Friday, November 26, 2010

Nothing Says ‘Night Club’ Like Monks and Stuffed Animals

My first visit to a so-called dance club in Jining was so mind-bogglingly bad that I was tempted to call the search for decent night activities around town a lost cause. Still, I held a shred of hope that maybe my first experience was simply an off night. Surely every night in every club in this city could not be like this hodge-podge assortment of elements that I had just experienced?

The early evening started with perky club beats and dancing girls, two of whom were bleach blondes from exotic Tajikistan. The semi-normal disco scene changed abruptly at 11 p.m. to amateur Josh Groban covers, followed by an auction of stuffed plush animals and bottles of Jack Daniels. Once the snake dancer arrived, I had completely lost all sense of place. When the tarantula poked all eight of its fuzzy legs out of the dancer’s mouth, I knew it was time to leave. The dark, mafia-like vibe held little intrigue for me and the freak show element proved over the top. I went home to bed and tried not to have nightmares about spiders in my mouth. Or Josh Groban.

I mused for days afterwards about that evening. The club seemed to be trying to appear wild and happening. Stripper poles abounded, and one dancer spent some time spinning around on it, but it was certainly not a strip club. Suggestively dressed girls did fairly tame dance moves with looks of bored detachment on their faces above a dance floor full of young men who didn’t seem to notice them. I had wondered if things would get racier as the night went on, but that notion evaporated when they cut the music and brought the lights up. Without missing a beat, the men shifted from dance mode to auction mode, trying to outbid each other for giant teddy bears with big, pink bows. It was jarring and didn’t make a damn bit of sense.

The Party World club scene in my adopted 3rd tier city in Shandong Province seems to occupy an unlikely space between an edgy, dark haven for local mobsters and slackers and an enthusiastic attempt at crossing modern dance clubs with cabarets with side shows with prizes from Chuck E. Cheese’s. The result is about what you’d expect. It’s like dumping four different boxes of puzzle pieces, a bowl of mashed potatoes and a hamster on a table. Shove the pieces together, use mashed potatoes to hold it all together and put the hamster on top like the cherry on a sundae. Jigsaws are fun, mashed potatoes are tasty and hamsters are cute, but all together, you’ve got a big ol’ pile of discord.

I never went back to Party World, but I did recently go to Banana, or in Chinese, Ba Na Na. (Admit it, the name makes you snicker, too.) An American friend teaching English had convinced this club to give him free beer in exchange for singing a few songs on stage, just for fun. Two songs, forty free beers. He invited everyone he knew to watch and take care of the libations. So, six months later, I found myself at another Jining night spot. And I found out it wasn’t the same as Party World. Nope. It was even more bizarre.

Banana at least looked more like clubs you find in the big cities in China. A bit more lighting in the entrance certainly made it seem less seedy. The motif seemed to be “Egyptian” with giant relief carvings of pharaohs standing in profile lining the back wall, spotlights in shifting colors highlighting their faces. The DJ played the standard watered down club music. Women were present on the dance floor, unlike at Party World where the all too rare and mystifying “big-group-of-men-dancing-together-but-not-interested-in-each-other” dynamic prevailed. The two local hired dancing girls were present, but took a less prominent role in the back.

Any notion of a carefree environment to get one’s dance on and let loose quickly withered in light of the presence of several helmeted policemen standing around the stage looking glumly serious. The DJ frequently interrupted the tracks with a lot of “Yi, er, san!” (One, two, three!) and drawn out spoken announcements most definitely out of sync with the music, which for a DJ is pretty tragic.

And then, just like before, 11 p.m. arrived with a screeeech! Kill the music! Bring up the lights! Sweep off the dance floor! It’s singing time! Look, our singer is dressed in uber hip clothing, with a hip, black hat and hip, skinny jeans and Marilyn Monroe on his t-shirt. He’ll sing something sappy about love. People will buy him beers and make him down them on stage. Yawn. I found my pile of sunflower seeds more interesting, frankly.

After a couple acts like this, a woman came out who actually had some impressive pipes and an even more impressive dress: a sparkly silver evening gown that gave way to a mini skirt after the first song. This lady and the host then did some sort of comedy skit, which my Chinese-savvy friends informed me was quite dirty, which I could already tell by her mock offense at what he was saying, coyly protecting her lady parts hiding beneath her barely-there skirt.

