October 18, 2010

Up downs

China is incredible – incredibly good, incredibly bad, and incredibly bizarre. There is no middle ground.

Just when you think you’ll make it and actually have a shot at fully enjoying yourself, China throws a sucker punch to your gut and you’re left wondering what the hell to do next.

Two of my students, Ashley and Ann, came to our apartment Saturday to show us how to use the washing machine, heaters, and DVD player (all of the instructions are in Chinese). Afterwards, they showed us some cool things in our neighborhood. We had no idea that a huge fruit stand is less than 50 meters from our doorstep or that a fantastic Muslim udon noodle shop is just around the corner. For you Fargoans, this shop is like the Drunken Noodle, except homemade and authentic (for everyone else, imagine a Noodles & Co.)

We haven’t eaten at that noodle shop yet, but it looks just like the one we’ve eaten at on campus. They make their noodles in the shop and there are about 30 different dishes to choose from – averaging no more than $1.25 each. From what we’ve heard, the Muslims in China know what’s up when it comes to noodles.

After that they took us to a place to buy an English map of Hangzhou (finally we know where we live)! Then we got on a city bus to West Lake. The bus was packed and it was a fight to even find something to hold on to as the bus accelerated, stopped, and turned unexpectedly. (Definitely one of China’s punches).

West Lake was beautiful (check out my Flikr photos). We arrived at sunset and I was anxious to take a lot of photos in the perfect light. The lake itself was serene, but it was surrounded by a lot of activity.

Starbucks, McDonald’s and Papa Johns were mingling with Gucci, Prada and Ferragamo, who had invited their friends Bentley, Rolls-Royce, and Lamborghini to enjoy the lovely view of the lake.

From the lake, our tour guides took us to a bus station. We were getting off at Hangzhou Tower and they were going to take the bus all the way back to the university in Xiasha.

“This is not a time to be polite,” Ann told us. We were waiting in a queue at a gate, the gate was going to open when the bus was ready to let us in. By “queue” I actually mean a shuffling blob of people anxiously trying to get to the front.

As soon as the bus pulled up, people started shoving. Ann and Ashley kept looking at Alex and I, worried that we wouldn’t be able to push our way onto the bus in time.

They underestimated our feistiness.
We threw elbows. We were pushed, so we pushed back. We all looked like salmon trying to spawn. But we made it.

When we got off at Hangzhou Tower, we sought out a good restaurant. The tower is a massive upscale mall made up of four multi-storied buildings. Each floor had its own them: shoes, menswear, sports wear, luggage…Where was the floor of food we were promised was there?

At last we saw a restaurant. After a long, awkward exchange with the waitress, we finally figured out that it was a fondue restaurant. We were starving so we filled up mostly on the sushi and mushroom appetizers. We’re fairly certain that our pot of boiling water on the table produced stomach lining and garden variety meats. Overall, the dinner was decent – expensive, but good.

The explosions started as we were finishing our dinner. Hangzhou puts on one of the world’s largest fireworks displays every year, and Alex and I had pretty much accepted the fact we weren’t going to get to see any because we had no idea how to get to Jen.

The booms and pops sounded like they were just outside the restaurant, though. We told the waitress we wanted to watch, to which she replied by leading us to the bathroom. A few moments later she rushed back and was like “ohhh, fireworks!” and pointed to the sky.

She led us out onto the 8th floor balcony of the building, which was filled with restaurant and custodial staff. The fireworks were being launched less than 500m away from us – essentially a front row view.

We looked around the corner of the building and another equally huge show was going off – the whole city was filled with fireworks. For 30 minutes, fireworks equal to the grand finale of the July 4 show in DC were going on all around us. The smoke was so thick that sparks were colorless near the ground.

This was definitely one of those moments that China made us fall in love.

Once the show was over, Alex and I found the floor of the shopping mall that sold alcohol and we bought two mini bottles of cheap red wine and drank it out on the street (which may or may not have been illegal).

It was approximately 9:15 when we decided to venture home.

For the next two hours we tried hailing cabs; five or six empty ones pulled up and the driver shouted, “Hello! Hahaha!” then drove off. Things got increasingly competitive and we were continually beat out by Chinese people whose addresses were more appealing to the driver.

We were tired and near tears. Out of desperation we made some friends on the street with some Chinese boys who thought we were whiney and we chatted with some Mexicans who were having the same difficulty as us.

Low blow, China, low blow.

At last we spotted a cab that the passengers were getting out of. Alex sprinted towards them and was shouting our address, I quickly followed and literally threw my notebook with our address printed in it over the passenger and to the driver. The poor guy in the front seat didn’t know what was going on, but he made sure we were the first ones in the cab.

That’s essentially how life works here – when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, the challenges seem insurmountable. I’m craving middle ground, and I’m not sure I’m going to get it.

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