November 30, 2010

Star gazers

Once again the day was rainy and cold. The weather finally let up this evening and I was able to decipher something of a sunset on the bus ride home. The sky is officially clear now, which hopefully means tomorrow's sky will have a bit of personality. 

Right now the atmosphere's personality is quite spooky. I went to the corner store to get some juice and a bottle of water. I could see the usual one star in the sky (one night I saw five whole stars) and the sky didn't appear murky. Ground level was a different story -- it was like the streets were steaming. There was a layer 20 feet tall of thick, humid fog. It was heavy and uncomfortable, it reminded me of traditional Chinese paintings that portray the landscape enveloped in a mysterious layer of mist. Rather than craggy mountain peaks and pagodas in valleys, this painting would have been distinctly modern China: nondescript high rise apartments and impossibly small shops with tacky, brightly-lit facades on the ground floor. Certainly not a scene an ancient mystic would find enlightening...

Speaking of enlightenment, I felt like the one little star I can see in the sky today. Though Alex and I are used to getting stared at and receiving strange and excessive amounts of compliments, today was  by far the biggest ego-boosting experience I have ever had. I went to English Corner while Alex met with some students. 

English Corners are common all throughout China, they are clubs for people to practice their English and learn about other cultures. Today was their first meeting and I was escorted by three eager freshman to the International Culture Club in the library where I was greeted by 40 unnaturally excited faces. 

For the next hour, I felt like Miley Cyrus in a room full of overly eager 10-year olds. Never ever in my entire life have I had people so enraptured with what I was saying. If I stood, they stood. If I sat, they gathered in close. They gave me tea and popcorn and told me that I was very charming. 

I gave them a very vague introduction of myself and tried to get them to talk or ask questions.

"What would you like to know about me or the United States?"

"Everything! We want to know everything about you!"

Flash. Click. Photos from phones and from digital cameras were being snapped all around me.

"Tell us about traditions!"


I played Christmas songs for them, including a little Mariah Carey and Nat "King" Cole. I told them all about Thanksgiving food and Christmas cookies and winters in North Dakota. I said Christmas was very magical, to which they replied with ample "oooo's!" and "wowww's!" 

Flash! Click!

They told me the types of music they listen to and where they would like to travel after they're finished with college. One of the girls has aspirations to go to Prince William's alma matr in England and another wants to go to France because it seems "very romantic." One girl started excitedly hyperventilating when I told her how many countries I've been to, it's her dream to be able to travel. 

Then they asked me to sing. I promptly put my foot down and told them that to me, singing in front of people is far more terrifying than anything else. They didn't understand.

"Look, you know how it's scary to try speak in English with me? I get nervous when I try to speak Chinese, too. But for me, singing is much scarier than trying to speak in another language. I never sing in front of anyone in the United States. It's not as popular as it is here." 

"Ohhh! Ok, that's just fine. He'll sing for you!" Score. I was off the hook.

A boy with a perfect American accent but imperfect English was coerced into singing a song for everyone. He was disappointed he forgot his guitar (he'll bring it next week), but bravely sang an R&B love song from the mid-1980s acapella. 

He was fantastic. I was in awe of his pop-star quality voice and random song choice. I had a tough time not giggling at the absurdity of the situation -- of course, people were gauging my reaction to his singing more than they were paying attention to him, so I kept my amusement in check.

"Ok, from now on he's singing, not me!" I said.

"He can teach you! He can teach you!"

Sorry friends, my voice is untrainable. 

The meeting ended with a group photo in which everyone was trying to stand as close as possible to me. I managed to throw up a peace sign.

When I asked where the bathroom was before I left, two girls excitedly followed me and eagerly asked if they could hold my bag while I visited the squatty. "Thank you! That's very kind of you!" I said.

"It's our pleasure!" they replied (another overly used phrase). They quietly lingered right outside of the stall. 

Awkward. Luckily, I'm beginning to realize that awkwardness doesn't necessarily translate that well into Mandarin, at least in the case of my students.

I'm looking forward to another heavy dose of sugary sweet compliments at next week's meeting -- I would bet it will be double the fun since Alex will be with me.

November 29, 2010

Grey days and film debuts

Today was grey and rainy in Hangzhou. I woke up this morning to the sky being its usual nondescript self and decided that it would most likely be sunny today. Only in China could a sky lack so much personality that it's difficult to decide whether to bring sunglasses or an umbrella with to work. I chose wrong and ended up having to buy quite possibly the most hideous umbrella known to mankind: a hot pink leopard print number with lace-trimmed edges.

Whatever, it kept me dry.