She then did a fairly good rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” which would normally be horrible given that I have heard that song more times in the past two years than in the 13 years since the movie came out. But the host added a twist to the performance. He draped a shawl of toilet paper strips on the lady’s shoulders and fanned her with a giant piece of cardboard, fluttering her hair and shawl to simulate the boat scene in a show of admitted, intentional cheesiness. They drew laughs from the locals and the foreigners, a tall order to be sure.

Then it was time for our friend to perform. He sang his songs, one being the Chef’s from South Park. I’ll let you figure it out, but needless to say, we got the lyrics and most other people did not, so we got to giggle as we cheered. “Devil Went Down to Georgia” was baffling to the audience given the country-ness of the tune, but we found it entertaining. For my part, I thought adding to the randomness of the evening was a bit more fulfilling than just being a bystander.

I thought things would wrap up after the novelty foreigner act, but no. We hadn’t gotten to the freak show portion yet. Silly me. This time it was a lady tearing a metal bowl with her bare hands, bending swords with her throat, and wrapping rebar around her neck, which was seriously painful to watch. Cringe-worthy human tricks are usually not on my to-do list of nighttime fun activities, but at least this time no spider-induced chill bumps were on the bill.

I hadn’t stayed past the circus side-show portion at Party World, so I didn’t know to expect anything more. Is it over now? No. No it’s not.

Cue the monk.

A chanting track fit for a temple started playing over the sound system and a Buddhist monk came out to paint a scroll on stage. It took at least five minutes for the whole thing, the monk patiently painting a single character on a scroll, stamping it, waving incense over it, walking around it, presumably blessing it. We all sat in dumbfounded silence. My Chinese friend whispered, “This is so weird!” in my ear, so at least I knew it wasn’t simply a cultural difference, for once.

So why have a monk paint the symbol for Buddha on a scroll in a night club? Apparently, to auction it off. I know close to nothing about Buddhism, but it just felt wrong, bringing some old monk guy in to paint something to be auctioned off before the ink even dries, for 50 bucks US, no less.

After all this, I found out that they bring back the dance music for the last hour before closing around 2 a.m., like they suddenly remembered that a dance club involves dancing. I was surprised anyone was still around to dance. I was also surprised I was still around, it now being impossible for me to avoid using the restroom there, which on a scale of 1 to 10 after two years of squat toilet experiences, was firmly at a 1: craptastically awful, pun intended.

With one too many warm, free beers in me, I took my leave to avoid a second bathroom trip. I now felt I could legitimately make an assessment from my small comparative study of the awkward teenagers that are dance clubs in Small Town, PRC. It might be interesting to make a return visit in 10 or so years to see if the clubs have moved closer or farther away from the Western versions. But for the rest of my Saturday nights here, I’ll be content with a cold Tsingdao from my personal fridge.

Oh, and Banana? The temple called. They want their monk back.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hello, Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye

Yes, I know. It's been ridiculously long since I posted. There is a decent reason for that: I moved back to the States.

So, is the blog over, you ask? Well, not exactly. When I named this blog, I did so with the intention of it fitting other definitions, other stages of life. Life is change and all that. I'm not sure how sold I am on continuing to write about life here in the States, or whether to just start a new blog for such nonsense or what. Decisions, decisions.

In the meantime, I figure there are plenty of stories I haven't yet shared about China and my travels while there. In fact, I have one in the queue all ready for you lovely people as soon as I get back home to my computer. (Ooo the anticipation!)

So while you wait, just for kicks, here is an example of some of the reverse culture shock I have been experiencing.

Ridiculous portions of sugar!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Little Things to Smile About

Toddlers with shoes that make dog toy-like squeaks every time they walk. It's like those shoes that light up, only with sound effects instead. I get the giggles when the tykes start running.

Cheap veggies.All this for around $8! Eating healthy is actually affordable.

The lilies that bloomed in the ponds in our apartment complex, splashing color amongst the gray.

The fact that the apartment guards always smile back when I say hello. They even reply in English sometimes.

Discovering the authentically old "Sound Reaching Far Tower" in the midst of our skyscraper city. They would not, however, let us ring the giant bell inside.

Little kids in the pizza place giving me high fives when I hold up my hand.

And don't judge me, but...

a teddy bear who just couldn't take the pressure any more!
(click picture to enlarge)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Here's the Scoop!

My first (and perhaps last) news broadcast for this semi-minor event that I had fun with nonetheless. Gave me an excuse to play with video stuff at any rate! :)

And if you're wondering what the hey I am doing at the very end, I was mocking model shoots, because they always use wind machines. ;)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All Creatures Small and Smaller

All right, ya'll. My last post was loooooong. So, a short one with some photos. And to be a real crowd pleaser, it's all about animals and kids.

