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