The grey day got Alex and I down. I spent all day on campus alone while she stayed around the apartment since she didn't work. It's disturbing how alone a cold, damp afternoon can make you feel. To counteract our loneliness, we went out to eat at an American restaurant. It was a classic American-looking pub with great bar lighting, tall stools, and inviting and cozy Christmas decorations. 

We chatted with an American expat who started his own company in Hangzhou and has been living here for the past four years. He dished out career advice and his opinion on America's troubles while we dined on a duck wrap (Alex) and a club sandwich (me). I even ordered a beer because I was craving one -- and I never crave beer. 

His career advice was a little disheartening, he told us to do whatever we could to learn Chinese and then if we go back to school, acquire a hard skill or trade. My friends, Alex and I are the queens of soft skills -- like communication, international relations, human security, group communication, leadership -- all of these fluffy concepts that the world does in fact find useful, but only when paired with minds molded towards engineering, economics or business.

He said to find a job that involves both the US and China, because right now neither country holds the crown and according to him the US is losing ground as fast as China is gaining it. He has a point I suppose... it's a messy world out there.

In other news, the documentary I filmed this summer aired today on Al Jazeera English, which reaches 200 million TVs worldwide. Ironically, I won't be able to watch the film until I get home. The internet here doesn't recognize the link. I will share it with you all though, so I hope you can take the time to watch it and most of all, I hope you learn something from it. I haven't seen the final cut, but I poured a lot of my heart into the piece. Though the oil boom back home has benefits, after interviewing a number of people for the story I came to realize that the consequences of it are far greater than the fat savings accounts many people now have back home.

Feel free to disagree with me, though. I'm definitely open for debate. 

Enjoy my friends: Ghost Town to Boom Town 

November 26, 2010

Traditions rethought

Thursday night I sat staring at my very full (and very small) plate of Thanksgiving food, I had thick green curry over some rice, eggplant, rice with duck, a unique take on a Waldorf salad, and a bowl of broccoli soup. I waited to take a bite until everyone sat down and thought, "well shouldn't we all say grace now?"

Silly me. I said it silently in my head and then began to feast on my nontraditional Thanksgiving. The food was fantastic -- I don't even like curry all that much, but it was (as my students would say) very delicious. Judy, our host, was worried that we wouldn't like the broccoli soup; a friend from the US had given her the recipe. Her soup was wonderful, unlike most broccoli soups at home, Judy's had large, recognizable chunks of broccoli and was not laden with cheese. Dare I say it might have actually been healthy?

Judy had invited four friends to dinner who had visited NDSU with her in September. Dinner conversation revolved around their campus visit and Judy's 2-year old daughter who was defiantly protesting the broccoli soup. 

For dessert we had brownies that Judy had made from a mix, which meant they tasted just the way they do at home. She put her own twist by adding mango slices on top. Alex and I each ate four. 

Don't judge -- Judy encouraged us! We were full from dinner, but not quite uncomfortable and deliriously full, so we ate a lot of brownies. If nothing else, we managed to attain that traditional feeling of gut rot that comes along with Thanksgiving.

After dinner, we watched TV for a while. Judy's apartment is quite large, and her great room had an L-shaped couch big enough to comfortably seat six people. Her husband appeared to be a tech geek (we don't really know for sure though, he didn't speak English). But he proudly put in his HD, emphasis on HD, copies of Twilight and New Moon.

The films were in English with Chinese subtitles and I was trying not to pay too much attention to them -- I've adamantly boycotted all Twilight movies until I've read the books, and I've only read  40 pages of the first in the series.  Lena, one of Judy's friends, kept asking us how we would describe some of the characters in the movie.

She thought Robbert Patinson was "very handsome," which is one of three overused endearing phrases most of the Chinese girls that I've met rely on. The other two being, "very clever," and "very fashionable."   

Thankfully, I had a cake to bake so I didn't have to watch too much of the movie. Judy had a toaster oven and two small cake pans -- one a standard depth, the other was four inches deep. I prepared the batter and Alex and I took turns beating it with a fork. I poured it into the pans, unsure of how much batter to use and put them into the oven one at a time.

Twenty minutes later I checked on it and saw the cake in the deep pan was growing so high it was hitting the roof of the toaster oven. Judy and I cut off the top of the cake and cleaned up the oven and put it back in. Of course, the cake was burned on top but was fine in the middle.

After weeks of plotting for an oven, Alex got herself a birthday cake.

We went back home and I started making frosting. We bought some milk that we were assured was "very famous and very delicious," (of course) -- Alex and I are fairly certain the milk was fortified with sugar, it was unnaturally sweet. It was suitable for frosting however, and I poured some in a bowl along with some of our Land o' Lakes butter and powdered sugar.

