April 26, 2011

China's style of China

Three middle-aged men sat with their eyes closed, fully relaxed on old sofa chairs as two other men sat on stools scraping the dead skin off their feet. Their bellies stuck out as if they were pregnant and their faces had a swollen, reddish glow that can only come with too many shots of potent baijiu (Chinese rice liquor – aka – poison).

Nate and I glanced at each other with looks of uncertainty as to what we should do next. My Chinese friend Emma encouraged us to give it try – after all, the massage and skin scrape was only a few USD.

“Really, try it!” she encouraged us, “This is very traditional Chinese.”

So we sat down, put our feet into a scalding bucket of water, and waited for the guys to start tending to our toes. Using nothing more than a knife and metal file, the men cut off our calluses and trimmed our toenails.

I was freaked out that I would flinch and in order to keep my mind off of it, I kept rambling away about any little thought that came to mind. Nate must have thought I was nuts.

After our skin was safely scrubbed, albeit possibly in an unsanitary fashion, the foot rub began. For more than one hour our feet were kneaded, pulled, and massaged into gloriousness – I literally felt like I was walking on air.

The massage was certainly not for relaxation, I spent most of the time holding my breath and trying hard not to grimace. It was a reflexology massage, so the masseuses were able to tell which part of our bodies were out of balance by determining which part of our feet had knots or tension.

My guy kept rolling his knuckles on the inside arch of my foot; he told Emma I had bad digestion and that was the part of my foot that would fix it. The wild thing? My stomach had been wonky for two or three days.

While living here, I’ve discovered that there are varying degrees of “China.” It’s possible to completely escape through western comforts, other days lack western influence altogether. On Friday, Nate and I were amidst a very “China” day. Before our feet were kneaded, we went to a salon on a small street behind where I take Chinese lessons.

We were in residential neighborhood where most meals are less than $1 and shops aren’t constricted to four walls – the shoe repairman sets up his sewing machine and tools under a shady tree, another entrepreneur has a bicycle cart that sells dumplings, local onion donut snacks, and slippers (yes, slippers), and some other men have set up a Xinjian flatbread shop underneath a tent.

The salon was across from the slippers and dumpling shop. It’s very popular and inexpensive to go to a salon and get your head and hair shampooed, massaged then styled. After 60 minutes of delightful relaxation, most Chinese people walk out looking stylish for around $1.50.

We certainly got the local treatment. We paid the local’s price and we walked out looking like we had lived here our entire lives. Nate’s curly and thick dark brown hair was blow-dried into a three-inch high faux hawk that was remarkably elastic, yet was sprayed with something so strong that Goo Gone would have been a welcome product.

I on the other hand was a 1950s housewife; my ends were curly, while my crown was straight with lots of body. Copious amounts of the ultra-sticky hairspray were laid on thick on my curls.

After I got home, my hair immediately went into a bun, while Nate was forced to shower.

That night, we joined some friends and new acquaintances for dinner at what The Telegraph touted as the best restaurant in China. Nestled in Hangzhou’s famous green tea fields lies Longjing Manor. The restaurant is a bit of an adventure to get to, but that’s half the fun.

Our taxi driver dropped us off at least one km away from the restaurant, so we had to get directions and start walking. We went along a narrow highway for a few hundred meters then we turned onto a stone path.

The night was quiet and the air was thick and cool. Mountains lay between the tea fields and downtown, blocking the city lights and providing a soft silhouette overlooking the tea trees. Mist was settling in on the valley and our dimly lit path was lined with trees and flowers. Running alongside the path was a strategically placed man-made stream. The sound of running water culminated the vision of a stereotypically Chinese scene – I halfway expected a Mystic to emerge from the fields with a long, silver beard and a bamboo staff.

The restaurant is organic and strictly local. The menu is set, the drinks are expensive, and the service is only so-so. The place is so stringently local that they pass around a photo album that shows famers picking vegetables and taking care of livestock. The famer’s name, location and telephone number are listed, you know, just in case you want to find out what the weather was like the day the bok choy was picked.

The food was nice; it was all typical Zhejiang provincial fare minus the oil and MSG. The dishes were simple rural food, like mushrooms, tofu, duck, fish soup, bamboo shoots and greens. Each dish was clean, fresh and not too spicy.

If you plan on visiting Hangzhou, eat there. Had I hosted any visitors, I would have taken them to Longjing Manor without hesitation. But because I’ve been here so long and I’ve had nearly all the dishes cooked by the hands of countless working-class Chinese, I was underwhelmed. It was less about the food  and more about the experience, and it was certainly cool…and very Chinese.

April 21, 2011

What happens next?

