December 31, 2010

Auld Lang Syne

The sky flared red tonight as it set for the last time in 2010. We were stuck in traffic on the raised superhighway, the generic concrete buildings were crisp silhouettes against the gauzy golden glow. 

I had two resolutions for 2010: write one thing that I learned everyday, which aside from a brief hiatus this summer came true. And my second was to have an address in January 2011 in a place I had never been or ever imagined going. Check and check. I had never even heard of Hangzhou in January 2010. 

Now I feel pressure to come up with some brilliant resolution for 2011 that can be achieved with as much clarity as 2010's were. I'll get back to you on that though, I'm still thinking.

We ended the year with a week of social events, each night this week Alex and I have had an outing to go to. Weird. We actually have social lives here now! Tuesday night was the staff New Year party at a buffet in a hotel. It was the first buffet we've been to since our very first night in China. Needless to say, we navigated it with much more grace, though we were still clueless to some of the dishes.

On Wednesday we went out to dinner with Jenn's family visiting from Texas. Thursday we went to a German orchestra performance sponsored by the provincial government. It was an event for foreign teachers and employees in Hangzhou. There were a number of government officials there and it was awkward and formal -- distinctly Chinese.

We arrived late, thanks to our taxi driver who admitted his mistake. It didn't help that we had tickets for the second row. After a few awkward moments, we grabbed two open seats near the front just in time to hear the vice governor of the province speak. He would speak for a minute in Chinese and then wait for his translator to repeat him in English. It was one of the first times here that I've heard direct references to "5-year plans" and other clearly Communist rhetoric. By all accounts, it sounds like China is headed for bright and harmonious places in the next half-decade.

After the speeches, an impossibly thin western man came on stage and nervously began speaking in Chinese. His hands were shaking. Then he spoke in English but had an indistinguishable accent. In between each song of the performance, he came on stage to describe what we would hear next. Thankfully he calmed down as the concert progressed, we learned he's German and has lived in China for 20 years. He had more troubles with English than Chinese. The audience taught him how to say "pluck," while he tried to describe a certain polka. 

The orchestra was brilliant. It was made up of all ages, but it was primarily people around my age. I had a great time scoping out the jokester percussionists and the bored-to-pieces English Horn player who only got to pipe in for the four march and polka selections. The director was a tall middle-age man who looked like he would be a very fun director to work with. 

Throughout the performance random bits of confetti fell from the ceiling onto the worn out stage, we thought for sure that we would get rained on at the end. It never happened though. The performers were seated on folding chairs and the two Chinese escorts had torn and ill-fitting traditional costumes. Yet, it was painfully formal. That's why it was so much fun watching how the director and percussionists reacted to the whole scene. The other instrumentalists were too occupied with their instruments, but it didn't stop them from nervously eying the falling confetti.

I woke up this morning to hear about the blizzard in Fargo. Thankfully, I won't be bringing in 2011 stuck in a white out. I hope all of you who are celebrating with the blizzard stay warm! 

Cheers, 2011! May you be a harmonious, healthy, and very clever year! [advice given from my students]

December 27, 2010


My life in China is increasingly normal, which means odd little things that used to inspire me to write are now engrained in my day-to-day life. I'm accustomed to the language barrier, I no longer cringe when I hear someone coughing up a lung, and I find it perfectly appropriate to push and shove my way to the front of a line.

Though I'm used to it all, I know that all of you are not... so I'll tell you about my perfectly average Chinese dinner experience last night. Had I experienced this six months ago, it would have been extraordinarily strange, but a lot of life has happened in the last six months to make me think the dinner was a little less than extra from the ordinary. 

Alex and I ate with two of our new friends at one of our favorite restaurants on a narrow street kiddy corner from our apartment. We don't know the restaurant's name and we can't read anything on the menu. Thanks to lists of popular local dishes from the back of a guidebook and the help of the friendly teenage waitress, we have found our favorite things to order. They make a mean eggplant in a garlicky terryaki-ish sauce. We also like their "homestyle tofu," fried tofu drenched in a spicy soy-ish sauce (I wish I could get the recipes for the sauces they use here -- they're fantastic, but the flavors are tricky to figure out). 

We ordered two dishes of eggplant, steamed greens with mushrooms, homestyle tofu, and pork -- we didn't know how to say what kind of pork, so we let the waitress choose for us. Everything soon arrived except the pork. We all picked at the family-style dishes with our chopsticks and chatted. After 15 minutes, our meat still wasn't there.

"Fuwuyuan! Waitress!" I said. "Chukou zai nali??"

"Shenme?! What?!" she replied.

I repeated myself, then Alex and our friend joined in making hog noises.

"Ah! Churou! Pork!" the waitress said.

Oops. My mistake. I had been asking her where the doorway was and kept repeating that we really wanted a doorway. Chukou, Churou... Potato, potato, right?

