Monday, November 30, 2009

Taking on Tokyo

In October, we found ourselves with an unexpected open week on our hands. Where should we go? we asked each other. Being so close to so many places we've never been, it was a little overwhelming to choose. But in the end, we decided to go to the most populated city in the world:

Upon arrival, after checking into the hotel, we needed to get some dinner...

That's in Yen, right?

Now before you slap us with a "Pathetic American" card, let's review that acquiring a hamburger in Jining is virtually impossible. Wendy's has not made it past the Great Wall yet, but even McDonald's, found in most large cities in China, is absent in our little corner of Shandong Province. So it was a case of, see Wendy's sign, look at each other for subtle cues, look at Wendy's sign while salivating, simultaneously agree to cave into the crave. And let me tell you, that was the best damn Wendy's meal I can recall.

After eating, we decided to take in some
Japanese culture, and just wandered the streets. We found several of these pachinko parlors, which I knew nothing about before and now know a little more about thanks to a certain Mr. Wik A. Pedia. But from personal experience, I can say that the place is a frenzy of noise, lights, smoke and zombie people continuously firing buckets of small, metal balls into the machine that very much resembles a slot machine crossed with a pinball machine. We stayed just long enough for me to snap a picture and then I had to GET OUT. Sensory overload.

We mostly just took in the scene on the streets, little alleys chock of full of small bars and restaurants. And we found out the hard way that some of these bars are "members only, men only" kinda places. Well, we didn't want to go to your silly bar anyway!

We retired to the hotel soon after and I had a lovely passion fruit caprihinia at the hotel bar. Again, not doing so well with the whole Japanese experience, I know, but that was just day one. We had more chances...

We stuffed ourselves with hotel breakfast the next morning and then set out on the subway to another area of town. On our way to see a temple, there was plenty to feast the eyes upon.

Fake food...
A festive, fall street market...
And a monkey! In a tunic!

The rest of the day consisted of a boat tour under a great number of modern bridges and then we made our way back to our neighborhood on foot, stopping by the Tokyo Tower for a view of the city.

In case you were wondering, it does look much like the Eiffel Tower, except it's slightly taller. Always gotta be some sort of one-upmanship going on, eh?

For the rest of our five day stint in Tokyo, we mostly chose a district to explore each day and took it easy. We did eventually manage to eat some Japanese food, although I'd be lying if I said we didn't have Indian food for lunch one day...and maybe Italian another day... We justified it all because Japan seems to have a well-established grasp of what foreign food is supposed to taste like. Many times when you are aching for that simple deli sandwich or pizza or some such fare, a Chinese establishment will miss the mark more often than not. I mean, I'm all for creativity, but corn on pizza is just weird and a far cry from pepperoni, you know? And sorry, ketchup is NOT pasta sauce.

We were both fascinated by just how different Japan was from China in several ways. Japan is clean. I mean, we're talking immaculate. In a city with 20 or so million people, the lack of mess is just astounding. And it's quiet. Okay, let me clarify this, because I am sure other people who have been to Tokyo might raise their eyebrows a stitch on this one. By quiet, I mean no one is yelling into their cell phone, no one is honking their car horns, and no one, absolutely no one is clearing their throat in that most shudder-inducing way. Also, after coming from a country where we surprise the people by saying 'thank you' so often, Japan overwhelmed us with all the pleasantries. Thank you's and please's and welcome's and apologies and different kinds of thank you's. Wow. I've never had anyone say so many things to me during the 60 seconds it takes to buy a book.

I will just share a few more things about our trip, in no particular order. We stopped by a temple on one of our walks in the evening, and there were monks inside chanting. While I have been to a great number of different sorts of temples in China, this felt like the real deal and I was not quite sure why at first. But then it hit me: people were actively worshiping here. You could hear it and you could feel it. Some temples in China feel like a relic, an ancient site that once held believers, but this place was alive. We both stood there for a long time, just listening and watching.

On our last day we visited the Meiji Shrine in the Harajuku district. This was probably my favorite thing we did. This was not just a shrine. The shrine is in the middle of a forest. 175 acres of forest, actually. And the trees are large and lovely. I just felt myself let out sigh after sigh. I loved the shrine as well, the simple decorations so refreshing to me after seeing one too many multi-colored and gold encrusted temples. The gates were wooden, unpainted and plain. I loved it.

We walked for quite a while here and found a field with only a few people around. The grass seemed as clean as the city, so we joyfully sprawled out on the ground as the sun went down. Hundreds of crows flew about, calling out and flying in huge groups from big tree to big tree.

Nature in the middle of a huge, congested metropolis and I could not have been more relaxed. Of course, what's the sublime without a little absurd...