 We've got a sleeping baby

 a pup with questionable fashion sense

 kids playing on a modern, metallic bunny

a kid AND a bunny, on a leash, no less

 a bird with a disproportionately large bank account

and this cat, who may have, in fact, eaten my soul...

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I don't get my heart set on much. As far as I can tell, the minute I really look forward to something is exactly when it all goes to pot. It's canceled, it rains, I come down with a fever - the usual suspects. My friend Drew would say this is being dreadfully pessimistic and what is the fun in life if not to look forward to things we plan on and get excited about? I get that. Sometimes it works out. But the other side of this is that sometimes when you aren't counting on anything happening or going your way, it all falls into place. And it's those times that I count among my most thrilling and deliriously happy. A perfect example is one of my favorite trips I took during my freshman year of college, a trip I signed up for not knowing a single other soul who was going. And you know what? It's one of my happiest college memories. It is a rare and cherished thing to find yourself laughing for the greater part of a weekend, a handful of new friends to call for future weekends.

In general, I guess I find more satisfaction in the happy, little surprises in life, so I leave myself open to a lot of them. So with that bit of background out of the way, I am actually here to tell you about a plan. Yes. I made a plan. I hoped on a plan. I carried out a plan. Crazy, I know. I dared to hope for a good outcome despite being the hopeless doubter that I am.

I had wanted to go to Harbin, a city in northern China, since last winter. A trip did not pan out in the two month window I had, but I didn't dwell too much on it at the time. But then I found myself still in China a year later and thought, woman, this is your second chance. So I starting thinking about it and planting seeds in others' minds months ahead. I decided it wouldn't be hard. Now that I had some traveling in China under my belt, it should be a simple matter of just planning a short trip. A long weekend. I researched the city, it's history, the reviews of the ice and snow festival that was the main reason for wanting to go. After a while, I felt that old feeling creeping in. I wanted to do something specific and I was falling in love with the idea.

Well, it was a great plan. A great plan, that is, until I couldn't find anyone to go with me. These things happen. People have jobs and stuff. Plus, going to a sub-zero climate to look at some blocks of ice could be considered a hard sell... So I let myself get upset, feeling stupid for falling for that old trick of getting my hopes up just so they could disintegrate. Haven't you learned your lesson, you big dolt?

But then, I changed my tune. I thought, no. I am not going to let it stop me. I toured Guilin by myself, why can't I just go alone? It's simple enough and I feel safe in China, so why not? I had my doubts, of course. Are you crazy? I asked myself. You're going to go, get lost and die in the snow, alone. (Sheesh, my mind can be so drearily morbid!) But I just shook it off, telling myself I'd be kicking my own tail for years after this if I didn't seize this opportunity. It was now or never.

So after some dithering and waiting and checking the weather forecasts and getting discouraged (-20F?!), I finally rallied and worked out a plan and booked my tickets for the last week in February, the last week of the ice festival. Whoa, did I just commit to a solo trip? Oh sure, I had toured Guilin by myself, but David was there, meeting me for dinner and sharing the flights to and from. Sure, I lived in Shanghai for a year and was by myself 80% of the time, but touring a city you live in is decidedly different than playing tourist elsewhere. I've never taken a solo trip, not even in my own country. So this was quite a moment for me. I experienced a special kind of post-ticket purchase glee once I booked the flight and room and I took it to mean I had made the right choice.

So, I prepared, stuffed my suitcase full of sweaters and socks and set out on my journey. The flight was easy, as usual. I worried more about getting into town from the airport outside of Harbin. I had two options: take a cab (100 yuan) or take the airport bus (20 yuan). I decided to go all out and take the bus.

Boy, was that ever an adventure all in itself.

I somehow found the bus ticket counter, deducing this from the price on the window (I knew the price beforehand), attempted a question with the non-responsive, practically comatose ticket lady, aborted that plan and went ahead and bought a ticket. Instead of attempting another question, I followed the lady who bought a ticket after me to find out where to find the bus. You have to get creative when you have no clue what is going on. 

We reached the bus and I thought, hmm, this might have been the choice that marks me as a lunatic. There were at least 30 people crowding the bus, trying to shove luggage in the bottom compartment, tripping over the luggage carriers that everyone wheeled right up to the bus, pushing past people, boarding. There was no hope I was getting on that thing, but lucky for me there was another bus waiting right behind and I figured I could inch up to be one of the first in line.