Our pork finally came. It looked like cat food, small pellets of meat smothered in the same glossy brown sauce that Friskies has. The sauce was great, but in hindsight the pork probably wasn't worth it. 

After dinner, our friend asked us if we had checked out the Grand Canal north of our apartment. We said we had only been to the canal east of our apartment. She led us out of the restaurant and within five minutes we were in a lit up plaza with the canal as the centerpiece. Small restaurants and shops lined the canal and small foot bridges criss-crossed it, much like the canals in Venice. We had no idea that something like that was lurking so close to our apartment.

The canal walk was mostly picturesque. Of course, there was random chunks of destroyed sidewalk (construction warning signs aren't necessary here, as long as the cement isn't wet you can walk at your own risk). Also, it was late enough that some of the restaurants had dumped out their soapy dirty dish water onto the sidewalk so there were random milky puddles. That's how China is though, one must continually anticipate the unexpected and just roll with it.

We continued walking and reached another wide open public space where we stopped to watch two different techno jazzercise groups each made up of fifty middle-aged folks grooving to annoying Chinese club hits. There was a tap dancing troupe that was actually worth watching for a few minutes, the six women had their backs towards us and giggled embarrassed as they got a boisterous round of applause from us foreigners.

After bidding our neighbors farewell at the corner, Alex and I headed back to our apartment and decided to stop by the DVD shop next door before heading up to floor 15. We snatched up the entire series of 30 Rock for a price that you couldn't buy lunch for in the US. 

There we were, I on the foot of my bed, Alex sitting on the couch four feet away, full and sleepy after another oddly normal night in Hangzhou.

December 26, 2010

Odd little holiday

I woke up at 7 a.m. Christmas morning with the same inkling of giddiness I have every Christmas morning. It must have been out of habit because my hopes were quickly dashed when I remembered that Santa does not in fact have my new address written down. However, as I crawled out of bed and winced as my bare toes hit the icy floor, I captured a little ounce of Christmas magic when I opened my taupe polyester curtains to see the ever so subtle dusting of snow on the rooftops of Hangzhou. 

I got my white Christmas after all.

Granted, the snow had come and gone again before noon, but that's beside the point.

Christmas Eve had been a buzz kill. After working for most of the day, we went to get massages. The massage was more of a full body beat down. Both Alex and I left in pain and Alex’s masseuse gave her a special takeaway gift of the sniffles. We were sad and hungry, so we went to December Chief for burgers.

He was closed.

We tried catching a taxi to go to a different restaurant and for ten minutes we shivered until we were too discouraged. Our last shot for a Christmas Eve dinner was at our usual dumpling haunt – they were still open, but they were without dumplings. We halfheartedly ate some noodles, returned home, and quickly went off to sleep to make the time go more quickly.

After quite a few Christmas morning Skype calls and video chats with my family and friends, Alex and I went to the gym to kill a couple of hours.

"Merry Christmas!" I told the women's locker custodian.

"Wo ting bu dong!" (I don't understand!) she replied. 

Of course she didn't understand, Christmas Day is just a date in late December for the majority of China.

Alex and I had to make Christmas our own, so we decided to shop and then go out to dinner. Fifteen shivering minutes and zero green lights for taxis later, we decided to say the hell with it and go in and watch a movie.

We sat on my uncomfortable bed in my cozy, warm (yes, warm!) room and watched “Sex in the City” as we drank red wine from juice glasses. An entire bottle of red wine, actually.

It was the most perfect kind of Christmas given how odd our lives have been the past few months. Once we finished the movie, we went to dinner at a cafĂ© a few minutes down the road that serves western food and wasn’t charging exorbitant prices for a special Christmas menu.

I traded my usual stuffing for tomato soup, my traditional turkey for a Mexican breakfast burrito, and my grandma’s lefse for a cold pancake with applesauce on top. The only dish to make both my American and Chinese Christmas dinner table was mashed potatoes.

Today we went hiking with some new friends. The day was as brilliant as days come in Hangzhou and we hiked along the top ridge of the mountains lining West Lake. Once we reached the top, Alex and I yelled. Screamed. Shouted. As loud as we could.

(Here’s the method to our madness: Scream for your health)

The air was crisp, the views were brilliant, and the conversation was intriguing. It was the ideal way to end our Christmas weekend, which certainly had the potential to be awful. In the end, we managed to etch out our own Merry Little Christmas…In China.

December 24, 2010

The weirdest year of my life

The wind is blowing, the sky is grey and there is a definite possibility of snow. It might as well be Christmas Eve in Crosby, but instead I’m sitting in my chilly, concrete apartment in downtown Hangzhou.

This Christmas will be strange and sad, no doubt. Alex and I celebrated the holiday the past two nights with our closest Hangzhou friends, all of which are fortunate enough to be enjoying their families in the flesh on either side of the Pacific.