A cart of babies!
Childcares of America take note: convenient, safe, and oh so cute with those little colored hats!

To end I will tell you about our cab ride. Living in China, we take cabs all the time. They are cheap and we have no car. In Japan, however, they are far from cheap. There is a reason everyone uses the subway. But on our last night we decided to take a cab home for the experience. The cabs themselves are swanky in the way that you expect the driver inside to be named Jeeves (or maybe I just hope this). The car doors open and close automatically: a germaphobe's dream car. Although, they would not have to worry about germs in this car at all, as the inside is immaculate. There are white doilies on the headrests and they are actually white, the head room could accomodate Yao Ming himself and the ride is smooth and swift.

We were close to our hotel when our driver ran over one of the reflectors on the yellow line on the street. We sort of felt it and would not have thought twice about it except that the driver apologized up and down for it, looking down right embarrassed. I almost started laughing. I've seen cab drivers in China run over whole curbs and not even flinch. To get an apology from them, I am pretty sure we would have to run down a dog or small child first. I wish I had known how to say, "Life is short. Run over all the reflectors you please!," in Japanese, but I doubt it would have changed things. In the end, I guess a pricey cab ride should be impressive, just like everything else in that city. I quite enjoyed myself.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I have always loved Halloween. I grew up looking forward to Halloween each year once the leaves started to change their color and I felt that nip in the air. My childhood best friend also loved the holiday and we would spend time dreaming up the best costumes, watching semi-scary movies, carving the best jack-o-lanterns and most importantly, plotting out our dream haunted house. She had a few Halloween parties and since she lived on a farm, hayrides and hay bale mazes were always on the bill. We got older and replaced trick-or-treat with haunted houses complete with guys wielding chainsaws above our heads. Scary, yes. Magical, no. Now that I am an adult, I have to hope for an opportunity to dress up either for a house party or for going out to a bar or club, which to me, just isn’t the same. It seemed more fun as a kid somehow. I confess a couple years have slipped by with no celebration at all, but I still love Halloween. I still dream of the best party I could ever throw. I still hope trick-or-treaters will come to my door. I still carve jack-o-lanterns, setting them outside with an eerie flickering candle inside. Gotta try to keep the magic alive.

The Chinese do not celebrate Halloween, but they do have a ghost culture. Similar to western cultures, ghosts can be good or evil. They are visible to some, but invisible to most. Many ghosts avoid the light, so fires are used to keep them away. Evil ghosts are thought to travel in straight lines, so many paths, such as the bridge at the Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai, have many bends in them to keep such spirits away. The seventh lunar month, which falls in July, is considered ghost month, a time when ghosts are able to cross back through to our world. So those who believe give offerings to ghosts, many times their own ancestors, but sometimes they also must appease “homeless” ghosts who do not have any living relatives. Sometimes fake money, or “ghost money” is burned to keep the spirits happy.

Since coming here, I have heard that many Chinese people sincerely believe in ghosts and are quite scared of them. Many people on the mainland are now atheist and do not believe in the old traditions of ancestor worship or appeasing angry ghosts. I read that many more people in Taiwan, having left the mainland before Communism and the elimination of many old traditions, kept the old ways alive, many of them fully believing in ghosts.

I am fascinated by this. Generally I am not superstitious. I do, however, love a good ghost story, a tale of the unexplained by someone who swears to its happening. The only weird thing that ever happened to me was that a lamp went off a few seconds before I reached the dial. I chalked it up to something electrical, but had fun thinking of it as a sign of a meddling spirit. If I were truly superstitious, the house I grew up in was prime territory for potential ghosts. One segment of the house is over 100 years old, existing in the days when the canal still ran through Groveport. Some say the house was the ice house on the canal, selling ice chunks to the passing boats. Others say that it used to be the town jail. If that isn’t fodder for some spooky stories of lingering ghosts, I don’t know what is. Did I mention that the town cemetery is across the street? Childhood games of “Ghost in the Graveyard” played in my front yard had a little more punch, the looming tombstones dimly glowing in the pale orange flood lights just yards away.

Despite grim prospects for any sort of Halloween this year aside from my carved baking pumpkin and some imported Halloween Peeps in the shape of ghosts, I was pleasantly surprised with an opportunity to sneak in some festive fun. An American we met here, Mike, and his Chinese wife, Vicky, have started an English school in Jining. They invited us to come to their Halloween celebration. So, with last year's costume props in tow, David and I came to help. They had trick-or-treating, a costume fashion show, games, decorations, and a haunted house! They turned one of the classrooms in the small school into a haunted house complete with cobwebs, spooky music, and the required costumed performers jumping out at every turn. And this is how I learned first hand how scared Chinese people are of ghosts, because I volunteered to be one of the ghouls. Armed with a spooky mask and a good hiding spot, I scared the pants off of young children and parents alike. I tried not to scare them too badly, but in truth, some people did not make it through the whole house, opting to turn back. But they all seemed to be laughing once they came out, so I felt confident no one was going to have nightmares that night.

