Saturday, October 17, 2009

The needle has landed again

It's been both overwhelming and anticlimactic, this return. I now understand why so many run back to their far-off overseas outposts almost as soon as the jet lag of return wears off -- "real" life is fucking hard. There are the financial strains of life in the first world (the recession an added bonus), the sobering realities of flat tires and other mundane troubles, the maddening exactness of job ads. One is responsible for so much more when one speaks the language and can't just hide behind a foreigner's privilege, the charmed ignorance of the expatriate. It makes one almost miss the staggering strangeness of the days when making oneself understood in a restaurant without resorting to pictures or charades was enough to make the day. Almost.

I've been slack on updating here because I haven't had much to say. That's the anticlimactic part of the return: comfort, normalcy, reclamation. Familiar faces, and access to as many delicious burritos as I can stuff into my face. It's all been good. I'm studying for horrendous and unreasonable standardized tests and starting to get things together for graduate school applications. Not working, because no one's hiring, but that was expected. Hence the goal of retreating into academics. But for now, while my savings still make for a comfortable enough cushion, I lay low and enjoy the calm that comes before the next inevitable wave of wanderlust energy sweeps me off to the next adventure.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?

Koh Phangan sunset 1

Back in Bangkok for a couple days before flying out, and I've got to say that the city is not as impressive to me on the second go-round. Then again, the elation I felt when I was here before had more to do with not being in China anymore. Since then, I've cleared out my lungs and brain in the wonderful, fresh sea air. It's hard to get excited about any city after spending more than a week sitting under the shade of coconut trees, breathing along with the tide. I'm now having serious Koh Phangan withdrawal. But perhaps it's better this way. If I were leaving directly from the island, I might never actually get on a plane, just disappear into the wild hills and turn up several years later as the proprietress of a guesthouse on a remote beach, my hair in dreadlocks and my feet rough from never wearing shoes.

I've returned to the cultural airlock of Khao San, the necessary step for the leavers and the arrivers, bars open all night for the jet-lagged and the party-till-you-drop crowd, playing the same music they've been playing since they filmed Cheech and Chong there, interspersed with bad techno. I got in last night and somehow ended up drinking with South African sailors until nearly dawn. That's the kind of effect Khao San has, somehow: staying up late with people you don't expect.

About 24 hours left in Thailand before two overnight flights in a row deliver my exhausted and miserable self back to San Francisco. My bags are packed (not hard to do, I feel like I haven't unpacked in years), my mouth used to the taste of travel. The soundtrack is Joni Mitchell, the consummate melancholy woman on her own in a strange place, always Joni Mitchell singing in my ears when I travel alone. Here she is, singing a song that rings perfectly true.

Friday, September 11, 2009

... But better

Haad Rin from a boat

So, I'm in the tropical paradise of Ko Phangan. I got my pasty foolish self sunburnt to a crisp within 24 hours of being here, of course. But no matter. The lobster look will soon enough turn itself into a tan, and by the time I come back home I will be a nice attractive bronzy color, rather than my current sick-looking bright red.

Everyone who recommended this particular island to me said that reservations were absolutely not necessary. You just get off the ferry, they said, and you will be swarmed by people bearing pictures and all kinds of other information about their guesthouse or bungalow operation. Unfortunately, when it rains, everyone on the island scatters off to a bar or under a rock or something. So I was left on the pier with all my awful luggage and no place to go in the rain, all after traveling on buses and boats for the past 14 hours. I'm kicking myself for shipping my nice, light backpack home from China and traveling with a suitcase. I did this so I wouldn't have to leave the suitcase behind in China, but damn, I'm so kicking myself now for having to lug this unwieldy thing around hills and rickety island piers and unpaved streets, not to mention looking like a total fool compared to the all the glossy-tanned carefree backpackers.

Deserted island

So I caved and spent the night at the overpriced and shabby little "resort" right by the pier for the first night. Then I went exploring and found a better place to stay. But not before collapsing on the beach and turning myself around in the sun like a rotisserie chicken. Asian people don't ever do this. Asian people are scared to death of the sun. They apply all sorts of horrible toxic whitening agents to their skin so they can be whiter. It's only us Westerners who strip down to next to nothing and do our rotisserie chicken impressions until we're burnt to a crisp. Everyone wants what they don't have...

Incidentally, I had been worried about traveling about Thailand in the rainy season, but I am actually very glad that I am here now and not any other time of year. There are not as many people, things are cheaper, and the weather is cooler (though still quite hot -- this is tropics, after all). Every day, it rains for an hour or two, then the skies alternate between beautifully cloudy and mostly sunny. It's perfect.

Big swoopy bird. With coconuts!

Today I went on a "reggae boat tour," which was a boat ride around the island with stops at various points to hike up to a waterfall, go swimming, have lunch, get really stoned on some very nice Thai weed, then go snorkeling. It was wonderful.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Same same

Young monk feeding pigeons

The predominant sound in the Thai language, which is a tonal one much like Chinese, is "ka" -- or at least, it seems like the predominant sound to my untrained ears. As a result, I feel like I'm surrounded by a huge flock of some exotic species of tropical crow. I can't quite call it a pretty language, but it's certainly mesmerizing.