Rather than getting ready for church and wrapping presents this afternoon, I’m off to the gym. Instead of noshing on my mom’s lasagna for dinner, Alex and I are going to check out “December Chief,” an odd little burger joint down the street.

No, this Christmas is certainly not traditional. But in the spirit of keeping at least one little nugget of tradition, I present to you my Christmas letter for 2010:

2010: The weirdest year of my life

2010 brought the promise of a college degree and what I hoped would be the jumpstart of a fantastic career. Though I got my degree, each month threw something new and unexpected which consequently kept the GPS for my life’s direction continually recalculating its route.

My new years resolution in 2010 was to write something down each day that I learned. My first entry, January 5: “I need more practice at baking banana bread.”

January 6: “Even crazy people have their moments of sanity sometimes.”

Thankfully, my banana bread baking skills improved though regrettably I don’t remember which crazy person had gone sane. No doubt I was talking about the internship I started in January.

My last semester of school was a 50-50 mix of working in a professional office and going to classes. My internship put my communication skills to the test and it taught me a lot about the inner workings of the government while having to gauge people’s feelings and reactions to decisions the government made.

Let me tell you, people on all sides of the issues are passionate – occasionally crazy? Definitely. Sometimes sane? Of course, I learned that early on in the internship.

February 12: “Wildest day ever: flowers, security guards and breakdowns at work…and I became an auntie!”

Little Greydon showed up in the world on my dad’s birthday, and now I get the chance to try be the coolest aunt ever. I was fortunate to be able to spend the better half of June through September with him and watch him grow. I’m a little heartbroken he won’t remember me when I get back home, though.

March can be summed up in two sentences:

March 21, “Healthcare passed!”
March 22, “I’m beginning to doubt the sanity of our nation – nothing like a personal death threat after lunch.”

Wait, check that… five sentences. I decided to accept a job in China in March. It was on a whim and completely random, I had always been indifferent to China and never thought I would live there… why not, I guess?

April passed and May brought graduation and Guatemala. I predicted back on January 14 that, “Guatemala might change my life.” I was right. Ten days of kids, smiles, village tours, homeless shelters, backbreaking (literally) labor, concrete mixing, and plenty of Spanish-speaking interaction with my host family…how could it not be life changing?

I came home with a completely different perspective on the cycle of poverty and international development… and an immense feeling of gratefulness for all that Guatemala had given me and for everything that I had waiting for me back home.

June was spent playing mom and “rent-a-baby,” with Greydon. He loved watching me practice Chinese and I even helped him start to learn how to make bumbling noises with his lips.

I had anticipated July being my last full month in the states for a while, so most of it was spent at home. Mid-month I had a random opportunity to play the journalism card and help Al Jazeera produce a documentary on the oil boom in North Dakota.

For two weeks I traveled around my native stomping grounds with two seasoned journalism veterans learning all about energy issues from locals and picking the brains of my new colleagues to learn as much as I could about the business.

It sounds silly, but doing the documentary was really a dream come true for me. When I decided I wanted to study journalism, I imagined the field to be exactly what my experience in July was like. It was a rare and exciting learning opportunity, and hopefully my first documentary won’t also be my last.

August 1 was supposed to send me to Hong Kong. Instead it took me to Denver.

I felt betrayed, dejected and embarrassed. Subsequently I spent the majority of the month hiding on my farm trying to decide exactly what I wanted to do with my life and relying on the encouragement and advice of my family and friends.

I was a lion that month, and I’m so grateful I had a lot of patient trainers.

September 14: “It’s ok to be angry. 50 days of homelessness justifies that!”
Since I had moved out of my apartment on August 1, I was essentially a drifter until my second attempt at flying to China. That meant squatting in my friend Jamie’s apartment for two weeks, spending random nights on my downtown friends’ couches, an invading the guest bedroom at my brother’s house.

I was broke, technically homeless and wondering why in the world I was putting up with so much hell for a country I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to.

October 7: “24 hours travel + bronchitis = a jet lagged hot mess.”

October 9: “Information overload. I cried a lot today.”

October 14: “Today we accidently ate pork fat. Oops.”

October 15: “I’m not terrified anymore.”

October 22: “Chinese girls want foreign husbands and think that American girls are the ticket to their success.”

October 26: “Walmart-esque stores are a cluster fuck no matter which country you’re in.” (pardon my language, mom).

October was all over the board. It was the strangest and most challenging month of my life. Looking back on it is rather comical, but I have never been psychologically pushed so far to the edge.

November and December have melted into defining my “normal” in China. The past two months have been devoted to making friends, figuring out work, learning more Chinese and making Hangzhou my own.

2010 has brought cataclysmic changes to my life and the lives of most of my friends. As fledglings in a very hawkish world, it’s nothing short of terrifying when trying to find a worthwhile path. 2010 challenged me and forced me to re-evaluate a lot of things… I’m still trying to figure out why exactly I came to China. No doubt, 2011 will be a tornadic adventure as well.