Frosting is a foolproof thing to make, so I was a little bewildered at its grey and gritty appearance. I added more sugar. Still grey. I thought maybe some instant espresso and chocolate sauce would help it out, but the concoction was limp and sad looking. I added more sugar then I smelled it because, well, that's what I do when I make things.

It did not smell sweet, nor chocolatey nor buttery. I smelled the bag of sugar -- definitely not sugar. I thought for a second it might be flour, but the texture was wrong. I tasted it, it was salt. A huge bag of finely ground salt. 

There on the counter sat a huge nasty bowl of salty frosting. I could have cried. Luckily, our jar of faux-nutella was still nearly full so I melted it on the stove and poured it over Alex's strangely shaped chunks of birthday cake. 

Ahhh China, he had to throw a low blow to us, of course Alex and I would buy salt instead of sugar here.

One last note.. Samantha and Sara, the two girls in the Int'l office who have been helping us out since we arrived, treated us to a Thanksgiving/Birthday lunch yesterday. It was banquet style with seven or eight different meat and vegetable dishes to choose from, including one plate of chicken feet. I "ate" two of them -- the sauce was a yummy barbecue sauce, but I couldn't get past the claws and tendons and ughh, there just isn't much to eat on a chicken foot. I felt like I was paying homage to my aunt Marlene though, she always used to tell me how her mom would boil chicken legs in salty water and then they would sit and gnaw on them for hours. I did not gnaw on mine for more than two minutes, but I'm happy to say I tried it. 

November 24, 2010

International Styling

One of the strangest things Alex and I have in common is the countries we’ve had our hair cut in: the US (duh), Italy, and now China. I think the only country I can one-up her on is Canada, but really does that even count?

We went to a place a few minutes from our apartment called Sean’s Hair with a girl from our university. She and Alex had purchased coupons for 80% of hair color more than a month ago, I decided to tag along for a trim.

The hair cut in China was far less terrifying than in Italy. At least this time around I had a native speaker with me as opposed to a note card with helpful Italian phrases. Both Alex and I left our Italian style sessions with distinctively European styles (faux-mullet anyone?) and very blonde locks. We left Sean’s hair looking more or less the same as when we came in. Alex’s highlights were so subtle that Sean offered that she could come in free of charge next week and get them redone.

We both got bangs. The Chinese love bangs, and I should have known mine would double in thickness when I asked to get them trimmed. Alex’s are face-framing and lovely. Mine are very short and a little awkward.

My stylist Jenny was from Sichuan province and meticulously trimmed my bob-style. She told me my hair color was very beautiful and that my eyes were really nice. When she was finished she said I looked like Barbie.

I felt like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago.

I like my cut, I just don’t like how it was styled, but for $4.10 I can’t complain.

The four-hour ordeal at the salon was enjoyable; we made friends with the salon owner and his little gaggle of stylists. I learned a few new vital Chinese words and we taught Sean about two of America’s finest: Sarah Palin and Snookie.

When we were getting ready to leave I asked one of the stylists how to say “blonde” and “brunette” in Chinese. He didn’t quite understand what I asked, so instead I asked him what color my hair was in Chinese. He missed the “Chinese” part of the question and answered, “Your hair is like ash.”



I’m blaming that answer on a translation error.


On the eve of my first Thanksgiving without my family, I’m trying really hard to be grateful and not be homesick. Thanksgiving is completely relative I suppose, and I guess I’m rather uncomfortable with all of the strange things I have to be thankful for this year.

I’m thankful my apartment has heat (some in this city don’t). I’m so unbelievably thankful for Alex and our ability to find the most absurd misadventures. I’m thankful I can use chopsticks. I’m also thankful I won’t be perpetually bloated as a result of holiday deliciousness from here on until January 1.

And I’m thankful I have the internet, even though it requires a chord, because 9,000 miles easily dissipate through the grainy video on Skype.

Most days I’m thankful I came to China. Though today isn’t one of those days. I can’t stop thinking about the snow back home and the photo of cranberry sauce my brother sent me. The weather here is too warm for Thanksgiving season and many trees still have green leaves.

This experience is making me realize that I really am a four-season kind of girl. Of course the snow and cold is fun to complain about back home, but when it’s suddenly not around I find myself clinging to subtle cues of the season change. There are clues, some trees are shedding their leaves and it gets chilly after sunset. But overall it still feels like September.

Alex and I have been plotting our traditional Thanksgiving feast for weeks now and settled on dinner at the Hyatt. For around $25 USD we can enjoy an all-you-can-eat turkey and pumpkin pie dinner.