I’ve had wicked writers block this week (if you couldn’t tell from my lack of posts). It’s not that there hasn’t been things to write about, I just haven’t felt like anyone would care to read about monotony.

I would dare say my day-to-day life isn’t all that different from yours. I wake up at 5:45, go to work, eat lunch, work out, go home from work, cook dinner, hang out with friends, then go to sleep around 11. There is nothing exotic or strange about it. Of course each day offers up some sort of absurdity, but I don’t notice those things as much now as I did last fall.

Most of my week has been devoted to cleaning up my resume and scouring the internet for jobs. It’s hard to look for jobs when I’m not even 100% certain with what I want to do with my life.

I’ve narrowed my path down to three choices:
  1.  Writing. Ideally for a magazine, covering issues in which most people opt to remain comfortably oblivious.
  2. Saving the world via an NGO that combats human trafficking.
  3. Brand management for an international hotel or company that needs to stay true to their core identity while being able to fit into locales around the world – practicing intercultural communication at its best.

I don’t know which route will provide me with the best opportunities and I’m scared to commit to one for fear of giving up the other two. It also doesn’t help matters that I would live practically anywhere in the world, which doesn’t do much for narrowing down the possibilities.

The terrifying aspect is that there is a very real possibility that I will soon join one of the millions of educated young adults in America who are unemployed. But tor now, the rejection letters haven’t started pouring in and I’m actually getting excited about some of the positions I’ve applied for, which is helping me stay optimistic.

I know as soon as I go home, the second question people will ask (right after "how was China?") is "So what's next?" I really hope I'll have an answer for that soon, but I assure you that I'm working on it. I'm keeping my eyes and ears peeled for any opportunities.. eh hem..  so loyal readers, if you have any friends of friends who might help a damsel-in-employment-distress out, comment or send me an email. Xie xie (thank you!)

Playing the tourist

Last Friday I stood on my corner for 80 minutes looking for a taxi. I was at my wit’s end and I was wishing with all my might that Alex could magically appear from Korea and help me stake out the intersection.

It didn’t help that I had competition from two other people and it was pouring giant drops of rain tainted with Lord knows what kind of goodies picked up in between the clouds and the concrete.

I spent more time hunting a taxi on Friday than I did en route to Shanghai. For a few weeks now I’ve wanted to devote an entire day to playing a tourist in the city, visiting whichever sites and museums I pleased.  Last week I did just that.

Though I really had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do, I managed to make the most of my day in the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai by visiting the Shanghai Museum, The Bund, and Nanjing Dong Lu.

Shanghai is loaded with foreigners and I spent quite a long time people watching over a large cup of tieguanyin tea. It was easy to spot the expats from the visitors; the people who had been in China for a while carried themselves with a calmness that can only come after days and days of confronting pollution, crowds, and the general circus show that makes up daily life.

The rest of the weekend was nothing out of the ordinary; I just spent a lot of time with my friends enjoying the outdoors. We biked along the Grand Canal (or some canal that flows in to the Grand Canal – we couldn’t be sure) and enjoyed a massive group dinner that night.

On my way to the restaurant, I got into my first political argument with a Chinese person – and it was in Chinese (which was the shocking part). Two of my friends and I were on our way to the restaurant and the driver asked where we were from. We said we were American.

He started driving down a dark street in the wrong direction of the restaurant and we were trying to tell him that he messed up and should turn around, but he was more concerned with us being from America.

“Do you know Libya?” He asked. I replied from the passenger seat, “ Yes, I do know Libya. Do you like America?”

“No! America, France and England are all friends. They bomb Libya. That is very bad,” he said.

“What do you think of Qaddafi?” I asked him. I kept looking in the backseat at my friends to gauge their reaction to the conversation, we were starting to get a little nervous given his passionate tone of voice and the multitude of wrong turns he had already taken.
“I like Qaddafi. He is very good!” he said as he curled his bicep to make himself look strong.

At this point, we had finally convinced him to turn the taxi around and go in the right direction of the restaurant.

“But he is boom boom boom on his people!” I replied, making explosion noises since I didn’t know the word for “killing.”

“No! America is boom boom Libya. Do you know Osama?”

“Yes, I know who that is.”

“Do you know 9/11?”

“Of course,” I replied, “I am an American.”

“Osama vrooooom BAH! BOOM!” he said as he motioned planes hitting a building with his hands. “I like Osama. And Qaddafi is very good too. America is very, very bad.”

He had a crazed look in his eye and he kept staring at me even with a creepy smile if we weren’t talking. As soon as he brought up bin Laden, I wanted to get out of the cab. It felt like the three of us were Ron, Harry and Hermione from Harry Potter discussing Voldemort with one of the Death Eaters.