It felt really good to have helped a handful of kids in a small corner of China experience a little Halloween fun. I have realized that many holidays are simply much more exciting and magical when there are kids around. I certainly enjoyed my Halloween this year, as they gave me a good excuse to pretend to believe in spooks for an evening, helping me to keep my inner child alive and kicking for yet another year.

If you would like to read more about the belief in ghosts in Taiwan, check out this article.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hair Cut Adventure

David and I walked into the hair salon in Shanghai for a hair cut a few weekends ago. I have gone with David to this place several times just to keep him company. He gets his hair cut way more often that I do, so I've always just been the observer. I'm somewhat reluctant to give some poor hair cutter here a chance for me to be really angry with him. It won't really be his fault, but I'd rather have long hair in need of a cut than some sort of freaky half bob with rust colored streaks in it when I can't communicate what I really want.

However, my hair had grown quite long, and despite wanting to wait a bit longer for a cut so I can donate it, I decided it was in need of a trim in the meantime. This is how I found myself in the hot seat next to David.

Now, in China, a hair cut is no simple matter. They wash your hair while you sit in the chair using some shampoo and a little squirt bottle of water. They work up quite the mountain of lather, scrub your scalp for a good ten minutes and then it's off to the sink for a rinse.

Back in the chair, they give you a massage. That's right. A hair cut includes a shoulder, arm and hand massage. It's not always phenomenal, but hey, it's more than we normally get. They also will clean your ears, which I find a bit odd. Some random girl sticking a q-tip in there is a little unsettling. My girl was quite careful, but I did notice another patron was getting quite the ear make-over one chair over. I have a feeling he never cleans his own ears.

So here's the part where the hair cutter, always a guy, comes over to snippity-snip. I've watched them working on David and I must say they spend a lot of time, mostly with scissors instead of a buzzer, making sure all the hairs are cut just so. Whether it is "just so's you like it" is a different story, but you can't say they rush through it.

My guy, after clearly gettting the message that I only wanted "just a little bit" cut off, started combing through my hair and of course, due to the dead ends, had a hard time getting through. He pointed this out to me and said, "Blah blah blah," and I said, "Yeah I know, no problem." But of course, all he heard was, "Blah blah blah." Hmm. We both laughed. He brought over a product to show me. Luckily, it had English on it and I saw it was for dry and damaged hair. "Ah, okay," I said. Conditioner, detangler. I get the idea. Go for it. He eventually understood I had agreed, and we were off and running. Another guy came over and they both started painting this stuff into my hair, rubbing it in, and then rolling it up into curls and pinning the curls all over my head.

Sitting in the chair to my left, David asked what they were doing to me. "I have no idea!" I replied, chuckling. "I thought it was just stuff to help him get the comb through!" If I hadn't been able to read the product label, I would have been seriously worried I had just signed up for a perm, but I was pretty sure I was okay.

Meanwhile, David's guy was trying desperately to communicate something about David's hair to him. He seemed to understand how David wanted it cut, but he was pointing to his hair and saying, "Blah blah blah blah blah." David used the ever useful phrase "Ting bu dong," which means, "I hear, but I don't understand." More chatter and pointing. David thought the guy might have been telling him that his hair was very dry and fine. The guy showed him a tube of stuff. It said, "For fine, thin, dry and damaged hair." After a while, David agreed, telling them to put on just a little bit. He thought it was gel or something to make his hair look thicker.

Pan back to me and I have been hooked up to some sort of vaporizing machine. I felt like Frankenstein at the beauty parlor. They had secured this hood thing over my head and sealed me in and now white mist was pouring out from the top. I don't go to salons very often. I've never had my hair dyed or permed or straightened, so this was all doubly foreign to me. I assumed my brain wouldn't fry in there, so I tried to relax.

After a few moments, I heard David say, "Zhe shi shenme??" This means, "What is this??" All the salon girls laughed. I could barely turn my head with the contraption strapped on, but I managed to twist enough to see that they were wrapping David's head up in plastic wrap.

Let me pause for this moment. Yes. Picture it. They had put goop in his hair and now they were wrapping him up like a chicken breast at the grocery. I couldn't stop giggling and that got the salon girls giggling more too. I only stopped once I realized I looked just as ridiculous. That is until they set a machine on David too. It basically looked like a ring and they put it over his head to orbit like the rings of Saturn. He basically looked like the Patron Saint of Shrink Wrap, with his heated halo hovering and spinning above his head.