Our cranberry and stuffing dreams were changed however when I opened my inbox on Monday to an invitation from a teacher at our university. I met Judy last week, she teaches English and visited NDSU in September. Her English is nearly flawless.

She invited Alex and I to dinner at her home on Thursday night, she said she wouldn’t be able to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner like what we’re accustomed to, but she would happily cook us something special. So tomorrow night, Alex and I will join Judy, her husband, two-year old daughter, and mother-in-law for a feast of beef curry, broccoli soup, and brownies.

Beef curry certainly isn’t turkey and gravy, but the food at Thanksgiving is only half of the holiday. The better half is about family. Granted, we’ve never met Judy’s family and she is barely an acquaintance of us, but tomorrow will be the first time in nearly two months that Alex and I will be with a family.

It will certainly be anything but traditional. But there will still be turkeys and pumpkin pies and creamy vegetable casseroles to consume next year.

November 21, 2010


I love grocery shopping, but grocery shopping in China is an entirely different game. First off, every single grocery store I've been in has induced a gag or two at some point in my journey through the aisles. It's an olfactory adventure from the deli to the produce to the snack aisle (vacuum-packed octopus anyone? It doesn't require refrigeration, I promise).

However, this weekend I was reacquainted with pleasant, clean grocery shopping. Alex and I ventured to the foreign import store to search for cake-making materials and any other imported gems we could find. The store was in the basement of one of the massive multi-story department stores downtown.

It was gleaming -- white, shiny, and fresh. The store had flowing aisles arranged on a bias and coolers that gently curved around the oval-shaped store. The produce department smelled like grapefruits and the deli didn't smell like rotting flesh. Normally, the yogurt section renders obsessive checking of the dates and it's considered lucky to find a batch that isn't a month back-dated. This weekend we found some that had an expiration date of Nov. 17, as fresh as it comes!

I don't think I've ever been so excited to see a "western spices" aisle. I sat and stared at the dozen or so spice offerings. I bought salt, pepper, italian seasoning, and cinnamon. With those four spices, our meal variety grew 10-fold. On the other side of the aisle I saw liquid gold: olive oil. Praise Jesus. And it had a fair price too! 

We spent 45 minutes wandering the store snatching up Land o' Lakes butter, Betty Crocker cake mix (for Alex's birthday), a jar of faux-nutella type stuff, and other essentials that will make my cooking much more interesting than the standard stir-fry noodles I've been rocking the past month.

It was a fantastic grocery shopping experience, I was a little bummed about not finding certain things, but beggars can't be choosers. The fact that we found Land o' Lakes is kind of a miracle. And olive oil! I'm beyond thrilled.

Today in class I taught my students about Thanksgiving. They ooo-ed and ahhh-ed at my photos of turkey, pie and cranberry sauce. I tried to explain to them how things were flavored and what they tasted like, I ended up having to use arbitrary explanations like "cinnamon is good when it's cold outside, because it makes you feel cozy -- like you're sitting by a fire," or that green bean casserole is "bubbly, gooey, sweet and savory all at the same time. It makes you think of good memories."

I'm not sure if they totally understood, but a lot of them had interested and happy expressions on their faces. 

Then I told them about Black Friday, they may have lost some respect for the American culture after my lecture. I showed photos I found online of people going nuts over huge TVs and pitching tents outside of Best Buy. 

I told them stories about my Black Friday experiences and they stared at me with mixed looks of confusion and fascination. I told them that if they ever find themselves in the United States on Black Friday, they need to go out an experience it for themselves.

So do me a favor, if any of you happen to rock Black Friday or have a particularly beautiful Thanksgiving feast, you should send me a photo or two to show in class. They'd love it.

November 18, 2010

Change your mind

Few things in life make me more uncomfortable than when I am unsure of myself. It seems as though the bulk of my time since August 1, when I tried to fly here the first time, has been spent with me wading through a swamp of uncertainty.

It bothers me so much because I am so wishy-washy – I have an uncanny ability to logically talk myself into and out of things seamlessly. I drive myself crazy, not to mention my friends who have to listen to me and offer their bits of advice.

For three weeks now I’ve been weighing whether I should stay in China or not. I was hell-bent on going home in January for the first three weeks and I made my opinion known to my family and friends.

Then all of a sudden I got a little nugget of confidence, it was hard to recognize at first but as time continued to pass it grew until I realized that I do in fact want to stay here until May.

I’m not sure what changed my mind, maybe it was seeing other westerners who developed a close camaraderie in Xi’an, perhaps it was navigating restaurant using only Chinese for the first time. I don’t really know. The initial terror I felt when I came here has dissipated and I’m ready to experience more of this place.