We agreed that we should probably get out of the taxi. One of my friends in the backseat dialed my phone and I pretended that we were meeting someone on the next corner. He bought our ploy and we quickly exited.

Rarely has China made me feel uneasy, even a city the size of Shanghai feels just as safe (if not more so) as Fargo. But that taxi driver got to my soul; as interesting as the conversation was, it made us all uncomfortable.

Lessons learned: I can navigate Shanghai by myself, but sometimes even regular old taxi rides are better shared with friends.

April 11, 2011

From Hell to a Home

The tire treads hummed and the bicycle's basket rattled as I rode Hangzhou's dark streets at midnight on Thursday night. Past the empty bus stops and closed-up shops, past the noodle stands on the street corners, and past blocks of tired concrete buildings as I rode to my apartment.There was little more than the green lights of taxis and a handful of motorbikes on the roads. The usually inescapable chaos of this country was put to rest – if only for a few hours.

Lately I feel like most of my posts are gold-leafed versions of my real life here. Actually to be honest, I sometimes feel like my life in general is too good to be true. Everything – from buses, to communicating, to grocery shopping – is as extreme as it was when I first moved here. And mediocrity is still something to be cherished.

But now, I’ve etched out a life here. I have routines and habits and many neighborhood restaurateurs and shopkeepers, who I’ve been loyal to for more than six months now, recognize me.

Each weekend I’ve been in Hangzhou for the past two months has been much of the same: lackadaisically spending hours and hours with the same people, doing nothing in particular except enjoying each other’s company. We linger in restaurants for hours on end; a “quick” lunch is three hours. Sometimes we bike, sometimes we drink coffee – the only consistency to our agendas is the search of a good dinner.

I feel like there are few times in life that allow for days on end to be savored and withered away with no real obligation for much of anything. My group of friends and I are living the proverbial carefree and fearless dream that has been romanticized through decades of youth.

What it all boils down to is that none of us have any idea how our lives are going to turn out or what our next step after China will be. It’s not that we’re necessarily directionless; we just don’t know which direction we should turn.

We all realize our life here is temporary and that our friendships will be defined by distance in the near future. For now, we’re just trying to postpone the inevitable end. And for me, that end is coming in 30 short days.

China is abrasive; it’s difficult to deal with most days. I cringe every morning and afternoon when I get on my school shuttle bus and brace myself for an hour or more of jarring starts and stops. I’m still paralyzed by the language. Certain cultural norms still seem anything but normal. And for goodness sake, I miss the sky and real clouds – giant, fluffy white ones.

This past weekend, six of us went to an ancient water town in between Hangzhou and Shanghai. Wuzhen is one of a few villages along the Grand Canal that make up the “Venice of the East.” Having seen the real Venice in Italy, I have to say the eastern version wins.

It smelled better than the Italian city and although both are equally touristy, the locals of Wuzhen were easier to spot. Life in Wuzhen seemed more livable than a life in Venice… that is if you could handle the constant presence of red tourist group hats with their megaphone-equipped guides.

Though the crowds were thick for the first few hours, by late afternoon the town had cleared out. It was perfect t-shirt weather and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (even though visibility was only a mile or so).
Ancient-looking structures (they’ve been restored) made from stone and ornately carved wood are the predominant feature of Wuzhen. Some are restaurants, others hotels, but many are actual homes. Sometime in the last 20 years, the Chinese government banned residents from tearing down their homes to modernize them. Homeowners are also prohibited from converting their house into a store unless it had been one before the law was in place. As a result of the preservation efforts, Wuzhen is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We wandered the narrow stone streets along the famous canal for hours. Alleyways opened up into small courtyards, each serving a different purpose. One was filled with vats of fermenting soybeans for soy sauce, another was a smelting yard for swords, and one was for rice wine.

There were multiple calico fabric courtyards showcasing the most famous craft from the 2,000-year-old town. The indigo printed fabric was a luxurious commodity during the Silk Road era. Today, bolts hang 30 feet in the air to dry, err, well more like to be played with by tourists like my friends and I.

Staying true to the random ways of this country, we ended up riding in a van back to Hangzhou. Worried we would miss the last train, we were wooed by a driver who offered the six of us a very cheap hour-long ride home. Plus, he dropped us off at our doorway, something the train wouldn’t have done (obviously).

I sat in the very back seat of a mini-van that was little more than a metal frame and body of a car with seats placed directly on top of the body. There was no insulation to speak of, and the aluminum can of a car would have brought certain death if it would have been hit.

We made it just fine, though. As we cruised down the same raised superhighway that first brought me into Hangzhou and which I have taken nearly every day since to and from work, I actually found myself feeling a little sentimental towards China.