How on earth did we get ourselves into this?

Anyway, time passed, the machines were removed, gunk was rinsed away and we commenced with the cutting. They finished David first, just as my guy started the massive task that is drying my hair. Once dried and semi-straight, he worked it all into curls with a round brush, which I was somewhat impressed he was able to do. He looked pleased with his efforts, pointing out how much better my hair looked with all the treatments and snips and curls. Yes, yes, hair guy, you did a nice job.

David went to the counter and paid. He came over to me while the finishing touches were being put on my hair. He said, "Well, they charged us about 500 yuan."


To put this in perspective, David's hair cut usually costs about 40 yuan at this place. Oh dear. I started to apologize, but he said it was both of those treatments that cost a bundle, and then laughed about it. It works out to be about $74. Not great, but not a disaster either. Although, for that kind of money, I should have been able to get a more complicated cut than just a trim, but oh well. Next time, we'll be sure to ask, "How much?" before we agree to be coated in sweet-smelling slime.

I had fun with the curls though. Gave me an excuse to skip all evening. :)

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Room with a View

I live on the eleventh floor of a high rise apartment building in Jining. Most days are smoggy and things look much the same from day to day when I look out my windows. This makes me appreciate when something changes, much more so than I ever would have back home. So I take out the camera...

when the air clears

when the sun sets and the colors come through

when I can see the crescent moon at night

when I am inspired to create interpretive art while cleaning...

even if it is a bit ironic...

when the "fog" reveals its beauty in the early morning hours

when I realize that nighttime changes everything

and when there is cause to celebrate.

I'm keeping my eye out for more beautiful things in this not so beautiful place. I believe I will find what I'm looking for.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fame, Noise and the Power of Toll House

Quick facts about my life:

At any point during any day, I can look out our window and see at least two bright white welding flashes. I try to think of them as friendly fireflies, but can't stare too long. Avert thine eyes, lest ye go blind.

There is a rooster in the area on permanent dawn mode. I am not amused.

There is someone renovating the apartment next door. They are on permanent "sanding mode". Swish, swish. Swish, swish. I am not amused.

I met my biggest fan the other day on the street. I thought she would hyper ventilate, she was so excited. (Not exaggerating.) She practically flipped trying to remember every English phrase she ever learned in school. True to form, she was of course able to summon the #1 most popular question in China: "Do you lika China?"

A man, in total shock at seeing my friend and I on the street, let his grocery bag slip from his hand and drop to the ground, much like his jaw.

The fact that we can now buy cheese and normal butter (i.e. not Chinese butter in that creepy yellow color) at the grocery has made me reconsider my preconceived notion of heaven.

I have the power to stun young children with a single glance. It's like Harry Potter. Stupify!

My new favorite quote about life in Small Town, PRC: "Some days you feel like a rock star and others you feel like a bear on a bicycle." On average, for me, the bear wins out.

I am channeling the frugal souls of the Great Depression, as I scrape every morsel of tuna from the can or save ginger snap crumbs to use as topping for a future serving of ice cream or wash out zip lock bags for another round of snack storage or plan a meal around the need to use up the bread that will be too stale to eat after today. It's strange, but I kind of enjoy it as well.

I appeared in crowd shots for a Chinese television show called the Same Song which just recently aired nationally. Yeah, as in the nation of 1 billion +. Sur-to-the-real.

I wake up to a yelling club (at least that's what we think it is) every morning. Early. I want to find them. I want to smack them.

I no longer notice the crazy fast taxi drivers. I can peacefully text on my phone as the driver darts in and out of traffic, cursing all those in his wake. This both alarms and fascinates me.

I made and ate a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie today. To call it a euphoric experience would be an understatement. In my fervor I shouted to the closed window in my kitchen to the unaware residents below, waving the half eaten disc of buttery bliss in the air: "You see this? Yeah? THIS is what you are missing, my friends! A cookie! With sugar and butter and CHOCOLATE! The Cadillac of Cookies. The Gold Standard. The..." I would have continued if I hadn't devoured the remaining half of my cookie, perhaps chasing it with a second cookie...I think I passed out after this.