Didn't matter. Still madness. Everyone was not only shoving their luggage in, they were trying to lock it up with these goofy little chains with pad locks. It was NOT a smooth operation. Plus, the first round of folks were all in the way of everyone else. I was in the second wave, but it made no difference. A lady in a lush fur coat pushed me out of the way and my patience started to wane. Someone rammed something into the back of my ankle. I know I started saying what I was thinking out loud because at that point I didn't care and nobody was listening anyway. "This is the most inefficient, insane, bleep bleep way to bleep go about things! Bleep." Finally a guy who was supposed to be helping the process along (read: useless) just motions for me to leave my suitcase in the spot I had somehow managed to find for it, without locking it because time was ticking. I couldn't reach a chain for my luggage anyway, so I boarded.

I immediately started to smack myself in the forehead.

I fretted the whole way into town, worried that my luggage was left on the curb or stolen at any of our other stops because it was the only one not locked up. All my clothes! In reality, nothing too valuable, but after losing my small camera recently, I'd had enough of losing things. I knew it would make for a great story, but I cared more about not being cold for three days at that point.

But much to my delight it was still there when I got off at the train station. This trip might not suck, I thought.

I took the first taxi I found, agreeing to a slightly augmented fare because at that point, I just didn't care. The driver tried chatting, but I couldn't understand his question and wasn't motivated to try too hard. Within 10 minutes I was at the hotel. The driver handed me my precious luggage from the trunk and then with a sort of awkward, goofy grin, he spread his arms, his shoulders sort of in an "aren't I silly?" shrug, and hugged me.

Um. That's new. I kind of laughed it off and said "Ha, okay, bye bye!" That was it. Not a super creepy hug, or a grab even, but it was odd. I chalked it up to the solo traveler gig, a quirky tidbit to share over future beers.

I checked in. Let me tell you, it was the simplest check in process in China to date, and that's saying a lot. I settled into my warm and basic room, resting a bit before foraging for food. I asked the front desk about food options. They laughed and said, "KFC!" Ha, no way. I have KFC in Jining. Anything else? I mean, it's a big city. "McDonald's," they offered. Sigh. Apparently there was no hotel restaurant like their brochure said. It was too late for most restaurants, I figured. So, McDonald's it was, as I hadn't eaten a real meal all day. I enjoyed it and called it a day soon after.

Chinese style hotel breakfast turned out to be quite okay, especially for around 3 bucks. You simply have to tell your mind it is okay to eat fried rice and veggies at breakfast. I filled up and it lasted me a good part of the day. Best $3 I spent.

I bundled up and set out toward the river, thinking I would at least see the Snow Festival that day. The sun was shining, but it was indeed quite cold. I could feel ice crystals forming in my nose when I inhaled. Harbin is in the northern-most province of China, butting up against Russia, as in Siberia, as in, damn cold. I saw many signs in Russian and there were even some restaurants with Russian food. The city still felt like China to me, but I could definitely see the Russian influence in the architecture. The most prominent example of this is the old orthodox church of St. Sophia.

I found myself amazed that this building still stands, built at the beginning of the 1900s, surviving time and the Cultural Revolution. I enjoyed seeing something old, sturdy and authentic for a change.

My feet and cheeks were already frozen after only thirty minutes of being outside, but the rest of me was warm. I've never worn so many clothes in my life! I picked my way over the ice covered sidewalks to the river, which is frozen solid for 3 months out of the year. People clear off sections of the river for ice skating rinks, ice slides, odd little one-dog dog sleds, and even some horse drawn carriages. It had the typical quirky, hodgepodge air of many Chinese outdoor activities I have come across. Funny to watch, but not fun-looking enough to inspire participation. 

Next step was to get across the river to the Snow Festival. I realized that some people were actually walking across the frozen river, but it seemed like a really long walk. So I opted for the cable car. I'm glad I did because I got a good view of the city despite holding my breath every time the car hit a bump. I'm not scared of heights. I'm just scared of falling from them.

A couple fellow travelers, an older gent from Australia and his younger Chinese friend, were heading to the festival at the same time as me, so we all decided to go together. I welcomed the conversation and Jack, the Chinese guy, explained a few signs and things along the way.

The snow sculptures were a little worse for wear as the temperature had reached freezing a few days before. Add in the sunshine, and the snow had melted some at the surface. Overall they were still impressive, especially the large ones...
We spent a good 2 hours walking around to all the sculptures. There were so many. I would like to know how long it takes to carve them all.
Towards the end, I found out the Ice Festival was a thirty minute walk from there, but running low on calories from breakfast and being thoroughly frozen, I decided to head back and search for some early dinner. I bid farewell to my travel companions and slowly made my way back to town.