So, from the other side of the world, I’m sending you all my love and Christmas wishes! May you enjoy your family and be grateful for all of 2010’s blessings and tough times, remember each moment is an opportunity for learning. And most of all, may every day in 2011 bring you adventure – however large or small!

Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2010

Teacher face is finished for now

Today was my last day of lectures for the semester. Weird. I feel like I just stopped working overtime last week and all of a sudden the semester is over. This week has been a really great experience for me because I finally realized that yes, my students do like me and they will indeed miss me next semester.

My last class was at 3 p.m. today and only ten people showed up in the classroom. One of the girls came up to me and nervously said, "Umm, Janae we should have class outside today, it is so beautiful out and you know, we would pay extra close attention!" I could tell she was up to something because she was really nervous.

I agreed, and the ten of us walked out into the 60-degree, late afternoon sunshine. Once I got to the lake in the middle of campus, I noticed the other two-thirds of my class waiting patiently for me. When I was finally close enough, the entire class erupted into a cheer wishing me a Merry Christmas and thanking me for being their teacher. I only had to talk to them for ten minutes about their final exam before two of the students took over and directed class. They planned activities and games because they wanted to make sure their last class was "unforgettable." We took took a lot of photos and they gave me at least 25 hugs before I left to get on the bus. 

"Will you go home to your family for Christmas?" on of my girls asked me. "No, I'll be spending my first Christmas away from my family this year."

"Ohhh, that's sad. Don't be worried though, we will be your family." 

All week long Alex and I have heard sentiments like that from students on campus. At English corner, the giddy freshman gave us random Chinese home decor goods for a Christmas present and our department, who we have worked so hard to try figure out and earn their respect, has been treating us exceptionally well. 

It's nice to actually feel like I did some good the past two months.

Alex and I still don't have set Christmas plans, most of the restaurants here have special Christmas menus that run $80-$300USD, which is expensive even by American standards. Some places offer special couple discounts, so we might rock that. Regardless of what we do, it will certainly be a quiet Christmas.

This week also brought some new random jobs. I will be tutoring a 14-year old who wants to study in Canada each Sunday, which will either be awesome or very frustrating. My second job (I'm really excited for this one) is working for an international company (based in Chicago) that is having some intercultural communication troubles. The American and Chinese employees are having a difficult time relating to one another. Beginning next week, I will go to the company for two lunchtime seminars each week to help the Chinese employees understand American values and teach them professional communication. I found out about the job through a teacher at school, and this is something I've thought about trying to etch out a career in. 

Here's to hoping I know what I'm doing and they like me. I think it could be a really fun learning experience. Never ever did I think I would put my degree to use in real life, especially the dense theoretical stuff, I guess NDSU set me up well.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, but it might as well be any other day at work. I am finishing the last of the job interviews and posting final grades. And I will most likely spend most of my day trying really hard to forget the date on the calendar. Dare I say I feel a little bit bah-humbugy?

December 20, 2010

HR Pro, fo' sho'

Today I proctored 33 final exams in the form of mock job interviews. My students' emotions ranged from terrified to flustered and from calm to star-struck. I got many hugs, a lot of "thank you's," and more awkward, clammy handshakes than I care to recall. 

I'm noticing a trend with my kids that the worst students seem to make the best and most interesting finals. They're usually the most raw, but those students aren't afraid to take a few seconds to think about their answers before they say them. They're less rehearsed and much more personable.

Take Philip for example, he has come to my class three times this entire semester. The classes he does come to, he sleeps through. He was terrified today, but was good at keeping a straight face and answered the questions honestly and earnestly.

Then he sang me a song. A straight-up R&B ballad. He rocked it.

Then he proceeded to apologize profusely for missing class. "I'm so lazy, teacher. I sleep through all of your classes and I can't wake up in time to go to them. Will you give me a passing grade, teacher?"

"I'll need to tally your score, Philip. You have a lovely voice though."

Most of the interviews take only five or ten minutes, but it's fascinating to watch how their attitudes shift one or two minutes in. The first question is always painfully awkward and too rehearsed, then once they calm down I get to see their personality a little bit more. I felt like a proud (but exhausted) mama bear today once the exams were students actually seem to like and respect me. That's a good feeling considering I walked into the job without a clue where to start.

December 18, 2010

Ice and Exams

The morning after the snow fell was one of the most outrageously scary winter situations I've ever been in -- and North Dakota serves up some scary winters.

I woke up like usual at 6 a.m. and rushed to get ready so I could go out and find breakfast before getting on the bus. The streets and sidewalks were solid ice. I skated my way down the block, almost falling a time or two which delighted people along the street. A chorus of "ohhhh! whoaa!" was sung in my honor as I crossed the street and saved myself from kissing the pavement.