On my second day in Bangkok, I met another American girl traveling by herself on a ferry-bus down the Chao Praya River. For her, Bangkok was the staging area before she went south to teach English in a city near the Malaysian border. We got along, and hung out together for the next few days until she left. It was interesting to compare perspectives, her in the initial oh-god-what-have-I-done panic of arriving at her work-abroad post, me with my jadedness at the opposite end of the same experience. She hated Bangkok for its servility to the West, which is what I (somewhat guiltily) appreciate about this city.

Floating market 3

Despite the wild-eyed craziness of Bangkok, I have managed to find many pockets of peace and tranquility for myself, despite staying just half a block off Khao San Road. On Sunday I took a boat tour on the river, and somehow ended up being the only person on the boat. I've also found a chill little coffee shop nearby; most of the time I am the only person there.

Khao San musicians

I do have to admit that the tourist trap aspect of Khao San is getting to me a bit. The other night I was walking down a busy side street when a man complimented the tattoo on my back. I thanked him and kept walking. He continued trying to talk to me, until I got a little creeped out and ducked into a shop. When I came out he was still there, and continued following me and trying to talk to me until I turned around and said, "You are following me. Stop it." He left me alone then, but I can't stop thinking about the fact that there are many women out there who will be too clueless, polite, or unaware to face a man like that and tell him outright to leave them alone, and they will be taken in and have devil-knows-what happen to them. The thought of it is chilling.

Making green curry in a mortar and pestle

On Monday I took a cooking class, which was one of the goals I had for Thailand. It was amazing, and I learned a great deal. Overall, I am completely enchanted by Thai food. I have not had a bad meal the whole time I've been in this country, between all the curries and the heaping plates of Pad Thai and the fresh fruit.

Street curry

Tonight I take an overnight bus, then ferry, down south to Ko Phangan. Stay tuned for updates from tropical paradise. In the meantime, more of my Thailand pictures are up on Flickr.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greetings from the Banana Pancake Trail

BANGKOK - Let me tell you something about Khao San Road in Bangkok: it's a huge and horribly touristy stretch of bars and shops catering to hippie children and other lost souls who are trying to drink away the memory of their real lives across the ocean by vacationing in a type of resort only an acid trip could dream up.

Let me tell you something else: I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT HERE. Not because I have any illusions about this being "real" Thailand, but precisely because it's not. I've spent the past half a year in "real" Asia, gawked at by everyone I passed on the street, constantly lost and confused. Traveling around "real" Asia, not even to mention living in it, is f'ing DIFFICULT. Khao San Road is easy. Blissfully, carelessly, stupidly easy. Stay in a guesthouse and eat pad thai and banana fritters and pineapples off the street for pennies. Drink super strong iced coffees thick with condensed milk. Bargain in English for T-shirts and necklaces. Stay up all night drinking, then eat breakfast in the gathering sunshine.

My first day in Thailand overlapped with my friend Julie's last day, and we met for breakfast near her hostel. She told me about riding motorbikes around some remote part of Laos, and complained of how touristy and insulated parts of Bangkok appeared to her in comparison. And of course, for those searching out the hard ground of authenticity, this city will ring hollow. But for me, weary from the authenticity-overload of living in provincial China, this is perfect. For the first time in six months, I can blend in. With my dirty sandals and ripped jeans and hair messy from the humidity, I look just like everyone else here. No one questions my presence. I cannot even express how good this feels. I'm tired of having travel experiences that feel like work.

I'll be here at least a week before going to Ko Pha Ngan, the hippiest little hippie island in the Gulf of Thailand known for holding massive raves on the beach, and laying on the beach frying myself in the island sun until it's time to go home. Oh yes.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chinese moving in, building discoteques

In 24 hours, I will be in Beijing, probably in transit from train station to airport. In 48 hours, I will be in Bangkok.

The horrible, oppressive heat of summer has subsided. The rain no longer steams on the pavement, but collects in cold, muddy puddles. It's fall. A change of season, and the familiar taste of leaving on my tongue.

Last night I went to dinner and then clubbing with some friends. Chinese clubs are weird. People dance in one little spot, packed in like sardines, doing the same ridiculous hopping-and-head-twitching dance. The was a trampoline dance floor; it took a minute to get used to, but then I started really dancing. And for just a couple minutes, I was so glad so feel the bass reverberating through everything, to move and not care about anything else except moving. But then random Chinese men started trying to grope me, and it killed the mood, and I stopped.

New teachers are arriving now, still wide-eyed as they drag their overpacked suitcases through the mud on the unfinished driveway to the apartment building. I've been giving penny tours and survival tips to the newcomers, and this more than anything else has really made the passage of the last six months seem real. I've been here long enough to count as a veteran, and my survival Chinese is good enough to tell others to just get in the taxi and let me do all the talking.