Food proved hard to find. I thought I was walking down a restaurant street of sorts, but it seemed to have mostly clothing stores, but I didn't have a hankering for cotton or pleather. Turns out all the restaurants were down the side streets. Maybe I would have noticed this earlier if I hadn't been closely watching every step I took on the ice rink that was the sidewalks and street. I was so sore from flinching and catching my balance all day. Eventually I found a recognizable Japanese chain, got myself some curry rice and then walked back toward the hotel. I pushed myself to go a block out of the way for some night shots of the cathedral, but then I went straight to the hotel. I was toast at 8pm.

Another big breakfast the next morning, but then I doddled around to watch the Olympics, as the women's figure skating finals were on that day. My only goal that day was to see the Ice Festival, so I had plenty of time to spare. I had decided to walk there, utilizing my cable car ticket I neglected to use for the return trip the day before. So, trying to time the long walk to arrive at the fest around sunset, I left the hotel around 2pm to get some lunch (I succumbed to more fast food) and continued towards the river.

Two pairs of socks managed to keep my feet warm longer, but eventually, they surrendered. No matter. I just kept walking. The last 30 minutes of the walk was quite beautiful as the sun set.
I arrived at the festival gates just as the sun slipped away and just before they turned on all the lights. The long walk had served as a sort of long, drawn out lead up to the main event, building suspense. I bought the ticket and went inside. I took it all in and thought, "Yeah, this is, in fact, pretty damn cool."
 This is several stories tall and made all of ice.
For the next two hours I just snapped away with my camera. I had brought a tripod along just for this night, trying to work on my skills and get some good night shots. I took one go down an ice slide and one pit stop in a warm hut for some hot tea and popcorn. 

 Ta da!
Other than that, it was photography city. I got some attention while setting up shots and then running to get into the frame, racing the camera timer. I completely didn't care. I focused on taking it all in, with both my eyes and my lens. I certainly couldn't focus on my frozen feet, which were, in the end, the deciding factor for when to take my leave.

Which brings me to the second event I was anxious about: finding a ride back. The festival is way out there, so I knew I'd be at the mercy of the supply of cabs. (Another good reason for leaving early, to avoid the last minute rush for a ride.) So leaving a good hour or so before things shut down, there were plenty of cabs. I chatted with the first driver who tried to woo me. I acted pretty distracted and uninterested, which was somewhat true, so it turned out pretty easy to get him to agree to my price. He let me sit in the car while he went back to get a couple more people to fill up his car and we were off. I was so relieved! 

We dropped off the young couple first. When they had shut the door, the driver nudged me, pointed at them and told me how much they had paid. It was 10 yuan more than I did! Whoo hoo! We both laughed at this. I don't think I've ever underbid a native before! Heck yeah, ego boost!

By the time I got back to the hotel I was stoked. I had done it. I had come, I had seen what I wanted to see, I had taken some pictures I could be proud of, I had successfully bargained and I had survived. I felt like a million. Maybe this was a good sign of things to come, my new leaf of pushing myself to hold tight to some dreams, encouraging them to bloom instead of always letting them die on the vine. Some things are worth facing fears for and the bonus is finding courage along the way. Harbin was something I could not conceive of doing on my own a mere twelve months before. Now that I've conquered it, I have to wonder what seemingly impossible tasks I can think of will be checked off the list in the future. I certainly was not born out on a limb, fearlessly dancing high above the ground, but I am getting more comfortable with stepping out there from time to time, maybe even doing a twirl or two.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The 11 Foreigners You Meet In China

The Newbie

It’s intimidating to be one, fresh off the plane and completely out of your element. Once you have been here for a couple of months, however, it’s kind of fun to help out other Newbies. "Zuo gui means turn left," "Don't eat that," and "Never, ever leave the house without tissues in your bag" all prove vitally important to any fresh faces. Any information you have gleaned will probably be news to the noobs. The little sense of satisfaction when you bestow some hard-earned wisdom upon their grasshopper selves is worth the price of admission. Plus, it's karma, as someone no doubt helped you out a few times. However, Newbies are harder to befriend the longer you are here, especially if you have low patience levels with déjà vu. "What's the word for the bill again?" Each new round of folks will talk about the crazy driving and the split pants on babies like it’s the most astonishing thing they’ve ever seen. The old timers just sigh and pat them on the shoulder. “That’s okay, little noob, you’ll stop seeing it after a while. All in good time.”