Never ever would I have dreamed I would say that, but it’s true. Both China and I (along with all of my friends here) are going through rapid transformation, it’s like round two of adolescence. There are growing pains, awkward moments, and plenty of confusion. But give us some time, we’ll grow into ourselves.

Meanwhile, I’m going to soak up the sublime goodness of this odd little bliss that’s taken months to find.

April 2, 2011

An Average Week

Even though my week got off to an awful start with the taxi debacle, the week served up a copious amount of random goodness.

On Tuesday, I went to lunch with one of my colleagues. He had just purchased a new car and is learning how to drive, so we went to the outskirts the town I teach in and went for a cruise. Countless housing developments are under construction where we went. Each development consists of a dozen or so high-rise apartments and some have western-style “villas.”

Massive billboards and fences proclaim “elegant luxuries,” “prosperous homes,” and “discovery mansion.” Rendered images show perfectly landscaped artificial lakes and decadently decorated parlors and living rooms – nouveau riche.

My colleague suggested that we go tour a house, he would pretend to be my driver and I would be an insanely wealthy foreigner. In my leggings, dirty boots and $8 coat, I was graciously given a tour of a 22 million RMB ($3.3 million USD) home.

The four-storey house was decorated in an over-the-top tacky American Southwest motif and the paint was starting to flake off some of the concrete walls. The house itself was lovely, there was at least one veranda on each floor, the bathrooms were large, and there was a nice yard – but it felt like little more than a façade of a comfortable home.

If I were to spend more than $3 million on a house, there’s no way in hell it would look anything like the one I toured. I was amused that they assumed I could afford it solely because I am a foreigner – white privilege in its purest form. It’s upsetting that the only reason why I was allowed in to look at it was a result of my ethnicity.

At any rate, it was an entertaining lunch.

On Tuesday night, two friends and I went for an evening bike ride around West Lake and then went shopping in the night market. We found loads of funny Chinglish shirts and silly sunglasses. I purchased a fake LeSportsac backpack that is covered in creepy rabbits. The odd pattern reminds me of China; though it looks like a backpack a third grader should have, I’m looking forward to rocking it stateside.

Before Team Oprah went to trivia on Thursday night, I hosted a little kid birthday dinner at my apartment, complete with Kraft mac ‘n cheese, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and gingerbread. I don’t even remember the last time I ate Kraft in the states, but it sure tasted good that night.

Saturday was the creme de la creme of random fun. I met up with my friend at noon with the intention of getting a facial and lounging around in a teahouse all day. The spas we found that offered facials were outrageously expensive, so we went to regroup at our friend’s indoor mini-golf shop (yes, indoor… it’s very cool though).

We finally decided to scrap the facials and opted instead to bike to the Four Seasons Hotel for tea. The ride should have taken 30 minutes, but ended up taking more than two hours. A road that we thought was a shortcut took us instead to the river on the northwest side of the city.

Most of the ride was through beautiful hills and forest, so we lost context of where we were. In fact, we thought we were crossing a bridge in West Lake until we noticed the large barges hauling coal, and there are definitely not boats like that on Hangzhou’s most famous attraction.

We finally made it to the Four Seasons and decided to get the all-you-can-eat dessert menu. Our afternoon snack included tiramisu, cheesecake, chocolate cake and an apple tart – it was delicious, but we could only take a few bites of each one before we were in a sugar coma.

For more than two hours we soaked up the peaceful ambiance of the café. The hotel is located on West Lake and is surrounded by nature. The complex is designed to feel like an ancient Chinese villa in the countryside, while the inside of the hotel is tasteful, modern and welcoming. It’s neither uncomfortably pretentious nor outrageously lush and the food was surprisingly affordable.

Fearing a sugary stomachache, we set out on our bicycles to find street food before a massage. Once again, we failed at finding one of the most common things in a Chinese city. After more than an hour of biking in the cold and wind, we found a noodle shop hidden behind a construction zone on a side street.

Even though we had passed countless restaurants on main roads, many of which looked quite good, we wanted something cheap and simple. The restaurant was a lean-to attached to the owner’s home. I’m certain the place broke every health code imaginable. The restaurant was the antithesis of the Four Seasons.

The woman who prepared our noodles kept ladling sauces and chunks of things into the bowl, while adding in an array of spices. For 75 cents each, we enjoyed a fantastic bowl of noodles that offered up all sorts of surprises of vegetables, eggs, and meats. Of course, the owners and neighbors were curious about the strange foreigners – I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the first expats who have dined there.

At last, at 9:45 p.m. – nearly 10 hours after we initially sought it out – we finally got a much-deserved massage. And I was happily asleep before midnight.

What a week, indeed.