Granted, this spring is not going to be easy. First off, I’ll be going it alone. Alex is going home in January, so once I return from semester break in February I will have my very own 15th-floor digs in Hangzhou.

I’ll just have to savor Alex for the next nine weeks. We’re going to try rock Thanksgiving and Christmas as best we can – at least we have each other for the holiday season.  

I’m actually excited for my job though, I will be writing an English website for the university. (My job description for spring semester has been all over the board, it’s nice to finally have specific details). I will have an entire morning or afternoon each day to have student organizations and impromptu English lessons. I’m really happy I’ll still get to work with students, they’re the best part about my job.

At any rate, I’m sick of the uncertainty and I’m tired of not being sure of myself. So I’m just going to make China my own in the next few months.

In other news, I gave my sweet student Zloz some new English name options today. Her jerk of an American English teacher last year dubbed her “Zloz,” which a) is not a name and b) does not suit her shy and sweet personality. She chose Daphne.

November 13, 2010

Hunting for sustenance and a ride

We stake out the intersection: Alex crosses the street and we watch as other bystanders wave their arms at passing cars.

“Oooh! Green light!” Jenn shouted.

We rush towards the car, “Damnit! They beat us to it.”

A couple has also chosen the intersection for their hunting grounds and they warily eye us as their competition that they must beat.

Catching a cab in Hangzhou is like going on a safari. We’re a pack of wild dogs who spot a lone gazelle and we’re off like hungry, rabid creatures looking for prey.

With cab fares only costing $1 to $3, it’s cheap enough that people rely on taxis to get them from place to place. On busy Saturdays by West Lake, it’s virtually impossible to find a green light signaling an open cab.

After at least 30 minutes of scoping out a number of intersections, we finally spotted a cab and rushed towards it to get back to our apartment. We fetched our prey and comfortably rode back to our apartment.

Fortunately, cabs are much easier to catch after a night out. The bar streets are teeming with green lights waiting to take people back home.

Last night, I practiced my Chinese with our taxi driver as he took us to Angelo’s, an Italian Restaurant. The cabbie and I got along really well and he handed me his business card that proudly showcased his Hyundai. I was flattered.

Angelo (of Angelo’s) is a 30-year old Italian from New York who opened a restaurant in Hangzhou. The restaurant is very hip and looks like it would fit perfectly in any posh neighborhood of any big city in the states.

We ordered glasses of wine and ate bread – real bread, not sweet, spongy egg-y bread like most places have while we waited for our dinner. We dipped the bread in olive oil and vinegar. Olive oil! How I’ve missed you…

(For those of you who don’t know how I eat on a daily basis at home, I use olive oil in everything. I cook eggs in it, add salt and pepper to it for salad dressing, and of course douse my pasta with it before adding the sauce. I Love Olive Oil).

To say I merely “dipped” my bread in it is an astounding understatement, I soaked my bread it in and enjoyed baby sips of my spicy, chocolaty Chianti.

Our food finally arrived, Jenn had cheesy cannelloni, Alex had mushroom risotto with truffle oil and I got penne with pesto (no shocker there).

(Pesto is my most favorite sauce in the entire world. I traveled to the city it was born in, Genoa, by myself just so I could eat pesto where it originated).

My dinner was beautiful. All of our food was beautiful. No, it wasn’t the best pesto I’ve ever had, but the basil was fresh and fragrant, there were whole pine nuts on top as a garnish, the olive oil was bold and the parmigiano provided a salty backdrop.

I couldn’t stop smiling while I was eating. It was by far the slowest meal I’ve eaten in China.

In Italy, the culture encourages slow eating and savoring the simple flavors. In China, eating is a necessary function and it’s best done very quickly. People hunch over their food, slurp up noodles or rice with their chopsticks, chew with their mouth open, and repeat until the plate is empty. Without even realizing it, Alex and I have caught each other inhaling food like the locals. I hope this is one Chinese habit that won’t stick.

Eating is an act of efficiency. In our university cafeteria, hundreds of students file in between 11:30 and 11:45 for lunch and the entire place is empty by 12:10 – which is usually the time Alex and I waddle in.

Inspired by our meal at Angelo’s, I decided that tonight I am going to cook a real dinner. I’ve been having withdrawals from cooking, we get home late and we’re exhausted so we opt for takeout from places down the street. Never mind that we are also too exhausted to seek out groceries (there have been a lot of mornings where a spoonful of peanut butter is all that we can scrounge up).

An hour ago, I ventured out and asked someone where to buy vegetables. They led me to a farmers’ market a couple of blocks away. Navigating the place on my own and trying my best with Chinese numbers, I bargained and bought eggplant, garlic, bok choy, carrots, ginger, and four chicken eggs (I had an argument with the egg man, he didn’t understand I wanted eggs from chickens – not quails or ducks).