The Lifer

A somewhat rare breed and not the same across the board, but always interesting to talk to, The Lifer is staying for the long haul. He seems perfectly happy here or he just hates his homeland that much more. Maybe he married a local and started a family, his work is specific to China, or he just loves having someone come to do his laundry and dishes twice a week until he dies. I find it all very intriguing. As I plan to leave this place eventually, I am fascinated by those who do not wish to go home. This is their home now. Folks in this category also have the highest rate of Mandarin mastery and it just makes me jealous. (Plus, it is totally wild to hear a foreigner with a pretty convincing Chinese accent, tones and all. It makes quite an impression.)

The Whinger

To be fair, I think most people here have done this or have gone through a whinging stage. (I use the Australian term for whiner here, simply because it's a fab word. Pronounced like ‘twinge-ah.’) Most people go through culture shock of some sort and usually there is something to complain about, something that gets your goat or that you simply cannot understand no matter how hard you try. Many people get past the bulk of their pet peeves and learn to accept what they cannot change about China. However, the chronic complainer focuses conversations solely on whining. "Why can't they just stop spitting? It's sooo gross!" Some Whingers can be funny when they do it, but if they are not, they drain the energy from anyone who has gotten over the subject in question. A veritable silver lining black hole, these folks are best taken in small doses or only when you are in a bullet-proof good mood. However, perhaps a better plan is to only meet the Whinger when you’ve just had a crap day and you could really use a complaining companion, and a cold beer. "I said a cold beer! Why don't they ever have enough cold beer?"

The Sexpat

Oh dear, this bloke. I don’t need to go into details as this guy is infamous. The most stereotypical variety of Sexpat and, may I say awkward to witness, is the ancient and/or highly unattractive and/or sleazy dude with the young, impossibly hot chic on his arm. Perhaps it's a mutually beneficial arrangement. Whatever. It just hits me like a bad note on the trumpet and I'd just plain rather not be listening, thank you. But on a more day to day level, the Sexpats of all ages fall into two main categories: the guys who are fairly suave before they come here and the suddenly "desirable" expats who find themselves in a once forbidden candy store, of sorts. They see the buffet and just can’t stop sampling. And so, the notches hit the post. You can tell when you meet the guy who has let the game go to his head and now regards himself as some sort of God of Mojo. Being suddenly seen as exotic and desirable is hard not to notice I'm sure. However, this guy is probably leaving China at some point, and unless he buckles down and secures one of these fine ladies to accompany him for the long term, he will need to check his reality along with his bags for the flight home.

The Teacher

The English teacher abounds in China. Many have come for the experience only for the length of the contract. Some use it as a way to get to China and then leapfrog to something else. A few, however, make a career out of it and actually enjoy it. A friend recently started his own school here, committing to years of being a teacher here. Managing a classroom full of children is quite the challenge, but it is no doubt rewarding in a place where learning English is seen as vital for success. I tutored three Chinese boys my first year here and as if I needed any more reason to, it made me respect teachers a great deal more than ever. Well, good teachers. If she’s just playing Finding Nemo for the kids while she sits at the desk and text messages her friends about drinks later, maybe she should quit her day job and get one she cares about.

The Enthusiast

Oh my, he is just bursting with excitement! He loves Chinese philosophy, he loves the people, he loves the language, he just love, love, loves the culture with all the fireworks and backwards walking and street food on skewers he can handle. He likely studied Chinese history in college and majored in Mandarin. He came here to experience it first hand. He is here to eat, see and breathe this place. He wants to live like a local. I have to say, it’s refreshing to see folks who really, really want to be here and are so positive about it all. I envy their zeal, but then I also catch myself wondering if they are in the honeymoon phase and it will all come crashing down around their knees in a few months. This is a terrible thing to think. I hope I’m wrong. I think I am some of the time. But I’m willing to bet that either a week of food poisoning or falling for the tea house scam just might cool his enthusiasm a stitch.

The Fugitive

This one is running from something. You don’t know what exactly, but he is escaping a past. Maybe it’s a nasty divorce. Maybe it’s a native land where he can’t attract a significant other. Maybe he lost his right to practice his professional trade in his homeland. Or maybe…he’s running from long arm of the law! Okay, that’s extreme, but it does make one wonder. Fugitives are somewhat rare, or maybe they are just the least obvious kind, which makes sense. They are escaping something and they don’t want you to know what from. You get this weird vibe around them. They change the subject a lot, don't talk about home much and might even avoid having their pictures taken. I’m all for redemption and new starts. If you’re here to make it all right again, kudos to you. I don’t need to know all your dark secrets. But if you're hiding a murderous past? Yeah, I’d want to know that because then I could stay the heck away from you.