The bus arrived a few minutes past 7 and I got on for the usual commute. At least it was warm. Traffic was inching along and by the time we got to the raised superhighway, our brakes were groaning from being locked up. The highway is four or five stories in the air and within a few minutes I saw three charter buses -- just like the one I was on -- that had spun a 180 on the road and were slammed up the three foot tall concrete barrier. That was all that was stopping them from toppling over off the edge. I finally stopped counting how many accidents I saw and I quit looking out the window onto the road because it was nauseating. 

Two hours later we finally arrived to campus. I was 25 minutes late for class and was relieved when I saw 15 of 40 students still sitting in the class. I thanked them and told them to call or text their friends to see if they could come back to class, and to my relief within 15 minutes the entire class was present. Not a single absence. It was the first time I felt like my students actually respected me.

This week was a whirlwind of proctoring my first final exams and prepping the rest of my classes for their exams. There was paperwork and scheduling problems and more grading than I cared to deal with. I feel a lot of pressure to get the grades right, the university mandates that the final exam is worth 50% of their grade, so I'm really proud that my students are rocking their mock job interviews for their exam -- they've got a lot weighing on that 10 minute conversation with me.

I've enjoyed talking with my students one-on-one, because it's my only chance to see their personality. One student who has been awful (if he comes to class, he sleeps through it and he never ever answers any of my questions) but during his exam he was great. He wants to be a painter, but his parents want him to be a businessman. And in China, parents win. His final exam was outstanding and's a shame his participation the rest of the semester wasn't as good. 

A lot of my girls were really excited to get to talk to me, many of them wanted to take a picture with me and some of them even brought me snacks or tea. I'm so thankful for my students, they've kept me sane in my first few months here. I'm looking forward to getting to hang out with students in an organizational context as opposed to actually teaching classes. Whenever the bureaucratic nonsense starts getting to me, my students always seem to help me get back on track again. 

At any rate, I don't know which is worse -- final exams from a student perspective or from a teacher's stance... quite frankly, I find them both quite awful.

December 15, 2010

White Christmas

Never ever did I think that I would find myself enjoying a white Christmas, or pre-Christmas rather, in China. I had heard rumors that it might snow a little bit sometime this week, but everyone said the snow never sticks to the ground and it melts right away.

The first sprinkles started around 8 a.m. -- I was walking from my office to another with a huge smile on my face because my scarf had the subtlest hints of white flakes melting on it. I was savoring every small little frozen speck that was hitting my face. I was like Buddy from Elf.

Within twenty minutes, the snow was no longer subtle. Huge, thick flakes were pouring from the sky and they have yet to cease. I forgot my camera at home today, but I used my cell phone to snap shots of palm trees and green leaves covered in snow. I have never been so thankful and excited to see snow in December in my life. I made it a point to walk off the path to hear the peaceful crunch of snow beneath my feet. While everyone around me was scurrying about with their umbrellas and hats that look like panda bears (complete with little ears), I walked around hatless and without an umbrella, happily encouraging my cheeks to blush pink from the cold. I wanted to stick my tongue out to try catch some flakes, but then I thought that might not be the healthiest thing to do in China...

My friend Jenn, bless her southern heart, has never witnessed snow falling and not melting before. She's seen snow in mountains of course, but her Houston home and Malibu, Calif. university aren't known for their white Christmases. By 10 a.m. she had invited me to go sledding near the river by our campuses.

After swindling some trays from her cafeteria, Jenn met up with me and we ventured off to find some other American friends. I never made it sledding (I had my first round of finals today) but I spent a solid hour outside this afternoon enjoying the scene.

Then a terrifying thought hit me: the bus ride home.

In perfect conditions, Chinese driving can be nauseating and fear-inducing. Today was far from perfect conditions -- this much snow in Hangzhou is like dumping three inches of snow in Miami and watching what happens. But Miami drivers have a more orthodox set of driving rules, it's a bit more free-for-all in this country.

Luckily we made it back unscathed, our ride took more than an hour and a half and we saw countless fender benders and accidents along the way. It makes me sick to think about how many injuries (and probably deaths) will happen tonight with so many bikes, cars and busses acting in their usual chaotic manner.

Now we get to spend the night shivering. Our apartment (and every other building in this city) lacks insulation, so the second that our "heater" (aka, fan that blows hot-ish air) turns off, the temperature drops a few degrees. Our apartment has way too much square footage to heat it all, too. 

Oh well, I can't complain. I got my dose of home today. Seeing the snow sent quite a few pangs of homesickness through my heart, but I'm also grateful that I can set a few snow angels free from my little corner of the planet.

Let it snow! (Now here's to hoping the power doesn't go out...)

December 13, 2010

Escape to Hong Kong

The Air China stewardess was attempting her best impression of William Shatner in a thick Chinese accent as she announced, with regret, that a woman on the aircraft had lost her cell phone and therefore we would be delayed.

