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.