For the past few days, I've had a lot of moments when I got ready to be sentimental about things -- my last day of work, the last time sitting in the teachers office talking about nothing, the last time loitering outside the McDonalds by my school drinking coffee and scowling at passerby, my last jaunt through the city square, the last time I'd see certain people -- then realized that I would not actually miss any of these things. Except the food. I will miss the food.

Next update will be from Thailand, where the Internet actually works. I have a feeling that it will take a lot of willpower to go sightsee instead of spending too much time online.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Straight into the face of time

There are many things I am not allowed to discuss with my students in China. In teacher training, we were warned against saying four particular words in class -- Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Falun Gong. TTTF, the forbidden topics. (Apparently, an Aston teacher once drew a rough map of China on the board but forgot to draw the island of Taiwan. A kid went home and told his mom, and the teacher was deported.) The word Communism, also not so advisable, and basically any real discussions about Chinese government.

I spent several weeks carefully talking about news with my brilliant teenager class. I found some short, simple American news stories and radio broadcasts, which we read or listened to in class, and later discussed. I had been itching to talk to them honestly about the state of news and media censorship in this country, but, well, the risk of deportation made me bite my tongue.

One day, I asked them about the Great Firewall. I focused my questions on YouTube and Facebook, which are both blocked, trying to test the waters and see what they had to say about the matter. I got their standardized, drilled responses that the censor measures were for the people's own good, to keep bad content away from innocent eyes. Then it was time for the class break. When I came back to the room, one of the girls had pulled up a search on her cell phone, and read me the results.

"China blocks sites on the Internet because Tibet and Taiwan want their independence, and the Chinese government doesn't want people to read about it," she said, stumbling over the longer words. The she looked up at me. They all looked up at me with puzzled eyes. "Is that true, Teacher?"

I froze. In my head, alarms were going off. Two of the four forbidden words were just uttered in my class, by my students, outside the context of tourism! I changed the subject. I couldn't do it, couldn't get into that kind of discussion, didn't have sufficient background knowledge to even try. The looks on their faces of what I thought at the time to be innocence and confusion stayed in my mind.

The last day of class was on Sunday, and they gave their final presentations, which were on pre-discussed topics of their choosing. One girl chose to talk about the changes that have affected China over the last 30 years. She brought in pictures to show how people's lives have improved, and an amazing little stack of Cultural Revolution-era food ration coupons she'd borrowed from her grandfather.

I was more prepared for a discussion this time. I'd brought in "Wind of change" by The Scorpions for them to listen to, and told them about some of the Russian history around that song, and asked them if they thought it could apply to China. We brought out the word Communism, and they told me that China was Communist in politics but capitalist in business. They asked me whether I thought this was good or bad, and whether I thought that China should get rid of Communism completely. I looked at my watch. We had 45 minutes left of the last class of the semester. So I told them that I wasn't really supposed to talk to them about it, but hey, they don't any time left to deport me, so what the hell.

We had a fantastic, honest discussion in which they revealed that they know perfectly well why certain websites are blocked, and they know ways around it, and they hope China will change and move closer to the West. They told me that they get their news by message boards where people post things that are really happening, but they have to be quick and lucky in their reading because they know that a lot of information gets quickly deleted by censors. They also told me that people who can read English are sort of like town criers, because they can read news from the West and tell their families and friends what's going on.

Those looks I mistook for innocence and confusion? They were really a challenge. They wanted to see what I would say. These kids are damn smart. They know just what they can and can't talk about, and were waiting for a green light from me to speak their minds. I wish I had been braver sooner.

I walked out of that class with tears in my eyes, because I will not see these kids again. Teaching them and getting to know them has been hands-down the best part of my time in China, and I will miss them terribly. They have confirmed for me that I want to be a teacher, and I will always remember and be grateful to them for it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How I spent my summer vacation

Mapo Dofu

Nothing has tasted the same since Sichuan hot pot. It was like dunking meat and vegetables into a lake burning with hellfire and damnation, then eating it. I believe I started hyperventilating after some particularly spicy bites, and between strangled breaths squeaked in broken Chinese for someone to bring me a goddamn coke. But then the horrible heat passed, and left with it a set of taste buds forever changed. But, you know, if you're going to burn off your taste buds, might as well do in the place that's world-famous for its impossibly hot peppers.

Hot Pot pepper

Most people go to Chengdu to see the pandas at the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center. And sure, we saw the pandas, but my big goal was the food, the infamous heat of the food. We stayed at the greatest hostel ever, which offers its patrons Sichuan cooking classes. I paid extra to get a one-on-one lesson with a local chef, and it was amazing. Many things about the approach and methods of Chinese food make sense to me now, and I feel like I'll be able to replicate something authentic when I get back. But other than all that deliciousness, Chengdu was a really nice city. Very laid back and mellow, with an awesome Taoist monastery and temple, a Tibetan market area, and a lot of outdoor teahouses everywhere.

Taoist monks, profiled

Tibetan monks grooming each other

Tibetan women sewing kneeling cushions

Buddha seller reading a newspaper

Panda 2

Before Chengdu, R and I spent a week as tourists in Beijing, running from one overpriced attraction to another. It was exhausting, but mandatory.

