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...)