The Young

A great number of post-college people come to live here, the land of infinite possibilities. In a sense, the Young one is braver than her older, fellow countrymen who come here on cushy expat packages. She has to find her own way and take public transportation. Maybe he came to study Mandarin at a Chinese university where he learned to actually read Mandarin which only makes him more valuable if he chooses to stay and work here. Impressive. She might have come to jump start her career, landing jobs and getting promotions that are a few steps above what she could expect in her native land. The Young are full of energy and are enjoying a colorful, challenging, rewarding life working hard and playing hard in the major cities in China. Money stretches farther in China and so, the good times roll on.

The Restless

Eternal searchers, the Restless are looking for their place in life. This may be their first time abroad or just the latest stop on their hop-scotch around the globe, but they come with ideas of a different life, a new perspective and the promise of endless possibilities. They try all sorts of jobs, travel around the country, and get into new religions or philosophies. They search and maybe even briefly find what they want in life and yet, in the end, it’s like trying to catch smoke in their hands. They become bored or frustrated with life here. Many remain eternally optimistic, keeping the faith that if they try this next thing or this new place or this different vocation, they will find satisfaction. Others start to show signs of losing hope, having started over so many times with always the same results. As is the nature of these roving souls, most will slip away when your back is turned without a goodbye, moving on to their next attempt at figuring life out.

The Burnout

This guy should have gone home a long time ago. The Burnout, the grouchy, toxic cousin of the Whinger, is way past the point of enjoying himself or learning anything new. He doesn’t care about experiencing local culture anymore. In fact, he views it all very negatively. Life is shit, baby, and if you haven’t realized it yet, he is more than willing to fill you in on “the truth.” The corruption, the cheating, the shady ways of the government, the fake friendliness of the bar girls, the polluted water, the cooks who never wash their hands. It’s all in the toilet for him, and yet he just won’t flush. It’s hard to picture the Burnout having ever enjoyed being in China. Why did he want to come to China in the first place? What will it take to make him finally leave? Whatever it takes he should check out, and sooner rather than later.

The Tag-along

Simply put, she’s here because her significant other is here, whether it was a job transfer or just a good opportunity to work abroad. In time, she may make her own life here, landing a job in her field, seizing the opportunity to start a new business, or perhaps focusing on exploring a long-lost hobby. Some Tag-alongs enjoy the ride even if they don’t get a job here, taking advantage of the perks by traveling around, getting massages, and going out on the town chauffeured by their personal driver. Some come to resent their situation with a smoldering fury and become bitter, bitter souls. Some “trailing wives”, especially those in the smaller cities, become depressed and lonely, isolated from their old lives with no support group of friends and no clear way to eke out a place in this new life. I have seen this and it is sad. But the Tag-along who goes gracefully forward, taking care of kids or simply themselves, not dwelling on her status as the follower, manages to treat life like anywhere else: normal. I admire that woman most of all.

Where do I fall in here? I’ve been the Newbie (seems like just yesterday…), dabbled as the Teacher and the Enthusiast, and fallen into being the Whinger more than I’d like to admit. Long term, I’m in with the Young (I can play one on TV) and of course, the Tag-along. Some fit better than others and some fit only for short periods of time. The important thing here is to know yourself, or at least be honest with yourself and your intentions. And never, ever stay long enough to become the Burnout.

This piece can also be seen at The Faster Times . Check it out!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I have a wok and I know how to use it!

Food. We all need it, most of us want it, some of us are consumed by it (har har) and some of us are on an eternal search for the holy grail of our favorite varieties. Myself, I do enjoy food and sometimes enjoy the challenge of making it myself, but other times, I find it a chore. If I'm busy or down in the dumps, I usually find myself irritated at having to figure out, once again, "What am I going to eat?"

When I first came to China, I did not know much. I had to slowly piece together where to get groceries, where I could find a decent meal prepared for me, and w
hat specialty shops to get the equipment that I thought would be basic (cheese grater, pie pan, etc.). I eventually discovered a foreign grocery store as well, but then it was a matter of evaluating just how badly I wanted cereal or imported cheeses or tortilla chips, because it would often cost an arm and both legs. No box of cereal is ever worth $10 to me. However, $5 for a block of Land-o-Lakes cheddar? You better believe it.