Rickshaw drivers at rest

Summer Palace 2

Walking with umbrella

Umbrella in the Forbidden City

And THEN, after Beijing and Chengdu, we went to Qingdao for a few days to relax -- Qingdao is the beach town famous for beer (Tsingtao). It rained much of the time we were there, and R had a cold, but we had a nice time anyway.

Urban beaching in Qingdao

Love on the rocks

Seaweed heart

Now R has gone home, and I have six weeks left of my contract. I am done with China. I have seen all the things I felt were essential for me to see, and am now ready to leave. I've picked up an extra summer class to earn more money and occupy myself. It's hot as hell here, and muggy. This last bit here, it's all about gritting my teeth and getting through it. After the semester is over, I will go to Thailand and lay on a beach for a couple weeks.

(BTW, the entire photo set where these pictures are from can be found on Flickr.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Where some have found their paradise

People will tell you where they've gone
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm...
-- Joni Mitchell, "Amelia"

An old friend of mine spent five years living in India, and she always regaled everyone around her with wild stories about life in a place that was so inconceivably different from anything I knew. Too many of these stories ended abruptly, with her shrugging and saying, "I just can't explain it. It's a completely different world. You can't understand it unless you've been there." This used to always anger me -- everything can be explained, I would think, along the finite range of human behavior.

But it can't. I've learned that now. Because I find myself wanting to tell stories about the strange, strange world around me, and they never come out capturing it. Not in this online format, anyway, not without pages and pages of background and clarification, and it's been so damn debilitatingly hot here that I can't be bothered to do all that explaining.

I had hoped that moving across town to where all the other foreign teachers live would help me deal better with living in China, and it has, a little bit. But it hasn't made me actually like China any more. If anything, my distaste for this place grows with every passing day, with every incredulous stare from the locals, with every time I step outside and end up covered in a thick layer of dust that coats this entire damn city, with every time I come home and can't take a shower because they've turned the water off again, with every time I realize that someone's seeming kindness is only the manifestation of their misplaced sense of Confucian propriety.

Fuck you, moral relativism. I want to go back to the USA, where things are done right.

But on the plus side, R will be here in just a few days. I will take some time off work, and we will play in Beijing, then go to Chengdu. After he leaves, I will only have six weeks left in this damn country.

On a different note, I am posting this from a still-active Great Firewall of China, thanks to the wondrous proxy-wrangling powers of H2B. Suck it, firewall!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Birthdays, blocks, and Beijing Duck

In honor of my birthday, the Great Firewall of China has blocked
Blogger. Thankfully, I set up email posting before I left the US for
this exact purpose. But it's still damn annoying that I can't even
read my own damn blog on the damn Internet. Even RSS feeds are
blocked, so I can't even read any of the blogs I like through a
reader. Damn you, China!

I blame the swine flu, actually. China is on super alert about it. All
of our students get their temperature taken by a ray gun-like
contraption every time they walk into school. They usually wave us
foreign teachers through, but we insist on having our temperature
taken anyway. (Mine has been normal every time, in case you were
worried.) The really disconcerting part is that we all have to carry
our passports with us at all times now, in case we get stopped for
questioning about whether or not we belong here. Because obviously,
we're evil and foreign and might have come to China with the express
purpose of spreading the pig flu.

Despite all of this, I had a lovely birthday. My C12 students (the
really brilliant teenager class) got me cake. My younger students sang
me the birthday song. Then a bunch of people came out to eat delicious
food at one of my favorite restaurants in town, and to a bar
afterwards. I got a bottle of Scotch that's actually from Scotland,
courtesy of a Scottish teacher. The remnants of it are making this
morning a bit hazy, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Oh, and I am not at the beach this week due to the combination of pig
flu precautions making travel a pain in the ass, and simply not
feeling like going anywhere. I think I will spend the next few days
engaged in one of my most common Chinese activities: scouring the city
I live in for a decent cup of coffee. I have yet to find one.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is it raining with you?

I moved across town yesterday. Until now, I'd been living in essentially the school's satellite apartments, but when space opened up in the main building where most of the teachers live, I moved. At my old place, my roommates and I were the only foreigners in the area. The level of immersion was way beyond my comfort level. There were days when I didn't leave my apartment just because I didn't want to deal with being treated like I'd just landed in a Martian spaceship. Where I am now, there's a couple dozen other foreigners. People in the neighborhood don't stare as much; they're used to us funny-looking laowai wandering around. This setup will be much better for me, I believe.

My birthday is on Sunday. I will be working all weekend, and Monday morning I am going out of town to the beach for a few days. This birthday promises to be much better than last year's. Last year, I was driving 18-wheelers around America, and spent my 27th birthday stranded in a hotel room in central Florida. As unhappy as I am in China, I know I will at least get better food and more company.