The market was a success, all of my transactions were completely in Chinese and now tonight I’ll be able to practice mastering the wok.

Buon appetito!

November 11, 2010

From belly dancing to bus aisles

For two weeks now I’ve enviously watched as middle-aged women put on lace belly-baring tops and wraps around their hips with gold medallions ringing as they shake their hips impossibly fast.

From a distance, the gym’s belly dancing class looked like a lot of fun and the music seemed very cool. Last night, I tried it.

“It’s ok, don’t be shy,” said a random gym-goer as she lifted my shirt and tightly tied it in the back. Before I knew it, I had a fancy gold hip wrap on (no lace top though). Then she pointed to my feet and motioned for me to take off my shoes and then I was promptly shoved on the dance floor.

My new friend Jane, who at least 50, has been belly dancing for a while and she speaks a little English. She encouraged me along and told me that I was doing a good job.

After an hour of hearing the same song over and over again (so much for the cool music) my stomach was on fire and the instructor gave me a thumbs up. I guess that means I clumsily survived?

That was the third fitness class I’ve taken in Chinese. It’s an awkward adventure, but it’s a decent workout once I figure out what’s going on.

When Alex and I walked in to the gym yesterday, the kickboxing class was in action. The young instructor was wearing windbreaker pants with a black razorback shirt and a head set.

Yi, er, san, si (one, two, three, four)– we take control!” He’d shout. “Whoohoo! Let’s go!”

With the techno music bumping in the background, it sounded like we were in Mario Cart Live. We stared at the class with the same intensity that people stare at us with on the street. It was impossible not to laugh. We’re going to actually participate in it next week once our schedule starts to settle down a bit.

The weeks are starting to melt by; 12-hour days go by quickly now that we have a routine. Not that the routine is any more pleasant…

Two nights in a row we’ve had a two-hour commute on a sardine-can packed bus. Tonight’s ride featured Alex and I sitting on the floor of the aisle in the very back of the bus, surrounded by the same commuters we see each time we take the B4.

The commuters always smile and root for us when we try to find a seat. It’s an unspoken understanding that we’re all in for the hell ride together – we get on near the beginning of the route and no one gets off until the route is nearly over. Only the people filling the aisle switch on and off the bus as the route progresses.
Within five minutes of the ride today, someone handed us a piece of Dove chocolate, which was much appreciated given the claustrophobic filthy environment we found ourselves in.

Then a lady sitting by Alex started speaking to us in English, soon the lady who gave us the chocolate piped in too. Over the course of an hour, we started to become friends with Linda and Apple. 

We exchanged phone numbers and set a date to go see the new Harry Potter movie. They also taught us some new words in Chinese and Apple told us why she thinks Chinese men are “hot.” It was surprising and refreshing to hear “hot” coming from a Chinese woman, usually words like “handsome” or “very attractive” are used to describe other people, not “hot.” Apple definitely scored some cool points.

The ride ended with Linda giving us a 50RMB phone card, which was far too kind. We received a text message that we couldn’t read because it was all characters. Linda said our balance was low, so she generously gave us a card that will most likely last us through December.

It was nice to feel taken care of and refreshing to meet people who talked to us like equals. They weren’t in awe of us being foreigners and they weren’t prideful of their country. They were just normal, and it was awesome.

What a mediocre week it has been, and I am so incredibly appreciative for that.

Two last things: my meeting was productive, but I’m keeping hush about my decision to stay or leave until I’ve decided for sure.

And today is Singles Awareness Day in China. It literally is a holiday dedicated to all the single people in the country. I can’t decide if this is a happy holiday or a sad one, some of my students seemed depressed and others were excited.

Near the end of class, one of my students asked me if I had a boyfriend. The whole class started giggling and anxiously awaited my answer. I shook my head, “no,” and the class erupted as they excitedly shouted things to me. I couldn’t understand much of anything except for “one, one, one, one – single’s day!” Ohhh I get it, 11-11-10, singles day.

“So is this a day for me to celebrate?” I asked.

“Yes!!” the whole class shouted. Then they gave me a round of applause.

I got a damn round of applause celebrating my solitude. Awesome.

Later in the day, some of my other students invited me out to celebrate at KTV (karaoke). Regretfully, I declined.

November 9, 2010

Middle Ground 中國 Middle Kingdom

After more than a month in China, yesterday was my first ok day. It wasn’t spectacular, it wasn’t horrible, it was just a day. Dare I say it was average? Even more astonishing, today was the same. Overall, it was a good day, my nerves weren’t burned to a fray only to be replaced by something fantastically good.