I am constantly pondering why all the potatoes in Jining are already slightly squishy in all the supermarkets and almost instantly sprout buds when I get them home. I buy them anyway.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Light My Fire

David and I were coming back from dinner on my electric bike Wednesday night and saw what appeared to be flames in the air. Balls of fire the size of a fist were floating upward in the dark skies. After a few moments of bewilderment, we determined the flames were in a balloon of some sort. We walked to the square to check it out and discovered the little fires were indeed at the base of colorful paper balloons. People were lighting them all over the square, holding them long enough to heat up and hopefully let them go to sail upward towards the heavens. We joined a small crowd and David, ever the fire lover, bought one of these paper lanterns and before I knew it, I was holding two top corners of our little hot air balloon. A little disc of some sort of flammable material is suspended by wires, a very simple design really, and after struggling for a while, the lady was able to light it. We held on for a minute or so, gathering a decent sized crowd in the meantime. The lady prodded us at some point and we let go. The lantern sailed into the air, easily clearing the bushes, garnering some kind applause. I clapped, too. David immediately bought 4 more lanterns to take home.

I did find myself wondering what happens to the fire lanterns after that. Did they go out and then fall to earth, or do they slowly descend onto someone's roof, still very much on fire? These things would never fly in the States, but for once, I felt glad to be able to witness such things taking place with no one panicking about the safety implications. A sky full of gliding paper lanterns filled with the soft glow of a flame. I found it quite beautiful.

Wednesday happened to be Lover's Day in China. As far as I can tell, it's very much like the modern manifestation of St. Valentine's Day in the sense that couples spend the evening together and exchange gifts, namely, large bouquets of flowers. I lived in Shanghai last year around this time, heard about the day, but saw little evidence of its celebration save for a few ads for deals on dinners for two at certain restaurants. In Jining though, in the square where everyone hangs out in the evenings, couples were out for all to see, snuggling up to one another, some with a giant teddy bear by their side. We decided the lanterns must be part of the Lover's Day traditions. I heard one explanation a few days later that seemed to support this theory. Supposedly, a couple is supposed to light the lantern together and send it up to the gods, hoping their love will be blessed and accepted by their parents. I like this story, although I did see a group of girls sending a fire balloon precariously up to its fate, so maybe people just like fire.

We rode back to the apartment with our lanterns in hand. Finding myself unprepared for a Chinese Valentine's Day and feeling somewhat inspired, I sorta combined the two customs.

I drew my own balloon-themed Valentine. But of course, once you draw one cutesy love doodle, you have to draw another...

I mean, what is cuter than frogs in love, really?
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Total Eclipse with Chinese Characteristics

So there was a total eclipse in July. Longest total eclipse for at least a century or more. The path went straight through Shanghai. What are the chances of having clear skies on that morning in Shanghai, you ask?

Well, pretty slim. Actually, I think a snowball lost its battle in Hell that day.

But here it is, our total eclipse experience in all its glory!

Rainy day...


Is it getting darker? Or just rainier?

Wait, yeah, I think it's definitely getting darker...

I'll be darned. I guess there is an eclipse going on.

It's like nighttime! At 9:30 am!

Over so soon.

Rockin' the sun specks, even if only for a photo op.

There you have it! And to perhaps, ahem, eclipse our personal experience, a fun factoid: I heard tell that some cows lined up at their troughs thinking it was supper time when it went dark. Poor, befuddled bovine. I could relate, as I was hungry as well. So, I celebrated the celestial phenomenon with a sausage muffin at McDonald's. Think about it: a round of white English muffin covered by a dark disc of sausage? Yeah, perfect eclipse food, I know. (Okay, okay. I just came up with that. Truth be told, I was just excited to discover McDonald's in China serves breakfast!)

I plan to keep my glasses with me for all those unexpected flashes from welders around town. I'm not ready to go blind just yet.

Don't look at the sun, kids!

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Day-Long Journey to the Wall of Greatness

After a long search for the bus terminal, a mind-numbingly loud lady on the bus's sound system delivering jabbing Mandarin to our eardrums for over an hour straight, a stop at some sort of wax museum and a definite pass on the included lunch in the Mess (with a capital M) hall, we made it to the Wall! Upon surveying the premises we concluded it was indeed quite large. Great even. In the end, worth the effort!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Censors Schmensors

Mao is watching....

But I have found a secret passage...

And...we're back!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two months later....

Well, you see, it's like this. China has this thing with the internet, see. They have all this control and they like to block information. From time to time they go a little nuts. Back around March, they blocked YouTube. I didn't realize this would affect me until I found out how much stuff is on YouTube. So it was frustrating, but what are you gonna do? Just go with the flow.


They blocked Blogger!

Yep, the host of my blog. Could not open my blog or any other blog hosted on Blogger.

Curse you, Communism!!!!

So, if you were wondering if I gave up on this blog thing, the answer is, no. I just couldn't do anything while I was in China. But right now, I am in America! I came home for a visit, so now I can update the blog and figure out how to proceed from here. I have no clue whether they will lift the block on Blogger, so I'm just going to assume they won't. I haven't decided whether to set up email posting or to move the blog to another site or get a proxy server or what. But I'll let you know asap. I go back to China after the 4th of July, so I need to figure it out before then.