Last weekend it rained heavily. The infrastructure in this country is such shit that when it rains, everything floods and becomes thick with mud. Walking from my old apartment to the main road required rolling up pant legs, putting on rubber shoes, and wading through ankle-deep water. On Sunday morning, my roommate was taking her suitcase with her to school because she was catching a train in the evening. She had a red poncho wrapped around her, and her jeans rolled up to the knees. I was walking behind her, and started laughing hysterically all of a sudden. "You look like a flood refugee!" I yelled at her back. And she did. The poncho looked especially FEMA-issued. Just as a reminder than no, in fact, China is NOT a developed country, no matter what the Olympic news told you.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

May Holiday trip part two: Nanjing

Canal by night 2

Nanjing may be my new favorite place in China. It had the perfect combination of history, culture, nice people, surprisingly clean air, and Western stuff. I did not want to leave. For those of you following these adventures at home, the word Nanjing means "south capital," in contrast to Beijing being "north capital." Nanjing has a very, very long history of being the seat of the Chinese empire -- it has been the capital several times over the past several millenia, though never for very long. It was the capital in 1937, when the Japanese invaded and killed a bunch of people. It's a very old city, with pieces of various old empires still left standing all over town. In the meantime, it is a very beautiful and prosperous city that today has a huge population of foreign students.

Pagoda and prayer flags

In the four and a half days I was there, I met and had interesting conversations with more people than ever before while traveling - and that's saying quite a bit. When foreigners go to Beijing and Shanghai, we are told to be wary of Chinese people who come up to us and tell us they just want to practice their English, because they are usually trying to scam us into something. In Nanjing, on the other hand, they genuinely want to practice their English, and talk to new people. Here's a brief (and incomplete) rundown of the different people I met.
  • The first night I was in town, I mistakenly stumbled into a restaurant holding a private party. Everyone was drunk, and trying to talk to me in Chinese. Finally, a man came up and tried to talk to me in about five different languages: he knew about five words in each. We settled on Russian. He said, "Tovarisch!" (which means "comrade), and I said, "Tovarisch!" for the sake of agreement, and he called his drunk friends over and we all had a toast to "Tovarisch!"
  • I met some British tourists while waiting in line at a mausoleum on top of a mountain. They were nice. We had lunch together, and decided to join forces for the day. Then I lost them at a pagoda. No, really. I thought we were supposed to meet at the top, but then they never came up. I was sad. I'd never lost friends so quickly before.
  • At my hostel, I met a French girl who works as a teacher in Qingdao. She and I bonded over how annoying it is that most laowai never want to talk to other laowai, because they are so set on thinking they are having their own private Chinese adventure. We agreed that these people were silly, partly because it's China and there are 1.3 billion people here, so you can't have your own anything. We defied this annoying laowai habit and became friends.
  • One night, me and my French friend were sitting in the hostel bar trying to come up with dinner plans when a Chinese girl started talking to us. She said she was a university student studying English, and came to the international hostel to talk to foreigners and improve her language skills. It seemed like such a classic line that we assumed she was a scammer, but talked to her a for a while anyway, delaying our dinner plans. Finally, the Chinese girl checked her phone, panicked, and said that her Mom was telling her she had to hurry home for dinner. She was not a scammer after all. We felt bad. We should have invited her to go out with us.
  • When I was out walking on top of the old Nanjing city wall, a Chinese man started a conversation with me. We ended up walking around for several hours, talking about all sorts of things, especially Chinese history and politics. At one point, he mentioned that he'd lived and worked in Sudan for a year. I asked him what kind of work he did, and he said he couldn't answer that because it was classified information because he worked for the Chinese government. So, uh, if I disappear without a trace one of these days, go to Nanjing and find a Mr. Li.
Nanjing city wall 1

I spent my first couple days in town doing all the mandatory touristy things, but after a while you just sort of reach your fill of temples and pagodas (much like in Europe, where you quickly reach your fill of old churches). So I headed to the area around Nanjing University, which was amazing -- lots of little Western-style coffeeshops and restaurants, Chinese places with English menus, people from all over the planet milling about reading books in the sunshine. There's a laowai family that owns a restaurant in one of the side streets that serves the most genuine Western food I've had since I've been here. I had a salad for the first time in more than two months. And the next day, I went to one of the bakeries run by the same family. I don't know if I've mentioned this on the blog before, but the Chinese don't understand about bread. These people that run the bakeries, however, understand perfectly. I had the best sandwich in the world. It was on a freshly baked baguette, with good salami and European cheese. Gawd, it was wonderful. And there are coffeeshops all over that serve real coffee. Sigh. You might have to be a laowai to understand the true wonder of all this.

Self portrait with squid

The time that I didn't spend wandering about the university area, I spent wandering around Fuzimiao, the area where I was staying. It is one of the liveliest areas of the city, right by a big Confucian temple, surrounded by tons of shop and situated next to a creek. Also lots of tasty food, albeit of the Chinese variety. Like, see that picture above? That's me eating a barbecued squid on a stick. It was good.

Canal by night 1

Do I sound like an advertisement for the city of Nanjing yet? I probably do. That's ok. I have not clicked with very many things about China, but this city on the whole was one of them. If any of you out there are looking at an opportunity to tour China, do not skip Nanjing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May Holiday trip part one: Shanghai

Welcome to Shanghai

SHANGHAI - Everyone told me that Shanghai was overrated, but I had to see it for myself. After all, I couldn't very well go back to America having lived in China for six months and never having been to Shanghai, could I? Expecting the worst, I only gave myself three days here, and it was about the perfect amount of time. During the first two days, I hated it. On the third day, it completely redeemed itself.