Delayed for a cell phone? Delta or United would have told that woman “tough luck,” in the states.

Within a few moments, the plane erupted into chaos. A small salt-and-pepper haired wannabe business magnate in front of us started screaming at the flight attendant. A few rows back there were more people yelling. All of a sudden two police officers came on the plane (we assumed they would escort the angry Alvin the Chipmunk one row ahead).

Oh no, they were there for one purpose only: to file a report for the missing cell phone. Well thank goodness that got sorted out; we wouldn’t want a stray Nokia floating around on the plane!

Shortly thereafter we were en route to Shenzhen, the Petri dish experiment of the Chinese government to create a flourishing metropolis across the river from Hong Kong. It’s formally known as the “Shenzhen Special Economic Zone,” and its sovereignty within China can be compared to the function of the District of Columbia in the US.

Three months after I was born, Shenzhen was granted its special economic status and went from rice paddies and fishing villages to a boomtown with well over 14 million* people living there. It has been the fastest growing city in China for the past 30 years now.

*(Official numbers are 14 million, but it’s believed there are a lot more people who commute or who live there without a Shenzhen residency card).

From Shenzhen we boarded a bus to Hong Kong, another city with a special relationship to the government. It’s part of China, but not completely part of China. The differences between Shenzhen and its neighbor could not be starker.

We got off the bus wide-eyed with jaws dropped – it was like we were in New York City, a strange exotic New York City where cars drove the same way they do in London and where the signs are neon-blazed Cantonese.

We wandered into a hotel and I went to ask for directions to the subway as Alex checked out the Christmas tree in the lobby.

“Excuse me,” I said very slowly, “could you tell me where the me-tr-o is at?”

“Walk outside take a left and walk four blocks,” he replied in perfect English.

Wow, refreshing!

“Janae! Get over here!” I looked at Alex as she was taking euphoric sniffs of the evergreen tree. “It smells like Christmas!!”

I ran over and joined her in smelling the branches and smiling. “We’ve been on the mainland way too long, my friend,” I said.

We found the metro (MTR as they call it) and were in complete awe of it – the system worked exactly as city planners and developers dream a subway system to work. It was simple, clean, efficient and entirely user-friendly. It made every other public transit system I have ever been on look downright archaic.

In fact, the entire public transit system in Hong Kong was a thing of beauty. We utilized the MTR, busses and cable cars without once getting lost or confused. I guess when a city has very limited and rugged land to work with and seven million people to shuffle around each day, the system had better work!

We visited a theme park Friday afternoon and watched a panda get down on some bamboo. Saturday we drank Chai lattes and ate muffins before meeting up with a friend, a Hong Kong native who went to NDSU. He took us to Victoria Peak, a mountain that overlooks the entire city.

Hong Kong is the most three-dimensional place I have ever been. All of the buildings are tall but they’re not built on a flat plane, so it’s hard to tell which buildings are taller than others. Walking on the street is rarely level – you’re either climbing or descending, and more often than not there is more than one level of walking paths. A quick flight up stairs leads you to yet another level of the city. There is no chance for urban sprawl in Hong Kong, so the city makes the small land area work to their advantage (I think other places around the world should take note).

That night we met up with two other NDSU grads for a fantastic Korean barbeque dinner. We grilled squid, beef, pork, chicken and mushrooms on the grill in the middle of our table and told stories about North Dakota and updated one another on the lives of mutual friends – all from a restaurant on the other side of the globe.

On Sunday we went to the countryside of Hong Kong to check out the world’s largest sitting Buddha. Hong Kong is made up of more than 250 islands. The Buddha is on one of the main islands but it feels remote. There are virtually no signs of the city at the monastery – well I mean, ignoring the Subway and Starbucks in the souvenir area, the place felt lush and peaceful.

We made it back to the city by the time the sun went down and Chris, our NDSU friend, showed us the lights of the Hong Kong skyline along the harbor. Skyscrapers were decked out in Christmas lights and giant Santa Clauses and Christmas ornament fixtures twinkled their reflections onto the harbor.

All weekend we basked in the wonders of Hong Kong – no spitting! No shoving! No children peeing in the street! There were foreigners, which meant we weren’t the center of attention! They had bakeries – I ate a real cinnamon roll! (Which has subsequently left me with an insatiable craving for gluten…) People spoke English! (Meaning Alex and I couldn’t rattle off exactly what we were thinking). Traffic laws were obeyed!

And the most shocking thing – people apologized if they bumped into you! “Oh sorry, excuse me,” they would politely say.

Too quickly we found ourselves back on the charter bus taking us back to Big Red. Within an hour or two we went from western toilets, well-mannered apologies, and fines for spitting to squatty toilets, lung hawking, and elbow-throws in the taxi line.