Which brings me to the other chunk of news I haven't been able to share until now. David and I have moved to Jining. It's a small city of 3 million in the province of Shandong about halfway between Shanghai and Beijing. David's work wanted him closer. Despite a long, drawn out process of trying to work out a compromise that would allow us to continue living in Shanghai, moving there was our only real option in the end. We're trying to be open and positive about it, but we both know it's going to be a bit tough. At the very least, an adjustment.

I'm thankful we had a year in Shanghai to get acclimated to China a little bit before being thrown into a much more "Chinese" city. There is less English there and people are much more surprised to see foreigners. So that should be interesting. People seem very friendly, a bit like the comparison between Southerners and New Yorkers: city people are just a bit too cool, too "been there, done that, who are you?" and "small town" people are much more open and actually smile when you speak to them. Of course, they also know EVERYTHING about you and your life, but oh well.

I have not blogged about this until now because, well, the situation has been tough, on both of us. It's frustrating to feel like you don't understand what's going on or why certain things seem so much more important to other people. David will now be working most Saturdays, but he'll be coming home earlier on weeknights, so the notion that they are going to be getting more work out of him now is simply poor mathematics on their part. But it seems to be all about face time. When he's there in the office, he's working, but if they can't see him, he must be on vacation. (They refered to his weekends as vacation, crazy workaholics.) Of course, there are few people I know who work harder than David, so it's all just silly. But there you go. Culture clash, to be sure.

So, we moved. I have not seen the new place yet though. We packed up the moving van on a Sunday night and the next morning I boarded the plane for the States. So, watch for a post on my first impressions. Like I said, this will all be very interesting at least.

I had a hard time with this move because my life in China was established in Shanghai. My new friends are there, my writing groups are there, my tutor kids are there. And let's not forget, I can actually get real cheese there. I was also sad to leave our apartment there. It was lovely, with good neighbors and a nice garden. It was my refuge, my oasis in the huge, noisy, dirty city. So, I was sad to leave, but it's okay. It's not the first time I've left an apartment I loved, and I always turn out okay in the end.

In moving to Jining, I have had to think hard about what I will do with my time there. I plan to study Chinese again. I will be needing it much more now. I'm anxious about this, as I am just really bad about learning languages, but it should be a little easier now that I won't be hearing Shanghainese in the mix. I am also planning on working seriously on my novel. I already have a head start and my writing group members are on board to help me with revsions and drafts. No, it's not my memoirs about China. ;) That will have to come later, once I've had time to reflect. So anyway, if anyone asks, I'm a writer. That will now be my job title, because I said so.

I could also get a job teaching English, but I'm not sure about that yet. I would rather teach little kids, just because I think it would be more fun teaching colors and animals than to feel intimidated at the huge portions of the English dictionary that the adults have committed to memory. You wouldn't believe how many English words I have learned in China. Seriously.

So, long story short, my China story is about to shift. Hopefully it will bring a new light on the whole experience. Who knows, maybe I will like it better. All I can do is try it out. But I assure you, I will be looking forward to our monthly trips to the big city to visit friends and speak regular English. Oh, and also to stock up on cheese.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Little Less Conversation

"Good morning."

I thought for a second, confirmed in my mind that it was definitely 2pm and then returned the greeting to the young guy who had appeared from behind me in the train car.

"I am from Hangzhou," he declared. Pause. "Where are you from?"

"America," I said, not really wanting to get into too much detail with this stranger on the Metro. No one ever talks to me on the subway.

"What stop are you going to?" He seemed to be fumbling for things to talk about in English, so I took it as a harmless question.

"People's Square." It wasn't my final destination anyhow, just a line change. "Where are you going?" I asked, hoping he wouldn't say People's Square.

"I'm going to see my sister," he said. "Nice to meet you," he added, somewhat abruptly and stuck out his hand. I shook it briefly. He stepped back and I assumed the conversation was over. I stared at my reflection in the glass of the doors.

"You have very white skin."

I turned and glanced at him and then looked down at my arm. This was one of the first in a handful of days that had been warm enough to wear short sleeves. Excited about the warm weather, I was on my way to a large park in the northwest part of town to eat a sandwich on a blanket on some actual grass.

"Yeah, I haven't had much sun lately." I'm not quite sure if I am the envy of the Chinese folks here, as they are definitely all about remaining white as opposed to working on a tan, or if they think I look unhealthy, so unlike my tanned fellow countrymen. I prefer to think that pale is beautiful here, even for Westerners, because if it isn't fashionable here, I'm plumb outta luck.