Graffiti (Shanghai state of mind)

Shanghai reminds me of New York quite a bit. It's so vast, and seems so faceless, but only because the face most visitors see is the tourist face, the face of street hawkers and neon and overpriced hot dogs. I spent the first two days going from one mandatory must-see attraction to another, spending too much money and not getting very much for it. Ironically, the only mandatory must-see attraction that was actually good was the Shanghai Museum's huge collection of historical artifacts, where the admission was free.

East Nanjing Road

The architecture is quite interesting to see. Since Shanghai was founded as a foreign port comprised of "concessions," areas built by foreigners where the Chinese government had no jurisdiction, the city is a bizarre mish-mash of European-style buildings, now covered in hanging laundry and Chinese signs, creating a really disorienting atmosphere. The French Concession, the largest of these former neighborhoods, still has a lot of the swanky expat-oriented stuff, like astronomically expensive pizza and wine bistros.

French Concession alleyway 1

The hardcore touristy parts of town, especially East Nanjing Road, supposedly one of the largest and busiest shopping districts in the world, are just insipid. I thought I was pretty impervious to street hawkers, but, damn. The ones here have got to be the most annoying I've ever seen. They jump in front of you and then follow you around like puppies, shoving laminated catalog pages in your face and screaming, "Lady! Buy watch! Bag! Sunglass! T-shirt!" It was maddening. I mean, really -- if you're going to try and sell me shit I don't want, at least have the decency to shove actual products in my face, not laminated pictures. Sheesh.

Irony, anyone?

Because of two days of such onslaught, I was not that optimistic about my last day. But that was when Shanghai completely redeemed itself in my eyes. I finally strayed off the beaten tourist path and went to see some real local art. The Moganshan Road Art Center was fantastic: dozens of small art galleries in a maze-like cluster of old industrial buildings, with all the exhibits thoughtful, creative, original, contemporary, and probably as subversive as Chinese artists are allowed to be. Very glad I went there for an impression of a real Shanghai beyond the glitz and glamour, and could leave without the bitter taste in my mouth that the first two days had left.

The clash of cultures

Stay tuned for part two: Nanjing!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lighting a candle for St. Christopher

What can you do, what kind of reaction can you have, when suddenly faced with the very real prospect of being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language with no official documentation for being there, or any money? Everything's all right, now. But for a while there tonight, I stared that possibility in the face, and it was not pretty.

I came home from work planning to pack for my May Holiday trip - I am to leave for Shanghai Sunday night, tomorrow, after finishing work. My train ticket and my travel money were in my wallet, as well as my passport. As I was having a cup of tea with my roommates, our house phone rang. I answered, and was greeted with Chinese speech. "I don't speak Chinese," I said. The man on the phone laughed, and asked for me by my full name (in very good English). He said he was calling from the police station, and someone had found my wallet, which was in my bag the last time I had checked, before getting on a crowded bus. I am not sure if I was pickpocketed, or if I was just in a hurry getting out the bus change and didn't put the wallet back in securely enough.

They ended up bringing the wallet to my apartment. Everything was there except for the money, a hefty sum by local standards, but not even a tiny fraction as valuable as my American passport, my California drivers license, and my bank cards, both Chinese and American -- which were all thankfully there. I am so, so grateful right now. I honestly didn't expect the cash to be returned. Cash has no name. But the other things... Well, in lieu of a general go-to deity, I'll just thank St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. And the Jinan city police, and whoever it was that turned in my wallet with everything really important intact.

But, wow, wow, wow. That was the most frightening experience I've had so far in China. And now I am awake and still not packed when I should be long-packed and asleep, still shaking from the experience and fretting over my plans to travel long distances across this alien land alone. Someone keep a candle lit for me somewhere, won't you?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wo xi huan Zhongguo fan

See that gibberish-looking post title up there? It means, "I like Chinese food." But I can't possibly explain how to say it properly, because Pinyin, the method of writing Chinese speech in English letters, has almost no connection to the way English letters actually sound in English. It's sort of like learning a whole different language in order to learn yet another language, which you still can't properly learn because no one in China actually uses PinYin, they use their ridiculous pictograms, and Pinyin is just for foreigners.

Tasty noodles

But the fact remains that I really like Chinese food. Most other things in this place are a big annoying Communist quagmire, but at least the food rocks. Some days, it's the only consolation.

I think what I like most about the food culture here is the communality of it. (Not to be confused with Communism.) For the most part, unless the food in question is a bowl of noodles, dishes are shared. Individual diners rarely even get their own plates any bigger than dipping bowls. All food is places in the middle of the table. When you order, you order for everyone, and then you eat everything on the table.