Our insulation-free apartment was icy when we finally made it back. Though, it felt good to be some place familiar again, even if it meant dealing with all of its un-pleasantries. Hong Kong was a much-needed break, and it’s a break I will probably take again before returning stateside.

Having seen both sides of the border, I’m thankful I didn’t make it to Hong Kong in August. Had that been the first “Chinese” place I visited, I would have grossly misgauged what life on the mainland is like. 

December 9, 2010

Keeping clean in a very dirty place

When the sky has to work so hard to turn blue, all that smog has to settle somewhere -- and that somewhere is our apartment. Each week Alex and I take turns cleaning the floors and dusting off desks and shelves in our apartment. We sweep, then we use a dust cloth broom, and finally we mop. Every four or five days we do this, and each time wads of dust and dirt are swept up and the mop water is a creepy grey color. 

For being such a dirty country, Chinese people are seemingly very clean. They're obsessed with dusting and keeping floors clean but looking out the window reveals a nondescript sky and endless amounts of traffic. Every few yards on the street, people in bright orange jumpsuits ride three-wheel bicycles equipped with a bin in the back and a little grass broom to sweep up the streets. They sweep leaves, trash and keep storm drains clear. They also only make 1000RMB each month, or around $150 USD. They manage to pay rent, eat, and more often than not send money to their family in a village somewhere in western China on that salary. 

It's easier to not feel guilty about littering here because you know it will be picked up within a matter of minutes, and for every piece of trash that doesn't make it to the receptacle you know it's keeping someone's job. At the same time, is it more harm than help? They're not really making enough money to have any sort of freedom in their life and if I litter, isn't that just reinforcing their less-than-idyllic circumstances? Also, I feel like littering is just not going to help the sky's color out at all.

Regardless, the army of street sweepers are ever-present on each block. Their colleagues, the hedge trimmers, carefully manicure the miles and miles of geometric shrubbery lining medians of highways and major thoroughfares in the city. Not a leaf nor wrapper ever seems to be out of place on the streets of Hangzhou.

Once everything is nicely groomed and swept, the cleaning crews break out the big dogs: the street cleaners. Every day, at least once if not five or six times, every major street (including mine) gets a shower. Water trucks that sound more like the ice cream man cruise up and down the streets each day, wasting Lord knows how much water. The trucks blare children's songs and lullabies, the consistent favorite seems to be "Happy Birthday." It's always a good morning waking up to that song repeatedly blared through the neighborhood. 

The streets here are cleaner than any city of this size I've ever been in. They're much cleaner than Rome (no rogue doggie piles to watch out for here), they lack the filth of my old neighborhood in DC, and they have a pristine quality to them that New York will never be able to achieve. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate some grit to a city -- it gives it character and it feels more authentic. 

I feel like the sparkling streets of Hangzhou are just another effort from the Chinese to save face. As long as they shine like gems on their own, who needs undiluted, pure sunshine to really make them sparkle?

December 7, 2010

Odd little Manhattan

Today I tackled the Chinese Postal service. And by tackled, I mean feebly managed to mail some really weird gifts back home. I had grand plans of mailing all of my best friends odd little trinkets from here only to realize that mailing something as small as a pair of earrings rendered an awkwardly huge box... sadly those gifts are sitting on my shelf in my room, where they will stay until May when I fly back home.

I couldn't sacrifice mailing goodies to my family though, it is after all my nephew's first Christmas and I had to send him some fantastic Chinese language-learning toys. I also had to keep up the tradition with my brother of giving super strange, unwanted gifts. Typically we "wrap" a gift for each other in something extra special -- like chewed gum or encased in a plaster mold. We've used everything from fish bait to dirt to used hockey tape and jello molds to share holiday cheer. This year, the wrapping for his gift is definitely unoriginal, but the gift is the weirdest it has ever been.

Without giving too much away, only one thing out of the huge variety of things got confiscated: mango pudding pops. I promise you, those mango candies were by far the most normal thing included in the gift. There will certainly be a strange breed of a Christmas feast at the Hagen household as long as the package arrives in time. There is a good chance of course that it won't, it's going half by sea and half by plane. After a quick review of my geography, that must mean that it will have a stop over in either Hawaii or Alaska, I don't think there is much between here and the US besides a lot of ocean.

Tonight, I got a nice little dose of America and went shopping at H&M with Jenn. Lately, Hangzhou has been feeling less like China and more like Manhattan. We flag cabs down with an aggression rarely seen outside of NYC and certain neighborhoods downtown are feeling familiar to me -- like I'm finally making it my territory in a metropolis. My secret desire to know my way around a sky-scraper filled city is finally coming true, I just never imagined it would be in a Chinese city.

Walking down the street in our knee-high boots and winter coats, we browsed Sephora and tried on all sorts of goodies at H&M. It was like a city in the US, minus the Christmas decorations -- with a Chinese twist of course. The US and China share so many of the same stores, brands, and even cultural idols (all hail the consumerism gods). The Chinese are just as obsessed, if not more, with labels as Americans are. Only here it's a lot easier to find believable knockoffs.