"I have a girlfriend from Mexico," he said. I had no real idea what to say to this. "She's white."

"Oh, she's a white Mexican. Okay." Like I said, I had no real idea what to say to these things, but he kept leaving such long gaps in between sentences it made me more uncomfortable to listen to the silence. He then said something I couldn't quite hear over the noise of the train.


"I wash her feet every morning."


The pauses got much more awkward at this point.

"Your skin is white like snow."

Okay. Creep-o-meter just went off. I looked at my reflection again as we pulled away from the next stop. Only one more stop to go...

"Your eyes are like my mother's," he said.

"Oh? Does she have light eyes?" He nodded in a way that made me think he hadn't understood what I really said.

"Her eyes are very big."

"Where is she from?" I asked, glad to be off the skin topic.

"She's from Hangzhou, too." Pause. "But her father was Korean."

"Oh," I said, not really sure if that explained the big eyes.

"Your eyes are very pretty." Aw jeez. I looked away again. "Have a good day," he said and held out his hand again. The disturbance in the Force made me reluctant to shake his hand again, but I did anyway, out of habit from those darn societal expectations. I made a note not to touch my face though.

He apparently thought we were at the stop. I wished we were at the stop, but we were only slowing down. On a normal day, the train doesn't seem to slow down until we are upon the terminal. Figures I would get the one cautious subway driver in all of Shanghai today. He realized we weren't there yet, too. I could have sworn he took a step closer.

"Your hair is also very pretty."

"Thanks." Come on baby, get to the damn station!

"Do you have any brothers?"


"Your skin is very pretty." Yikes, buddy! Cool it, will ya? He mumbled something again, but I didn't ask him to repeat this time, just hoping he hadn't said "I have a collection". I only caught the last bit.

"She is the queen." I assumed he was referring to the girlfriend again, if she even existed. "Okay, nice to meet you." His hand reached forward again. My insides curled.

What I wanted to say at this point: "Dude, stop. Really. You said goodbye twice already. I don't want to shake your hand again. I don't want you in my air space. You lost me at the feet thing and the way you keep glancing at my arm is giving me a serious case of the heebie jeebies."

What I actually said, "Uh huh."

The train slowed and I could finally see the station. I said a firm good bye and he moved back to the opposite wall as I bolted. I counted to 5 before I wiped my hand off on my jeans. I involuntarily shuddered. I looked back once to make sure he wasn't behind me. It felt like a bad thriller.

~ Girl rushes through subway station, searching the crowd behind her wildly as she runs like mad, pushing through turnstiles. ~

I didn't run. I walked briskly and with purpose. I got on Line 2 and I made my way to the park, enjoyed my sandwich and read a book for a while. People were lounging, flying kites, playing badminton, and encouraging small children to walk and chase bubbles. The sun was warm and I felt very relaxed.

A guy with a kite reel walked up next to me, one of several people entering my bubble that afternoon. It happens often here. I continued to read. I realized he had stopped walking.

"Good morning."

I almost choked. I looked up and saw this much older man with his kite reel looking down at me. I smiled.

"Good mor...Good afternoon."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Day Trip to Hangzhou

For the first time since we moved to China, we had a visitor! David's good friend Gil came to town, partly for business, partly to see us! It was great to see him and host and play tour guide. It's a strange experience sometimes when you realize what you have gotten used to and what others notice when they come here. Gil travels a lot and has been to Asia several times, so not much was too surprising to him. He's pretty chill. But I think I did surprise him when I aggressively stopped a man from ditching me in line. I didn’t really realize this until I saw the look on Gil’s face. He just started laughing. “Wow!” It’s good to realize how far you’ve come while impressing your guests at the same time.

We took it easy the first weekend and met some friends for brunch, followed by a leisurely tour of the riverfront and the famous skyline (through the haze, of course). For his second weekend, however, we decided it was time to make the trip to
Hangzhou. This is a popular day or weekend trip for many people who live in Shanghai and is apparently THE biggest tourist attraction for Chinese people. I think it's just because there is a big lake and it's close to some of China's most populated cities. Despite its close proximity to Shanghai, David and I had yet to see it.

So I was charged with procuring our tickets from the train station the day before our trip. Train stations are notorious for being a cluster in China, with line butting and commotion being the rule, not the exception. Dubious as I was about my ability to communicate my ticket needs, I made my way to the station. I hopped off the subway and found my way to the train station. This was the south station, which is actually quite new, large and surprisingly slick and modern. It felt more like an airport.

