive stares everywhere I go because I look different. I didn’t relish the idea of people staring at me even more because of a thin skirt revealing the color of my underwear.

To jump to the conclusion, I withered under the choices and neglected to place an order. David, on the other hand, scoured the market for the perfect specimens of cloth, opting to hand pick material from multiple vendors, mostly for grays and browns with the right amount of “roughness.” No soft fabric for my man, no sir. He needed thick fabric. It sounded extremely hot to me given that the temperature had been in the high 90s all week with a relentless dose of humidity. I could not stand to wear anything more than skirts and tank tops for the entire month of July and here he was picking thick, dark fabric for pants! I guess I was just lucky I didn’t have to dress up for an office everyday, so I planned on revisiting the pants option maybe in, say, September.

So Sanami and I, after taking a look around for our own projects and coming up decidedly uninspired, followed behind my apparent shopaholic of a boyfriend, a stack of folded fabric hugged close to his chest, as he proceeded to check out all the button vendors, searching for the strongest buttons on the premises. He finally placed his pants order. Four more pairs in all. A down payment was made and we left the fabric market, ignoring the street vendors on our way out.

Two days later, I got a text from David. He was in Yanzhou now, the town where his plant looms large on the horizon.

“I was getting in the car and my pants ripped at the crotch…a huge gaping hole.”

Snorting is really a lot of fun when no one is there to hear you. A follow-up text confirmed that these were indeed his first pair of copied pants. They had ripped, so much so that the driver had to take him back to the hotel to change. And now he had four more pairs on the way. Maybe it was wrong to laugh, but I found it damn funny.

I have been back to the fabric market three times since then, sometimes for pick up, sometimes for return. The Chinese are excellent at copying the look of the clothing, a skill I certainly don’t have despite my mom’s tutoring on the sewing machine. But like so many things here, it only looks good on the surface. Get up close and personal and you will find the buttons are loose, the stitch is not doubled and the thread is cheap. David had picked sturdy fabric, but he could not choose sturdy thread. After the last pick up, he declared enough for a while, which was good news to me. But honestly, I am still waiting for another text message informing me of more unfortunate and perhaps ill-timed seam failures. I can always use the laughter, although I apologize for it possibly being at David’s expense. But I will no doubt pay my dues for this. I will once more join him in taxi rides to the South Bund Fabric Market should the need arise. But with the recent discovery of some decent street vendors close by, grilling meat on sticks and dumplings in a pan, I may yet turn my future fabric market adventures into a more familiar sense of the term. Sounds good to me.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Water, water everywhere...

This past Monday, I walked David out to the street at the wee hour of 6:30 am, because despite the fact that every person here probably owns at least two umbrellas, we still only have one between the two of us. And it was quite the downpour. He had a plane to catch at the Hongqiao Airport on the west end of town and it is a well known fact that the hardest time to catch a cab is when it's raining. Ah, city life. So, I assumed that it would take a little while for him to catch a ride and in the meantime, he'd be soaked. I should buy a bigger umbrella for such tasks, but it all went well, because as soon as we reached the street, a cab magically appeared before us, his green light shining on the dashboard. Are we lucky or what?

On my return to the house, minding the rather treacherous patch of slimy moss that instantly appears on the sidewalk at the slightest notion of water, either from rain or the dripping air conditioner, I noticed something move in the brush. It was a toad. I had seen him before, but it had been a long time. It was cool to see that he was still hanging out, apparently not the right kind of toad to catch for supper. (I'm still convinced of the concept that if it moves, it's considered food here.) I watched him hop once more and suddenly decided to call him Tobias. No idea why, except for maybe the alliteration. But when a word comes to me like that, I don't question it's authority to be there. And the toad was thus named Tobias.

I went inside and grabbed some Koko Krunch, which is one of the few cereals here that isn't imported, therefore it costs a bit less than $10. (Sorry, I WILL NOT buy any box of cereal for 10 bucks.) So, it's no doubt the least healthy cereal, but hey, it's got
chocolate. I'll take it.

I performed my morning ritual of checking all things electronic, namely email accounts, Facebook, and a bit of news, making sure nothing catastrophic has happened during my sleep. The rain was now coming down in buckets and the gutters were having none of it. I now had my very own waterfall outside the kitchen window. It had rained many evenings in the past week, so the morning rain was a bit of a change. That, and it wasn't a thunderstorm, at least not a really loud one. I got caught in a storm on my bike last week and made it home
almost before the gods unleashed their "whooping of the mortals." OK, a bit much, but let's just say it's been a while since I've had to stifle a scream after a thunderclap. I am starting to wonder if there is a lightning rod on top of our house.

But what the storm lacked in noise, it made up for in sheer quantity. Just at the point where I was thinking,
maybe a nice nap, cause rain naps are the best, I heard something. A clatter? A thump? I walked into the kitchen. I'm still not sure what to call the sound it had made, but the plaster from the ceiling had given up the ghost. Giant chunks of soggy plaster and layers of paint were sprawled on the kitchen floor. We have been having some ceiling leak issues, but now they had become major problems. I trotted to the bathroom and sure enough, the leak in that corner was looking a bit more ominous and definitely more wet. The leak next to one of the ceiling lights over the tub was actively dripping brown water now. Lovely.

That was when I started looking out the windows. The ground was completely submerged in the back yard area. I went to the front and it was the same story. Then I noticed the portion of street I could see over the wall that surrounds our house. I couldn't see the curb on the other side of the street and people on the sidewalk were standing in water at least mid-shin deep. Cars were slogging through, making sizable waves that were washing over the pavement and into our yard as well as the neighbor's. It made me think of summer rain storms when I was a kid. Our yard was once a part of the canal system through Groveport and when the rain came down hard and fast, the ground seemed to get nostalgic about its past and refused to let the water sink in, creating a pond. This delighted my sister and I, but was no doubt a total loss for the resident worms. Poor worms...

I suddenly wanted galoshes really badly. I kinda wanted to explore during the chaos, but no way was I sloshing through that water in flip flops. I've seen what hits the pavement here. Contemplating what the rain was washing away made me somewhat ill actually. So I contented myself with imagining that I was in a castle with a moat. It was a bit exciting, like a snow day when you're a kid. You suddenly have a great excuse for staying home and goofing off. I was just hoping the ceilings would hold. I wasn't exactly interested in becoming the damsel in distress, trapped in the crumbling tower with water all around. I made a note to look up the Chinese word for "Help!"

Then I thought of Tobias and looked out at the garden, even though there was no chance that I would be able to see his camouflaged little back from the second floor with all the rain. I hoped that toads had some sort of instinct about where to go when the ground disappears, finding some island until the water receded. They obviously have the advantage of being able to hop, but I haven't seen him since. I hope I didn't make a mistake by naming him. I certainly did not want to jinx the closest thing I have to a pet here. I just hope he was luckier than the worms.