It feels like America only on the surface -- the store signs, the bright city lights, the smell of perfume in Sephora or coffee at Starbucks. But sometimes visiting the things that look the same on the outside only remind you how different they are on the inside. It's about impossible to find a basic t-shirt at H&M to fit my body. Starbucks offers odd little jello-ish desserts rather than coffee cake. And Sephora is stocked with only a handful of recognizable labels. It's both comforting and disheartening at the same time....

This blog is seriously lacking wit, so my apologies. I'm running way behind on sleep and have to wake up very early in the morning -- I'm shotgun planning a trip to Hong Kong and am also preparing for my first two final exams. Shopping tonight may not have been the brightest idea I've ever had... at any rate, I'm excited to finally visit Hong Kong, it's been a long time coming!

December 5, 2010

Two Months

This weekend was the two-month marker from when Alex and I touched down on Big Red. It feels like we just got here on one hand, but on the other it feels like we've been here for an eternity.

I was thinking today about what my day-to-day would be like stateside. I would have my car to drive, I would have any number of friends to call and hang out with, and there would be much more cheese and recognizable meat products in the foods I eat. How novel and strange that life sounds…

It’s alarming that my days and weeks have a rhythm to them now. Mine and Alex’s teaching schedules are near perfect opposites, so we each spend most days navigating China by ourselves, which always leaves plenty to recap about in the evenings.

Our weekends have had distinct patterns to them for the past three weeks too. We go out with more or less the same group of people to the same handful of bars and just enjoy the fact that we have found some kin – sort of.

Making friends here is incredibly difficult. In a city the size of New York, I’m trying to seek out potential friends from a population pool equal to half of my hometown. At least people here seem far less judgmental about me being from North Dakota than they were in DC and Rome.

Once the people are spotted, becoming friends poses an entirely new challenge. We all work in very different parts of the city and we all came to China for very different reasons. Without context of people’s past, it’s hard to tell who is here to develop their career from those who are running away from the mess of their personal life back at home, while mixing in the people like Alex and I who came here on a whim wanting travel and work experience.

All of the people I hang out with are all 20-somethings, navigating their first job outside of college adjusting to a full-time professional life in a very strange place and trying to reacquire the social comforts they had back home – myself included.

Two months. In two months my social circle is much smaller than I had anticipated it being, but it’s growing. Friendships take time. The past eight weeks have brought monumental changes within myself as well, which may not become evident until I return back to former definition of normalcy – cars, shopping malls, multiple stars in the sky, and readable billboards.

Already I’m writing my final exams. I will be finished with half of my courses before Christmas. Two months is all it took to get to this point. Where will the next two months bring me?

December 1, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas... sort of.

Tonight China showed us its Christmas spirit -- of course it was its own unique brand of the holiday.

Alex, Jenn and I went out to eat at what's becoming our favorite Italian place with three other girls. We ate bread, pasta and pizza while we chatted about all sorts of things girls like to talk about. The lights were dim, the food was great, the olive oil was flowing, and there was a foggy mist outside. It finally felt like winter.

After dinner we caught cabs to the Hyatt for their tree lighting event. We rolled up just as the tree was being lit -- we had missed the show. Santa was there and the place was crawling with little Western toddlers and their parents. I haven't seen so many non-Chinese people gathered in one place since I left the States. We sat on Santa's lap. He giggled. We threw up peace signs and were on the verge of tears from laughing so hard.

Ten minutes later we had assembled our quaint little group of friends. Thanks to Jenn's mass text she sent out earlier in the week, our little Hangzhou community gathered and hung out in the Hyatt lobby even though we all missed the event and the crowd had all gone home. Oh well, the lights were still twinkling and Christmas music was playing from the speakers. It was an eclectic mix of A Michael Bolton Holiday, Elvis, Bing Crosby and of course, Mariah Carey. 

We drank mulled red wine (my favorite) from Christmas mugs and talked about jobs, weekend plans, and complained about the lack of snow on the ground. There was nothing extraordinarily special about it, but it was the first time since I've arrived that I felt like I had a comfortable set of friends beyond Alex and Jenn. 

I've been on a mission the past couple of weeks to try my best to etch out a life here. The honeymoon period (or rather, the hellish inferno period) is over now, I'm settled into my job, I've accepted our apartment's pitfalls and I'm ready to try figure out my own brand of "normal" in China. Of course, "normal" in China is a bit odd, but I need to make it as stable as I can. After all, I haven't lived somewhere for more than a three week interval since I graduated in May, I'm craving a home base. And for the next few months, my nondescript concrete apartment on Wen Yi Lu is going to have to become my comfort zone. Now if only I could find some Christmas decorations... then this place would really feel like home.