I not only had to gain footing in a foreign country and how to make it feel more homelike on the dinner table, I found I actually had quite a lot to learn about cooking period. If not for my mother, a few foodie friends and good ol' Betty's cookbook (Crocker, that is) I would have been eating way more ramen noodles than I care to think about.

Now, I'm in Jining. We shipped a few boxes of food when we moved, which (pat ourselves on the back) was so smart. While there is now a new grocery that does sell cheese and some decent bread, our first two months here I spent talking to a few ladies living here who were giving me all their tips of where to find what and at which store. "This store sometimes has bread that isn't sweet, but you have to ask them which ones are which." "This store has good vegetables, but don't buy the meat here." "These frozen fish filets aren't too bad." I confess, I never tried using the odd "cheese spread stuff watered down with milk as a cream substitute" option, but much of their other advice was vital and so very helpful to me. At the end of the day, though, there is much I just cannot get here. It can sometimes feel like some sort of survival test or challenge to your creative powers when you cannot get everything you want or need just like that. I cannot get cream. This cuts out a majority of the desserts in my cookbook. They don’t sell fresh basil or tubs of pre-made chocolate frosting or bags of baby greens for fancy salads or hot dogs. I buy shrimp, but no other meat here because when the meat counter guy tells you that the red meat AND the pink meat are both beef, you can't help but be suspicious of the lot.

That is just a sample of what I can and cannot find here.
I'm not trying to complain. It is just hard sometimes to really convey what types of things I have to work around to get dinner on the table. Now, I probably cook dinner 3 or 4 times a week. That's significantly more than I did back home, or even in Shanghai. It helps to have someone else to cook for, as it just seems more worth the effort when two people will be eating it. This also pushes me to try new things or try to improve my techniques.

But you know what the funniest part about having limitations is? It actually helps me. Yep. If you know me at all, you will be well aware of my difficulty when it comes to too many options to choose from. ("50 flavors of ice cream?? Oh nooo!!") So, not having everything in the world available actually makes my job easier, but it also makes me realize how many combinations you can make with 5 items and how many things you can make from scratch. Essentially, I'm getting back to whole foods, whether I set out to or not.

Which finally brings me to the real point of this post. Many people spend their whole time in China trying to find good western food. I'm guilty as well. Most times, however, the results are mostly disappointing. It really does make more sense to try to find the really good Chinese restaurants, because, “Hello? Is this thing on?” we're in CHINA. There are tons of more options with a much higher rate of success if you look for good Chinese food. And guess what? It makes just as much sense to actually cook Chinese food as well.

I inherited a Chinese cookbook last fall and recen
tly purchased three more from the same company. For the first time since I've been in China, I actually love looking in the cookbook. Every single ingredient listed in those books all exist in the grocery store here. All of them! And the best part is it's fairly simple to prepare yourself for cooking this cuisine. If you have soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, salt, pepper, flour, corn starch, sugar, chili sauce, chilies, garlic, ginger and spring onions, you are totally set to make a great number of dishes.

So the other night I set my sights high. I chose two northern Chinese dishes to make for dinner. I bought all the fresh ingredients for sprin
g onion and garlic chive dumplings and an eggplant dish. I had no idea what garlic chives were, but I studied the picture in the book. Low and behold, there they were in the produce section. So cool. I love learning new things. I also bought the skinny eggplants, which I find I like much better than those bulbous ones back home.

The recipes are straightforward enough, and once you
have all the prep done, cooking is fairly easy as well. Bu the prep, how I underestimated the prep! First, I had to finely chop about two cups of garlic chives...(see top picture). Takes a lot longer than you would imagine.

Other chopping was needed, but that was pretty short and sweet. The dumplings, however, were a lot of work. From making the super sticky dough to rolling each piece out and trying to fill them without making them ugly or broken, the process took quite a lot of time.

Luckily for me, I had a helper. So in the end, we only ate about an hour later than usual. David even opened one of our stashed bottles of white wine, which I have to say, goes really well.

And the results? Pretty darn good! It's simple, the eggplant was delicious, and once I get the hang of it, it could be a pretty streamlined process. The success of making some of the Chinese food I have discovered here really got me thinking. Maybe instead of my success here being marked by whether or not I learn Chinese it can be measured in my mastering of its food! (At this rate, I might leave here knowing how to cook more Chinese food than western.) Hey, if I can continue some sort of trend of cooking easy dishes at home more instead of grabbing that easy bite down at the drive-thru, I will consider the lessons learned a huge success indeed.