I've always been a fan of sharing food, mostly because I want to try all sorts of different things, not just the one dish I've ordered. Western food culture is such a selfish one. We get our own dish, and huddle over it until we've had our fill, then maybe go to the kitchen for seconds. Whole dinners can pass like that with us never meeting the eyes of our dining companions, can't they? But here, it's impossible to not keep conversation going when respective chopsticks continually meet over the dwindling shared bowl of Di San Xian. It is not a good culture for germophobes. But then, a true germophobe's head would probably explode promptly upon arrival in China, before even getting to a restaurant.

Giant hot pot

This is Hot Pot, in the picture above. I love Hot Pot. It's sort of like fondue, except, you know, not. There's a burner on the table, and you get a big pot of spicy, flavorful, delicious broth, and a selection of meats and veggies that you throw into the steaming pot to cook. Then everyone at the table sticks their chopsticks in there to fish out the boiling bits of deliciousness. It's the epitome of the shared food culture, and it's wonderful.

I am bracing myself for the day when I return back to America and find myself at a restaurant with people who do not share my love of communal food. I just know I will reach across the table and take someone else's food, and they will think I am some sort of disgusting barbarian, and then I will have to explain that I have been living in China, which will sound as weird as my saying that I was raised by wolves.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mystery train, expressway to your skull

Great Wall 2

If I had moved to Beijing instead of Jinan, I would have probably spent the last six-odd weeks gushing about how much I like China. But judjing China by a Beijing still basking in a post-Olympic afterglow is like judging the United States by a Manhattan at the height of prosperity. Wonderful as it may seem, it's not an honest picture. In a way, knowing this made me enjoy Beijing more than I might have without the context of a more realistic China.

The past three days in the capital have probably been my favorite three days so far in this country. A big part of it was that I was so very hungry for a taste of the west, for someone outside of my coworkers to speak English to me, for real cheese, for a place that was so anonymously international it could have been anywhere in the world.

Tiananmen Square 1

Six other teachers and I took a train up early on Monday morning. The hostel we had booked was one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed in. We checked in and then went out exploring, headed towards the obvious initial destination of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was too late in the day to gain entrance into the latter, but we loitered about the square for a while and contemplated history. Just as we were about to leave, a dust storm gathered above us. April in Beijing is known for these - it's the Gobi desert exacting its revenge on humanity, strong winds blowing dust and sand into the city. I spent the duration of the storm walking the massive length of the square and haggling with a Chinese man for a cheaper price on a copy of Mao's little red book.

The second day was the Great Wall, which is a couple hours outside the city. We opted to go to a minimally-visited part of the wall, planning to do a 10-km hike. There was lots of haggling with taxi drivers, and by the time we got to the start of the hike we had less time than we'd hoped to cover some very steep and partly ruined terrain. One of my colleages, mindful of a past knee injury, decided not to do the whole hike, and I decided to stay with her, mostly because I didn't want to rush myself through the experience.

Great Wall 4

The Great Wall of China was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. There are no words to describe it. It took my breath away. The wall stretched as far as the eye could see across the highest peaks of inhospitable mountains, snaking into the hazy horizon. So many times, I picked up my camera to take a picture and then just put it back down, knowing I could never capture it. Standing up there, knowing the hundreds and hundreds of years of history of the rough stones under my feet, was incredibly humbling. Even though I didn't do the whole hike, it was worth it to skip the more touristy sections of the wall, because we were basically the only people up there: just us and the hard-blowing desert wind.

We had been planning on leaving Beijing on Thursday morning, but kept forgetting to book out tickets. By the time we got around to it, on Wednesday morning, all the good tickets for the nice fast trains were gone. We ended up having to take the cheapest seats on a slow overnight train on Wednesday night. With this in mind, we all split up to wander about the city and make the most of our last day in Beijing, and all ended up going shopping and spending entirely too much money. I am learning how to effectively haggle, which is essential here. Bought lots of lovely things, mostly presents.

The crazy night train

Of course, when it was time to meet back up and go catch the train, we ended up going to the wrong station, rushing across town with no time to spare, and grabbing our train seats at the last minute. The next six hours constituted the hottest and most uncomfortable train ride of my life, yet one of the most memorable. Every inch of the train was occupied. There were people sleeping huddled up in the aisles and in the small spaces between train cars. The windows were wet from so many people trying to breathe the same air. We played absurd word games and talked books and politics as long as we could to keep ourselves awake. I drifted off around 4am, and woke up shortly afterwards to find one of my colleagues using his very limited Chinese to talk to the large group of amused passengers who had gathered around to sneak a peak at the sleeping laowais. We got off the train shortly after 5am, about 72 hours after we'd left. After a few hours' sleep and a shower, I'm ready to hop on the next train (hopefully not the same one) and head back to Beijing.