I have never been so thankful for mediocrity.

It’s nice to be able to take a break from my Drama Queen throne and join the masses of normal lives.  I’m sure my peaceful little bubble will be burst soon, within 24 hours I’m sure.

Tomorrow Alex and I are meeting with the Director of International Programs to discuss our contracts. It’s not going to be fun. There have been a number of things that the university has not come through on according to the contract and we need to negotiate a solution.

(Ugh, I could be a contractual consultant after this business with the university, it’s tricky to just wing it when it comes to breaches of a contract).

Of course, using formal contractual jargon is out of the question given the language barrier, which is sort of a blessing given my lack of experience with the contract lingo.

However, my go-to argument style usually involves breaking out as many big words that I know how to correctly use in a rapid fire verbal assault that most times leaves the victim wondering what in the world just happened. I definitely need to re-strategize for tomorrow.

In addition, I need to negotiate whether I will stay until May or go home in January. I want to stay – I’m finally over my initial fear of this place and am now left with a huge cavern of curiosity that needs to be filled.

Here’s my take on China, he’s no longer the abusive boyfriend – rather, he’s the badass guy I’m trying to date. (Hopefully China doesn’t mind me continually comparing it to stereotypical men…) At any rate, when he’s nice to me, he’s fantastic. When he’s a jerk, he’s ruthless. My thought is that if I stay longer I’ll either a) tame him or b) learn to adjust to his mood swings.

Obviously, the country isn’t going to change but I feel pretty confident that I can adapt without suffering too much abuse.

November 7, 2010

Hello, Hi, Excuse Me... Umm, Ladies and Gentlemen.

There’s something about the distinction of a “world wonder” that inevitably leads to disappointment. I mean, the Terracotta Warriors were cool and I’m glad we saw them, but wandering the Muslim Quarter and finding our way onto a party bus was much more interesting.

Our tour guide, JiaJia (my Chinese name) was insane.
“Hello, hi, excuse me, umm ladies and gentlemen,” was her go-to phrase. She could be mid-conversation and suddenly an alarm clock would go off in her head and she would be back into tour guide mode.

We went on a hostel-sponsored tour of the warriors, and there were only six of us so it was a lot of fun. We had a graphic designer from Germany named Dirk, a Mexican named Adrian, who has lived in China for four years (he met his French wife while in China), two British girls, Jo and Charlotte, traveling Asia for a few months, and Alex and I.

The tour was scheduled to leave at 8:45 a.m., so we went to the café for breakfast at around 8:15. We told the waitress we were going on the tour so we needed something quick, to which she replied our only option was toast.

We asked for yogurt and granola. “Too long,” she replied.

Fruit salad maybe? “Mmm.. only if you get it without sauce.” Sure, we’ll take it sauce-free.

We waited and waited for our toast and fruit salad. At 8:30, the waitress told us that there was no way for us to have our fruit salad because it could not be taken to go from the hostel.

Umm.. Alright. We got our money back and continued waiting for toast. JiaJia kept pacing between our table and Adrian’s, he had ordered the “Mexican Breakfast,” a Chinese take on huevos rancheros with tortilla, eggs and beans in a pseudo-traditional arrangement. He was shoveling the food into his mouth, and JiaJia looked like she wanted to murder us all.

At last our two pizza boxes of toast came out. Six pieces of bread with one jam and butter per box. We asked for extra and were bluntly informed that we would have to choose between extra jam or extra butter. Good grief.

In all fairness, the hostel’s restaurant had fantastic coffee. Their cappuccino was the best I’ve had since Italy (or maybe it’s just been a really long time since I’ve had a proper cappuccino).

Also, one of the baristas named Linda loved Alex and I and asked us all sorts of questions about the Midwest while we drew our posters advertising North Dakota and Kansas.

The warriors were cool, but it was the biggest tourist trap I had ever seen. The Chinese totally eat that scene up though. For lunch, we were driven to a humungous building that required us to walk through stall after stall of souvenirs until we entered a giant ballroom where we were fed along with other herds of foreign tour groups. The only Chinese people in the whole building were trying to sell us things.

After seeing a number of markets in very different parts of the world, I’m convinced that there are three or four factories that supply the entire planet with dust-collecting knick-knacks.

Thus far, China by far has the most interesting ones (porcelain naked baby? Done. What about a t-shirt of Obama as Mao? Unfortunately I can think of too many people all too willing to showoff our President looking like a communist..). It’s all here.

Want knockoff Northface, Abercrombie or Lacoste? Check out Xian’s Muslim Quarter. Alex proudly bartered for a very cool knockoff CK watch there. I bought some porcelain chopsticks, mostly because we don’t have any in our apartment and I suppose it’s a cool thing to bring home.