I followed a great number of signs and found a large ticket counter. After gazing at a train schedule entirely in characters and feeling defeated at the 20 jam packed lines before me, I decided this was the wrong counter. I followed more signs. I went outside. Low and behold! I found another counter in a separate building. It was less hectic, too. I quickly scanned for an English ticket line, but coming up empty handed, I just picked a line with a ticket girl who looked calm and collected. Such an inexact science…

"Hangzhou. Mingtian. San. You mei you?" I said. I'll translate this literally for you. "Hangzhou. Tomorrow. Three. Have not have?" I am somewhat used to sounding like an idiot now. Sometimes I have to resist the urge to make caveman noises at the end of such a string of words. “Me want tickets. Ugh!” Anyhow, she got the gist, and typed away. "Morning?" she asked, the only English she used. I nodded. She showed me the screen with the schedule and the price for 3. Great, I'll take it! And it was much cheaper than I thought it would be. I felt like I had just kicked foreign mass transportation butt and it felt good.

So the next morning, the three of us get to the station and go down to the platform to board the train. "That ain't no bullet train," David said as we approached the car. Oh no, I thought. I forgot to ask for the bullet train! No wonder it was so cheap! To be fair, I had no idea how to say bullet train, so I probably would've had to resort to ridiculous sign language to indicate "fast!", but it might have worked. I was concentrating so hard on the vital info to convey, that I forgot to confirm which kind of train we were taking. The guys insisted it was okay, that it would only take a little longer. I just felt dumb. We settled in for a 2 and a half hour ride (instead of the speedy 1.25 hour trip on the bullet). It was just fine, but we made sure to get the fast train on our return trip, for the time factor and for the comfortable seats.

Plenty of attractions await visitors in Hangzhou, but we had no schedule or list of must sees, so we just took it easy. We had some lunch, wandered along the waterfront, and then took a boat across the lake. The forecast had predicted rain, but we lucked out. We apparently left the rain behind in Shanghai and enjoyed a warmish day with hazy sunshine. I was so happy. Trees were budding and flowers were peeking out all over the place. We even saw a real, live lawn of gorgeous green grass. I wanted to run through it barefoot so badly despite it being roped off. Well, I did until David mused at how many people must have spit in it. Way to kill the dream!

The sign no doubt says "Keep Off the Grass!"

During the entire trip, Gil had fun pointing out how many people were looking at us. I have developed what I like to call "oblivion mode" which helps me deny the fact that people are noticing, indeed staring at us, and go about my business. Gil kept pointing it out though as it was very new to him, so I was suddenly aware of the stir we were causing everywhere we went and it felt like being fresh off the boat again. "Hey that guy just took a picture of you!" he laughed, pointing at someone looking down at their digital camera screen. I chuckled. "He took one of you too, you know! You're a foreigner!" But he did have a point. His dark hair did make it a little easier for him to blend in, which is pretty much impossible for David and I. Oh well. At least it's mostly well-meaning, honest curiosity and nothing hostile. It doesn't bother me too much. You get used to becoming part of the attraction at tourist spots, like being one of the costumed characters at Disney.

My version of cheesy Chinese-style photo ops. I'll keep working on my technique.

A little less cheesy ;)

David and Gil

It came time to leave and we suddenly realized it would be nearly impossible to catch a cab back to the train station. So many people were clogging the street and the traffic was not moving through very quickly. With our departure time getting near, it was a mild panic, as it wouldn't have been a total tragedy if we missed the train. We could just go back later or the next day. Still, it was frustrating to not know what to do. We're used to just hailing a cab wherever we are with no problem. After some time, a dilapidated van pulled up and David asked the driver if he could take us to the train station. He already had two other passengers, and they were Chinese, so I figured this venture to be relatively safe. They negotiated a price and we were off.

As we drove back through the main streets, it became obvious that Hangzhou is quite an affluent town. Modern buildings lined the streets filled with cafes and little shops. We passed a Maserati, Ferrari and several other high end car dealerships. I had fleeting moments when I felt like I was in some swanky American city with all the luxuries you could ever want at your fingertips to go nicely in your getaway lake house, complete with that tourist town vibe. Of course, the occasional rusty bike wagons filled with cardboard passing by provided a shot of reality. I’m still in China.

I think if we had gone to Hangzhou earlier in my stay, I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I did on this trip. I really enjoyed the scenery, the surprisingly clear water of the lake and the hint of fresh air. It is so good to get out of the city once in a while. I'd trade concrete for grass any day.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Flora Fotos

Well, Spring is on its way. Things are blossoming and making the world feel like new again. I've been out and about with the camera and thought I would share some of the little things that bring me joy.

And just because I like the picture, some men playing cards in the park.

And another non-flower park picture. I call this one, Escape. The "bird" is actually a kite.

To see larger, just click on the photos.
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