I've been stuck so firmly in my own head for the past few weeks, looking at everything but the world around me. Travel, as it always does, gave me a much-needed kick in the head, reminding me that I am here to see and experience as much as I can. The small frustrations of daily life will always be there, but I will not always live in China, so it's really in my best interests to get the hell out of my own head and enjoy this whole wild experience. Probably for the first time since I left America, I am truly glad to be in China. We have a national holiday coming up that will leave me free of work responsibilities for about a week and a half, and I believe I will be traveling to Shanghai and Nanjing. Although in all honesty, I would be very happy to scrap all other travel plans and go bum around Beijing for 10 more days.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't look down

At the top

I've climbed two mountains in the past week. My legs haven't hurt this much since I played roller derby. It's good. The weather has warmed up alarmingly fast, with the smog blanket driving up the temperature well into the 80s and reminding me that the summer will be downright unbearable, but the past few days have been just gorgeous, even with the dust and smog. Some days, even the saddest of the sad bastards have to smile at the warm breezes and the sunshine.

View of Hero Mountain from outside my door

Last Saturday I climbed the mountain that I can see from my house, thanks to a rare weekend day off brought on by a national holiday whose name I don't know. Something about tomb-sweeping? This was the easier of the climbs. All the mountains around here (and all around China, from what I gather) have steps built into them for climbing up. Easier, but less nature-y. The steps continued almost all the way up to the top, but the last little stretch was all rock-scrambling. (Actually, there were stairs all the way to the top, but I didn't see them until I was up there.)

Hero Mountain 4

I nearly cracked my head open against a boulder while falling down a mountain when I was 17, in Italy. It's a long story. Since then, I've been terrified of natural heights. Man-made heights, like the roofs of tall buildings, are no problem, but give me a mountain to scramble up and I start shaking and my eyes start stinging. But I scrambled. And I got to the top. It took me longer than it may take someone three times my age, but I did it.

Hero Mountain 3

Somewhere up there, balanced on a rock and looking for the next step, I realized that I've spent the past decade of my life learning the same lesson over and over. Don't look down. That's the lesson. Because when I concentrate my gaze on the next rock, and the rock after that, and look for a tree to hold on to, I can get to the top just fine. It's when I look down at the distance crossed that all my thoughts get tangled in fear. In more general terms, dwelling on past mistakes only impedes me from living my life today, and from taking the opportunities in front of me. Don't look down. Will someone please remind me of that next time I go into a self-doubting depressive funk?

The mountain posse

On Wednesday I tagged along with five other teachers to climb Thousand Buddha Mountain, one of the biggest attractions of Jinan. The climb was longer, and the scrambling-up part was more treacherous, but the view from the top was worth it.

View from the top. Yes, that's smog.

Things are looking up for me here, overall. And not just because of the nice weather. I finally get paid tomorrow, and next week a bunch of us are going to Beijing. There are two possible new developments in the works. If both of them pan out, they will make the rest of my stay in China downright awesome. Cross your fingers for me.

Me with giant golden Buddha

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wind of change

Mao and pagodas

I've been turning this over in my head since I came to China, this reason why I seem to have a knee-jerk dislike of so many things here. It's not the dirt and it's not the foreignness, though both of those are not exactly my favorite things. It's the fact that China reminds me so much of Russia, the way Russia was when I was a kid, 20 years ago.

I was born in Moscow and lived there until I was 10 years old, when my family immigrated to America. My memories of it are the hazy recollections of a child -- I remember my house and my grandmother's house, my school and taking the subway, small things about everyday life. I can't describe the political tension and the mood of the country as the Soviet regime crumbled into nothingness and the borders opened. I can, however, remember finding out about Moscow's first McDonald's opening up, and wanting desperately to go there, because of the inherent appeal of the forbidden Western fruit. This is why it's been so hard for me to describe the similarities between here and there -- I lack the language of adult analysis for the Russian side, and lack the language more literally for the current Chinese experience.

The most tangible similarity has to do with housing. I grew up in a huge, crumbling, industrial-looking apartment block with poor infrastructure. I hadn't seen any buildings like that since I came to America. In China, everyone lives in them, the faceless Communist stone boxes divided into identical little apartments, too many people crammed into each one with insufficient plumbing.

Many of my fellow teachers and other foreign expats who come to love this country say it is because they have never seen anything as exciting. The lack of infrastructure is part of the excitement. When the power or water go out, all you can do is laugh about it. If I had grown up in a cradle of Western comfort and stability, I would be more inclined to take it in stride, shrug and chalk up one more point for "local color." But I didn't, so I can't. It hits too close to home. I grew up like that, with the inconsistent power and water, in a nation that imposed poverty on its population as one of the side effects of Communist power-grabbing. I have never had any desire to return to Russia, and living in China now feels too close for comfort. I remember too well how hard-won my American comfort and stability have been.

There are other factors and reminders, of course. The xenophobia that comes with a closed society. The way all foreign and Western things are simultaneously feared and coveted. The amount of bureaucratic red tape required for travel. Something about the mood of people, the atmosphere. These are insufficient words. As I said before, I lack the language to fully describe this.

If YouTube were not currently blocked by the Great Firewall, I would end this with "Winds of Change" by The Scorpions, written in the early 90s about the children of Moscow faced with such a rapidly changing world. It's a song about me, about my generation. I was a child in Moscow when the song was written. I can hear it now in the streets of China, a soft whisper through the veil of smog and exhaustion.