However, that’s the only souvenir I’ve managed to buy. Sorry, friends. It’s all junk. I need to find a legit market (maybe Silk Street in Hangzhou?) before I buy presents.

The Muslim Quarter was the most interesting neighborhood I’ve been in. Street vendors were selling all sorts of morsels like deep-friend pumpkin patties with sweet sesame seeds on the inside (hit).

We also had cold rice cake that deceivingly looked like grilled pineapple (miss). Cold noodles in peanut sauce, that we argued to have cooked for five minutes before remembering it’s a local delicacy (hit, sort of).  

Then we sought out a kebab and ended up with a deep-fried quesadilla-type thing filled with vegetables (unhealthy hit). Finally we ended the night in a cafeteria where we taught two girls how to say “bullfrog” in English as we ordered sweet and sour pork from them (hit).

Trust me, the portions were small and Alex and I like to split things, so we’re not that big of fatties.

Our last day in Xi’an was spent on a bus and in bars. It was a marathon day in the city, and the editor of the English magazine had scored a free post-marathon party bus. Our friend we visited was a good friend of his, so Alex and I got to go along.

We snacked on Papa John’s pizza (with garlic sauce!) and drank an endless supply of beer with American and European runners while getting a tour of the city.

It was a beautiful thing. We didn’t think about work or our annoying university or all of the crap waiting for us in Hangzhou. We just basked in the random awesomeness of the moment.

A quick 24 hours later, we were back in Hangzhou having lived through a very bumpy flight. I sincerely hope this week is less bumpy than our flight was.

Best Western

“I have wet hair, no bra, a dinosaur foot, and I’m sipping a damn red bean milkshake.” Just another evening in Hangzhou….

That was Alex, she finally joined me in my nightly ritual of getting a mystery milk-tea type drink after dinner. We went to our favorite stop, where the Chinese college students love practicing their “thank you!” and “Goodbye!” on us.

The menu is completely in Chinese except for the “series” titles. There is the “Milk-tea series,” “Organic nourishment series,” and the “Nutrition series,” and five or six others. We were post-workout, so we thought the nutrition series would suit us best.

I ordered #504 and Alex ordered #509. Mine came first, it was a milky, seafoam green color and had a sweet flavor, though I have no idea what it was or what was nutritional about it.  As I was enjoying the first few sips, we watched the show of Alex’s drink.

A shot of something, white powder, ice, and red beans in a blender, yes red beans. You know, the kind you make chili with.  Nothing like a fiber-laden, cold refreshing bean smoothie to end the night on a high note.

We bought gym memberships over the weekend at the Best Western down the street. I think we inadvertently got ourselves VIP status. The gym has a few cardio machines, free weights, and a lot of classes.

There is also a steam room, sauna, and hot showers with awesome water pressure. We enjoy using our complementary arch-supported slip-on sandals and clean, fluffy towels to shower with after working out.

Once our shower is finished, we nosh on the spread of fresh fruits and veggies. And by “nosh” I actually mean eat two or three platefuls because we might as well get what we can out of our membership.

The gym will probably be what keeps us sane in Hangzhou. Nevermind the extra tall, buff Chinese trainer who lingers wherever we happen to be lifting weights. Or the middle-age women in the locker room who eagerly say things to us that we can’t understand.

“Wo ting bu dong!” I don’t understand!

“Wo ting bu dong, wo ting bu dong,” they sarcastically say back to us. Most times with a smile.

It’s easy to disregard the comments when we have post-workout endorphins flowing and a hot sauna to sweat away our troubles in.

November 3, 2010

The abusive boyfriend strikes again

Today was one of those days that China knocked me down, punched me in the head, then took a knife to my gut and ripped me open. I'm now lying in bed reeling from the damage.

I don't need to go into detail about why today was so awful, but it involved a few rounds of crying, a couple of arguments, some disrespectful students (the sympathetic ones made up for the evil ones), and a launch of my body flying five feet through a public bus.

The day ended on a good note with some noodles with eggs and tomatoes after a yoga class at the Best Western (I have a post written about the gym, it's still in the editing department though).

Anyway, tomorrow morning Alex and I leave for Xi'an on one of China's infamous airlines. I'm excited for the hostel scene again, it'll be fun to meet some travelers from other parts of the world and I'm very excited to meet the Terracotta Warriors. 

Here's to hoping all works out with our flight to and from there (the tickets were the punch to my head today trying to work out all of the things the booking agent messed up on... four flight changes later, I'm fairly certain both Alex and I will get to Xi'an and back on the same flight). Well, most likely... I think. Sort of.

Ugh. Say a little prayer for us.